These days, consumed with our own hectic lives, we seem able to apprehend only discrete events, not the big picture. Score: Trees 1, Forest 0. Take corporate mergers. Once they were big news, harbingers of powerful societal realignments to come. Lately, these organizational swallowings, hitch-ups and disembowelings have become so routine--except as they relate to our investments--that we scarcely consider their cumulative effect.
Is this proof that we have become a nation of bookkeepers, with our eyes increasingly trained down at the bottom line or up at the clock? Or is our inability to focus on so serious a problem itself a symptom of the problem? Have we lost sight of what really matters in the stampede for personal and corporate gain, or are we merely buying the self-serving spin placed on mergers by the corporate interests behind them?
While real democracy--active participation in civic life and self-government by an informed, substantial part of the populace--may stand in real danger, the very institutions we traditionally count on to shout warnings from the ramparts have themselves become increasingly compromised.
Anyone interested in understanding the consequences of this trend can turn to several recent books. Foremost among them is Robert McChesney's "Rich Media, Poor Democracy," which ranges broadly over the macrocosm of the information age. Three other books--Michael Janeway's "Republic of Denial"; "The Business of Journalism," edited by William Serrin; and Jay Rosen's "What Are Journalists For?"--fit inside like Russian nesting dolls, taking on narrower aspects of the nexus of commerce, politics and journalism. Together these books remind us that journalism can serve a greater purpose than offering tips on hard abs, hot stocks and summer blockbusters.
McChesney explores what is unquestionably an ongoing assault on the reliability and independence of the media we count on to explain the world to us. He walks us through the increasingly complex relationship between music, movie, cable, telephone, radio, TV, newspaper, advertising, Internet providers and software companies, which together determine what we learn and how it is presented to us. As technologies converge and media companies merge, as information is sliced, diced, injected with ads and plumped for entertainment value, it becomes increasingly turned into a commodity, so that what is being sold subsumes what is being told. Thirty years after Marshall McLuhan became famous for saying it, the medium--farther reaching than ever--is more and more the message.
McChesney also spotlights the federal government's rush to shed its role as guardian of public resources and guarantor of a vigorous and diverse press. Since 1934, when it officially opened up the airwaves to commerce while in the same breath declaring them public property, Washington has stood by as commercial media steadily advances upon the public sphere. The forward march turned into a mad dash in 1996, after the government deregulated cable and telecommunications industries and significantly relaxed broadcast cross-ownership rules. McChesney amply chronicles this long sorry history of abdication, which has left "We, the People" with virtually no say in three areas central to a modern functioning democracy: We are denied the right to choose what goes over limited "publicly owned" cables and airwaves. We do not determine who profits from technology developed with taxpayer funds. We have no part in deciding how much control of the media any one player gets.
Recent events have corroborated his analysis. AOL swallowed Time Warner, Viacom devoured CBS and AT&T consumed MediaOne. Each deal took advantage of relaxed government regulations to aggrandize an existing media megalith. If all goes as planned, AT&T will control one third of the nation's cable network; four of the most mammoth media conglomerates will own six major TV networks; CBS-Viacom will reach (and surpass, if lobbying efforts are successful) the recently elevated government cap of 35% of the national audience; and the old-media giant Time Warner will emerge a more powerful new-media giant.
While everyone was busy contemplating Los Angeles Times' then-publisher Mark Willes' emphasis on the bottom line at all costs--and the related, controversial profit-sharing pact between the Staples Center and The Times' Sunday magazine--the paper's parent company, Times Mirror, got swallowed up by the Chicago-based Tribune Co. (That move, ironically, almost came as a relief after the ex-cereal executive's mercantile reign.) Tribune Co. adds The Times to a local empire that includes KTLA-TV Channel 5 and could conceivably include--if the company chooses to purchase it--the Daily News of Los Angeles. (If anything bears out McChesney on the retreat of competition-minded government action, it is the fact that Tribune actually owned the Daily News until 1986, when it was forced to divest the paper to get KTLA. Now, pretty much anything goes.)