Calling It: Corporate concentration & hypercommercialization a threat to participatory democracy

Jan 1, 2001

Credit Mike Cramer

Republicans screamed bloody murder last election night when the TV networks prematurely called Florida for Al Gore - still more proof, supporters of George W. Bush fumed, of liberal bias in the news media.

Robert W. McChesney would not buy that premise. Probably he would argue that even if it were true - if all newsrooms were populated by liberal zealots - it would hardly matter.

That's because more and more media outlets are owned by fewer and fewer transnational corporations. Their entertainment and news programs, McChesney argues, naturally reflect the values and needs of those corporations. Hence, the fare is conservative, with conservatism understood to mean the defense of wealth and privilege.

General Electric, which owns NEC, for example, and Westinghouse, the owner of CBS, are both major defense contractors. It's not mere coincidence that their programming never challenges the level of Pentagon spending.

McChesney's premise almost seems to be a truism - how could it be otherwise? - but he's swimming against prevailing opinion. We are told that an ever-expanding multiplicity of channels and the anarchy of the Internet will so expand consumer choices that media monopolies will wither away. That's why the old broadcasting giants, NBC, CBS and ABC, are suffering declining market shares.

Alarms about the growing concentration of media ownership are sounded mostly by a few voices in the radical wilderness, including Ralph Nader and Noam Chomsky, who both wrote jacket blurbs for McChesney's book. The author notes that Ben Bagdikian's The Media Monopoly, published in 1983, counted about 50 media conglomerates. The 1997 edition of Bagdikian's book pegged the number of dominant firms at about 10.

McChesney insists that such concentration, and what he calls the "hypercommercialization" of all media, including the Internet, are a lethal threat to participatory democracy. He says citizens have no means for informed consent when media are gobbled up through secret deals made by big business with the help of powerful congressmen - who are kept in office by corporate campaign funds while depending on the media for news coverage.

Rich Media, Poor Democracy was published in 1999 by the University of Illinois Press and was recently issued in paperback by The New Press. A media historian and professor of communications research at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, McChesney makes his case with thoroughness and guts. The book is openly leftist in bias and carries a tone of righteous indignation rarely found in academic writing.

As if to validate McChesney's warnings, shortly after the book was written, the Tribune Co. (the Chicago Tribune conglomerate) merged with Times Mirror (the Los Angeles Times conglomerate). This put every major U.S. newspaper chain under a larger media conglomerate of print, broadcast, music and Internet services, with each branch of a firm avidly selling the other branches' wares. As a result, there is little room left for what McChesney would regard as public-service media.

In fact, if the Tribune Co. wants to, it can go ahead and buy the Daily News of Los Angeles. The company dumped the paper in 1986 to acquire the more lucrative KTLA-TV in the city. (As McChesney has observed in a newspaper interview, "a chimpanzee can make money running one of these stations.") Federal rules against cross-ownership of competing media in the same market forced the Tribune Co.'s 1986 move, but those rules were mostly waived by the Telecommunications Act of 1996. This scandalous gift of corporate welfare under the name of deregulation was passed by the Newt Gingrich Congress and signed by President Bill Clinton.

In short, politicians of all stripes have a stake in maintaining big-business control of media. How this state of affairs came about is reviewed by McChesney in the first two parts of the book, labeled "Politics" and "History." (Perhaps his argument would flow better if these sections were reversed.)

McChesney broke ground in a neglected field of media history by establishing in Telecommunications, Mass Media, and Democracy, published in 1993, that our system of privately held pieces of the publicly owned broadcast spectrum, now regarded as handed down from Mount Sinai, was invented in just seven years, 1928-35. For a time there was an avid campaign to preserve much of the spectrum for noncommercial use, but it failed. Since then, media owners have gotten valuable federal broadcast licenses more or less free, except for lobbying costs.

In his new book, McChesney writes, "It will seem tragic or comical, depending on one's mood and perspective, that these sham [Federal Communications Commission] hearings of 1934 were the only instance of a formal public deliberation on the matter of who should own and control broadcasting in the United States and for what purpose it should be conducted [emphasis in original]. This is a 'deliberative process' worthy of the old Soviet Union or the type of corrupt police state exemplified by Suharto's Indonesia or Mobutu's Zaire."

The unasked question here is why was it assumed that the airwaves should be a nationalized resource in the first place? By slighting this question, McChesney shows the limitations of his leftist position. He seems not to appreciate fully that capitalists wanted the feds to control station licensing. That way they could game the system to obtain government-sanctioned monopolies for their own profit.

The reasons given for public ownership are "scarcity," because the spectrum is finite, and "interference," because competing stations could jam each other's frequencies. "Scarcity" was dubious from the start. Real estate is scarce, too, but few urge that it be nationalized. "Interference" has been overtaken by technology, as cable, fiber optics and the coming of digital television eliminate the problem.

Certainly, McChesney is right that media are hypercommercialized, but again left-wing politics colors his analysis. He seems to live in a frightful world in which the popular will is thwarted at every turn by the rich and powerful. That consumers might know and get what they want is a foreign notion to him. By holding that consumers are brainwashed by advertising, McChesney is open to a charge of elitism.

The remedies offered at the conclusion of Rich Media, Poor Democracy are likewise unsatisfactory. They are disturbingly modest compared to the magnitude of the crisis as McChesney posits it.

He proposes a manifold expansion of public broadcasting, from a subsidy of $260 million a year to $5 billion to $10 billion; much stricter regulation of private broadcasting to limit violent and sexual content and advertising, and antitrust efforts to break up media oligopolies.

Here is expressed the unslakable impulse of reformers to keep writing more and more laws and regulations until they get it right. This appetite leads to typical reformist "if-only" thinking - if only leftists would organize to get public-service media their rightful due, popular culture would not be so debased.

That the Rupert Murdochs of the world would be much troubled if taxpayers were assessed $5 billion a year for the Public Broadcasting Service is hard to imagine. And probably they could live with whatever new laws and regulations were imposed by a federal government that - by McChesney's own analysis - they dominate.

A libertarian critique would wish that the avowed radical McChesney had proposed something truly radical: that the government denationalize the electromagnetic spectrum by auctioning it off. Private owners then would be allowed to buy property rights to spectrum and use it or sell it as they please. Technical innovations and programming diversity have been thwarted by federal management of the market. A truly free market, not the dismal current hybrid of the private and public sectors, might break up the cartel of big media faster than all the antitrust lawyers in the Justice Department could dream.

By the way. Republicans still muttering about TV giving Florida to Gore early on November 7 should know that it resulted from faulty sample-precinct and exit-poll data fed into computers, coupled with competitive pressure to be first to call the election.

It was a dumb thing to do, but not sinister. 

James L. Merriner, former political editor of the Chicago Sun-Times, is the author of Mr. Chairman: Power in Dan Rostenkowski's America, published by Southern Illinois University Press in 1999, and co-author of Against Long Odds: Citizens Who Challenge Congressional Incumbents, published by Praeger Publishers in 1999. He is writing Grafters and Goo Goos, a history of Chicago corruption and reform, for SIU Press.