Take Back the Fourth Estate
by Beth Schulman
In These Times magazine, October 1999
Why does an expression of commitment to egalitarian values
make one feel like an alien in a land saturated with the rhetoric
of free expression and democracy? How is it that a fundamentally
unequal system of laissez-faire capitalism has become synonymous
with democratic practice? Because we lack the vibrant non-commercial
mass media outlets that might routinely expose and challenge the
fault lines of capitalism and the consumer culture it has come
For many of us, disgust over concentrated mass media ownership
has been palpable since at least 1983, when Ben Bagdikian documented
the stranglehold of 50 corporations that then constituted The
Media Monopoly. We have nodded in horror as each successive edition
of his seminal study reported such accelerating consolidation
that, by its fifth release in 1997, only 10 corporations controlled
"almost everything we see, hear and read."
Still, over the past decade, rampant commercialism brought
unanticipated consequences: the phenomena of celebrity scandal-mongering
masquerading as news and synergistic cross-marketing of media
"brands." Sustainable development initiatives, living
wage campaigns, anti-sweatshop actions and organized labor receive
scant attention- while breathless accounts of advertising wars,
HMO profit margins and cyberbusiness deals dominate the front
of the business sections.
Think about it: What chance does a progressive agenda-including
such goals as universal health care, family-supporting wages and
a brake on global warming-have in the current political climate?
How do we get Cokie Roberts and Tim Russert to spend Sunday morning
discussing the fact that the average CEO now makes 419 times more
than the average blue-collar worker rather than the Clintons'
house-hunting trip to New York?
Meanwhile, independent publications teeter constantly on the
brink of insolvency. Many fail. Feisty pirate radio stations are
silenced. If the Pacifica board of directors can be seduced by
Madison Avenue's sampling techniques to run roughshod over thousands
of KPFA stalwarts, dare we presume that serious structural change
Robert McChesney still believes that it is. Frankly, if we
hold out any hope for authentic democracy, we should take him
at his word and act right away. Everybody complains about the
media. McChesney has the audacity and imagination to insist that
we might actually do something about it. In his most recent analysis
of the media at century's end, Rich
Media, Poor Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Times,
McChesney lays out a four-part agenda for media reform that can
inspire, orient and help to organize the millions who long for
a genuinely democratic fourth estate:
* Building non-commercial media. Give your money, time and
creativity to strengthen fledgling or foundering efforts. McChesney
exhorts foundations, labor organizations and others in the position
to channel significant resources to bolster these efforts. Urge
Congress to consider tax credits for donations to alternative
media makers, such as the Independent Press Association and its
dozens of member publications.
* Genuinely public broadcasting. Existing national, regional
and local citizen organizations should take a leaf from the KPFA
battle and advocate for democratic management and local control.
* Regulation. The Steal This Radio project of the New York
Free Media Alliance has begun to model this tactic. With the help
of the Center for Constitutional Rights and the National Lawyers
Guild, they have forced the FCC to consider licensing low-power
* Antitrust action. McChesney recommends specific new legislation,
an antitrust statute directed at breaking up media conglomerates.
Lively debates about similar initiatives are well underway in
Australia and New Zealand.
Media restructuring, like recent parallel efforts to dismantle
the corrupt campaign finance system, will not result organically
just from accounts of mainstream media's consistently egregious
behavior. Such evidence is necessary and-thanks to the excellent
work of FAIR and the Institute for Public Accuracy, among others-available.
But Rupert Murdoch, Sumner Redstone and Mickey Mouse will not
be embarrassed into democratic transformation.
How do we proceed? McChesney's recommendations are straightforward,
but they require self-conscious, dedicated action. Progressive
political and community organizations need to adopt them and get
and Media Control