Chapter 19

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Chapter 19

Corporate Control of the Media
Final Draft August 2009

So far in our discussion of democracy we have focused directly on the institutions of the state itself: how elections are organized, how taxes are gathered, what kinds of policies are pursued and opposed, and how the functions of the state can be expanded or narrowed. But democracy is not just about what happens in thestate. It also concerns a wide range of issues centering in what is often called “civil society”, the areas of social life outside of the state where people meet to discuss issues, form their political views, join together for collective action. A central issue in the health of democracy concerns the vibrancy of civil society, and a key issue for this is the problem of information. Few people woulddisagree that information is pivotal for a democratic, free society. When dictators seize power one of the first things they do is seize the TV stations and close down opposition newspapers. As is often said, a free press is essential for a free society. More broadly, the way the media and communication -- newspapers, magazines, television, radio, the arts, etc. – is owned, produced and controlledhas pervasive consequences for the character of public debate, the attitudes people form towards social issues and social conflicts, and ultimately the possibilities for various kinds of social change to occur in a democracy. The problem of how the mass media is controlled, therefore, is a fundamental problem for a democratic society. At the heart of the problem of the media and democracy is theproblem of the control over the production and dissemination of news. However, other aspects of the media and communication, including movies, novels, music, theater and television entertainment, are also critical for public debate and democracy. The arts are one of the key ways that issues of public concern get articulated and made salient to democratic processes. Right after closing opposingnewspapers, dictators control the arts. While in this chapter we will focus on issues surrounding the democratic press, the analysis is also relevant to broader question of the production and dissemination of ideas and art in a democratic society.

While everyone acknowledges that a “free” press is essential for a “free” society, there is considerable ambiguity about preciselywhat the word “free” means. The standard view is that the “free” in free press means a press that is free from government control, and this, in turn, means a free market press. A free market press serves the interest of a free society, the reasoning goes, because market competition will guarantee an open arena for the exchange and
This discussion draws heavily from Robert McChesney, Corporatemedia and the threat to democracy (7 Stories Press, 1997); Rich Media, Poor Democracy: communication politics in dubious times (The New Press, 1999) and The Problem of the Media: U.S. Communications Politics in the Twenty-first Century (Monthly Review Press, 2004)

Chapter 19. Democracy and Corporate Control of the Media


dissemination of ideas. The metaphor of the market permeates suchdiscussions: the free marketplace of ideas is a standard way of talking about open debate and unimpeded dissemination of opposing views. And, just as in the ordinary market of capitalist competition in material products, the free market press and the free marketplace of ideas is seen by many people as the best ways of insuring that the best ideas survive the competition. This serves the publicinterest by maximizing the chance that lies and misinformation are exposed and that citizens can hear all sides of arguments and thus develop their own well-informed opinions on matters of public importance. In this view of things, the greatest threat to a free press is government authority, government control and censorship. There are four basic problems with these standard arguments for the free...
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