Finally, a word should be said about the Internet, the two-ton gorilla of global media and communication. The Internet is increasingly becoming a part of our media and telecommunication systems, and a genuine technological convergence is taking place. Accordingly, there has been a wave of mergers between traditional media and telecom firms, and by each of these with Internet and computer firms. Already companies like Microsoft, AOL, AT&T and Telefonica have become media players in their own right. It is possible that the global media system is in the process of converging with the telecommunications and computer industries to form an integrated global communication system, where anywhere from six to a dozen supercompanies will rule the roost. The notion that the Internet would “set us free,” and permit anyone to communicate effectively, hence undermining the monopoly power of the corporate media giants, has not transpired. Although the Internet offers extraordinary promise in many regards, it alone cannot slay the power of the media giants. Indeed, no commercially viable media content site has been launched on the Internet, and it would be difficult to find an investor willing to bankroll any additional attempts. To the extent the Internet becomes part of the commercially viable media system, it looks to be under the thumb of the usual corporate suspects.
GLOBAL MEDIA AND NEOLIBERAL DEMOCRACY
In the introduction I alluded to the importance of the global media system to the formation and expansion of global and regional markets for goods and services, often sold by the largest multinational corporations. The emerging global media system also has significant cultural and political implications, specifically with regard to political democracy, imperialism, and the nature of socialist resistance in the coming years. In the balance of this review I will outline a few comments on these issues.
In the area of democracy, the emergence of a such a highly concentrated media system in the hands of huge private concerns violates in a fundamental manner any notion of a free press in democratic theory. The problems of having wealthy private owners dominate the journalism and media in a society have been well understood all along: journalism, in particular, which is the oxygen necessary for self-government to be viable, will be controlled by those who benefit by existing inequality and the preservation of the status quo.
The two traditional recourses to protect democratic values in media—neither of which is the “answer” by any means—no longer apply. First, marketplace competition is of the oligopolistic variety, and even there it is quite weak by comparative or historical standards. It is virtually unthinkable for a citizen, even a wealthy capitalist, to launch a commercially viable company that can go toe-to-toe with the media giants. The market is effectively closed off to outsiders. And even a more competitive marketplace has clear limitations for generating democratic media. Second, the traditional means the commercial media system has provided to account for the lack of competition has been the idea that its journalism would be subject to the control of trained professional journalists who would be neutral and nonpartisan. This was always a flawed construct, because power remains in the hands of the owners, and what little professional prerogative existed to go against the political and commercial interests of owners has diminished in the past decade. This process was documented in MR in the November 2000 “Review of the Month.”
The attack on the professional autonomy of journalism that has taken place is simply a broader part of the neoliberal transformation of media and communication. All public service values and institutions that interfere with profit maximization are on the chopping block. In media, this has been seen most dramatically in the fall from grace of public service broadcasting in much of the world. It is only because of the tremendous goodwill these services have built up over the years that they survive, because they go directly counter to the neoliberal logic that states profits should rule wherever they can be generated. The EU is in the position of condemning some of the traditional subsidies to public service broadcasters as “noncompetitive,” as it is now assumed that broadcasting is first and foremost the province of capitalists. Public service broadcasting, once the media centerpiece of European social democracy, is now on the defensive and increasingly reduced to locating a semi-commercial niche in the global system. The pathetic and toothless U.S. system of public broadcasting—a quasi-commercial low budget operation aimed at a sliver of the upper-middle class—is the model for public broadcasting under neoliberal auspices.
Neoliberalism is more than an economic theory, however. It is also a political theory. It posits that business domination of society proceeds most effectively when there is a representative democracy, but only when it is a weak and ineffectual polity typified by high degrees of depoliticization, especially among the poor and working class. It is here that one can see why the existing commercial media system is so important to the neoliberal project, for it is singularly brilliant at generating the precise sort of bogus political culture that permits business domination to proceed without using a police state or facing effective popular resistance.
This argument may seem to contradict the fairly common view of those who assert global conglomerates can at times have a progressive impact on culture, especially when they enter nations that had been tightly controlled by corrupt crony media systems (as in much of Latin America) or nations that had significant state censorship over media (as in parts of Asia). In fact, the global commercial media system is radically bourgeois in that it respects, on balance, no tradition or custom if it stands in the way of profits. But ultimately, once capitalist relations have become preeminent, the global corporate media system is politically conservative, because the media giants are significant beneficiaries of the current social structure around the world, and any upheaval in property or social relations—particularly to the extent that it reduces the power of business—is not in their interest.
Sometimes the bias is explicit, and corporate overlords like Rupert Murdoch simply impose their neoliberal political positions on their underlings. More often, however, the bias is subtle and is due purely to commercial concerns. With concentration comes hypercommercialism, as media firms have more ability to extract profit from their activities; this generates an implicit political bias in media content. Consumerism, class inequality and so-called “individualism” tend to be taken as natural and even benevolent, whereas political activity, civic values, and antimarket activities are marginalized. The best journalism is pitched to the business class and suited to its needs and prejudices; with a few notable exceptions, the journalism reserved for the masses tends to be the sort of drivel provided by the media giants on their U.S. television stations. In India, for example, influenced by the global media giants, “the revamped news media…now focus more on fashion designers and beauty queens than on the dark realities of a poor and violent country.” This slant is often quite subtle. Indeed, the genius of the commercial-media system is the general lack of overt censorship. As George Orwell noted in his unpublished introduction to Animal Farm, censorship in free societies is infinitely more sophisticated and thorough than in dictatorships, because “unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without any need for an official ban.”
Lacking any necessarily conspiratorial intent and acting in their own bottom line interest, media conglomerates gradually weed out public sphere substance in favor of light entertainment. In the words of the late Emilio Azcarraga, the billionaire founder of Mexico’s Televisa: “Mexico is a country of a modest, very ed class, which will never stop being ed. Television has the obligation to bring diversion to these people and remove them from their sad reality and difficult future.” The combination of neoliberalism and corporate media culture tends to promote a deep and profound depoliticization. One need only look at the United States to see the logical endpoint.