Rich Media, Poor Democracy
by Robert W. McChesney
In These Times magazine, November 1999
American democracy is in a decrepit state - exemplified by
a depoliticization that would make a tyrant envious-and the corporate
commercial media system is an important factor in understanding
how this sorry state came to be. The corporate media cement a
system whereby the wealthy and powerful few make the most important
decisions with virtually no informed public participation. Crucial
political issues are barely covered by the corporate media, or
else are warped to fit the confines of elite debate, stripping
the ordinary citizenry of the tools they need to be informed,
active participants in a democracy. For those who regard inequality
and untrammeled commercialism as undermining the requirements
of a democratic society, media reform must be on the political
The corporate media system is not the only factor that explains
the woeful state of U.S. democracy, nor is it necessarily the
most important one. But it is among the most important problems
we face and, accordingly, it has to be on any short list of issues
around which all progressive and democratic activists should organize.
Likewise, media reform is not winnable as a single-issue campaign;
reforming our media system will be impossible unless it is part
of a broader movement.
The neoliberal right understands the importance of media far
better than the left and has devoted considerable resources to
its campaigns to push the media to an explicitly pro-corporate,
anti-labor position. Billionaire right-wingers establish political
media primarily to propagate pro-business politics and to push
the range of political debate ever rightward. The leading U.S.
right-wing foundations have devoted nearly all their resources
to pushing the media and educational systems to provide more explicitly
pro-business positions. The political right also leads the fight
against any and all forms of non-commercial and nonprofit media.
Failing that, it leads the battle to see that public broadcasting
stays within the same narrow ideological boundaries as the commercial
media. As a result, PBS refuses to permit labor to sponsor programs
about workers but permits business to subsidize programs extolling
Until recently, liberals, progressives and the left in the
United States have been notably missing in action in the battle
over the media. The response of the progressive and mainstream
foundations, for example, to this right-wing ideological assault
has been tepid at best. These groups are uncomfortable about being
seen as "political." Regrettably, organized labor, too,
has been snoozing for the most part, providing little to counter
this right-wing ideological class war. The political right plays
to win; labor and the left are not even playing at all.
There are two general areas-and they sometimes overlap-for
media activism. In each, a nascent left, organized labor and the
progressive foundations must become active. First, labor (and
the left) can create better non-commercial media and generate
better results from commercial media independent of changes in
government policies and the corporate media system. All of labor
needs not only to support aggressively its own newspapers, magazines,
broadcast stations and Web sites; it also needs to give money
and resources to community and nonprofit media that have no direct
labor affiliation. This is a crucial point: Labor needs to be
willing to grant considerable editorial leeway to the media it
subsidizes. Unless it does so, the media will tend to be timid,
overly concerned with pleasing labor's political hierarchy, and
unlikely to produce a medium with vitality and broad appeal. The
same holds true for progressive philanthropies: Alternative media
cannot be micro-managed by funders and at the same time develop
an audience. (This is something the right understands, and it
has contributed to the success of its media program.)
In addition, labor and the left need to take another page
from the political right, which manipulates traditional U.S. journalism
practices as masterfully as a surgeon does a scalpel.
Like the right, labor and the progressive philanthropic community
also need to support think tanks of experts who can provide labor
and left perspectives on social issues for commercial and non-commercial
journalists alike. These think tanks can also monitor the massive
right-wing campaigns to shape news coverage. The recently formed
Institute for Public Accuracy, under the direction of Norman Solomon
and Sam Husseini, is doing a terrific job of providing such a
service. For the political right, these sorts of activities are
especially effective because their operatives and ideas are so
comfortable in the halls of the corporate media. Hence so many
of the TV political commentators that hail from the right have
become interchangeable with the so-called mainstream analysts.
These activities will never suffice for the left, but they can
help vitalize a non-commercial media sector on the margins and
guarantee the best possible performance by the commercial system.
But the second, and most important, area of political activity
is organizing to change government media policies. The core problem
with the U.S. media system relates to how it is owned, its profit
motivation and its reliance upon advertising. The media system
is not the result of the blind workings of the mythical free market.
In fact, it is a highly noncompetitive industry that is the direct
result of explicit government subsidies and policies. Almost all
of the important laws and policies that created our media system-like
the dreadful 1996 Telecommunications Act, which opened the door
to an unprecedented wave of corporate mergers-have been made with
zero public input. They are the direct result of super-powerful
corporate lobbies muscling their way to the public trough. The
corruption of this policy-making process can hardly be exaggerated.
Any attempt to affect U.S. media that does not address structural
issues directly through government policies will prove inconsequential
in the long run. It is the right and duty of the public to intervene
and see that policies enacted in their name reflect their informed
consent. Corporate media power must be confronted directly and
reduced. A fundamental question that needs to be raised, for example,
is why it is OK for the government to quietly subsidize the media
giants through tax breaks, deregulation and the gift of the public
spectrum, but let the nonprofit and non-commercial media sector
starve. Why not use government policies creatively to funnel resources
into a nonprofit media sector? For instance, economist Dean Baker
has proposed letting all Americans direct up to $150 of their
federal tax payments to the nonprofit medium of their choice.
If we made this an issue, there might be numerous other ways we
could improve the quality of our media culture without dredging
up the specter of an overbearing government.
This is the great advantage of the left: It can provide real
solutions to the problems of the media. The right often taps into
legitimate concerns people have about media, but its solutions
are illusory or counterproductive. Many left media critics present
superb analysis of the weaknesses of the status quo but have been
reticent about providing concrete solutions; these will develop,
they argue, over the course of political struggle and debate.
But by the end of the '90s, we have reached the point where media
reformers have to provide concrete examples of an alternative;
otherwise, many people will have no idea of what exactly they
are fighting for.
The heartening news is that over the course of the '90s there
has been a decided shift in public sentiment, and an increased
openness to structural criticism of the media system. The hyper-commercialism
of the system, staggering corporate concentration and low-grade
journalism have undermined the claims that ours is a free press
dedicated to public service and democracy, or even the claim that
the handful of conglomerates that rule over our media system are
"giving the people what they want."
This activism has taken the form of numerous local media watch
groups, which monitor the lame content of local TV news and work,
for example, to have liquor and cigarette billboards removed from
working-class and minority residential neighborhoods. It also
takes the form of micro-broadcasters who use low-power radio signals
to make an end run around the banality of corporate radio fare.
At the national level, new groups like Citizens for Independent
Public Broadcasting are organizing to establish a genuine, well-funded
public radio and TV system, replacing the low-budget, increasingly
commercial, elitist operation that is currently under the thumb
of corporate underwriters and careerist bureaucrats. There is
also the newly formed People for Better TV, which is demanding
that commercial broadcasters actually provide some public service
in exchange for the publicly owned television spectrum they are
licensed to use at no charge. The value of this example of corporate
welfare over the past six decades runs well into the hundreds
of billions of dollars.
In the short term, the immediate need is to connect the struggle
for media reform with the movement for campaign finance reform.
Much of the estimated $3.5 billion that will be spent on electoral
campaigns in 2000 will pay for TV ads on commercial stations.
This is an enormous cash cow for the corporate media, and it has
struck a dagger into the integrity of our political culture. The
corporate media are the foremost opponents of any reform in campaign
finance that might remove our electoral system from the private
reserve of the wealthiest one quarter of one percent of Americans,
who by some estimates presently make a whopping 80 percent of
individual campaign contributions. Instead, why not make it a
condition of getting a broadcast license that a broadcaster will
air no paid political advertising during electoral campaigns?
Elsewhere, Sen. Paul Wellstone is among the most outspoken
of several members of Congress who can see the disastrous implications
of permitting our media and telecommunications system to fall
into so few hands. Indeed, it is very difficult to reconcile any
notion of democracy with such a tightly held system accountable
only to Wall Street and Madison Avenue. There is a resurgent movement
to recharge our antitrust laws with the same populist commitment
to democracy that brought them into existence 100 years ago.
There are numerous other policy proposals to democratize our
media system floating around. The key point is to create a diverse
media system with a significant nonprofit and non-commercial sector.
Corporate media PR flacks argue that any effort to reduce their
power would lead to government control of the media. The concern
with the state having an improper role in the media is quite legitimate,
but even if all of the proposals were enacted, the corporate media
would still be the dominant sector of our media system. In truth,
the corporate media actually welcome the government playing an
aggressive role in the media system, as long as it is in their
interests and not those of the citizenry.
It is easy to be depressed about the prospects for media Ill
reform, just like it is easy to lose hope for progressive social
change altogether. The media giants are unusually powerful adversaries,
with massive lobbies. They also are in the enviable position of
owning the very news media that people would look to for coverage
of media reform issues.
But there are reasons to be optimistic. When one sees the
extent to which the media giants go to keep their lobbying activities
in Washington secret, you can understand their fear that the public
will learn the truth behind this corrupt system. When Americans
actually hear about the giveaway of the public spectrum or who
benefits from political advertising, they are outraged. The job
for media activists is to make this a public issue. If we can
get that far, our chances of winning improve dramatically.
Moreover, what is beginning to take shape in the United States
is happening all over the world, as the corporate media system
globalizes in conjunction with "free market" economic
policies. Across the world, democratic left political parties
and movements are making media reform a cornerstone issue in their
platforms, and they are enjoying success at the polls.
Finally, media reform offers certain advantages to the U.S.
Ieft. It is an issue that affects every strand of the left and
could bring diverse groups together to form common ground. But
media reform also resonates across the political spectrum. Even
so-called conservatives often are appalled by the commercial saturation
of our culture. The average American now spends nearly 12 hours
per day consuming some form of media, so media reform addresses
something that all Americans experience directly.
The fate of media reform and the U.S. Ieft are inexorably
intertwined, and in their fortunes resides perhaps the best hope
for the United States to become a democracy ruled by the many
rather than the few.
Robert W. McChesney teaches at the University of Illinois.
This article is adapted from Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communication
Politics in Dubious Times. Used with permission of the University
of Illinois Press (www.press.uillinois.edu).
and Media Control