All Power to the Conglomerate
If Information Is a Commodity, What Price Is International Understanding?
On October 4, 1957, a rocket took off from an isolated plain near an obscure village in Siberia. Called Sputnik, its successful penetration of the earth's orbit created a furor in a Western world that feared its advent heralded a Soviet "victory" in the Cold War.
An even more important, yet less heralded, launching took place six years later. Telstar, the pioneer communication satellite, became the first of a swarm of orbiting satellites that power our present worldwide communications network.
Of the two events, our ever-growing ability to forge worldwide connections&emdash;and profits&emdash;has the greatest impact on the increasingly interdependent world we live in today. As the Cold War fades from view and new relationships emerge, one thing becomes clear: problems and issues from the environment to militarism, ethnic disputes and social unrest now take place in a global, rather than a local or national, context.
More than anything else, this sense of global relationship is a result of international media, a pattern of interconnection whose growth seems to be accelerating faster and faster.
We want very much to believe that the technologies of the media, with their pwoerful potential to transcend distrance and time, can help bind the world together.
Considered an impossible dream only a few years ago, Cable News Network (CNN) has become a network the whole world watches, a worldwide source of images and sound bites. Whether the subject is a war in the Persian Gulf, starvation in Somalia or an election in the United States, television and film viewers the world over watch the same stories and pictures, newspaper and magazine readers often digest the same basic news wire accounts and, in many cases, consumers even react to the same advertising pitches. In this sense, we do live in a "global village," and it is a village defined by the media.
For decades, observers such as Marshall McLuhan predicted that these global boroughs would gradually come to resemble real neighborhoods. The more optimistic among them have maintained that the media will enable us to live and act as though we were actually in contact with people the world over, and that a new, positive, democratic future of global understanding&emdash;person to person&emdash;will emerge.
Such an idealistic vision of a media-centered world is attractive. We want very much to believe that the technologies of the media, with their powerful potential to transcend distance and time, can help bind the world together. The concept of Spaceship Earth has achieved important status in our thinking ever since pictures of our home planet, floating in space, were relayed from the Apollo moon missions in 1969. This view of the earth as a unified physical body has become an icon of the new "global consciousness" of the 1980s and '90s. The possibility that the media might help create the understanding we crave allows us to hope that we can create a cultural unity to match the beauty of this novel planet.
This is a powerful and persuasive idea. Emerging at the same time that sociologists such as Daniel Bell are describing our society as "post industrial," and others are suggesting that we now live in an "information society", this new role for the media finds the technology of communication at the center of economic and political as well as social and cultural worlds.
In countries from Central Europe to South Asia, media are looked to as potential builders of civic culture&emdash;the forum through which diverse ethnic and cultural groups can achieve understanding. At the same time, on continents from North America to East Asia, media are important industries, gradually replacing outdated sectors of the economic sphere as we move into a mediated future. Can media be both things?
Can they simultaneously serve the interests of community and human understanding, and promote the interests of commercial and eonomic development?
These are not new quesions. Representatives of the Third World began to question the global role of media decades ago. As described elsewhere in this issue, formal discussions of the conflict between media freedoms and responsibilities were initiated by Asian, African and Latin American countries&emdash;called the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM)&emdash; and taken on as a project by UNESCO (spell out). Years of often acrimonious debate focused on whether the media, as then organized, could serve the interests of global understanding.
Implicit in these discussions (called the "New World Order in Communication") was the idea that communicators, in order to authentically contribute to cultural and social understanding, must first serve social and cultural development. That is, that before nations and peoples could enter into global dialogue, they first needed the resources, skills and opportunity to enter that dialogue more or less as equals.
Principal voices in the debate pointed out that severe imbalances in the distribution of global information resources and expertise often resulted not in a global village of equals, but a global oligarchy of rulers (the nations and institutions of the North) and subjects (the nations and institutions of the South).
A commission of UNESCO empaneled to study this problem under the leadership of Irish statesman Sean MacBride made this assessment of the situation as early as 1978: "We can sum up by saying that in the communication industry there are a relatively small number of predominant corporations which integrate all aspects of production and distribution, which are based in the leading developed countries and which have become transnational in their operations." In the decades since, growth and consolidation of these conglomerates has only accelerated; they are larger and their reach is greater than ever.
The report of the MacBride Commission, as it was often called, went on to note that, not surprisingly, this corporate dominance favored the objectives of commercial profit over the objectives of social and cultural development.
In the early 1990s, nearly? 15 years after this commission issued its report, the imbalance between the players remains much the same, but developments in technology and political changes have made major changes in the playing field.
In a post-Cold War world that emphasizes independent development, the need for widespread involvement in communcation is greater than ever. Media's role in educating, informing and connecting individuals and peoples can be of crucial importance, often influencing decisions to go to war or make peace. In the "information age," as well, access to media, and the ability to manipulate it, can be a key factor determining poverty or prosperity.
With the old East-West alignments being replaced by more natural regional groupings (and conflicts), the peoples of the South and the newly liberated countries of Eastern Euroe and the former Soviet Union must be able to shape cultural and informational resources that are their own. Only then can they fulfill the long-held goal of speaking as equals to the peoples of the developed world. The basic needs have not changed, but they have assumed an added urgency.
What has changed dramatically in the past two decades is the structure and management of the media themselves. In successive editions of The Media Monopoly (#1157) , author and media commentator Ben Bagdikian has documented the accelerating shrinkage of the number of the world's major media companies. As the trend continues, control of the world's media rests in fewer and fewer hands.
Five major corporations now dominate:
Other scholars have shown that such concentration of control is also taking place on less global levels, with regional media conglomerates emerging in Asia, the Pacific and other parts of the Americas. In addition, the end of state media monopolies in Eastern Europe has opened avenues for transnational commercial media there as well.
Economic concentration has coincided with government policies of privatization and de-regulation around the world. In the late '70s and earlier, "the public service model" was the norm for many broadcasting organizations. Typified by the BBC, this philosophy of broadcasting holds that radio and television operate primarily as a public service, that they have a unique role in educating and uplifting the publics which own them. Until recently, American-style commercial broadcasting (with only a limited responsibility for public service) remained in the minority around the world as most countries in Europe and former European colonies adopted the public service model when they set up their broadcasting systems. Government ownership of primary media networks (with free speech protections in place at least in democratic countries) was part of this pattern.
This has all begun to change, and the foremost reason for the change is economic.
For decades, the American film industry demonstrated the economic power of marketing entertainment media for export. In the 1960s and '70s, American television programming also began to be sold abroad in large volume. Filmmakers and television production companies soon learned to appreciate the high profitability of foreign distribution. The resulting deluge of American cultural material was, in fact, one of the prime motivations behind international communication debates. In addition to concerns about news and information available via the media, many people in the developing world were seriously concerned about the impact of these alien images (with their accompanying Western values and social mores) on indigenous cultures.
But the economic logic was not to be denied. Gradually, over the course of the last decade, even British authorities have begun to seriously consider privatizing their media, as it becomes harder and harder to justify public support of an enterprise that could be highly profitable on its own.
In addition, the American philosophy of deregulation has become increasingly popular worldwide. This theory asserts that regulations holding certain media (mainly radio and television broadcasting, cable and television services) to a "public service" standard are no longer necessary because the public's needs for diversity of views and services will be met by the satisfaction of the public wants on a multiplicity of channels in an open marketplace.
The assumption that the public's "needs" and "wants" are the same sounds good, until we consider that the "marketplace model" ignores the likelihood that citizens determining the future of a democracy may "need" to be exposed to cultural products they do not "want" (because they may not consider serious commentary on news and public affairs entertaining and might not seek it out on their own). Ratings and profits should not be the only shapers of social discourse. Of course media programs cannot influence public debate unless they are produced and disseminated.
Another major problem is the likelihood that minority interests will be overriden in the rush to serve majority tastes. On U.S. television, for example, how often have we seen substantive dramas starring nonwhite Americans? How common are political analyses that represent extreme, as well as centrist, shades of opinion? In the international arena, such omissions are even more striking, as groups such as the Kurds and Bosnians fail to register even a blip on the international consciousness until their oppression reaches the level of massacre.
The news media are hardly the only arena for this conflict. The Hollywood film has long dominated worldwide moviemaking, but recently local and national film industries have come under increasing pressure from the movie divisions of concentrated global enterprises. For example, the New York Times reported in October 1992 that the Indonesian film industry is losing the competion with American-made films for access to movie houses in Indonesia itself. Similar pressures are felt by indigenous film industries elsewhere in Asia and by television producers throughout the world. As a result, local talents are strangled and any hope of a mutual exchange of ideas is buried in a relentless one-way flood of U.S. information and entertainment goods.
Culture As Commodity
Motion picture and music executives have long spoken of records and films as "the product." The concentration and commercialization of today's conglomerates has had an additional, very important consequence. Increasingly, media productions&emdash;films, television programs, wire service copy or popular music recordings&emdash;are seen as products or commodities to be bought and sold with little or no concern for their cultural content.
In the current round of multilateral trade negotiations called the General Agreements on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the U.S. and other media-producing countries have made the importance of cultural commodities as export items very clear. The American sentiment seems to be that since we are less and less able to compete in world markets with our manufactured goods, we should continue to dominate in areas where we have always been successful, and media products are one of those areas.
This "commoditization" of media has thus had a very important consequence for the movement toward greater equity in communication resources dsebetween the North and the South. Whereas in the 1970s, a country like Indonesia might have moved (and did) to protect its local film industry against devastating foreign competition, in the 1990s such policies can be portrayed by the media powers of the North as restraints on trade, and therefore subject to trade sanctions.
Further, the atmosphere has changed and media and communications enterprises are now viewed very differently. Even countries as small as Barbados have begun to contemplate the notion that television and other media should be operated according to entirely commercial standards, because that is the current global trend.
As demonstrated by such events as the fall of the Marcos regime in the Philippines, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the spur given by publicity to the worldwide environmental movement, the connections of worldwide media can play a positive as well as a negative role in the struggle for self determination and social, as well as economic, progress.
But on balance, the effect of most of these consumerist trends has been a diminution of global dialogue, of access for marginalized voices, of opportunities for the less powerful and more marginal to articulate their own stories via the emerging global media system.
If we are ever to achieve the healthy relationship of the global village envisioned by McLuhan and others, we must turn back the tide moving toward commercial concentration of world media. Otherwide the commercial voice will not only be the loudest, but the only voice available. Goals of international understanding and cultural integration cannot be met if the cultures involved lack the means to tell their own stories.