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A feminist analysis of media conglomeration

A feminist analysis of media conglomeration

By Carolyn M. Byerly
Presented at Network of Women in Media, India

Bandra, India, 13 January, 2004

[Note: This presentation is excerpted from my chapter “Women and Media Concentration, ” in R. R. Rush, E. C. Oukrup, and P. J. Creedon (Eds.), Seeking Equity for Women in Journalism and Mass Communication: A 30-Year Update, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates (in press).]

Commercial news has been the locus of feminist interest for nearly two centuries, owing to its recognized ability to circulate information and ideas on current issues to a mass public and to establish agendas for debate and public policy. However, large commercial news companies today are more or less inseparable from entertainment, educational and other media enterprises, which since the mid 1980s have merged into six huge multinational media conglomerates —AOL Time Warner, Disney, Viacom, News Corporation, Bertelsmann, and Vivendi, the first three of which are headquartered in the United States. These corporations own the majority of newspapers; network and cable television and radio stations; both conventional and cellular telephone companies; and Internet news sites. Both United Nations and civic groups recognize these conglomerates as the backbone of today’s capitalist global economy, both in terms of the massive resources they command and the essential functions they perform. Media conglomerates have also been increasingly influential in economic, political and cultural forums that constitute the public sphere.

Media conglomeration today, which has no shortage of critiques, lacks a feminist analysis, even though gender is a deeply imbedded aspect of the phenomenon. Sociologist Saskia Sassen (1998), who has expanded critiques of globalization by factoring in gender, has charged feminist scholars like myself with the task of making women’s role in global economics more visible. Gender is deeply fixed in all things associated with globalization, which refers to the process by which national economic systems are restructuring into an integrated whole with a few nations at the center of control and the recognized beneficiaries. The globalization process has been characterized by an international division of labor, quick transfer of capital through computerization, the privatization of many publicly held services and functions, and the concentration of ownership in manufacturing, banking and all other major industries.

Canadian communications scholar Michèle Martin (2002) reasons that media systems today serve as the instruments through which modern capitalism both produces and reproduces wealth, with the owners of those systems having greater control and access to revenues than ever before (p. 53). Locating in this process requires that we consider how women figure into both macro-level and micro-level realms of media conglomerates. The macro-level is associated with relations of power between men and women in the industries, in terms of investment, executive-level decision-making and employment. The micro-level is associated with media content, particularly the representation of women as subjects and coverage of issues relevant to women’s lives.

Of course, the concentration of ownership in the news media is not entirely new, either globally or within the U.S., where half of today’s giant media conglomerates —AOL Time Warner, Disney and Viacom —are headquartered. In the late nineteenth century, the global market for news was controlled by a media cartel formed by three European news agencies that had agreed in writing which markets each would control (Siochrú & Girard, 2002, p. 29). In the U.S., chain ownership in newspapers had made its appearance by 1900, and by the 1940s, cross-media ownership was common, with about a fourth of the broadcast outlets (then radio) owned by newspapers in the same market (Compaine & Gomery, 2000: 7, 46). But federal regulation in media ownership, monitored by the Federal Communications Commission , prevented major movement toward monopoly ownership until the 1980s, when strongly pro-corporate President Ronald Reagan, a Republican, took office. Under Reagan, both congressional legislation and administrative policy unleashed an era of deregulation, thereby encouraging the rapid concentration of ownership in U.S.-based businesses and industries of all kinds. Major news corporations (including newspapers, magazines and broadcast industries) had dwindled from 53 in the mid 1970s to 29 in the mid 1980s, under President Reagan (Bagdikian, 1987, pp. 3-5). But support for deregulation and conglomeration were by no means associated with Republican administrations alone. In 1996, under Democratic President Bill Clinton, Congress passed and the president signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996. This legislation, which received almost no media coverage or debate before its enactment, unleashed a rapid process of mergers and acquisitions among media enterprises that resulted in the emergence of six major players on the global stage by the end of the 1990s (Herman & McChesney, 1997).

The news scene had become a vastly different landscape by then, as traditional print and broadcast technologies became integrated with computer-driven technologies. Today, nearly all major newspapers, radio and television networks, both in the US and elsewhere, also have websites that are updated at least once daily, making their information available in multiple venues and formats. In addition, many profit and not-for-profit organizations have launched their own electronic news services, vastly increasing the range of perspectives available to users of computer technology. Nevertheless, Internet information lacks the pervasiveness of broadcast media, or even newspapers and magazines, which circulate within visual range the world over daily.

It’s important to emphasize the economic dimension of the situation, including the beneficiaries. Using data from the 1997 Fortune 1000 list, Compaine and Gomery point out that only the pharmaceutical industry’s median profit margin of 16.1 percent was higher than the newspaper industry’s own at 11.4 percent. Both of these industries had substantially higher revenues than the overall median profit margin of 5.5 percent, among all corporations (Compaine & Gomery, 2000, pp. 4-5). These researchers found that revenues across media industries between 1986 and 1997 nearly tripled, while the U.S. economy as a whole only doubled (p. 564). In other words, the biggest players in U.S. media industries made enormous profits over a relatively short amount of time.

United Nations’ data for the same period indicate that global communications industries generated profits of $2 trillion in the 1986-96 decade, more than doubling the $745 billion they had earned in the decade before (World Investment Report, 1996). These industries form the centerpiece of the global political economy, both in terms of the infrastructure they provide and the information they transmit. For this reason, we must give careful scrutiny to the deeper questions of why the concentration of media ownership and the nature of content carried by news and other media matter to women.

Women have had little involvement in either bringing these events about or in benefiting from them. A study published by the Annenberg Public Policy Center (2002) titled No Room at the Top? found that across telecommunications and electronic commerce (e-comm) industries, women make up only 13 percent of the top executives, and only 9% of boards of directors. Women, the report said, make up only 26 percent of local TV news directors, 17 percent of local TV general managers, and only 13 percent of the general managers at radio station. Byerly’s (2001) analysis of the big six media corporations revealed only seven females on boards and seven females in chief executive office positions —a total of 14 at the top (See Fig. 1).

It would be a gross understatement to say that men have almost total control of the media industries. This essential fact of gender relations in the business world in general and the media world in particular represents an enduring rather than new pattern and one of considerable urgency for a number of reasons. One is that more wealth than at any time in history has been consolidated into the hands of relatively few men, and nearly all of those men are in the already most powerful nations of the North. Another is that currently the media industries have an extensive network throughout the world, giving them access to vast markets and audiences in rural and urban areas of both developing and industrialized nations. Men’s power to influence, thus, runs unfettered through the structures of economic, political and cultural systems. Conversely, there is little evidence that women have either the resources or legal strategies to enter into the industries in sufficient numbers to influence policy or production, in the interest of women, except on a limited basis.

Company andNational Headquarters
Females on Boards of Directors
Female Chief Executives
AOL-Time Warner (US) 1 1
Walt Disney (US) 2 1
Viacom (US) 2 2
News Corporation (Australia) 1 1
Vivendi Universal (France) 1 2
Bertelsmann (Germany) 0 0

Fig. 1. Female representation on boards of directors and in chief executive positions of the six largest media corporations. (Byerly 2001)

The international scene is similarly bleak. Gallagher’s (1995) cross-cultural analysis of female professionals in media fields found that women reached 50 percent in only two nations, Estonia and Lithuania. In the rest, women seemed to fare best in radio and television overall, but most were employed either part-time or in temporary positions, Gallagher found. The higher paid technical jobs are almost exclusively men’s. In the US, where women have enjoyed substantial movement into the middle and lower echelons of the corporate world in the last few decades, their role in media is shrinking. A recent study by the American Society of Newspaper Editors found that the percentage of women in newspaper reporting and editing positions is only around 37 percent and that is slightly lower than in earlier years (quoted in Lauer, 2002). Women account for only 24 percent of television news directors and 20 percent of radio news directors, according to the 2001 Women and Minorities Survey conducted by the US-based Radio-Television News Directors Association and Foundation (quoted in Lauer, 2002).

Especially invisible in examinations of women in news and other media industries are women employed in the telecommunication fields that complement or otherwise enable news industries to exist. A 1995 study by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, Washington DC, reported that the number of women has surpassed men in telecommunications employment, where unionization has helped them obtain salaries more than twice that of women in other areas of the service sector, both in rank and file jobs and supervisory posts (quoted in Byerly, 2001 Winter, p. 66). The same cannot be said about the poorly paid women who work in high tech factories making computer components for equipment essential to news professionals and others at the middle and top. The labor of these workers, whose work is often performed in sweatshops located in developing nations is what Sassen (1998) calls devalorized (i.e., underpaid and undervalued) though essential. By contrast, those who do little of the production but who surpervise or control the decision-making and utilization of capital in telecommunications are overvalorized, Sassen says. The result, of course, is a class system on a world scale that is decidedly male in its hierarchy, in spite of a modern global women’s movement that has lasted three decades. (For a longer useful theoretical discussion, see Sassen, 1998, pp. 86-89).

At the micro-level, recent research shows that not only have women reporters, editors and news producers been scarce in print and broadcast industries, but so have women’s voices and issues in these channels. On American television, women represented only 11 percent of all guests appearing on Sunday political TV talk shows, for instance, in the first six months of 2001, and when they did appear, they got 10 percent less airtime (News Shows Leave Women’s Voices Out, 2002, p. 4). The situation worsened considerably after the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, on September 11, 2001, when female presence plummeted to near-total absence on both TV screens and in newspapers. Commenting for The Guardian, Madeleine Bunting (2001) observed that women had been “wiped off many newspaper pages and television screens, at a time when women had much to say about events that affected them deeply.” She said, “The people handling this crisis are men. It is men who perpetrated this violence and men who organize the response. The power structure is exposed at such times, as the token women slide into the background, leaving war to men.” (Bunting, 2001, n.p.).

Serious news of all kinds marginalizes women, even when it has an obvious gender connection. For example, in analyzing world news coverage of the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which occurred on December 10, 1998, Byerly (2002) found only 12 stories (4%) out of more than 300 in English and Spanish, circulating on world news wires, had a paragraph or more specifically about human rights as they relate to women. Nagrath (2001, Winter) examined three English-language newspapers in India over a six-week period, coding for any reference to females in bylines, headlines, issues directly related to women’s lives, etc. She found the Times of India to have nearly half of its stories by-lined by a female writer, with crimes against women being the highest category of news stories related to women (pp. 71-72). Nagrath’s study is relevant to the present discussion in that it makes a link between male-ownership, male organizational structures, and the persistent reliance on male-oriented news values, such as covering events (where men’s deeds and leadership emerge as paramount) rather than issues (which could more easily introduce women’s interests).

Understanding the deeper structures of men’s ownership and control of news and other industries today requires a journey into the political-economy of neoliberalism, which spawned globalization. Known also as neo-corporatism and neo-conservatism, neoliberalism emerged as both a philosophy and a practice in the 1970s as a backlash response to the successful efforts of labor unions, women’s and civil rights groups and other civic organizations to increase minimum wage and extend greater equality among the have and have nots. Neoliberal philosophy sees government’s role as to enable large-scale business to expand at will and to minimize any forces that might interfere. Neoliberalism also views organized labor as a threat to be weakened, and believes any protesting citizens should be denied avenues to speak or create opposition (McChesney, March 2001; George, 2000). Though it came to be associated especially with President Ronald Reagan in the US and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in England, neoliberalism has permeated international events for quarter of a century. Latin American economist Eduardo Silva (1998) explains that neoliberalism firmly entrenched itself throughout South America after the late 1970s. In Chile, for example, neoliberal policies were implemented under military President Augusto Pinochet by the late 1970s in the form of re-energized business associations, which were responding to “the political success of organized labor, middle classes, and governments bent on economic reform or redistributive policies” (p. 217). Silva notes that these associations represented “the interests of large-scale landowners, merchants, financiers, mine owners and industrialists, who resented the populist economic restructuring that had taken place under socialist president Salvador Allende, who was overthrown and killed in a military coup led by Pinochet in 1973.” (p. 219).

The news and entertainment media play a central role in spreading neoliberal values, according to McChesney (March 2001). Neoliberal values manifest themselves in many subtle ways —e.g., in the American context, the word “consumer” has been substituted for the word “citizen” in public discourse, reaffirming the widespread assumption that active participation in consumer society makes one a good citizen. Critical media researchers like Bagdikian (1987), Herman and McChesney (1997), and McChesney (1999) have tracked these events in news industries, raising growing concerns that such dramatic restructuring is by its very nature undemocratic because it limits the number of outlets and range of perspectives in operation. Progressive television journalist Bill Moyers has pointed out that in American media today there is almost no place left for dissent, which has been cleanly eliminated from American mainstream news and public affairs TV programming. Moyers own weekly program “Now,” which broadcasts Friday evenings on Public Broadcasting System (PBS), is one of the few outlets to critically cover media conglomeration and to shine a bright light on the FCC deliberations since 2002. Moyers and PBS have been under systematic assault and threat from conservatives, he told audience members at a media reform conference in November 2003, in Madison, Wisconsin. Still, even Moyers has done little to provide a gender analysis of the problem, focusing instead on the broader concern for “media democracy.”

It serves this discussion to emphasize that neoliberalism is inherently androcentric, favoring men’s control of economic (and other) institutions and rendering nearly invisible women’s perspectives. Writing from different disciplines and nations, Beale and Van Den Bosch (1998), Byerly (2001, Winter) and Nagrath (2001, Winter) agree that feminist scholarship must begin to involve women more actively both in the analysis of media structures and in the development of media policy. They recognize that the structures of men’s financial and political power have not been constructed accidentally or at random. Nagrath also emphasizes that alternatives must be found to funding news operations. Until they are independent of commercial interests, she says, they will not have the autonomy to represent women (p. 72).

An essential task is to recognize that economic relations defining today’s capitalist global economy have been constructed through a series of laws and agreements written and adopted by both governmental and quasi-governmental groups. Laws enabled deregulation, for instance, and bodies like the U.S. Senate approved international arrangements like the Bretton Woods Agreement of 1944, which helped to regulate currency rates and established the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. The enormously powerful, western-dominated World Bank and IMF are part of a present-day capitalist infrastructure that also includes quasi-governmental groups like the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and controversial international World Trade Organization (WTO). OECD specifically defines itself as an international organization that “helps governments tackle the economic, social and governance challenges of a globalized economy” (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, 2002). The WTO, which replaced its predecessor General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) in 1995, was created specifically to help the governments of its 144 member nations to negotiate trade and other economic arrangements (World Trade Organization, 2002).

Criticisms of these agencies include charges that they are both undemocratic and unaccountable to citizenries, since none of their executives or advisory members are elected by citizens of the nations they represent. Exclusion is specifically relevant to women, who have participated very little in any of these events or groups. Nor are women presently in a position to enact legislation to undo what has already occurred. While data from the Inter-Parliamentary Union show that the numbers of women in national legislatures continue to increase slowly in all but the Arab States (Ford Foundation Report, Winter 2000), women are still few in number in official policy positions. Worth pointing out, however, is that women vary considerably in their perspectives. Therefore, from the standpoint of removing logjams that prevent women’s interests from surfacing in decision making on both economic and media policy, it is reasonable to assume that only women with a feminist analysis of the situation would be inclined to insist that policy benefit women.

In questioning the underpinnings of power, we would be remiss if we overlooked one of the best friends to the global economy, American higher education and media education in particular. Students in the U.S. and Europe in the 1960s denounced campuses for their unholy alliances with business and industry, but the relationships have only grown stronger in decades since. Press and Washburn (2000) criticize American universities for taking increasing amounts of money from multi-national corporations and, in many cases, allowing those companies to dictate the terms under which research is conducted. Professors also “often own stock in companies that fund their work,” the authors say (p. 40). Moreover, “behind closed doors some corporate sponsors are manipulating manuscripts before publication to serve their interests” (p. 42). Corporate influence had become so serious that in 2000, the Washington D.C.-based American Association of University Professors (AAUP) launched a special campaign to address what it called the “corporatization of higher education.” In its fundraising materials, AAUP said:

“The corporate model is infiltrating higher education. Under its influence, faculty work is defined in terms of profit and loss; students are seen as “customers”; and education is a commodity packaged to fit customer demand, priced to suit the market, and designed for efficient delivery.” (Corporatization of Higher Education, 2000)

The pamphlet states, “. . the faculty’s ability to conduct long-term inquiry in pursuit of knowledge is eroded by the decline in public support for research by mounting demands that research results have immediate commercial application” (Corporatization of Higher Education, 2000).

Sociologist Stanley Aronowitz (2000) finds that in recent years, university presidents and chancellors, in the United States, have come to resemble corporate CEOs more than educators, and:

“[T]heir grasp of the mission of the university has been articulated in terms of (a) the job market and (b) the stock market. The intellectual mission of the academic system now exists as an ornament, that is, as a legitimating mechanism, for a host of more prosaic functions.” (Aronowitz, 2000, p. 62)

Aronowitz argues that “[t]hinking means questioning the nature and content of approved knowledge” (p. 159). Feminist scholars, of course, just as others with critical intellectual agendas, operate on a left-of-center continuum, a precarious place to be in this neoliberal era.

Communication scholar Lawrence Soley (1995) has pointed out that professors who cultivate corporate ties get “perks, promotion, tenure and endowed professorships, and move up in the university hierarchy” (p. 146). Soley also criticizes university boards of trustees, increasingly composed of corporate CEOs and other representatives. Journalism faculty have experienced the corporate presence incrementally and in a variety of ways for many years. Large news corporations had created foundations by the mid 20th century, giving major gifts to journalism programs for research, to underwrite capital improvements (such as upgrades to technology), develop research centers, create endowed faculty posts, and other purposes. The gratitude of journalism schools toward their benefactors has been both overt and subtle. Many journalism programs today include the names of their wealthy corporate donors: the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communication at Syracuse University (named for the late publishing magnate Samuel I. Newhouse), the Phillip Merrill College of Journalism at University of Maryland (named for Baltimore media entrepreneur Phillip Merrill), the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University (named for the late newspaper chain owner Edward W. Scripps), the Roy H. Park School of Communication at Ithaca College (named for the late mixed media conglomerate owner Roy H. Park), and so forth. Even journalism programs that retain independent identity receive generous gifts from Knight, Scripps, Freedom Forum (originally Gannett Foundation) and other foundations, whose fortunes originated with news and other publishing revenues) in order to fund aspects of their journalism program. Moreover, journalism programs develop strategic relationships with corporate media organizations, which results in high profile journalists giving public lectures on college campuses and being brought onto journalism faculties as either visiting or full-time teachers. Systematic research is lacking on the last of these. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that journalism education programs draw heavily on corporate media resources, with high profile male journalists and journalism educators the usual beneficiaries.

Journalism departments promote corporate values in a number of ways. Already mentioned is the presence of industry professionals on faculties and its emphasis on journalism practiced in commercially funded enterprises. In addition, departments require students to serve internships in newsrooms, and they sponsor job fairs that help to make undergraduates more accessible to the corporate workplace. Even though critical perspectives involving gender, class or race analyses may be offered in both news reporting and theoretical courses by individual faculty, these may receive little reinforcement across the journalism curriculum. Active lobbying by feminist and ethnic minority members in the late 1980s in the U.S. based Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC), resulted in members’ adoption of “Standard 12” in accrediting criteria. Standard 12 requires departments of journalism seeking accreditation (or re-accreditation) to adopt multicultural curricula and to recruit and maintain both women and minorities in their faculty and student bodies, in order to obtain and keep accreditation. However, journalism educators have yet to address inequities among women and minorities resulting from the departments’ cozy relationships with news industries owned by wealthy white men.

It is essential for women to develop a solid cross-cultural gender analysis of media conglomeration if we are to find a way out of the present deadlock. Women like myself, who have been involved variously as professional journalists, feminist activists and media academics, can play a role in the development of such an analysis. However, we also need the broader involvement of women still involved at these points of work to describe how they experience conglomeration and what they are doing to resist it, including the establishment of alternative (parallel) communication structures. It goes without saying that we must also collaborate cross-culturally on an international interventionist strategy that aims to affect telecommunication policies. Women’s limited access to the public sphere, including that potentially afforded by news media, require strategies for changing gender relations in ownership, control, and funding of media structures. Beale and Van Den Bosch (1998) are among those beginning to identify ways for feminist scholarship to be involved in political change leading to media reform. They suggest that feminist research can expand the normally narrow parameters of policy analysis and intervention to identify how women will be benefited or harmed by media policy (p. 2). These activities should complement and support the call for media reforms presently emerging in popular feminism in nations today. For example, in the U.S., in late March 2002, more than 60 feminists demonstrated outside the offices of the Federal Communications Commission, in Washington DC, to protest the agency’s ealier ruling that further dismantled regulations against media mergers and acquisitions in the cable and television industries. The demonstration was organized by a grassroots coalition that included long time media activist Jennifer Pozner, who recently formed Women in Media and News (WIMN); Terry O’Neill, vice president of National Organization for Women (NOW); Media Tank, and American Resurrection (Pozner, 2002). The coalition intends to build its ranks by enlisting immigrant rights and civil rights groups, feminist organizations, and other groups concerned with social justice. NOW’s O’Neill said that her organization —- the largest feminist group in the US — views the media as more than just a business, but rather an entity with “a responsibility to serve the public interest and ensure that all voices are heard” (Bennett, 2002, p. 13). Without the media, she believes, women cannot be adequately informed to participate in the democratic process.

Feminist scholars’, journalists, activists and other popular leaders’ engagement with media reform has been slow in emerging alongside a media reform movement that began in the 1990s. In the United States, that movement has been led mostly by progressive men from groups including Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), Institute for Public Accuracy, Media Access Group and, more recently, Media Education Foundation and Media Reform, the movement recognizes the threat to democratic freedoms associated with fewer and fewer corporate media conglomerates, and poses both broad and specific goals. They include applying existing anti-monopoly laws to the media; passing new laws curtailing ownership; conducting research; holding public hearings; establishing low-power, non-commercial radio and television stations; and reinvigorating the existing public broadcast system to eliminate commercial pressures. In addition, the movement proposes economic changes that include tax-payer credits for donations to media, eliminating political candidate ads as a condition of broadcast licensing; reducing or eliminating TV advertising targeted at children under 12; and adopting regulations that require local TV stations to grant journalists an hour of commercial-free news each day (McChesney & Nichols, 2002, Jan. 2). All of these proposals would serve to de-commercialize and broaden the democratic potential of the media, and women would clearly benefit from them as would all citizens. But the absence of gender-specific language and concerns signals an underlying problem in the longer-running movement and provides a compelling reason for a parallel feminist movement to articulate what women need from a more democratic media system.

1 — The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was created by the Federal Communications Act of 1934, in order to assure that the public’s interest would be served by broadcasters. The act views the airwaves to be publicly owned. In years since, the FCC’s duties have been expanded to include establishment of regulation in all media ownership. There are five commissioners on the FCC, appointed by the US President and approved by the US Senate, and serving five years each. They are to represent both Democrat and Republican parties, with the sitting president’s party in the majority. In recent years, commissioners have been drawn from the largest media companies and strongly partisan in their positions regarding broadcast regulation.


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