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Prior Knowledge

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

proposals for media reform

The following is an overview of the concluding chapter of Robert McChesney's "Rich Media, Poor Democracy". It lists (often in heavy paraphrase) his suggestions for media reform.

Robert McChesney's main concern is democratic control over the main institutions of the country. He takes democracy to require something like equal influence over political affairs by the citizenry. This, in turn, requires that the citizenry has access to a wide range of well-formed political positions on core issues and to a rigorous accounting of the activities of political and economic powers. He contends that the current media system in the US fails these functions. Systematic reasons why it fails can be found in my previous post - "Mass Media". The proposed media reforms have the aim of giving people easy access to a wider range of political positions and to a rigorous accounting of the activities of political and economic powers.

McChesney takes the main problems to be the ownership structure of the mass media, their profit motivation and their reliance on advertising and suggests the following changes to the media system of the US. He suggests the following ways

(1) build non-profit and non-commercial media with the help of funding from labor unions and progressive foundations. The government can help by, say, providing tax write-offs for donations to non-profit news media and by offering low cost mailing for small non-profit and non-advertising media (a service already extended to the profit oriented media).

(2) the government must establish non-commercial and non-profit public radio and TV. These should be established at various strata - national networks, local stations, public access TV, independent community radio, low power radio and TV for every community. Unlike the major current forms of public broadcasting in the US, these must not generate revenue through advertising or through grants from corporations or individuals. The funding for such public broadcsating is to be through taxation. Some problems to address include the worry that this system might degenerate into a bureaucracy unaccountable to popular desires or that it may become subordinate to censorship by a political authority. McChesney suggests that a system operating at varous levels (national, local, community access) will be more open to public desires and will also set up enough competing voices so as to mitigate fears of political censorship.

(3) Increase regulation. The FCC (federal communications commission) is set up to allow dialog between the public and those with broadcasting licenses. However, the desires of advertisers and the media corporations are rarely challenged (this would partly be due to lobbying by the media industry, which is not balanced by wealthy, well-organised and powerful lobbying for the cause of public interests). Currently, US broadcasters can buy their way out of their public service requirements. To get past the issue of government officials being swayed by media lobbies, McChesney suggests that perhaps licenses should only be for 18-20 hours per day leaving the rest of the time for public service. This public service time should be directed towards children's programs and news and control over the relevant programming should be in the hands of artists, educators and journalists. The funding would come from taxing the broadcasters and advertisers. McChesney also suggests some free time for political candidates, perhaps in combination with a ban on political advertisements.

(4) anti-trust activity, ie, the breaking up of monopolies and oligopolies and ensuring that there is a relatively low percentage of market share beyond which no corporation can step. The primary goal of anti-trust work should not be understood in terms of consumer welfare (defined in terms of product price and quality), but in terms of the role that the concentration of wealth plays in undermining democratic government.

mass media

The following is an overview of Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky's propaganda model (from their book "Manufacturing Consent"). All of this is paraphrased (sometimes very closely) from the 'A propaganda model' chapter. Herman and Chomsky set out five 'filters' that affect news choices and serve to narrow the range of news in the media and the style in which it is covered:

(1) the size, concentrated ownership, owner wealth, and profit orientation of the dominant mass-media firms. To publish even a small newspaper these days requires a considerable amount of money (the authors write that the cost of machinery alone runs into several hundred thousand US dollars). Twenty four media giants make up the 'top tier' of media companies in the US. They account for about half of the output of newspapers and most of the sales and audiences in magazines, broadcasting, books, and movies. Given the high cost of maintaining reporters in the field and of gathering news, second and lower tier media cut costs by following the agenda set by the top-tier media and by government and wire services for much of their national and international news. The top tier mews media is, in this sense, 'agenda-setting'.

The top tier media are all large profit making companies and are owned by very wealthy people. Shareholders, money-lending banks and investors all demand a tight focus on profit maximisation as the main goal of these companies.

Many of the main media companies have diversified beyond media. For example, NBC is owned by GE (General Electric). These parent companies or non-media branches of a mainly media company often have a vast stake in political decisions. All business firms are interested in business taxes, interest rates, labor policies, and enforcement and nonenforcement of the antitrust laws. A company like GE also depends on the government to subsidize its nuclear power and military research and development, and to create a favorable climate for overseas sales.

The main companies also have strong ties to government through lobbying, other political expenditure and through not being too critical of the government as they depend on the latter for their broadcasting licenses and franchises.

(2) advertising as the primary income source of the mass media. Advertisers have acquired the status of a de facto licensing authority in the sense that without their financial support, a newspaper ceases to be economically viable. Before advertising became prominent, the cost of newspaper had to cover pruduction costs. But with the growth of advertising, newspapers can sell copies below production costs. Any papers that did not attract advertisers are thus at a serious disadvantage. To attract advertisers, papers are interested in audiences with buying power, not with audiences per se. As a result, working class and readical papers are at a serious disadvantage, as their readers are generally have less buying power. There is also the concern that advertisers will practice political discrimination, being unwilling to put their ads in working class or radical papers and programs. Another factor is that advertisers will generally not sponsor programs that engage in serious criticism of corporate practices.

(3) the reliance of the media on information provided by government, business, and "experts" funded and approved by these primary sources and agents of power. The media need a reliable flow of the raw material of news in orderto meet news schedules. They cannot afford to have reporters at all places where important stories may break and, to keep costs down, they concentrate their resources where significant news often occurs and where regular press conferences are held. There is also a cost to proving the accuracy of news reports when challenged. These challenges occur least when the source of the news is prestigious - say, government sources or large corporations and trade groups. As a result, media rely heavily on government sources like the White House, the Pentagon, the State Department, city hall and police departments. Business corporations and trade groups are also regular and credible purveyors of stories deemed newsworthy. They also rely on large trade groups who often seek to reduce reporters' costs of information gathering by providing them with press conferences and releases.

There exist unofficial and non-business affiliated experts who are also credible sources who may voice views contrary to the interests of state and business groups. To counter this problem, these groups can put experts on their payroll, fund their research and organise think-tanks that hire them and disseminate their views.

(4) "flak" as a means of disciplining the media. "Flak" refers to negative responses to a media statement or program. If flak is produced on a large scale, it can be uncomfortable and costly for media. For, negative criticism of their statements or programs may require media to defend their positions in front of legislatures or courts and may cost them the withdrawal of advertising. Flak can come from independent individuals, but the ability to produce the most costly and voluminous flak correlates with power. It can come from government agencies or from corporate sponsors. There are various corporate funded think-tanks and media monitors that carry out this task.

(5) "anticommunism" as a national religion and control mechanism. The ideology of anti-communism is used to criticise liberals, social democrats and critics of US government policies regarding left-leaning economic rivals. This book was published in the late 80s. I suppose ideologies of patriotism and fear of being labelled anti-American or 'soft on terror' play similar roles today. Issues are often framed in terms of a dichotomy of Communist/anti-Communist powers (or American/anti-American), with gains and losses allocated to contesting sides, and rooting for "our side" considered an entirely legitimate news practice.

These filters narrow the range of news covered by the mass media and especially limit 'big news' (that is, news subject to sustained news campaigns). News from the establishment sources meets a major filter requirement and is voiced in the major media, News from dissidents or from unorganised groups is at a disadvantage in terms of both sourcing cost and credibility. Such news may also fail to comply with the politics and the interests of advertisers and major sources of flak.