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As the world prepares to deal with the twenty-first century, United States society as a whole and the country’s mass media find themselves in the same conflict-between what is good for business and what is good for the quality of life in society.
A robust economy and social equity have always been intertwined, and government played an intricate role in the relationship. But in the United States during the decades leading to the millennium, both national politics and most of the country’s commercial media have created the notion that social and economic well-being are in a state of conflict.
America’s major media are crucial parties to the creation of this artificial conflict. The media do not speak in total unison. Some occasionally present arguments and proposals for a more balanced view. But all are wedded to the ultimate need to satisfy the major source of their income, corporate advertising.
Consequently, corporate decision making is the most powerful single force in socializing and politicizing the American public. Leading corporations own the leading news media and their advertisers subsidize most of the rest. They decide what news and entertainment will be made available to the country; they have direct influence on the country’s laws by making the majority of the massive campaign contributions that go to favored politicians; their lobbyists are permanent fixtures in legislatures.
This inevitably raises suspicions of overt conspiracy. But there is none. Instead, there is something more insidious: a system of shared values within contemporary American corporate culture and corporations’ power to extend that culture to the American people, inappropriate as it may be.
It is no exaggeration to call the artificial conflict between the need for social equity and a healthy economy, on the one hand, and the corporate world’s consistent attack on taxes, on the other, a crisis in American democracy. Taxes are indispensable to support the public institutions that are crucial to social equity, and the corporate world’s powerful opposition to such taxes lies at the center of this crisis.
On the national social scene, for example, there is an urgent need for increased funding for public education, including libraries and all the supportive activities on which real education depends. Schools need limits to class size, proper teaching of the arts, and adequate pay for teachers. For a rich country that has the lowest taxes among the industrialized nations but is forever telling its youth that education is the key to success, that is both hypocrisy and a self-imposed crisis.
There is a desperate need for universal decent housing and neighborhoods. Inhabitants of deprived areas suffer high unemployment, and wretched neglect of the governmental services that are required even more than in affluent neighborhoods. Too many of the residents are devastated by drugs and crime. The central solutions to these problems are clear: good education, meaningful employment, and proper housing. But those demonstrated remedies are sidetracked by a national program to build more prisons. That is a crisis.
There is a similarly urgent need for universal health care. The United States is the only developed country in the world without it. A high proportion of the population-has no regular access to doctors or clinics. The result is an enormous number of unhealthy citizens, near-epidemic illnesses and malnourishment in the country’s poorest regions, and higher costs when some turn in desperation to overburdened emergency rooms. That is a crisis.
Cities are smothering in air pollution, traffic jams, lavish use of fuel resources and a measurable loss of both work and home time because the auto and highway lobbies have successfully defeated support for adequate urban mass transit. Among affluent urban nations the United States is close to the bottom in readily available mass transit. That is a crisis.
Congress once passed a law guaranteeing full employment, but never did much about it. The human, social, and economic damage caused by high levels of unemployment and jobs at poverty-level wages is not a mystery. It is preventable. Yet the country skill tolerates shameful rates of unemployment during long periods, and endemic underemployment most of the time. At the same time, the compensation of America’s top corporate executives is the highest in the world, and the income gap between executives and their employees is the widest in the world. The corporate sector speaks constantly about the need for U.S. workers to increase productivity, but most citizens are not aware that American workers are already the most productive among industrial countries. Unlike their workers, the high compensation of executives has been proven to have no relationship to the executives’ productivity for their corporations, as measured by the standard criteria of business itself That is a crisis.
Politicians speak constancy of the importance of parents and family in raising each generation of young Americans-and they are correct. But the same politicians refuse to guarantee a living wage for every worker. When both parents need to work outside the home but have no access to affordable, reliable day care, that is a crisis.
Because commercial television is such a powerful socializing force in the country, it is sometimes a more potent influence than parents, schools, and religions. It “educates” each new generation of Americans. Stripped of its public relations pretensions and constant trumpeting of a few benign programs, television remains a national school for crime and aggression. Day and night it demonstrates to children and adults how to kill and maim other human beings, creates an image of a world of ever-present evil and danger, and glorifies violence as the conflict resolution of choice. Alongside this televised curriculum is the teaching of commercials and testimonials chat without the correct soft drink, athletic shoes, and clothing, an American child is not socially acceptable. That is a crisis.
Perhaps most dangerous of all are rising levels of cynicism about our own democracy. Citizens are justified in their growing assumption that individual voting means less and less, and chat corporate money in politicians’ pockets counts more. Buying votes in the Congress and state legislatures is open and lavish. Most voters are disgusted. An appalling number don’t bother to vote. That is a crisis.
These are not the issues considered compelling news in the commercial media.
There is no need for our media to become a funereal chorus of impending doom. A better organizing principle was symbolized by the social essayist Life Jensen, in a cartoon of a robed and bearded city prophet carrying a placard reading: “The world is not coming to an end. We will have to learn to cope.”
The propagation of unsupported ideas and the avoidance of central issues are characteristic of many media. Some of the illusions they foster also have historical roots. But the chief contemporary culprit is the one most of the American population depends upon for news and a sense of priorities in public life-commercial television.
Resistance to genuine reform in commercial television is rooted in an item of sanctity in corporate life-the seemingly holy creed of a born-again, uninhibited free-market ideology that emerged triumphant in the 1980s and l990s. It claims that the profit motive producing results every three months should be applied to as much of society as possible. It preaches that the quest for profit should never be restrained by government. The constant iteration that the federal government has few legitimate roles beyond defense has energized efforts to cut tax support for basic social institutions like public schools, libraries, municipal and other governmental services, like retraining the unemployed, and assisting the poor and the elderly.
Sooner or later, the citizens of the country will have to face the crises and make decisions. Unfortunately, based on past performance they can expect little help from their most common source of news and public affairs discussions, commercial television. Instead, the industry continues to create its artificial world designed by the advertising of large corporations.
Deeply involved in its pursuit of maximum profit making without social obligation, commercial broadcasting has worked behind the scenes with its corporate allies to keep non-commercial television at a minimum, or to kill it completely.
There are democratic countries that have demonstrated that business health and social justice need not be at war with each other and that a healthy tax-supported non-commercial broadcasting system can operate side by side with a healthy commercial one. Britain and Germany are examples. But Congress regularly condemns the idea as “socialism” and a heresy against some sacred American business theology.
The desire for reform is not limited to a cultural elite. There is a growing gap between what a majority of citizens have said they want and what television gives them.
Media industry executives insist that their high profits prove that they have met their obligation to the public. Commercial television operators, for example, argue that if American audiences didn’t like what they saw, they could simply shut off their sets. The majority of the public does not shut off its sets and the industry continues to make high profits. Therefore, the argument goes, no matter what surveys of public opinion may show, the public is voting with their off-on switches.
It is not an argument that can be dismissed out of hand. The data on audience habits do show massive continued listening and watching. The majority of the audience continues to have television sets in operation about seven hours a day. The difference between what people say they want and what most actually do has the appearance of a paradox. But it is not.
The level of violence on commercial television, for example, remains invulnerable to change, yet the data show that nonviolent programs have 33 percent more viewers than violent ones. A limes Mirror poll in 1993 showed that 53 percent of Americans want less violence and 80 percent agreed that TV violence is harmful to society. Even the majority of local station managers have said there is excessive violence in the programs networks and syndicators send them-but the same managers make profits by passing on to their local viewers the programs that they and their audience say they do not prefer.
Why the broadcast industry behaves that way is not hard to explain. The necessity of filling as many as fifty channels with eighteen to twenty-four hours a day of programming favors easily duplicated formulas. Though all operators provide the same general content, imitative programming pays. An increase of one percent in the number of households watching nationwide can give a program’s network more than $50 million in added profit a year. Total advertising revenues remain so huge that even losers in the ratings race make handsome profits.
But that does not explain why the audience at home does not turn off their sets in higher numbers.
The basic answer to the seeming paradox lies in the history of television’s original impact on society. When, by the mid-1950s, television sets had become a near-universal appliance in the country’s living rooms, they changed more than national entertainment. Television produced a radical transformation in the way American families arranged their lives.
Before television, families typically used after-dinner time to read newspapers, magazines and books, play games, do homework, listen to the radio, gather around the piano to sing songs, or socialize with their friends and neighbors. When they could, parents took the family downtown to a restaurant and a movie.
Compared to the older pattern, mass television was stunningly fascinating, convenient, and inexpensive. Social and after-dinner habits changed rapidly. The downtowns of most cities became wastelands after dark as movie houses and restaurants closed. Their former customers were able to watch movies and live programs on their own small screen in the living room without dressing up, leaving the house, eating dinner in a downtown restaurant, or paying admission to a theater.
It is worth noting, however, that in those formative years that produced such a profound alteration of national habits, mass television was essentially nonviolent. It carried far more pleasant, unaggressive children’s programs; it lacked today’s endless staccato of commercials, and it was almost entirely family oriented.
With that content, the electronic box became a permanent fixture in the living room and the pattern was established of “free” home entertainment. It is “free ‘that is, if one does not count the cost of commercials, which is added to the price of products people buy (about $35 billion a year, or $350 a year per household). It is free if one disregards the amount of money spent on the goods television advertises most successfully-non-essential, marginal goods promoted through short, emotionally-laden messages. It is free if one ignores the loss of this national spending for central social needs like education and health care.
Once the national habit of staying home to watch free news and entertainment was established, a profound national social pattern was set. But there was an ironic aftermath. As detailed earlier, television emerged as the most powerful merchandising tool in human experience. Progressively, more channels have been added, and with each addition the competition for viewer attention has increased proportionately.
The frantic competition was compounded by what seemed to be an innocent, convenient and simple invention. The hand-held, portable remote-control switch permitted viewers to remain comfortably seated while changing channels. It increased the pressure on broadcasters to fix the viewer’s immediate attention by physical melodrama and fast-moving actions. There are golden industry rewards when viewers stop “to see what happens next.”
Growing billions in advertising revenues were at stake in keeping the audience transfixed by some compelling action. Imminent murder, flaming car crashes, blazing gunfights, and sexual couplings became money in the bank, or, more likely, in the quarterly earnings on which Wall Street determines the success of broadcasters and their programs.
Government regulation of commercial broadcasting has become an important part of the national debate on the role of government in all of society. Most of the public gets most of its news from commercial television; it is the most common form of entertainment for children and adults. The country would benefit from national news and discussions about the best way to use the airwaves, since the public owns them.
But the record so far shows that the public cannot trust the commercial media to raise the issue, let alone tell them the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
In recent years, the protests of parents and educators have grown louder, asking for change in antisocial programming and other inappropriate material for children. But they are faced with new obstacles.
There has been increasing insistence by the corporate world that the free market dogma must prevail with no governmental interference. And the broadcast industry has taken to proclaiming its “First Amendment rights.”
The historic, legal and pragmatic truth is different.
In private, few in the corporate world want total fulfillment of their public demand to “get the government out of the way of business.” And broadcasting, despite its constant claim, does not have literal First Amendment rights.
Although the simple idea that business practices should be left solely up to business firms is a commonly held one, “public choice in a free market” is not in fact the undiluted goal of all commerce. Few corporate leaders want to fly in an airplane that has not been tested and approved by the government. They do not want their families eating food unprotected from contamination by toxic chemicals. They don’t want their seriously ill children taking powerful prescription medicines produced under the free market mantra of “let the buyer beware.” Nor would their corporations accept checks drawn on banks that had never been subjected to a government audit.
It is beyond argument that the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution forbids government from abridgment of freedom of the press and of expression. And it is beyond argument that this freedom is crucially important in American democracy. Under the First Amendment, it is unconstitutional for government to require anyone to have a license in order to print or write anything.
When it comes to broadcasting, however, neither law nor history is so simple.
The First Amendment applied to print and speech is close to absolute on grounds that speaking and writing are open to anyone. Anyone can publish criticisms of government and the established press; people and groups (and authors of books like this one) do so constantly. Owning a press is a big advantage, but with all its modern complications in both theory and practice, the First Amendment gives Americans more freedom to speak and publish than do laws and practice in any other major democracy.
But broadcasters do not have the “First amendment rights” that forbid government regulation of writing and printing. In their private and more honest moments, broadcasters know this; it is the commercial broadcasters themselves who insist on government regulation and with good reason.
… in early, unregulated radio after World War I, commercial and amateur operators sent out signals on any frequency they wished. Some poached on the frequency of popular broadcasters, or sent out such powerful signals that they interfered with distant transmitters. The result was a chaos of jamming and static that threatened the entire enterprise and satisfied no one.
It was the broadcasters themselves who demanded that government regulate the industry by granting each operator a monopoly on a particular frequency, and who insisted that-government punish anyone who intruded into their channel monopoly. As previously cited, the government has in fact imprisoned and fined citizens who have broadcast without a government license.
In return for this monopoly protection of their frequencies, the Congress insisted that the licensed stations must operate “in the public interest.” The government wisely did not define “public interest,” but said that during the license period a broadcaster should provide ample news and educational programming, and access to religious and other civic groups. When time came to renew the station’s license, the overall record of that broadcaster could be reviewed in a process open to public comment. While public participation in license renewals exists more on paper than in actual practice, it is there for citizens who want to pay the costs of exerting their right.
Even-the new Telecommunications Act of 1996, which granted the telecommunications industry most of what it desired, requires operation “in the public interest,” but broadcasters have successfully narrowed the meaning of that phrase. … the Fairness Doctrine once required broadcasters to devote a reasonable time to discussion of controversial public issues, and to permit reasonable opportunities for opposing views to be heard if an adversarial position was presented. Broadcasters pushed for repeal of these provisions and, with their special power within government, they won.
Since the 1980s, the federal government has largely ignored the legal “public interest” requirement and has increasingly adopted for broadcasting the dogma of the free market, endorsing whatever pays the most profit.
… the refusal of the major media properly to address central public concerns has created a crisis in democracy. A public inadequately informed about the substance of the arguments that affect its most important social policies has lost the substance of citizenship rights. If voters do not have easy access to central facts and ideas concerning public issues, voting becomes meaningless. Increasing numbers of voters understand this and are becoming cynical. Cynicism poisons free societies.
That is why when citizens are inundated with frivolous or minuscule fragments of public debate, there are social consequences that go beyond “merely business” or “what pays the quickest cash profit.” The most common broadcast news today is either a litany of crime or happy talk about private lives of “personalities,” in which the media decide how a “person” becomes a “personality.” Or “discussions” of public issues become insult-slinging contests by paid gladiators of the air.
One side effect of this vulgarization of national discourse has been an artificial limitation of choice in the discussion of what roles broadcasting should have in American society. The false limitation can be characterized as The Fallacy of the Two-Model Choice.
One mode of broadcasting is presented as undiluted government propaganda if any tax support is involved. In the rhetoric of commercial broadcasters and their supporters in politics, using taxes to help finance non-commercial broadcasting is equated with dictatorial “government propaganda” and “socialism.” The rhetoric offers the examples of broadcasting under Hitler and Stalin.
The alternative model, in the “two-model fallacy:’ is presented as the only one acceptable for the United States. In this model, broadcasting is totally commercial and therefore automatically “free and democratic”; there is a minimal place, or no place at all, for non-commercial broadcasting-which leaves the field open solely to corporate control.
The reality, of course, is that there are many other free and democratic models of broadcasting in the world. These exist in minimal degree even in the United States, and they flourish in vigorous fashion elsewhere today. In many democracies, tax-supported broadcasting is not authoritarian, and usually there is a strong parallel commercial system. There are such systems all over the world, many of which provide creative, open access to a wide range of citizens and citizen groups.
In United States congressional and media discussions of how best to use the new and powerful methods of mass communication, however, there is almost total silence about existing alternative systems and continued propagation of the false image of “the two-model choice.”
Forgotten except to historians of the media, and sometimes even by some of them, is the irony that in the 1920s, during the early years of widespread broadcasting in the United States, the most common and popular stations were non-commercial ones operated by municipalities, universities, and state public agencies.
Today, the closest the United States has come to a departure from the two-model image is the public broadcasting network and other nonprofit stations. But they live on the knife-edge of unstable political appropriations and conservative attacks. Most stay alive by endless efforts to raise their own money from subscribers, and are forced to run commercials that duplicate those on the commercial stations. As a result, a real spectrum of non-commercial radio and television in the United States has remained skeletal.
Non-commercial broadcast operations in this country consist mostly of National Public Radio, television’s Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Pacifica radio stations (a small set of Alternative radio stations), and a variety of stations operating at low power on tiny budgets, usually by a school or other educational institution.
The objection of conservatives to public broadcasting is ideological. There is no practical impact on tax rates or the federal budget. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting obtains less than 14 percent of its money from the federal government, a negligible tiny fraction of one percent of the federal budget. The rest of its funds comes from states, municipalities, commercial support, and voluntary contributions.
When the conservative Congress of 1994 proposed to kill public broadcasting by law, politicians were surprised by a poll commissioned by the Public Broadcasting Service, which found that of those surveyed-Republicans, Democrats, and Independents – 84 percent wanted Congress to increase funding for public television or maintain it at current levels. The response was not limited to people with high levels of education or “high culture” tastes. The congressional budget-cutters discovered that the children’s television program “Sesame Street:’ for example, is such a beloved American household presence that parents of every political coloration rose up in angry protest at the thought of its loss. Other public programs and documentaries had similar strong support at many levels of society.
In Britain, when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, pressing the conservative ideological drive for maximum privatization, made a similar suggestion for the BBC, there, too, public protest prevented a total turnover to private operators. (Without use of BBC programs, American television would be even more deficient in serious drama than it is today.)
The general public in the United States has received little information either from political debates over broadcasting or from their major media about differing broadcast models in Canada, Britain, the Scandinavian countries, Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, Japan, and other developed democracies. None of these foreign systems is exactly the same, but they all have stable, copious financing through a variety of plans that provide public access to civic groups with large memberships, and they are usually operated by quasi-trusteeships, supported by financing from fixed taxes.
In Belgium and the Netherlands, for example, civic and other organizations, including ‘listener associations:’ have guaranteed access to broadcast time based on the size of their memberships.
Within the United States, major foundations, consumer advocates like Ralph Nader, and others have suggested alternatives to the two-model illusion of choice. They have demonstrated, often with carefully evolved plans, that there are tax-supported alternatives appropriate to the United States.
The struggling alternative stations (and the illegal pirate ones) remain lonely voices against the national silence on the many ways broadcasting could develop if we do not have to limit ourselves to choosing between broadcasting that is governmental propaganda and broadcasting as a product designed for maximized corporate profit making.
In the 1995 and 1996 congressional debates and in most major media reporting on the future of American telecommunications, mention of any successful, established, foreign democratic systems was notably absent. Yet ironically, Japan’s Nippon Hoso Kyokai (NHK), which is one of the world’s largest non-commercial broadcasting systems, is a United States creation.
Today NHK is a leader in broadcast technology (it was the first to develop high-definition television and direct broadcasting from satellite), and, with the BBC, it is one of two remaining public systems financed by license fees charged like taxes to the public. NHK has multiple channels, with more than 6,000 television stations (some of neighborhood range); 3,000 of these stations are general in content and 3,000 are devoted to education. It operates alongside commercial networks and stations.
NHK was born with a resounding declaration by the American government on the need for non-commercial broadcasting with tax support. After the United States defeated imperial Japan in World War II and reconstituted a new, democratic political system, U.S. authorities insisted that no modern democracy should be without a well-financed, nonpolitical and non-commercial public broadcasting system. But ever since, similar suggestions for the United States itself have been met with hostility in Congress, in commercial broadcasting, and in most mainstream American news.
One result is that American commercial television, which started as inexpensive, nonviolent home entertainment, has become focused almost entirely on merchandising and on catching viewer attention with antisocial violence and indiscriminate, gratuitous sex. …
As the communications medium the public most depends on, television has become the nation’s baby-sitter, chief news source, and ever-present entertainer. When broadcasters and their corporate sponsors fail to deal seriously, fairly, and regularly with the country’s urgent issues, in a very real way they are using the nation’s own property to rob its citizens of the knowledge necessary to cope with their most urgent needs and challenges.
The public needs a constant reminder:
The airwaves do not belong to the broadcasters. They do not belong to the advertisers. The owners, by law, are the people of the United States.

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