Death of Discourse
excerpted from the book
The Failure of America's
Winner Take All Politics
by Steven Hill
Routledge Press, 2002, hardcover
Campaigns, ideally, should be a time for the entire nation to
contemplate ideas, policy, and principle. Campaigns should be
times when voters become more informed and most acute about policy
differences between the candidates and parties, and make a deliberative
decision that, in its aggregate, decides the direction of the
nation. Campaigns ought to be a high civic moment when the nation's
best and brightest debate and make a bid for our democratic allegiance
and our vote.
Yet this is hardly what happens on Election
Day. Unfortunately, Winner Take All politics in the United States,
led by the nose by campaigning and targeting technologies masterminded
by mad scientist consultants and pollster-geists, is running headlong
in the wrong direction. Between the precise targeting of swing
voters, swing districts, and swing states, most voters are sliced
and diced right out of the election. As the nation becomes more
polarized-regionally, racially, culturally, and by partisan identification-more
and more people are ignored because they are either in "locked-up"
states and districts, because they are in the wrong demographic,
or because they aren't "likely" enough to vote.
To understand how far we've fallen, it
is instructive to recall previous historic watersheds in our nation's
political history, such as the Lincoln-Douglas debates. In 1858,
U.S. Senatorial candidates Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln
from Illinois engaged in seven debates, each lasting approximately
three hours, debating hot button issues of the day like slavery,
states' rights, and the Dred Scott decision. By all accounts the
debates were electrifying and artful, attended by large crowds
who witnessed two master orators at the peak of their abilities.
The toughest issues of the day were debated head-on without waffling
or evasive rhetoric, issues like slavery, westward expansion,
states' rights, and economic protectionism. In 1860 the transcript
of these debates was published and used as an important campaign
document in the presidential election that launched Lincoln to
his date with destiny. The Lincoln-Douglas debates are now a revered
part of American political folklore.
Similarly, during Franklin Roosevelt's
thirteen years as president, he delivered some thirty fireside
chats by radio, averaging two or three a year-and only one during
a presidential campaign. Yet, as historian Doris Kearns Goodwin
has written, each fireside chat commanded a huge audience-more
than 70 percent of the home audience. To understand the magnitude
of that figure, says Goodwin, one need only realize that America's
top-ranking radio comedy shows-Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Fibber McGee
and Molly, Amos 'n' Andy-were then garnering what were considered
fabulous ratings of 30 to 35 percent. Novelist Saul Bellow recalls
walking down the street while Roosevelt was speaking. Through
lit windows families could be seen sitting at their kitchen tables
or gathered in their parlors, listening to the radio. Drivers
had pulled over and turned on their radios to listen. "Everywhere
the same voice. You could follow without missing a single word
as you strolled by."
But it's hard to even imagine listening
to today's candidates debate for three hours at a stretch, with
their sound bites, sneers, and scripted slogans substituting for
substance. And absent a frightful war or foreign attack like that
on the World Trade Center, it is extremely difficult to envision
either of the two major parties' candidates addressing the nation
with such dignity, gravitas, and a sense of national purpose that
the nation is compelled to tune in. The debates between George
W. Bush and Al Gore were considered snoozers by everyone except
the professional pundits, with TV ratings dropping with each debate.
The national conventions for both parties, pale infomercials for
the already-anointed, were similarly bereft.
In fact, few voters actually voted for
either Gore or Bush as much as voted against the other side. They
voted their fears instead of their hopes-to keep someone out of
office rather than get someone in. Indeed, playwright Arthur Miller
has written that by the end of the presidential campaign "it
seemed like an unpopularity contest, a competition for who was
less disliked by more people than the other, a demonstration of
negative consent." More and more, that kind of adversarial
temperament and negative consent defines our Winner Take All politics,
from top to bottom, from the parties and their candidates right
down to most voters. Most voters in Bushlandia and New Goreia
are locked-up; no matter how bad their candidate, they are united
in how much they detest the other side's candidate. Our politics
has been reduced to a hollowed-out, rotten vessel of negative
consent and fakery.
Fifty years ago George Or ell anticipated
the caliber of candidates and campaigns that plague the United
States today. "When one watches some tired hack on the platform,"
said Orwell, "mechanically repeating the familiar phrases
. . . one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching
a live human being but some kind of dummy." Indeed, in the
toxic soil of Winner Take All, the quality of political leadership
has declined and the idea of serving one's nation or community
via politics has become a dubious career track. Large numbers
of intelligent and gifted people eschew politics altogether, particularly
rejecting any type of career in formal politics. Ideas and policy
have become anathema to politics, and elections now are more akin
to a con job. Unsurprisingly, increasing numbers of voters have
come to actively detest the whole business as a meaningless and
undignified charade that requires political leaders to compromise
and debase their integrity.
Moreover, because of the way they now
conduct Winner Take All campaigns, the two major parties have
lost the ability to articulate real conflicts of interest in society.
The packaging of politics and the gaming incentives of Winner
Take All have led candidates to target such a narrow, non-ideological
swath of voters that even strong policy disagreements often aren't
discernable in rhetoric. "Compassionate Conservatism,"
"New Democrat," these are terms meant to blur partisan
differences as a means of attracting targeted swing voters. Consequently,
campaigns are no longer a vehicle for defining or articulating
thorny national problems or issues, nor are they a step toward
national resolution, particularly when following the election
the presidential winner abandons the center and lurches back toward
his party base.
Nor are campaigns any longer a time for
the ascension of dynamic national leadership. Indeed, it has been
said that neither Franklin Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas
Jefferson, nor Teddy Roosevelt-three of them revered faces on
Mount Rushmore-could ever make it to the White House today because
they were too much orators for today's sound-bite campaigns. On
the contrary, Winner Take All is producing McCampaigns of "crafted
talk," contrived images, and "simulated responsiveness,"
repeated like mindless advertising jingles as a substitute for
real debate. Lincoln and Douglas would be lost in the world of
politics today, and politics is lost without the Lincolns, the
Douglases, and the Roosevelts.
But it is important to recognize that
this contour of the political landscape is not the result of politicians
or the political parties being evil or base personalities, unwilling
to rise above self-interest or partisanship. Rather, it flows
from the Winner Take All, two-choice dynamic which provides peculiar
and ultimately rewards those who wage
the zero-sum game best. At a basic level, a battle is occurring
between voters' belief in the legitimacy of our political system,
on the one hand, and modern campaign methods of gaming and targeting,
on the other. Will image permanently triumph over ideas? Will
campaign technology trump face-to-face political engagement? Will
cynicism permanently move into the house of American democracy,
like termites gnawing away its foundation? Only time will tell,
but the prognosis under Winner Take All is not encouraging.
And a people who mean to be their own governors, must arm themselves
with the power that knowledge brings.
Carol Miller of New Mexico who ran as a Green Party candidate
for Congress in 1998
"The Democratic Party had sold out.
I watched them sell out, throughout the' 90s. It turned my stomach.
Every election cycle, hundreds and sometimes thousands of independent
candidates as well as third-party candidates from the Libertarian,
Reform, Green, Working Families, and Natural Law parties run in
races all across the country, fighting an uphill battle with a
lack of resources. But what's even more damaging to their efforts
is the lack of media coverage. In 2000, the Libertarian Party
ran more than 1,430 candidates nationwide. They fielded candidates
in 255 of the 435 House races, as well as twenty five of the thirty-three
U.S. Senate seats up for election, the first time in eighty years
that a third party has contested a majority of the seats in Congress.
Yet an informal e-mail survey of their
candidates revealed an appalling pattern of exclusionary treatment
at the hands of the media, particularly television broadcasters
and daily newspapers. Libertarian Party candidates were routinely
excluded from media campaign coverage, televised debates, and
editorial board interviews, with reasons that ran the gamut from
"sorry, we don't cover third parties, it's just our standard
policy" to a cavalier "maybe next time." For instance,
in Colorado's sixth congressional district race the daily newspapers
printed dozens of daily reports about the Democratic and Republican
candidates, day after day, but could not find a single column
inch for any third-party alternatives. In New Hampshire, the state's
largest newspaper not only gave zero campaign coverage to the
Libertarian Party's candidate for U.S. Senate, but also the editorial
page editor kept postponing publication of an op-ed from the candidate
(a tactic similar to that foisted on Carol Miller by the New Mexican
editor). In Seattle, KING 5 TV and KIRO Radio 710, two of Washington
state's largest media outlets, excluded from broadcasted debates
the Libertarian Party's candidate for U. S. Senate, Jeff Jared,
even though Jared arguably was the kingmaker in the race and his
vote totals ultimately spoiled the tight race for the Republican
incumbent, Sen. Slade Gorton.
In Ohio, the Dayton Daily News listed
all candidates running in various elections, but refused even
to mention any third-party candidate. When the Libertarian Party
candidate called and asked for an explanation, he was informed,
"We are only including Republicans and Democrats, because
they are the only ones with a fighting chance of winning."
In Pennsylvania, the Knight-Ridder owned Centre Daily Times refused
even to accept paid advertisement from the Libertarian Party candidates,
specifically $4,600 for about a dozen political advertisements
that touted Libertarian candidates as well as prison reform and
medical marijuana. In New Hampshire, the Libertarian Party's candidate
for governor in 2000 was excluded from all debates, both televised
and in public, and during one event when he tried to protest his
exclusion he was escorted out by the state police. The specter
of law enforcement officials silencing political candidates should
make one balk, no matter how nonviable the candidates or what
one may think of their opinions.
The smaller, alternative weekly press
tends to be somewhat better than the dailies and the TV broadcasters.
But the public broadcasting stations, both television and radio,
despite their broader mandate to be a public resource, can be
just as rigid as the for-profit media. They routinely snubbed
third-party candidates and excluded them from debates. In Iowa,
the public broadcast station chose to bar a Natural Law Party
congressional candidate from its televised debates because he
was not considered "newsworthy." A PBS station in Illinois,
WILL-TV, barred a Libertarian Party candidate because, he was
told, "it would be too confusing for the voters" to
have more than two choices. NETV public television in Omaha, Nebraska,
hosted a congressional debate for Nebraska's second district-a
strongly Republican district that the Democratic candidate could
not possibly hope to win-and barred the Libertarian Party candidate.
In recent years, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Arkansas Educational
TV v. Forbes that a public broadcast station can legally bar certain
candidates from participating in a debate, prompting many First
Amendment supporters to ask, "What happened to the 'public'
in the Public Broadcasting System?"
The media's ostensible reasons for these
exclusions [of third party candidates] vary, but most often the
reason cited is that these candidates are not viable-they can't
win. But as we have seen, most legislative races across the country
are safe seats for one major party or the other, and not competitive
for either a Democratic or Republican candidate in those races
either. If that truly were the criteria for coverage, the media
only would cover the obvious winner in each race. But they don't
do that. Instead, in every district across the country both Republicans
and Democrats receive most of the media coverage, however locked-up
the seat and whether or not the challenging Republican or Democrat
has a chance of winning. Only the independent candidates and minor
party candidates are excluded. What can we conclude from such
a persistent pattern? It would seem that most TV producers, editors,
and reporters are in the thralls of a sometimes unconscious and
other times appallingly conscious loyalty to the two-party system.
Yet because they also see themselves as having a warm fuzzy affinity
for a kind of Jeffersonian vision of the free press, and perhaps
some journalistic standards of objectivity, they cannot come right
out and crassly say they are cardcarrying members of the duopoly.
Thus, they concoct their transparent ruse: "We don't cover
these candidates because they can't win."
Lacking news coverage of a range of political viewpoints, voters
do not have the opportunity to hear from candidates who may excite
them or bring fresh new ideas into the political arena. Is it
any wonder that voters are so turned off to politics, with the
media's ignoring of fresh political alternatives, the proliferation
of poll-tested blandness substituting for campaigns, and the resulting
dearth of stimulating political debate?
In fact, the Winner Take All media's refusal
to cover political alternatives should be reasonably viewed as
an in-kind donation to the Democrats' and Republicans' campaigns,
subject to federal and state campaign finance disclosure laws.
It raises disturbing questions about the tight relationship between
the Winner Take All media and the Democrats and Republicans, crushing
all political dissent and opposition in a way that is not altogether
different from the relationship between the Soviet Politburo and
its communist propaganda machines. In fact, a highly respected
British think tank, the Electoral Reform Society, observing American
elections in 1998, noted this cozy relationship between the duopoly
and the American media's duopoly devotees. Their report, called
"State of American Democracy," stated that "the
media pays little if any attention to third party or independent
candidates.... On all counts, the voter is restricted in the number
and diversity of ideas expressed to him or her, thus negatively
impacting the quality of representation a voter receives.... A
vicious cycle is created, alternative parties cannot get their
message to the voters, and the voters cannot expand their limited
Frederick the Great, King of Prussia
My people and I have come to an agreement
which satisfies us both. They are to say what they please, and
I am to do what I please.
Sometime in the 1990s, the Winner Take All media, particularly
television broadcasters, discovered an extremely lucrative mother
lode of revenue that augurs poorly for the future of political
discourse. As political campaigns and the candidates themselves
have become mere vapid displays of poll-tested sound bites, and
as citizens have become alienated from most things "political,"
television broadcasters in perennial search of higher ratings
have slowly reduced their political coverage. This has produced
at least one unfortunate side effect: increasingly, politicians
in a campaign season have no choice but to buy more television
ads. Lots of television ads, bringing in an estimated $1 billion
in revenue to broadcasters. Some media analysts have theorized
that this has been a brazenly conscious move on the part of television
broadcasters to increase advertising revenue-decrease political
coverage, forcing candidates to buy more TV time. Others dispute
this, claiming that broadcasters are merely chasing viewers who
are turned off to politics. Either way, the move has been a veritable
gold mine that has dramatically enhanced TV broadcasters' bottom
line and has pushed our nation another notch along its political
race to the bottom.
According to Wall Street analysts, an
estimated $1 billion of the more than $3 billion raised and spent
on political campaigns in 2000 went to pay for ads on broadcast
television. That's a fivefold increase over what the television
industry raked in during the 1980 campaign, even after adjusting
for inflation. This cascade of cash has been gathering steam throughout
the 1990s; revenue in 2000 from political spots was up 40 percent
from 1996. Political commercials, which only appear for a few
months out of the year, nevertheless were the third-largest source
of TV advertising revenue for broadcasters, trailing only automotive
and retail ads, according to an analysis by investment company
Bear Stearns. The prospect of such a cash cow caused Broadcast
~ Cable Magazine to gush a euphoric headline at the time of the
2000 primaries: "Happy Days Are Here Again." Said one
campaign consultant, "The stations are salivating.'' Without
question, the broadcast industry has become the biggest beneficiary
of the "business of politics." Whatever the initial
motivations of the broadcasters, now that they have discovered
this lucrative new revenue stream, there is little incentlve to
decrease it by increasing political coverage.
Not surprisingly then, over the same time
period that political ad revenue has been surging, the amount
of campaign coverage by the broadcasters has been decreasing.
Robert Lichter of the Center for Media and Public Affairs said,
following a study his organization conducted of the 2000 election,
"Coverage is way down from eight years ago. That means, if
you work out the numbers, two elections ago the three networks
together gave you about 25 minutes a night of election news, or
about eight minutes apiece. This election they gave you about
12 minutes, or four minutes apiece per night.'' Of that reduced
amount of election news, a study by the Annenberg Public Policy
Center found that only an average of sixty-four seconds per night
was quality "candidate-centered" time during which the
candidates themselves had an opportunity to discuss issues or
their views. The rest was heavily filtered reporting about the
suspense of who might win the horse race-in other words, entertainment.
In 1968, the average presidential campaign sound bite on network
news was forty-three seconds. In the 1996 election, it dropped
to 8.2 seconds. As Gary Ruskin, director of Commercial Alert,
commented, "Third graders communicate in longer segments
So not only has the raw amount of election
news decreased dramatically, but the quality of the coverage also
has taken a nosedive. Thomas Patterson, professor at Harvard's
Kennedy School and director of the Vanishing Voter Project, which
studied the 2000 presidential election, wrote that the "news
coverage that is provided too often serves to discourage or misdirect
the public. Both Bush and Gore had more bad press than good press,
in both television and newspapers, in the closing weeks of the
campaign, and the stories told often were trivial." The Annenberg
study found that only one in four campaign stories aired in the
month before the election were issue-oriented; the rest focused
on the bumps and dips of polls and campaign strategy. Lichter,
assessing the quality of the coverage, commented, "If you
actually add up the airtime, journalists talking about the election
accounted for 74 percent of the airtime. Candidates actually shown
speaking accounted for 11 percent of the airtime. So the news
is highly mediated, and I think that's what's driving candidates
into talk shows. To give them time just to present themselves
more as full human beings to the public."
Not surprisingly, the broadcasters have fought any legislative
or public interest attempts to curtail their billion-dollar cash
cow. Following the passage of the deeply flawed Telecommunications
Act of 1996, which further deregulated the media market to allow
for even larger mega-mergers, the Clinton Administration doubled
the amount of spectrum space it licensed to television broadcasters
in order to facilitate the industry's transition to digital technology.
Estimates of the value of this additional spectrum space ranged
up to $70 billion, and once again it was given to the broadcasters
for free, provoking cries of "corporate welfare." As
a sop to critics, Clinton appointed an advisory panel to "assess
and update" the long-abused "public interest obligations"
of television broadcasters in the wake of this valuable gift of
the public's assets. The panel, composed of scholars, public interest
advocates, and broadcasters (including the president of CBS),
recommended among other things that all television broadcasters
voluntarily dedicate a minimum of five minutes a night in the
thirty days before the presidential election to what was called
"candidate-centered discourse"-news coverage where the
candidates are discussing their views and issues, either via interviews,
mini-debates, or other formats-as opposed to election news about
the Winner Take All horse race or the latest dips in the polls.
But still the broadcasters balked. In
Election 2000, over a million political ads ran on 484 local stations,
the equivalent of 595,468 minutes of ads, 9,924 hours or 413 solid
days of advertising-and yet nearly all broadcasters were unwilling
to dedicate even a minuscule amount of air time to such "candidate-centered
discourse." In fact, the networks mobilized to undermine
the White House commission's proposal. But aware of the public
sentiment (and legal reality) that in fact the airwaves are owned
by the public, and that they had taken a pledge "to serve
the public interest," the broadcasters worked behind the
scenes to kill the plan. They even employed newspapers owned by
them to do their dirty work.
A study of forty-one newspaper editorials
from thirty-three newspapers weighing in on the "five minutes
per night" proposal found that seven of ten newspapers owned
by media conglomerates with television broadcast holdings editorialized
against it. The same ratio, seven out of ten newspapers, owned
by media companies without TV broadcast properties favored it.
The study found that economic self-interest was more closely linked
to a paper's stance than its political leaning: papers that endorsed
Clinton in 1996 were no more likely to support the White House
plan than papers that did not endorse him. But even more troubling,
as the study's author pointed out, "in no cases did the [opposing]
newspapers divulge their ownership interests in their editorials."
Instead, the broadcasters stealthily hid their conflict of interest
behind their newspaper mouthpieces.
Given that hostile posture, not surprisingly
only a handful of TV stations committed to "candidate-centered"
time. The Annenberg study found that ABC, NBC, and CBS "failed
to meet the recommended public interest standard that they air
five minutes-300 seconds-of nightly candidate issue discussion
in the final month of the campaign." Instead, on average,
there was just sixty-four seconds of candidate-centered discourse
per night per network, the study found. Sixty-four seconds. Barely
a minute. That's one minute per night for democracy and political
debate, in exchange for the $70 billion in additional spectrum
space given for free by the Clinton administration to the corporate
media, which is in addition to the $367 billion giveaway they
already had received.
The surging greed of Winner Take All media
corporations in a deregulated media market has created a commercial
bazaar in which TV stations sell to the highest political bidder
what the government has given them for free. The $367 billion
plus $70 billion corporate welfare giveaway from the public to
huge media conglomerates in exchange for a commitment to the public
interest is being grossly abused. Paul Taylor, director of the
Alliance for Better Campaigns, has said, "When it comes to
serving as public trustee, the industry doesn't see beyond its
own bottom line." Said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy
21, a nonprofit organization working for campaign finance reform,
" The industry has a sweetheart deal, and is not interested
in making any moves to open the door to make it work better."
Yet when the Communications Act of 1934 granted broadcasters free
and exclusive licenses to the public airwaves, it did so on the
condition that they agreed to serve "the public interest."
The value of the public airwaves has been estimated by a leading
media analyst to be worth currently $367 billion-that is a $367
billion giveaway, corporate welfare, from the public to huge media
conglomerates in exchange for a commitment to the public interest.
But obviously the latter part of the equation has been entirely
lost in the ensuing sixty-plus years.
The Telecommunications Act of 1996 deregulated
the telecommunications industry and made takeovers and mergers
even easier. Many experts predicted the Telecommunications Act
would inevitably result in increasing media centralization, and
since its passage corporate media takeovers have proceeded apace.
Disney's subsequent takeover of ABC created the world's largest
media company at the time, until the $100 billion AOL-Time Warner
merger came along. And the Australian magnate Rupert Murdoch,
probably the closest we know to a modern-day William Hearst, has
been slowly adding to his media empire.
For the corporate Winner Take All media,
the Telecommunications Act has been a kind of "free trade"
agreement to increase profits. Like our politics, where the winner
takes all, our Winner Take All economy similarly rewards the biggest
winners in a disproportionately lucrative fashion, as outlined
in economists Robert Frank and Phillip Cook's superb The Winner
Take All Society. In the specter of the modern media cartel we
see a monopolistic convergence of Winner Take All politics and
Winner Take All economics, using First Amendment arguments to
attack any barriers to its present lucrative existence or future
growth. In an era when effective speech is equivalent to how many
TV stations or radio stations you own, the First Amendment itself
has become like a free trade agreement for media corporations.
It keeps the government at bay, creating a deregulated media market
no less than NAFTA or GATT. Within this "free trade-free
speech" zone, corporate speech can gobble up competitors
and, ironically, decide who will speak and, more importantly,
who will be heard in our Winner Take All political system.
As legal and media experts like Yale law
professor Owen Fiss, Robert McChesney, and others have pointed
out, the First Amendment paradigm of the political dissident standing
on their street corner soap box, inveighing against politicians
and society's ills until hauled off by the cops, is mostly an
anachronism. The terrain of the First Amendment today is dominated
by huge media conglomerates who have a lot more and a lot louder
speech than everyone else. It's as if they have turned up their
volume and drowned everyone else out. It's not that others cannot
speak, it's just that we cannot hear them, their speech is not
effective, compared to the booming speech of the Winner Take All
media. And traditional, civil libertarian-type First Amendment
defenses protect this status quo. The paradigm has dramatically
shifted, but civil libertarians and First Amendment fundamentalists
are still stuck in the old "individual autonomy" paradigm,
refusing to recognize the new reality.
All of this, of course, has huge ramifications
for politics and political discourse. In its customary, dissembling
fashion, the Winner Take All media pick and choose what to air,
and the evidence is overwhelming that their criteria for choosing
America's information fare has little to do with the public interest
or stimulating political discourse. With a Winner Take All media
saturated by the values of sensationalism, entertainment, and
profiteering, there is little room on the dial for the values
of "robust public debate," discussion of ideas and policies,
or political pluralism. Their motto is, "If you can't pay,
you can't play," and only a shrinking number of players can
afford the price of admission. With a hundred channels of laugh
tracks, home shopping infomercials, and pay-for-view, the information
necessities of democracy and a free-thinking society are swallowed
up in the unregulated, free-for-all regime dominated by the corporatized
Winner Take All media.
John Peter Zenger must be rolling over in his grave. Arrested
for libel on November 17, 1734, for publishing a newspaper criticizing
the British colonial governor of New York, Zenger was imprisoned
for nearly ten months. When finally brought to trial he was represented
by the young Alexander Hamilton, and to the acclaim of the public
the colonial jury acquitted Zenger on the grounds that his charges
had been based on fact-a key consideration in libel cases since
that time. Zenger became a champion, setting a standard for the
gallant free press standing up to autocracy. The Zenger case struck
a tremendous blow for freedom of the press and a classically liberal
tradition that eventually led to the First Amendment.
How far we have traveled in 260-plus years.
Today, the Great Free Press, the corporate Winner Take All media
monopoly, is the embodiment of autocracy. Soaking off the fat
of a public dole for their own enrichment, in a very real sense
the corporate media has become a threat to free speech, certainly
to political speech and to political campaigns. Broadcasters,
in essence, are guardians of something precious-the modern-day
equivalent of the public square. Except they decide who will address
the "assembled" audience. The specter of the media,
particularly the corporate media and its values, deciding the
viability of political candidates-and, by extension, which issues
and policies voters will hear about during campaigns-should be
utterly offensive to a democratic society. A congressional district
now contains over 600,000 people, making grassroots campaigns
impractical in most cases, so television and radio campaigning
have become near-essential in most congressional elections, and
even in state elections, particularly the most high-profile, and
close races. The corporate media has its own agenda, which is
not unexpected, but every candidate should not have to squeeze
her or himself through the pinhole of corporate media preconditions.
Moreover, as we have seen, broadcasters,
having been the recipient of ridiculously generous corporate welfare,
have managed to wrest control of the people's airwaves from the
people and their representatives, and now have huge financial
incentives to keep political coverage of campaigns and candidates
to a minimum. That allows them to sell back to candidates the
airwaves that they have been given for free. The Winner Take All
media conglomerates were not elected or even appointed to act
as the arbiter or the mediator of our democratic process or our
national politics, yet the crucial telecommunications technology
they control has allowed them to assume this position, uninvited.
Now in custody of this crucial infrastructure of our representative
democracy, the Winner Take All media has become a powerful special
interest that uses the public's airwaves to perpetuate its domination,
a kind of self-fulfilling cycle. It seems a sort of collective
stupidity, an implacable insanity, that no one knows how to stop.
The evolution of the Winner Take All media
has reached a fork in the road. Voters are being robbed of the
fullness of a debate of ideas and policies, and the challenging
viewpoints that a Perot, a Ventura, a Benjamin, a Miller, or a
Howell brings to a campaign. The fork in the road can go only
one of two ways-either toward reform or toward further deform.
It has already cut political coverage down to the bone-only sixty-four
seconds per night-and raised advertising rates to exorbitant levels.
There's not much more profit to be wrung out of the system. So
the logic of reform makes more and more sense, even to those who
profit from the system. Many broadcasters say privately that they
are appalled by the soaring amounts of money spent by candidates
on TV ads. CBS President Leslie Moonves co-chaired the White House
panel that recommended five minutes per night of candidate-centered
time. A sales manager for KTNV-TV in Las Vegas said, "Speaking
as a citizen, the system screams for reform."
But lacking serious and profound reform,
the current trajectory of the Winner Take All media does not augur
well for the American future. Indeed, it is one of the most disturbing
trends contributing to our downward spiral into a voterless and
internecine post-democracy. An ominous dark cloud moved over an
already-gloomy horizon in September 2001 when the largest media
conglomerates, including Fox, NBC, CBS, and AOL-Time Warner Inc.,
filed suit in federal court to overturn FCC rules that bar a company
from owning television stations that collectively reach more than
35 percent of viewing households or that prevent one company from
owning television stations and cable systems in the same market.
The court challenges, if successful, will allow big media companies
to become even larger through mergers and acquisitions-and to
further garrotte the free flow of information. Ironically, the
corporate plaintiffs are employing civil libertarian-type First
Amendment/free speech arguments, claiming that "every day
the rule is in effect, we are being deprived of our ability to
speak to 65 percent of the nation's households"-the First
Amendment as "free trade" agreement for the Winner Take
If the media corporations prevail in this
audacious gambit, that may initiate the first steps toward what
might be called the "Berlusconization" of the American
media. Silvio Berlusconi is the Italian media magnate who managed
to gobble up nearly all private media in Italy, and then used
that resource as a personal steppingstone to a political career.
The exquisitely dressed Berlusconi's campaigning method consists
of sailing up and down the Italian coast in his private yacht,
and pulling into ports where his TV stations cover his press conferences,
beaming his perennially tanned face to Italians all over the country.
Berlusconi's intertwined political and media careers culminated
diabolically in 2001 with his winning the prime ministership of
Italy, a kind of Italian version of a William Randolph Hearst.
If the U.S. corporate media plaintiffs
succeed via the courts in overturning the rules preventing even
greater media mergers, or if the FCC waives these rules, it moves
us a giant step closer to a Berlusconi-type figure lurking on
America's horizon-a demagogue like Hearst with political aspirations,
who personally controls huge portions of the electronic media
infrastructure and programming, all on the public dole-a person
who is part Rupert Murdoch and part Newt Gingrich. Given the current
trajectory of the Winner Take All media-of the corporate media
monopoly immersed in the Winner Take A11 political system-such
an American future is not outside the pale of possibility.
Our economy has become an information economy, and consumer choice
is one of the mantras of the times. Yet our politics is running
headlong in the opposite direction-toward less choice, less quality
information, and less innovation. Winner Take All is producing
lackluster, undistinguished, even lifeless politics that fails
to inform or inspire. At a time when the need for reliable and
well-presented information is at a premium, new political ideas
and innovation are having more and more difficulty percolating
to the surface.