Sunday, September 21, 2008

Review: The Political Economy of Media: Enduring Issues, Emerging Dilemmas

The Political Economy of Media: Enduring Issues, Emerging Dilemmas by Robert McChesney

"The pipelines of thought to the minds of the nation are being contracted and squeezed. About thirty men realistically dominate the conduits of thought through the ether, the printing presses, and the silver screen. Without wide diversity of thought, freedom of speech and press become idle bits of a worn-out shibboleth. The cartelization of the mind of America is well on the way."

So wrote a one-time lawyer for the Newspaper Guild in 1945. This book is a collection of McChesney's articles published in a variety of magazines and journals over the past couple of decades.

"'If the country is governed by public opinion, and public opinion is largely governed by the newspapers,' Harvard professor Hugo Munsterberg wrote in 1911, 'is it not essential to understand who governs the newspapers?'" Indeed, and that is what this book covers. Not to ruin the suspense, but the majority of the press is owned by only a handful of corporations. Even if there were absolutely no ideological consistency among the directors of these corporations, the mere need to profitably compete with each other would create pressure to cost-cut actual news gathering, just as it has been. It is this cost-cutting that has decimated newsrooms and foreign bureaus, and it is the need for profits that keeps news tame, bland and uninformative so as not to bother the customers - the advertisers. A radio reformer in the 1930s wrote presciently that "it is unavoidable that a commercial concern catering to the public will present a service as low in standards as the public will tolerate and will produce the most profit." Wait is there a Paris Hilton TV show on tonight?

So there's no need to posit that the men who run these corporations have an understanding to produce a vilely inept media so as to make people stupid and docile. The market is capable of doing that on its own. And if you think the market fucked up mortgage and investment banking, ratings and insurance pretty royally, you can only imagine what it has done to the press.

"[In the first half of the 20th century] the power of the press was axiomatic. 'The American press has more influence than it ever had in any other time, in any other country,' Will Irwin wrote in 1911. 'No other extrajudicial form except religion, is half so powerful.' Charles Edward Russell expressed the sentiments of many, when he wrote in La Follette's in 1910, 'If the people of the entire United States could be informed every day of exactly what happens at Washington and the reason for it, the peculiar stranglehold that the corporations have upon national legislation would last no longer than the next election.'"

That sounds like a pretty good reason to keep people uninformed of exactly what happens at Washington and the reason for it. And so it has been up until today. And in these days of chaos, with markets seizing up and crashing, wars all over the place and nuclear tensions building up, it's interesting to hear something a campaigner for more public control of radio said back in 1931-2:

"As a result of radio broadcasting, there will probably develop during the twentieth century either chaos or a world-order of civilization. Whether it shall be one or the other will depend largely upon whether broadcasting be used as a tool of education or as an instrument of selfish greed. So far, our American radio interests have thrown their major influence on the side of greed. ... There has never been in the entire history of the United States an example of mismanagement and lack of vision so colossal and far-reaching in its consequences as our turning of the radio channels almost exclusively into commercial hands.... I believe we are dealing here with one of the most crucial issues that was ever presented to civilization at any time in its entire history. ... In order to get large audiences they cultivate the lower appeals ... commercialized broadcasting as it is now regulated in America may threaten the very life of civilization by subjecting the human mind to all sorts of new pressures and selfish exploitations."

Today, "[i]t would astonish almost any person to see the extent of the research deployed by marketers and advertising agencies to brand their imprint on consumers' brains. Focus groups, psychologists, and cultural anthropologists are de rigueur in marketing research. Modern marketing is clearly the greatest concerted attempt at psychological manipulation in all of human history." Imagine if the greatest concerted attempt at psychological manipulation in all of human history had an aim other than compelling targets to buy this or that brand of detergent or junk food...

Sadly, this remains in the realm of the imaginary. John Updike commented in 1984, "I have no doubt that the aesthetic marvels of our age, for intensity and lavishness of effort and subtlety of both overt and subliminal effect, are television commercials. With the fanatic care with which Irish monks once ornamented the Book of Kells, glowing images of youthful beauty and athletic prowess, of racial harmony and exalted fellowship, are herein fluidly marshaled and shuffled to persuade us that a certain beer or candy bar, or insurance company or oil-based conglomerate, is ... the gateway to the good life."

Yeah, it sounds pretty funny when put that way. Leave it to a couple of Marxists, Paul Sweezy and Paul Baran, to ruin the mood: "It is sometimes argued that advertising really does little harm because no one believes it anymore anyway. We consider this view to be erroneous. The greatest damage done by advertising is precisely that it incessantly demonstrates the prostitution of men and women who lend their intellects, their voices, their artistic skills to purposes in which they themselves do not believe, and that it teaches 'the essential meaninglessness of all creations of the mind: words, images, and ideas.' The real danger from advertising is that it helps to shatter and ultimately destroy our most precious non-material possessions: the confidence in the existence of meaningful purposes of human activity and respect for the integrity of man."

In one of the final essays in the book, McChesney couches his argument in economic terms: "Even if media markets were competitive [which they are not] and even if income distribution were more egalitarian, the market would be a significantly flawed mechanism for regulating the media system in a free and democratic society. This is not to say that there would not be a role for the commercial marketplace, merely that the commercial media should not be hegemonic. The basic problem is that markets cannot deal with all sorts of important values people may wish to see in their media, and they understand as being necessary for their media system to generate. ... [M]edia owners increasingly produce inexpensive 'news' that avoids costly in-depth and controversial public affairs issues, and concentrate upon trivial or inconsequential stories or the regurgitation of press releases and public comments by those in power. The owners make money and the consumers consume what they are given and appear satisfied, so all is well, right? Wrong. There is a massive negative externality: the dismal journalism effects all in society, including those who are not consumers of commercial journalism. It leads to an ill-informed electorate that makes poor decisions, which affects public life and the health of the economy. It makes democracy, the notion of informed self-government, less plausible."

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