Norman Solomon’s Column
Washington — During the first days of spring, cold winds blew through the nation’s capital. The weather was an apt metaphor for the chilling effects of a perennial news industry desensitized to its own numbing. Don’t worry, we’ve been told countless times: Media outlets are diverse enough to maintain vigilance.
“I have yet to see a piece of writing, political or non-political, that doesn’t have a slant,” E.B. White observed in a 1956 essay. To that candid assessment he added a more dubious one: “The beauty of the American free press is that the slants and the twists and the distortions come from so many directions, and the special interests are so numerous, the reader must sift and sort and check and countercheck in order to find out what the score is. This he does.”
I thought of such claims the other day, while passing through the National Press Building lobby. Eight networks were on eight television screens. With the possible exception of the Weather Channel, they all certainly had slants. Two eminent members of the punditocracy occupied two screens. The odious Don Imus was on another. Investor news was also profuse. Lots of slants. But not from many directions.
The media industry — no less than the campaign system — is awash in oceans of dollars. Commercial broadcasters siphon huge profits from frequencies that theoretically belong to the public. Cable TV conglomerates expand under the protection of federal regulations placing severe limits on the power of municipalities to charge franchise fees for the use of public rights-of-way. Station owners proceed to cash in on their free portions of a digital spectrum worth billions of dollars.
We’re hearing a lot about the need for campaign finance reform — but how often have we heard the phrase “media finance reform”?
Assurances about the present-day media system often resemble the more complacent defenses of how politicians get elected. In late March, lauding “the classic Madisonian structure of American democracy,” syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote: “Madison saw ‘factions,’ what we now call interests, not only as natural, but as beneficial to democracy because they inevitably check and balance each other.”
But the phrase “check and balance” deserves another look — in a financial context. The big checks and big (bank) balances are hardly reassuring.
Complacency rests on mythology, as when Krauthammer cites Madison: “His solution to the undue power of factions? More factions. Multiply them — and watch them mutually dilute each other.” However, when we “watch them,” any such “solution” becomes implausible. Power is steadily more concentrated, not diluted.
The media establishment has a hefty stake in the status quo. A curb on campaign spending would eat into profits. Last year, an estimated $1 billion in campaign-ad revenue flowed to TV stations. And during the 2000 election cycle, “soft money” campaign contributions totaled more than $5.5 million from the corporate owners of five powerhouse networks — Time Warner (CNN), Walt Disney (ABC), News Corp. (Fox), Viacom (CBS) and General Electric (NBC).
But even if big donors vanished from campaign financing, we’d still be left with the crying need for media finance reform. If those who pay the piper call the tune, why is that any less true in news media than in politics?
Midway through the Senate debate on the McCain-Feingold bill, a Washington Post editorial declared: “The goal should be to reduce the flow of funds, the extent to which offices and policies now are all but openly bought by the interest groups that the policies affect.” The newspaper added that with so much big money flowing into the coffers of senators, “There is no way they cannot be beholden.”
That’s true. And when you consider America’s major media outlets — and the massive corporate ownership and advertising involved — the same conclusion should be inescapable. “There is no way they cannot be beholden.”
Free and open discourse is essential to democracy. But no one on the Senate floor has demanded the taming of the nation’s media giants. Amid all the talk about the sanctity of the First Amendment, we don’t hear politicians or mainstream pundits insisting that multibillion-dollar conglomerates be pushed off its windpipe. As a practical matter, the top guarantee in the Bill of Rights is gasping for breath. Free speech is of limited value when freedom to be heard requires big bucks.