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Austin Chronicle Our Dubious Times

Media Giants Bad for Democracy

By Lee Nichols

OCTOBER 18, 1999:  When the recent mega-merger of CBS and Viacom was announced, the news media dutifully gave us most of the details -- how the move would affect the companies' stockholders, what it would mean for their marketing abilities, and how they would stack up against the other media giants.But the most important issue went undiscussed -- what the merger would mean for democracy. As merger after merger takes place in the media industry, the power to control our flow of information gets concentrated in fewer and fewer hands -- hands which have uniformly similar interests. So the idea that such mergers might actually be a bad thing just isn't brought up.

Fortunately, there are voices outside this corporate world that are willing to speak up. Robert W. McChesney, a communications professor at the University of Illinois, has a good deal to say on the subject, and does so quite articulately in his new book, Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Times (University of Illinois Press, $32.95 hard).

McChesney's book is literally half political polemic and half history book, both parts squarely aimed at debunking myths. In Part I, the notions that the giants have attained their status fairly by giving the public what they want, that corporate journalism is vigilantly guarding democracy, and that the Internet will bring the big boys to their knees all fall under McChesney's cleaver. In Part II, he examines the history of broadcasting, strikes down the belief that our commercial media system is inevitable and natural, and calls for the left to put media reform -- particularly of our publicly owned airwaves -- high on its agenda.

Rich Media stands poised to become the most important study on this subject since Ben Bagdikian's seminal The Media Monopoly (1983). Here's an excerpt of a conversation The Austin Chronicle had with McChesney last week.


The Austin Chronicle: A lot of people who have our traditional American way of thinking might look at the success these companies have had and just say, "So what? Good for them. Success is the American Dream." What's wrong with this line of thought?

Robert McChesney: When you look at how these firms work, it's important to understand that these markets that these firms dominate, this was not done in some independent free market, done by these heroic entrepreneurs duking it out, lowering prices, improving product quality, doing all the things we're told in the mythology that free-market entrepreneurs do to get rich. In fact, the system is the direct result of government subsidies, regulations, and deregulations that were put through by the government to create the system. These are socialist billionaires in a way. They've gotten rich due to the public subsidizing them, due to the public allowing them to have these aggregations of power, purely due to policies.

And the policies were enacted, almost without exception, without any public participation. The relevant laws that were passed that have created this media system and made these massive giants possible has been done in darkness. The Telecom Act of 1996 is a classic case, in which the most important clauses of that act as far as media are concerned -- giving away the broadcast spectrum for digital television, relaxing the ownership requirements on radio to allow for what's been the complete turnover of our radio system in the past three years -- were not even debated -- There was no public discussion whatsoever.

So the argument that if these firms get rich, more power to them, I guess only a true cynic could take that position. Sort of like a "They stole it fair and square" attitude. I don't think that really is an American tradition. That is a cynical tradition. The American tradition I respect, that that question comes from, is that if someone earns something fair and square, why can't they keep it? They haven't earned this fair and square.


AC: You complain about the reduced number of competitors in the media, but people might say that we still have these big giants slugging it out with each other. Isn't this still competition?

RM: It is competition. CBS and NBC aren't holding hands, they're slugging it out, just like you suggest. The difference is simply this, and this is Economics 101: These are not competitive markets in the economic sense of the term, meaning that if their profits are very high, new entrants can enter the market and actively compete, bringing down the prices and improving quality. That's how free markets are supposed to work.

That type of competition has nothing to do with media markets whatsoever. These are highly concentrated, oligopolistic markets in which it's virtually impossible to enter an existing, mature media market. So that ease of entry which is the foundation of having a truly competitive market doesn't exist. Just the sheer size creates economies of scale that make it absurd for someone to try to ram into these markets.


AC: What's the biggest danger of the U.S.-style media system going global?

RM: There are a lot of problems with it, but fundamentally, if you're looking at it from the perspective of someone living in another country, the problem is that their means of communication and journalism are increasingly not only in foreign hands, but more importantly in the hands of people who are driven to maximize profit at a global level regardless of what that means for that particular country. As a result, what you see in countries around the world is, the sort of problems we have in the United States that I outline in the book are also emerging elsewhere. Which means, for example, hypercommercialism of culture, hypercommercialism of children's programming in particular. In a lot of countries and societies around the world that really haven't had that much exposure to commercialism, especially on television, it means a real dimunition in the quality and caliber of journalism.


AC: You criticize John Leonard, writing in The Nation, for what you called his "patronizing contempt for popular taste," but aren't you just as contemptuous? For example, when you say that "supply creates demand" in our modern media system, aren't you saying the masses can't think for themselves?

RM: No, let me explain that. It's part of a broader discussion of this notion of the media giants claiming "Don't blame us for what we're doing, we're just giving the people what they want. If you think it's moronic, that's because the people are morons. If they wanted better stuff, we'd gladly give it to them. It would be in our interests; we'd make more money." Which makes sense at a certain level. It's highly plausible. It's hard to argue with that. It's one of their primary defenses of the existing order.

My argument is that it is a much more complex relationship than that. First of all, they give the people what they want within the range of what they can make the most money on, which is oftentimes is a far narrower range than what people would like to select from. But if there are only handful of companies and there is not much competition, they have a lot of power to pick what range of the pie you get to pick from, and it's a fairly narrow range. Then, of course, when you start consuming what you're given to pick from, they say they're giving you what you want.

Also, markets are based on one dollar, one vote. So people with lots of money get lots of votes, people with no money get a lot less votes or no votes. Is that the best system for journalism? I don't think anyone who is serious about journalism would say yeah, that's the rational way to accord your journalism, serve it up to the people with the most money in a democracy.


AC: You call for debate about the Internet before the commercial interests get entrenched. Isn't it already too late for that?

RM: Yeah, the toothpaste might be out of that tube. But the sooner we have the debate, the better.


AC: You berate the notion that the Internet is above any kind of regulation. Why do you disagree with that idea?

RM: I don't know if it can be regulated, but I know if we don't talk about it, it won't be. No one knows for sure. But I do know for sure that if we accept that, it will be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But it will be regulated. Oh, it's gonna be regulated. The regulations are being discussed and debated right now. In fact, in the last month, a group of global media and computer companies -- Bertelsman, Time Warner, all the media giants -- formed a group to set up self-regulation of the Internet globally so that there won't be any government regulation. And you can imagine, are those really the people who should be deciding how the Internet is going to be run? Those kind public citizens are willing to do it for us behind closed doors. So there's going to be regulation; there has to be regulation. It's just a question of who's going to be doing it on whose behalf.


AC: Walter Cronkite and Bill Moyers were recently in town and trumpeting a media reform message very similar to yours. They practically sounded like they were quoting out of your book.

RM: Bill Moyers has been a very wonderful supporter of mine. He has tremendous courage saying what he's doing, because most people in his position would be just sucking up to some big corporation to back their TV show and live in a mansion. He's really going out on a limb.


AC: Is having people like Cronkite and Moyers pushing this message drawing attention to these issues, or are they just being marginalized as well?

RM: There has been a 180-degree change in journalists' perception of their craft in the last 15 years. A Cronkite never would have done this, or a Moyers even, in 1982. Part of the function of professional journalism, and why it was so successful for so long for the second half of the century, was to make journalists believe they had all this power, and to make them arch-defenders of the status quo and quite sensitive, hyper-sensitive, to any challenges of the way the media system works. And you really see a dramatic shift in that in the late 1980s and especially by the 1990s, where journalists realize the prerogatives they thought they had, they don't really have. They see that the type of journalism they thought they were going to be doing, they aren't really doing, and they understand more clearly than ever that it's directly related to the way the system is structured. -- What are these firms doing to journalism? Why aren't journalists outraged? Well, what I argue is that good journalism is bad business, pure and simple, and bad journalism, sometimes, can be very, very good business. You barely see any real journalism.

Real journalism should be an aggressive accounting of the affairs of the people in power, and also the people that want to be in power. Plus, the journalism system -- not each media, but the system overall -- should provide a fair and legitimate accounting of the diverse range of views on the important social issues. That's what you should get out of your media system in a democracy. Our media system is averse to any of that, because rigorous investigation of people in power is very expensive, time-consuming, and dangerous. It's very bad for the bottom line. Investigative journalism of corporate power or government power, especially government power that helps rich people, like the military or the CIA or the Federal Reserve Board, is pretty much off-limits. -- And if I were a shareholder in one of these companies, I'd approve of it, if I was only out to make money. I'd say thank God for this, this is smart business. But it's bad for citizens.


Lessons Lost

As mentioned, Walter Cronkite and Bill Moyers visited the University of Texas on Oct. 1 to help their old college newspaper, The Daily Texan, celebrate its 100th birthday. The two veteran newsmen brilliantly excoriated the corporate takeover of the mainstream media, which might explain why Moyers offers a plug for McChesney on the inside flap of Rich Media.

Not surprisingly, a number of other Texan alumni were all too happy to serve as apologists for the status quo, deriding Cronkite and Moyers' ideas while staying obediently reverent to the status of the keynote speakers. Mark Morrison, now managing editor of Business Week, made the absurd assertions that journalism is now more competitive than ever before and that the media has "a left-wing" tilt. Following the latter claim, Moyers rushed up to the question-and-answer mike and challenged Morrison, pointing out that 90 percent of talk radio is nothing but right-wing nuts. Had the Q&ammp;A session not ended before I could get to the mike, I would have asked Morrison, "What color is the sky in your world?"

Also not surprisingly, our town's corporate media made a big deal over Cronkite and Moyers' appearances, but said almost nothing about their message. The TV stations merely showed footage of the birthday cake, and the Austin American-Statesman only offered soundbite-sized snippets of their criticisms.


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