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Media independence, corporate control, and democracy

A response to Mass Media and Society (James Curran and Michael Gurevitch), Chapter 6

In “Rethinking Media and Democracy” James Curran discards the accepted view of the media’s role in democracy and shows that corporate control may be worse for the people than government control.  Historically, the media is seen as a check on government that must be independent-meaning it must reside in the free market.  Curran says this arrangement has failed the people in several ways.

Curran gives three standard arguments for media independent of government: first, to act as a watchdog; second, as a way to facilitate idea exchange and debate; and third, so that they may act as the voice of the people more.  He says all three arguments are flawed by real-world conditions and corporate ownership.  First off, the media rarely even schedule watchdog-type news anymore-most mass media effort today is entertainment.  And the government is no longer the only large, faceless entity that the people need a watchdog for.  Giant corporations, the same ones that own the bulk of the mass media, today have more power than some governments, yet the classical argument doesn’t mention them.  Furthermore, there are many examples of the mass media working with or for the government even if they are independently owned, simply because it is in their best economic interest.  Curran does allow that loss of credibility and professional ethics counter these arguments to some degree, but not enough to overpower his concern.

Curran rejects the marketplace of ideas theory largely because the free market has led to multi-billion dollar media mergers, large percentages of market share for a small number of companies, and a high cost to enter the marketplace in any meaningful manner.  Second, the mass market demands more entertaining, less informative content; third, the market lead to information-rich media for elite and info-poor media for the mass market; and fourth, it leads to simplified news rather than process-type news.

The mass media also do not really act as a voice of the people.  Curran thinks the free market is fundamentally flawed in this regard-public participation in the media is passive, in terms of buying what they like, rather than an active voice in most cases.  Even new communication technologies, he says, which may seem to give people more of a voice, have been reigned in by deregulation-inspired mergers.

I agree with many of the problems with the standard idea of the purpose of the media in a democratic society he has brought up.  I think it’s especially important that the people have a watchdog for large corporations now when so many of them are beyond any real government or market control.  Except for a few cases (like Disney losing business if people find out they use sweatshop labor) corporations are free to do anything they wish that may effect individuals adversely with little accountability.  The government, on the other hand, has to seek approval from the public every few years through election.  It is relatively easy to find out what’s going on in the government when compared to the private sector, yet corporations control what you eat, breathe, and read every day.

He is also right that the mass media, as a whole, is moving towards more entertainment and less information, especially on public policy.  That’s because people buy it.  Why do you think political candidates with obviously no command of the issues can beat out those who are well-informed?  People don’t like to hear about fiscal policy, but they do like hearing about “uniters, not dividers” and “family values.”  Curran mentions the growth of purely-informational media and specialized media as a wedge between the elites and the general public but I think he’s missing the point.  In the U.S., at least, nothing is stopping 99 percent of the general public from accessing the elite, actually informative media except preference.  Almost everyone can afford a New York Times once and a while and everyone can afford The Other Paper and Columbus Alive (which are more investigative than the Dispatch) or go to a public library and surf the web for free.  No matter what structure the media takes, the bottom line is you can’t force people to pay attention to important things they aren’t interested in.  If 99 channels are public interest, civic organizations, truth-seeking investigation, etc. and one channel has Who Wants To Be A Millionaire and Entertainment Tonight, will people be any better informed than they are today?  That is the main flaw in Curran’s whole essay-even taking the market out of the picture and all the ways in which it limits public information and debate, he still gives people the right to choose what they view and read and therefore leaves it up to them, essentially no better than the free market.  All of the flaws of the free market he cited would be erased immediately if the public demanded it.  But they don’t.

The development of the Internet is a good illustration.  On the surface it seems to prove Curran’s point-when it began, many people saw it as this perfect marketplace of ideas, yet now much of it is controlled by a few companies (who are buying up competitors as they are created).  Curran’s criticisms seem to hold.  However, the market is not to blame here-the cost of publishing on the net is insignificant and no site has to aim at the whole market and therefor dumb-down it’s content.  But, as more of the general public has gone online, the explosive growth has been channeled toward Microsoft Network, AOL, Yahoo, and a few others, because most people are more comfortable being spoonfed more of the same kinds of things they’ve already been exposed to.  It does not take much time or know-how to find much better, deeper, faster, etc. info on the net, but the majority of users now would rather just click on the first thing they see, which is determined by a merger between AOL and Bugs Bunny, even if John Doe’s independent cartoon studio is twice as funny and only five clicks away.