SELF-CENSORSHIP IS SHADOWING THE NEW MEDIA ERA
have passed since America Online and Time Warner announced plans to merge. Big
news at the time, the formation of the world's largest media firm is already old
hat. And so it goes: Like the rest of us, journalists quickly get used to the
latest consolidation of media power.
of the country's most perceptive media critics, Herbert Schiller, died a few
weeks after the unveiling of AOL Time Warner. A professor of communication,
Schiller had been warning against such corporate trends for decades. He urged
people to consider the dire consequences when giant companies dominate and wield
the latest media technologies.
is not necessary to construct a theory of intentional cultural control,"
Schiller observed in 1989. "In truth, the strength of the control process
rests in its apparent absence. The desired systemic result is achieved
ordinarily by a loose though effective institutional process."
book "Culture, Inc." -- subtitled "The Corporate Takeover of
Public Expression" -- went on to cite "the education of journalists
and other media professionals, built- in penalties and rewards for doing what is
expected, norms presented as objective rules, and the occasional but telling
direct intrusion from above. The main lever is the internalization of
has long been one of journalism's most ineffable hazards. The current wave of
mergers rocking the media industry is likely to heighten the dangers.
an unprecedented extent, large numbers of American reporters and editors now
work for just a few huge corporate employers -- a situation that hardly
encourages unconstrained scrutiny of media conglomerates as they assume
unparalleled importance in public life. Like the Viacom-CBS merger announced
last fall, the joining of AOL and Time Warner puts a lot more journalists in an
awkward position: on the payrolls of media outlets that are very newsworthy as
major economic and social forces.
of us grew up with tales of journalistic courage dating back to Colonial days.
John Peter Zenger's ability to challenge the British Crown with unyielding
articles drew strength from the fact that he was a printer and publisher.
Writing in The New York Weekly, a periodical burned several times by the public
hangman, Zenger declared in November 1733: "The loss of liberty in general
would soon follow the suppression of the liberty of the press; for it is an
essential branch of liberty, so perhaps it is the best preservative of the
contrast to state censorship, which is usually easy to recognize,
self-censorship by journalists tends to be obscured. It is particularly murky
and insidious in the emerging media environment, with routine pressures to defer
to employers that have massive industry clout and global reach. We might wonder
how Zenger would fare in most of today's media workplaces -- especially if he
chose to denounce as excessive the power of the conglomerate providing his
are apt to quickly spot and automatically distrust government efforts to impose
prior restraint. But what about the implicit constraints imposed by the
hierarchies of enormous media corporations -- and internalized by employees
before overt conflicts develop?
liberty means anything at all," George Orwell wrote, "it means the
right to tell people what they do not want to hear." As immense
communications firms increasingly dominate our society, how practical will it be
for journalists to tell their bosses -- and the public -- what media tycoons do
not want to hear about the concentration of power in few corporate hands?
Schiller urged many years ago is now more crucial than ever: We need a vibrant
political movement that "would aim at reducing private monopoly power over
news, TV programs, films, music, data processing, publishing, and advertising.
It would encourage the availability, as much as possible, of information as a
social and inexpensive good, not, as increasingly the situation, as a salable
mega-media machinery spins into even higher gears, Herb Schiller's vision is
compelling. He saw that the status quo, shaped and constrained by the power of
money, routinely limits our sense of cooperative ingenuity. But very different
options remain, including "vastly expanded public support and encouragement
of noncommercial expression and creativity. Publicly financed newspapers,
magazines, television, radio, theater, and film would become a legitimate part
of the national social landscape.... The important consideration is to allow for
imaginative alternatives. Currently, the fashion is to deny that
Norman Solomon is a syndicated columnist. His latest book is "The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media."