An interview with
Edward S. Herman & Robert W. McChesney, June
about their new book
The Global Media:
The New Missionaries of Corporate Capitalism
from the Internet
Edward S. Herman and Robert W. McChesney are two of the most
important critics of the global media scene. A Professor Emeritus
of Finance at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania,
and a contributor to Z Magazine since its founding in 1988, Edward
Herman is the author of numerous books, including a number of
corporate and media studies. These include Corporate Control,
Corporate Power (1981), the two volume Political Economy of Human
Rights (1979) and Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy
of the Mass Media (1988), both of which he co-authored with Noam
Chomsky, as well as The "Terrorism" Industry: The Experts
and Institutions That Shape Our View of Terror (1989), which he
co-authored with Gerry O'Sullivan. Robert McChesney is an Associate
Professor of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University
of Wisconsin, Madison. McChesney is the author of Telecommunications,
Mass Media and Democracy: The Battle for the Control of U.S. Broadcasting,
1928-1935 (1993), and more recently Corporate Media and the Threat
to Democracy (1997). Last summer, Cassell published their recent
collaboration, a study called The Global Media: The New Missionaries
of Corporate Capitalism.
PETERSON: You argue in The Global Media that before we'll
ever be able to understand what's new about the "global media,"
we'll need to understand the "institutions of global capitalism."
Well, what are the major institutions?
EDWARD HERMAN: The major institutions of global capitalism
are the transnational corporations (TNCs), the international organizations
formed to serve global capital or adapted to that service over
time, and the national governments that also work in the interest
of global capital. The most important of the international organizations
are the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, and World
Trade Organization (WTO), although there are many others. As global
capital has strengthened, more and more institutions are bent
to serve its interests, and an organization like the WTO, formed
under the GATT agreement in the late stages of this evolution,
is explicitly designed to serve the needs of global capital.
Global capital wants international trade and investment rights
to prevail over the desires of local populations. It also wants
to minimize welfare state expenditures, business tax burdens,
threats of inflation, union organization, and environmental constraints;
and the IMF, World Bank, and WTO strive to carry out these aims.
These organizations have a common set of goals, reflecting the
power of TNCs, transmitted to them by the national governments
serving the same interests.
Both in terms of the depth of the changes that have taken
place, and their rapidity, the past two decades have seen major
transformations in the nature of corporate capitalism. But which
changes have been the most important?
EH: The most important changes over the past several decades
have been corporate capitalism's increasingly global perspective
and reach, its increasing intolerance of welfare state commitments
and labor organization and the social contract, and its willingness
to attack these in various modes of intensified class warfare.
But the list continues. An increase in the centralization of economic
power, both within states and globally, at the same time has been
matched by an increasing competition between the media giants,
and by their willingness to attack rivals by crossing product
lines, vertically integrating, and invading one another's territories.
And whether national or transnational, corporate capital has
a certain ideology, a veil that surrounds it that helps it to
justify its consequences to its victims.
EH: That's right. The main element in corporate ideology is
the belief in the sublimity of the market and its unique capacity
to serve as the efficient allocator of resources. So important
is the market in this ideology that "freedom" has come
to mean the absence of constraints on market participants, with
political and social democracy pushed into the background as supposed
derivatives of market freedom. This may help explain the tolerance
by market-freedom lovers of market-friendly totalitarians-Pinochet
A second and closely related constituent of corporate ideology
is the danger of government intervention and regulation, which
allegedly tends to proliferate, imposes unreasonable burdens on
business, and therefore hampers growth. A third element in the
ideology is that growth is the proper national objective, as opposed
to equity, participation, social justice, or cultural advance
and integrity. Growth should be sustainable, which means that
the inflation threat should be a high priority and unemployment
kept at the level to assure the inflation threat is kept at bay.
The resultant increasingly unequal income distribution is also
an acceptable price to pay.
Privatization is also viewed as highly desirable in corporate
ideology, following naturally from the first two elements-market
sublimity and the threat of government. It also tends to weaken
government by depriving it of its direct control over assets,
and therefore has the further merit of reducing the ability of
government to serve the general population through democratic
processes. It is of course a coincidence that privatization yields
enormous payoffs to the bankers and purchasers participating in
the sale of public assets.
The Global Media characterizes the United States as "the
country in which market domination of the media has been most
extensive and complete." Tell me what, exactly, it means
for the "market" to "dominate" the media?
ROBERT McCHESNEY: It means that capitalists control the media
and they do so to maximize profits, often through selling advertising
to other large corporations. In most other nations there has been
a long tradition of having a large segment of the media-especially
broadcasting-removed from commercial control and operated by some
sort of nonprofit, noncommercial agency. But it was not exclusively
broadcasting. In Scandinavia there has been the practice of subsidizing
newspapers and magazines to keep alive diverse points of view.
Left to the market, the media system tends to produce a narrow
range of viewpoints that comports to those of the upper class,
and commercial pressures also downplay public affairs and journalism.
In the current era of neoliberalism all of these subsidies
for diverse print media and for nonprofit broadcasting are under
attack. Around the world the trend is toward predominately commercial
systems. In Germany and Sweden, for example, the public broadcasters
have seen their audience shares cut in half in the 1990s, as they
face new competition from the proliferation of commercial channels
on cable and satellite systems. The British Broadcasting Corporation,
arguably the most successful public broadcaster in the world,
has effectively become a full blown commercial enterprise in its
global operations. It is a partner with the U.S. cable company
TCI and some of TCI's subsidiaries. The BBC recognizes that it
will eventually see its public subsidy cut so it hopes that by
becoming profitable outside of Britain it can continue to be a
noncommercial venture in the UK. The jury is out on that strategy,
but on the surface it seems like the logic of commercialism should
soon permeate every aspect of the BBC's being.
Your book also characterizes the U.S. media model as an "outlier"-one
that goes beyond any other country's in institutionalizing private
ownership of the means of communications in profit-seeking corporations
whose major source of revenue, and therefore survival, derives
from the advertising dollars of other corporations. How did the
U.S. model come about?
RM: Well, the one thing we know for sure is that the current
U.S. system is a 20th century development. But it is nothing like
the media system we had during the first few generations of the
republic. The press system of the early republic was highly partisan
and not especially profitable. Many of the major newspapers were
subsidized by political parties or by the government through printing
contracts. The current system evolved gradually as a commercial
entity. By the early part of this century it had become dominated
by large firms operating in oligopolistic markets, and advertising
had emerged as an important source of revenues. This all followed
the logic of capitalism: firms get bigger and eliminate competition
to enhance their profitability and reduce risk.
In the past generation the two crucial developments for U.S.
media firms is that they have conglomerated and globalized. By
conglomeration I mean that the largest media firms all have major
holdings in several different media sectors, like film and TV
show production, cable TV channels, music production, book publishing,
magazine publishing, retail stores, etc. Firms found they had
to be conglomerates or they could not compete with their rivals.
Globalization refers to the fact that the media industry may be
at the forefront of the process of globalization. Firms like Disney
and Time Warner did just over 10 percent of their business abroad
in 1990 and will do around one-third of their business abroad
in 1997. Sometime in the next decade they expect to do a majority
of their business outside of the United States.
It is worth noting that the American people did not accept
the development of the corporate media system without opposition.
There were significant protests. Partially as a result of this
came the professionalization of journalism, that is, the notion
that the news would be provided by trained objective professionals
who could not be influenced by media owners or advertisers. In
addition, in the 1930s there was a fairly widespread movement
to establish a nonprofit and noncommercial radio broadcasting
system. It collapsed following the passage of the 1934 Communications
Act, which was pushed through with minimal publicity by the powerful
Hand-in-hand with the U.S. media model goes an ideology that
states that thanks to First Amendment guarantees of "freedom
of speech or of the press," neither the government nor the
public have any more than a very weak, if any, right to interfere
with the free speech of the corporations that own the media. Has
this belief always been as widely held as it seems to be today?
RM: No. Not at all. This is a recent development, one that
has much more to do with the power of corporations than it does
with the First Amendment or democratic theory. In the early 1940s,
when the U.S. Supreme Court first considered whether advertising
should be exempt from any government regulation on the grounds
that advertising was protected by the First Amendment, the Court
voted 9-0 that advertising was not covered by the First Amendment.
This was a court that had several right-wingers who detested the
New Deal and government regulation. It was seen as absurd that
selling something for a profit should be equated with political
speech and democracy. Over the past 50 years the matter has shifted
and now the Supreme Court has extended the First Amendment to
cover advertising in significant ways. This reflects the power
of corporations in our society.
The irony of course is that advocates of this "extension"
of the First Amendment argue that the more that is protected from
the government, the more freedom there will be and the more likely
democracy will prosper. But these proponents have an idiotic,
untenable, and myopic view of where power lies in our society.
Extending the First Amendment to advertising removes it, as well
as corporate power, as legitimate political topics and shrinks
the range of political debate to an ever-narrower scope.
The ACLU is the most egregious in this regard. It might as
well set up its headquarters on Wall Street because its silly
view that there is no reason for public concern about private
control over media plays directly into the hands of the largest
media firms. In the 1930s Morris Ernst, Roger Baldwin, and Norman
Thomas pushed the ACLU in a far more enlightened direction. They
argued that corporate commercial control over broadcasting significantly
prevented the coverage of public affairs and discriminated against
pro-labor and anti-business perspectives. They argued that establishing
a viable democratic nonprofit, noncommercial broadcasting system
was a First Amendment issue for the ACLU. The ACLU even had a
radio committee that lobbied Congress to take control of broadcasting
away from capitalists and advertisers. But when the movement failed,
the ACLU gradually moved toward its present position of accepting
the corporate system as the appropriate model for democracy. But
the ACLU did not adopt this modern position because of principled
debate; rather, it was adopted due to the admitted inability to
defeat the corporate media giants on Capitol Hill. But I doubt
anyone at the ACLU today knows this history. To them it seems
that protecting corporate power to make money and dominate society
is the purpose of the First Amendment and the cornerstone of a
Your book calls the U.S. Telecommunication Act of 1996 the
"single most important law" affecting not only U.S.
telecommunications, but global telecommunications as well. How
RM: The 1996 U.S. Telecommunications Act specifically is a
global law because, by providing for the deregulation of U.S.
markets, it permits the dominant firms to get considerably larger
through mergers and acquisitions. And the dominant U.S. firms
provide a majority of the dominant global firms. So other countries
are now facing a larger and more powerful set of firms, like the
merged Nynex-Bell Atlantic, and the proposed merger of AT&T
and SBC Communications. All of the media firms have gotten bigger
in the past year too.
It is worth noting that the 1996 Telecom Act was rushed through
Congress with almost no debate. There was virtually no press coverage
outside of the business press and almost no public participation.
The only debate concerned which sector-long distance telephone,
local telephone, computer firms, broadcasters, or cable companies-would
get the best deals in the legislation. That a handful of corporations
were being granted the right to rule the entire range of our communication
system to maximize profit with almost no strings attached was
simply not subject to debate. That's because all the interested
parties agreed on that as a given and the public was not invited
to the debate.
This was an incredibly corrupt law. The Internet was never
discussed at all, but this is the law that provides for the commercial
development of cyberspace. The broadcasters, for example, snuck
a clause into the law requiring the FCC to give them free spectrum
for digital broadcasting. This was outrageous. Even the other
communication firms have to pay for the use of their spectrum
for the most part. It is incumbent on us to get another telecom
bill passed, one that reflects the public interest.
Another major theme of your book is that, much as the rest
of the world is moving towards or being pushed towards a socio-economic
model similar to that in the United States, so, too, the rest
of the world's media are being pushed towards a model similar
to that found in the United States.
EH: Yes, and the two processes are closely linked. The socio-economic
model is one of market hegemony, minimal state provision, the
supplanting of the citizen by the consumer, and a commercial media
providing the entertainment-cum-advertising culture appropriate
to the socio-economic model. In much of the rest of the world
public broadcasting has been important, so that one of the crucial
global struggles in recent years has been over the status of public
broadcasting. Public broadcasting has been under steady attack
by the dominant forces of global capitalism and is being weakened
and displaced by commercial, advertising-based media.
The spread of the U.S. media model to the rest of the world
is weakening their public broadcasting systems in countries where
these are important, and strengthening the commercial media and
the domination of advertisers in shaping media performance and
standards. What it means for the rest of the world is more light
entertainment, sex and violence on TV, and a lightening up of
other media forms, with a parallel weakening of the public sphere-hard
news, investigative reporting and documentaries, debates on public
and community issues, enlightening children's programs, and the
like. The rest of the world can look forward to a growing culture
of entertainment and perhaps, in Neil Postman's phrase, "amusing
themselves to death."
The U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky cheered
last February's signing of the telecommunications agreement at
the World Trade Organization as "one of the most important
trade agreements of the 21st Century." Then she added: "U.S.
companies are the most competitive telecommunications providers
in the world. They are in the best position to compete and win
under this agreement." Might Barshefsky's elation tell us
something else about the nature of the agreement?
EH: Yes. The telecommunications agreement of last February
is a coup for powerful global providers of telecom services. It
is essentially a market opening agreement, with clear benefits
to the big boys who can participate, less clear benefits to the
consumers and societies in the countries opening their doors.
There may be efficiency gains, but there may be reduced universality
of service, greater unregulated monopoly power, and a loss of
In Latin America a similar process was crucial in bringing
about the domination of commercial broadcasting and assuring that
the European model of strong public broadcasting did not prevail.
From the earliest years U.S. equipment manufacturers, advertisers,
broadcasters, and publishers pushed the governments of the region
toward commercial systems, so that public broadcasting was marginalized
or never came into existence at all, preempted by a commercial
system, as in Brazil.
The experience of Brazil was a telling one. In our book we
characterize it as a case of "media neo- and sub-imperialism."
As just noted, a commercial system was installed from the beginning,
with U.S. help and under U.S. pressure. By the early 1960s, U.S.
transnationals already had a major presence in the Brazilian economy,
Brazil's media included. In the years prior to the 1964 coup,
Brazil's media had been heavily penetrated by U.S. economic and
political agents. The O Globo newspaper, Brazil's largest, was
receiving infusions of cash from Time-Life, and may have been
CIA-controlled. Time-Life justified its invasion of the Brazilian
media by the need to combat what it referred to as "Castroism."
Following the 1964 coup, the Globo media empire was born and
grew to virtual monopoly status. The junta supported Globo financially
and in regulatory practice, and the media giant served the military
and Brazilian elite well. During the dozen years following the
coup, Brazil's commercial media system was consolidated and integrated
into the global system. Ad-based and concentrated, this system
is a servant of the Brazilian elite and is destined to inculcate
the individualist, consumerist ideology of the neoliberal order.
India provides an important contrasting example. There, the
British model was imported and a public broadcasting system was
imposed and became a heritage of the colonial system after the
British exit. Admittedly, its performance has not been inspiring,
but it is regrettable to see it being commercialized rapidly without
having realized the potential of a more autonomous public broadcasting
system such as developed in the imperial country.
A little earlier, Ed Herman mentioned the "public sphere,"
a concept that you use widely in your book, and that you draw
from the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas. You write that by
the "public sphere," you mean "all the places and
forums where issues of importance to a political community are
discussed and debated, and where information is presented that
is essential to citizen participation in community life."
But your analysis is anything but sanguine about the fate of the
public sphere in the United States.
EH: We are definitely not optimistic at this juncture. The
U.S. model entails a displacement of the public sphere with entertainment.
Advertisers don't like public sphere programs, which do not provide
a good selling environment and do not draw as heavily as mayhem
and sex. We have a 70-year record in this country of the gradual
abandonment of "public service" programming under the
pressure of market interest.
Contrary to the claims of the market beneficiaries of this
transformation, it has not been catering to "what consumers
want," because a very substantial minority want public service
programs, and many others believe that such programs ought to
be available. It's what proprietors and advertisers want. The
corporate system prefers a culture of entertainment and light
news mixed with serviceable propaganda to a public sphere that
would address serious issues.
So, in your eyes, corporate control and manipulation pose
a serious anti-democratic threat?
EH: Yes. But the real problem isn't "manipulation."
The real problem lies in the normal operations and effects that
corporate media have on the public sphere, and with the structural
changes now going on, which are putting in place profoundly undemocratic
arrangements. The Enlightenment project is one of people moving
into control of their lives, winning their emancipation through
knowledge and action, whereas transnational media corporations
want the conditions that have prevailed in the United States for
decades to extend everywhere, with people treated strictly as
audiences to be sold to advertisers. The contradiction between
the project of the Enlightenment and the project of transnational
media corporations is immense. The global media are carrying out
what we might call an "entertainment revolution" which
is implemented strictly from above. They are surely not agents
of a democratic "information revolution."
And therefore contrary to Nicholas Negroponte, Alvin Toffler,
Newt Gingrich, and a host of other luminaries who praise the democratic
miracles awaiting us on the Information Superhighway. The two
of you would argue that, given the current political climate in
the United States (not to mention the rest of the world), the
"egalitarian potential" of the "media revolution"
isn't likely to be realized.
RM: That's correct. Although some technologies-like digital
communication, say-have immense influence over societies, they
do not have magical powers. Unless there is explicit social policy
to develop cyberspace as a noncommercial, nonprofit entity, it
is going to be taken over by the most powerful elements in our
society. That is exactly what is happening. The largest computer,
telecom, and media firms are doing everything in their considerable
powers to see the Internet brought within their empires. A telling
sign was Microsoft's purchase of WebTV and its billion dollar
investment in Comcast, the cable TV company. Right now the smart
money seems to be betting that the Internet can be used as a commercial
entertainment medium like television, in addition to being a business
tool and a place for commerce.
All that stuff from a few years ago about how the Internet
was going to create some democratic Valhalla and eliminate the
corporate communication giants might as well as have been written
in the 15th century. That is just nonsense. The Internet is becoming
a hierarchical commercial entity. Some people will have full service,
others lower-grade service, and still others none at all. Yet,
at the same time, the Internet is a remarkable and revolutionary
tool for activists. It will continue to be just that. But we cannot
extrapolate from the activist experience to the society as a whole.
Not unless we get policies to enforce that as a goal.
"The ultimate goal [of media activists]," The Global
Media concludes, "must be the establishment of a global,
nonprofit public sphere to replace, or at least complement, the
global commercial media market." But that sounds far more
utopian than practical. Doesn't it?
RM: To the contrary, I think that the most utopian notion
is that the market system can ever provide the basis for a democratic
society. Everywhere across the world democratic left parties and
movements are battling neoliberal "free market" policies.
In almost all cases these democratic forces have highlighted taking
control of the media from corporations and advertisers as central
to the project of building a democratic society. In Sweden, New
Zealand, Australia, India, Brazil-the list goes on and on-there
are viable left parties and movements that are talking about ways
to build and develop nonprofit, noncommercial, and democratically
accountable media systems. They are finding considerable popular
support for these positions. In view of the global trend toward
a commercial media system there is every reason to believe this
will be an area of democratic political activity. Can they succeed?
Who knows, but what other choice is there? When you see the scope
of these activities, you become decidedly optimistic.
The United States is the laggard in media activism. So, based
here in the most depoliticized society on earth-with the possible
exception of Russia-it is easy to think social change is impossible.
But even here there has been tremendous growth in media activism
and political activism in the 1990s. Perhaps the period we are
in now is like the civil rights movement in the early 1950s, when
it appeared to be quiescent but in fact we now know it was laying
the foundation for the great victories to follow. At any rate,
I think the best has yet to come.
Edward Herman page