Networks of Power

Corporate TV's Threat to Democracy

by Dennis W. Mazzocco

South End Press, 1994, paper


We cannot begin to understand, much less cope with, the social breakdown that overhangs our age if our alarm system is not functioning. When our informational apparatus and its sources are unreliable, the communication principles that have served as guides to, and guarantees of, our security become reduced to rituals or apologetics.

Who in the United States, and how many, for example possess meaningful freedom of speech in the 1990s? Where, other than in a journalism textbook, can one find a truly free press? While these questions are troubling many people, their consideration should be - but at the present time is not - a high priority on the national agenda.

... the "for profit" U.S. media system exists first and foremost to capture an ever greater share of the $120 billion (or more) spent annually by U.S. corporations on advertising.

Today the U.S. broadcast media, both private and public, must continue to please a small group of banks, insurance companies, and giant institutional investor groups that also control billions of dollars in U.S. pension funds through their inter-locking ownership of corporate stock and government securities.

When government, corporate, or military power remain out of the control of ordinary citizens, no matter how profitable or efficient that may appear when "packaged" for the public's consumption, it is tyranny - whether it appears "friendly," "patriotic," "lawful and orderly," or "economically necessary." Media ownership remains the private domain of a privileged few in corporate America.

As the United States declined into debtor status in the 1970s, the information culture industry emerged as a prime source of economic growth. Through the power of U.S.-based transnational corporations, the Pentagon, and U.S.-dominated financial groups such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, U.S. financial leaders were able to maintain their leadership role in the postwar international political economy and domination over other nations' affairs in the name of U.S. "national security." The closer ties between the U.S. networks reflected the growing fusion of government, industry, and financial institutions which threatens a self-governing citizenry in the global, corporate-dominated economy. In 1975, the Trilateral Commission, composed of high-level bankers and industrialists from North America, Japan, and Western Europe, urged its members to promote oligarchic integration and greater press controls as a means to protect themselves against the "the excess of democracy" and the widespread political participation by "the general population."

As Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky make clear in Manufacturing Consent:

The Political Economy of the Mass Media, concentrated corporate media ownership works to narrow the limits on what is considered reasonable, responsible, or so-called objective reporting by journalists.

Herman and Chomsky state that most of the censorship by mainstream U.S. media organizations is self-censorship exercised by media workers who have been selected for their willingness to conform to the established rules and the existing political culture. Such behavior is encouraged among the rank and file within mainstream media organizations. Acting as an extension of state power, workers and managers learn | not to question the system or status quo.'

Making Media More Democratic

As the gatekeeper of "truth" in our media-driven society, corporate media conglomerates have the extraordinary power to marginalize dissident voices and discredit political opponents who may threaten their bottom line, even in a relatively minor way. In helping to "manufacture consent," concentrated media ownership continues to provide elite business interests with an awesome state propaganda apparatus for citizen thought control. Corporate media systems, even when they promise profits, prosperity, and freedom have remained steadfast in their opposition to citizen control of media.

Very few broadcast stations have ever been controlled by those who could be considered common or average working people. In nearly all U.S. cities, the most ~ powerful radio and TV stations have almost always been entrusted to the more "privileged" corporate citizens of the community-except during the early 1920's when for-profit broadcasting was largely viewed with suspicion in the United States.

... U.S. media monopoly and cartelization, the mark of elite ownership and control, have long been at work to prop up U.S. power throughout the world. It would be incorrect to think that the U.S.-based media cartel was not already monopolistic and inherently anti-democratic before the Reagan-Bush administrations took over in 1981.

Corporate manipulation, greed, and criminal misconduct did not start in the Reagan-Bush years; these evils are as old as U.S. monopoly capitalism. Over the last hundred years of industrial growth, private corporate monopolies have been regularly defended by government and business leaders as the most efficient means by which the country could ensure economic growth. Yet, the myth of serving the public interest through the private sector has more often served as a pretext to protect corporate interest, convenience, and necessity.

During the Reagan-Bush administrations, the FCC excused broadcasters from adhering to most rules and regulations protecting the public interest, "made it impossible for citizen groups to challenge renewal of station licenses, lifted limits on the number of stations that a single corporation could acquire," and gave broadcast owners permission to create giant monopolies.

In return, these media superpowers ... nearly always supported the Reagan-Bush foreign and domestic policies. With billions of dollars in future profits on the line, they provided positive reports on the social effects of deregulation, as well as on the need for government to provide corporations with unprecedented freedom to make windfall profits at the public's expense.

The Reagan and Bush administrations also did much to encourage the U.S.-dominated media cartel's evolution as a government and corporate propaganda instrument, limit domestic and foreign political dissent, ensure corporate control over the U.S. political economy, and maintain U.S. imperialist power abroad. The media monopoly of 1992 consisted of 20 communications conglomerates. In 1983, more than 50 such conglomerates existed.

The current corporate control of the media cannot be reduced until government is forced, through political action, to somehow shift the balance of media power in favor of common people. The average citizen has very little knowledge of decisionmaking at the networks. Media executives and their corporations, more than ever before in the history of U.S. broadcasting, are able to hide behind their first amendment rights in order to prevent greater citizen participation in their affairs.

James Curran, a British communication theorist who has written extensively about making access to media more politically, economically, and socially fair, notes this in his book Bending Reality: "The media accurately reflect and represent the prevailing structure and mode of power. It is in politics and the state, not in the media, that power is skewed."

Given the increasing separation of U.S. society along class lines and the continued reliance on the so-called free market system, it is unlikely that an advertiser-supported local or national media system could ever serve all citizens. Clearly, those who lack power in society also lack economic resources; and corporate-dominated media companies will tend to use their political, economic, and social clout to prevent a fairer and more just distribution of media resources. An exclusively privately-owned media will always seek to protect private profits and privilege.

It seems illogical to believe that a media system based on the so-called free enterprise system (actually a euphemism for "the use of privately or publicly owned property for private profit") could ever benefit the general public-those who do not already have a high level of disposable income or political-economic power-let alone empower them to make media more egalitarian, representative, or democratic.

A democratic media system ... is democratic only if it allows the nation's citizenry to be heard and seen with equal force and visibility.

... democratic media must have the freedom to communicate radical and unpopular ideas and opinions without fear of retribution by sponsors or the government.

George Orwell
"[True] liberty...means allowing people freely to say things you do not want to hear."

Ralph Nader
[We need to get] valid information in a timely fashion, be able to communicate to one another as citizens, and be able to mobilize to get action to recover our government, to have government of, by, and for the people instead of, by and for GM, DuPont, and Union Carbide ... Now we don't have television that is programmed for the people...We own the public airwaves, why should the tenants, the radio and TV stations, control it 24 hours a day?

Any attempt to make our media system more representative of the diverse interests and ideas of all of the citizenry must begin in our own local communities, at the grassroots level.

One idea would be to form a local media council in your local community, school, library, or religious group. Such a council should include representatives of all segments of the population: teachers, librarians, students, and parents; groups concerned with women, children, senior citizens, and gay and lesbian issues; people of color, church-based organizations; educational, health, environmental, legal, and other professional associations; local consumer groups and agencies; and any others who may already be committed to broadening the freedom and diversity of media communication in a local community. These community councils could also align themselves with journalists, artists, writers, actors, directors, and other workers seeking more creative expression and freedom

A media council would demand more time for community issues and concerns than is presently being offered by the local newspapers, cable systems, and radio or television stations that are supposed to be "serving" the community. Organized and coordinated letter-writing to the owners and managers of local and national media outlets, as well as their advertisers, can often be quite effective in bringing change.

In 1992, for example, Ralph Nader tried to convince Congress to force local cable companies to allow local, independent, and democratically controlled consumer action groups to insert messages into the residents' monthly bills. These notices could have described the goals of the consumer groups and allowed them to solicit funds and members. Such subscriber-consumer groups could have then monitored the policies and practices of their local cable company, and represented consumer interests in regulatory and legislative proceedings and with the cable companies directly.

Citing a highly successful model, the Citizen Utility Board (CUB), which has represented taxpayers in several states, Nader and other national consumer advocates contend that monopolistic public agencies could be forced to listen to citizen calls for more diversity. The most successful CUB (in Illinois) has 170,0u^0 members and its advocacy has saved the state's consumers some $2 billion over the past several years. Other CUBs exist in Wisconsin, Oregon, and San Diego." This public interest type of innovation, for example, could have been used nationwide to pressure local cable operators to include more political, economic, and social alternative programming on their local, supposedly "Public" access channels. At Nader's urging, Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass) added provisions to set up citizen cable councils as part of a legislative effort to re-regulate the U.S. cable industry. Markey's and Nader's efforts, however, were thwarted by a major political lobbying effort by the U.S. cable industry. The Senate later passed a much more watered down cable re-regulation bill in 1 w2 that continued to protect corporate profit-making over consumer rights.

To support more efforts such as Nader's plan for a more citizen-directed media, your local media council could also organize a community letter writing campaign to your own elected and appointed representatives in Congress, the White House, the FCC, and the Justice Department. Tell these officials that your community finds concentration of ownership in the media, public or private, to be unacceptable and undemocratic. Tell your elected representatives to demand that Congress, the FCC, and the FTC pass tougher legislation, and federal rules requiring broadcasters and cable systems to do annual community ascertainment of the needs and concerns of the local community and become more representative of the diversity of the audiences they serve. Force commercial broadcasters and cable operators to offer more educational, and socially progressive programming.

Organize public demonstrations of all local media to call attention to the excessive commercialization of media that drives out controversy or presents alternative viewpoints from being aired in broadcasts and cable programming. Such demonstrations and boycotts could be organized around specific themes such as calling for fewer commercials and less violence on children's television, the inclusion of more alternative views and opinions in your local newspaper, or more coverage of local political-economic issues on your local cable system.

... in the 1980s ... cable companies were empowered to make windfall profits by raising rates, and were released from most of their public-access obligations. In most U.S. cities, local cable public-access has become another extension of the huckster-driven marketplace. In many communities, local cable operators self-censor public-access in order to keep their cable systems free of controversy and potential local citizen or sponsor opposition. As a result, in many communities, local cable operators do not provide any kind of meaningful public-access service to the local community that they serve. In some cities, citizens who want to use the public-access facilities of their local cable operator must pay to be trained to use the equipment; a double charge since most are already cable customers.

Pacifica [radio service], a progressive alternative broadcasting service, began as an outgrowth of Pacifica's five stations across the country in Berkeley, New York, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, and Houston. Originally set up to be oppositional to the mainstream media, the Pacifica stations comprise the largest source of progressive alternative daily news in the country. Pacifica is non-commercial, non-governmental, and funded almost solely by its listeners. Pacifica's flagship station, KPFA(FM) in Berkeley, for example, regularly provides program topics that are traditionally excluded from the mainstream media feminism, ecology, homosexuality, racial equality, tenants, and immigrants' rights reform, unionism, and-war and and-imperialist foreign policy initiatives, and-nuclear movements, and other concerns.

Teaching media literacy is already required in the public schools of Australia, Canada, and Great Britain, and others are following in this direction.

Media literacy must be elevated to the same level of importance as the ability to read and write. In a democracy such as ours, where nearly 80 percent of citizens receive most of their news and information from television, one must know the structural limitations of the media system in order to become better informed and capable of making rational voting choices.

Media will always reflect the inequities of power within the political-economic system and also the level of democratic representation in the society at large; one cannot be divorced from the other.

... attacks on public broadcasting's funding have forced it to become an agent for social control, just like commercial mass media.

... Japan, Britain, Germany, France, and other capitalist democracies have adequately financed non-commercial systems of broadcasting as a "check and balance" to their commercial systems. The U.S. has failed to do so.

Today, public broadcasting continues to be dominated by elite interests and in no way can be considered representative of the U.S voting population.

Long thought of as a "check and balance" to commercial broadcasting, a closer look at "public" broadcasting in the U.S. shows that it caters to the corporate interest through sponsors and benefactors who have decisionmaking power over programming.

Jeff Chester, co-director of the Center for Media Education
"Almost the entire primetime of PBS is geared to be nothing more than commercials for the Fortune 500."

The PBS regular program schedule is almost totally dedicated to center to right-wing views.

C-SPAN remains totally funded by U.S. cable operators. C-SPAN's board of directors is similarly made up of U.S. cable industry executives.

... those who derive the most profit from the so-called public airwaves - the corporate powers that advertise and own media - should bear the brunt of financing a meaningful, alternative citizen free-speech media system in the U.S.

... media owners are permitted to use what are essentially public airwaves and cable channels to serve private corporate interests.

Broadcasters pay no fee (as of 1993) for the airwaves they use - either at the time of a station purchase, upon its sale, or on an annual basis - based on revenues the broadcasters are allowed to make at the public's expense. Cable operators, while they must pay a small percentage of their revenues to the local municipality that protects their monopolistic status, also have similar freedom to make huge profits at the public expense.

... when one considers that in addition to not being obligated to pay a significant portion of revenues back to the public, all media operators are also eligible to claim huge federal and state tax-deductions on programming costs as well as the interest on the debt to buy even more media properties, one realizes that the U.S. media monopoly that we currently have is a heavily subsidized public trust. Indeed, 100 percent of its profits go toward expanding private corporate empires that presently are under no obligation to fully disclose their finances or worldwide operations.

The social consequences arising from 70 years of so-called free broadcast media has already weakened democratic participation by average citizens.

There is less diversity of program choices today than there was before the FCC began to deregulate the U.S. broadcast sector in the late 1970s ...

George Orwell, in his novel 1984
"Who controls the present controls the past; who controls the past controls the future.

When the majority of the U.S. citizenry do not share in the ownership, control, and power of mass media, "democracy" and "freedom" become illusions, disguising corporate tyranny and totalitarianism.

Excerpted Books Page

Index of Website

Home Page