Media Concentration: a Case of Power, Ego and Greed,
Confronting Our Sensibilities
W. Curtiss Priest, Ph.D.
Director, Ctr. for Inf., Tech. & Society
Research Affiliate, MIT
American University Law Review Symposium
Regulating Media Competition:
The Development and Implications of
The FCC’s New Broadcast Ownership Rules
November 14, 2003
Draft: not for attribution without permission
In sharing a preliminary draft of this paper with a colleague I highly respect, Mr. Komoski said it that the motivation behind media concentration is not just greed (the profits paid to both CEOs and shareholders), it is also power and ego.
Often a Zen riddle describes a monk engaging a student, he is enlightened by phrases such as, "ah grasshopper, you only see part of what takes you on your journey."
One Zen koan has several monks of different stature, standing, looking a flag on the post. (and we are all monks to our society)
One said: "The flag is moving." The other said: "The wind
An Elder happened to be passing by. He told them: "Not the
wind, not the flag, but the mind is moving."
But then he commented:
"Wind, flag, mind moves.
The same understanding
When the mouth opens
All are wrong"
So it is also with information and media. Many view and see "the flag waving." But, ourOur culture is not only waving, also, when we try to speak about the movement of culture, the media concentration articulates a faulty vision.
Mark Cooper (Cooper, 2003) has presented us with, perhaps, the most thoroughly documented case about the many reasons that US media ill-serves our public and our country. And, if Cooper left a single stone unturned, I can't think of one, except a viewpoint that delves into placing our epoch in perspective of the history of the world. His book, Media Ownership and Democracy in the Digital Information Age: Promoting Diversity with First Amendment Principles and Market Structure Analysis, tackles the subject of media ownership from various perspectives including legal, economic, and communitive. His writings are so wide-ranging that someone must take his book and turn it into thousands of "sound bites."
I say this, both out of in respect for his work, and to symbolize the way in which we Americans wish to receive information. Lacking time to read a 330 page book, few, frightfully few, will read Cooper's messages will reach, frightfully few. It is my wish that his Consumer Federation will consider the task, undone. Will Michael Powell sit down and read a polemic? While I certainly hope so, Festinger (1957) taught us that people with strong ideological leanings tend to pre-filter information, to reading or listen ing only to those who say what is included in our belief system.
Often those wishing to criticize media concentration address both the need for political discourse and the need to foster and serve diversity. And, it is well known that media owners favor homogeneity because of economies of scale in serving a homogeneous market. While profit greed (or ego) is the driving force, it is not openly clear that the central owners of media believe they are doing anything wrong. In fact, they often argue that they do good for society when serving non-diversity interests, as, in general, the public demands a level of program quality that, in dollars spent per second, can best be served when the cost of such programming can be spread out over the widest number of viewers (or listeners).
What I suspect is that media owners believe that the "exploratory phase" of our democracy is over and done with (if these owners actually contemplate such history). Heck, we started with the best that what our founding fathers thought bested England and the rest of Europe, we struggled through the Bill of Rights, we wrote 167 more Constitutional Amendments;, and aren't we done yet?
With billions of dollars spent on marketing, yes, the owners of media see that they can shepherd millions of viewers to all wanting the same things. And, indeed, from the perspective of economic efficiency, if you can get everyone to want, exactly the same thing, then the market will provide that product at ever decreasing prices. Why isn't this a case of "what's good for the goose, is good for the gander?" Are we not a "melting pot?" Is that melting not a process by which, regardless of ethnicity, we all become "Americans." and by which Americanness, itself, includes diversity?
This question is at the heart, of not only of the question of media concentration, but also at the heart of what this nation intends to become. What does this nation intend to become? Have we not become the largest power on earth? Have we not shown the, prior, U.S.S.R. how "it is done?"
It is "really quite simple." In the market place you strive for corporate profits. The stockholders, of course, demand that of you. You may, occasionally throw a bone to public discourse, diversity, and free speech, but these bones will lack meat, because as the meat is saved 'for the stew.' If the WB is able to shape the values of teenagers so that all of them are fans of Dawson's Creek, are not all these teenagers better off? They get a program that can hire very alluring characters, hire the best producers, directors, and writers. Surely, no one wants the scant fare of a local public cable station. The sound often fades, there is no riveting editing, and the pace is often non-existent.
Are not Eisner and Murdock doing everyone a favor by channeling American values in an never- ending vortex of advertisementss that feed into programming, and programming that feeds back to adsadvertisement? Everyone wins!
But what happens to Ddiversity as a value? Assimilation replaces specificity. A media created notion of "An American" replaces multiple notions of "Americans." y? That is simply an accident of there being recent immigrants. Everyone knows they want to be Americans as soon as possible. As Steven Tyler sings, "walk this way, talk this way ..."
And Civility? No, it is not on the menu. We have television shows that make fun of fundamental human weaknesses -- of fear, of the desire to be loved. If some people can be convinced to do stupid things in "real TV," why shouldn't we be amused by their idiocy?
Pop music, failing to find any recent redeeming social issues or audiences, has devolved to rap singers touting the wonders of the pretty girls who surround them. Is the true American girl that thin and that alluring? No, but, it doesn't matter. We vicariously enjoy the show and, no sex with the wife?, someone has a headache that night.
Voyeurism? Why not? If some people can be convinced to do stupid things in "real TV" -- why shouldn't we be amused at their idiocy? Let's watch and be entertained by others' discomfort, awkwardness, and misfortune. Let's build not a community that celebrates our good news and success but one that allows a kind of perverted satisfaction at having escaped the very misfortunes we watch on our television screens. We bowl alone (Putnam 2000).
Our kids attack other school kids out of frustration and disillusionment. More than half our drivers buy vehicles that make no ecological sense, either from the standpoint of gas efficiency or their ability to turn corners without worrying they'll flip over.
Surely. Just roll back environmental laws. Yes, forget that the Chinese yuan is artificially pegged to the US dollar, and gives away most of our manufacturing jobs, and, whatever you want to do, "do it on credit." A Mastercard advertisement shows the costs of purchasing things in this economy, and, when the bill is finally tallied, they say, "aren't you glad you used Mastercard?" No! Don't think so. Running out of money?, ah, spiraling house prices make homes a fountain of money. Just re-finance in the name of a "lower interest rate." Get Bank of America to fund your new home equity line of credit and give you a card that let's you "charge" your renovation projects at Home Depot to our ever increasing National debt.
The societal value of diversity is often spoken of as a given. Certainly to those minorities that come from another country orCertainly, new immigrants and other segments of our society have a set of unique experiences that create have different media needs than those who consider themselves to be "mainstream" Americans. But, is our current period of diluting diversity to monolith a this transitory time? And, in that there are economies of scale, should these diversities be eliminated as quickly as possible? At this point in the discussion I intend to leave our year-to-year concerns, and address the future of America and the human race.
George Orwell (1949), in 1984, struggled with a the question of how controlled should a society be, as; did William F. Nolan in Logan's Run (1978) struggled with the same question. HG Wells, in the Time Machine (1895), divides society in half, where homogenous Elois are were raised like cows, and Morlocks operated machinery and provided the fodder.
What is the essential value of diversity? If we are a melting pot, then why care? How could media allow both cultural preservation and assimilation? How controlled or free should such a media be? I believe this question is a moving target. Margaret Mead wrote about stable societies in Continuities in Social Evolution. [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1965] She studied a culture in Samoa that had not change for dozens of generations. She contrasted our culture and our society against this static culture. [Footnote: while others have faulted Mead's work, especially regarding the raising of children, the main theme of her book remains valid to this day.]
Toffler (1970) [Alvin Toffler, Future Shock, Random House, 1970] also addressed these issues, saying that the only stable thing about our culture, is change, itself. This statement, of course, is a conundrum. There is nothing inherently "stable" about change. Historians point to the "fall of Rome" as a vivid example of how a particular culture both rose and fell. So the central question is how does the US prevent "a fall" and when do we know we "have arrived?"
I must interject that, as a writer about this society and its technologies, that it is difficult to separate my own values from those values that will make for a cultural continuity. In Cooper's writings he returns, again and again, to the need for civic discourse. But, civic discourse was not even a concept in Mead's Samoa. Generation upon generation simply knew what defined their culture, and passed that information on to the future generations. What is the relationship between cultural transmission and civic discourse? How does a concentrated media transmit cultural values? What cultural values are transmitted?
So, where are we as a society? I suggest we are in a backwater. The consumption mentality is causing havoc with our earth's resources. Oil is a finite resource. Hubbert's curve, showing the peak of oil "production" has not peaked, quite in the year he suggested, but it will soon peak, and the availability of oil will fall. Why focus on oil? Oddly, many American values are driven by our supply of oil. Jet planes consume many gallons per minute of jet fuel. Our current political administration will find any reason to invade an oil rich country , and will mostly ignore countries without oil (e.g. North Korea). The current abundance of oil is so intermixed with our materialist values, that, whether the TV series "24" (sponsored by Ford, without commercial interruption, in the first episode), or the constant believe that a better society is always created by an ever growing GDP, consumption reigns supreme.
In contrast, many ethnic roots have a better sense of frugality and know how to live with this planet in a way that is, for future generations, more stableDo news shows provide us matters of planet compatibility? They cannot and will not when the advertising base is built upon economic growth. Is economic growth the God of all times? No. It is a historical accident of this period in time. Yes, the availability of new jobs produced by this accident causes even the most liberal to embrace it. But, in Samoa, the culture was not about jobs ... it was about a culture that raised children and were in harmony with nature. But how do we find a balance between "American values" and an "American economy"? Do we allow our values to shape our economy? Or do we allow our economic structure to determine our values?
One then must ask, when will the oil/materialistic ride end? It has actually ended already. In the oil-rich, myopic eyes of this country, some expect all countries to squander resources as fast as we do. But, out of 2 billion Chinese, can we really picture 1 billion driving SUVs? Indeed, is there enough fossil fuel for them to do so? Absolutely not. So, while there was little diversity in Samoa, this country is on the fast track to no where. And, if so, we need all the diversity we can get, to prepare its inhabitants for a different style of life. So Wwhile media moguls are trapped in this a myopic view of the world, many values are destined for change. We need all the diversity we can get to prepare for different, varied styles of life.
Darwin taught us that genetic diversity ensures that some future generations will have pre-adapted in a way that fits a changing environment. Similarly, cultural diversity ensures that the US will not be stranded when the oil runs dry. Yes, there will be alternative fuels, but global warming occurs whether the power is from a fossil fuel, or from either splitting or fusing atoms. On our current course, the world will simply overheat. This is not a stable society. Yet, the media provides us, by the second and the hour, with values that align with both economic growth and with ever growing consumption of energy.
This is the wrong media message. While some values are happenstance, and might, or might not, be served by the media, the core values are not subjective. What remains in recent immigrants to the US is precisely the values and knowledge that will help us make the transition to a more stable society. Indeed, these immigrants came from more stable societies. And while many get caught up in the hum and buzz of "the American way," there are others who intentionally cut themselves off from this wasteful life style out of disgust.
So, the message I wish to convey to the media moguls is this. AIt is unwise to stifle diversity, as, it is unwise to stifle genetic diversity.@ Our society is unstable. It cannot persist in its current form. And, it is not an example for the rest of the world, except for, perhaps, our position on "human rights." Basically, it took hundreds of generations to create successful, ongoing stable cultures. And, in every US citizen are the vestiges of those cultures. We should not homogenize these people as their values will soon be needed. Harvard biologist, E.O. Wilson estimated that 3 species of life are extinguished every hour, equating to 27,000 species extinguished each year. If we think of ways of life and cultures as similar to distinct species, how many of these are extinguished every hour or every year? How does the media promote, sustain, and value difference?
We can learn lessons from specie loss. 1.) we lose a "web of life" that is all interconnected, 2.) we lose a genetic pool for discovering medicines and foods, and 3.) we lose variety, and thus lose beauty and behavior that makes life less colorful and interesting. What if we all valued the same things and had the same thoughts? Would not life be bland? And, loss of a genetic pool equates to our future ability, or inability, to transition from an unusual era of abnormal change to a more lasting form of culture. Further, such a cultural gene pool diversity better ensures the continuity of the human species if some cataclysmic event occurred, or, if over time, other gradual climate or untoward changes in other species, place demands for changes requiring human resilience. What if resilience were culturally bred out of us? Is this not a dangerous form of inbreeding?
But what about the Abasic nature@ of mankind? One resounding warning by Cooper is the loss of watchdog abilities with increased media concentration and a resulting "look the other way" mentality. Try as we might, we have only just witnessed a massive period of greed, and whether labeled Enron or Putnam Investments, we see that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. While our forefathers knew this enough to , and they separated federal governmental powers to provide a watchdog effect on governance, we have yet to devise any system that prevents abuses and crimes in other sectors without just imprisonment and throwing away the key. Indeed, our prison population is at an all time high in proportion to the total US population. One out of 143 US residents were in prison last year -- constituting 22% of the total world imprisonment. (Wikipedia, 2003) And while we recognize and codify illegal or unfair acts, the inventiveness of those who need censoring, changes and evolves, keeping ahead of various forms of enforcement.
Will a society ever evolve that does not need sufficient diversity to counteract that portion of the population who either abuse power, or simply abuse others? HG Wells also struggled with this very question in his 1923 utopian novel, Men Like Gods. Wells, somewhat as he did with Tthe Time Machine, transports various folk of varying integrity, but this time to a planet in a parallel universe. The reader is introduced to a society which is like our own, only it has evolved for another thousand years. Our 'visitors' to this alternative universe stand out like odd ducks. Mr. Barnstaple (a character essentially representing the inquiring part of Wells' own mind) investigates this new world, trying to find fault with it. Have they degenerated to an Eloi-like homogeneity? Have they lost interest in learning? How do they settle differences? In short, Wells portrays a stable society, but not one devoid of variety. In other words, heHe portrays the society he wished to live in, in contrast to the rough and tumble world of London and his living in the 20th century. Is our society very much different from the one he wished to escape from? My guess is, even more so. While he Wells loved science and technological innovation, he would find the extreme ways in which we competitively pit ourselves against each other to be the bad part of the bargain.
Returning to the fall of Rome, we recall that the emperor was not interested in encouraging civil discourse, but, rather providing bread and circuses. Cooper (2003, p. 87) provides greater detail about why and how this is tactic is being applied to our country. The desire toTo engage viewers' attention ... "drives the media towards exaggeration and emotionalism at the expense of analysis." Cooper (2003, p. 95) goes on to identify four types of news that are ideally suited to this. Celebrity personalities appeal, scandal attracts attention, "horse race and hoopla" (akin to following the market or the track) provides constant updating of "who is ahead," and verbal duels, often ones-sided, attract audiences more than reasoned argument.
Stepping back, weWe have to ask ourselves how pliable is the human raceare we? The herd instinct has been well documented, but, do viewers not exercise some degree of self-conscious, self-respect? Are the majority of Americans simply unable to see the manipulation and the pandering? Are they so overworked (Schor 1992) that all they have the mind for is senseless blather Is there not a two-way street here? If the pandering becomes so debasing, why don't the viewers "vote with their feet?" (or their TV remote controls?)
Indeed, there is public, viewer-supported television. But, as Cooper (2003, pp. 212-215) documents , the viewing audience ranges from a 1-3% share of the market. So, this leaves 97-99% watching something else. Why?
The creators of programming, whether news or entertainment, have skillfully discovered how to pique interest by a skillful mix of part voyeurism, part sex, part thrill, and part amusing verbal banter.
Just as plain food chips are now coated with irresistible flavorings, the masters of media spend billions of dollars sorting out every inch of Nielsen ratings, so that they can tweak ad revenues to correspond to the audience ratings. And, this craft goes back well over thirty years. Rokeach, in Beliefs, Attitudes, and Values (1968) carefully spelled out how the creators of both advertisements and media could appeal by aligning signals to basic drives such as sex, prowess, and food. Rokeach cites, for example, Kelman's (1958) "work on processes of social influence."
And curiously the supporters of the early science of persuasion was, in this case, supported by the National Science Foundation and the School of Labor and Industrial Relations at Michigan State University. Why are otherwise pro-good-society folk funding research that makes it able for media owners and advertisers to own the American people?
It was not Rokeach's intention to provide the cookbook for the dumbing down of Americans. His interests were scholarly. Yet, in exquisite detail he showed "Madison Avenue" how values and attitudes are shaped and can be aligned. If we lived in a repressive society, this should be one of the first books that is banned. But, the first amendment works both ways. On one hand, it fosters civil discourse; on the other, we find plans for the building of an atomic bomb on the Internet.
Not condoning repressive societies, but, recognizing that suppression of various forms of free speech might be required by a certain kind of social structure, we find ourselves boxed in by the very first amendment that might help us help the public in matters of viewing taste.
If such a view, at first, appears offensive to one's ears, one only need see that, we, indeed, outlaw pornography in many ways when it has "no redeeming value." Our legislators currently struggle with those who oppose the AChildren’s Internet Protection Act@ passed in 2000. And, to confront terrorism, we have a further curbing of society via the US Patriot Act of 2001.
In fact, American corporations have grown wise about how to turn the 1st amendment to their own favor. Libertarian Martin H. Redish (2001), writing in Money Talks: Speech, Economic Power and the Values of Democracy (see Leef 2002), provides extensive detail about ways in which corporations have found to thwart the public, via the First Amendment.
Cooper also dramatically documents that news is, regardless of the Internet, still mostly conveyed by television and newspapers. And while some of this is related to stature, ego, and greed, much of it is related to the efficacious structure that media moguls have control of, and how those structures add value to information.
Taylor (as cited in Priest 1985, pp. 39-45) informs us that a "piece of information" requires an editorial hand for many to Aconsume it..@ Today, the 12th of November, 2003, Google catalogues 3,307,998,701 web pages. In contrast, Taylor enumerates 25 value-added functions that the editorial process brings to a piece of information. For example, some readers question the accuracy of information gleaned from web pages. And, indeed, Taylor's 25th "value-added" function of sources speaks to "validity" or "quality." This function of the publisher is defined as: "the value added when the system provides signals about the degree to which data or information presented to users can be judged as sound." Taylor (1984, pp. 127-145) And, without defining other similar functions (see either Priest or Taylor), there are value-added processes involving Access, Accuracy, Browsing, Closeness to Problem, Comprehensiveness, Cost-Saving, Currency, Flexibility, Formatting, Interfacing, Mediation, Orienting, Linkage, Ordering, Physical Accessibility, Precision, Reliability, Selectivity, Simplicity, Stimulatory, and Time-Saving.
The bottom line is that while the Internet provides "many voices," there is still a mighty function performed by trusted and frequented sources. When a user is faced with 3,307,998,701 web pages, even carefully constructed searches (using both boolean ANDs and Ors, and asking that words be adjacent) the browser-user can be confronted with yield thousands of web pages. Further, while a search site such as Google, has an excellent search engine which looks for adjacency for words not placed in quotation marks, there is still considerable noise. Returning to Taylor, "Precision" is the function we wish to have that "enables a user in finding exactly what he wants," is the function that still eludes.."
The most general word for these functions is "filtering." Why do I carefully read both the New York Times and the Boston Globe? The most general reason is, I trust these sources to provide me with highly filtered, and thus highly trustworthy and significant information. But, does this filtering remove the "localism" that can be lost? In response, the Boston Globe began to produce local news by dividing Greater Boston into regions, and so, my Sunday newspaper has relevance to issues in my community, as I receive the "North" edition of that section. However, does this edition (which must cover about a dozen cities and towns, north of Boston) provide me with enough news that I might cancel my subscription to the "Melrose Free Press?" The answer is, clearly, no. If I wish to be involved in Melrose, and fully participate, I must subscribe to the local paper.
And what of television? Does it serve my local, informational needs? Cooper provides statistics that says that my PEG (my public, educational and governmental channels) are watched by very few. And, other than PEG, Boston is gifted with a program by Channel 5 (a Hearst-Argyle owned station), with one "prime-time" slot. While others are watching "Entertainment Tonight" or "Extra," we are treated to programming hosted by Peter Mehegan and Mary Richardson, from 7:30-8:00 PM. The program looks at historical sites, restaurants, and events in the Boston area.
How does this program survive opposite a show that boasts that is "the most watched entertainment show in the world?" Perhaps the Pew Foundation might fund a study, just to answer this question.
In review, our society is in a protracted, transitory period. During this period both the first Amendment and civil discourse are vital. What we wish to avoid, via corporate influences, is the Disneyfication of society. If the moguls have their way, our people will truly be just puppets on a string. They will, as in the Truman Show, be artificially cut off from life. They will live in a hell hole of repeating the very same behavior, year after year, that provides revenues to the owners of media.
This cannot and should not be our future. While we, as a society, may not precisely know where we wish to go, we do not need and cannot trust the concentrated media to guide us.
Bibliography of Cited Works
Cooper, Mark. Media Ownership and Democracy in the Digital Information Age: Promoting Diversity with First Amendment Principles and Market Structure Analysis. Creative Commons License, 2003.
Festinger, L. A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1957.
Kelman, H. C. Social Influence and Personal Belief: A Theoretical and Experimental Approach to the Study of Behavior Change. Unpublished manuscript, 1958. As cited by Rokeach.
Leef, George C. Review of Money Talks: Speech, Economic Power and the Values of Democracy by Martin Redish (2001). Revolution, Fall 1992: 4-5. <http://www.cato.org/pubs/regulation/regv25n3/v25n3-review.pdf >
Nolan,William F. Logan’s Run. London: Aeonian Press, 1978
Orwell, George. 1984. NY: Harcourt Brace & World, 1949.
Priest, W. Curtiss. The Character of Information: Characteristics and Properties of Information Related to Issues Concerning Intellectual Property., 1985 (report to the U.S. Congress, Office of Technology Assessment).
Putnam, Robert D. Bowling Alone : The Collapse and Revival of American Community. NY: Simon & Schuster, 2000.
Reps, Paul. Zen Flesh, Zen Bones. NY: Penguin Books, 1971
Rokeach, Milton. Beliefs, Attitudes, and Values. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1968.
Schor, Juliet B. The Overworked American: the Unexpected Decline of Leisure. NY: Basic Books, 1992.
Taylor, Robert. "Value-added Processes in Document-Based Systems: Abstracting and Indexing Services," Information Services & Use, vol. 4, 1984.
Toffler, Alvin. Future Shock. NY: Random House, 1970.
Wells, H.G. Men Like Gods. London: Cassell, 1923
Wells. H. G. The Time Machine. London: Heinemann, 1895.
Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, 2003.
Wilson, E. O. as quoted by the National Park Service,1997. <http://www.nps.gov/piro/wl_wlbasics.htm>