In the United States the Republicans are seeking to reduce funding for public broadcasting. In the Guardian on March 9th Amy Goodman was given a chance to register her opposition. National newspapers and broadcasters in Britain rarely discuss the political economy of the information system. The roles that market forces and state power play in shaping their operating assumptions for the most part remain unexamined by the media institutions themselves. And collectively they enjoy enormous power to shape in turn how they are perceived by their audiences.
It is instructive to consider how they use that power. For the most part they exercise a veto on discussions of the structure of the media. Concerns about the power of advertisers to influence the editorial agenda are dismissed by even the most self-critical journalists. The reliance on official sources and sources in industry is rarely mentioned. State manipulation is always reported as an outrageous aberration rather than a steady and unremitting pressure that intensifies at moments of crisis, as in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. Similarly, problems with the relationship between the financial sector and media have been noted briefly in the aftermath of the banking collapse, but described as a series of unfortunate individual errors of judgment, rather than the product of the patterns of incentives and threats inscribed in the nature of the institutions themselves.
It is true that the efforts of News International to secure full control over BSkyB have led to some public discussion of the media system in the media system. The opposition of Murdoch’s competitors led them to break their usual silence. But even here the debate has remained narrowly focused on issues of plurality, rather than on wider and more pressing matters of systemic failure by both the commercial and state-owned media. The ancien regime that Murdoch’s opponents are lobbying to defend has not managed to keep the majority of the population adequately informed about matters of pressing importance. As I argued in the same week as the Goodman piece was published, the opponents of further media concentration will continue to lose until they begin to agitate for structural changes in the media that democratize decisions about both what is investigated and what is made widely known.
The Guardian, like all other media operations, has a dual character. On the one hand it wants to gain and defend a reputation for reliability and on the other hand it needs to defend and advance its institutional interests. Much of the time the best way to secure a reputation for reliability is by actually being reliable. But when it comes to describing its relationships with other institutions – advertisers, the state, its sources and competitors, the markets for information and readers’ attention above all – the Guardian can’t be much more trustworthy than any other news operation. Institutions that wish to survive and prosper must put self-interest first. It is childish to imagine things could be otherwise. So it is not entirely surprising that coverage that acknowledges the political significance of the media overwhelmingly focuses on threats to the status quo. Guardian readers support the BBC, for the most part, and they think that National Public Radio is a good thing. There are no costs in siding with public service broadcasters and so the efforts of right-wingers to reduce their funding can therefore be resisted in public by the newspaper.
But note how this resistance is framed. The right’s claim that only public service broadcasters receive state subsidies is allowed to go unchallenged. The reality – that many privately held media corporations enjoy massive subsidies from the state, ostensibly to support their ‘public service’ functions – vanishes from the discussion. Goodman quotes Doug Lamborn, a Republican congressman from Colorado Springs:
We live in a day of 150 cable channels – 99% of Americans own a TV, we get internet on our cell phones, we are in a day and age when we no longer need to subsidise broadcasting.
This is a claim that both liberals and conservatives can live with, since it sets up a dynamic tension between market forces and public service. It is also nonsense. The American networks enjoy nearly-free access to the broadcast spectrum in what amounts to a vast subsidy. They also enjoy untold advantages from their relationship with the American state. The state in turn designates ‘the nation’s domestic and international telecommunications resources, including commercial, private and government-owned’ as ‘essential elements in support of US national security policy and strategy’. (from Christopher Simpson, National Security Directives of the Reagan and Bush Administrations, p. 304. A full reference and discussion of the NSD can be found in The Return of the Public).
As Robert McChesney and John Nichols point out in The Death and Life of American Journalism, the media have always depended on support from tax-payers in one form or another. Subsidies will continue to be necessary. The question is who controls these subsidies. At the moment, apart from federal support for NPR and the BBC license fee, the state’s role in shaping and coordinating the information system goes almost unmentioned. The privately owned media want to insist on their independence and they gloss over the degree to which they are strategic assets of the state. Similarly they want to obscure the extent to which the state serves their commercial objectives.
If Amy Goodman’s article was part of a pattern of transparent coverage about the media institutions and their role in society it would make some sort of sense for the Guardian to publish it. As it is this rare break in the silence that surounds the politics of the media highlights my point. An argument about the balance between publicly funded and commercial media in the United States stands in for a debate about the structural failings in the existing media – both publicly funded and commercial – and the possible remedies.
Do we leave decisions about the structure of the information system to elected representatives who depend on the existing media to reach their constituents? Do we leave the newspapers and broadcasters with near-monopoly control of widely publicised discussions about the media and its role in promoting or retarding democracy and autonomy? Or do we accept that the media are, in this crucial respect, unreliable and take appropriate steps?
Certainly we have the means to begin a debate about the media that media themselves cannot permanently ignore. But we have to start from an adult appreciation of the extent to which both commercial and state-run media must place institutional self-interest above a disinterested concern for the common good.
I am not singling out the Guardian‘s coverage of the media because it is especially bad. In many ways it is better than its competitors. The paper’s editor is aware that technology is rapidly changing the environment in which the media operate and is quite sincere about the need to change the relationship between the institutions and their audiences. But it is past time that the mainstream media acknowledged that its coverage of consequential matters has failed and will continue to fail until the structure of incentives and penalties within which journalists operate is reformed. It isn’t enough to run supportive articles about National Public Radio or to campaign against a further expansion of Murdoch’s empire.
A meaningful discussion of media power must illuminate the prerogatives and desires of institutions that are currently plunged in darkness most of the time. This darkness is itself a kind of power and will not be given up willingly. Begin to consider what the existing information system is, what it is for, who it serves. Begin to consider what a publicly accountable alternative would look like. Share your reasoning.
These aren’t conversations that those who control the media are keen for you to have. But the road to substantive democracy passes through media reform. This isn’t something that journalists and broadcasters usually want to admit to themselves. Unprompted they have no reason to say it out loud.
Stop waiting for the media to take the lead and in time you will change the world.