SOLOMON: Dissent at the NAB Convention
Does America have a military-industrial-media complex?
Whether you consider the question in terms of psychology or economics, some grim answers are available from the National Association of Broadcasters, a powerful industry group that's holding its radio convention in San Francisco.
When a recent Federal Trade Commission report faulted media companies for marketing violence to children, various politicians expressed outrage. But we've heard little about the NAB -- a trade association with a fitting acronym. The NAB has a notable record of nabbing the public airwaves for private gain.
Nearly 40 years ago, a farewell speech by President Dwight Eisenhower warned about the "conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry." He said: "In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist." That potential has been realized, with major help from media.
Rather than scrutinize the merchants of militarism, large news organizations have been inclined to embrace them. (In some cases, as with General Electric and NBC, the arms contractor and the network owner are one and the same.) The Pentagon's key vendors can rest assured that big TV and radio outlets will function much more as allies than adversaries.
On television, the recruitment ads for the armed forces symbolize the cozy -- and lucrative -- ties between the producers of fantasy violence and the planners of massive carnage. Military leaders have good reasons to appreciate the nation's entertainment media for encouraging public acceptance of extreme violence.
In practice, big money rules the airwaves, and that's the way the NAB likes it. The industry is swinging its mighty lobbying arm to knock down a proposal -- approved by the Federal Communications Commission -- to license low-power radio stations. The specter of community-based "microbroadcasting" worries the NAB, which sees wealth as a vital precondition for control of broadcast frequencies.
But the NAB has championed some new laws, like the landmark Telecommunications Act of 1996 that made it possible for a single corporation to own several radio stations in the same city -- and hundreds of stations across the country.
Now, more than ever, cookie-cutter stations from coast to coast are beaming identical syndicated garbage to millions of listeners.
The convention's keynote speaker is a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "Colin Powell is a true national hero," says the NAB's president, "and the radio industry will be honored by his appearance." Powell won great media acclaim for overseeing the Gulf War slaughter of Iraqi people -- 200,000 of them in a six-week period, according to a Pentagon estimate. At the time, America's broadcasters and their cable television colleagues presented the bloodshed as a glorious exercise of military prowess -- rendered on TV screens as dramatic video games.
Political bluster tells us that children should not be desensitized by media images of simulated violence -- but it's A-OK to depict the real thing as a big feather in the nation's patriotic cap. The military-industrial-media complex takes its toll with deeply ingrained patterns of newspeak and doublethink. Orwell recognized such patterns long ago.
American media's high comfort level with sanctioned violence -- imaginary or real -- has a numbing effect on people of all ages. Meanwhile, the dominant weave of propaganda and militarism is, for some, a brocade embossed with gold.
Since September 1998, Powell has been on the management board of America Online. Eight months ago, the retired general voted with other members of the board to approve AOL's purchase of Time Warner.
When Gen. Powell steps to the NAB podium in San Francisco, it's unlikely he'll mention that he holds AOL stock options worth $13.3 million. Nor is he expected to note that his son Michael Powell -- one of the five FCC commissioners -- has refused to recuse himself from the agency's pending vote on whether to approve the merger of AOL and Time Warner.
Dissent is not on the agenda at the NAB convention. But I look forward to being among those who will speak at nearby independent forums -- and will protest in the streets of San Francisco to confront the dire centralization of media ownership. Articles probing the current clout of America's broadcast industry are posted at www.mediademocracynow.org -- a website that's unlikely to be mentioned on the national airwaves. One of the most insidious prerogatives of radio and TV giants is that they largely filter out news about challenges to their own power.