Politics, Technology, and Language

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

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:

Despite the profusion of new information platforms on cable, on the Internet, on radio, blogs, podcasts, YouTube, and MySpace, among others, the resources for solid, original journalistic work, both investigative and interpretative, are contracting, rather than expanding.

Of course he means traditional boots-on-the-ground journalism, and he doesn’t see it escaping the maw of media consolidation any better than a steering wheel does when a car is crushed at the junkyard.

But when it comes to original investigation and reporting, newspapers are overwhelmingly the most important media.

I myself am a little more optimistic. The same week that 3500 activists converged on Memphis to talk about the bad turn the traditional media has taken—itself a remarkable sign of health in the body politic—bloggers converged on Washington D.C. for the trial of Scooter Libby. A single organization, Firedoglake, has put more boots in the courtroom than the NY Times or the Washington Post, as a Times article today described:

Firedoglake has offered intensive trial coverage, using some six contributors in rotation. They include a former prosecutor, a current defense lawyer, a Ph.D. business consultant and a movie producer, all of whom lodge at a Washington apartment rented for the duration of the trial.

All day long during the trial, one Firedoglake blogger is on duty to beam to the Web from the courthouse media room a rough, real-time transcript of the testimony. With no audio or video feed permitted, the Firedoglake “live blog” has offered the fullest, fastest public report available. Many mainstream journalists use it to check on the trial.

There were bloggers on the political right as well as left. The reporting they produced probably never hit seven figures in terms of people or even page views. But to the extent their reports were relied upon by the traditional media, their influence ranged much farther. And it’s worth pointing out that that that relationship inverts Moyers’s reasons for dismissing new media.

I’ve been to patent lawsuits and other trials where I was the only reporter in the courtroom. Trials are fun, interesting, and often important. At a couple, I’d see other patent attorneys, sometimes retired, looking in, just for fun and interest. That was before the days of blogging. Today, we blog at trials, exhibitions, conferences, everywhere; often posting right from the room the event itself is in. Often, bloggers draw their raw materials from mainstream journalists. More and more, though, they will be primary sources of information as important as newspaper and magazine reporters.

3 Responses to “Blogging, inequality, and the tyranny of big media”

  1. plm said

    Bill Moyers is a fucking schmoe. The fact of the matter is that blogs and independent media sources are going to continue to grow. Did he mention the percentage of young adults that get their news from The Daily Show? This is more about old warriors railing their last at a soon to be defunct paradigm. In particular it’s about a pissed off old man angry that he never got the kind of attention he felt he deserved. He’s just another example of a sixties counter-culture icon who cannot accept that things have moved on, so he rails about yesterday’s fight, blind to the reality that confronts us.

  2. Jeremy said

    What is weath?

  3. Wealth, naturally. Fixed, thanks.

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