Pit Schultz on Sun, 17 May 1998 01:33:30 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> Interview with Robert McChesney

Towards a Democratic Media System:
Interview with Robert McChesney

Robert W. McChesney is Associate Professor of Journalism and Mass
Communications at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He has written widely
on media history and communication policy. In particular, McChesney's work
analyzes the policy debates surrounding the Internet and telecommunication, the
effects of corporate control and advertising support upon the nature of
journalism, and the debates over public broadcasting and nonprofit media
systems. He currently hosts a bi-weekly radio public affairs program on WORT-FM
in Madison.

Corporate Watch: What's your perspective on the development of the corporate
control of the Internet? How is the many-to-many communications structure of
the Internet likely to change because of corporate involvement?

Robert McChesney: Well, this goes back to the early '90s, when the emergence of
the World Wide Web made the Internet appear to be, and have the promise of
being, an extraordinarily democratic and interactive medium, whereby people
could participate without censor, producing content, distributing it to
potentially enormous audiences at very little cost. Material perhaps, in due
time, of very high quality, not just text messages, but really high quality
video, audio, the whole works. For a time, we had bookshelves filled with views
of the World Wide Web and the Internet as being this new technology that was
going to completely undermine the existing communications industries; make them
unimportant, because the Internet was going to undercut their semi-monopolistic
hold over media and over telecommunications. The most famous piece along these
lines was by a technology writer named Steven Levy -- you might have seen it
two years ago in the New York Times Magazine -- [that] said all these huge
media mergers going on in the world are nothing to worry about because these
media giants are basically rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, and the
iceberg they're going to hit is the Internet with its, as he put it, billions
of channels.  

You see a lot less of that talk today. In fact, you see hardly anything like
that today, because that vision that Levy had, and that others before him have
had, was based on an idea that technologies have superpowers that override
social considerations -- or a view that the market is inherently a thoroughly
competitive and democratic mechanism (that's the George Gilder-type view). And
in fact, both those views are dead wrong.  Two or three years ago, most media
and telecommunication firms were very scared of the Internet. They were scared
that it could do exactly what Steven Levy said it might do. No one really knew
where it was going to go. I think most of the entry to the Internet at that
time was primarily motivated out of sheer and utter fear; and just because
people wanted to cover their rear ends, so they wouldn't get outflanked.
There's still an element of fear today among the media and telecommunications
giants about the Internet, because no one still really knows exactly how it's
going to develop. But the fear today is less that their entire industries are
going to get outflanked, than that specific competitors might get a better
deal. The corporate community has got the Internet -- for the most part, it's
theirs. It's going to be incorporated into existing and emerging corporate
empires: computer, software, telecommunication, and media empires. The ideas
that Steven Levy wrote two years ago, might as well have been written in the
16th century, they are so ridiculously out of date.  And this is not to say
that it's settled. It's just to say that with the totally undebated but still
quite important policy -- that whoever makes the most money wins -- you have a
situation in which the handful of people who have the most power in the market
are dominating the playing field; exactly what you would expect with that
policy. That's the situation we're in now.

CW: How does that affect the development of the medium from a user

RM: Because there's tremendous pressure right now by the media firms, and
really every commercial interest, to make the Web more and more like
television, oftentimes we use the analogy of broadcasting to think about the
World Wide Web -- channels dominated by corporate, commercial vendors.  And
there's an element of truth to that. But at the same time, on the Internet as
such, there still isn't scarcity; people will [continue to] be able to start
websites.  I think the metaphor that captures the Internet is much more like
book publishing, or magazine publishing. If you go to any newsstand in this
country, with the exception of a handful in college towns and very large
cities, you're just going to see the same 80-100 magazines being sold that are
published by the same five or six or seven firms. That doesn't mean there
aren't thousands of magazines. There are thousands and thousands of magazines;
some extraordinary magazines that we've never heard of or seen, and never will
hear of or see.  The Web's always going to have those thousands of
extraordinary things.  Most people will never see them. When they turn on their
WebTV, or their Microsoft or Netscape browser software, or @Home (the TCI cable
access service), or AOL -- those websites will be hidden away. You can get to
them, but it will take hard work, and you'll have to really hunt and know what
you're looking for.

What's different, what's the genius of the Internet compared to print, is that
if someone is printing a great newsletter in El Salvador, I'll never see it.
It'd be physically impossible for me to get my hands on it, maybe.  With the
Internet, if I know how to get around and get the address, I can find stuff
from all over the world. So, it's a qualitative difference in that regard, and
a crucial one.  But one problem that progressives have had with the Internet
and with the Web, is that we extrapolate from our own experience to think
that's how everyone else experiences it. In fact there's a very good chance
that it'll be a really nice ghetto for a handful of people who know where to
go.  But [that experience will be] pretty much buried away from the dominant
commercial Internet experience being prepared by the corporate giants for the
mass of Americans. That's my sense. Now I might be wrong; this is not a done
deal. But I think that's the trajectory we're on right now, and short of any
policy otherwise, it's going to be tough to counteract that trajectory.

CW: One plausible scenario is that Internet 2 is where all the high bandwidth,
fancy, commercial stuff goes, and what we have today remains as an alternative

RM: Yeah, the market pressure is going to be to offer differentiated service.
To have a super high bandwidth, high quality service for business users that
will cost more, but they need it; and maybe a similar super high quality
service for home consumers over their televisions or computers to those who are
willing to pay. And then going down to more or less a clunker service for
people who don't want to pay that much, or might just be interested in doing
email and textual messages that don't require the same sort of bandwidth.  But
I think a market solution is very much a tiered system, where people get
different calibers of Internet, or computer communications.

CW: Is it possible to have a kind of vibrant people's medium around the

RM: There are lots of things [on the Internet] that are really useful and help
activists and people interested in all sorts of issues that aren't being
covered by the dominant media. Although, it's worth noting that as the
technological standards for the Internet are developed, to the extent
commercial interests play a role, that aspect is not going to be high on the
list of their concern. It's not that it won't be there; not that there won't be
people arguing for it. But as technical standards are made, commercial
interests are looking for ways you can make money off this.  I'm not an expert
at this, but I think when the cable modem specs were developed, to take
advantage of the existing nature of cable signals, the downlink is vastly wider
than the uplink. As Heather Menzies [author of Whose Brave New World? -ed.] has
put it, it's an interstate highway coming into the home, and a bicycle path
going out. The orientation is very much toward sophisticated messages being
sent in, and then textual messages to buy stuff being sent out. That's a very
rational way to develop a commercial Internet -- to downgrade the interactive
aspect, and upgrade the ability to use it as a medium for sending sophisticated
commercial messages.

CW: How does the Internet fit into the history of other mass media?

RM: The Internet is not a new phenomenon. It's a different technology from
earlier communications media technologies, but there is a history throughout
the 20th century, and probably earlier, of how revolutionary new communication
technologies have been developed and eventually deployed.  History points to
the fact that technologies, while they have tremendous influence and all sorts
of effects upon society that are unintended and unanticipated, their
fundamental course is determined by how they're owned and operated. It's almost
an iron law of US communication media, going back to AM radio in the 1920s,
that new technologies don't seem commercially viable at first, so they're
developed by the nonprofit, noncommercial sector, by amateurs. When they
develop [the technology] so you can make money off it, the corporate sector
comes in, and through a variety of mechanisms, usually its dominance of
politicians, it muscles all these other people out of the way and takes it
over.  That's exactly what happened with AM radio. Much like the Internet in
the early to mid-1990s, AM radio was the province largely of the nonprofit,
noncommercial [sector]. It didn't become commercially viable until the late
1920s, eight or nine years into the radio explosion. And then the successful
big networks, NBC and CBS, were able to use their influence basically to hog
all the good frequencies in the late '20s and early '30s. By 1934, nonprofit
broadcasters accounted [for] sometimes one percent or one half of one percent
of all broadcasting in the US, whereas they had been at 40-50% in 1924. There'd
been a total elimination of that sector. That's what's happened with FM radio,
with UHF television, to some extent with satellite and cable (although the
profit potential was seen there fairly quickly), and definitely with the
Internet. There you see the historical example perfectly.

CW: There is so little public debate about the use of the medium for public

RM: There's no debate about it at all. But the irony of course, is that the
Internet only exists because of government subsidizing it for 20 years at
taxpayer expense. And this is not new either, the same thing happened more or
less with most other communication technologies; they were established through
some sort of public sector subsidy. Radio and television and satellite -- all
these technologies were developed through government subsidy, through either
the university system or through the military in many cases. Internet the same
way.  Taxpayers bankroll these things, develop them, and then once they show a
profit, they're turned over to the corporate sector with nothing in return to
speak of. Except the right to be a consumer and make those corporations rich --
that's the great right we have. It's just simply a scandal; it's horrendous
public policy.  And now we have this enormous mythology that the Internet is
the result of entreprenuerial genius, when in fact it was a government product.
There's nothing remotely close to a free market in the communication
industries, the computer industries, the media industries. These are, in most
cases, what we call oligopolistic markets, dominated by a handful of
corporations with no threat of new competition. And they, like the media, have
so many joint ventures with each other, at times it operates much more like a
cartel.  If the US government had not subsidized the Internet for 20 years, the
US would not be the leader in it; it wouldn't have existed here. It might have
existed in Japan or Germany or Korea or Britain or some other country.  Or it
might not exist at all. It was the public sector that created it.

CW: What should Internet activists be doing?

RM: They've got to look at how the Internet's being developed by the corporate
sector. Part of the problem of Internet activists is there's a romanticization
that the Internet is this groovy playpen in cyberspace, divorced from the ugly
world of telecommunications, software, media, and industrial capitalism. That's
not the case at all.  What we're seeing with the largest telecommunication
companies, meaning the telephone companies AT&T, the Baby Bells, British
Telecommunications -- they've formed a series of alliances, such that there are
really only going to be four or five of these global alliances that rule the
whole world in telecom. They're bringing the Internet into their existing
empire to make it part of their one-stop shopping, along with cellular phones,
long distance, local and paging services.  Likewise, and most important from my
perspective, the existing commercial media giants are doing everything in their
power to completely colonize the Internet. The ten largest media firms in the
world (which account now for about half of the venture capital on the Internet,
by the most recent statistics I've seen), have TV networks, film studios,
record companies, book publishing; and [they see] the Internet [as] part of
their empire.  So if we're thinking in terms of reforming the Internet, we've
got to see it as part of how we view what is a democratic media system. And
then see where does the Internet fit in. We've got to take the big picture view
of the Internet as part of our media and our communication. Just like the firms
who are actually controlling it. We can't parcel it off as some separate
entity, because it's really part of the big fight for media reform in this
country, and communication reform, to create viable nonprofit, noncommercial

CW: Do we need to be working nationally or internationally, since the
corporations that you're talking about are not simply operating on a
national level?

RM: A lot of the key issues are still made nationally. But we have to link up
globally too. That's absolutely right. For example, the big copyright deal
[WIPO Copyright Treaty and WIPO Performances and Phonograms Treaty--ed.] passed
just in December, with tremendous pressure by the largest commercial interests
in this country, trying to extend the narrowest interpretation of copyright
onto the Internet. Basically to turn people's computers into vending machines
as much as possible, with a really narrow interpretation of fair use. Those are
issues that aren't real sexy on the surface, but we have to get hip to them,
and start fighting on them.  The other crucial thing is, if you look at the
forces that're taking over the Internet now -- the Microsofts and Oracles from
the computer world; the ten largest media firms in the world [such as] Time
Warner, Disney, Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation; the five or six largest
telecom alliances, which are some of the largest firms in the world, firms like
AT&T, that do $50 billion a year in business -- when you look at the array of
people colonizing the Internet, you get a sense that if you're going to win
this fight, you better be serious about politics. This is no time for
cyberspace dilettantes to sit around thinking they can change something by
flaming someone's email. You're going up against a cornerstone institution of
modern capitalism with supreme political power in Washington. The Wall Street
Journal, just three weeks ago, proclaimed that commercial broadcasting was
hands down the most powerful lobby in the country, simply unbeatable on
political issues. Well, the commercial broadcasters are just one of the
powerhouse lobbies. The other lobbies are almost as strong as them.  So, if
you're going to get serious about reforming this thing, not just having your
groovy website for you and your cool friends to chat with each other off in the
margins, but really fight for the heart of the system, which I think we have to
fight for, then you're talking about getting involved, deeply involved, in
serious political organizing. Not just some Internet issues, and not just some
media and telecom issues, but on broad political issues, because the way we're
going to win this fight is to link issues of Internet reform and media reform
with broader social struggles.  Things like improving the quality of the
standard of living people have in this country, redistributing wealth,
undercutting the sheer and total domination of the wealthy and the corporations
over our political economy.  And when we've linked those things together, we'll
have a chance. Until then, we'll always be in the margins amusing ourselves.
In the current playing field, we can't win. In the current playing field we're
dealing with a situation where the vast majority of Americans are totally
demoralized and depoliticized, sitting on their couch with a remote control and
a bag of chips, convinced that nothing can change. And that is not an accident.
That is exactly the education they're receiving day in and day out: nothing can
change. What we've got to do is change that equation.  Until we change it we
can't win. But to change that, there's no mystery about it; it's getting
organized. That's how you change things. Getting people educated, organized and
participating, off the couch. Put the chips down, put the remote down, start
talking to people, get involved, and realize this is our country, not theirs,
and take it back.

Resources: The Global Media: The New Missionaries of Corporate Capitalism, by
Edward S.  Herman & Robert W. McChesney (Cassell, 1997). An expose and analysis
of the corporate takeover of the global media system, covering print media,
television, and telecommunications. It can be ordered for US$19.95 at
1-800-561-7704.  Corporate Media and the Threat to Democracy, by Robert W.
McChesney (Seven Stories Press, 1997) Telecommunications, Mass Media and
Democracy, by Robert W. McChesney (Oxford University Press, 1993). Chronicles
the political debate over how best to construct U.S. broadcasting in the 1920s
and 1930s.

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