This is a piece I did ages ago which never found a home in print, so apologies that it’s a little old and long. But it’s an interesting subject so I thought I’d post it. I must do an updated version at some stage. The title “Me no likes da capitalisms…” is taken from graffiti on a wall in Dublin city at the time…
Just What Effect does Capitalism Have on Mass Media? All social, political and economical processes determine the media we create and consume. Unfortunately for us, the socio- economic institution around which the ‘free’ world rotates is capitalism. Most of us feel the direct effect of this modus operandi every day, by selling eight hours of our precious lives to someone we- more than likely- don’t even know. What may be even more unfortunate is that the age of capitalism is coinciding with the age of information and media, for which inadequate pseudo- democracies offers little compensation.
In 1787 Thomas Jefferson said “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter”. John Keane argued at length that there could never be a true democracy without a free press. I would agree totally: who questions elected representatives’ actions? Who investigates corruption within state institutions? Who gives a voice to victims of statutory misconduct in less developed countries? A free and true press is the only real opposition to corruption and propaganda, to the canker of deceit and greed, characteristics we are increasingly feeling the effect of every day.
The problem with capitalism’s reign within the age of mass media is that the media ceases to be a vehicle for fighting the good fight; it becomes another cog in the wheel of a market that is in constant competition for consumers. Rather than the media’s potential audience, we now have a market’s potential consumers. Content is not king in a land where getting people to spend their money on your product is the most important element. Profit must be king if an industry operating under a capitalist regime is to survive.
There is, of course, the point that there are journalists out there that have no intentions but to fight for the truth, there are bands that want to do nothing but play music, and film-makers that want to make beautiful movies, regardless of feedback. This may be the case, but although people like this may be morally prudent, behind them there is always people putting pressure on, and demanding money to be made. In other words, our film-maker friend may get sponsored for one film, but if that film does not do well he will not get commission for his next. So he may have had this in mind from the start and, therefore, be conscious of making something that will be well received in this first place. So politically left-of-centre folks get spun into the market’s web, albeit less directly than the straight-up capitalist.
This production process affects the content of the media we are exposed to, but further to this there are industry trends that have thwarted the battle of the righteous. Most notably is the increased concentration of ownership within media. Concentration of ownership has shifted the marginal healthiness of free market capitalism, to the unarguable ugliness of pure oligopoly. An analyst of the subject (author of the book ‘The Media Monopoly’), Ben Bagdikian, argues that in 1996 only ten corporations dominated the mass communication industry. A scary thought. What may be even more frightening is the integration of this ownership, where one owner acquires all aspects of production and distribution of media products. A glance at the US film industry shows us this process of integration at work; five companies prevail over all others: Disney’s Buena Vista, Fox, Time Warner’s Warner Bros, CBS/Viacom’s Paramount and Sony Pictures Entertainment, even the two leading ‘independent’ film companies are owned by the aforementioned corporations. The integration doesn’t stop there…CBS/Viacom and Time Warner are also two of the five leading book publishers; Sony and Time Warner are two of the ‘Big 5’ within the music industry; and Fox, Disney and Time Warner are also three of the leading television companies. Viacom own MTV (reaching 342 million households worldwide), and MTV’s ‘competitor’ VH1, but their integration of the film industry is perhaps the clearest example: in owning Paramount they can make films…they can then show their Paramount films in their UCI cinemas…and if you miss it at the cinema, they’re sure to have lots of copies stacked on the shelves at their video rental shops, X-tra Vision and Blockbuster.
Along the same vein, there is a worrying prospect for the technological future of the media. We are ever closer to almost all forms of media (film, newspapers, internet, TV, phone, music) being completely accessible from within our homes, through one cable. This has led to an integration of media companies and cable companies, in an aim to achieve complete control of the medium, from the content in it to the way we gain access to it. So the question is, who will have this ultimate power? Time Warner is one of the world’s largest music companies (REM and Madonna have released on Warner Music), it is one of the world’s largest TV producers (Friends, ER etc.) and film companies (Warner Bros.), it is also one of the world’s largest cable news channels (CNN), they own Time and Life magazine, and have been buying up so much cable that they are now- you’ve guessed it- one of the world’s largest cable companies. To secure their lead in the future of American media, the last daisy in the chain for Time Warner was to merge with America On Line (AOL bought Time Warner in 2001), a successful internet company (27 million subscribers) and software producer; thus controlling access, as well as content and distribution.
As Orwellian as it may seem, there are insidious consequences to the concentration media ownership. Disregarding the huge repercussions and impact on the actual content of the media product, concentration and integration will inevitably lead to self- promotion. For example, if a film company owns a book publisher, they are more likely to choose to publish a book that can later be made into a film; if a music corporation owns a film company, they are more likely to make the soundtrack of the film using artists on their record label, then they can also play the soundtrack to death on their radio station, or give it a five star review in their magazine.
If we take this concept one sinister step further, we can see political content control and propaganda due to concentration of ownership. One name that we all know and hate is Rupert Murdock. In 1975 he made his Australian newspapers slant so far to the conservative view- point that his journalists went on strike, in Britain a few years later he aided the election of Margarat Thatcher through his media corporations. In 1998 he made his publishing company, Harper Collins, cancel the publication Chris Patton’s book chronicling his governance of Hong Kong, as it was critical of the Chinese government and this conflicted with Murdock’s own business involvement with China.
But news media has seen the impact of capitalism, and ownership concentration, in more ways than an ideological tinting to the left or right. In a capitalist system, organisations concentrate on one goal: profit. In the context of media, enhancing profit means attaining advertising revenue, and attaining advertising revenue means you’ve got keep your ratings high. This generally entails self-censorship by avoiding controversial stories, and has led to an increase in soft news, human interest, and entertainment or celebrity oriented stories.
Increasingly chief news editors are being hired because of their marketing skills, rather than their investigative awareness or keen journalistic eye. They may favour stories that contribute to consumption, to the ‘buying mood’, and avoid stories that criticise consumer capitalism to protect the people who are paying their bills. As the saying goes, ‘the media are in the business of delivering audiences to advertisers’, or perhaps more articulately put by US corporate critic extraordinaire, Noam Chomsky:
“The audience is the product. The product is privileged people…you have to sell a product to a market, and the market is, of course, advertisers”.
Product placement in films, and advertisements in the cinema or before rented videos are further indication of how advertisers are finding more and more ways of getting closer to your pockets…is the actual content, therefore, just a means to the capitalistic end?
The music industry has also seen consequences of high market concentration; just five companies account for over three- quarters of the total musical sales in the US per year. Sociologist Paul Lopes studied the issue in 1992, and found that between 1969 and 1990, the four largest music firms increased their share of the top 100 albums dramatically, from 54.5 percent to 82 percent. The vicious circle of this situation becomes evident; market penetration is dominated by those with money in the first place, and made increasingly more difficult for those with less money to begin with… the rich get rich etc. Those of us who are not into ‘pop’ music, per se, have all at one point thought to ourselves, ‘how is that tune not number one?’ or perhaps, on a more perceptive level, thought: ‘if that tune just had half a chance it could be number one’. Artistic talent becomes secondary to marketing know-how. There is a lot of great music out there, the problem is that you really have to search to find it; those who are not very, very passionate about music are much more likely to buy whatever they hear being played on the radio ten times a day.
I asked John Taylor (programme director at Dublin’s 98fm at time of writing), if he could explain how a radio station’s play list is decided upon. Some criteria he mentioned were the “track record or reputation of an artist, monitoring other stations, and record sales”. That seems to suggest that it would be very difficult for independent, or less know, record labels to get their artists heard by the wider public. It’s almost like when you’re looking for a job and everywhere requires experience, but in order to get experience you have to first get a job. So I asked him if he could help me to understand this logic- why certain songs get played several times a day and so much music simply gets ignored, he said “to create a hit…you need to air hit songs at least 5 – 6 times a day 24/ 7”. To create a hit, eh? Seems a shame that people can’t just hear as much music as possible, and then decide what is going to be a hit by themselves.
We have not seen the full extent of the effects of monopolisation across the British Isles since there is preventative legislation, but following the publication of the new Ofcom Communications Bill in 2002/03, the UK government dropped many restrictions on who can own media companies, plurality of cross-ownership, and on non-EU ownership. The first thing that may suffer with such regulation is PSB (public service broadcasting). The quality and quantity of PSB in Europe is far higher than that of, for example, the States, but the market is such that it may only be a matter of time before global conglomerates take full advantage of the commercial pressure. RTE has felt this pinch getting tighter of late. The stiff competition from an increasing number of channels, lack of state support, and the decrease in advertising revenue, has caused RTE to lower their workforce by about a third in recent years. Will they soon look to foreign investment?
Media flooding from certain places (those who can afford to make it) to others (those who can’t) is a worrying prospect, but the origin of these dominant media giants is less relevant than their unifying gaol for profit. It doesn’t make me any more comfortable that Bertelsmann is German, or that Vivendi is French. Although there is no doubt of the mass media’s far-reaching cultural influence on less wealthy countries, which are consuming foreign media and creating less indigenous content. It is argued that this is a subtle and sophisticated, yet tangible, form of reinforcing imperialism and maintaining cultural dominance. Intentional or otherwise.
The other four media giants (Time Warner, News Corporation, CBS/Viacom and Disney) are all American-based, but it’s capitalism that enables them to become ever-more powerful, wealthy and threatening. In 1981 Michael Eisner, chief executive of Disney from 1984-2005, said in a now-infamous internal memo: “We have no obligation to make history. We have no obligation to make art. We have no obligation to make a statement. To make money is our only objective”.
In an extensive study of the political economy of the mass media, called ‘Manufacturing Consent’, Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman developed a theory that all news media passes through a series of filters before reaching the public. I can’t hope to put it any better then they do when describing this “propaganda model”…
They say: “the mass media…are effective and powerful ideological institutions that carry out a system-supportive propaganda function by reliance on market forces, internalised assumptions and self-censorship… the organisation and self-education of groups in the community and workplace, and their networking and activism, continue to be the fundamental elements in steps toward the democratisation of our social life and any meaningful social change. Only to the extent that such developments succeed can we hope to see media that are free and independent.”
It is a difficult thing to change the social, political and economical structure of the world to the extent that is needed to save mass media from the wrath of capitalism. It would be the same kind of change that would abolish third world debt and stop wars. But it is marketing that fuels consumption; marketing is capitalism’s odious right hand man, they are nothing without each other. This marketing is aimed at you and me don’t forget, and perhaps if you and I are a little more aware of the dynamics of the world then we can make the changes Chomsky and Herman speak of (incidentally, CBS/Viacom also own the world’s largest advertising company ‘CBS Outdoor’, so don’t doubt the extent of the media giants’ success in reaching you just because you don’t buy The Sun). As Ben Bagdikian said, the institutional bias of private mass media “does not merely protect the corporate system. It robs the public of a chance to understand the real world”. I may sound a tad idealistic here, but the saddest thing of all is that if we owned the media, if the people had this awesomely powerful mechanism in their own hands, we would not only understand it, we really could change the world.