Dr. Brandreth Has Gone to Harvard

Paradise Lost or Paradise Regained?

excerpted from the book

The New Media Monopoly

by Ben Bagdikian

Beacon Press, 2004

Corporations as Heroes

Perhaps nowhere is the cynicism more blatant than in the newly energized activity known as corporate advertising. This constitutes printed and broadcast ads designed not to sell goods and services but to promote the politics and benevolent image of the corporation-and to attack anything that spoils the image. Ideology-image ads as a category of all ads doubled in the 1970s and had become a half-billion dollar-a-year enterprise. The head of a large advertising agency described the purpose:

It presents the corporation as hero, a responsible citizen, a force for good, presenting information on the work the company is doing in community relations, assisting the less fortunate, minimizing pollution, controlling drugs, ameliorating poverty.

The Best Atmosphere for Selling

At one time the Bell & Howell Company attempted to break the pattern of escapist, superficial prime-time programs by sponsoring news documentaries. The president of the company told the FCC that this was tried to help counter the standards applied by most advertisers, which he described, disapprovingly, as consisting of the following requirements:

One should not associate with controversy; one should always reach for the highest ratings; one should never forget that there is safety in numbers; one should always remember that comedy, adventure and escapism provide the best atmosphere for selling

Even if a non-escapist program becomes a commercial success, it is likely to be canceled by the networks or major local stations. In the early days of television, there were outstanding serious programs, including live, original drama: Kraft Television Theatre, Goodyear Playhouse, Studio One, Robert Montgomery Presents, U.S. Steel Hour, Revlon Theater, Omnibus, Motorola TV Hour, The Elgin Hour, Matinee Theater, and Playhouse 90.

Networks make most of their money between the hours of 8:00 and 11:00 P.M.-prime time. They wish to keep the audience tuned from one half-hour segment to the next and they prefer the "buying mood" sustained as well. A serious half-hour program in that period that has high ratings may, nevertheless, be questioned because it will interrupt the evening's flow of lightness and fantasy. In that sense, the whole evening is a , single block of atmosphere-a selling atmosphere.

Nothing Controversial

The growing trend among newspapers to turn over sections of the "news" to the advertising department usually produces copy that is not marked "advertising" but is full of promotional material under the guise of news. The advertising department of the Houston Chronicle, for example, provided all the "news" for the following sections of the paper: home, townhouse, apartments, travel, technology, livestock, and swimming pools. The vice president of sales and marketing of the Chronicle said: "We do nothing controversial. We're not in the investigative business. Our only concern is giving editorial support to our ad projects."

Fiberoptic cable can carry 320 or more video channels in one fiber. Even existing copper wiring to most homes has adopted the technique of multiplexing that permits many channels to travel over one copper wire simultaneously. Ordinary cable to homes in many places offers 91 available channels. Satellite transmission to home rooftop dishes carries more than 120 channels.

In the 1960S, when these new technologies were in their birth pangs, there was widespread discussion based on the reasonable assumption that in time these new capacities would be used for the public good. Conferences of technologists, social scientists, economists, and journalists considered how best to use them. Major foundations issued highly researched possibilities for a rich spectrum of noncommercial programs. Books were written on the coming bright new world. All assumed that the United States would adapt the new technologies to the special needs of the breadth and variety of the country's geography and population. The country would finally achieve what some other modern democracies already had in operation, and perhaps more.

But it was not to be. There would be no use of these technologies for noncommercial civic programs. Commercial broadcast media corporations rapidly increased their control of every significant medium, including daily newspapers and magazines. The news ideas were reported in news stories and industry publications. But as media conglomerates grew in size and acquired the largest news organizations, the assumption of noncommercial use of the new technologies ceased to appear.

The commercial conglomerates did their political best to elect members of Congress and the White House who then dared not offend them by creating a large public system whose audiences would reduce ratings for the commercialized channels. The big media were loud in the clamor for deregulation of everything possible. Private media power successfully used its political power.

The failure of the vision for enlarged public channels is filled with ironies:

Most new communications technologies were established with taxpayers, money. Like the Internet, satellite transmission, for example, would not exist without its creation of communications satellites by government agencies and subsidies paid for with peoples' taxes. The airwaves, the broadcast frequencies on which most Americans depend, happen to be public property. For all practical purposes these public airwaves have been expropriated by giant media corporations.

When the United States defeated Japan in World War II and established an American administration to reconstruct the old Imperial Government, it mandated that Japan create a noncommercial, unpoliticized broadcast system that would not depend on annual parliamentary appropriations. The Japanese adopted their present broadcasting system because the American occupying forces declared publicly that no modern democracy should be without one. That is why Japan's NHK has the most capacious, diverse, and varied noncommercial broadcasting system in the world, with the British Broadcasting Company second. Both are financed by a fixed tax on broadcast receivers in each home, comparable to annual auto registration fees in the United States. Both the Japanese and the English clearly are sufficiently pleased with the arrangement to have maintained it for more than half a century.

There are now dual systems in Japan with private operation with commercials and pay radio and television. Britain, too, now has commercial channels in ITV, alongside the BBC channels.

The comparatively tiny U.S. public system depends on congressional appropriations. Public broadcasting remains tiny because commercial broadcast conglomerates have the lobbying power and campaign contributions to make certain that Congress will not mandate a [strong public broadcasting] system like NHK for the United States, even though it was the United States that demanded that Japan must have one.

Today, the five huge corporate conglomerates are free to behave as though they "own" every major broadcast channel of communication in the country. In addition, they also own most of the production companies that create the programs.

The large media conglomerates do not want greater political and social diversity because it would dilute their audiences and thereby reduce the fees they can demand for the commercials that produce their unprecedented profit levels. They have defeated moves by Congress and federal agencies I to alter their restrictive policies. In addition, they have used j their power to create new laws that limit even more the entry | of new media into the national scene. They have been a most powerful force in shifting the political spectrum of the United States to the right.

The artificial control over the country's political spectrum was demonstrated in 2001 by large-scale protests against the United States invasion of Iraq. The protests were organized almost entirely via the Internet, the one important medium not yet controlled by the media monopolies. Initially, the standard media owned by conglomerates systematically underreported most of the thousands of protesters who took to the streets across the country and the world. Only after foreign news agencies reported the numbers more accurately-and many Americans used access to these foreign news agencies by Internet-did the American conglomerates alter their earlier inaccurate reporting.

This limitation of the major media extends beyond national policies. The media giants, left largely free to do what they wish, have found ever-lower levels of coarsened culture and models. Prime-time television "reality" programs glorify some of the more revolting emotions in the human psyche-deceit, cynical sexuality, greed, and the desire to exploit, humiliate, and elicit shattering emotional breakdowns on camera. The control of most of what the American public reads, sees, and hears is not a merely technological phenomenon, nor is it just an item in the nation's economy. It is a phenomenon that goes to the heart of the American democracy and the national psyche.

The power of the [media] conglomerates to sustain myths about national policies has produced growing chaos and crisis in cities and states across the country. The major media for decades have printed and broadcast the mythology that the people of the United States are crushed by the highest taxes among modern democracies. The opposite is true. Of all comparably developed countries, United States citizens pay-in all taxes of every kind-29.7 percent of the country's gross domestic product, while the average for the twenty-four countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development is 38.7 percent. The United Kingdom, for example, pays 33.6 percent, Canada 35.6 percent, Germany 39 percent, and Sweden 49.9 percent.

To add insult to injury, the country has the lowest income tax among peer nations for its wealthy citizens. The top tax for millionaires used to be 70 percent; in recent years the top rate has been cut to 33 percent.

No one loves to pay taxes. Voters in the countries mentioned could vote against candidates who support the higher taxation, but they seldom do so. They tolerate higher taxes because they value their guaranteed health care, their living wages, their housing for all, and all the other social programs that are either missing in the United States or remain a hodgepodge depending on the city or state in which an American citizen happens to live. Yet the major media in the United States have been the emphatic voice of every politician and corporate chieftain complaining about "confiscatory taxes."

The New Media Monopoly

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