Our Media Is Mostly Corporate Garbage -- If America Went Socialist, It Could Be First Class
The following is an excerpt from Frances Goldin, Debby Smith, and Michael Smith's new book, Imagine: Living in a Socialist USA (Harper Perennial, a subsidiary of HarperCollins Publishers, 2014).
Imagine a world without the New York Times, Fox News, CNN, the Wall Street Journal, and countless other tools used by the one percent to rule and fool.
In a socialist society run by and for the working people it represents, the mega-monopolies like Wal-Mart, Halliburton, Exxon-Mobil, and the corporations that run the tightly controlled “mainstream media” will be a thing of the past.
It’s not news that the major U.S. media are run by and for big business, or that the major media companies are themselves big businesses. Twenty years ago, thirty corporations controlled 90 percent of U.S. media. Today, it is a grand total of six mega-corporations — Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, Disney, Viacom, Time Warner, CBS, and Comcast. Besides accumulating their own profits, the media are daily trumpets for the rest of the corporate world’s advertising.
If you’ve ever worked for a newspaper or magazine, you know the process of layout and design. The ads are laid out before anything else except the lead stories; the other news and feature stories are then fit between ads. “What can we find to fill this hole?” an editor will frequently shout, referring to a page where stories have not yet been designated to fill the space between the ads, thus leaving a “news hole.” Media owners’ profits do not come primarily from the money we spend to buy their publications,
but from the ads inside them. While big advertisers don’t directly select what news is published, publishers, editors, and news directors know what they like and will rarely risk their disapproval.
“It would be foolish to expect objective reporting: not because journalists are bad people, but because of the economic structure of the organizations they work for,” Arundhati Roy wrote in 2011. “In fact, what is surprising is that despite all this, occasionally there is some very good reporting. But overall we have silence, or a completely distorted picture.”
Online news sources also rely on ads for their profits even more than their print-media cousins. So do the search engines and portal sites through which people gain access to them, such as Google and Yahoo!. But it’s online media that have the potential for wider than ever public participation and exchange of views.
A democratic, accessible-to-all media will move to center stage in a socialist USA. In some ways this democratization of the media is already happening on the Internet. But the government’s ability to spy on and even turn off the Internet belies any real democracy. In a socialist democracy, working people will control the political process, the way in which they make a living, and collectively and individually, they will influence mass culture. The Internet will be a powerful and democratizing tool in this effort.
Yet the media business, for those who now own and run it, is more than just a money-making operation. The owners also promote their political agenda. Through selecting and disseminating news — or presenting propaganda like “the recession is over” or “drones almost always hit their targets” — the media moguls push the public to support that agenda, from their political candidates to their wars. In capitalist societies, what’s reported as “news” is selected, organized, and presented by an army of self-important
publishers, editors, and writers who — if they want to keep their jobs — follow their corporate employers’ political line. And what’s not reported is often just as telling. In 2012, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting noted that less than one percent of news stories in eight major outlets covered poverty.
Indeed, almost a century ago, Upton Sinclair, in The Brass Check, defined journalism in the United States as “the day-to-day, between-elections propaganda, whereby the minds of the people are kept in a state of acquiescence, so that when the crisis of an election comes, they go to the polls and cast their ballots for either one of the two candidates of their exploiters.”
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But what will the media be like in a socialist USA? There is no blueprint, but in a society that has erased corporate control, the articles in newspapers and magazines and online will not be filler between ads for teeth whiteners and weight-loss pills. There won’t be TV commercials for Coke, cars, or million-dollar condos. There will be no private corporations to create and sponsor the news.
Most of us could probably manage to struggle through life without Coca-Cola and Colgate, but who, then, will pay for the news? Who will pay the salaries of reporters, camera people, technicians, announcers, maintenance staff, online journalists, professional bloggers, and videographers?
In a socialist society a portion of the media would be reserved for news disseminated by the democratically elected governing bodies, that is, working people elected by and for working people. But state ownership is not the only way media can represent the interests of working people, to speak with or through their voices. In most cases, the media would be owned and operated by working-class organizations — labor unions, neighborhood associations, and cultural centers.
So news (and views) in a socialist society will be brought to you by a plethora of noncommercial sponsors. The government media will report on and discuss, for example, the major government plans for production, how to improve education, and more. But other media — newspapers, TV and radio stations, and Web sites sponsored by workers’ organizations, cultural organizations, youth groups, sports teams, and neighborhood groups will report on issues specific to their interests.
Socialist media will be multisponsored and multifaceted and reflect a range of opinions even when there are disagreements and arguments.
But what about the cost? Can workers’ organizations such as labor unions, tenants’ organizations, or citywide parent-teacher associations really afford to pay for daily and weekly newspapers, magazines, TV and radio newscasts, blogs, and online audio-and video-streaming techniques?
In most cases, workers could meet the cost of media-making with add-ons to union dues, but that may not always be needed. New technology has drastically cut the costs of producing media. Smaller, easier-to-use cameras, recorders, and other airwave technology, as well as the electronic publication of books, newsletters, and blogs, have brought media production within the reach of almost everyone.
Union dues today pay for the publication, including staff salaries, of many union newspapers. In a socialist society, where money is allocated based on assessed social need and not on projected profits, government will subsidize many salaries in social, economic, political, and educational areas. (Even under capitalism, the government funds public schools, although usually in a distorted manner through which schools in wealthier areas get the most money.) So salaries at the media operations of smaller unions will most likely be covered by government subsidies.
The organizational outreach of such workers’ groups — through their affiliates and friends across the country (and often around the world) will provide the circulation that is so critical — and in capitalist society, so costly.
But what about bias? Can a newspaper or TV news program run by the autoworkers’ union, for example, provide critical reports about that union’s problems and weaknesses? When workers on one section of an auto assembly line feel that the line is moving too fast for safety — perhaps it has already caused some minor injuries, and they believe a major accident is inevitable — while union officials are publicly boasting about their plant’s speed and “socialist efficiency,” will the union’s TV program invite the complaining workers on the air to discuss their issues? Indeed, will Autoworkers News and Views on TV have a regular segment devoted to union members’ criticisms?
Why not? Who better to discuss and debate problems inside a union than the members who live with and often suffer from those problems? If unions or neighborhood councils are truly trying to make things better for their members, what more effective tools than media outlets to spur such improvements?
But the main difference between news media under socialism and the news media we know today will be what gets covered. Since the first hieroglyphics, the role of the media has been to spread the word — to disseminate news (and views) to readers, listeners, and viewers. And from the very beginning, the number-one question has been: Whose news and whose views?
With no corporate padlocks, the media door will be open for a variety of forms different from the news we’re permitted today. Instead of assigning reporters and editors to cover beats (and often it’s not just beats but entire sections of each day’s news) such as celebrity weddings or Wall Street wheeling and dealing, socialist media will have beats of a different class — working-class beats. Instead of who makes profit — and how much profit — from the sale of GM trucks, socialist media will cover who makes those trucks. They would also talk to the people who drive those trucks, to evaluate their safety features and propose new ones.
Imagine the news media with no Wall Street business reports, no stock-market prices — the socialist economy will no longer be controlled by Wall Street businesses. Indeed, there will be no big businesses on Wall (or any other) Street, and no stock market. News media will no longer report on the president’s golf game or the first lady’s new dress, or propagandize for war, or lie about and cover up scandals.
To be sure, there will be no shortage of economic news in a socialist society. Some news will still come from local and national governments that set product-distribution quotas or help to negotiate them, sponsor trade and international exchange with other countries, and — if the world is still partly controlled by capitalist powers — organize defense against economic (as well as cultural, and possibly military) assaults. But most news reports in socialist media will come from working people themselves. Here are a few news-story possibilities:
- At an air-conditioner factory in Brooklyn, a man and a woman on the assembly line recently both lost a finger in an accident in the grid-cutting operation. When the workers first tried using safety gloves to protect their hands, they were so bulky that it was almost impossible to operate the machinery effectively. They came up with a thinner glove, which was better for working but not strong enough to prevent blades from slicing through. Finally, with help from their machinists union local, several plant workers developed, tested, and installed a new electric-eye “hand shield” that automatically shuts down the line before any injury can occur. This might well be a national news story, especially if there was controversy over whether the new device shut down the line unnecessarily and thereby impaired production.
- A union theater group, part of the nationwide New Workers Theater League that is often in the culture section of the media, produces new dramas written by workers as well as old but still popular pieces like Threepenny Opera, Waiting for Lefty, and West Side Story.
- There could also be reports of school poetry slams, neighborhood art shows, music festivals, rival baseball teams, cooking contests, and dance parties.
And there will be stories of continuing struggles to make sure that the revolution represents the entire working class — especially struggles against the old but adhesive attitudes of racism and sexism. In a society where racism and sexism are as widespread as they are in the United States, they will not evaporate simply because revolutionaries nail a “closed” sign to the door of the New York Stock Exchange.
Discussions, debates, even battles will continue, and social justice committees will be elected by the union membership to look into complaints and to dig up and root out capitalist, racist, and sexist weeds that continue to grow.
Social justice committees in each workplace and community will have no shortage of complaints to consider — and the media will have no shortage of stories to investigate.
Besides reporting news, the media will be key to ensuring the fullest public discussion and debate of policies under consideration by national and local governments, as well as of proposed changes in local workplaces, schools, and communities. Functioning as a public forum in this way will involve more than simply letters to the editor and interviews with readers.
Online media will continue to play its vital role. Social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and blogs strengthen discussion and debate and ensure that all readers have a voice in the societal dialogue.
Moreover, working people, students of all ages, and retired people, all can and will also launch their own reports and discussions, only adding to the sense of participatory democracy. The major news media — municipal, regional, or national — can and almost certainly will include selections of highlights from local online forum discussions and blogs.
These media forums will also include sections — perhaps certain pages, perhaps certain days of the week — for discussion and debate about readers’ everyday problems. Children, teenagers, and young adults would have their own columns.
There will be many other features in the media of a socialist society. One would certainly be “never forget,” stories in words and pictures — on-air or online or both — describing battles waged previously during life under capitalism: tent cities for homeless families, “stop-and-frisk” police policies that singled out young black and Latino men, and the experience of unemployment and long-term joblessness. But “Never Forget” would also feature stories about fighting capitalist oppression through strikes and marches, and about heroes of past struggles.
Besides “Never Forget” columns in the daily and weekly media, a series of historical TV specials or mini-magazines on themes such as the Native American resistance movement, labor organizing, and the fight against racism could be produced by student journalists working with older folks who took part in those struggles. These would also be available to teachers for classroom use.
Stories about life under capitalism, about the struggles to create a new and just society, and about forming a socialist democracy will all make for compelling reading. It is up to us to make sure this happens.