Public Broadcasting in the Age of Communication Revolution

By McChesney, Robert W. | Monthly Review, December 1995 | Go to article overview

Public Broadcasting in the Age of Communication Revolution


McChesney, Robert W., Monthly Review


U.S. conservatives are attacking the federal subsidy that supports public broadcasting with great fervor this year. Although the grant to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Public Broadcasting System (PBS), and National Public Radio (NPR) likely will be extended, if at a reduced rate, for three more years by the current Congress, the handwriting is on the wall: there will be no more government-subsidized broadcasting in the United States by the end of the decade. I believe this is unfortunate and that it is very much in our interest to be expanding through any number of measures the nonprofit and noncommercial media sector. In what follows I will put the fight over U.S. public broadcasting in historical context. By doing so, I hope to explain the sorry state of contemporary U.S. public broadcasting. I will also link the fight over public broadcasting to broader political economic trends. The crisis of public service broadcasting--meaning nonprofit broadcasting with minimal advertising--is global in nature, so the dimensions of the U.S. struggle become more clear in a global light. I believe that the current right-wing assault on U.S. public broadcasting may best be regarded as another instance of corporate attack on democratic institutions, with the important aim of limiting the ability of Americans to examine and debate the manner in which their society is actually ruled. In addition, it is part and parcel of a process whereby the market is becoming the unquestioned regulator of all aspects of social life wherever profits may be made, a process I believe to have disastrous political and moral implications.

The current attack on public service broadcasting comes during an era of nearly unprecedented technological revolutions in communication and information. By all accounts, they are central to a dramatic restructuring of human societies. One need only consider the rapid development of the Internet--which is only the tip of the iceberg--to appreciate the dimensions of what lies before us. Although some proponents of the communication technologies assert that they will provide immense new competition in the marketplace of ideas, thereby rendering moot the need for publicly subsidized media, the dominant trend in journalism and communication is for the media industries increasingly to fall under oligopolistic corporate control. Ben Bagdikian is the best known chronicler of the control exerted by approximately twenty enormous corporations over global communication and almost all of U.S. journalism. That figure was significantly larger only a decade ago and many observers expect it to continue to fall.

There are many reasons to be alarmed by this oligopolistic corporate control. Every theory of democracy worth the paper it is written on recognizes that independent journalism is necessary to provide the informed participating citizenry that is the foundation of self-government. These enormous corporations often find this type of journalism controversial, expensive, and counterproductive to their political and economic interests. This is hardly a new phenomenon; it has been a major tension in profit-driven commercial journalism since its emergence in the nineteenth century. The censorship of our media and journalism is overwhelmingly the result of how it is owned and subsidized. Professional journalism is best viewed in this context. While it permits a degree of journalistic autonomy from media owners and advertisers, as well as the personal biases of journalists, media professionalism also internalizes many of the commercial values of the capitalist media and encourages journalists to be oblivious to the compromises with authority they are constantly making. In addition, the media corporations increasingly find the traditional practice of journalism unprofitable. The relative amount of resources devoted to journalism has fallen sharply in the past fifteen years. Our news media is increasingly prey to sophisticated public relations campaigns serving corporate America and commercial pressures to provide inexpensive, unthreatening schlock journalism centered on entertainers, athletes, and royal families. …

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