As the US war on terrorism hurtles forward into a hazily defined post-Afghanistan phase, the news is not good: Although some of the press has lately made efforts to cover the turbulent world outside our borders, the attention has been too little and too late. Those charged with promoting the media's social obligations, moreover, are openly disdainful of that mission. As Mark Crispin Miller notes in this special issue, FCC chairman Michael Powell speaks mockingly of some imaginary "angel of the public interest" while observing as his sacred duty the protection of corporate media interests–most recently, taking advantage of the nation's distraction on September 13 to "review" (read, throw out) rules prohibiting a single company from owning a daily paper and TV station in the same market.
Encouraged by such regulatory indulgences, the media and entertainment giants profiled in our latest chart–"The Big Ten," on page 27 and also accessible at www.thenation.com–continue their shape-shifting so as to exploit every possible opportunity for internal synergy. The latest of these contortions to make headlines was the move by Vivendi, just last year a stodgy French utilities firm, to acquire the entertainment arm of Barry Diller's USA Networks and a stake in the satellite TV firm EchoStar. Vivendi Universal Entertainment, the new combined entity that Diller will run, is now free to devote glowing coverage on its television channels to the latest blockbuster from its own Universal Studios.
Overt instances of cross-promotion are increasingly common, but they are only part of the problem. The domination of the media by entertainment conglomerates has a corrosive impact on journalism, blurring the line between news and entertainment to near- invisibility. "Profit pressures produce a dumbing down of journalism," writes former FCC commissioner Nicholas Johnson in our forum on the Big Ten chart. "The media choose content not to educate or inform but to pander to the consumers advertisers most desire." As always, there are exceptions. In the music industry–as Artemis Records CEO Danny Goldberg notes in the forum–popular demand for edgy, stimulating fare exerts a positive influence on the decision-making of white, middle-aged executives. But by and large, the corporate media have failed spectacularly when it comes to nurturing a democratic and humane society. The next front is the Internet–still anarchic and open but vulnerable to moves by corporations to control its architecture as all media become interactive and the conglomerates jostle for position in cyberspace.
As Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols write, it is vital that progressives sustain independent media outlets (for a selection of readers' favorites, see "Letters," opposite), but it is not enough. "Our task is to return 'informed consent' to media policy-making," they argue, calling for a new national media reform coalition and defining a legislative agenda for such a movement. Without it, as they say, "We will continue to see special issues of The Nation like this one lamenting our situation." Next time, we hope to present a brighter picture.