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Useless Information

Are we all just mindless receptacles for the crass output of megamedia monsters? The evidence says no, but that's not stopping Robert McChesney.

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Surely the Information Armageddon is at hand. In 1983 crusading-reporter-turned-journalism-professor Ben Bagdikian deplored the fact that 50 corporations controlled most of what Americans saw, heard, and read. Their CEOs, he observed with alarm, could all meet in one large room.

During the 1990s that room seemed to keep getting smaller, as merger piled on merger. In 1999 Robert McChesney counted just eight media megacorporations in the "dominant" or "first tier" group (though he didn't define those terms): Time Warner (now AOL Time Warner), Disney, Viacom, Seagram, News Corporation (Rupert Murdoch's company), General Electric, AT&T, and Sony. Concentrated ownership makes a real difference, McChesney argued. In 1998, for instance, CNN (an AOL Time Warner property) quickly backed away from a story it had run on the possible use of nerve gas on U.S. deserters in Vietnam. "A story that took nearly a year to produce, was reviewed by scores of CNN officials along the way before being broadcast, and was the work of several of CNN's most respected and experienced producers was shot down in two weeks without the producers having a bona fide chance to defend themselves," McChesney writes. CNN's Ted Turner said the story lacked "evidence to convict," an opinion that muzzled not just a few local news outlets, but a worldwide news system. With people like him in charge, it seems reasonable to expect less critical inquiry and more corporate propaganda every morning with our cornflakes.

Then again, maybe the Information Utopia is at hand. Until the 1980s news junkies outside of big cities were at the mercy of their town's single newspaper and a few local TV stations. Now cable, the Internet, and physical copies of metropolitan papers are available everywhere. In Chicago the Tribune has taken to publishing writers from the alternative press as well as promoting from within. Colonel McCormick's former paper regularly publishes the commentary of Salim Muwakkil, senior editor at the leftist newsmagazine In These Times. (Muwakkil shows no sign of selling out; he's used his platform to excoriate President Bush's return to "gunship diplomacy" as immoral and counterproductive.) Former Reader contributor Cate Plys's acid take on the Chicago City Council now appears in the Tribune as well.

On TV the message may be puny, but the faces delivering it are no longer all straight white males, as they were three decades ago. Despite the growing concentration of publishers and retailers and despite electronic competition, more books are being published than ever before. And the advent of the Internet has done more for minority viewpoints than any media reform could have.

How can we have Armageddon and Utopia at the same time? Robert McChesney poses the question on the first page of his 1999 book Rich Media, Poor Democracy, and he seems well qualified for the daunting task of answering it. He's been in the trenches--in 1979 he was founding publisher of the Rocket, a Seattle-based rock magazine--and he's a research professor at the Institute of Communications Research and the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He has published painstaking analyses of the crucial decisions that privatized the radio spectrum in the 1930s and have shaped electronic media ever since. Rich Media, Poor Democracy won a Frank Luther Mott-Kappa Tau Alpha award for the best research-based journalism and mass- communication book published during 1999 and the Goldsmith Book Prize from the Joan Shorenstein Center for Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University. His ideas retain their appeal--in 2000 the book came out in paperback, and a portion of his continuing prolific output can be viewed at www.robertmcchesney.com.

McChesney is a man of the left. He'd like to "detach the control of capital over our journalism and culture," and he does his bit against capitalism as one of three editors of the 52-year-old independent socialist magazine Monthly Review and as an adviser to Chicago Media Watch, a group that goads local media to be more open to leftist viewpoints. Still, he's not altogether doctrinaire. Much of his media critique, which he has continued with vigor since September 11, appeals to those who may not share all of his political views--populists unnerved by any concentration of power; parents worried about media commercialism, sex, and violence; journalists concerned about the future of investigative reporting; and anyone who wonders why public broadcasting accepts sponsorship money from corporate criminals like Archer Daniels Midland but not from labor unions.

Unfortunately, neither in his book nor anywhere else has McChesney answered the question he posed: how can Information Armageddon coexist with Information Utopia? He just asserts that the Information Utopia is an illusion. The current handful of media owners, he says, push tawdry entertainment, trivial news, and endless commercials on us at the expense of information that might help us become better citizens. Therefore he'd like to see the federal government break up AOL Time Warner and the rest of the conglomerates. After that, he'd like media owners strictly regulated to reduce commercialism and given some securely funded nonprofit competition.

These proposals have some merit, but Rich Media, Poor Democracy does little to back them up. It's a Potemkin book. McChesney defines "democracy" so narrowly and "media" so broadly that his diagnosis and many of his prescriptions are incoherent and irrelevant. Worse, he can't decide whether Americans are Disneymatronic victims of corporate mind control or a resentful, oppressed multitude just waiting to shell out for a premium Noam Chomsky channel as soon as it becomes available.

He deserves credit for mentioning facts that don't support his conclusions. For instance, he opposes megamedia because they increasingly commercialize American culture, but notes in passing that the percentage of the U.S. gross domestic product spent on advertising has fluctuated between 2.1 and 2.4 percent for decades. A less honest book would have omitted this inconvenient fact. A better book would have explained it. McChesney simply mentions the number, then forgets it.

McChesney is smarter than this summary makes him sound. But being smart won't get him out of the dilemma that has stymied the left ever since the Great Depression failed to make its expected return at the end of World War II: If you loathe capitalism and believe in democracy, what do you do when most people exhibit a liking for both? I remember a professor posing a similar question when I was a student radical in 1968. I didn't have an answer then, and McChesney has none now.

First and worst, McChesney fudges and exaggerates when he could have been precise. He echoes Bagdikian's claims that 50 media companies "dominated" the U.S. in 1983 and that only 10 did so in 1997. But what percentage of the media do these behemoths control? He doesn't say. Fortunately, Benjamin Compaine of MIT's Internet & Telecoms Convergence Consortium has done the work, published in the 2000 edition of Who Owns the Media?, a book that's received much less attention than McChesney's. Compaine's figures make it plain that McChesney and his followers are living in a fantasy world.

Compaine finds that in 1986 the top 50 media companies received 79 percent of industry revenues. In 1997 their take had risen to 82 percent. How about the top eight? In 1986 they had 32 percent of all revenues, and in 1997 they garnered--36 percent. Using a standard measure of market concentration, the Herfindahl-Hirschmann index, Compaine finds that the media industry became slightly more concentrated between 1986 and 1997, but remained "one of the most competitive major industries in United States commerce." (This information is at users.primushost.com/bcompain/WOTM/tprc99.htm.)

McChesney writes that today's enormous media firms "exceed by a factor of 10 the size of the largest media firms of just fifteen years earlier." Compaine's figures show nothing of the sort. In 1986 the largest media firm was CBS, with revenues of $4.7 billion, or about 6 percent of all media revenues. In 1997 the largest media firm was Time Warner, with revenues of $22 billion--or just over 9 percent of all media revenues, because the size of the pie had tripled in the meantime. McChesney's statement is misleading twice over: the revenue growth is up by a factor of five, not ten, and because the media industry as a whole was growing, a fivefold increase wasn't enough to even double the top player's market share. (In an on-line debate with Compaine at www.opendemocracy.com, McChesney tried to play down the statistics.)

Of course McChesney could have made his case that media giantism is bad for us without indulging in hyperbole, but the numbers don't confirm the dire picture of near-monopolistic control upon which he bases his appeal. The most important difference between McChesney and Compaine is that Compaine--acting in a way that's genuinely democratic and genuinely scholarly--provides the numbers so that his readers can judge for themselves whether they think corporate concentration is a problem. McChesney does not.

You might think from his book's title that McChesney believes the megamedia are undermining our democracy. But he doesn't believe that--because he doesn't think the United States is a democracy. In his view, it's not enough to have individual rights and freedoms, including the right to vote, guaranteed by the Constitution and the legal system and the culture at large. He acknowledges that these may be necessary conditions for democracy, but says they aren't sufficient.

Democracy, according to McChesney, is a system where "the many should and do make the core political decisions." Furthermore, he believes that if most people aren't busy making core decisions and show little interest in doing so, then there's no democracy. It couldn't possibly mean that they think things are going OK. "A society like the United States which has rampant inequality, minimal popular involvement in decision making, and widespread depoliticization can never be regarded as democratic in an honest use of the term."

Well, if we aren't, then who is? McChesney names no names. History, however, suggests that when entire populations are actively politicized--as Americans were in 1860, the French in 1790, and the British in 1640--that's not a sign of healthy democratic decision making. It's a sign that the normal decision-making processes (democratic or not) have broken down and that "core political decisions" are about to be made by civil war and revolution. No wonder McChesney doesn't tell us where to find democracy as he defines it.

So when McChesney accuses the megamedia of degrading democracy, he doesn't mean that they're undermining our current form of government. He means that they aren't helping to create a society in which most of us would spend our spare time at public meetings discussing how to organize the economy, rather than living our lives. In fairness, he doesn't take his definition of democracy too seriously when he gets down to exposing the malfeasance of the media moguls. In the book's most concrete chapters, he tells how media lobbyists mischievously avoided public scrutiny both in the 1930s and again in the 1990s. The basic stratagem was to avoid public discussion as much as possible--if necessary, to put it off to a later day that might never come.

That's how it worked when Congress, in the Telecommunications Act of 1996, gave away a portion of the electronic spectrum valued at between $40 billion and $100 billion to existing TV broadcasters. "In 1995, the NAB [National Association of Broadcasters] and the top executives in the broadcasting industry used their influence to have a clause quietly added to the prospective act that would require the FCC to give each existing television broadcaster an additional six megahertz of spectrum so they could begin broadcasting simultaneously in digital and cable," writes McChesney. "When word leaked about the giveaway, a minor crisis erupted." At first, Senate majority leader Bob Dole objected to what he called "corporate welfare." Then he backed down in the expectation that the Senate would hold public hearings on the matter next session. After Dole resigned to run for president, his successor, Trent Lott, quickly made it clear that he would hold no such hearings and gave the FCC the green light to start dispensing the freebies. This episode rightly makes the reader indignant--but it's because the broadcasters' greedy and shameful maneuvers violated the existing norms of the existing American democracy.

If McChesney's definition of democracy is too narrow, his definition of the media is too broad. He says the commercial media system enjoys First Amendment rights because it's supposed to satisfy the public's need to know. This may be true of outlets that deliver news. But his notion of the "commercial media system" includes Disneyland, Monday Night Football, and even the billboards along the Tri-State. These entities may entertain (if we're lucky), but no one expects them to deliver information the public needs to know. McChesney's point doesn't apply to them--but it would sound much less portentous if he didn't say "the media."

Similarly, it's not at all clear what McChesney has in mind when he advocates the creation of a "viable nonprofit, noncommercial media sector." Practically every Web site in existence is already not-for-profit. So does he think that scarce tax or foundation dollars should go to start up a chain of nonprofit newspapers? That there's an urgent national need for publicly owned bookstores in every city?

It seems that when McChesney says "media" he usually means radio and television news. That's the subject of his scholarly work. That's where all too many Americans get their alleged news. And that's where he makes a good case, with great historical detail, that commercialism need not rule all the airwaves all the time. The limited electronic spectrum could have been--and still could be--managed very differently than it is now. Part of it could have been set aside for government or other noncommercial use. The fact that most stations are commercial isn't a law of nature or of capitalism; rather it's the result of decisions made by the U.S. Congress in the 1930s with an absolute minimum of public scrutiny. I'm glad that McChesney's leftist proclivities led him to ferret this out, since we can't expect the Cato Institute or industry-oriented researchers to tell us about noncommercial ways of doing things.

The sheer awfulness of most broadcast news certainly supports McChesney's belief that it needs nonprofit competition. If broadcast TV and radio were our only sources of information, we would be in a bad way indeed. But they aren't, and media megacorporations have been remarkably ineffective at shutting down alternative points of view. I regularly check up on the current issues of the Nation and In These Times at Barnes & Noble (an on-line partner with megagiant Bertelsmann). I use my Internet browser (courtesy of megagiant AOL Time Warner, which owns Netscape) to find out what's up with Z magazine and the Independent Media Center.

Clearly, McChesney's problem with "the media" isn't that corporations suppress left-wing viewpoints. If anything, those viewpoints are more accessible now than ever before. His problem is that not enough Americans are choosing to turn off Survivor: Africa and click on www.indymedia.org. But whose fault is that?

McChesney can't believe--doesn't dare believe--that the media moguls might just be giving Americans what they want. To avoid doing so, he does three things.

First, he whines. "The formal right to establish free press is exercised by dissidents on the margins, but the commercial system is such that these voices have no hope to expand beyond their metaphorical house arrest." I'm not sure what this means, but if Sheriff Sheahan put me under metaphorical house arrest I could still go outside whenever I wanted.

Second, and more credibly, McChesney cites opinion polls in which people say they hate commercials and commercialism. But it should be obvious that those being polled are shading the truth. Otherwise they'd turn off their TVs and computers, talk to one another, and play softball in the sunshine. In other words, they would do to Viacom and Fox News what they're doing to the Minnesota Twins and what they did to Carol Marin's Channel Two newscast in 2000--render them commercially impossible by exercising consumer sovereignty.

Back in the 1930s, before people were habituated to broadcast commercials, Americans also told pollsters how much they detested advertising on the radio--and Graham Spry, a pioneer of public broadcasting in Canada, believed them. McChesney quotes his testimony before the Canadian House of Commons in 1932, though he doesn't seem to realize its import. Spry was confident that quality noncommercial alternative radio beamed down from the north country would wreak havoc on U.S. radio stations dependent on advertising: "If, for example, the Canadian chain offered two hours of the best possible jazz programs over high-powered [AM] Canadian stations, which, at night, would invariably cover a large area of the United States, would not every listener, Canadian and American, tune in on Canadian non-advertising programs, in preference to eight 15 minute American advertising programs, in which there would be 16 advertising speeches occupying from 7 to 25 per cent of the time? Would not Canadians, would not Americans, prefer programs without advertising to programs advertising corn cures, cigarettes, beauty aids, mouth washes? The answer is self evident."

Finally, McChesney tries to bolster his case with another leftist chestnut, implying that media megacorporations can profit from people against their will. This would be hard to explain, so he doesn't try. In fact, he provides evidence for the opposite point of view, describing how Sony's "lame and formulaic" 1998 movie Godzilla tanked at the box office. The poor turnout for the movie "sent shudders down Wall Street, as so many firms had partnered with [Sony]." Yet within two pages he returns to sneering at corporations that, he says, are interested only in satisfying advertisers and making a profit--as if they could do so without attracting viewers.

All of these arguments have a surface plausibility because buying a movie ticket or turning on the tube or picking up a magazine is an inherently ambiguous act. It doesn't mean we approve wholeheartedly of what we get, as the defenders of corporate media would have it. But it surely doesn't mean that we disapprove of what we watch and read, as McChesney wishfully implies. We might be happy with what there is. Or we'll take what there is even if we might prefer something a bit more elevated (like a real presidential debate that included Ralph Nader and Harry Browne) or something beneath even the dreams of Jerry Springer (like live gladiators fighting to the death). Or we might just be bored with our own lives and want a distraction. But what we tune in and pick up at the newsstand--if we do either--is a better barometer of what we'll put up with than what we tell a pollster on the telephone.

Of course given the chance, some of us might improve our taste. "As much as demand creates supply, supply creates demand," McChesney writes. "Media conglomerates are risk-averse and continually return to what has been commercially successful in the past. Over time, this probably creates a demand [for] the fare that is commonly presented. There is little incentive in the system to develop public taste over time. (Often, so-called audience research is a circular process where consumers are permitted to choose from a narrow slate of the sort of commercially lucrative selections that are already widely distributed.)"

Note that at least for the length of the above paragraph, McChesney's no longer concerned about obeying the will of the people. He's back in step with his fellow academics and journalists--myself included--who think that most Americans' taste in news and entertainment is deplorable and who would like them to rise to our level. Fair enough, but this fits oddly with the rest of his political package.

Whether our taste is to be improved or just catered to in a slightly less degraded way (think NPR on the Super Bowl), McChesney wants to do more than simply replace big media capitalists with small ones. He wants to replace capital itself. That means nonprofit radio and TV stations, which are the heart of McChesney's hopes for our media future. Of them he says two things. First, they must be "accountable to the public." Second, they must be able to "escape the control of the state or dominant political forces."

Both phrases are leftist boilerplate, and it doesn't seem to occur to him that they contradict each other. What could "accountable to the public" mean other than being subject to the "dominant political forces" in society? Who else should hold broadcasters accountable in a democracy? Amway distributors? The Earth Liberation Front? Pat Robertson?

This contradiction aside, nonprofit media run the constant risk of degenerating into a series of audio and video press releases (think cable access) more tedious than Regis Philbin. McChesney realizes this and offers some suggestions to his friends in the labor movement, who he hopes will help fund nonprofit media. "Labor needs to be willing to grant considerable editorial leeway to the media it subsidizes," he writes. "Unless it does so, the media will tend to be timid, overly concerned with pleasing labor's political hierarchy, and unlikely to produce a medium with vitality and broad appeal."

Good advice. But will whoever's running the AFL-CIO feel like listening to McChesney rather than to complaints from dues-paying union members? Once more, McChesney doesn't dare mention that in the commercial world he abhors we don't need to hope that a benevolent leader will take charge. His advice is being implemented all the time by consumers, who discipline media that lack "vitality and broad appeal" in the most decisive way possible--by turning them off.

Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Times by Robert McChesney, University of Illinois Press, $34.95 (hardcover), New Press, $17.95 (paperback).

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Mark S. Fisher.

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