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4448Pick Up Your Swords -- It's Time to Slay the Corporate-Media Beast

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  • Islamic News and Information Network
    Aug 3, 2002
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      Pick 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
      violent crimes.

      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
      entertaining presentation."

      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
      television stations.

      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.

      For More Information:
      Visit the CORPORATE MEDIA section at

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