excerpts from the book
and the Threat to Democracy
by Robert McChesney
The Open Media Pamphlet Series
Seven Stories Press First Addition and Open Media
The U.S. Telecommunications Act of 1996
With the digital revolution, the technical and legal boundaries between broadcasting and telephony in the 1934 Communications Act have broken down. Indeed, the barriers between all forms of communication are breaking down, and communication laws everywhere are becoming outdated. Congress passed, and President Clinton signed into law, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 to replace the 1934 law. The overarching purpose of the 1996 Telecommunications Act is to deregulate all communication industries and to permit the market, not public policy, to determine the course of the information highway and the communications system. It is widely considered to be one of the three or four most important federal laws of this generation.
Even by the minimal standards of the 1934 Act, the debate surrounding the 1996 Telecommunications Act was a farce. Some of the law was actually written by the lobbyists for the communication firms it affects. The only "debate" was whether broadcasters, long-distance companies, local telephone providers, or cable companies would get the inside track in the deregulatory race. Consistent with the pattern set in the middle 1930s, the primacy of corporate control and the profit motive was a given. The range of legitimate debate extended from that of Newt Gingrich, who argued profits are synonymous with public service, to that of Vice-President Al Gore, who argued that there are public interest concerns the marketplace cannot resolve, but that can only be addressed once the profitability of the dominant corporate sector has been assured. The historical record with communication regulation indicates that although the Gore position can be gussied up, once the needs of corporations are given primacy, the public interest will invariably be pushed to the margins.
This situation exists for many of the same reasons that the broadcast reformers were demolished in the 1930s. Politicians may favor one sector over another in the battle to cash in on the highway, but they cannot oppose the cashing-in process without risking their political careers. Both the Democratic and Republican parties have strong ties to the large communication firms and industries, and the communication lobbies are among the most feared, respected and well endowed of all that seek favors on Capitol Hill. The only grounds for political independence in this case would be if there were an informed and mobilized citizenry ready to do battle for alternative policies. But where would citizens get informed? Only through the news media, where news coverage is minimal and restricted to the range of legitimate debate, which, in this case, means almost no debate at all. That is why the Telecommunications Act was covered (rather extensively) as a business story, not a public policy story. "I have never seen anything like the Telecommunications Bill, " one career lobbyist observed. "The silence of public debate is deafening. A bill with such astonishing impact on all of us is not even being discussed.''
In sum, the debate over communications policy is restricted to elites and those with serious financial stakes in the outcome. It does not reflect well on the caliber of U.S. participatory democracy, but it is capitalist democracy at its best. The politicians of both parties promised the public that the Telecommunications Act would provide a spurt in high-paying jobs and intense market competition in communications, a "digital free-for-all", as one liberal Democrat put it. Even a cursory reading of the business press at the same time would reveal that those who benefited from the law knew these claims to be half-truths or outright lies. These are oligopolistic industries that strongly discourage all but the most judiciously planned competition. It is more likely that deregulation will lead to merger activity, increased concentration, and continued "downsizing." And, as the U.S. 1996 Telecommunications Act "unleashes" the U.S.-based transnational media and communication firms to grow through mergers and acquisitions with minimal fear of regulatory intervention, this effectively gives the green light to further consolidation of the global market these firms dominate. As such, the U.S. Telecommunications Act is to some extent a global law.
... In non-democratic societies those in power invariably dominate the communication systems to maintain their rule. In democratic societies the manner by which the media system is structured, controlled and subsidized is of central political importance. Control over the means of communication is an integral aspect of political and economic power. In many nations, to their credit, media policy debates have been and are important political issues. In the United States, to the contrary, private commercial control over communication is often regarded as innately democratic and benevolent, and therefore not subject to political discussion. Government involvement with media or communication is almost universally denigrated in the U.S. as a direct invitation to tyranny, no matter how well intended The preponderance of U.S. mass communication is controlled by less than two dozen enormous profit-maximizing corporations, which receive much of their income from advertising placed largely by other huge corporations. But the extent of this media ownership and control goes generally unremarked in the media and intellectual culture, and there appears to be little sense of concern about its dimensions among the citizenry as a whole.
... private control over media and communication is not a neutral or necessarily a benevolent proposition. The commercial basis of U.S. media has negative implications for the exercise of political democracy: it encourages a weak political culture that makes depoliticization, apathy and selfishness rational choices for the citizenry, and it permits the business and commercial interests that actually rule U.S. society to have inordinate influence over media content. In short, the nature of the U.S. media system undermines all three of the meaningful criteria necessary for self-government. Accordingly, for those committed to democracy, it is imperative to reform the media system. This is not going to be an easy task, for there is no small amount of confusion over what would be a superior democratic alternative to the status quo. The political obstacles seem even more daunting because the terrain is no longer local or even national. Media politics are becoming global in scope, as the commercial media market assumes global proportions and as it is closely linked to the globalizing market economy. The immensity of the task of changing and democratizing media is sobering, but it is a job that must be done.
In recent years the work of Jurgen Habermas and others has pointed toward a way of conceptualizing a democratic media. According to Habermas, a critical factor that led to the rise and success of democratic revolutions and societies in the 15th and 19th centuries was the emergence-for the first time in modern history-of a "public sphere" for democratic discourse. This public sphere was a "space" independent of both state and business control which permitted citizens to interact, study and debate on the public issues of the day without fear of immediate reprisal from the political and economic powers that be. The media existed in the public sphere, but they were only part of it.
Although Habermas's model is idealized, the notion of the public sphere provides a useful framework for democratic media activists. In Habermas's view, the public sphere loses its democratic capacities as it is taken over by either the state or business or some combination of the two. In the United States clearly, business and commercial values have come to dominate the media as perhaps nowhere else in the world. To reassert the "public sphere" notion of a media system would require a major commitment to nonprofit and non-commercial media, at the very least, and perhaps a good deal else. But the public sphere framework only points in the direction of solutions; there are probably any number of workable alternatives. The immediate objective for media activists is to get this long neglected subject on the political agenda and to encourage public participation.
The range of debate between the dominant U.S. parties tends to closely resemble the range of debate within the business class.
[In the view of "free market" conservatives], the market (i.e. business) should rule and the political system should logically deal with how best to protect private property and not much else.
By defining the news as being based on specific events or on the activities of official sources, the news media neglect coverage of long-term social issues that dominate society. Moreover, by sanitizing coverage and seemingly depriving it of ideological content, the news [makes] public affairs increasingly obtuse, confusing and boring. The excitement once associated with politics [is] now to be found only in coverage of crime, sports and celebrities. This depoliticization has been marked by a general decline in political knowledge, by lower voter turnouts, and by a narrowing range of legitimate political debate.
... on the fundamental political issues of the day, journalism tends to conform to elite interests, and to avoid antagonizing the powers that-be. Indeed ... some studies have suggested that the more a person consumes commercial news, the less capable that person is of understanding politics or public affairs.
... the U.S. and global media and communication market exhibits tendencies not only of an oligopoly, but of a cartel or at least a "gentleman's club".
As newspapers ... have become increasingly dependent on advertising revenues for support, they have become anti-democratic forces in society.
... corporate America has been able to create its own "truth", and our news media seem unwilling or incapable of fulfilling the mission our society so desperately needs it to full .
The marginalization of public service values in U.S. communication debates-indeed the elimination of political debates over communication-explains the woeful history of U.S. public radio and television. The defeat of the broadcast reform movement in 1934 led to what might be called the Dark Ages of U.S. public broadcasting. If the 1930s reformers sought a system where the dominant sector was nonprofit and non-commercial, all future advocates of public broadcasting had to accept that the system was established primarily to benefit the commercial broadcasters, and any public stations would have to find a niche on the margins, where they would not threaten the existing or potential profitability of the commercial interests.
This made public broadcasting in the U.S. fundamentally different from Britain or Canada, or nearly any other nation with a comparable political economy. Whereas the BBC and the CBC regarded their mandate as providing a service to the entire nation, the U.S. public broadcasters realized that they could only survive politically by not taking listeners or viewers away from the commercial broadcasters. The function of the public or educational broadcasters, then, was to provide such programming as was unprofitable for the commercial broadcasters to produce. At the same time, however, politicians and government officials hostile to public broadcasting also insisted that public broadcasting remain within the same ideological confines as the commercial system. This encouraged U.S. public broadcasting after 1935 to emphasize elite cultural programming at the expense of generating a large following. In short, since 1935 public broadcasting in the United States has been in a no-win situation.
The major function of nonprofit broadcasting in the United States from 1920 to 1960 was, in fact, to pioneer new sections of the electromagnetic spectrum when the commercial interests did not yet view them as profitable. Thus it was educational broadcasters who played an enormous role in developing AM broadcasting in the 1920s, and then FM radio and even UHF television in the 1940s and 1950s. In each case, once it became clear that money could be made, the educators were displaced and capitalists seized the reins. Arguably, too, this looks like the fate of the Internet, which had been pioneered as a public service by the nonprofit sector with government subsidies until capital decided to take over and relegate the pioneers to the margins. The 1930s broadcast reformers were well aware of this tendency and refused to let the FCC push them into new technologies where there would be no access to the general public. After 1935, the proponents of public broadcasting had no choice in the matter. In many cases, such as the Internet, satellites and digital communication, these technologies were developed through research funds provided by the federal government. Once the technologies proved profitable, however, they were turned over to private interests with negligible compensation.!
Even with these limitations, the commercial broadcasters were wary of public broadcasting and fought it tooth and nail well into the 1960s. After many halting starts, Congress passed the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, which led to the creation of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and soon thereafter of PBS and NPR. The commercial broadcasters finally agreed not to oppose public broadcasting, primarily because they believed the new public system could be responsible for doing the unprofitable cultural and public affairs programming that critics were constantly lambasting them for neglecting. There was a catch, however. The initial plan to have the CPB funded by a sales tax on the purchase of new radio sets and television sets, somewhat akin to the BBC method, was dropped, thus denying public broadcasting a stable source of income necessary for planning as well as editorial autonomy. At the outset it was determined that Americans would have a public system, but it would be severely handicapped. We would have only a system the commercial broadcasters would permit.
Although U.S. public broadcasting has produced some good fare, the system has been supremely compromised by its structural basis, and it is farcical in comparison to the powerful public service systems of Europe. Indeed, in international discussions of public broadcasting, the term "PBS-style system" is invoked to refer to a public system that is marginal and ineffective. It is the fate that the BBC, CBC and others wish to avoid.
The funding system is the primary culprit. The U.S. government only provides around 15 percent of the revenues; public stations depend on corporate donations, foundation grants, and listener/viewer contributions for the balance. In effect, this has made PBS and NPR stations commercial enterprises, and it has given the large corporations that dominate its subsidy tremendous influence over public broadcasting content, in a manner that violates the fundamental principles of public broadcasting. It has also encouraged the tendency to appeal to an affluent audience, rather than a working-class audience, because upscale viewers/listeners have far more disposable income. Ironically, it is this well-heeled base of support that gives public broadcasting the leverage it has in negotiations for federal monies, as much as any argument for "public" media. If the federal subsidy were fully eliminated, the bias toward corporate interests and an upper-income target audience would be magnified. ~
Truth ... is something to be auctioned off to the highest bidder, it is bought and sold. In the commercial marketplace of ideas, something becomes "true" if you can get people to believe it.
The notion that journalism can regularly produce a product that violates the fundamental interests of media owners and advertisers ... is absurd.
Why then is the CIA never covered in our news media.? The CIA's primary function is to advance U.S. interests surreptitiously and illegally around the world. U.S. interests are defined by elites as being synonymous with corporate interests. The purpose therefore is to create a political environment conducive to profitable investment opportunities, regardless of the social cost. Although some in the political and economic elite may dispute CIA tactics, all agree it is a necessary agency. To elites, this is not a subject that is to be debated by the unwashed public that may not appreciate the need for such an agency. And since there is no reason for people to be informed and concerned about an issue best left to elites, this is not a subject to be examined by the press. Just as no explicit policing was necessary to keep the Soviet elite media from examining the KGB, no directive needs to be sent down from corporate owners and managers notifying editors and reporters to lay off the CIA; through a variety of organizational mechanisms it is merely internalized as "natural," "appropriate" and "responsible."
... conservatives are ... obsessed with destroying, or at least intimidating, nonprofit and non-commercial broadcasting. They realize full well that the marketplace implicitly censors journalism to keep it within the ever-narrowing range they consider acceptable. Conservatives live in fear of a journalism not constrained by the profit imperative and commercial support. It is true that much of public broadcasting journalism and public affairs programming is indistinguishable from commercial journalism. Nonetheless, on occasion stories slip through and programs get produced that would never clear a commercial media hurdle. This is especially true on public radio and with some of the more progressive community stations that would suffer the most without any
The right-wing assault on journalism and public broadcasting is not an isolated or exceptional phenomenon. It is part and parcel of a wholesale attack on all those institutions that possess some autonomy from the market and the rule of capital. Thus public libraries and public education are being primed for privatization and an effective renunciation of the democratic principles upon which they were developed. Advertising-supported schools and schooling-for-profit-notions regarded as obscene only a decade ago-are moving to the center of education policy debates. The closest case to public broadcasting is that of higher education. Here, too, the right prattles on about leftist thought police and politically correct speech codes when, in fact, the dominant trend among U.S. universities is increasingly to turn to professional education and skew research toward the market. In short, the right wishes to eliminate the autonomy of the university and see it thoroughly integrated into the capitalist economy. To the extent that this is accomplished, as with public broadcasting or public education, our ability to generate a democratic and critical debate concerning our future is reduced. The reign of capital becomes more entrenched. Commercial values become ever more "natural."
... so long as the media are in corporate hands, the task of social change will be vastly more difficult, if not impossible, across the board. The biggest problem facing all who challenge the prerogatives of corporate rule is that the overwhelming majority of Americans are never exposed to anything remotely close to a reasoned, coherent, consistent, democratic socialist, pro--labor, or even old-fashioned New Deal Democratic perspective. This is why, in the end, media reform is inexorably intertwined with broader social and political reform. They rise or fall together.