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Incarceration , Inequality , Media Robert W. Portions of this essay appear in the preface to the paperback edition of his latest book, Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Endnotes may be found in the book or requested from the MR office contact form here.
Socialists since the time of Marx have been proponents of democracy, but they have argued that democracy in capitalist societies is fundamentally flawed. In capitalist societies, the wealthy have tremendous social and economic advantages over the working class that undermine political equality, a presupposition for viable democracy.
In addition, under capitalism the most important economic issues—investment and control over production—are not the province of democratic politics but, rather, the domain of a small number of wealthy firms and individuals seeking to maximize their profit in competition with each other.
This means that political affairs can only indirectly influence economics, and that any party or individual in power has to be careful not to antagonize wealthy investors so as to instigate an investment strike and an economic collapse that would generally mean political disaster. For socialists, the purpose of class politics is to eliminate class exploitation, poverty, and social inequality and to lay the foundation for a genuine democracy, where people truly rule their own lives.
The strategy and tactics best suited to accomplishing these goals have been the subject of tremendous debate among socialists, but the goals have almost always been the same.
For most of their history, socialists have been at the forefront of movements to extend the franchise and the scope of democracy, both within capitalist societies and extending beyond capitalist property relations. A central concern in democratic theory of all stripes is how people can have the information, knowledge, and forums for communication and debate necessary to govern their own lives effectively.
The solution to this problem is found, in theory, in systems of education and media. But then the nature of the educational and media systems comes into focus as a crucial issue. If these systems are flawed and undermine democratic values, it is awfully difficult to conceive of a viable democratic society.
Therefore, public debates over education and media policy are central to debates over the nature of democracy in any given society. Today, for example, the United States is in the midst of a massive campaign by the political right to privatize education, effectively dismantling public education systems, making the system explicitly class-based, and subjecting education for the non-elite to commercial values.
The antidemocratic implications of these developments can hardly be exaggerated. The situation is even more severe for democratic values in media, though this receives far less attention in the official political culture.
In particular, journalism is that product of the media system that deals directly with political education. Within democratic theory, there are two indispensable functions that journalism must serve in a self-governing society. First, the media system must provide a rigorous accounting of people in power and people who want to be in power, in both the public and private sector.
This is known as the watchdog role. Second, the media system must provide reliable information and a wide range of informed opinions on the important social and political issues of the day.
No single medium can or should be expected to provide all of this; but the media system as a whole should provide easy access to this for all citizens. Unless a society has a journalism that approaches these goals, it can scarcely be a self-governing society of political equals. By these criteria, the U. It serves as a tepid and weak-kneed watchdog over those in power. And it scarcely provides any reliable information or range of debate on most of the basic political and social issues of the day.
The media system is, in short, an antidemocratic force. But that should not surprise us. The media system in the United States does not exist to serve democracy, it exists to generate maximum profit to the small number of very large firms and billionaire investors.
It does this job very well. So, in media, we see the core contradiction of our age, where the democratic interests of the many are undermined by the private selfish interests of the powerful few.
The Rise and Fall of Professional Journalism Much discussion of journalism is predicated on a notion that it is a professional enterprise, politically neutral in tone, and independent of commercial values.
Although in many respects the problem of the media for democracy is more important today than ever before, it is a problem as old as democracy itself. When the First Amendment was passed two years later, it included the specific protection of a free press in addition to several other core freedoms, including speech and assembly.
The concern was that the dominant political party or faction would outlaw opposition newspapers—all newspapers were partisan in orientation at the time—unless they were prohibited from doing so, as was then the common practice in Europe. If there could be no dissident press, there could be no democracy. Karl Marx, who supported himself for much of his life as a journalist, was a steadfast proponent of this notion of a free press.
During the nineteenth century, the press system remained explicitly partisan but it increasingly became an engine of great profits as costs plummeted, population increased, and advertising—which emerged as a key source of revenues—mushroomed.
The commercial press system became less competitive and ever more clearly the domain of wealthy individuals, who usually had the political views associated with their class. Throughout this era, socialists, feminists, abolitionists, trade unionists, and radicals writ largetended to regard the mainstream commercial press as the mouthpiece of their enemies, and established their own media to advance their interests.
Indeed, the history of the left and left media during this period are almost interchangeable. The twentieth century, with the rise of monopoly capital, witnessed a sea change in U. On the one hand, the dominant newspaper industry became increasingly concentrated into fewer massive chains and all but the largest communities only had one or two dailies. These all became highly concentrated industries and engines of tremendous profits.
By , the largest media and communication firms rank among the largest firms in the economy. At the beginning of the twentieth century these developments led to a crisis of sorts for U. What was originally meant as a protection for citizens effectively to advocate diverse political viewpoints was being transformed into commercial protection for media corporation investors and managers in noncompetitive markets to do as they pleased to maximize profit with no public responsibility.
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In particular, the rise of the modern commercial press system drew attention to the severe contradiction between a privately held media system and the needs of a democratic society, especially in the provision of journalism.
It was one thing to posit that a commercial media system worked for democracy when there were numerous newspapers in a community, when barriers to entry were relatively low, and when immigrant and dissident media proliferated widely, as was the case for much of the nineteenth century.
For newspapers to be partisan at that time was no big problem because there were alternative viewpoints present. It was quite another thing to make such a claim by the late nineteenth and early twentieth century when all but the largest communities only had one or two newspapers, usually owned by chains or very wealthy and powerful individuals. For journalism to remain partisan in this context, for it to advocate the interests of the owners and the advertisers who subsidized it, would cast severe doubt on the credibility of the journalism.
Such a belief was very dangerous for the business of newspaper publishing, as many potential readers would find it incredible and unconvincing. It was in the cauldron of controversy, during the Progressive era, that the notion of professional journalism came of age.
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Savvy publishers understood that they needed to have their journalism appear neutral and unbiased, notions entirely foreign to the journalism of the era of the Founding Fathers, or their businesses would be far less profitable.
None of these schools existed in ; by , all the major schools such as Columbia, Northwestern, Missouri, and Indiana were in full swing. The notion of a separation of the editorial operations from the commercial affairs—termed the separation of church and state—became the professed model.
The argument went that trained editors and reporters were granted autonomy by the owners to make the editorial decisions, and these decisions were based on their professional judgment, not the politics of the owners and the advertisers, or their commercial interests to maximize profit. Readers could trust what they read.
Owners could sell their neutral monopoly newspapers to everyone in the community and rake in the profits. Of course, it took decades for the professional system to be adopted by all the major journalistic media. And it is also true that the claim of providing neutral and objective news was suspect, if not entirely bogus. Decision-making is an inescapable part of the journalism process, and some values have to be promoted when deciding why one story rates front-page treatment while another is ignored.
Specifically, the realm of professional journalism had three distinct biases built into it, biases that remain to this day. First, to remove the controversy connected with the selection of stories, it regarded anything done by official sources, e.
This gave those in political office and, to a lesser extent, business considerable power to set the news agenda by what they spoke about and what they kept quiet about. It gave the news a very establishment and mainstream feel. Second, also to avoid controversy, professional journalism posited that there had to be a news hook or a news peg to justify a news story.
This meant that crucial social issues like racism or environmental degradation fell through the cracks of journalism unless there was some event, like a demonstration or the release of an official report, to justify coverage. So journalism tended to downplay or eliminate the presentation of a range of informed positions on controversial issues. This produces a paradox: Both of these factors helped to stimulate the birth and rapid rise of the public-relations PR industry, the purpose of which was surreptitiously to take advantage of these two aspects of professional journalism.
PR is welcomed by media owners, as it provides, in effect, a subsidy for them by providing them with filler at no cost. Surveys show that PR accounts for anywhere from 40 to 70 percent of what appears as news. The third bias of professional journalism is more subtle but most important: So it is that crime stories and stories about royal families and celebrities become legitimate news. These are inexpensive to cover and they never antagonize people in power. So it is that the affairs of government are subjected to much closer scrutiny than the affairs of big business.
And of government activities, those that serve the poor e. The genius of professionalism in journalism is that it tends to make journalists oblivious to the compromises with authority they routinely make. Professional journalism hit its high water mark in the United States from the s into the s. During this era, journalists had relative autonomy to pursue stories and considerable resources to use to pursue their craft. But there were distinct limitations. Even at its best, professionalism was biased toward the status quo.
The general rule in professional journalism is this: Hence, the professional news media invariably take it as a given that the United States has a right to invade any country it wishes for whatever reason it may have. In sum, on issues such as these, U. The best journalism of the professional era came and still comes in the alternative scenarios: Media owners wanted their friends and business pals to get nothing but kid-gloves treatment in their media and so it was, except for the most egregious and boneheaded maneuver.
The professional autonomy of U. The primary reason for this is that, beginning in the s, the relaxation of federal ownership regulations and new technologies made vastly larger media conglomerates economically feasible and, indeed, mandatory. Today some seven or eight firms dominate the U. Another fifteen or so companies round out the system; between them they own the overwhelming preponderance of media that Americans consume.
As nearly all the traditional news media became small parts of vast commercial empires, owners logically cast a hard gaze at their news divisions and determined to generate the same sort of return from them that they received from their film, music, and amusement park divisions.
This meant laying off reporters, closing down bureaus, using more free PR material, emphasizing inexpensive trivial stories, focusing on news of interest to desired upscale consumers and investors, and generally urging a journalism more closely tuned to the bottom-line needs of advertisers and the parent corporation.
The much-ballyhooed separation of church and state was sacrificed on the altar of profit. This has meant that all the things professional journalism did poorly in its heyday, it does even worse today.