Waging the Media Battle

Our press system is failing in the United States, and we must be clear about why it is failing. The problem is not with poorly trained or unethical journalists; in fact, I suspect this may well be as talented and ethical as any generation of journalists in memory. Nor is the problem nefarious or corrupt owners.

Even if Rupert Murdoch and Sumner Redstone were to quit their jobs, change their names, and move off to New Mexico to do yoga and share a bong all day in a mountain cabin, the operations of the News Corporation and Viacom, respectively, would not change appreciably. Whoever replaced them would follow the same cues, with more or less success. But the logic of the system would remain intact.

That system is set up to maximize profit for a relative handful of large companies. The system works well for them, but it is a disaster for the communication needs of a healthy and self-governing society. So if we want to change the content and logic of the media, we have to change the system. And following my logic, we must change media content radically if we are going to have a viable self-governing society and transform this country for the better. As former Federal Communications Commission member Nicholas Johnson likes to put it: When speaking to activists and progressives, whatever your first issue of concern, media had better be your second, because without change in the media, progress in your primary area is far less likely.

Let’s begin with the obvious question: where does our media system come from? In mythology, it is the result of competition between entrepreneurs duking it out in the free market. In reality, our media system is the result of a wide range of explicit government policies, regulations, and subsidies. Each of the 20 or so giant media firms that dominate the entirety of our media system is the recipient of massive government largesse — what could be regarded as corporate welfare. They receive (for free) one or more of: scarce monopoly licenses to radio and television channels, monopoly franchises to cable- and satellite-TV systems, or copyright protection for their content. When the government sets up a firm with one of these monopoly licenses, it is virtually impossible to fail. As media mogul Barry Diller put it, the only way a commercial broadcaster can lose money is if someone steals from it.

If policies establish the nature of the media system, and the nature of the media system determines the nature and logic of media content, the nucleus of the media atom is the policy-making process. And it is here that we get to the source of the media crisis in the United States. Media and communication policies have been made in the most corrupt manner imaginable for generations. Perhaps the best way to capture the media policy-making process in the United States is to consider a scene from the 1974 Oscar-winning film The Godfather: Part II. Roughly halfway through the movie, a bunch of American gangsters, including Michael Corleone, assemble on a Havana patio to celebrate Hyman Roth’s birthday. This is 1958, pre–Fidel Castro, when Fulgencio Batista and the Mob ruled Cuba. Roth is giving a slice of his birthday cake, which has the outline of Cuba on it, to each of the gangsters. As he does so, Roth outlines how the gangsters are divvying up the island among themselves, then triumphantly states how great it is to be in a country with a government that works with private enterprise.

That is pretty much how media policies are generated in the United States. But do not think it is a conspiracy through which the corporate interests peacefully carve up the cake. In fact, as in The Godfather: Part II, where the plot revolves around the Corleone-Roth battle, the big media trade associations and corporations are all slugging it out with one another for the largest slice of the cake. That is why they have such enormous lobbying arsenals and why they flood politicians with campaign donations. But, like those gangsters in Havana, there is one crucial point on which they all agree: It is their cake. Nobody else gets a slice.

The solution to the media crisis now becomes evident. We need to have widespread, informed public participation in media policy-making. This will lead to better policies and a better system. There are no magic cure-all systems, and even the best policies have their weaknesses. But informed public participation is the key to seeing that the best policies emerge, the policies most likely to serve broadly determined values and objectives.

Imagine, for example, that there had been a modicum of public involvement when Congress lifted the national cap on how many radio stations a single company could own in 1996. That provision — written, as far as anyone can tell, by radio-industry lobbyists — sailed through Congress without a shred of discussion and without a trace of press coverage. It is safe to say that 99.9 percent of Americans had no clue. As a result, radio broadcasting has become the province of a small number of firms that can own as many as eight stations each in a single market. The notorious Clear Channel owns more than 1,200 stations nationally.

As a result of this single change in policy, competition has declined, local radio news and programming have been decimated (too expensive and much less competitive pressure to produce local content), musical playlists have less nutrition and variety than the menu at McDonald’s, and the amount of advertising has skyrocketed. This is all due to a change in policy — not to the inexorable workings of the free market. “There is too much concentration in radio,” John McCain said on the Senate floor in 2003. “I know of no credible person who disagrees with that.”

Radio has been destroyed. A medium that is arguably the least expensive and most accessible of our major media, that is ideally suited for localism, has been converted into a Wal-Mart–like profit machine for a handful of massive chains. This can only happen when policies are made under the cover of night. Welcome to Havana, Mr. Corleone.

Radio is instructive also because it highlights the propagandistic use of the term “deregulation.” This term is often used to describe the relaxation of media ownership rules, even by opponents of rules relaxation. The term deregulation implies something good: that people will be less regulated and enjoy more liberty. Who could oppose that? Radio broadcasting is the classic case of a deregulated industry. But just how deregulated is it? Try testing this definition of deregulation by broadcasting on one of the 1,200 channels for which Clear Channel has a government-enforced monopoly license. If you persist, you will do many years in a federal penitentiary. That is very serious regulation. In fact, all deregulation means in radio is that firms can possess many more government-granted and government-enforced monopoly licenses than before.

As the radio example indicates, we have a very long way to go to bring widespread and informed public participation to media-policy debates. The immediate barrier is the standard problem facing democratic forces in the United States: The corporate media political lobby is extraordinarily powerful and is used to having its way on both sides of the aisle in Congress. Moreover, corporate media power is protected from public review by a series of very powerful myths. Four of these myths in particular need to be debunked if there is going to be any hope of successfully infusing the public into media-policy debates.

The first myth is that the existing profit-driven U.S. media system is the American way, and that there is nothing we can do about it. The Founders, this myth holds, crafted the First Amendment to prevent any government interference with the free market. In fact, this could hardly be more inaccurate. Freedom of the press was seen more as a social right belonging to the entire population than as a commercial right belonging to wealthy investors. The establishment of the U.S. Post Office provides a dramatic case in point.

In the first generations of the republic, newspapers accounted for between 70 percent and 95 percent of post-office traffic, and newspapers depended upon the post office for the distribution of much of their circulation. A key question facing Congress was what to charge newspapers to be mailed. No one at the time was arguing that newspapers should pay full freight, that the market should rule; the range of debate was between those who argued for a large public subsidy and those who argued that all postage for newspapers should be free, to encourage the production and distribution of a wide range of ideas. The former position won, and it contributed to a massive flowering of print media in the United States throughout the early 19th century. What is most striking about this period, as Paul Starr argues in his new book, The Creation of the Media, is that there wasn’t rhetoric about free markets in the media, nor about the sacrosanct rights of commercial interests. That came later.

The second myth is that professional practices in journalism will protect the public from the ravages of concentrated private commercial control over the news media — and that therefore we need not worry about the media system or the policies that put it into place. The notion of professional journalism dates to the early 20th century, by which time the explicit partisanship of American newspapers had come to resemble something akin to the one-party press rule of an authoritarian society. The solution to this problem was to be professional autonomy for journalism. Trained professional journalists who were politically neutral would cover the news, and the political views of the owners and advertisers would be irrelevant (except on the editorial page). There were no schools of journalism in 1900; by 1920 many of the major schools had been established, often at the behest of major publishers.

Professional journalism was far from perfect, but it looked awfully good compared with what it replaced. And at its high-water mark, the 1960s and ’70s, it was a barrier of sorts to commercial media ownership. But the autonomy of journalists was never written into law, and the problem today is that as media companies have grown larger and larger, the pressure to generate profit from the news has increased. That has meant slashing editorial budgets, sloughing off on expensive investigative and international coverage, and allowing for commercial values to play a larger role in determining inexpensive and trivial news topics. In short, the autonomy and integrity of U.S. journalism has been under sustained attack. This is why journalists rank among the leading proponents of media reform. They know firsthand how the media system is overwhelming their best intentions, their professional autonomy. And unless the system changes, there is not hope for a viable journalism.

The third myth is probably the most prevalent, and it applies primarily to the entertainment media, though with the commercialization of journalism, it is being applied increasingly there, too. This is the notion that as bad as the media system may seem to be, it gives the people what they want. If we are dissatisfied with media content, don’t blame the media firms; blame the morons who demand it. This is such a powerful myth because it contains an element of truth. After all, what movie studio or TV network intentionally produces programming that people do not want to watch? The problem with it, as I detail in The Problem of the Media, is that it reduces a complex relationship of audience and producers to a simplistic one-way flow. In oligopolistic media markets, there is producer sovereignty, not consumer sovereignty, so media firms give you what you want, but only within the range that generates maximum profits for them. Supply creates demand as much as demand creates supply.

And some things are strictly off-limits to consumer pressure. Media content comes marinated in commercialism, although survey after survey shows that a significant percentage of Americans do not want so much advertising (65 percent, according to an April 2004 survey by Yankelovich Partners, believe they are “constantly bombarded with too much” advertising). But don’t expect a mad dash by media corporations to respond to that public desire. It is difficult, if not impossible, to use the market to register opposition to hypercommercialism — that is, to the market itself. Further, the media system clearly generates many things that we do not want. Economists call these externalities — the consequences of market transactions that do not directly affect the buyer’s or seller’s decision to buy or sell but have a significant effect, and can level massive costs, upon society.

Media generate huge negative externalities. What we are doing to children with hypercommercialization is a huge externality that will almost certainly bring massive social costs. Likewise, dreadful journalism will lead to corrupt and incompetent governance, which will exact a high cost on all of our lives, not just those who are in the market for journalism. The long and short of it is that the market cannot effectively address externalities; it will require enlightened public policy.

The fourth myth is that the Internet will set us free. Who cares if Rupert Murdoch owns film studios and satellite-TV systems and TV stations and newspapers? Anyone can launch a blog or a Web site and finally compete with the big guys. It is just a matter of time until the corporate media dinosaurs disappear beneath the tidal wave of new media competition.

The Internet and the digital-communications revolution are, in fact, radically transforming the media landscape, but how they do so will be determined by policies, not by magic= The Internet itself is the result of years of heavy public subsidy, and its rapid spread owed to the open-access “common carrier” policy forced upon telecommunications companies. How the Internet develops in the future will have everything to do with policies, from the copyright and the allocation of spectrum to open wireless systems to policies to assist the production of media content on the Internet. The one point that is already clear is that merely having the ability to launch a Web site does not magically transform media content. That will require public policy.

So, again, the moral of the story is clear: if we wish to change the nature of media content, we have to change the system. If we wish to change the media system, we need to change media policies. And if we wish to change media policies, we have to blast open the media policy-making process and remove it from the proverbial Havana patio.

My sense is that the more widespread public participation there is in media policy-making, the more likely we are to have policies to encourage a more competitive and locally oriented commercial media system, as well as a much more prominent and heterogeneous nonprofit and noncommercial media sector. But if there is a legitimate public debate, I will certainly live with the results, whatever they might be.

From the emergence of the corporate media system more than a century ago to the present, the dominant commercial interests have done everything within their considerable power to keep people oblivious to the policies made in their name but without their informed consent. There have been a handful of key moments when media policy-making became part of the public dialogue. For example, in the Progressive Era, the corruption, sensationalism, and pro-business partisanship of much of commercial journalism produced a crisis that led to widespread criticism of capitalist control of the press, and even to movements to establish municipal or worker ownership of newspapers. In the 1930s, a fairly significant movement arose that opposed the government secretly turning over all the choice monopoly radio channels to owners affiliated with the two huge national chains — NBC and CBS — and calling for the establishment of a dominant noncommercial broadcasting system. I will not keep you in suspense: These movements failed.

But following World War II, media policy-making has increasingly gravitated to the Havana patio. As a result, our media system is increasingly the province of a very small number of large firms, with nary a trace of public-service marrow in their commercial bones. Regulation of commercial broadcasting degenerated to farcical proportions, as there was no leverage to force commercial broadcasters to do anything that would interfere with their ability to exploit the government-granted and -enforced monopoly licenses for maximum commercial gain.

The prospects for challenging the corrupt policy-making process seemed especially bleak by the 1990s with the ascension of neoliberalism. Even many Democrats abandoned much of their longstanding rhetoric about media regulation in the public interest and accepted the “market über alles” logic.

So when the FCC announced it would review several of its major media-ownership rules in 2002, nearly everyone thought it was a slam dunk that the commission would relax or eliminate the rules. After all, a majority of the FCC’s members were on record as favoring the media firms getting bigger — even before they did any study of the matter. The media giants hated these rules and were calling in all their markers with the politicians so they could get bigger, reduce competition and risk, and get more profitable — and it didn’t look as if anything could prevent them from winning.

But over the course of 2003, the FCC’s review of media-ownership rules caused a spectacular and wholly unanticipated backlash from the general public. Literally millions of Americans contacted members of Congress or the FCC to oppose media concentration. By the end of 2003, members of Congress were saying that media ownership was the second-most-discussed issue by their constituents, trailing only the invasion and occupation of Iraq. It is safe to say that media issues never had cracked the congressional “top 20” list in decades. What was also striking was how much of the opposition came from the political right, as well as a nearly unified left. In September 2003, the Senate overturned the FCC’s media rules changes by a 55-to-40 vote; the House leadership is currently preventing a vote among representatives, and the matter is under review in the courts. If the Democrats win the White House, the FCC proposals will almost certainly be smashed.

But what drove millions of Americans to get active on media ownership in 2003 was not a belief that the status quo is quite good, or that the problem with rules changes is that they will remove the media from its exalted status. To the contrary, the movement was driven by explicit dissatisfaction with the status quo and a desire to make the system better. Years of frustration burst like an enormous boil when Americans came to the realization that the media system was not “natural” or inviolable but the result of explicit policies. Surveys showed that the more people understood media as a policy issue, the more they supported reform. Once that truth is grasped, all bets are off.

Coming off the media-ownership struggle, there is extraordinary momentum. Scores of groups have emerged over the past few years — local, national, and even global in scope — organized around a wide range of issues. In the coming few years, expect to see major progressive legislation launched to restore more competitive markets in radio and television; to have antitrust law applied effectively to media; to have copyright returned to some semblance of concern for protecting the public domain; to have viable subsidies put in place that will spawn a wide range of nonprofit and noncommercial media; to have a wireless high-speed Internet system that will be superior and vastly less expensive than what Mr. Roth and Mr. Corleone (the cable and telephone companies) have in mind; to have real limitations on advertising and commercialism, especially that aimed at children; to have protection for media workers, so they can do their work without onerous demands upon their labor by rapacious owners. The list goes on and on.

All of these measures would have been unthinkable just a year or two ago. Now they are in play. One of the exciting developments of the last year has been the recognition that media activism is flexible politically. Unlike campaign-finance reform, where anything short of fully publicly financed elections leaves open a crack that big money exploits to destroy the reforms, media activism allows for tangible piecemeal reforms. We may well get several hundred additional noncommercial FM stations on the dial this year, largely as a result of sustained activism. Those stations will be a tangible demonstration to people of what they can achieve, and they will spur continued activism. And media reform allows for a broad array of alliances, depending upon the issue, as the 2003 media-ownership fight demonstrated. Indeed, media activism might just be the glue to sustain a progressive democratic vision for the nation’s politics.

But it will not be an easy fight, not at all. This is a long-term struggle, a never-ending one. What we know is that it is impossible to have a viable democracy with the current media system, and that we are capable of changing this system. The future depends upon our being successful.

This column originally appeared in the July 2004 edition of The American Prospect.

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