MEDIA MONOPOLIES, AND CENSORSHIP
By Roland Watson
Before examining advertising in detail, we should review the general consequences of the media: the tactics that they use; how and what they communicate - the messages and values that they give us; and how they shape us into a mass market.
Regarding tactics, the media, as corporations, attempt to increase their power and thereby obtain monopoly market positions. They do this via acquisition, to obtain competing newspapers, magazines, publishing companies, radio stations, television stations and networks, cable and satellite networks, and internet companies; and also via other tactics, such as price wars, to destroy weaker threats. (A related example is Microsoft's packaging of its various software products with Windows, to eliminate its competitors.)
Furthermore, since these market consolidation trends have been underway in the media industry for some time, their effects are becoming clear. All forms of public media with widespread distribution are being concentrated in a very few hands. Companies including News Corp., AOLTime Warner, Disney, Viacom, General Electric, AT&T, and Microsoft have essentially divided up the world of information, and obtained unprecedented power. [We can of course now add Google, Facebook and a few other large internet companies to this list.]
This in turn is having profound effects in the areas of information access and censorship, because the media control what we see and hear. We see what they want us to see. For example, when you watch TV you might think that you are seeing "the real world," but this is rarely the case. TV is not an open forum. Many people would like airtime to present their views, or art, or to provide education, but they are not allowed on. TV access is almost entirely limited to the representatives of institutions, and the views that you get are those of the institutions. Individuals are excluded. What you see on TV is regularly a very distorted view of reality, or not reality at all, but some unreal fantasy constructed to meet an institutional end. (Because of this, watching TV is unlikely to widen your view. Rather, it distorts it, and it also restricts it, and your life, if you use it - the time you spend watching it and what you see on it - as an excuse not to go out into the world.)
As a result of the vast media industry consolidation, much of what you are allowed to see conforms to the wishes of a very few people, such as Rupert Murdoch, the owner of News Corp.
It is critical to understand that if the media do not show or publish something, the public - you and I - will not know that it exists. For instance, at any point in time in the music industry, artists are developing and refining new forms of musical expression. But, in general, the only music that regularly gets airtime, on the radio and TV, that is included in playlists, is popular music. But popular music is not a true artistic form, an expression of real creative originality. Rather, it is a formula-driven product around which credible financial estimates can be made. In other words, if you put four or five cute boys or girls together, who can sing and dance a bit, and then have some musicians write and play some vapid music for them, you know, with certainty, that you can sell a million compact disks to teenage girls, at $15 or more per CD, on a $3 per CD production cost.
With such profit margins virtually guaranteed, all real music, which by definition is original (it is art), and hence its reception by the public is subject to some uncertainty, will be considered too risky and therefore will not be published. There are innumerable currents in music artistry now, and at any time, including a whole host of new artists, and the new works of existing composers, songwriters and bands, but the chances are, by far, that you have heard none of them, since they are not deemed to be "commercial."
"We're prohibited from reaching people, from being on the radio, from being on MTV, from being in 'Rolling Stone' and 'Spin.' That's where people get their information. And we're not on any of them. So, according to them, we don't exist. ...
We're not playing the right games. We don't fit in. We don't help them sell things. It's all about selling products."
- Exene Cervenka, of the band "X," The Nation (Thailand), January 2, 1996
What this also reflects is that the system wants you to think that you do not need exposure to new creative expression, to real originality, in any art form. We are shaped to want, to accept willingly, only rehashes of the same old stuff, which we have heard or seen many times before, because it sells so well.
Another type of censorship is the media's refusal to publish views that are critical of themselves or of their partners or clients. For example, the last British governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, wrote a book about the transition there to Chinese rule, which was highly critical of the communists. This book was sold to Harper Collins, the largest publishing house in the world, and formerly independent. But it has now been acquired by News Corp., and Rupert Murdoch, anxious not to disturb his extensive array of commercial interests with the Chinese dictators, had the contract terminated.
Even worse, The Times of London, one of the oldest and most prestigious newspapers in the world, truly one of the last bastions of objectivity in the face of overpowering commercial pressure, has also been acquired by Murdoch. It refused to report on the dispute between Harper Collins and Patten, and now the objectivity of its coverage of China, and anyone else with whom Murdoch has dealings, is suspect.
(Patten did get his book published, by the way, but then he was a senior representative of a major social institution.)
This type of censorship, which is called "editorial censorship," or the purposeful non-publication of critical or non-conformist views, or forms of artistic expression, also exists at the level of media distribution, which has itself been subject to the same trend of industry consolidation. You might even call it secondary censorship: an artist or writer might have his or her work published, but that does not mean that you are going to hear about it, or be able to buy it in the stores.
"Because of its size and economic clout, the power wielded by a corporation like Wal-Mart, the only local retailer of music in much of the country, is very much akin to that of a government. ... [it] has effectively given them power over what we see and hear."
- Stephen Sokoloff, in a letter to Time magazine
(Also, until they were taken to court, music companies forced such distributors to set a minimum sales price.)
In addition, the same issue exists with formal education, since schools are the primary distributors of textbooks. If school administrators disagree with the views presented in the textbooks, they may well exercise censorship, by refusing teachers permission to use them.
Now, if all of this sounds like dictatorship, you are not mistaken. Everyone knows that in a political dictatorship, the media are controlled by the dictator. Unfortunately, it appears that for all our political freedom the same state of affairs exists in democracies as well. It is just that the dictators are not government leaders; they are media and corporate barons (and school boards and principals).
Further evidence of editorial or self-censorship is clearly present in the news. As we have seen, the media will not publish stories that are critical of their owners, partners or clients. This also extends to their sources. In addition, we are at the mercy of what the media themselves consider to be important. Reporters are also highly subject to conditioning, and therefore trends and fads, and will cover extensively those that are currently popular. (Indeed, they help make them popular.) But reporters get bored easily, and then cease their coverage. A formerly trendy problem or issue may still exist, but we no longer hear about it, because the reporters do not care about it anymore.
Of course, some problems are always viewed as important. A few deaths in the Middle East will always get covered in the U.S. media, although a genocide in Central Africa, or in Burma, may not.
This brings us to the issue of bias. Reporters, it seems, cannot be relied upon to maintain their objectivity. They feel compelled to inject their own views and interpretations. And this, of course, is one of the main entry points of form, because many readers and viewers will accept these opinions as fact, as reality.
But it is not as if this is unintended. It is important to remember that the reporters are employees of social institutions, and are seeking to fulfill those institutions' needs. They are intentional propagandists. They want to influence the public, not just report to it. If reality does not fit their agenda (or their ill-conceived ideas), it must be forced to conform to it.
"But now reporters came to the story with the lead fixed in their minds; they saw their job as proving what they already knew."
Airframe, Michael Crighton, Arrow, page 133
It seems that nothing they say, and also nothing that they show, can be trusted. Indeed, any visual image - still photo or video - can be altered with computers and digitization. If need be, history can be rewritten.
"Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past."
- George Orwell, 1984
Orwell's mistake was assuming that such a social system (his views were shaped by exposure to Soviet communism) would necessarily be overpoweringly oppressive and totalitarian, and in this regard he underestimated his foes. Modern propagandists, modern thought police, understanding the value of subtlety, have recognized that they can obtain the greatest power and control by allowing us to believe that we are still in charge.
© Roland Watson 2016