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volume 3
may 2000

Media matters: 1. Monopolies

 





  An interview with Robert McChesney
by David Barsamian
Previous
  Robert McChesney's pamphlet "Corporate media and the threat to democracy." New York: Seven Stories Press, 1997, 64 pages.

"There's a myth going around that capitalism is based on competition. Have you heard that one?" says Robert McChesney, professor of Communications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, in the first part of his interview by David Barsamian of Alternative Radio. Instead, he argues, the media are "... under the greatest wave of corporate concentration and the greatest attack on competitive markets arguably in the history of U.S. capitalism."

 
  Boulder, Colorado, November 10, 1999
1 Will Rogers once said, "I only know what I read in the newspapers." If Will were around today and looking at the media scene and opening up the newspapers, how much would he know?
  He would probably have a pretty good idea of what life is like for an upper-middle-class or upper-class person living in a suburb in a 10,000-square-foot house with investments and doing e-trade, because that's the world of our newspapers today, specifically. But all of our journalism and our media increasingly are pitched along the class divide of our society. So that if you take newspapers as a great example, in the 1940s, every major daily newspaper had at least one or two labor reporters or editors. There were over a thousand in the country. Take something like the 1937 sit-down strike in Flint, which established the UAW. In a sane world it would be a national holiday. It's one of the decisive moments in the twentieth century. It was a front-page story in every newspaper in the country. Even the Chicago Tribune, which despised labor, covered it. At dinner tables around the country people talked about the strike every night.
  Today, you know how many full-time labor reporters we have? Three. From a thousand to three. At the same time the number of business reporters has increased so exponentially that I don't even think they call them business reporters any more. They're merged. Like cable TV news today, if you watch the Fox news channel, or CNBC or CNN, business news and news are almost interchangeable now. CNN's flagship news program is called Moneyline. It's entirely geared towards the markets that advertisers are interested in, which is the upper middle class. Newspapers have written off the bottom thirty or forty percent of the populations in their markets. They don't even sell the papers oftentimes in poor neighborhoods. So what you get is news basically aimed at the needs, prejudices of fairly well-to-do and affluent people. Even then I think they do a fairly poor job of it, but that's what it's aimed at. For the rest of the population, it's, You're not invited.
2 Another change that Rogers may have noted is how few newspapers there are. New York once had seven major dailies. Now it's down to three. In Houston and lots of other cities around the country there is only one paper.
  New York is the exception. There are only a handful of cities with competing dailies with different owners, where they don't have some sort of cartel agreement. Something like 95% of American communities are one-newspaper towns. What these newspaper companies have discovered is that they can make a fortune in these monopolistic communities by low-balling journalism, by stripping down the piece for parts and using lots of syndicated material and fluffing it up. The profits go off the charts. In 1985 Gannett, one of the big chains, bought the Des Moines Register, historically one of the great American newspapers. The Register at that time had a full-time reporter in every county in Iowa, so wherever you lived you could follow state politics. Gannett, which owns a hundred monopoly newspapers around the country, said: "What are these jokers doing for the bottom line?" and fired them all. They shifted the coverage to focus on the wealthy suburbs of Des Moines and the business community. Their profits shot up. Their costs went down. They run syndicated material, comics and wire service articles. But the citizens of Des Moines, of Iowa, lost out. There's no coverage of their state. And given newspaper economics, and media economics at large, it's not a competitive market. No one can start a newspaper and hope to compete. Once you've got a monopoly in newspapers, you've got it forever.
3 What was that famous line attributed to A.J. Liebling? "Freedom of the press is ..."
  "... for those who own them." That's the truth constitutionally. We talk about the First Amendment, invoking it constantly. That's what Liebling was referring to there, the idea that we're protected from government interference in matters of the press and free speech. It's a wonderful idea, a wonderful freedom, one of the great things about this country's history and the struggle to bring that into being. But a funny thing happened along the way with the First Amendment and freedom of the press. When it was passed, the owner and the editor were the same person. There were largely competitive markets. If you didn't like what was being done, you could start your own paper, own it and edit it. That was the way newspapers were for the first hundred years of this country's history. But we had a big split take place a hundred years ago that separated owners from the editors and reporters who actually do the creative work. Moreover, the ownership is in the corporate form, which is blind shareholders who own stock in media companies and oil wells or gold mines or automobile companies. Whose First Amendment is it then? Our tradition has been to say it stays with the owners, not the editors or reporters. So editors have no First Amendment freedom, just the owners. It's rarely commented upon, but it's been a real shift in the First Amendment and one with disastrous implications for the caliber of journalism and our whole political culture.
4 You make an urgent connection between media and democracy. Why?
  This is nothing original. This goes back to the Founding Fathers, even before that. If you have a notion of democracy, which is: the many rule. Obviously you can't have a plebiscite on every decision. That's not going to happen. But people in representative democracies can make the fundamental value decisions and elect people to implement them. That's what we can hope for. To have that be effective and viable, you need some sort of media system that's going to do two things. First of all, it's going to ruthlessly account for the activities of people in power and people who want to be in power so you know what they're actually doing. Secondly, it's going to give a wide range of opinions on the fundamental social and political issues that citizens need to know about. It doesn't mean that each medium has to do that, but the system as a whole has to provide that as an easy alternative for people who want to participate as citizens. That's the test of a media system in a democracy. That's the test we should apply to it. By that standard, our current media system is a fiasco. It's a system set up fundamentally to serve the shareholders and a dozen or so massive companies and their major advertisers. It does that quite well. But it works more often than not directly against what's necessary for a democratic society.
  We're such a commercially marinated society that our notion of speech to fellow citizens to bring truth through discussion and interaction has been pushed to the margins. Now the whole idea of speech is to make money. So whether something's true or false is irrelevant. If they buy you're product, that's the truth. If they believe your lie, that's good enough. You get from them what you want. Completely lost in the dominant culture is the genuine notion of truth, a sense of how it comes as a result of dialogue and interaction and exchange. I think we have to get back to that, and our media system isn't going to get us there. It's part of the problem. It's Madison Avenue and Wall Street's media system.
5 There's been a huge explosion of "trash media." What accounts for it?
  The conventional wisdom is that it's demand-driven, that the audience is demanding more stories about JonBenet and O.J. and car crashes and JFK Jr. There's a element of truth about that, to the extent that if you're fed a steady diet of something, eventually you're going to demand it. It's a given. But the real motor force behind it isn't demand. It's supply driven. The reason why this sort of journalism dominates is that it's extremely inexpensive to do. It's extremely non-controversial to anyone in power. It's ideal fill space. It will attract an audience. It doesn't take skilled journalists. You can have low-ball, low-budget journalists. Compare it to what real journalism would do. Take the same reporters covering the JonBenet case and have them examine toxic waste dumps in the U.S. Take all that human labor and money into that. The same money would probably cover a lot fewer stories, because it takes a long time to do and it takes six months to break a story. The story might not even pan out. That's one of the risks you have. Then if it does pan out you're going to get some very powerful corporate and governmental interests pissed off at you. That's the last thing these corporate media giants want to do. That's something they try to avoid like the plague. So you just aren't going to see that. You never have to worry about the JonBenet story pissing off the head of a bank. So I say it's supply driven. It's very profitable. People consume it and they say: "People are really interested in this." The O.J. trial. Even I was interested in whether Kato Kalin was going to get a job after a year of this. You get exposed to enough of it and it becomes a sort of soap opera. But I would have loved to have the opportunity to be exposed to some real journalism that engaged the major issues of the day.
6 The corporate media managers, the conservative critics of your argument, will say: "Look, that's fine. We are giving the public what it wants. The proof of that is that they can vote with their remote. They can just click off that Seinfeld rerun if they don't want to watch it. No one is force-feeding them."
  That's one of the big arguments I try to deal with in Rich Media, Poor Democracy, the idea that the system is giving the people what they want. There are a lot of layers to answer that because it's such an important argument. And there's an element of truth to it. If there wasn't, it wouldn't be a strong argument. No one puts a gun at your head and says you have to watch this or that. You can switch channels. The problem with it is first of all go back to what I just talked about. The relationship of supply and demand isn't one of obedient media giants giving you whatever you bark out your command for. It's a complex interactive relationship. Let me give you one example of how that works. In the mid-1970s, ten percent of the films exhibited in theaters were foreign films, made outside the U.S. In the mid-1980s it was down to six or seven percent. Today it's one-quarter of one percent: .025%. It's non-existent, in other words, except for maybe an occasional film. In the traditional give-the-people-what-they-want theory, this would mean that some time in the last twenty years the American people resoundingly smashed their fists on the table and said: "Get these foreign films out of our theaters." We hate them. We refuse to go to them. But that's not what happened at all. It was the direct opposite. Starting in the mid-1970s, you saw the end of the single-screen theater as the main form of distribution. So single-screen theaters were replaced by multiplexes. One multiplex with eight to twelve screens. One camera person operates all twelve screens. One popcorn crew operates all twelve screens. It's basically impossible to survive with a single-screen theater any more.
  All the foreign films were coming into single-screen theaters. So there were two dozen foreign film theaters in Manhattan alone in the 1970s. Today I think there's one, if that. Cities like Seattle, where I lived, had six. Even in small towns like Yellow Springs, Ohio there were a couple. It was commonplace. But those sorts of theaters couldn't survive. They were replaced by these multiplexes. So then when a French or Japanese filmmaker came to the U.S. and wanted to screen a film, the multiplexes said: "You have to be in all 215 multiplexes, and you have to pay a marketing budget equivalent to what a Hollywood studio spends to buy those big ads that you have to run the weekend before you come out." The amount of money was prohibitive for them, several times more than they paid to make the film. Over time they stopped being carried. As a result today, I ask my students: "How many of you watch foreign films?" Most of them don't even know they exist. They make films in Germany? Really? They aren't going to ask for them in the video store, so there's no demand for them, but it's not that people don't want them. They don't have a chance to be exposed to them. That illustrates how complex this relationship is. The idea that you have a vote is nonsense.
  Take cable TV. You have a choice. What is your choice? The fifty largest commercially viable cable television channels are basically owned part or outright by these eight or nine largest media companies. Time Warner, Disney, News Corporation, CBS, Viacom, TCI, now AT&T, General Electric, NBC, Sony. They basically own all the five or six commercial proven genres that they all ape each other with. It's not like you have fifty distinct channels. Everybody's got their business news service. They've got their commercial kids channel which bombards kids with ads around the clock. You've got your sports channels, music video channels. There's a handful of genres. If you don't like it, what choice is there beyond that if you want to watch TV? You don't really have a whole lot of choice. You're going to get one of their channels, and they're all imitating each other. That's another thing about the market. It's actually ironic, given all the claims made about it. It's a very poor mechanism for creativity. Look at popular music. These record companies are constantly desperate to make money. So they want to give people what they want, the five companies that sell 90% of the music now, all but one part of these huge giants we just named. The problem they have is that the commercial impulse isn't always very good for creativity. All the great breakthroughs in rock and roll and popular music in the last forty years have been outside of their web. It happens in the nooks and crevices. Once these corporate guys get hold of it, they try to recreate it. They do marketing surveys, demographics and focus groups. They come up with something that's lost all the creative spark. It's pathetic. They just can't do it, and it gets worse and worse, not better and better. It's built into the process, in fact the commercial marketplace arguably is anti-creative. Real creativity can't be sparked on Wall Street.
7 Talk about the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which was very strongly pushed by Bill Clinton and Al Gore.
  And the entire political establishment. The Republicans are in bed with them.
8 The logic that was promoted then was that the passage of this act would usher in a new era of diversity. It would foster competition. We've had a few years now to look at the record. What does it look like?
  There's a myth going around that capitalism is based on competition. Have you heard that one? That's one they feed us here at the lower levels. The Act ushered in the greatest wave of corporate concentration and the greatest attack on competitive markets arguably in the history of U.S. capitalism. It's done the exact opposite of what the PR people said would happen. The corporate lobbyists that rammed this law through, paid for it and bought off members of Congress to support it, knew this would happen. They would never have put this through if they thought it would lead to competition. They were ramming it through to make sure it would give them all the tools to prevent there being competition. The outcome actually is exactly what the real people behind it wanted. We started in 1996. Look at telecommunications. We had AT&T, Sprint, MCI, the long-distance companies, GTE, and the seven Baby Bells. We had eleven companies. Now we are down to four after mergers and acquisitions. Look at the media, radio, for example. The deregulation of ownership in radio has been astonishing. We've seen over half the stations sold. It used to be you could only own twelve or fourteen stations nationally. Now you can have as many as you want, up to eight in the largest markets. There's been an unbelievable consolidation of ownership, with disastrous implications for the content of radio as it's been regimented and homogenized. All the localism and creativity have been stripped out. But the profits are going through the roof, which was exactly what was meant to happen.
9 Ralph Nader reports that when the legislation was being drafted, the lobbyists for the big telecom corporations were actually in the Congressional committee rooms helping the representatives of the people draft the legislation.
  It was a classic case. The lobbyists wrote chunks of it. This really shows how politics works. There were intense fights among these various lobbying groups, the satellite broadcasters, terrestrial broadcasters, cable companies, long-distance companies and local Baby Bells, about who was going to get the biggest slice of the pie, the best terms of the law. But there was one thing they all agreed on, which was, it was their pie. No one else should know about it. They would keep it to themselves. They were fighting each other incessantly for five years. In 1996, three weeks before it passed, all the conventional wisdom was saying it wouldn't get through, that it would take another year or two to pass because there were such big fights. They all buried the hatchet, because they wanted to get it out of Congress's hands. They were afraid the general public might learn about it and weigh in on it, particularly with someone like Ross Perot running for President again. They saw what a monkey wrench he threw into their plans for NAFTA in 1992 and they didn't want to see it again.
10 Let's talk about the Internet and its initial public subsidy. Its origins were rooted in a Pentagon-funded project called the Advanced Research Projects Agency, Arpanet. At what point does the Internet pass into the private sector? Did I miss that debate?
  You might have blinked at that moment. There was no coverage of it whatsoever. The Telecom Act of 1996 was probably the final word on the subject that passed all control over to the private sector. There was zero debate. It's a classic case of how politics works short of having popular movements that challenge corporate power. The Internet was founded in the 1960s and 1970s not just for the military, but for researchers to communicate through their computers. It made no sense to the private sector. It's a real testament to socialism, or to public-sector investment. There was no way you could make money off this thing for twenty years. The story goes that in the 1970s the government went to AT&T and said: "Will you take this thing over? It's costing us a lot of money." AT&T looked at it and said: "We can't make any money off this. You keep it." Bill Gates had nothing to do with the Internet. He is the most overrated person, as an aside. People think he's so rich he must be a genius. He's better than us. He has better sex. He's funnier. He's handsomer. He's the Ringo Starr and Jed Clampett of the Information Age. He's sitting on this monopoly. Anyone with a $100 billion monopoly is going to have people kissing up to him. He had nothing to do with it. He didn't know about it until well after it hit. A decade later he was waking up to it. If you have $100 billion in market power you can act like you own the darn thing.
  In the early 1990s, finally commercial interests saw: "We could make a lot of money on this thing." It was quietly privatized and the government sacrificed all its policy-making to industry groups, non-profit bodies representing commercial interests, a staggering gift of corporate welfare. One of the great things about give the people what they want argument is that in 1995 the ad industry did a survey of the American people and found something like two-thirds wanted no advertising or commercials on the Internet. They didn't give us what we want that time. They only give you what you want if they can make a lot of money on it. Generally that's a much different range from what people should want or do want if they're give a real choice.
11 What are the implications of the recent court ruling on Microsoft? The judge commented on the "predatory monopolistic tendencies and actions of Microsoft." Were you surprised by that decision?
  A little bit, but not especially. They were guilty as charged. Any honest assessment would do that. At the same time, I'm not breaking out any champagne bottles over it. First of all, what Microsoft did was just classic capitalism. If you're an investor in Microsoft, you would want them to eliminate competition. Oracle, Sun Microsystems, all of them would do that had they been in that position. They just weren't in that position. It's just how capitalism works. The real thing that matters is to actually do something meaningful about it to set these markets open. There I'm concerned that the chances of that happening are a lot different. In this case you've got all the powerful firms in the industry lined up against Microsoft. They were pushing and supporting the government. Now, as they negotiate a solution, we're going to have all these firms jockeying for the best deal for themselves, and they are all going to agree they want to keep it in private hands. Unless there's public pressure, which I don't foresee in the short term, the solution is not just going to basically turn the monopoly into a duopoly. I think it's unlikely. So it's good what's been done, but let's not think that's the end of it.
12 I asked Noam Chomsky about the increasing media concentration. His answer departs from the traditional left line. He said: "There's not much evidence that the media before all these takeovers and mergers happened were producing any better product."
  I would disagree in one way. I think Chomsky's generally right in the sense that to romanticize more competitive markets is wrong. There were fundamental problems with our media system before. When I talked to him about this issue, he said: "What were they doing before that was so much better?" He's right at that level. But what has happened with concentrated ownership is that what autonomy journalists did have, and they didn't use it very effectively for the most part, has come under sustained attack by corporate owners and advertisers. The result is a softening of news stories and a reluctance now to attack major advertisers. That wasn't the case ten or twenty years ago. You see a real merging, the breakdown of the separation of editorial and commercial content. As a result, journalists who used to be the foremost defenders of the commercial media system are now some of its strongest critics because they can see that the profit motive and commercialism undermine their ability to do anything remotely close to public service journalism. That's a big change. And that has only taken place due to concentration.
   
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