The Global Media


David Peterson

 

Edward S. Herman and Robert W.
McChesney are two of the most important critics of the global
media scene. A Professor Emeritus of Finance at the Wharton
School of the University of Pennsylvania, and a contributor
to Z Magazine since its founding in 1988, Edward
Herman is the author of numerous books, including a number of
corporate and media studies. These include Corporate
Control, Corporate Power
(1981), the two volume Political
Economy of Human Rights
(1979) and Manufacturing
Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media
(1988),
both of which he co-authored with Noam Chomsky, as well as The
"Terrorism" Industry: The Experts and Institutions
That Shape Our View of Terror
(1989), which he
co-authored with Gerry O’Sullivan. Robert McChesney is
an Associate Professor of Journalism and Mass Communication
at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. McChesney is the
author of Telecommunications, Mass Media and Democracy:
The Battle for the Control of U.S. Broadcasting, 1928-1935

(1993), and more recently Corporate Media and the Threat
to Democracy
(1997). Last summer, Cassell published their
recent collaboration, a study called The Global Media: The
New Missionaries of Corporate Capitalism
.

 

PETERSON: You argue in The Global
Media that before we’ll ever be able to understand
what’s new about the "global media,"
we’ll need to understand the "institutions of
global capitalism." Well, what are the major
institutions?

HERMAN: The major institutions of
global capitalism are the transnational corporations (TNCs),
the international organizations formed to serve global
capital or adapted to that service over time, and the
national governments that also work in the interest of global
capital. The most important of the international
organizations are the International Monetary Fund (IMF),
World Bank, and World Trade Organization (WTO), although
there are many others. As global capital has strengthened,
more and more institutions are bent to serve its interests,
and an organization like the WTO, formed under the GATT
agreement in the late stages of this evolution, is explicitly
designed to serve the needs of global capital.

Global capital wants international
trade and investment rights to prevail over the desires of
local populations. It also wants to minimize welfare state
expenditures, business tax burdens, threats of inflation,
union organization, and environmental constraints; and the
IMF, World Bank, and WTO strive to carry out these aims.
These organizations have a common set of goals, reflecting
the power of TNCs, transmitted to them by the national
governments serving the same interests.

Both in terms of the depth of the
changes that have taken place, and their rapidity, the past
two decades have seen major transformations in the nature of
corporate capitalism. But which changes have been the most
important?

EH: The most important changes over the
past several decades have been corporate capitalism’s
increasingly global perspective and reach, its increasing
intolerance of welfare state commitments and labor
organization and the social contract, and its willingness to
attack these in various modes of intensified class warfare.
But the list continues. An increase in the centralization of
economic power, both within states and globally, at the same
time has been matched by an increasing competition between
the media giants, and by their willingness to attack rivals
by crossing product lines, vertically integrating, and
invading one another’s territories.

And whether national or
transnational, corporate capital has a certain ideology, a
veil that surrounds it that helps it to justify its
consequences to its victims.

EH: That’s right. The main element
in corporate ideology is the belief in the sublimity of the
market and its unique capacity to serve as the efficient
allocator of resources. So important is the market in this
ideology that "freedom" has come to mean the
absence of constraints on market participants, with political
and social democracy pushed into the background as supposed
derivatives of market freedom. This may help explain the
tolerance by market-freedom lovers of market-friendly
totalitarians—Pinochet or Marcos.

A second and closely related
constituent of corporate ideology is the danger of government
intervention and regulation, which allegedly tends to
proliferate, imposes unreasonable burdens on business, and
therefore hampers growth. A third element in the ideology is
that growth is the proper national objective, as opposed to
equity, participation, social justice, or cultural advance
and integrity. Growth should be sustainable, which means that
the inflation threat should be a high priority and
unemployment kept at the level to assure the inflation threat
is kept at bay. The resultant increasingly unequal income
distribution is also an acceptable price to pay.

Privatization is also viewed as highly
desirable in corporate ideology, following naturally from the
first two elements—market sublimity and the threat of
government. It also tends to weaken government by depriving
it of its direct control over assets, and therefore has the
further merit of reducing the ability of government to serve
the general population through democratic processes. It is of
course a coincidence that privatization yields enormous
payoffs to the bankers and purchasers participating in the
sale of public assets.

The Global Media characterizes the
United States as "the country in which market domination
of the media has been most extensive and complete." Tell
me what, exactly, it means for the "market" to
"dominate" the media?

McCHESNEY: It means that capitalists
control the media and they do so to maximize profits, often
through selling advertising to other large corporations. In
most other nations there has been a long tradition of having
a large segment of the media—especially
broadcasting—removed from commercial control and
operated by some sort of nonprofit, noncommercial agency. But
it was not exclusively broadcasting. In Scandinavia there has
been the practice of subsidizing newspapers and magazines to
keep alive diverse points of view. Left to the market, the
media system tends to produce a narrow range of viewpoints
that comports to those of the upper class, and commercial
pressures also downplay public affairs and journalism.

In the current era of neoliberalism all
of these subsidies for diverse print media and for nonprofit
broadcasting are under attack. Around the world the trend is
toward predominately commercial systems. In Germany and
Sweden, for example, the public broadcasters have seen their
audience shares cut in half in the 1990s, as they face new
competition from the proliferation of commercial channels on
cable and satellite systems. The British Broadcasting
Corporation, arguably the most successful public broadcaster
in the world, has effectively become a full blown commercial
enterprise in its global operations. It is a partner with the
U.S. cable company TCI and some of TCI’s subsidiaries.
The BBC recognizes that it will eventually see its public
subsidy cut so it hopes that by becoming profitable outside
of Britain it can continue to be a noncommercial venture in
the UK. The jury is out on that strategy, but on the surface
it seems like the logic of commercialism should soon permeate
every aspect of the BBC’s being.

Your book also characterizes the
U.S. media model as an "outlier"—one that goes
beyond any other country’s in institutionalizing private
ownership of the means of communications in profit-seeking
corporations whose major source of revenue, and therefore
survival, derives from the advertising dollars of other
corporations. How did the U.S. model come about?

RM: Well, the one thing we know
for sure is that the current U.S. system is a 20th century
development. But it is nothing like the media system we had
during the first few generations of the republic. The press
system of the early republic was highly partisan and not
especially profitable. Many of the major newspapers were
subsidized by political parties or by the government through
printing contracts. The current system evolved gradually as a
commercial entity. By the early part of this century it had
become dominated by large firms operating in oligopolistic
markets, and advertising had emerged as an important source
of revenues. This all followed the logic of capitalism: firms
get bigger and eliminate competition to enhance their
profitability and reduce risk.

In the past generation the two crucial
developments for U.S. media firms is that they have
conglomerated and globalized. By conglomeration I mean that
the largest media firms all have major holdings in several
different media sectors, like film and TV show production,
cable TV channels, music production, book publishing,
magazine publishing, retail stores, etc. Firms found they had
to be conglomerates or they could not compete with their
rivals. Globalization refers to the fact that the media
industry may be at the forefront of the process of
globalization. Firms like Disney and Time Warner did just
over 10 percent of their business abroad in 1990 and will do
around one-third of their business abroad in 1997. Sometime
in the next decade they expect to do a majority of their
business outside of the United States.

It is worth noting that the American
people did not accept the development of the corporate media
system without opposition. There were significant protests.
Partially as a result of this came the professionalization of
journalism, that is, the notion that the news would be
provided by trained objective professionals who could not be
influenced by media owners or advertisers. In addition, in
the 1930s there was a fairly widespread movement to establish
a nonprofit and noncommercial radio broadcasting system. It
collapsed following the passage of the 1934 Communications
Act, which was pushed through with minimal publicity by the
powerful radio lobby.

Hand-in-hand with the U.S. media
model goes an ideology that states that thanks to First
Amendment guarantees of "freedom of speech or of the
press," neither the government nor the public have any
more than a very weak, if any, right to interfere with the
free speech of the corporations that own the media. Has this
belief always been as widely held as it seems to be today?

RM: No. Not at all. This is a recent
development, one that has much more to do with the power of
corporations than it does with the First Amendment or
democratic theory. In the early 1940s, when the U.S. Supreme
Court first considered whether advertising should be exempt
from any government regulation on the grounds that
advertising was protected by the First Amendment, the Court
voted 9-0 that advertising was not covered by the First
Amendment. This was a court that had several right-wingers
who detested the New Deal and government regulation. It was
seen as absurd that selling something for a profit should be
equated with political speech and democracy. Over the past 50
years the matter has shifted and now the Supreme Court has
extended the First Amendment to cover advertising in
significant ways. This reflects the power of corporations in
our society.

The irony of course is that advocates
of this "extension" of the First Amendment argue
that the more that is protected from the government, the more
freedom there will be and the more likely democracy will
prosper. But these proponents have an idiotic, untenable, and
myopic view of where power lies in our society. Extending the
First Amendment to advertising removes it, as well as
corporate power, as legitimate political topics and shrinks
the range of political debate to an ever-narrower scope.

The ACLU is the most egregious in this
regard. It might as well set up its headquarters on Wall
Street because its silly view that there is no reason for
public concern about private control over media plays
directly into the hands of the largest media firms. In the
1930s Morris Ernst, Roger Baldwin, and Norman Thomas pushed
the ACLU in a far more enlightened direction. They argued
that corporate commercial control over broadcasting
significantly prevented the coverage of public affairs and
discriminated against pro-labor and anti-business
perspectives. They argued that establishing a viable
democratic nonprofit, noncommercial broadcasting system was a
First Amendment issue for the ACLU. The ACLU even had a radio
committee that lobbied Congress to take control of
broadcasting away from capitalists and advertisers. But when
the movement failed, the ACLU gradually moved toward its
present position of accepting the corporate system as the
appropriate model for democracy. But the ACLU did not adopt
this modern position because of principled debate; rather, it
was adopted due to the admitted inability to defeat the
corporate media giants on Capitol Hill. But I doubt anyone at
the ACLU today knows this history. To them it seems that
protecting corporate power to make money and dominate society
is the purpose of the First Amendment and the cornerstone of
a democratic society.

Your book calls the U.S.
Telecommunication Act of 1996 the "single most important
law" affecting not only U.S. telecommunications, but
global telecommunications as well. How so?

RM: The 1996 U.S. Telecommunications
Act specifically is a global law because, by providing for
the deregulation of U.S. markets, it permits the dominant
firms to get considerably larger through mergers and
acquisitions. And the dominant U.S. firms provide a majority
of the dominant global firms. So other countries are now
facing a larger and more powerful set of firms, like the
merged Nynex-Bell Atlantic, and the proposed merger of
AT&T and SBC Communications. All of the media firms have
gotten bigger in the past year too.

It is worth noting that the 1996
Telecom Act was rushed through Congress with almost no
debate. There was virtually no press coverage outside of the
business press and almost no public participation. The only
debate concerned which sector—long distance telephone,
local telephone, computer firms, broadcasters, or cable
companies—would get the best deals in the legislation.
That a handful of corporations were being granted the right
to rule the entire range of our communication system to
maximize profit with almost no strings attached was simply
not subject to debate. That’s because all the interested
parties agreed on that as a given and the public was not
invited to the debate.

This was an incredibly corrupt law. The
Internet was never discussed at all, but this is the law that
provides for the commercial development of cyberspace. The
broadcasters, for example, snuck a clause into the law
requiring the FCC to give them free spectrum for digital
broadcasting. This was outrageous. Even the other
communication firms have to pay for the use of their spectrum
for the most part. It is incumbent on us to get another
telecom bill passed, one that reflects the public interest.

Another major theme of your book is
that, much as the rest of the world is moving towards or
being pushed towards a socio-economic model similar to that
in the United States, so, too, the rest of the world’s
media are being pushed towards a model similar to that found
in the United States.

EH: Yes, and the two processes are
closely linked. The socio-economic model is one of market
hegemony, minimal state provision, the supplanting of the
citizen by the consumer, and a commercial media providing the
entertainment-cum-advertising culture appropriate to the
socio-economic model. In much of the rest of the world public
broadcasting has been important, so that one of the crucial
global struggles in recent years has been over the status of
public broadcasting. Public broadcasting has been under
steady attack by the dominant forces of global capitalism and
is being weakened and displaced by commercial,
advertising-based media.

The spread of the U.S. media model to
the rest of the world is weakening their public broadcasting
systems in countries where these are important, and
strengthening the commercial media and the domination of
advertisers in shaping media performance and standards. What
it means for the rest of the world is more light
entertainment, sex and violence on TV, and a lightening up of
other media forms, with a parallel weakening of the public
sphere—hard news, investigative reporting and
documentaries, debates on public and community issues,
enlightening children’s programs, and the like. The rest
of the world can look forward to a growing culture of
entertainment and perhaps, in Neil Postman’s phrase,
"amusing themselves to death."

The U.S. Trade Representative
Charlene Barshefsky cheered last February’s signing of
the telecommunications agreement at the World Trade
Organization as "one of the most important trade
agreements of the 21st Century." Then she added:
"U.S. companies are the most competitive
telecommunications providers in the world. They are in the
best position to compete and win under this agreement."
Might Barshefsky’s elation tell us something else about
the nature of the agreement?

EH: Yes. The telecommunications
agreement of last February is a coup for powerful global
providers of telecom services. It is essentially a market
opening agreement, with clear benefits to the big boys who
can participate, less clear benefits to the consumers and
societies in the countries opening their doors. There may be
efficiency gains, but there may be reduced universality of
service, greater unregulated monopoly power, and a loss of
national autonomy.

In Latin America a similar process was
crucial in bringing about the domination of commercial
broadcasting and assuring that the European model of strong
public broadcasting did not prevail. From the earliest years
U.S. equipment manufacturers, advertisers, broadcasters, and
publishers pushed the governments of the region toward
commercial systems, so that public broadcasting was
marginalized or never came into existence at all, preempted
by a commercial system, as in Brazil.

The experience of Brazil was a telling
one. In our book we characterize it as a case of "media
neo- and sub-imperialism." As just noted, a commercial
system was installed from the beginning, with U.S. help and
under U.S. pressure. By the early 1960s, U.S. transnationals
already had a major presence in the Brazilian economy,
Brazil’s media included. In the years prior to the 1964
coup, Brazil’s media had been heavily penetrated by U.S.
economic and political agents. The O Globo newspaper,
Brazil’s largest, was receiving infusions of cash from
Time-Life, and may have been CIA-controlled. Time-Life
justified its invasion of the Brazilian media by the need to
combat what it referred to as "Castroism."

Following the 1964 coup, the Globo
media empire was born and grew to virtual monopoly status.
The junta supported Globo financially and in regulatory
practice, and the media giant served the military and
Brazilian elite well. During the dozen years following the
coup, Brazil’s commercial media system was consolidated
and integrated into the global system. Ad-based and
concentrated, this system is a servant of the Brazilian elite
and is destined to inculcate the individualist, consumerist
ideology of the neoliberal order.

India provides an important contrasting
example. There, the British model was imported and a public
broadcasting system was imposed and became a heritage of the
colonial system after the British exit. Admittedly, its
performance has not been inspiring, but it is regrettable to
see it being commercialized rapidly without having realized
the potential of a more autonomous public broadcasting system
such as developed in the imperial country.

A little earlier, Ed Herman
mentioned the "public sphere," a concept that you
use widely in your book, and that you draw from the German
philosopher Jurgen Habermas. You write that by the
"public sphere," you mean "all the places and
forums where issues of importance to a political community
are discussed and debated, and where information is presented
that is essential to citizen participation in community
life." But your analysis is anything but sanguine about
the fate of the public sphere in the United States.

EH: We are definitely not optimistic at
this juncture. The U.S. model entails a displacement of the
public sphere with entertainment. Advertisers don’t like
public sphere programs, which do not provide a good selling
environment and do not draw as heavily as mayhem and sex. We
have a 70-year record in this country of the gradual
abandonment of "public service" programming under
the pressure of market interest.

Contrary to the claims of the market
beneficiaries of this transformation, it has not been
catering to "what consumers want," because a very
substantial minority want public service programs, and many
others believe that such programs ought to be available.
It’s what proprietors and advertisers want. The
corporate system prefers a culture of entertainment and light
news mixed with serviceable propaganda to a public sphere
that would address serious issues.

So, in your eyes, corporate control
and manipulation pose a serious anti-democratic threat?

EH: Yes. But the real problem
isn’t "manipulation." The real problem lies in
the normal operations and effects that corporate media have
on the public sphere, and with the structural changes now
going on, which are putting in place profoundly undemocratic
arrangements. The Enlightenment project is one of people
moving into control of their lives, winning their
emancipation through knowledge and action, whereas
transnational media corporations want the conditions that
have prevailed in the United States for decades to extend
everywhere, with people treated strictly as audiences to be
sold to advertisers. The contradiction between the project of
the Enlightenment and the project of transnational media
corporations is immense. The global media are carrying out
what we might call an "entertainment revolution"
which is implemented strictly from above. They are surely not
agents of a democratic "information revolution."

And therefore contrary to Nicholas
Negroponte, Alvin Toffler, Newt Gingrich, and a host of other
luminaries who praise the democratic miracles awaiting us on
the Information Superhighway. The two of you would argue
that, given the current political climate in the United
States (not to mention the rest of the world), the
"egalitarian potential" of the "media
revolution" isn’t likely to be realized.

RM: That’s correct. Although some
technologies—like digital communication, say—have
immense influence over societies, they do not have magical
powers. Unless there is explicit social policy to develop
cyberspace as a noncommercial, nonprofit entity, it is going
to be taken over by the most powerful elements in our
society. That is exactly what is happening. The largest
computer, telecom, and media firms are doing everything in
their considerable powers to see the Internet brought within
their empires. A telling sign was Microsoft’s purchase
of WebTV and its billion dollar investment in Comcast, the
cable TV company. Right now the smart money seems to be
betting that the Internet can be used as a commercial
entertainment medium like television, in addition to being a
business tool and a place for commerce.

All that stuff from a few years ago
about how the Internet was going to create some democratic
Valhalla and eliminate the corporate communication giants
might as well as have been written in the 15th century. That
is just nonsense. The Internet is becoming a hierarchical
commercial entity. Some people will have full service, others
lower-grade service, and still others none at all. Yet, at
the same time, the Internet is a remarkable and revolutionary
tool for activists. It will continue to be just that. But we
cannot extrapolate from the activist experience to the
society as a whole. Not unless we get policies to enforce
that as a goal.

"The ultimate goal [of media
activists]," The Global Media concludes, "must be
the establishment of a global, nonprofit public sphere to
replace, or at least complement, the global commercial media
market." But that sounds far more utopian than
practical. Doesn’t it?

RM: To the contrary, I think that the
most utopian notion is that the market system can ever
provide the basis for a democratic society. Everywhere across
the world democratic left parties and movements are battling
neoliberal "free market" policies. In almost all
cases these democratic forces have highlighted taking control
of the media from corporations and advertisers as central to
the project of building a democratic society. In Sweden, New
Zealand, Australia, India, Brazil—the list goes on and
on—there are viable left parties and movements that are
talking about ways to build and develop nonprofit,
noncommercial, and democratically accountable media systems.
They are finding considerable popular support for these
positions. In view of the global trend toward a commercial
media system there is every reason to believe this will be an
area of democratic political activity. Can they succeed? Who
knows, but what other choice is there? When you see the scope
of these activities, you become decidedly optimistic.

The United States is the laggard in
media activism. So, based here in the most depoliticized
society on earth—with the possible exception of
Russia—it is easy to think social change is impossible.
But even here there has been tremendous growth in media
activism and political activism in the 1990s. Perhaps the
period we are in now is like the civil rights movement in the
early 1950s, when it appeared to be quiescent but in fact we
now know it was laying the foundation for the great victories
to follow. At any rate, I think the best has yet to come.