Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Mediacracy: a clear and present danger to democracy

In an editorial entitled "The New Mediacracy: A Threat to Democracy", Paul Kurtz wrote back in 1998 that:

Citizens of our democracy should be concerned about the increasing trend toward media concentration. This applies to television, cable, and radio networks, movie studios, newspaper chains, magazines, and book publishers. Democracy presupposes a free market of ideas. The concentration of the media in fewer hands has narrowed the opportunity for citizens to express alternative points of view. In point of fact, media conglomerates have emerged as the most powerful voice in society --- and we have become a mediacracy.
Kurtz also noted that

It is estimated that the newspapers that Rupert Murdoch News Corporation owns or controls in the United Kingdom have a circulation reaching 40%, and this says nothing of his control of television and satellite transmission. His influence on the media in the United States is growing. It is no secret that as an owner he is all too willing to inflict his own biased views on the editorial content of his properties.
I'll return to that in a moment. But more recently (2005) Kurtz in "Is America a Post-democratic society? How to preserve our republic" explained in more depth how the concept of a free press relates to democracy and how media consolidation threatens that freedom. I will quote him at length since he articulates this point better than I can:

The central principle upon which liberal democratic society rests is arguably its dependence on a free market of ideas. John Stuart Mill argued that a democratic society encourages the free exchange of ideas. John Dewey held that the method of pooled intelligence enables the public to make reflective judgments. Popper extolled the open society.

This concept had some meaning at a time when individual citizens could speak out on a soapbox at Hyde Park or Union Square or distribute pamphlets and leaflets on street corners, when many voices could be heard in the town hall, and every major city published several newspapers.

Today, the public square has been inundated by mass communications media, which all too often drown out dissenting viewpoints. Secularists and humanists opposed totalitarian societies, because the ministries of propaganda spewed forth the official party line and squelched opposing viewpoints. We are surely not at that point yet, but a kind of iron curtain is closing American society; a quasi-official propaganda line is too often the only one heard. For example: it is widely held that capital punishment is the only way to deal with murderers; that violence is the most effective response to evil; that long prison sentences are necessary for drug dealers and heavy users; that government is wasteful; that the free market is the only way to get anything done; that we need to privatize everything and judge all services by
the bottom line; that we should consider those who possess great wealth to be role models (e.g. Donald Trump); and that self-righteous chauvinistic nationalistic patriotism, which venerates God, country, and the flag, is the only posture to assume, ad nauseam!

In the media, too, we see again the influence of mega-corporate domination. Today, there are fewer and fewer large players: General Electric (NBC, CNBC, MSNBC); Time Warner (CNN); News Corp (Murdoch’s Fox network); Disney (ABC); and Viacom (CBS). Mega-corporations dominate television and radio, and they own most of the cable networks and movie production studios.

But mega-corporations also gobble up the print media and book and magazine publishers. I am familiar with book publishing, where I have seen independent publishers, in the thirty-five years since I founded Prometheus Books, undergo acquisition by mega-corporations. Similarly for book chains, distributors, and wholesalers. Five companies now control 75 percent of the U.S. book market. Two of these companies are transnational: Bertelsmann, a German mega-corporation, publishes 30 percent of the trade books in the United States; Pearson, a British company, dominates 30 percent of the American textbook market. In the United States, increasingly, chains own newspapers and magazines. In France, only two corporations, Groupe Industriel Marcel Dassaut and Lagar- dère, own 70 percent of the French press.

This phenomenon is true in other capitalist countries: for example, in Italy, Silvio Berlusconi, head of state and mega-corporate tycoon, dominates the television mass media. Media moguls in Germany, France, the United Kingdom, and other countries do the same, though in these countries the consolidation of corporate broadcasting is somewhat mitigated by the presence of alternative public television and radio networks—the United States still lacks a truly effective public broadcast system, despite the efforts of PBS and NPR.

The principal danger in this is a worrisome shift in the focus of programming. Media mega-corporations are interested first and foremost in profits; hence, they produce media programs in terms of their marketability. The criterion is what will sell, not what is true. Entertainment outmatches information and education. Inevitably, diversity in ideas and values dries up, and the parameters of the open, free, and democratic society are constrained. I am not overlooking the role of the Internet, which we all use. Once the Net was hailed as an anarchic domain of free expression; I suspect that a limited number of main players will come to dominate this medium as well. Granted that there is a modest split between the owners of Fox and NBC on the one side and ABC, CBS, and Time Warner on the other. But even here all such media conglomerates rarely criticize their own power.
To see just how consolidated the media has become, look at this graph from the Media Reform Information Center which explains that

In 1983, 50 corporations controlled the vast majority of all news media in the U.S. At the time, Ben Bagdikian was called "alarmist" for pointing this out in his book, The Media Monopoly. In his 4th edition, published in 1992, he wrote "in the U.S., fewer than two dozen of these extraordinary creatures own and operate 90% of the mass media" --controlling almost all of America's newspapers, magazines, TV and radio stations, books, records, movies, videos, wire services and photo agencies. He predicted then that eventually this number would fall to about half a dozen companies. This was greeted with skepticism at the time. When the 6th edition of The Media Monopoly was published in 2000, the number had fallen to six. Since then, there have been more mergers and the scope has expanded to include new media like the Internet market. More than 1 in 4 Internet users in the U.S. now log in with AOL Time-Warner, the world's largest media corporation.

In 2004, Bagdikian's revised and expanded book, The New Media Monopoly, shows that only 5 huge corporations -- Time Warner, Disney, Murdoch's News Corporation, Bertelsmann of Germany, and Viacom (formerly CBS) -- now control most of the media industry in the U.S. General Electric's NBC is a close sixth.
I would say to take a look at the chart and consider it this way: that dropping line you see is not just a representation of the diversity of media ownership, its a representation of the amount of democracy in America. That is democracy's life line, and it is bottoming out - it is flat lining.

At the bottom end of that precipitous decline (which was a deliberate goal of the conservative movement, as explained by David Brock in The Republican Noise Machine) you get the frivolous impeachement of Bill Clinton for lying in a civil deposition about a private consensual affair between consenting adults which resulted from a multi-year scandal mongering campaign orchestrated and funded by right-wing ideologues and executed via the noise machine media outlets that sprung up as a result of the media deregulations. Ronald Reagan had headed an administration that waged a covert and illegal war while trading arms with an enemy regime, yet he escaped impeachment. Clinton wouldn't admit to receiving oral sex from an intern and this was a crime so grave and threatening to the republic that impeachment was the only recourse.

Then in 2000 we have the election (sorta) of George W. Bush over Al Gore. How could this possibly have happened? If anyone had bothered to check Bush's record (as Molly Ivins and Lou DuBose did) and run news stories about that it would have been pretty apparent that Bush was not presidential material. But instead we had an election coverage that portrayed Bush as an honest straight shooter while Al Gore was a serial liar. There is an abundance of examples one could choose from to illustrate how bizzarro the news coverage was, but let's choose the most obvious: "Gore claimed to invent the internet". This was common knowledge and the most used example that Gore was a dishonest fabricating serial exaggerator. Too bad that assertion is false, as Gore never said or claimed to have invented the internet (see here, here, or here.) What Gore did say was that he took lead in legislating the creation of the internet while in Congress, and two of the prominent scientists who can actually take some credit for inventing the internet issued a statement defending Gore's remarks, concluding

There are many factors that have contributed to the Internet's rapid growth since the later 1980s, not the least of which has been political support for its privatization and continued support for research in advanced networking technology. No one in public life has been more intellectually engaged in helping to create the climate for a thriving Internet than the Vice President. Gore has been a clear champion of this effort, both in the councils of government and with the public at large.

The Vice President deserves credit for his early recognition of the value of high speed computing and communication and for his long-term and consistent articulation of the potential value of the Internet to American citizens and industry and, indeed, to the rest of the world.
So let's put this in perspective ... V.P Gore played a prominent role in the development of the internet, a technology that has revolutionalized human existence and has even led to the designation that we are now living in a new era - The Information Age - and he had that monumental feat count AGAINST him in the election. Really, stop and reflect on that for a moment. There is something seriously wrong, here.

Then of course, we have 2003, and the invasion of Iraq which has turned out to be possibly or probably the most disastrous military engagement in American history. And that was a war that was sold with misinformation and propaganda to the American people, not just by the Bush administration, but by our mainstream media. The recent Bill Moyers documentary Buying the War makes it abundantly clear how miserably our press failed this nation in this regard.

But although the entire media deserves some degree of condemnation for its failing to critically examine the claims of the White House, the worst offender of all just so happens to bring up back to Rupert Murdoch, whom I mentioned back at the start we'd return too. Take a look at this to see that Fox News viewers were more misinformed about Iraq than individuals getting their news from any other sources (although you can see that CBS didn't lag too far behind).

But if you watch the Buying the War documentary, you see that's it more than just misinformation that Fox News was responsible for. Fox actively shilled for the White House and created an atmosphere of intimidation where anyone who questioned the notion that we should invade Iraq or questioned the quality of the intelligence being offered as justification had their patriotism questioned. And it is in the pages of the Murdoch owned Weekly Standard and New York Post that we got and continue to get unending propaganda for the President's agenda in Iraq, with these publications refusing to acknolwedge that they have been consisently wrong about Iraq for the last four years or that they have a vested interest in reality denial given that the Iraq invasion/war was very much a product conceived of by the neoconservatives to whom those publications give a platform to. Yet they still continue to push and promote the neoconservative agenda that is animating this presidency while characterizing any and all critics as "unserious" despite widespread public rejection of that very agenda.

Yet even so, these serially wrong propagandists such as Bill Kristol continue to get rewarded by being accepted into the mainstream "liberal" media. Or as Glenn Greenwald puts it in his review of the documentary

The fraud that was manufactured by our government officials and endorsed by our media establishment is one of the great political crimes of the last many decades. Yet those who are responsible for it have not been held accountable in the slightest. Quite the contrary, their media prominence -- as Moyers demonstrates -- has only increased, as culpable propagandists and warmongers such as Charles Krauthammer (now of Time and The Washington Post), Bill Kristol (now of Time), Jonah Goldberg (now of The Los Angeles Times, Peter Beinert (now of Time and The Washington Post), and Tom Friedman (revered by media stars everywhere) have all seen their profiles enhanced greatly in our national media.

And while Judy Miller became the scapegoat for the media's failures, most of the media stars responsible for the worst journalistic abuses -- from Michael Gordon to Tim Russert to Fred Hiatt to most of The Washington Post, to say nothing of the Fox stars and cogs of the right-wing noise machine -- continue merrily along as before, with virtually no recognition of fault and no reduction in their platforms.
Indeed, despite the grave failing of our press institutions, they continue on as if everything is par for the course. What's worse, they continue to head the direction of "Foxification" - this Sunday on 60 Minutes Leslie Stahl actually told Lou Dobbs that he's not being "fair and balanced." My jaw dropped at that ... "fair and balanced" is a marketing slogan from Fox - which actually says with a wink that Fox is partisan for the Republican party - not a journalistic goal. David Sirota offers more explanation here.

I don't want to overload this post more than I already have (as I haven't even gotten to the issue that led me to write it in the first place) but I'll just here say that I'll in future posts being commenting on the ongoing poverty of our media.

So now this. Rupert Murdoch has announced plans to purchase the Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones & Company. The New York Times reports

¶ First, the deal will be made at some point, regardless of what the Bancroft family said last week. Brute-force capital, like flood waters, always finds a way to break through.

¶ Despite his allaying words to the contrary, Mr. Murdoch would operate The Journal, including its editorial operations, as he sees fit. As Mr. Murdoch himself has said throughout his relentlessly acquisitive career, he buys things to run things.

¶ There is business synergy in the deal — between the News Corporation’s proposed Fox Business cable TV channel and The Journal, for example. But far more important is Mr. Murdoch’s own version of synergy, which puts business, media and government all in a single vertical. Owning The Journal would give him a powerful leverage in all three.
This is simply .... insane. The Wall Street Journal is one of the most respected papers in the nation, yet it in its Editorial section has been pushing right-wing propaganda for some time now (also documented in Brock's book on the noise machine) that is often refuted by the paper's front page reporting. With Murdoch at the helm, however, one would expect that to change. As Danny Schecter comments at News Dissector:

Murdoch’s businesses already are “built on a unique capacity to collaborate with established power—whether legitimate or otherwise—while pretending to rebel against it,” explains Bruce Page in the Murdoch Archipelago. This book offers insight into a history of cunning and deceptive stratagems that threaten democracy.
I shudder to think how much power Murdoch would be able to leverage with these new assets added to his media empire. One of the primary,immediate, and imperative goals of all concerned citizens should be to urge their representatives to overturn the media deregulations that have led us to this sorry state of affairs. Otherwise democracy is going to continue to flat-line until it is dead, because when a handful of powerful of megaconglomerates working in collusion with a government power structure can control the medium by which information is disseminated, they can subvert the democratic process, as evidenced by the invasion of Iraq, and how dangerously close this administration has come to dismantling our most basic and cherished democratic liberties.

And notice how quietly this seems to happen, with so little uproar. With the Wall Street Journal and the Dow Jones in the arsenal, I'm guessing it will be a lot easier to fabricate the alternate reality that the 30% of the country who still support Bush seem to reside in.

Update: This op-ed in today's Washington Post further explains why Murdoch should not be the owner of Dow Jones.

Update 2: Here is a link from the Columbia Journalism Review which documents the media holdings of News Corp. Another issue to consider is that of interlocking directorates. To see a list of News Corp's intelocking directorates, see here.

I might have also pointed out that both Summer Redstone (President of Viacom, the parent company of CBS News) and Rupert Murdoch after 9/11 pledged to use their entertainment industry to help the Bush administration combat terrorism. Conveniently, they did so at the same time the were lobbying the FCC for further media ownership deregulations ... and recall the link provided earlier showed that FOX and CBS audience members were the most misinformed group of news watchers.

1 comment:

Richard Jennings said...

For what its worth, you can get free access to wall street journal articles from http://www.congoo.com