Special: Commentary: Robert McChesney: ‘Rich Media, Poor Democracy’

American democracy is in a decrepit state – exemplified by a depoliticization that would make a tyrant envious – and the corporate commercial media system is an important factor in understanding how this sorry state came to be. The corporate media cement a system whereby the wealthy and powerful few make the most important decisions with virtually no informed public participation. Crucial political issues are barely covered by the corporate media, or else are warped to fit the confines of elite debate, stripping the ordinary citizenry of the tools they need to be informed, active participants in a democracy. For those who regard inequality and untrammeled commercialism as undermining the requirements of a democratic society, media reform must be on the political agenda.


American democracy is in a decrepit state – exemplified by a depoliticization that would make a tyrant envious – and the corporate commercial media system is an important factor in understanding how this sorry state came to be. The corporate media cement a system whereby the wealthy and powerful few make the most important decisions with virtually no informed public participation. Crucial political issues are barely covered by the corporate media, or else are warped to fit the confines of elite debate, stripping the ordinary citizenry of the tools they need to be informed, active participants in a democracy. For those who regard inequality and untrammeled commercialism as undermining the requirements of a democratic society, media reform must be on the political agenda.

The corporate media system is not the only factor that explains the woeful state of U.S. democracy, nor is it necessarily the most important one. But it is among the most important problems we face and, accordingly, it has to be on any short list of issues around which all progressive and democratic activists should organize. Likewise, media reform is not winnable as a single-issue campaign; reforming our media system will be impossible unless it is part of a broader movement.

The neoliberal right understands the importance of media far better than the left and has devoted considerable resources to its campaigns to push the media to an explicitly pro-corporate, anti-labor position. Billionaire right-wingers establish political media primarily to propagate pro-business politics and to push the range of political debate ever rightward. The leading U.S. right-wing foundations have devoted nearly all their resources to pushing the media and educational systems to provide more explicitly pro-business positions. The political right also leads the fight against any and all forms of non-commercial and nonprofit media. Failing that, it leads the battle to see that public broadcasting stays within the same narrow ideological boundaries as the commercial media. As a result, PBS refuses to permit labor to sponsor programs about workers but permits business to subsidize programs extolling free enterprise.

Until recently, liberals, progressives and the left in the United States have been notably missing in action in the battle over the media. The response of the progressive and mainstream foundations, for example, to this right-wing ideological assault has been tepid at best. These groups are uncomfortable about being seen as “political.” Regrettably, organized labor, too, has been snoozing for the most part, providing little to counter this right-wing ideological class war. The political right plays to win; labor and the left are not even playing at all.

There are two general areas – (and they sometimes overlap) – for media activism. In each, a nascent left, of organized labor and progressive foundations must become active. First, labor (and the left) can create better non-commercial media and generate better results from commercial media independent of changes in government policies and the corporate media system. All of labor needs not only to support aggressively its own newspapers, magazines, broadcast stations and Web sites; it also needs to give money and resources to community and nonprofit media that have no direct labor affiliation. This is a crucial point: Labor needs to be willing to grant considerable editorial leeway to the media it subsidizes. 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. The same holds true for progressive philanthropies: Alternative media cannot be micro-managed by funders and at the same time develop an audience. (This is something the right understands, and it has contributed to the success of its media program.)

In addition, labor and the left need to take another page from the political right, which manipulates traditional U.S. journalism practices as masterfully as a surgeon does a scalpel.

Like the right, labor and the progressive philanthropic community also need to support think tanks of experts who can provide labor and left perspectives on social issues for commercial and non-commercial journalists alike. These think tanks can also monitor the massive right-wing campaigns to shape news coverage. The recently formed Institute for Public Accuracy, under the direction of Norman Solomon and Sam Husseini, is doing a terrific job of providing such a service. For the political right, these sorts of activities are especially effective because their operatives and ideas are so comfortable in the halls of the corporate media. Hence so many of the TV political commentators that hail from the right have become interchangeable with the so-called mainstream analysts. These activities will never suffice for the left, but they can help vitalize a non-commercial media sector on the margins and guarantee the best possible performance by the commercial system.

But the second, and most important, area of political activity is organizing to change government media policies. The core problem with the U.S. media system relates to how it is owned, its profit motivation and its reliance upon advertising. The media system is not the result of the blind workings of the mythical free market. In fact, it is a highly noncompetitive industry that is the direct result of explicit government subsidies and policies. Almost all of the important laws and policies that created our media system-like the dreadful 1996 Telecommunications Act, which opened the door to an unprecedented wave of corporate mergers-have been made with zero public input. They are the direct result of super-powerful corporate lobbies muscling their way to the public trough. The corruption of this policy-making process can hardly be exaggerated.

Any attempt to affect U.S. media that does not address structural issues directly through government policies will prove inconsequential in the long run. It is the right and duty of the public to intervene and see that policies enacted in their name reflect their informed consent. Corporate media power must be confronted directly and reduced. A fundamental question that needs to be raised, for example, is why it is OK for the government to quietly subsidize the media giants through tax breaks, deregulation and the gift of the public spectrum, but let the nonprofit and non-commercial media sector starve. Why not use government policies creatively to funnel resources into a nonprofit media sector? For instance, economist Dean Baker has proposed letting all Americans direct up to $150 of their federal tax payments to the nonprofit medium of their choice. If we made this an issue, there might be numerous other ways we could improve the quality of our media culture without dredging up the specter of an overbearing government.

This is the great advantage of the left: It can provide real solutions to the problems of the media. The right often taps into legitimate concerns people have about media, but its solutions are illusory or counterproductive. Many left media critics present superb analysis of the weaknesses of the status quo but have been reticent about providing concrete solutions; these will develop, they argue, over the course of political struggle and debate. But by the end of the ’90s, we have reached the point where media reformers have to provide concrete examples of an alternative; otherwise, many people will have no idea of what exactly they are fighting for.

The heartening news is that over the course of the ’90s there has been a decided shift in public sentiment, and an increased openness to structural criticism of the media system. The hyper-commercialism of the system, staggering corporate concentration and low-grade journalism have undermined the claims that ours is a free press dedicated to public service and democracy, or even the claim that the handful of conglomerates that rule over our media system are “giving the people what they want.”

This activism has taken the form of numerous local media watch groups, which monitor the lame content of local TV news and work, for example, to have liquor and cigarette billboards removed from working-class and minority residential neighborhoods. It also takes the form of micro-broadcasters who use low-power radio signals to make an end run around the banality of corporate radio fare. At the national level, new groups like Citizens for Independent Public Broadcasting are organizing to establish a genuine, well-funded public radio and TV system, replacing the low-budget, increasingly commercial, elitist operation that is currently under the thumb of corporate underwriters and careerist bureaucrats. There is also the newly formed People for Better TV, which is demanding that commercial broadcasters actually provide some public service in exchange for the publicly owned television spectrum they are licensed to use at no charge. The value of this example of corporate welfare over the past six decades runs well into the hundreds of billions of dollars.

In the short term, the immediate need is to connect the struggle for media reform with the movement for campaign finance reform. Much of the estimated $3.5 billion that will be spent on electoral campaigns in 2000 will pay for TV ads on commercial stations. This is an enormous cash cow for the corporate media, and it has struck a dagger into the integrity of our political culture. The corporate media are the foremost opponents of any reform in campaign finance that might remove our electoral system from the private reserve of the wealthiest one quarter of one percent of Americans, who by some estimates presently make a whopping 80 percent of individual campaign contributions. Instead, why not make it a condition of getting a broadcast license that a broadcaster will air no paid political advertising during electoral campaigns?

Elsewhere, Sen. Paul Wellstone is among the most outspoken of several members of Congress who can see the disastrous implications of permitting our media and telecommunications system to fall into so few hands. Indeed, it is very difficult to reconcile any notion of democracy with such a tightly held system accountable only to Wall Street and Madison Avenue. There is a resurgent movement to recharge our antitrust laws with the same populist commitment to democracy that brought them into existence 100 years ago.

There are numerous other policy proposals to democratize our media system floating around. The key point is to create a diverse media system with a significant nonprofit and non-commercial sector. Corporate media PR flacks argue that any effort to reduce their power would lead to government control of the media. The concern with the state having an improper role in the media is quite legitimate, but even if all of the proposals were enacted, the corporate media would still be the dominant sector of our media system. In truth, the corporate media actually welcome the government playing an aggressive role in the media system, as long as it is in their interests and not those of the citizenry.

It is easy to be depressed about the prospects for media Ill reform, just like it is easy to lose hope for progressive social change altogether. The media giants are unusually powerful adversaries, with massive lobbies. They also are in the enviable position of owning the very news media that people would look to for coverage of media reform issues.

But there are reasons to be optimistic. When one sees the extent to which the media giants go to keep their lobbying activities in Washington secret, you can understand their fear that the public will learn the truth behind this corrupt system. When Americans actually hear about the giveaway of the public spectrum or who benefits from political advertising, they are outraged. The job for media activists is to make this a public issue. If we can get that far, our chances of winning improve dramatically.

Moreover, what is beginning to take shape in the United States is happening all over the world, as the corporate media system globalizes in conjunction with “free market” economic policies. Across the world, democratic left political parties and movements are making media reform a cornerstone issue in their platforms, and they are enjoying success at the polls.

Finally, media reform offers certain advantages to the U.S. Left. It is an issue that affects every strand of the left and could bring diverse groups together to form common ground. But media reform also resonates across the political spectrum. Even so-called conservatives often are appalled by the commercial saturation of our culture. The average American now spends nearly 12 hours per day consuming some form of media, so media reform addresses something that all Americans experience directly.
The fate of media reform and the U.S. Left are inexorably intertwined, and in their fortunes resides perhaps the best hope for the United States to become a democracy ruled by the many rather than the few.

Robert W. McChesney is Research Professor in the Institute of Communications Research and the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. From 1988 to 1998 he was on the Journalism and Mass Communication faculty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. McChesney earned his Ph.D. in communications at the University of Washington in 1989. His work concentrates on the history and political economy of communication, emphasizing the role media play in democratic and capitalist societies.

McChesney has written or edited seven books, including the award-winning Telecommunications, Mass Media, and Democracy: The Battle for the Control of U.S. Broadcasting, 1928-1935 (Oxford University Press, 1993), Corporate Media and the Threat to Democracy (Seven Stories Press, 1997), and, with Edward S. Herman, The Global Media: The New Missionaries of Corporate Capitalism (Cassell, 1997). McChesney’s newest books are multiple award-winning Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Times (University of Illinois Press, 1999; paperback version with new preface: New Press, 2000) and, with John Nichols, It’s the Media, Stupid!. McChesney’s eighth book, Making a Molehill out of a Mountain: The Tragedy of U.S. Communication Research will be published in 2001 by Monthly Review Press. His books have been translated into five languages. McChesney has also written more than 75 journal articles and book chapters and more than 85 newspaper pieces, magazine articles and book reviews. Since finishing graduate school in the late 1980s, McChesney has made some 300 conference presentations and visiting guest lectures as well as more than 500 radio and television appearances.

Author: Robert W. McChesney

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