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Towards a Democratic Media System

Interview with Robert McChesney
CorpWatch
October 1st, 1997

Robert W. McChesney is Associate Professor of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He has written widely on media history and communication policy. In particular, McChesney's work analyzes the policy debates surrounding the Internet and telecommunication, the effects of corporate control and advertising support upon the nature of journalism, and the debates over public broadcasting and nonprofit media systems. He currently hosts a bi-weekly radio public affairs program on WORT-FM in Madison.


CorpWatch: What's your perspective on the development of the corporate control of the Internet? How is the many-to-many communications structure of the Internet likely to change because of corporate involvement?

Robert McChesney: Well, this goes back to the early '90s, when the emergence of the World Wide Web made the Internet appear to be, and have the promise of being, an extraordinarily democratic and interactive medium, whereby people could participate without censor, producing content, distributing it to potentially enormous audiences at very little cost. Material perhaps, in due time, of very high quality, not just text messages, but really high quality video, audio, the whole works. For a time, we had bookshelves filled with views of the World Wide Web and the Internet as being this new technology that was going to completely undermine the existing communications industries; make them unimportant, because the Internet was going to undercut their semi-monopolistic hold over media and over telecommunications. The most famous piece along these lines was by a technology writer named Steven Levy -- you might have seen it two years ago in the New York Times Magazine -- [that] said all these huge media mergers going on in the world are nothing to worry about because these media giants are basically rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, and the iceberg they're going to hit is the Internet with its, as he put it, billions of channels.

You see a lot less of that talk today. In fact, you see hardly anything like that today, because that vision that Levy had, and that others before him have had, was based on an idea that technologies have superpowers that override social considerations -- or a view that the market is inherently a thoroughly competitive and democratic mechanism (that's the George Gilder-type view). And in fact, both those views are dead wrong.

Two or three years ago, most media and telecommunication firms were very scared of the Internet. They were scared that it could do exactly what Steven Levy said it might do. No one really knew where it was going to go. I think most of the entry to the Internet at that time was primarily motivated out of sheer and utter fear; and just because people wanted to cover their rear ends, so they wouldn't get outflanked.

There's still an element of fear today among the media and telecommunications giants about the Internet, because no one still really knows exactly how it's going to develop. But the fear today is less that their entire industries are going to get outflanked, than that specific competitors might get a better deal. The corporate community has got the Internet -- for the most part, it's theirs. It's going to be incorporated into existing and emerging corporate empires: computer, software, telecommunication, and media empires. The ideas that Steven Levy wrote two years ago, might as well have been written in the 16th century, they are so ridiculously out of date.

And this is not to say that it's settled. It's just to say that with the totally undebated but still quite important policy -- that whoever makes the most money wins -- you have a situation in which the handful of people who have the most power in the market are dominating the playing field; exactly what you would expect with that policy. That's the situation we're in now.

CW: How does that affect the development of the medium from a user perspective?

RM: Because there's tremendous pressure right now by the media firms, and really every commercial interest, to make the Web more and more like television, oftentimes we use the analogy of broadcasting to think about the World Wide Web -- channels dominated by corporate, commercial vendors. And there's an element of truth to that. But at the same time, on the Internet as such, there still isn't scarcity; people will [continue to] be able to start websites.

I think the metaphor that captures the Internet is much more like book publishing, or magazine publishing. If you go to any newsstand in this country, with the exception of a handful in college towns and very large cities, you're just going to see the same 80-100 magazines being sold that are published by the same five or six or seven firms. That doesn't mean there aren't thousands of magazines. There are thousands and thousands of magazines; some extraordinary magazines that we've never heard of or seen, and never will hear of or see.

The Web's always going to have those thousands of extraordinary things. Most people will never see them. When they turn on their WebTV, or their Microsoft or Netscape browser software, or @Home (the TCI cable access service), or AOL -- those websites will be hidden away. You can get to them, but it will take hard work, and you'll have to really hunt and know what you're looking for.

What's different, what's the genius of the Internet compared to print, is that if someone is printing a great newsletter in El Salvador, I'll never see it. It'd be physically impossible for me to get my hands on it, maybe. With the Internet, if I know how to get around and get the address, I can find stuff from all over the world. So, it's a qualitative difference in that regard, and a crucial one.

But one problem that progressives have had with the Internet and with the Web, is that we extrapolate from our own experience to think that's how everyone else experiences it. In fact there's a very good chance that it'll be a really nice ghetto for a handful of people who know where to go. But [that experience will be] pretty much buried away from the dominant commercial Internet experience being prepared by the corporate giants for the mass of Americans. That's my sense. Now I might be wrong; this is not a done deal. But I think that's the trajectory we're on right now, and short of any policy otherwise, it's going to be tough to counteract that trajectory.

CW: One plausible scenario is that Internet 2 is where all the high bandwidth, fancy, commercial stuff goes, and what we have today remains as an alternative medium.

RM: Yeah, the market pressure is going to be to offer differentiated service. To have a super high bandwidth, high quality service for business users that will cost more, but they need it; and maybe a similar super high quality service for home consumers over their televisions or computers to those who are willing to pay. And then going down to more or less a clunker service for people who don't want to pay that much, or might just be interested in doing email and textual messages that don't require the same sort of bandwidth.

But I think a market solution is very much a tiered system, where people get different calibers of Internet, or computer communications.

CW: Is it possible to have a kind of vibrant people's medium around the edges?

RM: There are lots of things [on the Internet] that are really useful and help activists and people interested in all sorts of issues that aren't being covered by the dominant media. Although, it's worth noting that as the technological standards for the Internet are developed, to the extent commercial interests play a role, that aspect is not going to be high on the list of their concern. It's not that it won't be there; not that there won't be people arguing for it. But as technical standards are made, commercial interests are looking for ways you can make money off this.

I'm not an expert at this, but I think when the cable modem specs were developed, to take advantage of the existing nature of cable signals, the downlink is vastly wider than the uplink. As Heather Menzies [author of Whose Brave New World? -ed.] has put it, it's an interstate highway coming into the home, and a bicycle path going out. The orientation is very much toward sophisticated messages being sent in, and then textual messages to buy stuff being sent out. That's a very rational way to develop a commercial Internet -- to downgrade the interactive aspect, and upgrade the ability to use it as a medium for sending sophisticated commercial messages.

CW: How does the Internet fit into the history of other mass media?

RM: The Internet is not a new phenomenon. It's a different technology from earlier communications media technologies, but there is a history throughout the 20th century, and probably earlier, of how revolutionary new communication technologies have been developed and eventually deployed. History points to the fact that technologies, while they have tremendous influence and all sorts of effects upon society that are unintended and unanticipated, their fundamental course is determined by how they're owned and operated. It's almost an iron law of US communication media, going back to AM radio in the 1920s, that new technologies don't seem commercially viable at first, so they're developed by the nonprofit, noncommercial sector, by amateurs. When they develop [the technology] so you can make money off it, the corporate sector comes in, and through a variety of mechanisms, usually its dominance of politicians, it muscles all these other people out of the way and takes it over.

That's exactly what happened with AM radio. Much like the Internet in the early to mid-1990s, AM radio was the province largely of the nonprofit, noncommercial [sector]. It didn't become commercially viable until the late 1920s, eight or nine years into the radio explosion. And then the successful big networks, NBC and CBS, were able to use their influence basically to hog all the good frequencies in the late '20s and early '30s. By 1934, nonprofit broadcasters accounted [for] sometimes one percent or one half of one percent of all broadcasting in the US, whereas they had been at 40-50% in 1924. There'd been a total elimination of that sector. That's what's happened with FM radio, with UHF television, to some extent with satellite and cable (although the profit potential was seen there fairly quickly), and definitely with the Internet. There you see the historical example perfectly.

CW: There is so little public debate about the use of the medium for public good.

RM: There's no debate about it at all. But the irony of course, is that the Internet only exists because of government subsidizing it for 20 years at taxpayer expense. And this is not new either, the same thing happened more or less with most other communication technologies; they were established through some sort of public sector subsidy. Radio and television and satellite -- all these technologies were developed through government subsidy, through either the university system or through the military in many cases. Internet the same way.

Taxpayers bankroll these things, develop them, and then once they show a profit, they're turned over to the corporate sector with nothing in return to speak of. Except the right to be a consumer and make those corporations rich -- that's the great right we have. It's just simply a scandal; it's horrendous public policy.

And now we have this enormous mythology that the Internet is the result of entreprenuerial genius, when in fact it was a government product. There's nothing remotely close to a free market in the communication industries, the computer industries, the media industries. These are, in most cases, what we call oligopolistic markets, dominated by a handful of corporations with no threat of new competition. And they, like the media, have so many joint ventures with each other, at times it operates much more like a cartel.

If the US government had not subsidized the Internet for 20 years, the US would not be the leader in it; it wouldn't have existed here. It might have existed in Japan or Germany or Korea or Britain or some other country. Or it might not exist at all. It was the public sector that created it.

CW: What should Internet activists be doing?

RM: They've got to look at how the Internet's being developed by the corporate sector. Part of the problem of Internet activists is there's a romanticization that the Internet is this groovy playpen in cyberspace, divorced from the ugly world of telecommunications, software, media, and industrial capitalism. That's not the case at all.

What we're seeing with the largest telecommunication companies, meaning the telephone companies AT&T, the Baby Bells, British Telecommunications -- they've formed a series of alliances, such that there are really only going to be four or five of these global alliances that rule the whole world in telecom. They're bringing the Internet into their existing empire to make it part of their one-stop shopping, along with cellular phones, long distance, local and paging services.

Likewise, and most important from my perspective, the existing commercial media giants are doing everything in their power to completely colonize the Internet. The ten largest media firms in the world (which account now for about half of the venture capital on the Internet, by the most recent statistics I've seen), have TV networks, film studios, record companies, book publishing; and [they see] the Internet [as] part of their empire.

So if we're thinking in terms of reforming the Internet, we've got to see it as part of how we view what is a democratic media system. And then see where does the Internet fit in. We've got to take the big picture view of the Internet as part of our media and our communication. Just like the firms who are actually controlling it. We can't parcel it off as some separate entity, because it's really part of the big fight for media reform in this country, and communication reform, to create viable nonprofit, noncommercial sector.

CW: Do we need to be working nationally or internationally, since the corporations that you're talking about are not simply operating on a national level?

RM: A lot of the key issues are still made nationally. But we have to link up globally too. That's absolutely right. For example, the big copyright deal [WIPO Copyright Treaty and WIPO Performances and Phonograms Treaty--ed.] passed just in December, with tremendous pressure by the largest commercial interests in this country, trying to extend the narrowest interpretation of copyright onto the Internet. Basically to turn people's computers into vending machines as much as possible, with a really narrow interpretation of fair use. Those are issues that aren't real sexy on the surface, but we have to get hip to them, and start fighting on them.

The other crucial thing is, if you look at the forces that're taking over the Internet now -- the Microsofts and Oracles from the computer world; the ten largest media firms in the world [such as] Time Warner, Disney, Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation; the five or six largest telecom alliances, which are some of the largest firms in the world, firms like AT&T, that do $50 billion a year in business -- when you look at the array of people colonizing the Internet, you get a sense that if you're going to win this fight, you better be serious about politics. This is no time for cyberspace dilettantes to sit around thinking they can change something by flaming someone's email. You're going up against a cornerstone institution of modern capitalism with supreme political power in Washington. The Wall Street Journal, just three weeks ago, proclaimed that commercial broadcasting was hands down the most powerful lobby in the country, simply unbeatable on political issues. Well, the commercial broadcasters are just one of the powerhouse lobbies. The other lobbies are almost as strong as them.

So, if you're going to get serious about reforming this thing, not just having your groovy website for you and your cool friends to chat with each other off in the margins, but really fight for the heart of the system, which I think we have to fight for, then you're talking about getting involved, deeply involved, in serious political organizing. Not just some Internet issues, and not just some media and telecom issues, but on broad political issues, because the way we're going to win this fight is to link issues of Internet reform and media reform with broader social struggles. Things like improving the quality of the standard of living people have in this country, redistributing wealth, undercutting the sheer and total domination of the wealthy and the corporations over our political economy. And when we've linked those things together, we'll have a chance. Until then, we'll always be in the margins amusing ourselves.

In the current playing field, we can't win. In the current playing field we're dealing with a situation where the vast majority of Americans are totally demoralized and depoliticized, sitting on their couch with a remote control and a bag of chips, convinced that nothing can change. And that is not an accident. That is exactly the education they're receiving day in and day out: nothing can change. What we've got to do is change that equation. Until we change it we can't win. But to change that, there's no mystery about it; it's getting organized. That's how you change things. Getting people educated, organized and participating, off the couch. Put the chips down, put the remote down, start talking to people, get involved, and realize this is our country, not theirs, and take it back.

Resources:

The Global Media: The New Missionaries of Corporate Capitalism, by Edward S. Herman & Robert W. McChesney (Cassell, 1997). An expose and analysis of the corporate takeover of the global media system, covering print media, television, and telecommunications. It can be ordered for US$19.95 at 1-800-561-7704.

Corporate Media and the Threat to Democracy, by Robert W. McChesney (Seven Stories Press, 1997)

Telecommunications, Mass Media and Democracy, by Robert W. McChesney (Oxford University Press, 1993). Chronicles the political debate over how best to construct U.S. broadcasting in the 1920s and 1930s.