Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Archive for February 15th, 2007

Blogging, inequality, and the tyranny of big media

Posted by metaphorical on 15 February 2007

“Our democracy, is now put to a vital test, for the conflict is between human rights on the one side, and on the other, special privilege asserted as property rights. The parting of the ways has come.”
—Teddy Roosevelt

Bill Moyers quoted Roosevelt last week at a keynote address to 3500 activists at an odd conference in an odd place for an activist conference: the third National Conference on Media Reform, held in Memphis, Tenn.

Over the previous decades, a series of megamedia mergers have swept the country, each deal bigger than the last. The lobby representing the broadcast, cable, and newspapers industry was extremely powerful, with an iron grip on lawmakers and regulators alike. 

Both parties bowed to their will, when the Republican Congress passed and President Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996. That monstrous assault on democracy, with malignant consequences for journalism, was nothing but a welfare giveaway to the largest, richest, and most powerful media conglomerations in the world. Goliaths, whose handful of owners controlled, commodified, and monetized everyone and everything in sight. Call it “the plantation mentality.”

Moyers delicately wove together two very different messages. First was the consolidation of wealth:

None of this is accidental. Nobel laureate economist, Robert Solow, not known for extreme political statements, characterizes what is happening as “nothing less than elite plunder,” the redistribution of wealth in favor of the wealthy, and the power in favor of the powerful. In fact, nearly all the wealth America created over the past 25 years has been captured by the top 20% of households, and most of the gains went to the wealthiest. The top 1% of households captured more than 50% of all the gains in financial wealth, and these households now hold more than twice the share their predecessors held on the eve of the American revolution.

Second is the enormous and recent trend toward media consolidation that puts almost all the sources of information that ordinary people get, into the hands of a tiny number of companies—an oligopoly—dedicated to corporate profits and, ultimately, into the hands of the already rich, further enriching them.

What does today’s media system mean for the notion of an informed public cherished by democratic theory? Quite literally, it means that virtually everything the average person sees or hears outside of her own personal communications, is determined by the interests of private, unaccountable executives and investors whose primary goal is increasing profits and raising the country’s share price. More insidiously, this small group of elites determine what ordinary people do not see or hear. In-depth coverage of anything, let alone the problems real people face day to day, is as scarce as sex, violence, and voyeurism are pervasive.  

Successful business model or not, by democratic standards, this is censorship of knowledge by monopolization of the means of information. In its current form, which Barry Diller happily describes as “oligopoly,” media growth has one clear consequence. There is more information and easier access to it, but it’s more narrow and homogenous in content and perspective, so that what we see from the couch is overwhelmingly a view from the top.

Sounding remarkably like George Orwell in “Politics and the English Language” in analyzing the vapid rhetoric that passes for public discourse today, Moyers blamed media consolidation.

Day after day, the ideals of fairness and liberty and mutual responsibility have been stripped of their essential dignity and meaning in people’s lives. Day after day, the egalitarian creed of our Declaration of Independence is trampled underfoot by hired experts and sloganeers, who speak of the “death tax,” “the ownership society,” “the culture of life,” “the liberal assault on God and family,” “compassionate conservatism,” “weak on terrorism,” “the end of history,” “the clash of civilizations,” “no child left behind.” They have even managed to turn the escalation of a failed war into a “surge,” as if it were a current of electricity through a wire, instead of blood spurting from the ruptured vein of a soldier.  

The Orwellian filigree of a public sphere in which language conceals reality, and the pursuit of personal gain and partisan power is wrapped in rhetoric that turns truth to lies, and lies to truth, so it is that limited government has little to do with the Constitution or local economy anymore. Now it means corporate domination and the shifting of risk from government and business to struggling families and workers. Family values now mean imposing a sectarian definition of the family on everyone else. Religious freedom now means majoritarianism and public benefits for organized religion without any public burdens. And patriotism has come to mean blind support for failed leaders.

It’s what happens when an interlocking media system filters through commercial values or ideology, the information and moral viewpoints people consume in their daily lives. And by no stretch of the imagination can we say today that the dominant institutions of our media are guardians of democracy.

The irony, of course, is that I’m writing about this speech on a blog, you’re reading it on a blog, and I first read the speech on a blog. Blogs are precisely a form of information and public discourse that’s beyond the reach of Big Media. It’s a point that didn’t escape Moyers’s ken:

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