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This is a nice range of responses, though curiously absent is anyone suggesting that my approach is too conservative. I long for the day when I will be attacked from my left, because in fact my arguments are drawn from the heart of mainstream democratic theory. I am not calling for the nationalization of media or the establishment of some government official to monitor media content to establish its "truth." To the contrary, my suggestions are all about spreading control over our media culture beyond Wall Street and Madison Avenue, and making power more diffuse and accountable. If all my suggestions were enacted, capitalists would still be providing the lion's share of media and entertainment to Americans without a trace of government control. That these ideas seem to be so outside the boundaries of legitimate debate in our political culture speaks volumes about the corporate vise-grip on our times, and about the caliber of our elite intellectual culture.
Coming now to the responses: Edwin Baker takes apart the two great myths that even those critical of corporate power tend to embrace without hesitation. The first is that the media market forces firms "to give the people what they want." Some of the respondents repeat this PR mantra of the corporate media; rather than spend time repeating Baker's argument I urge readers to review it themselves. The second is that the First Amendment means that corporate media can control communication without any public "interference." In fact, the current US media system is quite unlike that of the nineteenth century, and diametrically opposed to media during the period of the drafting of the First Amendment.
Stephen Ansolabehere and Lawrence Grossman are my two sharpest critics. I think our differences are basically political. They believe the corporate media system is far more satisfactory than I do, probably because they believe our society is vastly more fair, just, and benevolent than I do. Ansolabehere claims that our media system results from a deregulatory regime intended to make our system more "democratic." In fact, the system was set up with zero public participation to generate maximum profit for private interests. In the deliberations that led up to the 1996 Telecommunications Act, super-powerful lobbies repesenting communication firms and sectors duked it out behind closed doors, with virtually no citizen involvement. Talk about democracy was and is PR hokum: one need only read the business and trade press to see how little democracy factors into thinking about the media system. To the extent there is a "theory" defending the increasingly unaccountable corporate control over communication, the deregulation movement is premised on the notion that so-called competitive markets produce optimum social utility and thus are, by definition, democratic. But the equation of corporate profit with democracy remains only an article of faith, however appealing it is for investors. Indeed, it contradicts any idea of democracy predicated on equality and informed self-government, rather than on freedom to make transactions in the marketplace.
Grossman thinks the media giants are doing a bang-up job of entertaining the masses, and that they therefore are the rightful controllers of our media system, despite their other flaws. I concede that the corporate media system produces much quality fare-I consume a good deal of it myself-but I think the output is pathetic when one considers the immense talents and resources the giants command, and the enormous public subsidies the largest media firms have received.
Unlike Ansolabehere, Grossman is no rah-rah guy for corporate media; he accepts my argument about the elimination of public service in our media system and the need for structural reform. His solution is to accept corporate media power as unalterable and then seek concessions for public service media on the margins. I find Grossman's solution hardly addresses the problem at all; media reform that leaves the basic system intact and sets up a low-budget public service sector is grossly insufficient.
But Grossman and I also have a serious tactical difference. Grossman decries my so-called "inflammatory rhetoric," not because it is necessarily inaccurate, but because it might upset the corporate media bosses and politicians from whom he is trying to exact concessions. Reformers have used this "insider" approach for the past 30 years with less and less success. I think it is time to abandon the effort to battle for media reform exclusively at the elite level and take the "radical" step of attempting to draw the citizenry into these debates. To do so requires that we tell the truth about the system and propose structural reforms that address the cause of the problems. And if we do that, ironically enough, Grossman may find that he will have a great deal more success during his pow-wows with Michael Eisner, Rupert Murdoch, and officials at the FCC. The only way to exact change from organized money is with organized people– that's Politics 101.
Will my strategy prove more effective than Grossman's in the long run? I do not know, and there is tremendous reason for the skepticism that most of these respondents expressed. The problem has less to do with the so-called popularity of corporate media than with their immense political and ideological power and the general depoliticization of life in the United States. But two points should be made: First, it is impossible to conceive of a more democratic country without a changed media system, so we have no choice but to take up the fight if we are serious about democracy. Media reform will only succeed as part of a broader movement to democratize life in the United States. Second, for years the Grossman "insider" approach with its punch-pulling self-censorship has gotten nowhere on Capitol Hill. In the past year I have had meetings with several members of Congress who have agreed to sponsor legislation for the issues I have raised in my piece. None of these members of Congress had ever had any interest in the "insider" approach, because it provided uninspiring analysis and limp solutions. It is time to take this issue out of elite circles, tell the truth and let the chips fall where they may. We have everything to gain and nothing to lose.
Andrew Shapiro believes I underestimate the capacity for the Internet to be a liberatory force. This is part of a long tradition of thinking that a new communication technology can bail us out where politics could not. I share much but not all of Shapiro's optimism for the potential of cyberspace, but like Doug Schuler I do not see how it can perform its magic without explicit policy. I concede that developing progressive policy for the Internet, which is still in formation, is a tricky process. That someone as smart as Shapiro, who has studied this precise topic closely for years, cannot come up with much more than the proviso that progressives should take the Internet seriously, suggests how tough this problem is. That is why I think we concentrate on building a viable nonprofit and noncommercial media sector, and press for public hearings on the future of the web. Once the commercial Internet is cemented-and that is happening very fast-it will be ever more difficult to create the world Shapiro and I both want.
Ralph Nader's response, like Baker's, is a superb complement and mild corrective to my piece. In particular, I found his comments on antitrust persuasive. That one of the great democratic advocates and public servants of our age shares or even exceeds my enthusiasm for the prospect of organizing around media reform is heartening beyond words. As he says, let's get to work on it now.
For democrats, the concentration of media power and commercialization of public discourse are a disaster. If we are serious about democracy, we need to work aggressively for reform.
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