Forget About Suspense Novels; Read This for Terror

by Alice Cherbonnier

by Robert W. McChesney
Champaign, IL:
University of Illinois Press, 1999;
hardback; 427 pp; $32.95

     IMAGINE that 95% of the American people refused to permit advertising into their homes by way of radio or television, saying they did not want their homes to become “salesrooms.”

       That’s how things stood at the start of the broadcasting era in the late 1920s. Today we are so accustomed to a constant diet of commercial messages we can’t imagine things could be done differently. We are inundated with trivial drivel that too often passes for “news,” but we are unknowingly starved for real information.

       Robert W. McChesney can imagine things being different. A research associate professor in the Institute of Communications Research and the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, McChesney lays a powerful foundation in Rich Media, Poor Democracy for his plausible thesis that this nation is perilously close to no longer being a democracy.

       Instead, says McChesney, what we now have is a hypercommercialized society that is controlled by big business and big money, with little real power in the voting booth because the candidates we have to choose from got on the ballot thanks to contributions from the power elite, and are thus already part of what McChesney calls an oligarchy--government by a dominant class or clique.

       How did this come to pass?

       Back in the late 1920s the public was becoming aware of the potential of radio--whose airwaves, McChesney never lets us forget, are owned by the U.S. government in trust for the people. The education community back then saw radio as a great opportunity to inform and uplift the people. But they were not politically skilled, and their lobbying efforts were no match for those of the burgeoning radio industry, which convinced the government that privatization was the way to go.

       The idea of radio as a public service fell by the wayside, its death confirmed with the passage of the Communications Act of 1934. During that same period, the British Broadcasting Corporation and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, both created with the intent of public service, were established. The U.S. has never had a comparable public media system. McChesney shows that our pathetically funded public radio and public television have never been able to do the job they were intended to do, and in fact are now such pallid ghosts they might as well not exist at all.

       These are strong statements. The optimistic reader will think, “Oh, come on, now! Things aren’t all that bad!” And then will read on, and find out that yes, indeed, they are. And the resolute McChesney makes sure the reader can’t think he’s making things up; he backs up his facts and assertions with over 100 pages of footnote references.

       Here are some gleanings from Rich Media, Poor Democracy:

       The trend toward global media conglomerates is escalating, with fewer than a dozen transnational firms dominating the market already. When only a few firms dominate a market, they can cut back output, eliminate staff, charge higher prices, and earn bigger profits. The firms absorb potential competitors or related businesses to solidify their positions. New players find it difficult or impossible to muscle in on the established Big Guys.

       This process has been going on since the 1940s, but back then there were separate oligopolies for radio, television, newspapers, book or magazine publishing, music theater, and movies. Now these industries have blended, and have been added into conglomerations of businesses. This can result in potential conflicts of editorial interest--as well as opportunities for cross-pollination of products for maximum profitability.

       Six firms now dominate the movie industry; a half-a-dozen major chains control a large portion of newspaper publishing (with mergers now including the trend of “clustering,” as with The Sun owning Patuxent Publishing, among other local print media ventures).

       Seven companies dominate book publishing; five music groups control 87% of the U.S. market; and six cable companies have divied up that industry. And, since the Telecommunications Act of 1996 loosened up ownership restrictions on radio stations (among other astonishing give-aways the public has heard little about--but who would tell them?), over half the country’s 11,000 stations have changed ownership in the past three years, and there have been over 1,000 mergers of radio firms.

       Not only that, but the advertising industry has been busily consolidating, so it can get the best deals for its global-reach clients--deals unattainable by smaller clients who might want to compete.

       McChesney shows how the biggest companies can maximize profits through “vertical integration”--not only producing the media product, but distributing it through its subsidiaries. You know--produce a record, and then make sure it’s played frequently on your radio stations, or position your movie prominently in your own video store.

       Not to mention “horizontal integration,” where you sell licenses to use sounds and images of “characters” created by one of your companies to other companies. And then there are the paid “product placements” in radio, TV, and now internet spots, so the public can’t get away from commercial messages.

       Heck, there are even advertisements in textbooks now. And don’t forget Channel One in the schools, offering up hefty doses of advertisements in return for “current events” broadcasts.

       Some might say, “So what? Isn’t making profit good for everybody?”

       McChesney shows how such “neoliberal thinking”--the idea that the free market should be allowed to grow unfettered--should have nothing to do with something as important as informing the public.

       In the midst of all the hype, essential news stories may never be reported. Sure, we get plenty of news about sports, business, celebrities, and so on. Talk shows are cheap to produce, so we get plenty of them, too.

       But what about investigative journalism? What about telling the truth despite the risk of a slander or libel suit? Well, that could put a kink in the bottom line, couldn’t it?

       McChesney (and others, like Ben Bagdikian) believe professional journalists are seriously compromised in the current media environment. “To avoid the controversy associated with determining what is a legitimate news story,” McChesney asserts, “professional journalism relies upon official sources as the basis for stories.”

       Further, there seems to have to be a “news hook”--some timely event--before our media will delve into public issues.

       And then there’s a tendency of the dominant media to ignore stories that go against the power structure in this country--questioning the military budget, for example, or investigating back-scratching relationships in the military-industrial complex, or reporting on national security issues.

       McChesney notes that too often, when a journalist does get to publish a story on such topics, there is a lack of follow-up coverage, so the story drops out of sight.

       Focusing on stories that are cheap to produce, like celebrity profiles, accidents, and crime reports, bring the biggest profits while avoiding risk and expense. Coverage of international news, which is relatively expensive, has declined from 45% of network TV news coverage in the early 1970s to only 13.5% in 1995. But the number of crime stories on those programs tripled from 1990-92 to 1993-96.

       Another trend is globalization of the media, due to economies of scale. McChesney acknowledges this can be a progressive force in nations that previously had censored or limited media, but he points out that the industry’s profit-making juggernaut prevents the media moguls from “rocking the boat” and potentially jeopardizing their standing with the host nations’ powers-that-be--just as is the case right here at home.

       McChesney says we can forget about the idea of requiring radio and television networks to provide free airtime for our political candidates. Their lobbyists claim they already perform ample public service under the terms of their licenses and cannot be expected to forego lucrative political advertising. This pretty much guarantees the best-funded candidates will win.

       Will the Internet save us? At first it looked as if the Internet could be a counterbalance to commercial media interests, but McChesney offers ample evidence to show how, through such maneuvers as developing expensively-promoted portals and buying topmost positions on Internet search engines, the big guys are corralling the new medium, just as they did the airwaves. Less-well-funded independent media sources and alternative information can eventually expect to be marginalized in cyberspace just like everywhere else. But at least the public has ready access to them--for the moment, at least.

       McChesney notes that the Internet, like many other technological advances we take for granted, was developed at taxpayer expense. “The university scientists who designed the architecture of the Internet did so with the explicit intent to create an open and egalitarian communication environment,” writes McChesney. “They had a vision of a noncommercial sharing community of scholars and, eventually, all citizens of the world. It was to be a public utility.”

       But the Internet has been turned over to the private sector. The saturation of advertisements on prime sites shows how quickly the Internet is being transformed into yet another vehicle for commercialism. Already, the trend is to blend commercial and editorial material so the hapless user can’t escape advertisers at a given site.

       By the time McChesney lays out his devastating case that the public is being poorly served by the country’s profit-hungry media industry--which is, in turn, typically owned by megacorporations with broad interests to protect--the reader despairs that anything can be changed for the better.

       McChesney calls on activists (overworked, stressed, and often at odds with each other) and unions (dwindling and suffering from infighting and sometimes collusion with management) to cobble together their own alternative media on a greater scale than now exists, or else push the federal government to beef up public radio and television. You find yourself thinking, “Yeah, right, that’s really going to happen.”

       The opportunity to bring about change will more probably occur when the next wave of media arrives. McChesney gives us an interesting preview of possible options coming our way, and warns that these new forms of communication will likewise become the province of commercial interests with their focus on commercialism. “The key factor is to exercise public participation before an unplanned commercial system becomes entrenched,” he writes.

       This, of course, would require a concerted effort by an informed, activist public....

       Too bad.

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This story was published on October 6, 1999.