American sociologist C. Wright Mills (1916–62) introduced the concept of the power elite in 1952 to describe the power structure of the United States. The power elite is a small group of elite leaders in politics, the military, and corporations who hold most of the power in a society. Wright argued that this group of elite individuals wields enormous power within the United States. Few groups or individuals outside the power elite have any real power at all. The power elite controls most aspects of society, including politics and government, culture, education, business, law, and the economy.
Members of the power elite occupy the highest positions in politics, military, and large corporations. Mills argued that within this triad, corporations have the most power. Because the power elite controls media conglomerates, it controls the content of the mass media. This includes controlling the type of information that is shared with the public and how it is shared. Other sociologists use Mills's concept of the power elite to analyze modern societies in general, not just the United States. They point out that media conglomerates have enormous and potentially dangerous power in society and culture. Some sociologists investigate the potential of media and media conglomerates to manipulate the population by surrounding people with messages designed to control their beliefs and their behavior, particularly their behavior as consumers and as voters.
Some researchers argue, for example, that in the United States major television channels, newspapers, and magazines essentially function as "state media" (government-controlled media) in times of war. Reporting focuses on American military might and demonizes enemies. This type of reporting serves more as propaganda than dissemination of information. Military and political elites feed a particular, self-serving narrative to corporate media. The media conglomerates do the bidding of the military and political elites, making huge profits and swaying public opinion in the process. A 2010 study of reporting prior to the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq made this argument. Analysis of every Iraq-related story on ABC, CBS, and NBC in the eight months preceding the invasion found a clear pro-war bias. The vast majority of the reports relayed the message and perspective of the White House. Very few stories included the messages or perspectives of anti-war groups or of individuals who disagreed with the White House position. The United States eventually did invade Iraq, purportedly in an effort to deal with Iraq's growing stockpile of weapons of mass destruction. As it turned out, Iraq had no such weapons. However, as a result of the war, U.S. corporations were sent to manage Iraq's lucrative oil fields. The primary corporation to do so, Halliburton, had close ties to Vice President Dick Cheney, who had run the company before becoming vice president. Media support of the White House's pro-war stance helped to create support for the war. In turn, the war enriched Halliburton, Cheney, and other corporate elites. Many analysts argue that these events are evidence of how the power elite operates in American society.
Another example of the power elite is found in an incident involving Sinclair Broadcast Group, a large media conglomerate. Sinclair owns many television stations in the United States. In 2018 it required news anchors at all its stations to read, verbatim, a statement it prepared relating to the issue of fake news. The statement aligned with White House views. It strongly implied that negative stories about the White House should never be trusted or considered accurate. Many of the news anchors who were required to read the Sinclair script objected but were made to read it on air. Sociologists point to this incident as an illustration of the power elite at work. Government and corporate media cooperated to spread and promote a particular message. Sinclair's size gives it unmatched power to reach the public. Critics argue that requiring anchors to read a script broadcasting a government-approved message is an abuse of power and an example of the danger of huge media conglomerates controlling the vast majority of mass media outlets.