Crass Communications

You may have been disgusted by the amount of time and energy the press gave to the death of Princess Diana when compared to the resources denied for the dissemination of valuable information. If you want a concise, devastating examination on how these media pig-outs of celebrity, sports and entertainment news are threatening American democracy, a former Shaker Heights resident has written just the primer for you.Robert McChesney, an associate professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has compacted in about 70 readable pages of a pamphlet book, easily tuckable in a shirt pocket, a sharp critique of today's journalism entitled, "Corporate Media and the Threat to Democracy" (Seven Stories Press). It should be read by every journalism student.McChesney critiques the press critically as an essential instrument of participatory self-government. But he sees the press more and more as a controlled instrument of corporate interests, and its predominant reason for being, service to a consumer society.Throughout he comes up with precise quotes to accent particular arguments. For his opening on the requirement for democracy, he quotes James Madison: "A popular government without popular information, or a means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both."If you watch local TV news and read the morning newspaper you know we are right at the lip of farce and close to the mouth of tragedy.McChesney traces the changes in journalism from the expectations of the Founding Fathers, who gave the press the First Amendment as a fire-wall from autocratic (but apparently not from corporate) rule, through the period of the advertising-free partisan press in the early days of the nation to the highly concentrated corporate press of today, dependent upon advertising and bottom line.The more "professionalized" journalism became, argues McChesney, the more it played a role in the "depoliticization" of U.S. society. "Moreover, by sanitizing coverage and seemingly depriving it of ideological content, the news made public affairs obtuse, confusing and boring," he writes. Studies suggest "the most damning statement one could make about the news media ... (is) that the more a person consumes commercial news, the less capable that person is of understanding politics or public affairs."The corporate consolidation of media that has rapidly developed in very recent times has given us "nothing to tell, but plenty to sell," as he quotes George Gerbner. McChesney writes that the corporate media are "carpet-bombing people with advertising and commercialism whether they like it or not."Joint-ventures and cooperation by media giants produce less competition. "Nobody can really afford to get mad with their competitors," says TCI (cable company) chairman John Malone, "because they are partners in one area and competitors in another.""When Disney (owner of ABC-TV) produces a film, for example, it can also guarantee the film showings on pay cable television and commercial network television (ABC), it can produce and sell soundtracks based on the film, it can create spin-off television series, it can produce related amusement park rides, CD-ROMs, books, comics, and merchandise to be sold in Disney retail stores," McChesney writes.He outlines the nature and implications of the media synergy upon a political democracy, which he writes, are "anti-democratic forces in society." He notes that the shift of power in journalism has gone to the public relations business. There are now 20,000 more PR agents than journalists in the U.S."In effect, 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 to fill," he writes. "The bottom line mentality, he tells us, dominates American culture." Again, McChesney seems to find the perfect, chilling quote to finish off the argument. "The drive for profit," writes former Random House book editor Andrew Schiffrin, "fits like an iron mask on our cultural output."For those who believe the Internet provides an escape hatch from corporate monopoly, McChesney has bad news. "In short, the Internet and digital communication networks will not undermine the development of a global communication oligopoly; rather, they will be an integral aspect of it."He reviews U.S. communication policy and particularly the give-away of the airwaves to the private market, a development that can only continue the erosion of any hope of public participation in public decisions. "It does not reflect well on the caliber of U.S. participatory democracy, but it is capitalist democracy at its best," he concludes of the nation's policies.Anyone viewing local television news -- and to a great extent reading the daily newspaper -- doesn't need to be told that the old concept of the reporter as champion of the underdog is as extinct as T. Rex. You expect and come to accept commercialism as journalism, whether it be for the sale of sports tickets, O.J. hell-bent, or Princess Di heaven-bound. We are dumbed-down by shallow anchor chatter or multi-color front-page pseudo-TV that numbs us from what of importance could be communicated.McChesney does take the time to offer some solutions, crying out for putting "democracy before profits in communication policy-making" and bringing the pace of technological innovation "under rational control with long-term social, cultural and political consequences."However, trying to reverse the pattern of corporate domination of the means of communication, particularly in this time when business dominates our society, is a formidable task.


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