Media corporations versus democracy: a response to Benjamin Compaine

Robert W. McChesney
14 November 2001

Benjamin Compaine makes one huge empirical challenge to my argument, but otherwise he either dodges the issues I raise or regurgitates half-baked PR from the media corporations and the US Chamber of Commerce about how well the system works. And where he concedes the system is severely flawed, Dr Compaine transmogrifies into Dr. Pangloss: this is the best of all possible worlds, and any alternative to the status quo can only make matters worse. This is not a conclusion based on evidence, as much as a presupposition that dictates the course of his argument.

First, the empirical challenge. Compaine claims that the overall amount of concentration in total US media ownership has only changed marginally from the mid 1980s until the late 1990s. Compaine’s statistic would be more impressive if I was claiming that things were fine fifteen years ago and have gotten worse due to concentration, or that the recent increase in corporate concentration was the primary problem with media today.

I do neither. What I argue is that these industries are oligopolies, and thus very far from competitive in the classical sense of the term; and that in most media sectors concentration has increased.

Compaine does not disagree with my argument about the high degree of concentration in some, even many, media markets. But he suggests I underestimate the overall dynamism of the system. To the contrary, my analysis is predicated on the dynamism of the media markets and capitalism in general. It is not a static system, and the media landscape a generation from now will be radically different from what we see today. But that hardly means it is a competitive system or that the market works. The existing media giants are using their market power and their extreme political muscle to navigate through the shoals of new technologies.

Consider US television, which Compaine asserts is vastly more competitive today than it was a few decades ago when there were only the ‘Big Three’ US networks. At first glance, he is right: these networks are challenged today by scores of cable and satellite TV channels. How can anyone possibly say there is more concentration or (as he adds) that the system is not working?

The question invites another: who owns these new channels? Of the few dozen that actually are commercially viable, they are owned all or in part by a small number of huge media conglomerates. AOL Time Warner, alone, owns the CNN family of stations, HBO, Cartoon Network, and much more, along with the WB Network. This pattern is repeated elsewhere. There is no doubt that cable TV has overthrown the cozy old world of network television in the United States, but the giants have incorporated it into their empires.

A global media system

A much more interesting test of the system’s dynamism is the Internet. That the Internet is part of a remarkable transformation of our media system is uncontested. The crucial question is whether it has provided a basis for the development of new commercially viable media content providers. Has it triggered new commercial competition?

This empirical question apparently does not interest Compaine. The reason is clear: it has spawned none. Even in 1998, long before the crash, the handwriting was on the wall. The Internet alone does not make possible the creation of independent, commercially viable media content providers.

Compaine asserts that this will change, comparing the Internet today to the early days of radio and television; but he offers no reason whatsoever to believe this will happen. And indeed, at comparable stages in the development of US radio (1928) and TV (1952) that he points to, the dominant corporate players were all in place, or on the horizon – not so here. As it stands, the claim is pure hokum.

Compaine’s belief that a global media system is a “myth” is based on similarly dubious and loaded fragments of evidence. The changes in global commercial media over the past two decades appear not to interest him a whit. He claims that since there is only one truly global media corporation (News Corporation) and one that has moved beyond its regional base (Bertelsmann) that the system is basically the same as before. That’s it. No recognition of the commercialisation of television across the planet; no discussion of the increase in global advertising, which fuels much of this process.

Compaine’s assertions regarding media corporations are absurd. Disney, Vivendi, Sony, Viacom, and AOL Time Warner have global empires. Has he ever watched ESPN or MTV or CNN on his foreign travels? These firms have all targeted global growth as central to their expansion.

Just because the process is not complete, or may not reach full completion, does not mean it is not taking place. The global media situation today is vastly different from 1970 or 1920.

Media corporations versus democracy

Compaine’s response was skimpiest in the two areas where I devoted much of my attention: the nature of journalism, and the corruption of media policy-making. My critique of journalism had only a little to do with increased concentration from the mid 1980s to late 1990s; it was based on an understanding of the nature of professional journalism as it arose a century ago, to compensate (among other reasons) for the monopolization or duopolization of US newspaper markets.

Professional journalism has its strengths, and inherent weaknesses. Compaine runs right by this argument like a drunk driver blowing through a stop light at 60 miles an hour. In his view, the system works. Commercial journalism gives people what they want, and owners only want to make money, so there are no ideological implications to having a corporate-run news media.

Again, there is no evidence for these assertions. Compaine simply ignores the contemporary crisis of journalism that has engulfed our finest journalism schools, and that has led so many leading journalists to write laments about the decline of their craft due to commercial pressures from owners. When he has a break from his duties at MIT, I urge him to take a walk over to the Kennedy School at Harvard and meet with Rick Kaplan, the former president of CNN. He will learn in short order that the seamy underside of contemporary corporate journalism has little to do with his fairy tale of a responsive system.

Allow me to be more concrete here, because this is a very important point. If one agrees that our media system is producing boffo journalism, then the case for media reform is much weaker. Compaine suggests that journalism, as a commercial product, is demand-driven. Therefore the journalists give the people what they want.

But that notion violates core premises of professional journalism – how do people know they want something if they haven’t experienced it before? Journalism needs to report on stuff people are not demanding if people are to be informed. Otherwise you will tend to be exposed only to what you already know, and that does not make for a healthy civic culture.

Moreover, this notion of demand-driven news (or media more generally) reduces a complex relationship between producers and consumers into a vulgar and simplistic one. It dismisses altogether the crucial and often tense relationship that corporate owners and managers have with their editorial and creative people.

Corporations do have distinct political interests, and their pursuit of profit has clear implications for the nature of news content. In the past generation, for only one example, there has been a sharp drop in the amount of international news in the US press, as well as a drop in the number of foreign correspondents by our major news media.

The reason for this is clear: it costs a lot of money to produce international news, and it generates little revenue. People then receive little exposure to international stories, and do not develop a “taste” for it. So marketing surveys show little interest in the matter. But the process is supply driven, not demand driven.

The result is that the US population is ill-equipped to deal with the current global political crisis, and more susceptible to emotional manipulation by self-interested rulers. It is ironic that Compaine lauds the Fox News Channel, because the latter does virtually no journalism at all. Its profitability is based on eliminating core journalism operations as much as possible, and broadcasting far less expensive commentators like Bill O’Reilly who merely pontificate ad nauseum. It may make money, it may have significant value, but it isn’t journalism.

And that’s the problem. What is most profitable for the media corporations is not what is best for a democratic society. Our media system operates to serve the needs of owners, not those of citizens. Compaine says there is no contradiction here, because ownership of the media is “extremely democratic.” His evidence? Corporations have a legal obligation to consider the interest of their shareholders, and through pension funds those shareholders include steel workers and payroll clerks.

This is gibberish. If our immensely unequalising and exclusive corporate system is “extremely democratic,” what terminology would Compaine employ to describe the direct democracy of classical Athens, or our system of formal electoral democracy based upon one person, one vote? Super-duper-hyper-mega-wham-bam-extreme-titanic-monster-in-your-face democracy? No words could possibly apply. His use of language in this regard therefore can only be deemed purely propagandistic.

A looking-glass world

Compaine’s treatment of policy making continues in this vein. He acknowledges that the big media corporations use their powerful lobbies to get massive gifts of corporate welfare, like the giveaway of spectrum to produce digital television, the value of which is estimated at around $40-$70 billion. These deals are invariably done behind closed doors with minuscule attention in the corporate news media, except for in the business and trade press where they are presented as issues of importance to owners, investors, and managers.

But the corruption, the contempt for democracy, goes much deeper than that. In liberal and democratic theory, markets, private property, and corporations are social creations that people choose as institutions that will serve the public interest.

That is even truer of our media industries, which require in addition explicit government subsidies and regulations. Without copyright, for example (a government-enforced monopoly) our commercial media system would look very different. Most large media conglomerates depend on the federal government’s granting of monopoly rights to TV and radio frequencies or cable TV systems. This is itself a guarantee of profit.

In short, the government does not merely set the terms of competition, it picks the winners. And the crucial policies that do all of this are made in our names and with our tax dollars, but without our informed consent.

Compaine quickly comforts us that there is no reason to be concerned, because at least each of these powerful corporate media lobbies has to battle each other for the right to rip off the public. Perhaps this is another good example of extreme democracy?

At present, the FCC is launching hearings about whether to scrap the remaining limits on media ownership in the United States. These include prohibitions on the extension of ownership of newspapers and TV stations or cable systems in a defined market. The hearings are taking place with almost no media coverage; there is strong sentiment on the FCC to eliminate or greatly relax these rules.

The corporate lobbyists are out in force – deregulation would instantly inflate the values of many of these companies, and lead to a wave of mergers and acquisitions. And if the deregulation of radio broadcasting ownership regulations in 1996 provides any guidance, we should also expect a decline in quality and an increase in commercialism. In that event, Compaine will no doubt be waving his super-macro statistic proving that concern over media concentration is silly, and how extremely democratic this all is.

Regardless of the evidence, the system works. Any change can only make matters worse. So for all those malcontent elitists who are struggling to create a world with public participation in media policy making, bona fide public service media, well funded non-commercial independent media, less political advertising and an electoral system not dominated by billionaires, less commercial carpetbombing of children, more independent and investigative journalism, less commercial influence over our media and culture, Benjamin Compaine has a message for you: Shut up and shop! This is the best of all possible worlds!

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