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
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
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."
McChesney 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 do."
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
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. He can be reached at
Copyright 2001 The Free Lance-Star Publishing Company.