Saturday, January 10, 2009

Media as an Antidemocratic Force

The following is in response to a question based on McChesney's text Rich Media, Poor Democracy, a book that constantly refers to the state of the media at the turn of the 21st century. You can find a link here to excerpts from his book. Excuse the un-fanciness of the website.
Why does McChesney say that media are an antidemocratic force?

McChesney’s 1999 book Rich Media, Poor Democracy basically has one dark, fatalistic conclusion: the more powerful the media is, the less democratic it is. The introduction to his text and the first chapter set out to prove his thesis that the more wealthy the current day media conglomerates become, “the poorer the prospects [are] for participatory democracy" (McChesney 1999, 2), something that McChesney dubs “the rich media/poor democracy paradox” (3). When referring to “democracy”, McChesney is taking a very literal definition of the term: “the many should and do make the core political decisions” (4). Although America claims to be a democracy, in reality the US is an oligarchy in which citizens, while encouraged to participate in the voting process, still do not have much authority over controlling the decisions made by the powers that be. And although the United States is built around a so-called democracy in which citizens have the ability to debate and protest, McChesney argues that since media, much like politics, are “governed” by the few (and not the many), there is no democratic debate taking place on the nature of our media.

McChesney states that it is in the best interests of media firms to become oligopolies to ensure their personal success in a competitive industry in which the new kids on the block, so to speak, are constantly trying to succeed among the big dogs in the most cutthroat of fields. Throughout his argument, McChesney frequently references Ben Bagdikian, who has published several books on the topic of the media monopoly, each new edition an update on the current trends and includes new media technologies. For example, the Telecommunications Act of 1996, Bagdikian writes, diminishes “the relationship or lack of it between the mass media and the American public” (Bagdikian 2004, 137-138), an act which McChesney believes to be antidemocratic, one which regulates communication, and is inherently corrupt. Not only is the Telecommunications Act a politically, governmentally-proposed law, but it also results in deregulation, killing the chances for small businesses and small media producers, especially the public-access and public-service media outlets. Basically, it is next to impossible to be a small or even mid-sized media firm any more.

In order to better understand his thesis, McChesney lays out Chapter One of his book into three current (as of 1999) trends in the US media, including: 1) concentration of corporations; 2) media conglomeration; and 3) hypercommercialism, all of which, he argues, leads to the decline and elimination of public service and therefore democracy or democratic tendencies and ideals in media culture. In these three sections, McChesney states the implications for each model/trend as being highly negative, touching on the collapse of journalism (a mode of expression that should be inherently democratic, seeing as voicing the truth or one’s opinion is one of the rights upheld by the First Amendment), the decline of creative freedom (another tenet and product free speech) that is instead traded in for commercial values, as well as the “quashing of public debate” (63) that should be alive and well in a democratic society.

Essentially, media have caused a nation founded on the principles of democracy to dwindle in its democratic forms of expression. A news story becomes a book becomes a movie becomes a soundtrack on a CD that you play on a CD player ALL owned by the same vertically and horizontally synergized corporations that leave you no other option besides participating in the system that they themselves have monopolized, kicking the little guys to the curb and leaving smaller, less synergized and successful companies in the wake of their dust.

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