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One market under God

Review by Corinna Lotz

Robert McChesney's account of the evolution of the US media* is a sweeping ride from the early years of the American republic up to what he calls the "uprising of 2003".

The author is widely acknowledged as one of the chief opponents of corporate control over the US media system. He is part of the Free Press organisation which organised a major conference on media reform at the end of 2003. His aim is to dismantle some key myths which protect and preserve corporate control over media policy.

Basing himself on the ideas and provisions laid down by the founding fathers of the American Revolution, McChesney argues the case for a government-subsidised media to counter-balance the forces of today's commercial conglomerates. "The press system was consciously subsidised as a fourth estate in the first generations of the republic," he writes. "In many respects, 'newspaper politics' were the heart and soul of all politics in the first few generations of U.S. history."

In an opening salvo about the early years of the American republic and the struggle for press freedom, we learn how the Federalists used the Alien and Sedition Acts to muzzle the Jeffersonian press, which sympathised with the French revolution. A warning from Thomas Jefferson that McChesney quotes sounds remarkably prophetic: "If they [the people] become inattentive to the public affairs, "you and I, and Congress and Assemblies, Judges and Governors, shall all become wolves."

He and James Madison believed that without an informed population true democracy was impossible, and that subsidies were essential to create a "free press". This way of supporting free press was progressively corrupted, McChesney argues, especially in recent years.

The passage of the Telecommunications Act in 1996, "arguably one of the most important pieces of US legislation", removed ownership restrictions from commercial media and communication companies and "reduced the government's role to protecting private property".

Through the evolution of the media, McChesney traces the dramatic transition in the last decades from the old form of state as mediator and provider to the present "market state". From "one nation under God", the US became "One Market under God", in a phrase coined by author Thomas Frank.

The contradiction between the desire of the conglomerates to get rid of any form of regulation and public opposition to concentrated media ownership on the other is at the heart of this fact-filled book. Debunking the conservative myth that the US media is in the hands of a liberal left, McChesney shows convincingly that the conventional use of the labels "left" and "right" is totally useless in understanding political trends.

"This framing of liberalism as leftism is misleading," he writes, "and ignores a more fundamental divide in US society between élite opinion - formed by those high atop our leading institutions - and those outside it. On most issues, and certainly on the economy and militarism, there is more common ground between Clinton and the Republicans - between the liberal and conservative branches of élite opinion - than there is between Clinton and the left."

If you substitute Kerry for "Clinton" this points to the lack of fundamental difference between the Democratic and Republican parties and helps explain the Bush victory of 2004. Millions of Americans, especially the poor, are unrepresented and do not see any point in participating in electoral charades.

Those who fail to turn up at the polling stations are right to feel instinctively that their votes would be wasted. For Big Media, politicians are there to be bought and manipulated, as this book shows. "A 2000 study… revealed that the fifty largest media firms and four media trade organisations spent $111 million on lobbying between 1996 and 2000 and the number of media-related lobbyists increased from 234 to 284.

"…On core issues, corporate media interests owned the policy debate in Washington. In 2000, large media firms were major contributors to both Bush and Gore… As one media CEO euphorically remarked in 2000 when asked which candidate would best serve the interest of corporate media owners, 'Bush? Gore? It doesn't matter!' "

Today's era is characterised in a remarkable chapter called "The age of hyper-commercialism". McChesney marshals a wealth of information about the rise and rise of the advertising industry, including the more than $260 billion which will be spent on advertising in the United States in 2004. This section of the book is perhaps the most revealing as it shows the extraordinary penetration of an entire culture by a totalitarian commercialism.

McChesney concludes by looking at policy making and media reform in the era of the Internet. The conflict between the liberating aspects of new technologies such as the Internet on the one side and Big Media on the other is examined. He shows that technology on its own is not enough - "the power of the oligopolistic market trumps the subversive power of the technology".

In 2002, George W Bush chose Colin Powell's son Michael to head the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which oversees media ownership regulations in the US. "Powell saw the role of the FCC as facilitating profit making for corporations, pure and simple: 'Government policy needs to follow the rule of capital and investment, not always the other way around."

The only opponent to monopoly control on the five-member FCC was Democrat Michael Copps. McChesney gives a blow-by-blow account of the battle between Copps and Powell during 2003. He concludes that "the hardest battle has been won", because the question of media control became the "stuff of democratic discourse and political engagement".

He is enthusiastic about the anti-corporate movement that sprang up in 2003 and the emergence of independent media centres. McChesney wants a "a strong non-profit and non-commercial media sector", as a counterweight to corporate control. But is this the answer? In Britain, there has long been a state-funded broadcaster, the BBC. Over the past five years, New Labour's "light touch" regulation has led to even greater monopoly by Murdoch, more reality TV and gameshows. Quality programming is confined to less accessible channels. Politically, the BBC is hardly independent of government policy.

Although McChesney believes in the possibility of reform, there is a massive question hanging over his vision of an independent media assisted by state subsidies. What is the true nature of the state which is supposed to provide the counter-weight to corporate control? The US state cannot be "saved" from capitalist domination - it is its very expression! To create an independent press and media means going beyond the "Fourth Estate", to liberating it from the control by the media corporations and their political defenders.

* The Problem of the Media, US Communication Politics in the 21st Century by Robert W McChesney. Monthly Review Press, $16.95

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