Who could imagine the people of a great democracy turning over the right to harass and propagandize themselves on their own public airwaves to a handful of gigantic corporations and the billionaire press lords who control those corporations? But that is what we have done.
The media are busily creating a mob-like democracy—feeding a mass mind that, like a flock of crows, wheels or turns back in response to their cues. In 2003, even as the Bush administration prepares to attack first in a war of aggression against Iraq, it is likelier than not that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will rule that the press lords’ corporations can become as gigantic as they like—and do anything they want—with, and on, our airwaves. As Paul Krugman asks in the New York Times, “What happens when a few media conglomerates control not only what you can watch, but what you can download?” If we, the people of the United States, are not to become cudgeled subjects in a media-controlled, war-waging plutocracy, we must revolt. Politically. Immediately.
But can we?
It is a truism—enshrined, for example, in romantic idealizations by Thomas Jefferson—that democracy requires a well-informed populace. The quality of a democracy’s decisions on the truly important issues—say, national health insurance, supporting or opposing the new “Bush Doctrine” of launching aggressive wars to dominate the world, the public funding of elections, establishing a permanent hereditary oligarchy by abolishing the estate tax—determine the quality of the democracy itself.
Yet serious students of the contemporary electorate have long realized that only about 5 percent of the people are well-informed and politically active. Summarizing multiple studies in 1986, W. Russell Neuman concluded that another 20 percent of us are totally apolitical, knowing nothing about the issues and ignoring elections. Most citizens, though, “have carefully developed opinions on some issues and partial or vague opinions on most others.” In this “great middle stratum,” Neuman wrote, about 75 percent of the voters “monitor the political process half-attentively, but they can be alerted if fellow citizens sound the political alarm.” The more they know, the greater their participation.
It follows that the fitness of our democracy depends on ideas and proposals that are almost never discussed seriously and honestly in the mass media or during our elections. Education is critical for our self-government; freedom in education is the all-liberating freedom. We should be teaching politics and active citizenship to every student in American high schools. We should be providing free public education through the university level to every citizen who will do the work and can make the grades.
We should be using the radio and television channels that we own to stage frequent formal debates, on the propositions and with the speakers we choose, through a membership-controlled national debate union. We should be providing free and equal radio and television time to all bona fide candidates for public office at every level, requiring in return that the candidates participate in formal discussions and debates and speak in person for themselves. We should adopt the Swedish model of study-group democracy: modestly subsidized but absolutely free and untrammeled citizen study groups of no more than twelve persons each, studying on their own what-ever subjects and ideas they choose and later, if they wish, forming themselves into action groups.
If I were in such a study group now, I would propose that my fellow citizens in our group consider together whether self-government can survive mass advertising. I would submit that democracy in the United States is now systematically subverted, on the airwaves that we the people own, by corporate advertising selling us goods, including medicines, and by corporate programming and punditry selling us corporate attitudes. Manufacturers selling us their products have segued into the corporations’ networks selling us their CEOs’ politics.
The people who want to learn and decide about national health insurance have become the people prejudiced and turned off by “Harry and Louise,” the characters in the famous “attack ads” that helped to derail Bill Clinton’s attempt at healthcare reform. Candidates for office who seriously discuss public policies and programs have been replaced by puppeteered mannequins mouthing sound bites targeted at “swing voters” or thirty-second negative ads on the noisome theme, “My opponent is a rat.”
As we have watched and wondered, as if by alchemy the American ideal of self-governance has been replaced by the corporations’ chosen foil, a dazed and darkened mass mind.
The newspapers, once the principal source of public knowledge, used to be mostly independently owned, but no more. When radio arrived Congress under President Herbert Hoover declared the airwaves to be public property. We, the owners, through Congress, licensed out the use of our radio and television channels for free, but required the users to serve “the public convenience and necessity” and to observe “the fairness rule.” For decades radio and television network executives promised us, hands on hearts, to obey these requirements.
But as television and radio gradually became the people’s principal sources of public information and the primary shapers of attitudes, it dawned on the owners of the networks that the Congress had literally given them, for absolutely nothing, the power to propagandize the people themselves. All the conservative, White-male media tycoons had to do was get then-President Ronald Reagan’s FCC to abolish the “fairness rule” and then to abandon public service and serious coverage of politics. Now candidates for office believe that the only way they can reach the mass of the voters is to beg corporations and the rich for enough campaign money so they can buy media time for messages that won’t offend their paymasters.
The issue here is not merely the corporate mass media, but whether democracy can survive it. The CEOs of the corporate mass media have the anti-democratic power to hire the reporters, editors, commentators, and columnists they want, and to fire or sideline any of them who insist on raising prohibited ideas and subjects that threaten large corporations and the very rich. In effect these CEOs decide what the mass of the people are invited to think about on any day or night and, much more important, what they are not invited to think about. The corporate media have the anti-democratic power “to set the national agenda,” to decide what is an important subject or an idea worth debating and what is not.
This creates internal oppression inside people’s very minds. Cumulatively the corporate mass media create, by suggestion and propaganda, misim-pressions among the people that there is consensus and common agreement on, or general submission to, a number of momentous attitudes (a progressive Democrat can’t win the presidency; national health insurance will cost more than my health care does now; we have to launch an aggressive war against Iraq; corporate monopoly is both good and necessary; corporate campaign “contributions” are not bribes) which are merely, in fact, what the mass media, the giant corporations and banks advertising with them, and their agents in government want we the people to think that we the people believe.
In further consequence of this mass media power we, the citizens of the United States, are not exposed to enough salient information and free and honest thought to enable us to form knowledgeable opinions on the great issues of the day. This is very serious. And this year, George W. Bush’s 3–2 majority on the FCC weighed, during a crucial public hearing on February 27 in Richmond, Virginia, whether to authorize the literally unlimited domination of the airwaves by a handful of media goliaths. FCC chairman, Michael Powell, who astoundingly has derided “the public interest” as a standard for government action, may be losing his leadership to a GOP commissioner who is close to George W. Bush, but even so it’s now or never for democracy.
“We don’t want Fox and Viacom owning every station we turn to on the dial,” a local resident told the FCC in Richmond. The president of the Virginia AFL-CIO, Danny LeBlanc, said, “I am worried about the concentration of media ownership into fewer and fewer hands.” That was the message from nearly all of the several dozen speakers from the public. An executive from NBC spoke for the suits from the media corporations when he said, “Relaxation of the commission’s ownership rules will not diminsh diversity.” But the publisher of the Seattle Times, Frank Biethen, broke ranks by declaring that Wall Street cares only about earnings and stock price, not news, public service, or democracy, and that “America’s newsrooms have been transformed from democracy’s watch-dogs to corporate lapdogs.”
As citizens we should demand that the politicians reapply antitrust to the mass media and break up the network monopolies and that local radio and television stations provide coverage of local civic and governmental affairs; reinstate the public-convenience-and-necessity and fairness rules; and require free candidate and debate time on radio and television. As a people still free, we must attack the corporate domination of the mass media in the sacred name of democracy. Will any presidential candidates dare go to the people against the media giants? Al Gore spoke out against some of them this year, but only just before dropping out. Can and might the Democratic Party, in its 2004 platform, take on the media plutocrats? What have the third parties got to say on this?
And what are your thoughts and ideas, readers, on what can be done (apart from carrying on, doggedly and as always, in “the alternative media”) to save democracy from destruction by the corporate domination of the mass media? Please e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I will share and respond to your thoughts and proposals in a future column.
Ronnie Dugger, a reporter, writer, and social-structure activist, has written biographies of Lyndon Johnson (Norton, 1973) and Ronald Reagan (McGraw-Hill, 1983), as well as other books and countless articles in the New Yorker, Harper’s, the Nation, the Atlantic, and so on. He was founding editor of the Texas Observer and co-founder of the Alliance for Democracy.