Take This Media...Please!
Julianne Malveaux (www.juliannemalveaux.com) is a Washington, DC-based economist and syndicated columnist. Her most recent book, Wall Street, Main Street and the Side Street: A Mad Economist Takes a Stroll (Pines One), is a collection of her columns.
How do the independent media survive and maintain integrity in light of massive agglomeration? Some don't--Ms. magazine was recently sold to a nonprofit organization that can absorb losses in a way that the magazine couldn't. When I look at the chart I see a concentration of media power, a seamless connection between radio, television, newspapers, books, the Internet, movies and magazines in a manner that bolsters a corporate position and squelches a diversity of voices.
When I say diversity, I don't mean race, ethnicity or class--though those things very much matter. I speak of a diversity in view and vision, something that becomes increasingly important as the current climate encourages a patriotic hegemony and discourages honest dissent with the President, whether it is about his war tactics or economic stimulus. The rush to uniform thinking has muted the voices of many who oppose corporate givebacks such as repeal of the alternative minimum tax, while making those who express their opinion especially vulnerable to attack. In his December 8 radio address, criticizing the Senate for not passing the House's corporation-favoring stimulus package, President Bush said, "Now is not the time for partisan politics. Now is the time for leadership. It's time to act." But the Senate should not act on a proposal that includes billions in corporate giveaways. Instead, it should offer a stimulus package targeted to those who have felt the brunt of recession. In our living rooms and at our lunch tables, Americans are talking about stimulus, about public-works possibilities and about other ways those at the bottom can get a break. In the media, though, such voices aren't heard.
When "the media" reflect a corporate bottom line, the breadth and depth of coverage suffer. Three decades ago, there were labor reporters in the United States--people who covered a comprehensive labor beat. They weren't "general interest" economic reporters who wrote one or two pieces a year on an AFL-CIO convention; they knew the players and understood the issues. Today, one in seven workers belongs to a union, but labor reporters are few and far between. So are consumer-affairs reporters, the ones who can spend half a year busting a predatory retailer. And so are foreign correspondents, even though they may be experiencing little unemployment in the wake of 9/11. None of us should be surprised at the trend toward quick and dirty news, low-cost, talking-head-driven programming. When a media outlet is a cog in a wheel that must help maximize corporate profits, not part of an information-gathering entity, then containing costs, not providing information, is a priority.
The current organization of the nation's media increases my respect and appreciation for independent voices that struggle to put diverse views out there, people like Farai Chideya at popandpolitics.com, Don Rojas at The Black World Today, The Progressive, The Nation and others who are passionate about their need to get the word out there independently.
Danny Schechter is the executive editor of Globalvision's Mediachannel.org and author of News Dissector: Passions, Pieces and Polemics (Akashic Books and Electronpress.com).
Ownership charts are at once a sign of the times and the sign that points to who controls the ways we understand our times. They are welcome, but as road maps to relationships that need fleshing out. In the real world, these entities function like amoebas, intersecting and collaborating with their competitors. It is their cumulative impact in framing issues and filtering out opinions that challenge their worldview that is more insidious. As Benjamin Barber of the Democracy Collaborative at the University of Maryland explains: "A year from now the mergers and alliances will have again shifted and some successful owners will be some other corporation's prey. The players will not have changed, however, only the line score on their current game."
How do ownership patterns affect journalism? Broadcasters were into cloning well before scientists. Board rooms don't fax the newsroom--they don't have to. The ideological uniformity and homogeneity of their multichannel environment is, in Marshall McLuhan's phrase, "pervasively invisible." The many channels and choices are more apparent to the public than the narrow range of voices. Newscasters say the world changed "forever" after September 11, but media haven't changed all that much. Regular programming and commercials were briefly interrupted, but it was soon back to business. Coverage of the world has increased only because Washington is more engaged in certain parts of it. While there is certainly more "serious news" than in recent years, it is still largely marching in lockstep with government policies. A post-9/11 study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism notes that "while the news has gotten more serious, almost all of the change is focused on the war, which suggests that the networks may have simply changed subjects rather than changed their approach to the news." Their sameness of approach and style is blatant; no wonder CBS and ABC are now considering joint newsgathering.
As a media maker as well as a critic, I can report that independent companies like ours are having a harder time than ever in this über-merged environment. That's because most networks tend to produce in-house or acquire product from other divisions in their conglomerates. Our work is rarely rejected on grounds of irrelevance or incompetence. What we hear instead from both commercial outlets and commercializing public broadcasters is that critically edged work is "worthy" but NFU--"Not For Us." When documentaries of a kind routinely aired elsewhere in the world become programmas-non-grata, we have to recognize that we are up against a largely closed system (i.e., as represented by the chart's colored boxes). Entertainment-oriented formats and formulas rule in a blatantly top-down, corporate-friendly climate, with little interest in dissenting ideas or bottom-up global reporting. This was always true; only it is getting worse.
You have to get outside the box to see what's missing--other boxes offering diverse perspectives, or public-service channels about the environment (not just wildlife), labor issues and forums for citizen debate. They are missing not because the audience isn't interested--most viewers blast major media whenever asked. No, it's because the power concentrated in this maze has, over time, replaced democracy with its own self-referencing mediocracy.