Political Problem, Political Solutions

Corporate Control


excerpted from the book

The Problem of the Media

U.S. Communication Politics in the 21st Century

by Robert W. McChesney

Monthly Review Press, 2004, paper

Political Problem, Political Solution

The political nature of the problem of the media in democratic societies is well-known; virtually all theories of self-government are premised on having an informed citizenry, and the creation of such an informed citizenry is the media's province. The measure of a media system in political terms is not whether it creates a viable democratic society-that would be too much of a burden to place upon it. Instead, the measure is whether the media system, on balance and in the context of the broader social and economic situation, challenges antidemocratic pressures and tendencies or reinforces them. Is the media system a democratic force? Much less understood is the importance of the media to economics; this relationship with economics goes a long way toward shaping the media's political role and their relationship with the dominant political and economic forces in society. In the United States the starting point for grasping the problem of the media is seeing where the media system fits in the broader capitalist economic system. The crucial tension lies between the role of the media as profit-maximizing commercial organizations and the need for the media to provide the basis for informed self-government. It is this tension that fuels much of the social concern around media and media policy making.

The more democratic a society, the more likely the decisions about how best to regulate social life will be the result of widespread informed debate. The less democratic a society, the more likely those decisions will be made by powerful self-interested parties with a minimum of popular participation.

This dispute, then, is not about whether the market is the natural manner to organize media-and all of social life for that matter. It is about whether the market is the superior means, or a superior means among others, to regulate media. Just as capitalism is not the "natural" social system for humanity, so commercial media are not Nature's creation either. Our social system and our media system both require aggressive and explicit government activity to exist. Media policy, then, is a far broader and more significant historical phenomenon than that found in the conventional wisdom, which depicts it as something inherently tedious drawn up by bespectacled policy wonks and government bureaucrats addressing obscure technical issues. To the contrary, the U.S. media system-even its most "free market" sectors-is the direct result of explicit government policies and in fact would not exist without those policies. Most dominant media firms exist because of government-granted and government-enforced monopoly broadcasting licenses, telecommunication franchises, and rights to content (a.k.a. copyright). Competitive markets in the classic sense are rare; they were established or strongly shaped by the government.

So the real struggle is over whose interests the regulation will represent ...

In 1996 the Telecommunications Act eliminated the cap on the number of radio stations a single company could own nationally. It had been 40 prior to that, and for decades it had been much lower than that. Radio, it was said, was now "deregulated." The vast majority of U.S. radio stations were sold after 1996 and a few massive firms came to dominate the industry. Clear Channel alone soon owned more than 1,200 stations. So does it make sense, as is regularly proclaimed, to depict radio broadcasting as deregulated or is it simply regulated differently for different ends serving different interests? For a test of the deregulation hypothesis, one need only go out and commence broadcasting a signal on an AM or FM frequency used by an existing broadcaster. Immediate arrest and possible incarceration would result. That is serious regulation. The government is still granting monopoly licenses to radio and TV channels and still enforcing those monopoly licenses. It is not open season for anyone to begin using the airwaves. The only difference the Telecommunications Act made is that today the largest corporations can possess more of these monopoly licenses than they could before. (It is worth noting that these firms do not pay the government a single penny for the right to have monopoly access to these valuable and scarce channels of the publicly owned spectrum.) There is every bit as much regulation by the government as before, only now it is more explicitly directed to serve large corporate interests.

The writings of Jefferson and Madison attest to the distinct social function of the free press. Jefferson, in particular, saw freedom of the press as the foundation of popular democracy and as protection against elite rule. "If once they [the people] become inattentive to the public affairs," he wrote his friend Edward Carrington, "you and I, and Congress and Assemblies, Judges and Governors, shall all become wolves." Ironically, Jefferson's letter to Carrington is sometimes taken as arguing that the government should let private interests rule the press and let the chips fall where they may. Here is the most cited passage, but I include the follow-up sentence, which is sometimes omitted. "The basis of our governments being the opinion of people," Jefferson wrote, "the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers, and be capable of reading them." The implication of this final sentence is that it is not enough to negatively protect the press system. Active promotion is necessary to ensure universal distribution of public information to competent citizens. In other words, the public's right to hear a variety of voices and properly digest their messages is the central platform of a democracy. On another occasion, Jefferson remarked, "An enlightened citizenry is indispensable for the proper functioning of a republic." As Madison famously put it, "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." And such a free press, they argued, came as the result of explicit government policies and subsidies that would Late it; to think otherwise was nonsensical.

In the Supreme Court's seminal 1927 Whitney v. California case, Justice Brandeis concluded: "Those who won our independence believed that the final end of the State was to make men free to develop their faculties; ... that the greatest menace to freedom is an inert people; that public discussion is a political duty; and that this should be a fundamental principle of American government. " Jefferson and Madison live, even if it appears at times that they are on life support.

1945 Press v. U.S. case, [Supreme Court Justice Hugo] Black defended the government's right to regulate media ownership: "The First Amendment, far from providing an argument against application of the Sherman Act, here provides powerful reasons to the contrary. That Amendment rests on the assumption that the widest possible dissemination of information from diverse and antagonistic sources is essential to the welfare of the public, that a free press is a condition of a free society .... Freedom to publish means freedom for all and not for some."

Two distinct interpretations of the First Amendment for media have emerged over the course of the twentieth century. In the realm of broadcasting, the progressive interpretation holds; in 1969 the Supreme Court ruled in Red Lion Broadcasting Co. v. FCC that the First Amendment is a social right of the entire population to have a radio and television system that best serves its democratically determined needs. The First Amendment privileges of the commercial broadcasters are secondary and they must meet publicly determined public -interest standards to keep their monopoly broadcasting licenses. With regard to print and most other media, the commercialist position is increasingly influential and treats the First Amendment as a license for the media to do as they please. A concerted campaign by progressives in the Meiklejohnian tradition to extend the social interpretation of the First Amendment from broadcasting to newspapers in the 19705 failed in the 1974 case Miami Herald v. Tornillo. Since then, commercial broadcasters have been working the court system to see that they get accorded the same First Amendment privileges as other media. That would, in effect, privatize the broadcast spectrum, remove broadcasting from public control, and constitute a gift of tens, even hundreds of billions of dollars in public property to a small number of large private firms.

The value of monopoly licenses to scarce broadcast channels, monopoly cable TV franchises, and copyright protection all granted and enforced by the government and all provided at no charge to commercial interests-runs into the hundreds of billions of dollars. This is no "natural" free market. It is a market created and shaped by the government.

[The Communications Act of 1934] made it clear that government monopoly rights to broadcasting and telecommunication licenses were to be granted with the condition that the commercial recipient serve the "public interest." In theory, recipients of these licenses were not to be regarded as pure profit-motivated firms but rather as public service firms. Broadcasters were therefore required to include some programming they would have ordinarily avoided if they were strictly profit-maximizing, and it was this less commercially viable public service programming that justified their possession of the valuable monopoly broadcast license. Cable TV systems, in a similar manner, were expected to make concessions to the public interest to justify their monopoly franchises, usually by setting aside channels for public access and noncommercial use.

The FCC did place some regulations on commercial broadcasters. The most notable public service requirement was the Fairness Doctrine ... required commercial broadcasters to give ample time to matters of public importance and to provide a range of viewpoints on controversial issues .

Today public service has degenerated into tragicomedy. By 2002, a study revealed that much of the do-gooder "public service" advertising-all that remained of broadcasters' public service activity-was relegated to the "wee hours of the night," when audiences were minuscule and it was impossible to sell much commercial advertising anyway. An October 2003 survey of local TV stations in six markets determined that less than one-half of 1 percent of the programming went toward covering local public affairs, despite the fact that commitment to "localism" is considered a primary mechanism for broadcasters to serve the public interest. The survey concluded: "There is a near blackout of local public affairs."

"We're not in the business of providing news and information," Clear Channel CEO Lowry Mays told a business publication in 2003... We're simply in the business of selling our customers' products. "

... the FCC eliminated the Fairness Doctrine in the 1980s, invoking the most eloquent phrases from the opinions of Supreme Court Justice William 0. Douglas to do so. (Ironically, Douglas himself was a strong proponent of broadcast regulation in the public interest.) 8 Everyone from broadcasters to cable companies to advertisers claimed that any regulation of their affairs violated their First Amendment rights.

Neoliberalism simply reduces or eliminates the idea that government should represent the public interest vis-à-vis the corporate interest. There is no longer a meaningful conflict between the public and the corporate sector-public service is bunk-so politicians and regulators can serve corporations with impunity.

The corruption in media policy making culminated in the passage of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, arguably one of the most important pieces of U.S. legislation. The law rewrote the regulatory regime for radio, television, telephony, cable television, and satellite communication-indeed, all of electronic communication including the Internet. It laid down the core values for the FCC to implement for generations. The operating premise of the law was that new communication technologies combined with an increased appreciation for the genius of the market rendered the traditional regulatory model moot. The solution therefore was to lift regulations and ownership restrictions from commercial media and communication companies, allow competition in the marketplace to develop, and reduce the government's role to that of protecting private property. There was virtually no dissent whatsoever to this legislation from either political party; the law sailed through both houses of Congress and was signed by a jubilant President Clinton in February 1996.

A 2000 study by Charles Lewis and the Center for Public Integrity revealed that the fifty largest media firms and the four media trade organizations spent $111 million on lobbying between 1996 and 2000, and the number of media-related lobbyists increased from 234 to 284. In the same time span, media firms paid for 118 members of Congress and their senior staff to take 315 junkets, with a total value of $455,000. Rep. Billy Tauzin, chair of the House Commerce Committee that oversees the FCC, was the champion recipient of corporate largesse. He and his staff accounted for fully 42 of the junkets, and, in 1999, Tauzin and his wife enjoyed a six-day $18,910 junket to Paris courtesy of Time Warner and Instinet. Tauzin's daughter Kimberly worked as a lobbyist for the NAB in the late 1990S as well. This might have been purely coincidental, but Tauzin became the number-one promoter of corporate media interests in Washington during these years, with a slavish devotion to their cause. And he was not alone. Between 1993 and 2000 the same corporations gave $' million in campaign contributions to candidates for federal office and spread the money to politicians on both sides of the aisle.

Corporate Control

Arguably the weakest feature of U.S. professional journalism has been its coverage of the nation's role in the world, especially when military action is involved. Again, relying on official sources is the main culprit. Journalists who question agreed-upon assumptions by the political elite stigmatize themselves as unprofessional and political. Most major U.S. wars over the past century have been sold to the public on dubious claims if not outright lies, yet professional journalism has generally failed to warn the public. Compare the press coverage leading up to the Spanish-American War, which is a notorious example of yellow journalism-before the advent of professional journalism-to the coverage leading up to the 2003 Iraq war and it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the quality of the reporting has not changed much.

When criticism gains prominence in the news media regarding a U.S. war, the change in coverage almost always reflects a split among the elite, as was the case with Vietnam and, more recently, Iraq during the occupation. Moreover, journalists have internalized the elite assumption that the United States is invariably a force for good in the world, determined to bring freedom and democracy to the planet. Even dissenting coverage in mainstream journalism tends to accept this assumption. Similarly, journalism believes in the inherent right of the United States, and the United States alone, to invade almost any nation it chooses. Debate over whether a specific invasion is appropriate on strategic or tactical grounds might result, but the fundamental right to invade is usually off-limits to critical analysis. After all, it is a view shared across the spectrum of U.S. policy elites.

Woeful press coverage of the U.S. role in the world has grave consequences for everyone. Perhaps the most important issue for any society to decide is whether to go to war, to put people to death. The Supreme Court recognizes the special responsibility of the media in this regard. As Justice Potter Stewart wrote in his opinion on the Pentagon Papers case, "In the absence of governmental checks and balances present in other areas of our national life, the only effective restraint upon executive policy and power in the areas of national defense and international affairs may lie in an enlightened citizenry-in an informed and critical public opinion which alone can here protect the values of democratic government. "53 The press is granted privileges in exchange for providing this democratic service, although it is not apparently accountable to anyone to deliver on its / end of the bargain.

... many of the twentieth-century's finest journalists-Ben Bagdikian George Seldes, A. J. Liebling, I. F. Stone, Jessica Mitford, David Halberstam, Bill Moyers, and William Greider-have been among its foremost media critics.

In the current commercially stripped-down climate, professional reliance upon official sources as the basis for news-always a problem has become debilitating. It is increasingly rare that reporters bother to determine who is telling the truth when official sources disagree on the facts. Investigating factual disputes takes time and could cast the pall of bias over the journalist, depending upon whom the findings favored. When, for example, in 2002 Democrats criticized Halliburton for not paying taxes under Dick Cheney's leadership, the press ran the charges and Halliburton's denial. Few journalists, in the professional mainstream press at least, appeared to determine who was telling the truth. This environment becomes a scoundrel's paradise in which officials can lie with virtual impunity; and officials' opponents, not journalists, must establish the truth, and such opponents can always be dismissed as partisan. "Bound by professional strictures, news reporters can wind up giving a lie the same weight as the truth," David Greenberg warns. In such an environment "raising questions of truthfulness can seem awfully close to taking sides in a partisan debate." Frustrated journalists hungry for the muckraking mantle merely zero in on politicians' lies about personal matters because "here, the press can strut its skepticism without positioning itself ideologically." As Greenburg concludes, the "current rules end up encouraging media hysteria about personal lies of scant importance and deterring inquiry into topics that matter incalculably more ."8 "The nation's media," a Washington Post reporter acknowledged in 2003, "have yet to find a clear and effective way to report incorrect impressions and untruthful statements, particularly those that emanate from the White House .... Journalists are notoriously reluctant to use the word 'lie' when describing the statements of public officials.

Today journalists are far more comfortable casting political debate facts.

... the corporate news media have a vested interest in the corporate system. The largest media firms are members in good standing in the corporate community and are closely linked to it through business relations, shared investors, interlocking directors, and common political values. This status pushes the news media, as Tom Shales put it, to "paint as rosy a picture of the economy as possible." It encouraged the press coverage of the corporate political scandals of 2001 and 2002 to revert to a "crisis management mode" in which the structural and institutional determinants of the corruption remained unexamined and unexposed

In a piece outlining the chummy connection between the relevant members of Congress responsible for overseeing the investigation of corporate fraud with the very industries most likely to be engaged in crime, Ivins concluded, "They've already called off the reform effort; it's over. Corporate muscle showed up and shut it down.

Bottom line: It's all going to happen again. We learned zip from our entire financial collapse. Our political system is too bought-off to respond intelligently. "171 The economist Mark Weisbrot captured the irony of the situation: "Our Congress and the executive branch have become so corrupted by our system of legalized bribery-political campaign contributions-that they cannot even enact positive reforms that are desired by most of the business class."

The Problem of the Media

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