and the Corruption of Democracy
By Liane Casten - Chicago Media Watch
was a Thursday night. I'm in bed, half asleep, about
11:30 PM with the remote gadget in my hand and I'm cruising
the tube. I'd already seen the "salute" to
John Wayne re-runs on cable and was not about to watch
a thoroughly amateurish attempt to make a Sci-Fi movie
into anything more than a diversion for ten-year olds.
My remote caught another station and there standing
in front of a live audience was some longhaired, shaggy,
blue-jeaned performer who looked like my memory of George
Carlin. Remember him? He's supposed to be a comedian.
I only caught the last few minutes, I did catch his
message. "Don't vote!" he was screaming at
the audience clearly gobbling up his every word. "Then,
if we don't vote, we can't say we're the ones responsible
for the mess. If you do vote, then you're responsible
for putting those assholes in office." And then
he concluded with the following, "Me, when I stay
home and masturbate, at least I'll have something to
show for it folks." And then Carlin made a series
of hand motions in the general vicinity of his crotch.
And the audience was standing on its feet, clapping
as if this comedian had created a painless dentist drill.
show was over. Immediately, Click on a commercial, a
preview first of an x-rated movie exposing a great deal
of bare female flesh, and then a preview of another
movie: the menacing picture of a black-haired, fierce,
red-lipped woman with a gun pointed dead center.
my friends is our culture. Forget "Lassie Come
Home" reruns. Carlin's presentation was not an
isolated moment, but part of an ominous trend that has
begun to define who we are and what kind of people we
are becoming: base, alienated, violent, lacking in civility,
civic spirit or a sense of responsibility, deeply cynical
-- and yet very hungry for something -- however that
something is defined.
ago, when I was growing up, my parents would take me
and my brother to the home of our maternal grandmother,
an amazing turn of the century woman who migrated to
Chicago as a young, recently married bride. She taught
me how to knit and crochet, and told me how during World
War I, she rolled bandages for the war effort in the
old country -- Czechoslovakia. She quoted with great
emotion the poet Goethe extensively but had only gone
to primary school, I listened to her tales about her
husband, Grandpa Rudy, who got up at 4:00 am to go by
streetcar to the factory by 5:00 am to stoke the fires
in order warm the place for the workers who came at
6 am -- so they could start making the dresses and blouses
which eventually fed, housed and clothed a great, great
loved those tales: they were about hard work, commitment,
a sense of duty to those who helped make the company
grow, and deep gratitude that this family had come to
America. But now, for the first time in human history
-- thanks to unprecedented media technology, most children
are born into homes where most of the stories do not
come from their grandparents, parents, communities,
schools, churches, or synagogues with their own stories
to tell, but from a handful of media conglomerates with
something to sell. The cultural environment of the 1980s
and 1990s is defined by a system of symbols, logos,
images, words, jingles, concepts, pat answers to complex
problems, promises of instant gratification, stories
-- created by others -- and value systems that serve
to cultivate much of who we are as a people, defining
what we think and do and how we conduct our affairs.
dollar public relations and advertising budgets cover
up and misdirect the public's attention away from the
criminal behavior of many offending corporations. We
live virtually our entire lives within this environment,
locked into systems and programmed opportunities to
change channels, but not to exchange ideas, locked into
pre-ordained perceptions and emotional reactions --
without ever touching reality. Prime time TV has us
believe there's a murder between each commercial.
while television channels proliferate and new technologies
pervade our homes and offices, at the same time mergers
and bottom-line pressures shrink creative alternatives,
reduce diversity of content and concentrate control
in a few hands. With hundreds of cable channels, we
have less and less to think about, more and more variations
of the same. Media are coalescing into a seamless, integrated
cultural environment, depriving all of us of civic debate
or even a meaningful spiritual connection. In fact,
the Christian Right has co-opted and redefined spirituality,
using the media as a power base to raise millions from
thousands and thousands of very hungry people.
this point, mass media is a shared garbage dump of mental
and spiritual pollution, depriving us all of opportunities
to ask tough questions, communicate our deepest fears
or celebrate and not deride or fear our vast diversity.
Audiences, basely entertained and driven only to the
marketplace, are suffering from a national lobotomy.
might protest: but there are talk shows. Well, I'm not
talking about Rush Limbaugh -- clearly a media coward
and liar since he screens all his questions and allows
no debate, or former Watergate felon G. Gordon Liddy
-- for whom there is precious little rebuttal on the
airwaves. I'm talking about those that pretend intellectual
challenge on TV -- even Public TV. These talk shows
offer far more style than substance, more empty posturing
and hot air than true debate since the majority of the
experts are deliberately chosen from the far right,
or at best from the center of the political spectrum.
A few luminary talk experts and reporters even worked
for the CIA before doubling or tripling their salaries
by serving up their opinions for the media masters.
are spokespersons from labor, from the newly unemployed,
from poor women barely surviving on the $8,000 a year
minimum wage, or from the Latino community -- which
is portrayed mostly negatively? Do we get anyone on
network TV revealing the hard truth about Bob Dole's
indentured relationship with the tobacco industry, or
Bill Clinton's deep pocket connection with the incinerator
industry, the dirtiest technology for waste disposal
going these days?
on the morning TV shows like "Good Morning America"
and I can promise you there will be a moment in time
-- at the exact same time -- when all three shows will
be interviewing an overpaid media critic pontificating
on what TV shows will be biting the dust next season.
They entertain us by telling us about entertainment
-- an effective diversion from the crucial issues regarding
does that mean for us? The pervasive, over-arching media
shapes our language, our ideology, our perceptions of
the world, our self-images, our relations with others,
our expectations about life and our capacity to participate
in community. Our attention is diverted from the basic
needs and aspirations of all people. As we drift towards
ecological suicide and the silent crumbling of our vital
infrastructure, we are diverted away from society's
cruel neglect of children, the poor and other vulnerable
people -- who can't buy the advertised products. Glamorized
media violence desensitizes, terrorizes, and brutalizes
us. People are dehumanized, stereotyped, marginalized
and stigmatized, especially those outside the mainstream.
Media exploits and depersonalizes images of sexuality
and sensationalizes stories that incite hate and fear,
driving the siege mentality of our cities.
media oligopolies dominate not only broadcasting, but
film making, book publishing, the newspaper business,
magazines and the must business, as they are now converging
in cyberspace. For example, let's explore just one conglomerate,
the S.I. Newhouse empire. Newhouse owns the New Yorker,
Self, Details, GQ, Vanity Fair and Parade, along with
many other magazines and newspapers round the country.
He is the biggest publishing magnate in the U.S. and
a major force in Britain. He owns Random House, Knopf,
Pantheon, Crown, and Fodor's Travel Guides.
general the monopoly in magazine holdings alone is enormous;
from 1981 to 1988, the number of twenty dominant corporations
went to three. The three are: Time Warner, News Corp,
let's go to network TV. Despite attempted takeovers,
extreme corporate turbulence and declining prime-time
viewing, the three television networks -- Capital Cities/ABC,
CBS, and NBC -still dominate the field, enjoy the most
revenues and great power. GE owns NBC; Westinghouse
owns CBS and Disney owns ABC. Let's see them now for
what they are. These three do more than control the
media; they are silent, truly invisible powerhouses,
controlling what they want through a complicated but
effective interlocking network of personal contacts
with powerful government people, memberships on federal
advisory boards, and just plain money. Individual corporations
can and do give $100,000 donations to a special president's
council, a gift which guarantees easy access to decision
makers. It's not unusual to sink millions of dollars
into influencing the government's policies. Again, the
corruption of the political process and the eroding
of democratic procedures -- out of sigh t from the average
board of directors of some of these corporations is
where the power fans out. Under the law, any director
of a company is obliged to act in the interests of his
or her own company. Thus, comes a potential conflict
when an officer of corporation (A) sits on the board
of corporation (B). On behalf of whose interests does
this director act?
kind of power or linkage is an endless chain -- and
is the root of many evils. It tends to disloyalty and
is a violation of the fundamental law that no man can
serve two masters. It is undemocratic, for it rejects
the platform: "A fair field and no favors."
This collective threat to democracy is coming on several
fronts: the homogenized mass media that controls us,
and the takeover -- with government compliance -- of
the power center by polluting multinational corporations
with loyalty to no one but the bottom line. Democracy
can't work unless we all have access to a wide range
of different sources of reliable information. The mass
media deprives us of that access.