excerpts from the book
The Decline and Fall of
by David Barsamian
South End Press, 2001
Thomas Jefferson said, "The information of the people at
large can alone make them safe." What will happen to democracy
if a handful of corporations own, mint, and distribute that information?
Monopoly control of media and the means to deliver information
are serious threats to democracy.
"[The media corporations] intricate global interlocks create
the force of an international cartel. Power over the American
mass media is flowing to the top with ... devouring speed."
The outcomes that Bagdikian describes are happening because the
two political parties and governmental agencies are basically
captives of the media corporations and genuflect before them.
Public broadcasting [was] established in 1967 during the Johnson
Administration ... The founding charter, written by powerful U
S. businessmen and philanthropists, called for the public broadcasting
system to "be a forum for debate and controversy" and
"provide a voice for groups in the community that may otherwise
Today, most journalists comfort the comfortable and afflict the
afflicted. They have become overpaid stenographers to power who
compete for the best hair on the air. Instead of watchdogs, they
According to a study done by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting
(FAIR), "Representatives of organized citizen groups and
public interest experts made up only 7 percent of NPR sources
Susan Douglas, media analyst
I think NPR knows that all you have to do is get one or two ...
[progressive]voices on and a small, and I mean small, but very
vocal and influential minority, will start raising hell about
the left-wing bias of NPR.
Susan Douglas, media analyst
Labor? Do we have a working class in this country? You don't see
or hear them.... The dominant image of the labor union ... is
some fat, corrupt bureaucratic institution. There's no countervailing
imagery that shows what working-class life is like.... What we
see and hear is an upper middle-class white view of the world
that represents probably five percent of the population.
The Republican revolution that took control of Congress that has
absolutely turned politics upside down in this country.
In the legislation adopting the Carnegie recommendations, Congress
created the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), a nonprofit,
nongovernmental corporation. CPB is the conduit for federal monies,
which provides funding support to more than 1,000 public television
and radio stations across the country. It does not produce programs,
but with its hand on the till, it wields considerable power and
influence over public broadcasting.
The Carnegie Report ... proposed that funding for this new entity
[CPB] be protected from political influence. The report foresaw
that if the purse strings were controlled by Congress, then their
independence would be threatened, stating: "We would free
the Corporation to the highest degree from the annual governmental
budgeting and appropriations procedures: the goal we seek is an
instrument for the free communication of ideas in a free society.''
However, Congress rejected the commission's advice to provide
forward funding for public broadcasting. ... It wanted to keep
the new endeavor on a tight leash.
... in the United States, from its inception, the relatively
small budget of the public broadcasting system has been hostage
to Congress and the White House.
... virtually since its inception there has been constant political
pressure to temper public broadcasting and to control its content.
One method has been through "flak," consistently pressuring
public radio and television through the incessant canard that
they have a left-wing bias. It started with Nixon in the 1 970s.
In the 1980s, NPR was accused of being "Radio Managua on
"What is emerging is not public television but government
television shaped by politically conscious appointees whose desire
to avoid controversy could turn CPB into the Corporation for Public
In its pitch to potential advertisers, PBS encourages businesses
Learn how PBS Sponsorship can help your corporate message
stand out from the clutter of commercial advertising-and reach
your target audience! Through sponsoring PBS programming such
as Talking Money with Jean Chatzky, Clifford the Big Red Dog,
and Washington Week, you not only build your brand and enhance
your marketing, you also become associated with the high public
image of PBS.
New York Times' commentator Walter Goodman
"Advertising of any sort runs smack against the ideal of
public broadcasting as an oasis in a desert of marketing."
He decries "the commercials that have grown like sores on
this purportedly noncommercial endeavor."
George Washington University School of Business and Public Management
professor Thomas Nagy unearthed official documents from the Defense
"proving beyond a doubt that, contrary to the Geneva
Convention, the U.S. government intentionally used sanctions against
Iraq to degrade the country's water supply after the Gulf War.
The United States knew the cost that civilian Iraqis, mostly children,
would pay, and it went ahead anyway."
Who is funding public radio and TV? Archer `Daniels Midland, ExxonMobil
Corporation, Metropolitan Life, Salomon Smith Barney, and other
Fortune 500 companies...
These leading "donors" are major corporations that
have a huge investment in the economy, and can use their economic
power to leverage program content. Independent producers who approach
PBS and NPR for airtime get a much warmer reception when they
have an underwriting package in hand. Overwhelmingly, programs
that will attract and please corporate underwriters and crucially,
won't rock the ideological boat, get access to the airwaves.
Here and there, programming that challenges conventional wisdom
gets on PBS or NPR, such as Bill Moyers's "Surviving the
Good Times," about two families in Milwaukee affected by
plant closures during the highly celebrated U.S. "miracle
economy" in the 1990s, or the occasional probing documentary
on "P.O.V." But they are the exception and are increasingly
Corporate advertising poses one set of problems for public
broadcasting. The ideological and political climate that informs
the content of programs is yet another concern. A mandarin caste
of milquetoasts at each station-only a handful of people, and
sometimes just one individual-decides what gets on the air. They
are acting as gatekeepers, deciding what we will see and hear.
Let me give you some examples. In 1993, PBS aired "The
Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power," a series
funded by Paine Webber, a company with petrochemical oil interests.
The main analyst of the series was Daniel Merging, a consultant
to major oil companies. Almost every expert featured was a defender
of the oil industry. That same year, PBS aired a documentary called
"James Reston: The Man Millions Read," a rather flattering
profile about the New York Times columnist. The film was funded
by and produced in association with the New York Times, Reston's
long-time employer. The director and producer of the film was
Susan Dryfoos, a member of the Sulzburger family, which owns the
New York Times, and the daughter of a former Times publisher.
Conflict of interest? Fahggeddaboudit.
Occasionally, you may see a cutting edge documentary on your
local PBS station, like Jeremy Brecher and Tim Costello's film,
narrated by Edward Asner, on the race to the bottom in labor and
environmental standards caused by globalization. "Global
Village or Global Pillage?" aired on Connecticut Public Television
in 2000, but has not been shown in other markets. If PBS doesn't
give something its benediction for national broadcast, then it's
unlikely that individual stations will break from the network
and broadcast a progressive documentary.
Certainly the issue is not a lack of quality programming.
In 1995, an Academy Award-winning documentary short on domestic
violence by Margaret Lazarus and Renner Wunderlich, "Defending
Our Lives," was rejected at PBS. "Defending Our Lives"
was filmed in Framingham Prison for Women in Massachusetts and
focused on eight women prisoners who had been battered and beaten
by the husbands they eventually killed. One of the producers was
a leader of a battered women's support group, but PBS felt that
this gave her "a direct vested interest in the subject matter
of the program" -perhaps because she was against domestic
violence. PBS added that "programming must be free from the
control of parties with a direct self-interest in that content.''
PBS also declined to air a documentary called "The Money
Lender$: The World Bank and IMF," a film by Robert Richter.
Why? PBS was concerned that "Even though the documentary
may seem objective to some, there is a perception of bias in favor
of poor people who claim to be adversely affected."
PBS also turned down "Out at Work," an excellent
film about gays in the workplace that was shown at the Sundance
Film Festival. The film, produced and directed by Kelly Anderson
and Tami Gold, was scheduled to be part of the series "Point
of View" ("P.O.V.") before PBS dropped it. One
of the subjects of the film is a woman named Cheryl Summerville,
who was fired as a cook from a Cracker Barrel restaurant outside
Atlanta in 1991 for "failing to comply with normal heterosexual
values." Another subject in the film worked as an electrician
"We found 'Out at Work' to be compelling television responsibly
done on a significant issue of our times," PBS Director of
News and Information Programming Sandra Heberer wrote. But, she
added, "PBS's guidelines prohibit funding that might lead
to an assumption that individual underwriters might have exercised
editorial control over program content-even if, as is clear in
this case, those underwriters did not." Which underwriters?
It turns out that 23 percent of the program's $65,000 budget came
from Astraea National Lesbian Action Foundation and a number of
labor unions. The message is unambiguous. Corporations can fund
projects, but unions and civil rights organizations cannot.
Another fine documentary that should be much more widely known
is "Paying the Price: Killing the Children of Iraq"
by John Pilger, an award-winning Australian-born, British-based
journalist, which is about the impact of sanctions. But "Paying
the Price" will not be shown on PBS. Nor will Pilger's film
on East Timor, "Death of a Nation."
"In Search of Palestine," a 1998 film by Edward
Said produced by the BBC, has disappeared in the United States,
virtually unseen. In the United Kingdom, by contrast, it has been
shown all over. A few years earlier, Said was featured in "The
Idea of Empire," another BBC production. It was also not
aired in the United States. PBS cannot argue that Said is an unknown
entity. A veritable Renaissance figure, his books Orientalism
and Culture and Imperialism serve as the bookends to postcolonial
studies. He is also without question the foremost advocate for
Palestinian rights in this country, which, no doubt, creates problems
for the skittish nabobs at PBS.
"Stories My Country Told Me," featuring the scholar
and human rights activist Eqbal Ahmad, has never been on PBS,
nor has "Zapatista!" a film about the movement in Chiapas.
There's a fabulous series on the drug war called "Dealing
with the Demon" by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation,
which has also never shown on PBS.
Danny Schechter, a renowned independent producer, wanted to
do a series called "Rights an, Wrongs: Human Rights Television."
Charlane Hunter-Gault, a prominent African-American reporter who
had served for years as a national correspondent for PBS's "MacNeil/Lehrer
NewsHour, was to be the anchor. When Schechter approached PBS
program director Jennifer Lawson with his proposal, she turned
him down, saying that h rights was "an insufficient organizing
principle for a series.
As Schechter is quick to respond, "And c shows do? And
'Wall Street Week' does? That's what PBS is all about?" Schechter
had to undergo the arduous task of pleading with individual stations
to air the series. This episode evokes the sagacious words of
the great social commentator Lily Tomlin, "No matter how
cynical you get, it's almost impossible to keep up."
Eventually, Schechter succeeded in getting the program on
some stations. "Rights and Wrongs" won a string of awards,
but, strapped for funding, it was discontinued.
In 2000, Haskell Wexler and Johanna Demetrakas made a documentary
called "Bus Riders' Union," about organizing bus riders
in Los Angeles. It's also not been aired on PBS, even as California
has undergone a massive energy crisis that exposes the need for
more public transportation. Your best chance of seeing the video
is to watch it on the World Wide Web. Wexler, a multiple Academy
Award-winner, famous cinematographer and documentary filmmaker,
recipient of the American Society of Cinematographers' Lifetime
Achievement Award, should get a special prize for having the most
documentaries rejected by PBS. Starting with his Academy Award-winning
"Interview with My Lai Veterans," through "Brazil:
A Report on Torture" and "Target Nicaragua: Inside a
Secret War," right up to the present day.
Two more Academy Award-winning documentaries that PBS shunned
are Barbara Trent's "The Panama Deception" and Debra
Chasnof's "Deadly Deception: GE, Nuclear Weapons, and our
Environment." It almost seems that an Academy Award is a
disqualification as far as PBS program decision makers are concerned.
Two films have been made on the Seattle/WTO uprising, one
called "Showdown in Seattle: Five Days That Shook the WTO,"
and the other called "This is What Democracy Looks Like."
Again, neither has been broadcast. And a multiple award-winning
documentary about Noam Chomsky called "Manufacturing Consent"
has never been nationally sponsored and distributed by PBS, though
it's had screenings around the world.
In 2000 NPR formed an alliance with NAB to block the licensing
of microradio stations. According to the New York Times, "National
Public Radio prevailed with the assistance of the commercial broadcasters"
in putting a bill through Congress that overturned an FCC ruling
that would have allowed the licensing of microradio. As the Times
Tucked away in legislation that Clinton signed was a provision
sought by NAB and NPR that sharply curtails Federal Communications
Commission plans to issue licenses for low-power FM radio stations
to 1,000 or more schools, churches and other small community organizations.
The provision, by setting new technical standards and repealing
those already determined by the FCC, makes it all but impossible
for licenses to be issued in cities of even modest size.... The
FCC's low-power radio plan was conceived last January to counter
the huge consolidation in the broadcasting industry that the agency's
chairman, William E. Kennard, concluded had led to a sharp decline
in the diversity of voices on the airwaves. Kennard saw the plan
as a cornerstone of his agenda to promote civil rights issues
at the FCC....
"This is a resource that everyone has to share,"
Kennard said in an interview. "We can't allow people who
have the spectrum to use their political clout to shut out voices
that don't have the same clout. This highlights the power of incumbency.
Companies that have spectrum guard it jealously, and they can
use Congress to prevent new voices from having access to the airwaves."
This is a serious blow for democracy.
Control and Propaganda