A Modest Proposal for Media Reform

Many Americans feel under siege from advertising that insults intelligence and helps to degrade the nation's cultural environment. While serving the interests of advertisers, the daily ad-mania makes us sick -- sometimes quite literally. What can we do about it?

No easy solution is in sight. The ad craziness has gotten extreme in a context of greatly centralized economic power afflicting nearly the entire media landscape. "The bottom line is that fewer and fewer huge conglomerates are controlling virtually everything that the ordinary American sees, hears and reads," independent Rep. Bernie Sanders wrote recently in The Hill newspaper. With probably undue optimism, he added: "This is an issue that Congress can no longer ignore."

Such matters are way too important to be left up to politicians -- or the hotshots in the executive suites of gargantuan media firms. What's at stake could hardly be more basic. For instance, Sanders noted: "Despite 41 million people with no health insurance and millions more underinsured, we spend far more per capita on health care than any other nation. Maybe the reason is that we are seeing no good programs on television, in between the prescription drug advertisements, discussing how we can provide quality health care for all at far lower per capita costs than we presently spend?"

Ads for various kinds of drugs now supply a very big income stream to networks -- hardly an incentive to feature hardhitting journalistic scrutiny of those lucrative spots. Significantly, one of the few large broadcast outlets with tough reporting on the pharmaceutical industry is National Public Radio. While "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" are improperly reliant on corporate underwriting, at least they don't air commercials for the latest wonder drugs.

Upbeat advertisements for drugs are ubiquitous sources of selective claims that have many consumers clamoring for pharmaceuticals that could do them more harm than good. As the AARP Bulletin reported this year, "30 percent of Americans talk to their doctors about a specific drug they've seen advertised, and of these, 44 percent receive it, according to a recent study by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation."

Many health-care providers succumb to heavily funded pitches that include lavish corporate promotional drives targeting medical professionals. As countless millions of Americans have learned the hard way, the latest medications can be pricey -- and the side effects may not have been thoroughly studied.

But ad campaigns and other PR blitzes amount to prescriptions for humongous profits. As the invaluable newsletter The Washington Spectator observed in its June 15 edition, "The pharmaceutical companies are pill pushers that have been turning health care into wealth care -- theirs."

Meanwhile, the ad industry is also engaged in unrelenting psychological warfare for everything from fast food to alcohol to cigarettes to thousands of over-packaged snacks containing scant nutrition and plenty of junk. We're besieged by advertising that tells us what to put in our mouths -- but doesn't tell us relevant information that we need to know. A consumer-health coalition called the National Alliance for Nutrition and Activity accuses the food biz of "manipulation."

The consequences can be dire, since mass-marketed food products -- often supercharged with calories -- pack quite a cumulative wallop. "The federal government estimates that a third of all cancer and heart disease and up to 80 percent of diabetes could be prevented if people ate less, ate better food and exercised more," Reuters reports.

Such information should appear on the airwaves -- in well-funded ads with high production values -- just as frequently as plugs for the virtues of Big Macs and Whoppers. Likewise, a constant flow of objective scientific information about pharmaceutical products should supplement the serene commercials for over-the-counter and prescription drugs.

So, here's a modest proposal: Every commercial for food and drugs should be taxed -- with the proceeds going to pay for "truth commission" ads from independent researchers -- to keep the public informed about the latest scientific findings on the benefits and risks of such products.

That kind of arrangement would be entirely justified. After all, TV and radio broadcasters use airwaves that are supposed to belong to the public. And cable television operators have profited immensely from the protection of federal regulations placing severe limits on the power of municipalities to charge franchise fees for use of public rights-of-way.

Of course, any proposal to tax commercials would spark a fierce reaction from corporate powerhouses. If the idea gathered momentum on Capitol Hill, their tactics would include shelling out big bucks for an onslaught of commercials to promote opposition.

Countering ad hype with factual information. What a concept.

Norman Solomon's latest book is "The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media." His syndicated column focuses on media and politics.


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