Our Media, Not Theirs

the democratic struggle against corporate media

by Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols

Seven Stories Press, 2002, paper

Barbara Ehrenreich

Imagine the kind of media that a democratic society deserves: Media that bring us a wealth of diverse opinions and entertainment options; media that are held responsible for providing us with the information we need to function as informed citizens; media where ideas flow in both directions, and where ordinary people routinely have a chance to voice their concerns.

Ralph Nader

... the founders [of the United States] guaranteed freedom of the press because they knew democracy required rich and diverse sources of information and ideas.

Ralph Nader

We all need to start talking about the fact that the people of the United States own the broadcast airwaves; they're the landlords. The radio and the television stations are the tenants. The corporations that own those stations should be paying the Federal Communication Commission {FCC) for the airwaves and some of that money should be recycled into developing television for the people. The rent money should be paying for audience-run networks that serve the people, that serve democracy, that treat serious matters in engrossing ways.

Renewing Tom Paine's Challenge
by Noam Chomsky

Two hundred years ago, Tom Paine issued a call to "recover rights" that had been lost to "conquest and tyranny," thereby opening "a new era to the human race." The call to action that follows renews Paine's challenge. The rights that an aroused citizenry must recover, in the present case, are among those most essential to a truly functioning democracy: the right to information and to free and open discussion, not filtered by the state-corporate nexus that has effectively shaped the major media into instruments of class power and domination.

Recovering rights has never been an easy course. Paine died with little honor in the country he had helped to free from British rule, condemned as an "infidel" who had "done much harm." As his call to recover rights was published in 1792, James Madison expressed his concerns about the fate of the democratic experiment. He warned of "a real domination of the few under an apparent liberty of the many," deploring "the daring depravity of the times" as private powers "become the praetorian band of the government-at once its tools and its tyrant; bribed by its largesses, and overawing it by clamors and combinations." Thomas Jefferson feared the rise of a "single and splendid government of an aristocracy, founded on banking institutions, and moneyed incorporations" that would enable the few to be "riding and ruling over the plundered ploughman and beggared yeomanry." His thoughts were echoed by Alexis de Tocqueville, who perceived the dangers of a "permanent inequality of conditions" and an end to democracy if "the manufacturing aristocracy, which is growing up under our eyes,... one of the harshest that has ever existed in the world," should escape its confines. A century later, during a period not unlike today's, America's preeminent social philosopher, John Dewey, called for a recovery of basic rights to reverse the decline of democracy under the rule of "business for private profit through private control of banking, land, industry reinforced by command of the press, press agents, and other means of publicity and propaganda, " casting over society the shadow called "politics."

The vision of democracy that has inspired such concerns, and the popular struggles to advance the hopes and realize their promise, has been challenged in thought as well as deed. Madison's own attitudes towards democracy were ambivalent. During the Constitutional Convention, he urged that power should be vested in "the wealth of the nation," the "more capable set of men," who recognize that it is the responsibility of government "to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority. " To perform this necessary task may be difficult, he anticipated, with the likely increase in "the proportion of those who will labor under all the hardships of life, and secretly sigh for a more equal distribution of its blessings." Measures to combat their "leveling spirit" were basic principles of the constitutional order of which he was the leading framer. There should be no conflict with high principle, Madison believed, because the men of property who would hold power would be "pure and noble," each an "enlightened statesman" and "benevolent philosopher." Reality was harsher, as he soon came to appreciate. Hence his forebodings a few years later.

Similar illusions animated Wilsonian progressivism. Wilson's own view was that an elite of gentlemen with "elevated ideals" should govern in order to sustain "stability and righteousness." The intelligent minority of "responsible men" must control decision making, Walter Lippmann held. The dean of twentieth-century American journalism and a respected progressive democratic theorist, Lippmann was convinced that for democratic forms to function for the general welfare, public opinion must be shaped, and policy set ~ and implemented, by this intelligent minority-self-designated, and owing their authority to their services to authentic power, a truism kept in the shadows by the elite intellectuals who find these ideas attractive. The general public, "ignorant and meddlesome outsiders," must "be put in its place," Lippmann added. Their place is remote from the centers of power. They are to be "spectators of action," not participants, though they do have a "function": The public is to act "only by aligning itself as the partisan of someone in a position to act executively," in periodic exercises called "elections." One of the founders of modern political science, Harold Lasswell, instructed the intelligent minority to be cognizant of the "ignorance and stupidity [of]...the masses" and to dismiss "democratic dogmatisms about men being the best judges of their own interests." They are not; we are. The masses must be controlled for their own good. As societies become more democratic, and force is no longer available as a means of social control, the "responsible men" must turn to "a whole new technique of control, largely through propaganda, " he urged.

The ideal is what the academic democratic theorist Robert Dahl calls "polyarchy," not "democracy." Like Tom Paine, those who seek popular democracy "do much harm," according to prevailing elite doctrine.

Not surprisingly, the world of private power agrees. The modern public relations industry was strongly influenced by Wilsonian progressives who advocated "the engineering of consent," a technique of control employed by the responsible men for the benefit of their flock, the ignorant masses whose minds must be "regimented" much as an army regiments their bodies. The stupid masses must be trained to abandon any dangerous and destructive ideas about controlling their own lives. Their task is to follow orders while focusing their attention "on the more superficial things that comprise much of fashionable consumption." They are to adopt a "philosophy of futility," business leaders explain, abandoning their fate to the gentlemen of "elevated ideals" who manage the political system, and to the concentrations of unaccountable private power that are the "tools and tyrants" of government. Their lives are to be restricted to a narrow private sphere, where consumption of commodities and individual wealth maximization are the reigning values. Much of the right-wing fervor behind the drive to destroy Social Security and public schools, and to block efficient and popular programs of public health care, reflects the understanding that such programs rely on values that must be extirpated: the natural and deep-seated values of sympathy and solidarity, the conviction that one should care about what happens to the child or disabled widow on the other side of town. These pernicious ideas must be driven from the mind. People must be atomized and separated if they are to be ruled by the responsible men, for their own good.

These conflicting visions are in constant tension, and there is considerable ebb and flow in the struggle to recover, sustain, and extend rights and freedom. Victories by the ignorant and meddlesome outsiders inspire fear, often panic, among business leaders, who warn of "the hazard facing industrialists in the rising political power of the masses" and call for increased vigor in "the everlasting battle for the minds of men." Liberal intellectual elites ponder the threat of the "excess of democracy" as normally passive and apathetic populations seek to enter the political arena to press their demands, forgetting their proper place in the democratic order. Deeply concerned by the "excess of democracy" of the 1960s, the Trilateral Commission intellectuals, representing liberal internationalist sectors of the industrial world, urged "more moderation in democracy," perhaps even a return to the days when, according to Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington, "Truman had been able to govern the country with the cooperation of a relatively small number of Wall Street lawyers and bankers."

To reverse the excess of democracy, they advised, it will be necessary to overcome the failures of the institutions responsible for "the indoctrination of the young," perhaps even to institute government regulation of the press if its leaders do not impose "standards of professionalism," curtailing the occasional departures from orthodoxy and obedience.

The "crisis of democracy" perceived by the Trilateral analysts became more severe in the years that followed as large-scale popular movements developed from the ferment of the 1960s, interfering with elite control: feminist, environmental, solidarity, antinuclear, and others. These democratizing tendencies have been countered by important developments in domestic and international society. One fundamental element of the neoliberal programs of the last quarter-century is to restrict the public arena, undermining the threat of democracy by transferring decisions to unaccountable private tyrannies, under the slogan of "minimizing the state." The basic idea was captured by David Rockefeller, who founded the Trilateral Commission and shares its general liberal internationalist perspective. He expressed his approval of the trend towards

lessening the role of government, something business people tend to be in favor of. But the other side of that coin is that somebody has to take governments' place, and business seems to me to be a logical entity to do it. I think that too many business people simply haven't faced up to that, or they have said, "It's somebody else's responsibility; it's not mine."

Crucially, it is not the responsibility of the public.

The program of "minimizing the state" is nuanced, however: State functions are to be modified, not minimized. The state must at least continue to serve its "tools and tyrants," ensuring that the world is well-ordered for their needs, and at home, maintaining the traditional mechanisms for socializing cost and risk to protect "the minority of the opulent" from market discipline.

The financial liberalization that is a central component of neoliberal programs also undermines democracy, as has been well-understood for half a century. It creates what some international economists call a "virtual Senate" of investors and speculative capital, who hold "veto power" over governmental decisions and can punish "bad policies" that might benefit the population rather than improving the climate for business operations. Leaving nothing to chance, those who wage "the everlasting battle for the minds of men" have also established influential think tanks and other devices to constrain the limited public space allowed by corporate media. Consolidation of media and restriction of any public service function is a natural concomitant of these programs, quite apart from independent factors that are leading to oligopoly in many sectors of the economy, controlled by a small number of conglomerates linked to one another by strategic alliances and to the powerful states on which they rely, and over which they cast their shadow.

The public is aware of the growing "democratic deficit." One of the topics addressed below is the coverage-or perhaps "cover-up" would be more apt-of the November 2000 elections in the corporate media. It is also worth noting that on the eve of the election, well before the Florida shenanigans and Supreme Court intervention, three-quarters of the population did not take the process very seriously, regarding it as a game played by financial contributors, party leaders, and the PR industry, which crafted candidates to say "almost anything to get themselves elected" so that one could believe little they said even when it was intelligible. On most issues citizens could not identify the stands of the candidates, not because they are stupid or not trying, but because of conscious efforts to direct voter attention away from issues to "qualities." Many issues of great importance to the public could not even enter the electoral agenda because popular attitudes are so strongly opposed to the elite consensus: Among them are issues related to international economic affairs, including the "free trade agreements" that the business press, more honestly, terms "free investment agreements." Even a decade later, the position of the U.S. labor movement on NAFTA and the conforming conclusions of Congress's own research bureau have yet to be reported outside of dissident sources-for good reasons: They predicted rather well the harmful effects of these agreements on working people in the three countries concerned and proposed constructive alternatives. These might have received considerable popular support had they been made available, but are opposed by the elite consensus that sets the bounds for the electoral arena and media debate. A Harvard University project that monitors political attitudes found that at the time of the November 2000 elections, the "feeling of powerlessness has reached an alarming high," with more than half saying that people like us have little or no influence on what government does. The figures have risen steadily through the neoliberal period, not just in the United States but internationally, including Latin America, where the spread of formal democracy has been accompanied by a steady decline of faith in democracy...


James Madison
"A popular Government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives. "

It was supposed to be our media. In the age of enlightenment at the close of the eighteenth century, when thinkers began to imagine casting off the tyrannies of monarchs and inherited rather than elected governance, they understood that the essential tool of newly enfranchised citizens would be information. Thus, when James Madison and his comrades in the Revolutionary cause framed the Constitution of the new United States, they enshrined protections for a free and freewheeling, diverse and dangerous press that would serve as the foundation upon which American self-government and freedom would over the next two centuries be slowly- often painfully-built. There was never any question of original intent. "Our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press," warned Thomas Jefferson. The media was to serve as a stern watchdog over those in power and those who want to be in power, in both the public and private sectors. "The functionaries of every government have propensities to command at will the liberty and property of their constituents," Jefferson explained. "There is no safe deposit for these but with the people themselves, nor can they be safe with them without information. Where the press is free, and every man able to read, all is safe."

But is all safe? Does anyone seriously suggest any longer that the media provide all citizens with detailed accurate information and a range of informed opinions on the important issues of our times? Does anyone claim with credibility that the media is today the underpinning of America freedom and liberty? Would Jefferson and Madison see in the media monopolies of the twenty-first century the free press without which they knew there could be no democracy?

Of course not.

What was by design and necessity to have been our media-a brilliant blossoming of divergent, disagreeing and disagreeable voices, organized with the purpose of informing and convincing an electorate, arrayed in the service of that electorate and the democracy they would forge-has become their media. And much of what ails our democracy, our nation, and our world can be traced to this bastardization of the intentions of revolutionary democrats like Tom Paine. Paine dreamed of a nation that encouraged an "unceasing circulation of (ideas), which passing through its million I channels, invigorates the whole mass of civilized man."

Far from invigorating the whole mass of us, the media system as it operates in the United States today fails to provide basic support for citizenship. It fails to protect or promulgate a public good. It is not a media system of our creation, by our hand or in our interest. That is because what we are subjected to today is not our media. It is their media.

Who are they? A handful of enormous conglomerates that have secured monopoly control of vast stretches of the media landscape. The oligopolistic structures they have created make a mockery of the traditional notion of a free press, where anyone can launch a medium and participate in the marketplace of ideas. And the monopolies grow ever more omnipresent with each passing year. Decades ago, A.J. Liebling wryly observed: "In America, freedom of the press is largely reserved for those who own one." We would update his line only by removing the word "largely."

Who does their media serve? They deliver first and foremost for their stockholders-major media in the United States can be enormously profitable. To maintain that profitability, they serve the major corporate interests that bankroll so much of the media with fat advertising checks. To avoid regulation in the public interest, they serve a political class that returns the favor by giving media conglomerates free access to the public's airwaves while routinely removing barriers to the expansion of corporate control over communications. To the extent that those who own major media in America today see themselves as being bound by public service duty, that duty is toward the affluent consumers who are served by round-the-clock business coverage that speaks to a tiny investor class.

The claim that American media is the result of market competition won by a handful of multinational corporations is one of the Big Lies that media firms desperately propagate. Like a lot of their programming, it's a load of crap. Our media system is the direct result of government action- laws and regulatory policies-that established not just the playing field but the winners of the game. In the case of radio, television, cable, and satellite TV, governmental agencies grant monopoly rights to frequencies and/or franchises to private firms at no charge. Whoever gets these licenses is essentially guaranteed a profit. The value of this form of corporate welfare, over the past seventy years, is mind-boggling. It is certainly in the hundreds of billions, if not trillions, of dollars. Nearly all of our huge media giants today are built on the backs of this corporate welfare, though you would ever know it by listening to their rhetoric.

... while regulatory policies have been and are being made in the public's name, they are not being made with the public's informed consent.

Indeed, it would be difficult to imagine a more corrupt example of corporate-government cooperation than what passes for communication "policy making" in Washington, DC. Huge corporate lobbies duke it out to get the best deals from politicians and regulators; all the while the commercial news media give the matter not one bit of attention. The debate over the Telecommunications Act of 1996-a dramatic reshaping of media ownership rules and I one of the most dramatic corporate welfare schemes in the nation's history-rated just one short story on an evening news broadcast. Indeed, the only place where you will find J consistent coverage of media policy making in the press is in business and trade publications, where it is framed as an issue for wealthy investors and executives. You will only rarely find media policy debates framed as issues of concern to consumers, and forget about a frame that considers media policy as an issue for citizens in a democracy. Most Americans are therefore entirely ignorant about the government policy making that shapes the media that we are all in contact with for the vast majority of our waking hours each day.

Media criticism does exist in America. But by and large, it is not citizen-based criticism designed to make media a better source of information in a democracy. Instead, it is a cynical manipulation of the discourse designed to silence even the mildest dissent from the conservative, militantly pro-corporate dogma that has come to pass for news in an era when "reporters" brag about the size of their American-flag lapel pins.

When cable television commentators prattle on about liberal bias in the media without even acknowledging the irony of their circumstance, they do so not to win an ideological debate but to discredit any journalist who might still attempt to tell both sides of the story. The liberal-bias industry mushroomed during the Reagan years as a response to reporting on the president's foibles. As with media supporters of George W. Bush today, Reagan's backers did not want to have to address concerns about their man's competence so they suggested that any critical reporting was the result of liberal bias.

The truth, of course, is that there is no liberal bias in the media. World-class scholars, such as Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, have made substantial arguments about the media's structural bias toward the corporate and political status quo. Analysts with Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, and scholars at dozens of journalism schools, have confirmed this critique in study after study. Yet while a Bernie Goldberg or Ann Coulter can march into any television study in America to screech about liberal bias that does not exist, Herman, Chomsky, and others who would offer a more rational critique are regarded by the media in much the same way that Soviet dissidents were by Tass or Pravda.

The bottom line: The corporate media are more than willing to entertain the idea that their main problem is that they are too critical of big business, the military, and people in power, and too sympathetic to the dispossessed. It reconfirms their self-image as some sort of feisty Fourth Estate. They are unwilling to even broach the idea that they sit atop a system that was set up in a corrupt manner and that works to advance the interests of corporate American and limit democracy.

... major media gives the people what they want only within the range that major media can maximize profits. So all sorts of things people clearly want-like less advertising and higher quality journalism-are not provided because they are not profitable. When they think about it, Americans will fully understand that the existing market is not a flawless indicator of public desires, because it can only address what makes the most short-term profit for the media giants.

... the media system has become a major barrier to the exercise of democracy and to the discussion of any of the mounting social problems that face us.

... consider the three most important stories in recent memory-the dysfunctional election of 2000, the September 11 attacks and the ensuing War on Terrorism, and the revelation that American corporations have engaged in massive frauds against their employees, retirees, stockholders, and taxpayers. How has the media handled these tests of its mettle?

Since so much of focus here is on democracy, let's begin with the 2000 presidential election. A1 Gore won the national popular vote by 600,000 votes. It is now clear that a plurality of the Floridians who went to the polls to cast ballots on November 7, 2000, intended to vote for A1 Gore. Yet George W. Bush is president. What is important to understand is that he is president at least in part because major media spent much of November and December 2000 rushing to anoint Bush president rather than digging until they found out who actually won the election. If the media can't stop a stolen election, who can?

When the September 11 terrorist attacks struck, a selected-not-elected president began an assault on domestic civil liberties and a sweeping War on Terrorism that appears to have no endgame. The media should have met the president's power grabs with fierce skepticism as the track record ' of chief executives is clear: In nearly every major war the United States has fought over the past century, the administration in power has lied through its teeth to generate public support, because it feared the people would not approve of war were they told the truth. Yet the U.S. news media has been entirely compliant is supporting "America's New War," offering scarcely any hard interrogation of officials, the sort of interrogation that would be directed at the leader of any other nation that attempted to lead the planet into an ongoing, ill-defined, and seemingly limitless war. As this has been proclaimed by President Bush as an endless war against evil-doers everywhere, one that will put us in a full war economy for a generation, this lack of criticism or rudimentary evaluation is a stunning abrogation of responsibility for a free press. When you add in the assaults on domestic civil liberties contained in Attorney General John Ashcroft's USA PATRIOT Act, and a penchant for secrecy on the part of the chief executive that would make Richard Nixon cringe, the media should be raising red flags on a daily basis. Instead, it is chirping along to the script provided by White House political director Karl Rove. No wonder serious international analysts compare U.S. media coverage of the war to that which might be expected in an authoritarian society where free press protections do not exist.

The U.S. media has done no better on stories that do not relate to September 11, the biggest of which has been the ongoing series of revelations about corporate corruption that began with the blowup of Enron. Arguably one of the greatest political scandals in a century, the Enron catastrophe is the direct-and predictable-result of what happens when massive corporations pay off politicians to get deregulation rulings that permit them to fleece workers, consumers, and taxpayers. The most striking feature of the Enron affair is how much of the company's sleazy activity was legal, and how most of the nation's political establishment-regardless of party or even ideology-was in bed with Enron swindlers. Revelations about Global Crossing, WorldCom, and other corporations reveals that Enron-style sleaze is rampant throughout industries that depend upon government regulation. It is safe to say that, in some industries, corruption is standard operating procedure. Yet the media, which are owned and operated by firms that rely on the same sort of cozy regulatory arrangements as did Enron, have converted these dramatic revelations into a business story and the political implications have fallen from view. There is every prospect that the problems that led to firms like Enron corrupting government policies will continue full steam ahead. The media have failed to fulfill a basic watchdog function, which means reform-even reform that is so obviously necessary-may be thwarted under cover of a "real" news blackout.

The growth of this media reform movement is one of the striking developments of the past decade; though, understandably, it has passed beneath the corporate news media radar. In the 1980s, for example, media critics did not even broach the idea of media reform as a serious issue ... Things are changing, however. Consider the following:

* Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, a media watch group formed in the late 1980s, has blossomed into a major high-quality source for media research and analysis.

* Progressive media like The Nation, The Progressive, In These Times, and Z Magazine regularly report on media monopoly.

* Many national gatherings-from Media and Democracy gatherings to the recent Reclaim the Media Conference- have brought media activists together to discuss strategy and tactics.

* In cities like Baltimore, community groups have organized to get liquor billboards out of working-class and minority residential neighborhoods.

* Local "media watch" groups have developed in numerous cities, including Chicago, Denver, New York, and Seattle.

* Since 1999, Independent Media Centers (IMCs) have sprung up across the United States and the world. Internet-based IMC activists offer alternative journalism, covering stories that are ignored or mangled by the mainstream press. Criticism of corporate media has become a recurring theme for the IMCs-and the communities that have developed around them form a base of media activists.

* The group Commercial Alert is growing. It leads the fight against the spread of commercialism into every corner of our lives, especially in traditionally noncommercial public institutions like schools and museums.

* People for Better Television is growing. It leads the fight to make commercial broadcasters do public service in order to justify their monopoly licenses.

* 0rganizations like the Center for Digital Democracy have emerged to protect the Internet from corporate and commercial domination.

* An enormous grassroots organizing campaign in 1999 and 2000 led the FCC to begin opening the way for the licensing of approximately 1,000 new community-driven noncommercial "microradio" stations in open slots on the FM band.

* In 1998, 2000, and 2002, demonstrations took place at the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) headquarters and national convention, and in front of the FCC's headquarters in Washington, DC. The former were to protest the NAB's opposition to microradio noncommercial broadcasting; the latter was to protest the FCC's efforts to eliminate the few remaining regulations limiting the size of media corporations.

* In 2002, Representative Bernie Sanders |I-VT) introduced legislation to freeze second-class mailing costs for small, nonprofit publications that carry little advertising. The Independent Press Association, the trade association for small independent publications, organized a major lobbying campaign on its behalf. Sanders is also looking to propose additional legislation, and he is not the only member of Congress moving on this front.

Paul Klite, former executive director, - Rocky Mountain Media Watch

"Night after night audiences are terrified and titillated, aroused and manipulated, but not informed. Like an unbalanced diet, which gradually can lead to serious illness, the local TV news threatens the health of our community. '

In 2002, the U.S. media system is dominated by about ten transnational conglomerates including Disney, AOL Time Warner, News Corporation, Viacom, Vivendi Universal, Sony, Liberty, Bertelsmann, AT&T-Comcast, and General Electric (NBC). Their media revenues range from roughly $8 billion to $35 billion per year.

Another twelve to fifteen firms, which do from $2 or $3 billion to $8 billion dollars per year in business, round out the system. These firms-like Hearst, the New York Times Company, the Washington Post Company, Cox, Advance, Tribune Company, Gannett-tend to be less developed conglomerates, focusing on only two or three media sectors.

All in all, these two dozen or so firms control the overwhelming percentage of movies, TV shows, cable systems, cable channels, TV stations, radio stations, books, magazines, newspapers, billboards, music, and TV networks that constitute the media culture that occupies one-half of the average American's life. It is an extraordinary degree of economic and social power located in very few hands. The highly concentrated market makes a mockery of the freedom of press clause in the First Amendment, which was predicated on the ability of citizens to create their own media if they so desire.

Congressional approval of the [1996] Telecommunications Act [occurring] after only a stilted and disengaged debate, was a historic turning point in media policy making in the United States, as it permitted a consolidation of media and communication ownership that had previously been unthinkable.

In 2002, a series of developments suggest that media concentration is becoming even more extreme. For decades, a few key FCC ownership regulations limited the ability of the media giants to expand. These included rules preventing the same company from owning TV stations and cable franchises in the same market, limiting the number of TV stations a single company could own, and restricting ownership of newspapers and TV stations in the same community. The FCC, under the leadership of President George W. Bush's appointed chair, Michael Powell, is expressly committed to decreasing or eliminating these and other limits on media monopoly-including the last barriers to a single corporation gaining dominance of print, broadcast, and cable communications in a single market. The multipronged strategy of the media giants also has a legal component. In 2002, the conglomerates won cases in the federal court system tossing key ownership regulations out as unconstitutional. Only if the FCC or Congress can make a better defense of them will the regulations be preserved.

The result of all this deregulation, should it proceed, will be an explosion of corporate deal making that will make the last decade of unprecedented media conglomeration look like a Wednesday night bingo game at the local old folks home. For the first time, media giants that have controlled TV station empires-Disney, News Corp., Viacom, General Electric-would be able to merge with or acquire media empires built on cable franchises, such as AOL Time Warner and AT&T-Comcast. As Blair Levin, a former FCC chief of staff, puts it, the ruling "allows for a powerful new entity we have never seen before-something that combines both cable and broadcasting assets."

... Not only are media markets dominated by a handful of conglomerates with "barriers to entry," making it nearly impossible for newcomers to challenge their dominance, but they are also closely linked to each other in a manner that suggests almost a cartel-like arrangement.

The two main problems fostered by concentrated media are hypercommercialism and denigration of public service. These are really two sides of the same coin. As massive media corporations are better able to commercially saturate society, their ability or willingness to provide material with editorial and creative integrity declines. It is not that the individuals who run these firms are bad people; the problem is that the system of business in America is designed for profit making, not public interest, and thus we have a media system set up to enrich investors, not serve democracy.

No better example of how this process works can be found than in the U.S. radio industry. This was the one sector where ownership limits were explicitly deregulated by the 1996 Telecoms Act and what happened there should give a sense of where we are heading as ownership deregulation becomes the rule everywhere. Since deregulation of ownership in 1996, well over half of all U.S. stations have been sold. A few massive giants, owning hundreds of stations-as many as eight in each market-have come to dominate the industry. Six years ago, the law permitted a single firm to own no more than twenty-eight stations nationally; today Clear Channel alone owns some 1,200.

Nowhere is the commercial marination of the American mind more apparent than in the case of children, where the advertising assault was increased exponentially in the 1990s. There are now four full-time cable channels owned by the four largest U.S. media firms bombarding children with commercial programming twenty-four hours per day. Advertisers have targeted the youth market as arguably the most important in the nation. Girls between the ages of seven and fourteen spend some $24 billion per year and influence parental decisions worth another $66 billion. Commercial indoctrination of children is crucial to corporate America.

In media today, even among journalists w~ entered the field for the noblest of reasons, there is an internalized bias to simply shy away from controversial journalism that might enmesh a media firm in a battle with powerful corporations or government agencies. True, such conflicts have always been the stuff of great journalism, but they can make for very bad business, and in the current climate business trumps journalism just about every time.

During the 2000 presidential race, for instance, major television stations argued against what one might think would be their own self interest. In their moves to exclude Green Party candidate Ralph Nader from three presidential debates, they guaranteed that controversial issues involving corporate power-including media conglomeration-would not be raised. Yet the exclusion of Nader also guaranteed that the debates would become duller-than-dirt agreeathons in which A1 Gore and George W. Bush essentially invited viewers to turn off their televisions.

The most common and noticeable effect of the corporate noose on journalism is that it simply allows commercial values to redirect journalism to its most profitable position. As a result, relatively vast resources are deployed for news pitched at a narrow business class, and suited to their needs and prejudices; such news has come to dominate newspapers, specialty magazines, and cable television. Likewise, news for the masses increasingly consists of stories about celebrities, royal families, athletes, natural disasters, plane crashes, and train wrecks. Political coverage is limited to regurgitating what some politician says ...


The approach to "reporting" practiced by America's corporate media today is not journalism; it is stenography. Perhaps the strongest indictment of corporate journalism is that the preponderance of it would be compatible with an authoritarian political regime. So it is that China has few qualms about letting most commercial news from the United States inside its borders; it can see that this low caliber of journalism is hardly a threat to its rule. It is the BBC, with its regrettable penchant for covering politics seriously, that draws the commissar's ire.

There is also intense pressure for journalism to contribute immediately and directly to the bottom line. One Tennessee TV station received adverse publicity for offering to do TV news "puff pieces" on local businesses in exchange for $15,000 payments. It is important to note, however, that the mistake made by that Tennessee station was not the spirit of the offer-it well reflects the pattern across the news media-but rather the baldness of it. Firms also use the news to hype their other programming, as in 1996 when NBC Nightly News made the Summer Olympics its most covered news story that year, even though none of the other networks had the Olympics ranked on their top-ten lists. Why? Because NBC was airing the Olympics that summer-and reaping the attendant financial rewards. The fall of 1999 saw a huge debate erupt in newspaper circles after the Los Angeles Times devoted the entire editorial space in an edition of its 164-page Sunday magazine to articles, photos, and graphics describing downtown Los Angeles' new Staples Center sports arena. The newspaper did not reveal at the time of the magazine's publication, however, that it would be dividing the $2 million in revenues generated by the section with the owners of the arena. So dark was the scenario that the former publisher of the Los Angeles Times, Otis Chandler, sent a letter to the staff describing the new management's move as "unbelievably stupid and unprofessional."

Above all, however, the Los Angeles Times was blatant. It allowed the corrupting linkage between advertisers and the media to be clearly identified. More often than not, a measure of subtlety keeps controversies under wraps.

All told, this creates a crisis for democracy. Alexis de Tocqueville rightly celebrated the role that a free and diverse media plays not only in greasing the wheels of electoral systems but in maintaining the very structures of civil society. The nineteenth-century surveyor of the American public landscape went so far as to say of news organizations, "They maintain civilization." Who would seriously attempt to make such a statement about media in an era of round-the-clock Gary Condit coverage?

The current caliber of journalism is decidedly unsatisfactory for a democratic society. Democratic journalism should provide a ruthless accounting of the powers-that-be and the powers-that-want-to-be, both in government and politics and in the extremely powerful corporate sector. Democratic journalism should also provide background information and a full range of viewpoints on the main social and political issues of the day. We cannot expect each news medium to provide all of these elements of a quality journalism, but in combination, a democratic media system should make this caliber of journalism readily available to the entire population. It may be true that the media are not entirely responsible for the apathy, cynicism, and depoliticization that mark U.S. electoral politics today; in fact, media executives sometimes use this lack of interest in politics to justify their declining attention to public affairs and their continuing coverage of trivial and mindless stories. However, it is also true that the lack of journalism has fanned the flames of depoliticization and contributed to U.S. electoral politics becoming a commercial contest sponsored by a small group of billionaires, in which most Americans rationally assume they have no role to play, or stake in the outcome. Presidential elections now draw, at best, no more than half of the electorate to the polls. They have become media entertainments, complete with graphics and play-by-play reports but bereft of any suggestion that citizens should or could-actually play any more of a role in this extravaganza than they do in the Super Bowl or the Academy Awards.

When a democracy considers whether to engage in war, the free flow of information is of dramatic significance: How can parents decide that they favor sending their sons and daughters off to fight when they lack adequate information about the causes, goals, and strategies of the proposed fight? How can citizens decide whether it is appropriate to reorder national economic priorities in order to fund an ongoing "War on Terror" when they do no even know the targets of that war? From World War I to Korea and Vietnam, presidents have lied to the American people because they believed that if the American people knew the truth, they would not support the move for war. The track record of the U.S. news media in the twentieth century is one of regularly going along with fraudulent efforts to get the nation into one war or another by the administration in power. These are considered the dark moments in the history of U.S. journalism. What is most striking in the U.S. news coverage following the September 11 attacks is how it followed this lamentable pattern. The most essential debate-the one about whether to go to war-never really occurred in Congress or the media. Tough questions were ignored. Why should we have believed that a militarized approach would be effective? Why was the United States entitled to determine-as judge, jury, and executioner-who is a terrorist or a terrorist sympathizer in this global war? What about international law?

Most conspicuous was the complete absence of comment on one of the most striking features of the war campaign- something that any credible journalist would be quick to observe were the events taking place in Russia or China or Pakistan. There are very powerful interests in the United States that greatly benefit politically and economically by t the establishment of an unchecked war on terrorism. This consortium of interests can be called, to use President Eisenhower's term, the military-industrial complex. It blossomed during the Cold War when the fear of Soviet imperialism-real or alleged-justified its creation and expansion. A nation with a historically small military now had a permanent war economy, and powerful special interests-private-sector defense contractors chief among them-that benefited by its existence.

For journalists to raise issues like these did not presuppose that they opposed government policies, merely that the policies needed to be justified and explained, so the support would be substantive, not ephemeral, the result of deliberation, not manipulation. Such has not been the case. Much of mainstream U.S. journalism was bluntly propagandistic in the weeks and months following September 11. As a result, most Americans supported a war, even though they knew next to nothing about the region where U.S. soldiers would be fighting, the historical context of the battles, | or the role that past military adventurism might have | played in stoking the resentments that feed international anger at the United States


... The main reason for this distorted coverage is due to the way in which so-called "professional" journalism is practiced in the United States. To avoid the taint of partisanship, and to keep costs low, professionalism makes official or credentialed sources the basis for news stories.

Reporters report what people in power say, and what they debate. This gives the news an establishment bias. Even when there is disagreement, the range of debate extends only as far as does the disagreement of those with a vested interest in limiting the scope of the discourse.

When a journalist reports what official sources are saying, or debating, she is considered "professional." When she steps outside this range of official debate to provide alternative perspectives or to raise issues those in power prefer not to discuss, she is no longer considered "professional."

In matters of international politics, "official sources" are almost interchangeable with the term "elites," as foreign policy is mostly a preserve of a wealthy and powerful few- C. Wright Mills's classic power elite. At its worst, in a case like the current war on terrorism, where the elites and official sources are unified on the core issues, the nature of our press coverage is uncomfortably close to that found in authoritarian societies with limited formal press freedom.

[In the] United States ... electoral laws and campaign costs have made politics a fiefdom for the superwealthy and those who represent the superwealthy. Over ninety percent of the "hard money" contributions to congressional and presidential campaigns come from the wealthiest one percent of Americans. By relying on official sources, our journalism does not pose a democratic challenge to plutocracy, but rather cements the plutocracy in place.

Tony Benn, British parliamentarian

"Broadcasting is too important to the functioning of a democracy for decisions to be left entirely to the broadcasters."

Platform of Canada's New Democratic Party, 2001

"Our democracy depends on the free flow of ideals and information. When that now is blocked, and our access to information is controlled by the few and the wealthy, our ability to make informed choices suffers, as does our democracy This is exactly what is happening as media conglomerates continue to increase their share of the communications market unfettered by government regulation or control... [A] healthy democracy demands an informed electorate. We need policies that limit media concentration and ensure a rich exchange of ideas. We believe that diversity of expression must be promoted through tax incentives to assist community groups, cooperatives, or entrepreneurs to invest in community media, and that newspaper owners should not also own broadcasting corporations."

Jose Ramos-Horta, Nobel Laureate, Minister of Foreign Affairs for East Timor

"There cannot be a democratic country, democratic society without freedom of the press."

America public life features little in the way of debate about the role a truly free and diverse media could play in shaping a truly free and diverse democracy. In other countries, however, media is treated as a core issue. Indeed, if there is a measure of the seriousness with which a nation ponders its potential to address fundamental issues, then that measure may well be found in the depth of its discussion about media and democracy.

Because of the obvious linkages between the corporate media system and the global economic system, media reform is seen by a growing number of activists around the world as a necessary part of any democratic political platform; rarely is it seen anymore as a "single issue" reform activity. In country after country, media reform is being integrated into the platforms, the campaigns, and the parliamentary initiatives of political parties that refuse any longer to operate in denial of the role that media plays in a democracy. This is absolutely essential for success; although media activism can and must assume many forms, it is when that

In the 1970s and 1980s, Labour cabinet ministers such as Tony Benn were in the forefront of a brief flurry of serious discussion about the role that the government might play in guaranteeing ideological diversity in print and broadcast media. Benn recalls sparking an intense national debate in the 1970s by declaring that "broadcasting is too important to the functioning of a democracy for decisions to be left entirely to the broadcasters." Benn's battle cry resonated with Labour party activists and media watchdogs who developed Britain's innovative Campaign for Press and Broadcast Freedom in 1979. Through the 1980s, the Labour party maintained an openness to the proposals of the Campaign for Press and Broadcast Freedom, which emphasized the need for strengthening the BBC, diversifying ownership of broadcast and print media, and challenging the supremacy of media conglomerates. As late as 1992, the Labour party continued to advocate for what by American standards would be considered radical reform of the media landscape. Its 1992 campaign platform contained a lengthy section on "The Media," which stated, "Labour wants a wider choice for listeners and readers in the broadcast and printed media. Promoting greater diversity and tackling concentration of ownership will ensure wider choice." That commitment was followed by specific proposals for full funding of the BBC, development of monopoly controls to

prevent concentration of ownership of newspapers and broadcast outlets, and a host of other plans.

As the l990s wore on, however, Labour became increasingly comfortable with big media. The political rise of Tony Blair and his "New Labour" allies saw the party that once decried corporate media as little more than a vehicle for recounting "the frivolous doings of the idle rich" move to the right of the Conservative Party of Margaret Thatcher and John Major on media issues. Labour's abandonment of its traditional stance created such a "topsy-turvy affair," according to British journalists Dan Glaister and Andrew Culf, that in 1996, "a Conservative government laid down a twenty percent threshold restricting newspaper groups from diversifying into television, while Labour united with rightwing Tory rebels to scrap the limits altogether." Effectively, Labour became the defender of media conglomeration and monopoly. Around the same time, Blair flew to Australia to meet with Rupert Murdoch, who soon after switched his mass-circulation Sun newspaper from an ardently Thatcherite Conservativism to a position of fervent support for Blair's "New Labour." By 1999, Blair was carrying Murdoch's water, using his role as British PM to advance Murdoch's business ambitions in both Italy and China.

With the rise of the Blair-generated "Third Way" ideology-characterized by its advocacy for market "solutions," free trade, and a diminished governmental role in regulation of the economy in general and corporations in particular- the old parties of the left have for the most part abandoned their commitment to challenging private media monopolies and to using governmental policies and spending to promote the sort of ideologically diverse media that sustains democracy. Germany's Gerhard Schroeder and a host of other leaders of social democratic parties have joined leaders of historically liberal parties, such as the American Democrats and the Canadian Liberals, in embracing a neoliberal, market-driven, corporation-defined, privatizing vision of government that Gregor Gysi, leader of Germany's rapidly growing Party of Democratic Socialism, accurately describes as an "unhistoric" politics in which "social justice and ecological sustainability are strangers."

"The old-line parties have abandoned the playing field. They have stopped fighting for social and economic justice, choosing instead to seek the favor of the corporations the people want them to be battling," says Svend Robinson, a New Democratic Party member of the Canadian parliament. "I don't know if there is any place where this is more evident than in battles over media monopoly, corporate conglomeration, and foreign control of our media."

As the old parties have made their peace with markets, corporate capital, globalization of the economy, and the media that these patterns produce, they have left a void. In country after country, that void is being filled by new political groupings that, as part of a broader critique of neoliberalism, are making noise about the dangers posed to democracy by corporatization of the discourse. Just as Green parties-many of which have embraced media reform proposals-forced nations to look anew at questions of environmental protection and sustainability in the 1980s, so these new-line parties are forcing media issues onto the agenda. "This is an issue that's emerging all over the world. It's a huge concern. People are genuinely alarmed that at the same time we're witnessing growing concentration of ownership of media we're also seeing massive cuts in publicly owned media. It's a double whammy," says Canada's Robinson. "This neoliberal, right-wing takeover of the media is something that people are aware of, and they don't like it. But the old-line parties aren't willing to address the issue. This is what is going to distinguish new-line parties all over the world-a willingness to talk frankly about issues of media control and to propose an alternative to what's happening. It's inevitable. After you've had somebody say to you for the thousandth time, 'How come we never hear about these issues in the media, 'you start to realize that the media itself is the issue."

Ben Bagdikian

"The inappropriate fit between the country's major media and the country's political system has starved voters of relevant information, leaving them at the mercy of paid political propaganda that is close to meaningless and often worse. It has eroded the central requirement of a democracy that those who are governed give not only their consent but their informed consent."

Michael Moore
"By the end of the millennium five men controlled the world's media. And the people rejoiced, because their TVs told them to.'

People for Better Television has been formed to enhance regulation of commercial broadcasting. Commercial Alert organizes campaigns against the commercialization of culture. The Center for Digital Democracy and the Media Access Project both work the corridors of power in Washington, struggling to win recognition of public-interest values under the most difficult circumstances imaginable. These groups have won some important battles, particularly on Internet privacy issues. Despite all their good work, however, the "range" of communication policy debate in Washington still tends to run all the way from GE to GM, to borrow a line from FAIR's Jeff Cohen. "The case for media reform is not being heard in Washington now," says U.S. Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-IL). "It is not easy to make the case heard for any reform these days; I'm having trouble getting the case for a right to vote heard. But it is especially hard on media reform. That's why we need to do more. I hear people everywhere complaining about the media, but we have yet to figure out how to translate those complaints into some kind of activist agenda that can begin to move Congress. There has to be more pressure from outside Washington for specific reforms. Members have to start hearing in their home districts that people want reform of the media."

In the United States, both the upper levels of the Republican and Democratic Parties are in the pay of the corporate media and communication giants.

There is no way around it: Structural media reform is mandatory if we are serious about addressing the crisis of democracy in the United States.

After talking with activists and legislators, reviewing the progress made in other countries, and seriously examining the political realities of America today, we see the following proposals as essential-though certainly not exclusive- starting points for mobilizing a media-reform agenda:

* Establish a full tier of low-power noncommercial community radio and television stations across the nation.

* Apply existing antimonopoly laws to the media and, where necessary, expand their reach to restrict ownership of radio stations to one or two per owner. Consider similar steps for television stations and moves to break the lock of newspaper chains on entire regions.

* Establish a formal study and hearings to determine fair media ownership regulations across all sectors.

* Revamp and supercharge public broadcasting to eliminate commercial pressures, reduce immediate political pressures, and serve communities without significant disposable incomes.

* Provide for a $200 tax credit that every taxpayer can use to apply their tax dollars to any nonprofit medium, as long as it meets Internal Revenue Service criteria. This tool would allow new low-power radio and television stations, as well as existing community broadcasters, labor union newspapers, and other publications to have the resources to provide serious news coverage and cultural programming.

* Lower mailing coats for nonprofit and significantly noncommercial publications.

* Eliminate political candidate advertising as a condition of a broadcast license; or require that a station must run for free ads of similar length from all the other candidates on the ballot immediately after a paid political ad by a candidate.

* Reduce or eliminate TV advertising to children under twelve.

* Decommercialize local TV news. In return for the grant of access to the airwaves, which makes media companies rich, require that those companies set aside an hour each day of commercial-free time for news programming, with a budget based on a percentage of the station's revenues. This would free journalists to do the job of informing citizens, and allow stations to compete on the basis of quality newsgathering as opposed to sensationalism.

* Revamp copyright laws to their intended goal: to protect the ability of creative producers to earn a living, and to protect the public's right to a healthy and viable public domain.

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