Robert McChesney & Dan Schiller

It is axiomatic in nearly all variants of social and political theory that the communication system is a cornerstone of modern societies. In political terms, the communication system may serve to enhance democracy, or to deny it, or some combination of the two. Less commented upon, although no less significant, the communication system has emerged as a central area for profit making in modern capitalist societies.

The question is not whether the government plays a role in establishing communication systems, because it plays a foundational role. The question is, whose interests and what values do government communication policies encourage? Private, corporate media and governments are far better seen as partners, and both far more adept at serving those who sit atop the social pyramid than those who are found closer to the bottom.

The United States is important in this context because it is the US model of communication provision (including both media and telecommunications) that is being exported across the planet. The United States government, in particular, aggressively and persistently acted as if only a profit-driven media system as in the United States, with US-style professional journalism, could be considered acceptable for a free society. As many nations came up short in that department, the government worked to eliminate barriers so the world’s people could have greater exposure if not to US-based, then at least to US-style commercial media.

The rise of a global corporate media oligopoly has two distinct but related facets. First, it means the dominant companies - roughly one-half US-based, but all with significant US operations - are moving across the planet at breakneck speed. Second, consolidation within and across each and every market segment is the order of the day. As local and regional media markets develop, specific companies - in many cases, new ones, built up around privatized broadcast systems or constituted around new media - began to link up rapidly with one or another of a few emergent global giants. In each industrial niche, in turn, concentration duly increased, even as new subsidiaries of huge global media conglomerates continued to form.

The logic guiding media firms in all of this was clear - get very big very quickly, or get swallowed up by someone else - just as it was in many other industries. In short order, the global media market came to be dominated by nine transnational corporations (TNCs): General Electric (owner of NBC), Liberty Media, Disney, AOL Time Warner, Sony, News Corporation, Viacom, Vivendi Universal and Bertelsmann. Between them, these nine companies own the major US film studios; the US television networks; 80.85 per cent of the global music market; the majority of satellite broadcasting worldwide; all or part of a majority of cable broadcasting systems; a significant percentage of book publishing and commercial magazine publishing; all or part of most of the commercial cable TV channels in the US and worldwide; a significant portion of European terrestrial television; and on and on and on.

Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, though it lags behind some of its rivals in revenues, may be the most aggressive global trailblazer, but cases also could be made for several of the others. Murdoch spun off Sky Global Networks in 2000, consolidating his satellite television services that run from Asia to Europe to Latin America (Goldsmith and Dawtrey 2000). His Star TV dominates in Asia with 30 channels in seven languages (Jacob 2000). News Corporation’s television service for China, Phoenix TV, in which it has a 45 per cent stake, in 2000 reached 45 million homes there and enjoyed an 80 per cent increase in advertising revenues (admittedly from a small base) over the prior year (Groves 2000). And this barely begins to describe News Corporation’s entire portfolio of assets: Twentieth Century Fox films, Fox TV network, HarperCollins publishers, television stations, cable TV channels, magazines, over 130 newspapers, and professional sport teams.

Consolidation within the global media system is linked strongly to reciprocal changes in the structure of world advertising. Advertising is a business expense made preponderantly by the largest firms in the economy. The commercial media system is the necessary transmission belt for business to market their wares across the world; indeed globalization as we know it could not exist without it. A whopping three-quarters of global spending on advertising ends up in the pockets of a mere 20 media companies (The Economist 2000b).

The global media system does not conform to the axiomatic principle of competition propounded by mainstream economists. Many of the largest media firms have some of the same major shareholders, own portions of one another or have interlocking boards of directors. In some respects, indeed, the global media market more closely resembles a cartel than it does the competitive marketplace found in economics textbooks. In competitive markets, in theory, numerous producers work hard and are largely oblivious to each other as they sell what they produce at the market price, over which they have no control. This fairy tale, still regularly regurgitated as being an apt description of our economy, is ludicrous when applied to the global media system.

Global conglomerates can at times have a progressive impact on culture, especially when they enter countries that had been tightly controlled by corrupt, crony-controlled media systems (as in much of Latin America) or those that had significant state censorship over media (as in parts of Asia). The global commercial media system is radical in that it will respect no tradition or custom, on balance, if it stands in the way of profits. But ultimately it 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.

With hypercommercialism and growing corporate control comes an implicit political bias in media content. Consumerism, class inequality and individualism tend to be taken as natural and even benevolent, whereas political activity, civic values and anti-market activities are marginalized. 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” (Mishra 2000). 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 economic self-interest, media conglomerates exist simply to make money by selling light escapist entertainment. The late Emilio Azcarraga, the billionaire founder of Mexico’s Televisa, reflected this position in saying that Mexico was a country with a modest, downtrodden class, which would always be downtrodden, and television had “the obligation to bring diversion to these people and remove them from their sad reality and difficult future” (Wheat 1996:13). The combination of neoliberalism and corporate media culture tends to promote a deep and profound de-politicization.

For much of the 1990s even those who were alarmed by the anti-democratic implications of the neoliberal globalization process tended to be resigned. The power of the capitalist profit motive was such that it could not be prevented from establishing a world system based on transnational corporations and markets, and unchecked capital flows. Likewise, the globalization of the corporate media system. As one Swedish journalist noted in 1997, “Unfortunately, the trends are very clear, moving in the wrong direction on virtually every score, and there is a desperate lack of public discussion of the long-term implications of current developments for democracy and accountability. (McChesney 2000:118). It was presented as unexceptionable, natural or inexorable. And for those in power, those who benefited by the new regime, such thinking made their jobs vastly easier.

But, as we said at the outset, the truth is that there is nothing “natural” about neoliberal globalization. It requires extensive changes in government policies and an increased role for the state to encourage and protect certain types of activities. The massive and complex negotiations surrounding NAFTA and the WTO provide some idea of how unnatural and constructed the global neoliberal economy is. Or consider copyright, and what has come to be considered intellectual property. There is nothing natural about this. It is a government-granted and enforced monopoly that prevents competition. It leads to higher prices and a shrinking of the marketplace of ideas, but it serves powerful commercial interests tremendously. In the United States, the corporate media lobby has managed to distort copyright so the very notions of the public domain or fair use - so important historically - have been all but obliterated. The US government leads the fight in global forums to see that the corporate-friendly standards of copyright are extended across the planet and to cyberspace. The commitment to copyright monopolies -now granted for 95 years to corporations as the sine qua non of the global economy - shows its true commitment is to existing corporate power rather than to a mythological free market.

The traditional myth of the relationship of the state to the private sector in US media has become the neoliberal myth on a global scale. The myth now has become transparently a tool of propaganda. The Enron affair highlighted again how closely intertwined the US government is with the largest private corporations. The widespread graft associated with neoliberal privatizations and deregulations - in telecommunications more than anywhere else - has resulted in a wave of corruption of world historical proportions. If the market is God and public service in bunk, why on Earth would anyone enter government, except to feather their own nest, by any means necessary? For those at the receiving end of neoliberal globalization - the bulk of humanity - the idea that people need to accept neoliberal globalization as a given is untenable. For those committed to democracy above neoliberalism, the struggle is to require informed public participation in government policy making. Specifically, in view of the importance of media, the struggle is to democratize communication policy making (Price et al. 2002).

This goal is a paramount one, even in the context of seemingly more virulent problems and correspondingly more urgent reforms - food, water, medicine and education. This is because the communication system comprises the indispensable institutional basis for social deliberation - discussion, debate and decision making - beyond elite forums. Where the communication system is controlled by centralized profit-making groups - and where, today, is it not? - the people cease to have a means of clarifying social priorities and organizing for social reform.

First, it is imperative that the debates on these topics be widespread and held up in the light of day. They must be democratized. If we know one thing from history it is this: if self-interested parties make decisions in relative secrecy, the resulting policies will serve the interests primarily of those who made them. As the old saw goes, “If you’re not at the table, you not part of the deal.” Our job, as scholars, as citizens, as democrats, is to knock down the door and draw some more chairs up to the table. And when we sit at that table we have to come educated with the most accurate understanding of what is taking place and what is possible that we can generate.

Second, the principle of public as opposed to corporate-commercial control must be reaccredited, strengthened and enlarged. There are several proposals that have been made to strengthen and democratize the media and telecommunication sectors (see, for example, McChesney 2000; Nichols and McChesney 2000). Although there are significant differences in these proposals as one moves from one country to another, they all gravitate around a handful of ideas and principles. The sector independent of corporate and commercial control must be strengthened, and it is highly desirable to have a significant part of this sector insulated from direct control by the state.


THE ECONOMIST, “Star turn”, 11 March 2000b, pp. 67-68.
GOLDSMITH, JILL AND ADAM DAWTREY “Murdoch: Sky’s the limit”, Variety, 28 August.3 September 2000, pp. 1, 130.
GROVES, DON “Star connects dot-coms”, Variety, 29 May-4 June 2000, p. 63.
JACOB, RAHUL “Star is shooting towards interactive TV”, Financial Times, 10-11 June 2000, p. 11.
MCCHESNEY, ROBERT W Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Times, The New Press, New York, 2000.
MISHRA, PANKAJ “Yearning to be great, India loses its way”, New York Times, 16 September 2000, p. A27.
NICHOLS, JOHN AND ROBERT W. MCCHESNEY It’s the Media, Stupid, Seven Stories Press, New York, 2000.
PRICE, MONROE E., BEATA ROZUMILOWICZ AND STEFAAN G. VERHULST Media Reform: Democratizing the Media, Democratizing the State, Routledge, New York, 2002.
WHEAT, ANDREW “Mexico's privatization piñata”, Multinational Monitor, Vol. 17, No. 10, 1996.

This a fragment of a much longer work, excerpted and edited by Joanne Richardson for Indymedia Romania. The original article was written for UNRISD (United Nations Research Institute for Social Development) and can be downloaded in its entirety from robertmcchesney.com.

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