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SELF-CENSORSHIP IS SHADOWING THE NEW MEDIA ERA


Norman Solomon

Months

have passed since America Online and Time Warner announced plans to merge. Big

news at the time, the formation of the world’s largest media firm is already old

hat. And so it goes: Like the rest of us, journalists quickly get used to the

latest consolidation of media power.

One

of the country’s most perceptive media critics, Herbert Schiller, died a few

weeks after the unveiling of AOL Time Warner. A professor of communication,

Schiller had been warning against such corporate trends for decades. He urged

people to consider the dire consequences when giant companies dominate and wield

the latest media technologies.

"It

is not necessary to construct a theory of intentional cultural control,"

Schiller observed in 1989. "In truth, the strength of the control process

rests in its apparent absence. The desired systemic result is achieved

ordinarily by a loose though effective institutional process."

Schiller’s

book "Culture, Inc." — subtitled "The Corporate Takeover of

Public Expression" — went on to cite "the education of journalists

and other media professionals, built- in penalties and rewards for doing what is

expected, norms presented as objective rules, and the occasional but telling

direct intrusion from above. The main lever is the internalization of

values."

Self-censorship

has long been one of journalism’s most ineffable hazards. The current wave of

mergers rocking the media industry is likely to heighten the dangers.

To

an unprecedented extent, large numbers of American reporters and editors now

work for just a few huge corporate employers — a situation that hardly

encourages unconstrained scrutiny of media conglomerates as they assume

unparalleled importance in public life. Like the Viacom-CBS merger announced

last fall, the joining of AOL and Time Warner puts a lot more journalists in an

awkward position: on the payrolls of media outlets that are very newsworthy as

major economic and social forces.

Many

of us grew up with tales of journalistic courage dating back to Colonial days.

John Peter Zenger’s ability to challenge the British Crown with unyielding

articles drew strength from the fact that he was a printer and publisher.

Writing in The New York Weekly, a periodical burned several times by the public

hangman, Zenger declared in November 1733: "The loss of liberty in general

would soon follow the suppression of the liberty of the press; for it is an

essential branch of liberty, so perhaps it is the best preservative of the

whole."

In

contrast to state censorship, which is usually easy to recognize,

self-censorship by journalists tends to be obscured. It is particularly murky

and insidious in the emerging media environment, with routine pressures to defer

to employers that have massive industry clout and global reach. We might wonder

how Zenger would fare in most of today’s media workplaces — especially if he

chose to denounce as excessive the power of the conglomerate providing his

paycheck.

Americans

are apt to quickly spot and automatically distrust government efforts to impose

prior restraint. But what about the implicit constraints imposed by the

hierarchies of enormous media corporations — and internalized by employees

before overt conflicts develop?

"If

liberty means anything at all," George Orwell wrote, "it means the

right to tell people what they do not want to hear." As immense

communications firms increasingly dominate our society, how practical will it be

for journalists to tell their bosses — and the public — what media tycoons do

not want to hear about the concentration of power in few corporate hands?

What

Schiller urged many years ago is now more crucial than ever: We need a vibrant

political movement that "would aim at reducing private monopoly power over

news, TV programs, films, music, data processing, publishing, and advertising.

It would encourage the availability, as much as possible, of information as a

social and inexpensive good, not, as increasingly the situation, as a salable

commodity."

While

mega-media machinery spins into even higher gears, Herb Schiller’s vision is

compelling. He saw that the status quo, shaped and constrained by the power of

money, routinely limits our sense of cooperative ingenuity. But very different

options remain, including "vastly expanded public support and encouragement

of noncommercial expression and creativity. Publicly financed newspapers,

magazines, television, radio, theater, and film would become a legitimate part

of the national social landscape…. The important consideration is to allow for

imaginative alternatives. Currently, the fashion is to deny that

possibility."

Norman

Solomon is a syndicated columnist. His latest book is "The Habits of

Highly Deceptive Media."