Globalization Limits Media Change

What if we had a chance to start over, to reorganize our media system? Could we do it?

These questions are not now on the agenda in the United States and are unlikely to be any time soon. That's why I was so excited about the possibilities in societies undergoing major transformations and economic restructuring. As the rest of society is reorganized, there is the opening to recreate media, too.

Russia, for example, had a historic opening when the Communist Party dominated system crumbled. State-run media there functioned like that little dog that was the mascot of the departed, but once omnipresent RCA Victor: "His Master's Voice." When the Soviet Union collapsed, the dog was sent to the pound.

But what happened? While politicians overseas spoke of bringing democracy to Russia, corrupt Mafia-type business barons strip-mined state-owned assets in one of the biggest grand larceny sprees in history and built media monopolies to give themselves political influence. A system that claimed to serve the people was soon crudely serving the financial and political interests of the new mogul-dominated power structure. Much of this shift from publicly owned property to privately run enterprises was aided and abetted by Western loans and so-called shock therapy administered with the advice of outside economic "gurus" like Harvard's Jeffrey Sachs, who now, after the horses are gone from the barn, is remorseful. Russia's reward for its integration into the new global economic order was the looting of its factories and enterprises.

Capitalism had supplanted state "communism," true, but it would be a big stretch to confuse the new system with democracy or even progress for all but a minority. The living standard of most working people in Russia has plummeted as KGB stalwarts like Vladimir Putin take charge. Much as I detested the caricature of a president that Boris Yeltsin had become by the time of his resignation, I was amazed by the honesty of his final televised speech, which was more candid than anything I have ever heard from almost any politician. "I want to ask for your forgiveness," Yeltsin begged the people of Russia, "for the fact that many of the dreams we shared did not come true. And for the fact that what seemed simple to us turned out to be tormentingly difficult. I ask forgiveness for not justifying some hopes of those people who believed that at one stroke, in one spurt, we could leap from the gray, stagnant, totalitarian past into the light, rich, civilized future. I turned out to be too naive. ... Today it's important for me to tell you. The pain of each of you has called forth pain in me, in my heart."

We were told over the years that Yeltsin had heart problems, but never for these reasons.

Closer to my heart was another opening for change, on another continent, in South Africa. There, a racist system in which whites ruled was displaced by a democratic nonracial "dispensation," where shared power led to multi-party elections. Previously, a few monopolies had controlled the press while a state-run television entity operated the South African Broadcasting Corporation, a.k.a. "The Apartheid Broadcasting System." It was characterized by propaganda from the white government, blatant censorship of news and the exclusion of the views of the black majority. The country didn't even get television until 1976, one component of the government's strategy of keeping ideas from the outside world outside.

Returning to the "beloved country" in early July for the 13th International AIDS Conference, I was struck by how much the TV system had changed; and not changed. The black majority is now in control. Black voices and faces are common, and it is hard to remember that apartheid even existed. In fact, as comics there joke, it is hard to find anyone who will admit that they ever supported apartheid, an oppressive system grounded in capitalism not communism, by the way. Black columnists and editors are preeminent in newspapers that are still dominated by a few powerful ownership groups but without the same allegiance to the dictates of state power. A press that toadied up to a white power structure for decades spends much of its time now challenging a black one.

Ironically, as a black government took charge in South Africa six years ago larger forces were reshaping the world economy in which the "new South Africa" wants to be a player. In an age of accelerating globalization, power has shifted from national governments to international financial regimes, from the public to the private, from the power of ideologies to the pervasive rulemaking of global financial institutions and multinational corporations.

Many of these new power structures are less visible, and thus less covered in a way that most people can understand because the implications of certain policies are not spelled out. For example, "holding down inflation" sounds reasonable, except to workers who are barely surviving on low wages and need raises just to keep up with the cost of living. Economic policies are treated almost exclusively as business stories with coded language, more familiar to insiders than general readers or viewers. The absence of analytical reporting i.e., "they say this, they mean that" means that business news, especially when it comes to international stories, is rarely made clear. And international stories are often treated as business stories, as if only the business world should be interested. As a consequence, business values have triumphed, and business news is expanding as other coverage shrinks. This feeling of triumphalism in the business world has trickled down into every corner of life. Writing in the July 24th "Fortune," Geoffrey Colvin urges capitalists to "savor this moment....[B]usiness is at the center and that's pretty much OK with everybody. It doesn't feel remarkable for us for the same reason that fish don't notice water; we live in it ... [L]ook at commerce's role in the culture. It's unprecedented."

Yet the deeper implications go largely unstudied, underreported and virtually undebated, except by the activists who have been challenging the WTO, World Bank, IMF and, this past week, the G-8 meeting in Okinawa, Japan. We occasionally hear their slogans but rarely the details of their critique, at least in most mainstream accounts.

A new book I picked up in South Africa, Elite Transition, by political economist Patrick Bond (University of Natal Press, 2000) lays out in chilling detail a critique of governments that came to power promising a radical departure from the past, but compromised, turned rightward and in turn were co-opted into a global neo-liberalism (that is, an adherence to free market economic principles) that has failed to generate either economic growth or "meaningful liberation." By this he means that the economic growth targets of the post-apartheid Mandela and Mbeki governments have yet to be met, and consequently, neither have popular demands for economic improvements in a country with 40 percent unemployment. While one can argue about what choices these governments really had or have in the current world climate, or whether any radical alternatives were feasible given the options, this is an argument that needs to be taken seriously even if you respect South Africa's many achievements. This argument also has implications for the role of media.

Take the AIDS conference. The event opened with a TV extravaganza that couldn't have been less appropriate for a conference dealing with the impending deaths of tens of millions of people. It featured musical numbers fit for the Broadway stage, including the anthemic: "The future isn't what it used to be." There were splashy dance routines and a presidential speech, interspersed with toothpaste commercials. It cost a small fortune to stage, and even though one of the cameras embarrassingly broke down, forcing a blackout, it was representative of the ways in which entertainment values suffuse and suffocate information programming on South African television. Patrick Bond claims government policies encouraged the "Americanization" of South African television. He also cites the case of Marcel Golding, a former trade-union activist turned investment banker who took over ETV, a new private TV company already 20 percent owned by Warner Brothers, and then further commercialized it rather than integrating programs supportive of the needs of workers whose pension funds financed the takeover. After a long process in which a variety of companies bid for licenses on the basis of promises of better news and public affairs, South Africa ended up with its first private station known for splash and schlock-y progamming, as well as the Oprah show. One factor in this is that transnational global media companies (most of which are American) can make and distribute programs cheaper than most countries can make their own. To keep costs down, many national broadcasters import shows and formats from overseas. "Baywatch" has been one such program for many years; now the "Millionaire" quiz show, which is being exported by an English company, has become a global smash. (I talk about an earlier stage of the hypercommercialization of the SABC, nominally South Africa's public service broadcaster, in my earlier book The More You Watch, The Less You Know.)

There is, unfortunately, a deeper logic to all of this that is built into the globalization process, as John A. Powell and S. P. Udayakumar write in the May/June 2000 issue of the political journal "Poverty & Race." The neo-liberal economy does not want or need informed citizens, they say, since key decisions are made today outside of elected political bodies. "There is an abiding belief that democracy must be limited because it interferes with the private decisions of market experts, thereby reducing wealth and capital," they argue. "People are now brought together as consumers but kept apart as citizens. We speak of an expanding global market, but a diminishing public space, and we hardly speak at all of citizen participation." Privatization as an economic policy has a corollary in the privatization of experience: Keep the public focused on its aspirations as individuals, not its collective needs. Public broadcasters in developing countries are encouraged to privatize by structural adjustment programs that tie outside loans to internal "reforms."

It is no wonder then that media historian Robert McChesney suggests that cutbacks in news and "informational" programs are deliberate because the companies who own and control media want to keep us in our private worlds, cut off from other people's pain and from too much knowledge about the world. They prefer us tranquilized, pacified, entertained. I have heard him describe in several speeches the mantra of dominant media to ordinary viewers, readers and listeners as simple: "Shut up and shop."

It is these often unspoken values at the heart of the business culture that undercut the creation of and support for more democratic public interest media.

Yet, even the boosters of business globalization are uncertain that they will prevail in the long run, not because of bad consciences, but because they know they can't and won't satisfy underlying social needs or prevent unrest indefinitely. In the "Fortune" column cited above, Geoffrey Colvin also advises business to "watch out," warning: "The important point is that cultures don't sit still. And one thing history shows for sure is that whoever triumphs is in peril."

Danny Schechter is the executive editor of Media Channel and author of "News Dissector," a collection of his columns and writings from Electronpress.com.

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