Ten years ago, when we first focused national attention on the dangers of the U.S. media cartel, the situation was already grim, although in retrospect it may seem better than it really was. In the spring of 1996, Fox News was only a conspiracy (which broke a few months later). CNN belonged to Turner Broadcasting, which hadn't yet been gobbled by Time Warner (although it would be just a few months later); Viacom had not yet bought CBS News (although it would in 1999, before they later parted ways); and, as the Telecommunications Act had been passed only months earlier, local radio had not yet largely disappeared from the United States (although it was obviously vanishing). One could still somewhat plausibly assert, as many did, that warnings of a major civic crisis were unfounded, overblown or premature, as there was little evidence of widespread corporate censorship, and so we were a long way from the sort of journalistic meltdown that The Nation had predicted.
Thus was the growing threat of media concentration treated much like global warming, which, back then, was also slighted as a "controversial" issue ("the experts" being allegedly at odds about it), and one whose consequences, at their worst, were surely centuries away — a catastrophic blunder, as the past decade has made entirely clear to every sane American. Now, as the oceans rise and simmer and the polar bears go under, only theocratic nuts keep quibbling with the inconvenient truth of global warming. And now, likewise, few journalists are quite so willing to defend the Fourth Estate, which under Bush & Co. has fallen to new depths. Although its history is far from glorious, the U.S. press has never been as bad as it is now; and so we rarely hear, from any serious reporters, those blithe claims that all is well (or no worse than it ever was).
Contrary to the counterclaims in 1996, there was, as The Nation noted then, copious hard evidence of corporate meddling with the news, and also, even more important, lots of subtler evidence of reportorial self-censorship throughout the media cartel. And yet what stood out as egregious back then seems pretty tame today, now that the press consistently tunes out or plays down the biggest news, while hyping trivialities, or, if it covers a disaster, does so only fleetingly and without "pointing fingers." (New Orleans is now forgotten.) The press that went hoarse over Monica Lewinsky's dress is largely silent on the Bush regime's subversion of the Constitution; its open violation of the laws here and abroad; its global use of torture; its vast surveillance program(s); its covert propaganda foreign and domestic; its flagrant cronyism; its suicidal military, economic and environmental policies; and its careful placement of the federal establishment into the hands of Christianist extremists. Whether it's such tawdry fare as Jeffrey Gannon's many overnights at Bush's house, or graver matters like the Patriot Act, or the persistent questions about 9/11, or the President's imperial "signing statements" or — most staggering of all — the ever-growing evidence of coast-to-coast election fraud by Bush & Co., the press has failed in its constitutional obligation to keep us well informed about the doings of our government.
In short, our very lives and liberty are at unprecedented risk because our press has long since disappeared into "the media" — a mammoth antidemocratic oligopoly that is far more responsive to its owners, big shareholders and good buddies in the government than it is to the rest of us, the people of this country.
Surely other factors too have helped wipe out the news: an institutional overreliance on official sources; the reportorial star system, with its corruptive salaries and honoraria, and all those opportunities to hobnob with important criminals; the propaganda drive against "the liberal media"; the stupefying influence of TV, which has dragged much of the print world into its too-speedy orbit; etc. The fundamental reason for the disappearance of the news, however, is the media cartel itself. Fixated on the bottom line, it cuts the costs of real reporting while overplaying cheap crapola; and in its endless drive for more, it is an ally of the very junta whose high crimes and misdemeanors it should be exposing to the rest of us. It is past time, therefore, to go beyond the charting and analysis of media ownership, to boycotts, strikes and protests of the media cartel itself.
Mark Crispin Miller is a professor of culture and communications at New York University. His latest book is "Fooled Again: How the Right Stole the 2004 Election & Why They'll Steal The Next One Too (Unless We Stop Them)."
By Mark Crispin Miller
Reprinted with permission from The Nation