Networks of Power
Corporate TV's Threat to Democracy
by Dennis W. Mazzocco
South End Press, 1994, paper
We cannot begin to understand, much less cope with, the social
breakdown that overhangs our age if our alarm system is not functioning.
When our informational apparatus and its sources are unreliable,
the communication principles that have served as guides to, and
guarantees of, our security become reduced to rituals or apologetics.
Who in the United States, and how many, for example possess
meaningful freedom of speech in the 1990s? Where, other than in
a journalism textbook, can one find a truly free press? While
these questions are troubling many people, their consideration
should be - but at the present time is not - a high priority on
the national agenda.
... the "for profit" U.S. media system exists first
and foremost to capture an ever greater share of the $120 billion
(or more) spent annually by U.S. corporations on advertising.
Today the U.S. broadcast media, both private and public, must
continue to please a small group of banks, insurance companies,
and giant institutional investor groups that also control billions
of dollars in U.S. pension funds through their inter-locking ownership
of corporate stock and government securities.
When government, corporate, or military power remain out of the
control of ordinary citizens, no matter how profitable or efficient
that may appear when "packaged" for the public's consumption,
it is tyranny - whether it appears "friendly," "patriotic,"
"lawful and orderly," or "economically necessary."
Media ownership remains the private domain of a privileged few
in corporate America.
As the United States declined into debtor status in the 1970s,
the information culture industry emerged as a prime source of
economic growth. Through the power of U.S.-based transnational
corporations, the Pentagon, and U.S.-dominated financial groups
such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, U.S.
financial leaders were able to maintain their leadership role
in the postwar international political economy and domination
over other nations' affairs in the name of U.S. "national
security." The closer ties between the U.S. networks reflected
the growing fusion of government, industry, and financial institutions
which threatens a self-governing citizenry in the global, corporate-dominated
economy. In 1975, the Trilateral Commission, composed of high-level
bankers and industrialists from North America, Japan, and Western
Europe, urged its members to promote oligarchic integration and
greater press controls as a means to protect themselves against
the "the excess of democracy" and the widespread political
participation by "the general population."
As Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky make clear in Manufacturing
The Political Economy of the Mass Media, concentrated corporate
media ownership works to narrow the limits on what is considered
reasonable, responsible, or so-called objective reporting by journalists.
Herman and Chomsky state that most of the censorship by mainstream
U.S. media organizations is self-censorship exercised by media
workers who have been selected for their willingness to conform
to the established rules and the existing political culture. Such
behavior is encouraged among the rank and file within mainstream
media organizations. Acting as an extension of state power, workers
and managers learn | not to question the system or status quo.'
Making Media More Democratic
As the gatekeeper of "truth" in our media-driven
society, corporate media conglomerates have the extraordinary
power to marginalize dissident voices and discredit political
opponents who may threaten their bottom line, even in a relatively
minor way. In helping to "manufacture consent," concentrated
media ownership continues to provide elite business interests
with an awesome state propaganda apparatus for citizen thought
control. Corporate media systems, even when they promise profits,
prosperity, and freedom have remained steadfast in their opposition
to citizen control of media.
Very few broadcast stations have ever been controlled by those
who could be considered common or average working people. In nearly
all U.S. cities, the most ~ powerful radio and TV stations have
almost always been entrusted to the more "privileged"
corporate citizens of the community-except during the early 1920's
when for-profit broadcasting was largely viewed with suspicion
in the United States.
... U.S. media monopoly and cartelization, the mark of elite ownership
and control, have long been at work to prop up U.S. power throughout
the world. It would be incorrect to think that the U.S.-based
media cartel was not already monopolistic and inherently anti-democratic
before the Reagan-Bush administrations took over in 1981.
Corporate manipulation, greed, and criminal misconduct did
not start in the Reagan-Bush years; these evils are as old as
U.S. monopoly capitalism. Over the last hundred years of industrial
growth, private corporate monopolies have been regularly defended
by government and business leaders as the most efficient means
by which the country could ensure economic growth. Yet, the myth
of serving the public interest through the private sector has
more often served as a pretext to protect corporate interest,
convenience, and necessity.
During the Reagan-Bush administrations, the FCC excused broadcasters
from adhering to most rules and regulations protecting the public
interest, "made it impossible for citizen groups to challenge
renewal of station licenses, lifted limits on the number of stations
that a single corporation could acquire," and gave broadcast
owners permission to create giant monopolies.
In return, these media superpowers ... nearly always supported
the Reagan-Bush foreign and domestic policies. With billions of
dollars in future profits on the line, they provided positive
reports on the social effects of deregulation, as well as on the
need for government to provide corporations with unprecedented
freedom to make windfall profits at the public's expense.
The Reagan and Bush administrations also did much to encourage
the U.S.-dominated media cartel's evolution as a government and
corporate propaganda instrument, limit domestic and foreign political
dissent, ensure corporate control over the U.S. political economy,
and maintain U.S. imperialist power abroad. The media monopoly
of 1992 consisted of 20 communications conglomerates. In 1983,
more than 50 such conglomerates existed.
The current corporate control of the media cannot be reduced until
government is forced, through political action, to somehow shift
the balance of media power in favor of common people. The average
citizen has very little knowledge of decisionmaking at the networks.
Media executives and their corporations, more than ever before
in the history of U.S. broadcasting, are able to hide behind their
first amendment rights in order to prevent greater citizen participation
in their affairs.
James Curran, a British communication theorist who has written
extensively about making access to media more politically, economically,
and socially fair, notes this in his book Bending Reality: "The
media accurately reflect and represent the prevailing structure
and mode of power. It is in politics and the state, not in the
media, that power is skewed."
Given the increasing separation of U.S. society along class
lines and the continued reliance on the so-called free market
system, it is unlikely that an advertiser-supported local or national
media system could ever serve all citizens. Clearly, those who
lack power in society also lack economic resources; and corporate-dominated
media companies will tend to use their political, economic, and
social clout to prevent a fairer and more just distribution of
media resources. An exclusively privately-owned media will always
seek to protect private profits and privilege.
It seems illogical to believe that a media system based on
the so-called free enterprise system (actually a euphemism for
"the use of privately or publicly owned property for private
profit") could ever benefit the general public-those who
do not already have a high level of disposable income or political-economic
power-let alone empower them to make media more egalitarian, representative,
A democratic media system ... is democratic only if it allows
the nation's citizenry to be heard and seen with equal force and
... democratic media must have the freedom to communicate radical
and unpopular ideas and opinions without fear of retribution by
sponsors or the government.
"[True] liberty...means allowing people freely to say things
you do not want to hear."
[We need to get] valid information in a timely fashion, be able
to communicate to one another as citizens, and be able to mobilize
to get action to recover our government, to have government of,
by, and for the people instead of, by and for GM, DuPont, and
Union Carbide ... Now we don't have television that is programmed
for the people...We own the public airwaves, why should the tenants,
the radio and TV stations, control it 24 hours a day?
Any attempt to make our media system more representative of the
diverse interests and ideas of all of the citizenry must begin
in our own local communities, at the grassroots level.
One idea would be to form a local media council in your local
community, school, library, or religious group. Such a council
should include representatives of all segments of the population:
teachers, librarians, students, and parents; groups concerned
with women, children, senior citizens, and gay and lesbian issues;
people of color, church-based organizations; educational, health,
environmental, legal, and other professional associations; local
consumer groups and agencies; and any others who may already be
committed to broadening the freedom and diversity of media communication
in a local community. These community councils could also align
themselves with journalists, artists, writers, actors, directors,
and other workers seeking more creative expression and freedom
A media council would demand more time for community issues
and concerns than is presently being offered by the local newspapers,
cable systems, and radio or television stations that are supposed
to be "serving" the community. Organized and coordinated
letter-writing to the owners and managers of local and national
media outlets, as well as their advertisers, can often be quite
effective in bringing change.
In 1992, for example, Ralph Nader tried to convince Congress
to force local cable companies to allow local, independent, and
democratically controlled consumer action groups to insert messages
into the residents' monthly bills. These notices could have described
the goals of the consumer groups and allowed them to solicit funds
and members. Such subscriber-consumer groups could have then monitored
the policies and practices of their local cable company, and represented
consumer interests in regulatory and legislative proceedings and
with the cable companies directly.
Citing a highly successful model, the Citizen Utility Board
(CUB), which has represented taxpayers in several states, Nader
and other national consumer advocates contend that monopolistic
public agencies could be forced to listen to citizen calls for
more diversity. The most successful CUB (in Illinois) has 170,0u^0
members and its advocacy has saved the state's consumers some
$2 billion over the past several years. Other CUBs exist in Wisconsin,
Oregon, and San Diego." This public interest type of innovation,
for example, could have been used nationwide to pressure local
cable operators to include more political, economic, and social
alternative programming on their local, supposedly "Public"
access channels. At Nader's urging, Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass)
added provisions to set up citizen cable councils as part of a
legislative effort to re-regulate the U.S. cable industry. Markey's
and Nader's efforts, however, were thwarted by a major political
lobbying effort by the U.S. cable industry. The Senate later passed
a much more watered down cable re-regulation bill in 1 w2 that
continued to protect corporate profit-making over consumer rights.
To support more efforts such as Nader's plan for a more citizen-directed
media, your local media council could also organize a community
letter writing campaign to your own elected and appointed representatives
in Congress, the White House, the FCC, and the Justice Department.
Tell these officials that your community finds concentration of
ownership in the media, public or private, to be unacceptable
and undemocratic. Tell your elected representatives to demand
that Congress, the FCC, and the FTC pass tougher legislation,
and federal rules requiring broadcasters and cable systems to
do annual community ascertainment of the needs and concerns of
the local community and become more representative of the diversity
of the audiences they serve. Force commercial broadcasters and
cable operators to offer more educational, and socially progressive
Organize public demonstrations of all local media to call
attention to the excessive commercialization of media that drives
out controversy or presents alternative viewpoints from being
aired in broadcasts and cable programming. Such demonstrations
and boycotts could be organized around specific themes such as
calling for fewer commercials and less violence on children's
television, the inclusion of more alternative views and opinions
in your local newspaper, or more coverage of local political-economic
issues on your local cable system.
... in the 1980s ... cable companies were empowered to make windfall
profits by raising rates, and were released from most of their
public-access obligations. In most U.S. cities, local cable public-access
has become another extension of the huckster-driven marketplace.
In many communities, local cable operators self-censor public-access
in order to keep their cable systems free of controversy and potential
local citizen or sponsor opposition. As a result, in many communities,
local cable operators do not provide any kind of meaningful public-access
service to the local community that they serve. In some cities,
citizens who want to use the public-access facilities of their
local cable operator must pay to be trained to use the equipment;
a double charge since most are already cable customers.
Pacifica [radio service], a progressive alternative broadcasting
service, began as an outgrowth of Pacifica's five stations across
the country in Berkeley, New York, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles,
and Houston. Originally set up to be oppositional to the mainstream
media, the Pacifica stations comprise the largest source of progressive
alternative daily news in the country. Pacifica is non-commercial,
non-governmental, and funded almost solely by its listeners. Pacifica's
flagship station, KPFA(FM) in Berkeley, for example, regularly
provides program topics that are traditionally excluded from the
mainstream media feminism, ecology, homosexuality, racial equality,
tenants, and immigrants' rights reform, unionism, and-war and
and-imperialist foreign policy initiatives, and-nuclear movements,
and other concerns.
Teaching media literacy is already required in the public schools
of Australia, Canada, and Great Britain, and others are following
in this direction.
Media literacy must be elevated to the same level of importance
as the ability to read and write. In a democracy such as ours,
where nearly 80 percent of citizens receive most of their news
and information from television, one must know the structural
limitations of the media system in order to become better informed
and capable of making rational voting choices.
Media will always reflect the inequities of power within the political-economic
system and also the level of democratic representation in the
society at large; one cannot be divorced from the other.
... attacks on public broadcasting's funding have forced it to
become an agent for social control, just like commercial mass
... Japan, Britain, Germany, France, and other capitalist democracies
have adequately financed non-commercial systems of broadcasting
as a "check and balance" to their commercial systems.
The U.S. has failed to do so.
Today, public broadcasting continues to be dominated by elite
interests and in no way can be considered representative of the
U.S voting population.
Long thought of as a "check and balance" to commercial
broadcasting, a closer look at "public" broadcasting
in the U.S. shows that it caters to the corporate interest through
sponsors and benefactors who have decisionmaking power over programming.
Jeff Chester, co-director of the Center for Media Education
"Almost the entire primetime of PBS is geared to be nothing
more than commercials for the Fortune 500."
The PBS regular program schedule is almost totally dedicated to
center to right-wing views.
C-SPAN remains totally funded by U.S. cable operators. C-SPAN's
board of directors is similarly made up of U.S. cable industry
... those who derive the most profit from the so-called public
airwaves - the corporate powers that advertise and own media -
should bear the brunt of financing a meaningful, alternative citizen
free-speech media system in the U.S.
... media owners are permitted to use what are essentially public
airwaves and cable channels to serve private corporate interests.
Broadcasters pay no fee (as of 1993) for the airwaves they use
- either at the time of a station purchase, upon its sale, or
on an annual basis - based on revenues the broadcasters are allowed
to make at the public's expense. Cable operators, while they must
pay a small percentage of their revenues to the local municipality
that protects their monopolistic status, also have similar freedom
to make huge profits at the public expense.
... when one considers that in addition to not being obligated
to pay a significant portion of revenues back to the public, all
media operators are also eligible to claim huge federal and state
tax-deductions on programming costs as well as the interest on
the debt to buy even more media properties, one realizes that
the U.S. media monopoly that we currently have is a heavily subsidized
public trust. Indeed, 100 percent of its profits go toward expanding
private corporate empires that presently are under no obligation
to fully disclose their finances or worldwide operations.
The social consequences arising from 70 years of so-called free
broadcast media has already weakened democratic participation
by average citizens.
There is less diversity of program choices today than there was
before the FCC began to deregulate the U.S. broadcast sector in
the late 1970s ...
George Orwell, in his novel 1984
"Who controls the present controls the past; who controls
the past controls the future.
When the majority of the U.S. citizenry do not share in the ownership,
control, and power of mass media, "democracy" and "freedom"
become illusions, disguising corporate tyranny and totalitarianism.