4448Pick Up Your Swords -- It's Time to Slay the Corporate-Media Beast
- Aug 3, 2002Pick Up Your Swords -- It's Time to Slay the Corporate-Media Beast
by Rick Mercier
PERHAPS IT WAS appropriate for a congressional symposium on corporate
control of the media to be held in the basement of the Capitol.
After all, most members of Congress--loyal minions of Big Money that they
are--would prefer that the topic never see the light of day. That's
because if people became better informed about our media system, they
might begin formulating tough questions. Questions such as ones posed at
the July 11 symposium by communications scholar Robert McChesney, who
wondered aloud: "Why do we let one company [Clear Channel] own 1,400 radio
stations? In whose interests is that?"
It's probably not in your interests; in fact, the extreme concentration of
media outlets in a few corporate hands is hardly in anyone's interests.
Hence a deafening silence in the corporate media that has made media
reform "one of the least visible issues" even though it may be one of the
most important, said Rep. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who joined Rep. Sherrod
Brown, D-Ohio, in organizing the symposium.
Media ownership--especially broadcast-media ownership--is clearly a
political issue. The current broadcast-media landscape is the product not
of the "invisible hand" of the marketplace, but of regulations, subsidies,
and government-sanctioned monopolies.
In an article written earlier this year for The Nation magazine, McChesney
and co-author John Nichols, another symposium participant, dispel the myth
of "a natural order" in which media conglomerates "have mastered the
marketplace on the basis of their wit and wisdom." vMcChesney and Nichols
argue that, in addition to the "huge promotional budgets and continual
rehashing of tried and true formulas," corporate dominance of the media is
made possible "by explicit government policies and subsidies that permit
the creation of large and profitable conglomerates." The two media critics
contend that when the FCC grants free monopoly rights to a small group of
broadcasters, "it is not setting the terms of competition; it is picking
the winners of the competition." These giveaways, they continue, amount to
an annual sum of corporate welfare worth tens of billions of dollars.
What's especially galling--not to mention fundamentally
anti-democratic--is that the government's decisions about who controls the
airwaves are made in our name, but not with our informed consent.
The corporate media's stranglehold on the news causes crucial stories to
receive little attention--or to be ignored altogether. The major media, as
Sanders said, "deflect attention from the most important issues facing
working people," so news on the health-care crisis or trade is buried
under a mountain of sensationalistic stories about sex scandals and
Many independent media critics over the years have concluded that
mainstream coverage generally reflects elite interests--especially where
economic and foreign policy are concerned. McChesney argues in his book
"Rich Media, Poor Democracy" that the corporate media tend to offer good,
critical coverage of an issue only when it does not directly involve
business and upper-class interests, or when there is significant
disagreement over it within elite economic or policymaking circles. So,
while you might see decent coverage on abortion rights or the Middle East
(two topics that conservatives like to discuss when criticizing the media
for being too liberal), don't expect much on labor rights or military
spending that challenges the elite's center-right consensus.
In addition to institutionalized biases, there's also the simple fact that
the major media conglomerates are becoming less and less interested in
hard news. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that Time Warner's
CNN has devised a new strategy that will stress "a slicker, more
The trouble CNN faces is that advertisers these days don't want to have
their products associated with things like airline crashes or suicide
bombings, so advertising revenue is falling even in times when the
network's viewership may be up. Even the pro-business Journal laments that
"viewers would be among the losers if the marketplace should force CNN to
dilute its commitment to extensive coverage of news in Afghanistan or
other global hot spots--as rising financial pressures have tempted it to
Knight Ridder, owner of 31 newspapers across the country, is another
depressing case study. As Washington Post editors Leonard Downie Jr. and
Robert G. Kaiser observe in their book "The News About the News," Knight
Ridder has slashed costs by getting rid of newsroom staff and shrinking
the space their papers devote to news--all to increase the corporation's
profit margin. Wall Street has looked on approvingly as the company
cultivates its new dedication to the bottom line. One Merrill Lynch
analyst said Knight Ridder's "historic culture has been one of producing
Pulitzer Prizes instead of profits, and while we think that culture is
hard to change, it does seem to be happening."
We shouldn't begrudge corporations for putting profits ahead of the kind
of journalism that is indispensable to a democracy; they are
institutionally incapable of doing otherwise.
That's why we need to free journalism from the 10 or so corporations that
now dominate it. And the impetus for change will have to come from
ordinary people; it's not going to originate from inside the D.C. Beltway.
"Members [of Congress] have to start hearing in their home districts that
people want specific reforms of the media," Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.,
D-Ill., told McChesney and Nichols in their article for The Nation.
But what would a pro-democracy media-reform agenda look like? McChesney
and Nichols offer several intriguing ideas, among them:
Apply existing antimonopoly laws to the media and expand the reach of
these laws to restrict ownership of radio stations. Also, make an effort
to break the grip of newspaper chains on entire regions.
Establish a nationwide tier of low-power, noncommercial radio and
Allow taxpayers a $200 tax credit to apply to nonprofit media.
Lower mailing costs for nonprofit and mostly noncommercial publications.
Decommercialize local TV news with rules that require stations to offer
journalists an hour daily of commercial-free news time.
Is all of this achievable at once? Probably not, symposium participants
agreed. But conscientious citizens have to find ways to get the reform
ball rolling, because the alternative of leaving news gathering and
reporting to the CBSNBCABC CNNFOXKnightRidder behemoth is too
objectionable for any real democrat (note the small "d") to stomach.
RICK MERCIER is a columnist for The Free Lance-Star.
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