“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting,” writes Milan Kundera in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. But in the US media today, nothing is so prized as the audience’s lack of memory. How else to milk the next scandal for that extra 0.6 of a rating point? How can people be expected to worry about the Jenny Jones trial if they are still worried about who killed JonBenet Ramsey? How can they vent their fury over Bill Clinton’s clemency offer to Puerto Rican militants while wondering whatever happened to that guy who was supposed to be a Chinese spy at Los Alamos?
The problem is that the stories–along with their long-term implications–do not themselves evaporate. No one talks about the impeachment scandal anymore on MSNBC, but the damage to our institutions remains acute. To take a more recent example, remember that $37 billion merger between CBS and Viacom? It occupied seven news stories in the New York Times on the day after its announcement, sixteen overall. To be fair, the paper did an admirably thorough job. But ten days later, it’s over. The media have moved on. A merger that will affect the quality of information that every US citizen receives–along with people in quite a few other places–and…nothing. “Yesterday’s news” sayeth the bard Elvis Costello, “is tomorrow’s fish-and-chip paper.”
Unfortunately, even when the merger story was hot, neither the Times nor anyone else, as far as I could determine, saw fit to consult the person who has written most trenchantly about the threats to republican government that derive from the media’s debasement of our democratic discourse, Columbia’s James Carey. If Richard Rorty, as is widely recognized, has inherited John Dewey’s mantle as America’s pre-eminent pragmatist philosopher, the relatively unknown Carey holds no less claim to Dewey’s title as the nation’s most important theorist of media and democracy.
On a recent trip up to Morningside Heights to discuss the big merger, I was surprised to find Carey less concerned about the concentration of media power than about the focus of ownership exclusively in corporations that operate in what used to be called the entertainment industry.
He has a point. For all the recent mergers and those about to come–including perhaps Time Warner and NBC–we still have a greater diversity of voices than we did in the seventies, when, Carey points out, “all there was were three networks and AT&T.” (As recently as the sixties in England, if you wanted to produce a piece of broadcast journalism, you had exactly one potential buyer: the BBC.) The problem is not that public space is closing–it’s that it’s being littered with garbage. The networks are no longer instruments of the kind of public sphere that Jürgen Habermas defined as necessary to the upkeep of democracy. Rather, the public sphere has become so feudalized that it’s not worth a citizen’s time to participate. The public, says Carey, “is being simultaneously cookie-cut and internationalized,” and the very idea of the nation–as in “National Broadcasting Company”–is disappearing. Instead we have journalism brought to us by the entertainment industry.
In previous eras, Carey argues, diversity was a problem, but a sense of responsibility to a recognizable political community–be it local or national–was clearly discernible in the minds of those who participated. That community is dispersed and disappearing. The various components of CBS and Viacom, like MTV, VH-1 and the UPN network, speak to disembodied micro-publics who have no stake in the “news” they receive and no physical connection to the community who watches it with them. It is as if, he quips, “we have a Euro, without having a Europe.”
The entertainment business is a real power in our lives, even more so than, say, the oil industry or auto manufacturers. “Reality,” Carey has written, “is, above all, a scarce resource. Like any scarce resource it is there to be struggled over, allocated to various purposes and projects, endowed with given meanings and potentials, spent and conserved, rationalized and distributed. The fundamental form of power is the power to define, allocate and display this resource. Once the blank canvas of the world is portrayed and featured, it is also pre-empted and restricted.”
With or without more mergers, the broadcast/entertainment industry has already gone an enormous distance toward pre-empting and restricting reality in a manner consistent with its economic interests. The First Amendment today is treated less as a political right for individuals than as a property right for corporations. Issues such as whether the public should be reimbursed for the right of private interests to enrich themselves with free broadcast licenses, enjoying $70 billion worth of free space on the broadcast spectrum and monopoly power in certain advertising markets based on their enormous size, have been deemed outside the realm of debate. Instead we get JonBenet and Jenny Jones.
Carey says he believes, on intuition alone, “that these understandings are widely shared if dimly grasped by the American people.” This is why they resisted, mightily, the media’s definition of what was at stake in the impeachment battle. Moreover, he adds, they may sense what our Founding Fathers knew and we have forgotten: “that republican institutions are fragile, the moments of their existence fleeting in historical time, and we have to guard against lurching back into a life of domination.”
Given the current ideological allergy against government regulation, Carey doesn’t see any hope of generalized resistance, except in small, community-oriented organizations and tiny, individually owned media properties. He expects instead the further retreat of people “deeper into private life, inside gated communities, seeking private solutions to public problems, consigning politics to the realm of game and spectacle for mass distraction, a place inhabited by cretins governed by the lowest of motives.”
Who is most hurt by this scenario? “The weakest and most vulnerable among us,” Carey replies. They can’t even afford to buy the entertainment that is flushing our political system down the drain.