Wednesday, March 4, 2009

New Players, Same Old Game

Part Two of The Great Free Speech Robbery


Technological innovations made electronic media the dominant conveyers of basic information by the late 20th century. Seeing and hearing truly became believing. Yet, despite the dangers posed by these powerful tools, ranging from the potential for manipulation of mass opinion to the drowning out of smaller voices, the main government response was rules and regulations that were either downright discriminatory or merely ineffective. What federal and state action utterly failed to do was slow the consolidation of economic control.


As a new millennium began, a handful of corporate giants -- General Electric, Sony, AT&T, Liberty Media, Disney, Time Warner, News Corporation, Viacom, Seagram, CBS, Vivendi and Bertelsmann -- owned most of the world's global broadcast stations, along with most major newspapers, magazines, and recording and film companies. Though broadcast, cable and Internet channels continued to multiply, and magazine racks were filled with colorful covers, the surface diversity masked increasingly centralized ownership of most output.


With over 90 daily newspapers and USA Today, television stations, radio stations and production companies, the Gannett Corporation was one of the first corporations to position itself as a giant in the print, data base, and video markets. But that empire was soon dwarfed by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, which not only acquired newspapers and 20th Century Fox (including its vast motion picture archives), but also TV Guide and other publications purchased from Walter Annenberg's Triangle Publications.


An equally awesome media conglomerate was created by the merger of Time, Inc., already well positioned in the global information marketplace, and Warner Communications. As the year 2000 dawned, Time-Warner was itself merged with America Online, the leading Internet company. This $350 billion deal set off speculation that the world's largest media and entertainment entity would revolutionize global communications.


Other players included MCA, one of the media giants purchased in the 1990s by the Japanese, and Gulf Western, which once listed Paramount Pictures and Simon & Schuster among its numerous holdings. In 1989, GW had decided to change its name to Paramount Communications and shed its non-media industries; the idea was to fully concentrate on winning the global communications race. But in 1994, Viacom, which also owned movie houses, Blockbuster video, Spelling Entertainment, and TV networks like Showtime, Comedy Central, MTV, VH-1, USA, Nickelodeon, and Lifetime, brought Paramount for $10.4 billion. At the end of the decade, Viacom announced a merger with CBS, while MCA, which had already merged with WorldCom, paid $122 billion to acquire Sprint, combining the second and third largest long distance companies. In short, the 20th century ended with an unprecedented surge of media and telecommunication mergers and acquisitions.


Over the next several years, merger mania continued: for example, Sony merged its music division with Bertelsmann’s BMG to form Sony BMG, and TimeWarner's WB merged with CBS Corp.'s UPN to form The CW. In the IT world, Apple meanwhile launched several zeitgeist-defining products, Dell and Intel battled to regain their former dominance, the software sector consolidated, Google and YouTube exploded on the Internet, and major vendors scrambled to embrace social networking. Some media watchers said we were in the midst of "the chaos scenario," a vicious cycle of declining media viewership, ad dollars, and programming quality that could kill off TV as we had known it.


Until the emergence of the Internet, the most dynamic sector of the broadcasting industry was cable. In 1979, about 14 million US homes were wired; as of 1990 there were 53.9 million subscribers, almost two thirds of all homes with TV sets. But aside from a few bright spots, notably CNN's global coverage and C-SPAN's diligence, the proliferation of channels mainly meant more of the same – formulaic shows, TV shopping, religious spiels, movie channels, and feature-length commercials. Despite the largesse of particular cable operators, the absence of an established "right to speak" on cable TV was especially disquieting in view of cable's quasi-monopolistic position in most places.


In the last half century, the media environment of the US and, following its example, much of the world has been transformed. TV news has turned political debate into an endless supply of disaster and scandal specials, punctuated by packaged sound bites. Blatant commercialism and violent images have altered the perceptions and values of millions, especially the young. Multinationals and ad agencies mold consciousness, hammering in certain messages and suppressing others. Global management of information by corporate overseers who supervise every step of the process now poses as great a threat to self-government as pollution does to the environment.


As the AOL Timer Warner merger suggested, even the prospect of a participatory renaissance ushered in by the Internet has been vastly overrated. According to media analyst Robert McChesney, the biggest early beneficiaries of the so-called Internet Age have been the investors, advertisers, and a handful of media, computer, and telecommunications corporations.


At the end of the century, there were about 120 million Internet users worldwide, and it had become obvious that this new medium was the fastest growing tool of modern global communication. But less than three percent of the world's people – mainly middle class and fluent in English – were part of the new cyberculture. The US still had more computers than the rest of the world put together. South Asia, home to more than a quarter of humanity, had less than one percent of the world's Internet users. Despite the use of computers and e-mail as tools to mobilize political action and promote progressive campaigns, the "information age" has been generally shaping up like a new era of information imperialism.


Looking specifically at freedom of speech and the press, many of the problems can be traced to an obsolete notion about the source of the danger. Although government intrusions are certainly not irrelevant, they no longer constitute the primary threat; that honor must go to corporate entities, including the institutional media themselves, which have hijacked constitutional privileges and marginalized the personal right to speak in the process. In an alleged effort to guard against government abridgments of speech, Congress and the courts have left most people at the mercy of impersonal economic forces whose institutional autonomy and ability to widely disseminate their views have undermined diversity in the marketplace of ideas. Any voice that isn't "amplified" through big media is unlikely to be audible. Or, to paraphrase a proverb, if you can't be heard, have you actually spoken?


The evolution of varying standards of speech protection for different modes of communication has given the government some leverage in negotiations with each. Overall, however, the promise of First Amendment protection has given way to the assumption that economic entities are entitled to the same rights as human beings. It has even been argued that they are involved in speech that is more vital to democracy than the speech of individuals. The rationale has cut both ways, occasionally justifying refusal of access to the media and, less often, requiring media to air a message.


For most people, the freedom to speak is defined (and largely limited) on the basis of the medium they wish to use. Those who operate outside the institutional media are consigned to the status of "listeners," "consumers," "users," "audience," "sources," and, most recently, “citizen journalists.” The progressive mechanization of mass media, combined with economic centralization, has produced a system of mass communication that is largely impersonal and generally unresponsive, despite all the “interactive” bells and whistles. Speech has become an institutional right, and individual speakers have been turned into interchangeable objects.


Next: Total Exposure (or, how we gave up privacy and learned to love Big Brother)

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