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Nation Topics - Corporate Media and Consolidation

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The rise of the media cartel has been a long time coming. The cultural effects are not new in kind, but the problem has become considerably larger.

Synergy—it's all well and good. But media consolidation's dark side often raises its head.

CNN, regularly derided as 'liberal' by conservative commentators, is only liberal if that word stands for 'somewhat sane.'

The network honchos called by
Louisiana Representative Billy Tauzin and the House Energy and
Commerce Committee to testify on the election night debacle were a
decidedly ungrateful bunch. True, they were forced to sit through a
video of their billion-dollar babies making idiots of themselves.
(Watching Dan Rather offering "a big tip and a hip, hip, hurrah and a
great big Texas howdy to the new President of the United States," and
instructing viewers to "Sip it. Savor it. Cup it. Photostat it.
Underline it in red. Press it in a book. Put it in an album. Hang it
on the wall," more than once ought to be considered cruel and unusual
by anyone's standards.) And how rare it must be that anyone, much
less mere members of Congress, would dare keep these boys cooling
their heels for a full five hours before finally bringing them
forward to demand that they swear to tell the truth, the whole truth
and nothing but the truth--in public, no less. But really, all the
"concern" and "uneasiness" voiced by the execs about government
meddling in the news was a bit much. There was never any danger to
the networks' independence in Tauzin's hearings; at least none that
originated from Congress, rather than their own parent
companies.

Tauzin, a Democrat turned Republican, originally
professed to possess an "analysis" that indicated "in almost every
case, [the networks] favored early calls for Al Gore over George
Bush." Absent any evidence, however, he withdrew the charge of
intentional bias and retreated behind a mysterious theory of "flawed
data models" and "biased statistical results" that happened to favor
Democrats. He offered no evidence this time either, but almost all
reporters felt duty-bound to repeat his nonsensical accusations.
Hence precious little attention was focused on more concrete
election-coverage questions, most notably Fox's decision to rely on
the analysis of John "I can't be honest about [my cousin George W.
Bush's] campaign.... He's family, and I'm for him" Ellis. And
needless to say, there was no time left for an examination of the
corrupting effect of the networks' interlocking structure of
corporate ownership.

Had Tauzin and company really tried
to censor or intimidate the networks, that would have been
interesting, but it is damn near impossible to imagine. As a
comprehensive report on media lobbying by the Center for Public
Integrity demonstrates, when it comes to mutual backscratching, the
primates in the National Zoo have nothing over the networks and
Congress.

Take Tauzin, for instance. According to the CPI
report--which might as well have been classified "top secret" for all
the attention lavished on it by the media it exposes--the cagey Cajun
received more PAC money from media companies than anyone else in the
House, including more than $150,000 from entertainment and
telecommunications companies for his 2000 campaign, in which he had
no credible opponent. Moreover, no member of Congress has traveled
more frequently on the media industry's dime. Between 1997 and 2000,
Tauzin and his staff took a total of forty-two trips--one out of
eight industry-sponsored junkets taken by members of Congress during
that period. In December 1999 Tauzin and his wife enjoyed a six-day,
$18,910 trip to industry "meetings" in Paris. Representative John
Sweeney managed to make the same trip for a mere $7,445. How can
Tauzin act as an honest broker for the networks filling his pockets?
Easy: He simply does not believe in the concept of conflict of
interest. "I have no choice but to do effective oversight," he says
by way of explanation. Tauzin's view is hardly unique. His successor
as chairman of the House Telecommunications Subcommittee, Fred Upton,
has a portfolio worth millions in those very same
companies.

Again, we are seeing nothing unusual here,
except perhaps gumption. In 1999 alone, according to the CPI, the
fifty largest media companies and four of their trade associations
coughed up more than $30 million to lobby Congress, an increase of
26.4 percent in three years. Since 1993, they have given more than
$75 million in direct campaign contributions, according to the Center
for Responsive Politics. And the numbers tell just a small part of
the story. These fellas are not just selling toasters, after all. As
former FCC chairman Reed Hundt has explained, more important than the
industry's money is the perception of its "near-ubiquitous, pervasive
power to completely alter the beliefs of every American." Politicians
fear that if they displease these companies, they will simply
"disappear" from view.

And what do the media want in
exchange for this largesse? They want to be left alone so they can
make themselves and their stockholders rich, regardless of their
impact on American democracy. To take just one example, according to
data collected by Competitive Media Reporting, politicians and
special interests spent an estimated $600 million for paid political
ads in the last election cycle, which makes the $11 million or so the
National Association of Broadcasters and five media outlets
cumulatively spent between 1996 and 1998 to defeat campaign finance
reform look like a prudent investment. Note, by the way, that John
McCain, the heroic white knight of campaign finance reform, who
raises more money from the media companies than even Tauzin, was
crucial to the media companies' successful effort to kill the FCC's
plan to force a lowering of the cost of political commercials, the
primary culprit driving the vicious election/money
cycle.

With Michael Powell as George Bush's new appointee
to head the FCC, the networks might not even have to bother lobbying
Congress anymore. Powell signaled his own expansive definition of
conflict of interest when he refused to recuse himself from the vote
approving the merger of AOL and Time Warner, despite the fact that
his father, Colin Powell, stood to make millions from the stock he
received as a company director. (I don't suppose he opposes the
repeal of the estate tax, either.)

"We don't look to the
government to correct the press. We look to the people," explained
ABC News president David Westin to Tauzin's committee. "If we fail,
the audience will judge us and move somewhere else." I'm thinking
France.

The recording
industry has been celebrating the supposed defeat of Napster. The
Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has affirmed the grant of a
preliminary injunction that may well have the effect of closing the
service down completely and ending the commercial existence of
Napster's parent (that is, unless the record companies agree to an
implausible deal Napster has proposed). But despite appearances, what
has happened, far from being a victory, is the beginning of the
industry's end. Even for those who have no particular stake in the
sharing of music on the web, there's value in understanding why the
"victory"over Napster is actually a profound and irreversible
calamity for the record companies. What is now happening to music
will soon be happening to many other forms of "content" in the
information society. The Napster case has much to teach us about the
collapse of publishers generally, and about the liberative
possibilities of the decay of the cultural oligopolies that dominated
the second half of the twentieth century.

The shuttering of
Napster will not achieve the music industry's goals because the
technology of music-sharing no longer requires the centralized
registry of music offered for sharing among the network's listeners
that Napster provided. Freely available software called OpenNap
allows any computer in the world to perform the task of facilitating
sharing; it is already widely used. Napster itself--as it kept
pointing out to increasingly unsympathetic courts--maintained no
inventory of music: It simply allowed listeners to find out what
other listeners were offering to share. Almost all the various
sharing programs in existence can switch from official Napster to
other sharing facilitators with a single click. And when they move,
the music moves with them. Now, in the publicity barrage surrounding
the decision, 60 million Napster users will find out about OpenNap,
which cannot be sued or prohibited because, as free software, no one
controls its distribution and any lawsuits would have to be brought
against all its users worldwide. Suddenly, instead of a problem posed
by one commercial entity that can be closed down or acquired, the
industry will be facing the same technical threat, with no one to sue
but its own customers. No business can survive by suing or harassing
its own market.

The music industry (by which we mean the
five companies that supply about 90 percent of the world's popular
music) is dying not because of Napster but because of an underlying
economic truth. In the world of digital products that can be copied
and moved at no cost, traditional distribution structures, which
depend on the ownership of the content or of the right to distribute,
are fatally inefficient. As John Guare's famous play has drummed into
all our minds, everyone in society is divided from everyone else by
six degrees of separation. The most efficient distribution system in
the world is to let everyone give music to whoever they know would
like it. When music has passed through six hands under the current
distribution system, it hasn't even reached the store. When it has
passed through six hands in a system that doesn't require the
distributor to buy the right to pass it along, it has already reached
several million listeners.

This increase in efficiency
means that composers, songwriters and performers have everything to
gain from making use of the system of unowned or anarchistic
distribution, provided that each listener at the end of the chain
still knows how to pay the artist and feels under some obligation to
do so, or will buy something else--a concert ticket, a T-shirt, a
poster--as a result of having received the music for free. Hundreds
of potential "business models" remain to be explored once the
proprietary distributor has disappeared, no one of which will be
perfect for all artistic producers but all of which will be the
subject of experiment in decades to come, once the dinosaurs are
gone.

No doubt there will be some immediate pain that will
be felt by artists rather than the shareholders of music
conglomerates. The greatest of celebrity musicians will do fine under
any system, while those who are currently waiting on tables or
driving a cab to support themselves have nothing to lose. For the
signed recording artists just barely making it, on the other hand,
the changes are of legitimate concern. But musicians as a whole stand
to gain far more than they lose. Their wholesale defection from the
existing distribution system is about to begin, leaving the music
industry--like manuscript illuminators, piano-roll manufacturers and
letterpress printers--a quaint and diminutive relic of a passé
economy.

The industry's giants won't disappear overnight,
or perhaps at all. But because their role as owner-distributors makes
no economic sense, they will have to become suppliers of services in
the production and promotion of music. Advertising agencies,
production services consultants, packagers--they will be anything but
owners of the music they market to the world.

What is most
important about this phenomenon is that it applies to everything that
can be distributed as a stream of digital bits by the simple human
mechanism of passing it along. The result will be more music, poetry,
photography and journalism available to a far wider audience. Artists
will see a whole new world of readers, listeners and viewers; though
each audience member will be paying less, the artist won't have to
take the small end of a split determined by the distribution
oligarchs who have cheated and swindled them ever since Edison. For
those who worry about the cultural, economic and political power of
the global media companies, the dreamed-of revolution is at hand. The
industry may right now be making a joyful noise unto the Lord, but it
is we, not they, who are about to enter the promised land.

The paper of record has a curiously difficult time reporting the 'Chinese espionage' case.

The "Christmas coup" at New York's WBAI-FM radio, in which Pacifica management changed the locks in the middle of the night, just hours before summarily firing three longtime station employees, marks another dismal turn of events in the recent history of America's pre-eminent network of community radio stations. Nation readers no doubt recall the lockout at Pacifica's KPFA-FM in Berkeley in 1999. In that case, virtually the entire KPFA community of listeners and staff organized against the lockout, and Pacifica's national management was forced to relent.

It will be more difficult to do that at WBAI. Pacifica management learned an important lesson from the KPFA debacle, which was not to permit the station staff to be united in its opposition. At WBAI, Pacifica's national management chose a well-known program host, Utrice Leid, to replace the fired station manager. Leid has been a visible figure at WBAI over the years and has the support of some on the staff and in the community. (I have been a guest on her WBAI program and have always had an enjoyable time.) She has stated her opposition to censorship and her support for WBAI's traditional values.

Any notion that this was going to be a calm transition exploded on January 23, when Leid restricted access to a WBAI Local Advisory Board meeting at WBAI's offices in lower Manhattan. The LAB is a Corporation for Public Broadcasting requirement, and it has been holding meetings at the WBAI office for the past twenty-five years. When participants in the prospective meeting protested, the police arrested nine people for trespassing.

On the all-powerful eighteen-member Pacifica National Board, a marginalized minority of six opposes the firings at WBAI. One of the six, Leslie Cagan, says that Pacifica executive director Bessie Wash, who quarterbacked the Christmas coup and installed Leid, refuses even to discuss the matter with her. (I tried unsuccessfully to reach Wash and Leid.) In a strongly worded statement on January 18, the dissidents called for a reinstatement of the three fired employees, a return to traditional labor-review practices, a full national board meeting to consider the crisis at WBAI and an end to the high security "martial law" environment at the station. These are fair demands.

What happens at Pacifica is not a minor issue of concern only to those who work at WBAI and the other Pacifica stations, or who live in one of the five Pacifica cities. We all need a healthy and vibrant Pacifica. It is the most widely consumed progressive medium in the United States; it is the basis for a national community radio network; it has considerable potential for growth. For all the talk about the Internet and the digital revolution, radio is the true people's medium. And in the commercial wasteland that US radio has become under deregulation, the prospects for noncommercial radio look better than they have for a very long time.

Nor are the problems at Pacifica anything new; there is a long history of internal squabbles. My general sense from afar was that both sides had their flaws, while opportunism masked by political posturing abounded. But in the past few years matters have changed. The newly aggressive national management has shown minimal respect for fair play or the values of community broadcast and little interest in preserving Pacifica's distinctive dissident and independent political focus.

The authoritarianism at WBAI is highlighted, as it was at KPFA, by the unwillingness of the Pacifica management to speak fully and honestly about its strategies and plans. To the limited extent that Pacifica has attempted to justify its actions at WBAI and KPFA, it has been on the grounds that these stations need to expand their audiences dramatically. I am quite sympathetic to that position [see McChesney, "From Pacifica to the Atlantic," October 11, 1999], but Pacifica's actions do not lend credence to this claim. The attack on WBAI, as on KPFA, seems more about seizing power, with the concerns of the audience, existing or potential, nowhere to be found.

This, then, points to the core problem: The management structure at Pacifica is inappropriate for this kind of enterprise. The notion of a self-appointed board of directors having all the legal power makes sense for a small nonprofit group where a small number of people do almost all the labor and strongly influence the board. But at Pacifica this model makes no sense. The Pacifica stations were built up by the staff and listeners over the past fifty years, yet they have hardly any legal power. Many of the current board members have scarcely any prior hands-on involvement with Pacifica and seemingly know little about community radio in theory or practice, yet they hold nearly all the legal cards. That is why their numerous opponents have been reduced to demonstrating, filing long-shot lawsuits and hassling board members in hopes they will quit.

The solution is therefore simple: Revise the legal structure of Pacifica so that it better reflects the actual nature of the five stations and how they do operate, and should operate. Give the staff and listeners more formal power. But the solution is also maddeningly complex. There is no simple way to restructure Pacifica to be democratic and effective and to make everyone happy. Some of those currently disgruntled may never get gruntled.

The proposal developed by numerous people, including FAIR founder Jeff Cohen, seems like the most prudent course: a transitional slate of a dozen highly respected progressive figures should be appointed to the existing board (www.fair.org/press-releases/pacifica-proposal.html). (Disclosure: I was recommended to be on this slate in the original proposal; due to increased obligations, I now cannot accept such a post.) This transitional board would then make a formal study of how Pacifica could be restructured to be more democratic, more relevant and more open to audience expansion, while remaining true to its core values.

This proposal has been endorsed by progressives ranging from Jim Hightower, Michael Moore, Martin Espada, Alice Walker and Studs Terkel to nonprofit media consultant Herb Chao Gunther, foundation president Hari Dillon, Barbara Ehrenreich, June Jordan, Tom Morello, Carlos Muñoz Jr., Jill Nelson, Ramona Ripston and Howard Zinn. The dissident members of Pacifica's national board have called for precisely such a long-term and sweeping re-evaluation. As board member Cagan told me, "The lack of democracy within the institution makes it impossible to have any open and honest discussion of the problems facing Pacifica." The plan can be carried out in accordance with Pacifica's current bylaws.

Tragically, as this goes to press, the board majority is moving in the opposite direction. It proposes to revise Pacifica's bylaws so that it will be "very much modeled on a corporate structure, not a nonprofit one," according to Cagan. This would, in effect, destroy Pacifica. The current board members must remember that they do not own Pacifica; it is not their plaything. They should not revise the bylaws and should adopt the Cohen proposal. Their legacy would then be that they were responsible for making Pacifica a strong and viable model for community broadcasting and media for the coming decades.

We're sorry, but we do not have permission to present this article on our website. It is an excerpt from Upside Down: A Primer for the Looking-Glass World (Metropolitan). © 2000 by Eduardo Galeano. Translation © 2000 by Mark Fried.

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