What is Commercialism?

by: Thomas Streeter / University of Vermont

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PBS Logo with Sponsors

A wag once said, “if it’s British accents or fornicating spiders, it must be PBS.” Those of us who have spent some portion of the last fifty years in the US can turn on our TVs and more or less instantly notice whether our sets are tuned to a commercial or a PBS station. There are lots of tell-tale signs. Blaring commercial interruptions, laugh tracks, characters who live in dwellings that are strangely more upscale than real-life versions of those characters could afford — all are sure signs of American commercial TV. Talking heads in suits who go on for more than twenty seconds, or luscious pictures of exotic animals accompanied by sonorous explanatory voice-overs, signify a public station. The difference between commercial and non-commercial TV seems obvious.

But is it really? Think of all the terms we use: Commercial TV. The market. For-profit TV. Corporate TV. Advertising supported TV. Corporate media. We use these terms a lot, often interchangeably. But what do we really mean by them? Used precisely, they can all mean different things: you can have advertising-supported TV that’s non-profit (CBC in Canada, Britain’s Channel Four), for-profit TV that’s not operating in a market (because it’s a monopoly, or because it operates under government contract), and for-profit media that’s privately held and thus neither “corporate” nor advertising-supported (e.g., Mad Magazine). And of course, a corporation can be a church, or a grassroots activist group; a “corporation” is strictly speaking simply a legal entity that defines some group or collectivity with a shared goal or purpose. If we have a problem with, say, Time-Warner’s or Rupert Murdoch’s global media empires, calling them “corporate” does not really shed much light on the specific nature of our complaints.

Even people inside the industry are faced with some chronic uncertainty about the matter. True, the phrase, “this is a business,” constantly pops up in the conversations of industry executives. But why do they even need to say it? How often do stockbrokers or aluminum siding salesmen use the phrase? Nobody doubts that they are in a business. It is only in the case of TV, apparently, that people do have doubts. TV executives feel the need to assert that “this is a business” precisely because it’s not always self-evident that it is, or in what way it is so. The fact is, organizing the production and dissemination of televisual material as something that is bought and sold is a non-obvious activity, particularly in the absence of a ticket booth. The contemporary conundrums about business models caused by Tivos and Internet downloading are just the latest in a long line of structural puzzles the industry has faced since its inception.

In a graduate seminar, this would be the point in the discussion at which I’d talk a little about modes of production and encourage the students to go off and read some economic theory: theories of public goods, perhaps, or capital intensivity, or Fordism and post-Fordism. But the problem with this is not just that a search of the economic literature leads merely to a range of divergent theories that are equally brilliant and incommensurable. The problem is that these days, developing terminology that is precise, effective, and accessible is crucial to a sustainable media reform movement.

We need terminologies for media structure that will be vivid enough to come alive in broader public debates, and that will be precise enough to point the way to specific and effective alternatives.

One popular way to define “commercialism” is to say it is rooted in “the market” or market systems. Economic conservatives like this terminology because it has a political valence: the word “market” implies “free market” or “competitive market” which invokes the theory that freedom and democracy are naturally achieved through private property and investment (think “ownership society”), and that all things non-market are associated with its opposite, totalitarianism. Liberals and progressives often use this sense as well, because they think of the market as a system driven purely by greed, by cheap manipulative tricks done in search of the quick buck. There’s certainly a kind of truth to this — think of how, say, gratuitous cleavage is another obvious sign that the TV is tuned to a commercial channel.

But there are two problems with the left’s use of this term. The first is simply that one shouldn’t concede to the conservatives the notion that capitalism is identical with the competitive market. Corporations are arguably as much about limiting markets as supporting them. Capitalism generally relies on a delicate mix of stabilizing institutions and dynamic tendencies. As CBS founder William Paley once said, “sudden revolutionary twists and turns in our planning for the future must be avoided. Capital can adjust itself to orderly progress. It always does. But it retreats in the face of chaos.”[1] (Eileen Meehan has usefully suggested “corporate rivalry” as a better term than “competition” to describe the peculiar dance of the elephants characteristic of the Time-Warners and Disneys of our world.)

But there’s another problem with the left’s derogatory definition of commercialism as market driven. There’s a tendency to think that, since the market is based on self-interest, it is based on greed and is therefore immoral. When the villain of the film Wall Street, Gordon Gecko, proudly proclaims that “greed is good,” liberal viewers may enjoy gasping at the audacity of such a claim (and feel smugly satisfied at Gecko’s subsequent downfall in the film). But basically this simple disdain for market greed rests on a rationalist vision in which the satisfaction of desires is bad because it is opposed to reason or the “public good.” This cuts to the heart of some of the discussions we’ve been having on Flow of late: This assumption is problematic intellectually, because it relies on a version of Cartesian dualism in which bodily passions are framed as the opposite of the rational acts of the mind. And it is also problematic politically: most people do use media to satisfy desires, and a politics based on the notion that most people are debased is doomed to self-marginalization.

Perhaps a better way to think of commercialism is to focus on commercials, as in advertisements. Free markets are fine, when they are truly free and truly markets. But advertising support, the use of commercials to pay the bills, is essentially what even Mark Fowler called an “indirect market mechanism [wherein] the advertiser acts as the representative for consumers.”[2] If the arch-marketeer Fowler grants that there’s something “indirect” about the advertising system, that points to a weak link in his chain of reasoning. And advertising is indeed an odd and politically unsatisfying way to organize television; advertisers have their own agendas, which are not identical with most ordinary folk’s concerns.

Adorno and Horkheimer once observed that the “eccentricity of the circus, peepshow, and brothel is as embarrassing to [the culture industry] as that of Schoenberg and Karl Kraus.”[3] Adorno and Horkheimer’s problem with the culture industries was not that it was “low” culture; they could appreciate the carnivalesque, the genuine “lowbrow,” at least as well as Fiske. Their problem with was the odd and numbing effect of the highly coordinated and rationalized character of cultural production once it is wrested from the street and the carnival and awkwardly filtered through the needs of institutions dedicated to reducing the risks of mass producing consumer products. This is why TV so often seems to be almost but not quite interested in the lives of its viewers; TV is connected “indirectly,” as Fowler put it, at one remove from the complexity of viewers’ needs and desires. A media reform movement that focuses on the disappointing character of that “indirectness” might go further than a rationalist disdain of desire itself.

Notes:
[1] William S. Paley, FCC Informal Engineering Conference Vol. II, pp. 252-3, June 16, 1936, quoted in Frank C. Waldrop and Joeph Borkin, Television: A Struggle for Power (1938; reprint, New York: Anron Press and the New York Times, 1971).
[2] Mark S. Fowler and Daniel L. Brenner, “A Marketplce Approach to Broadcast Regulation,” Texas Law Review 60 (1982): p. 210 and p. 232.
[3] Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception,” from Dialectics of Enlightenment, 1973.

Image Credits:
1. PBS Logo with Sponsors

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The Problem of Morality in Media Policy

by: Thomas Streeter / University of Vermont

Janet Jackson
Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl XXXVIII mishap

Much of what passes for discussions of morality in media policy these days is at best silly, at worst reactionary. But it’s not enough to scoff at the shallowness and hypocrisies of moral panics like the recent Superbowl wardrobe malfunction fracas, or to elegantly chart their ideological functions. Of course, there’s little to be gained from the kind of moralizing often associated with academics who cluck their tongues at Howard Stern or Jerry Springer. Condescension of the popular, I agree, will get us nowhere. But completely dodging morality won’t get us very far, either; a rigorous post-Foucaultian moral anarchism, for all its intellectual appeals, can too easily function as an unintentional apology for the status quo or, worse, simply concede the field to naive moral absolutists. Occasionally seeking to distinguish between good and bad is, as Raymond Williams said about culture, “ordinary.”[1] It’s an ordinary part of people’s experience, and as such, moral discourse will inevitably play a role in shaping the future. Ignore that and you write yourself out of the game. Any effort to change media for the better must have a moral component.

So how do we talk about media and morality without sounding petty or holier-than-thou? I think we need to start by getting beyond the typical bifurcation of media matters into structural and cultural issues. On the structural side are questions of law, money, procedure, and technology, stories of big corporations, gadgets, and financial schemes. On the cultural side are hot button issues like pornography, violence, and the protection of children. And too often, I think,¬†US media and cultural studies scholars act as though we agree; we tend to divide our interests and scholarship along similar lines, policy folks over here, textual critics over there. There needs to be an approach that does not take the structure/culture bifurcation for granted. And one place to begin is by talking about the role of the subjective or cultural within classic structural media issues. Let’s do some cultural criticism of what goes on behind the screen. Rhetoric and style — the raw materials of culture — matter behind the screen as well as on it; if those of us trained in cultural and media studies are really going to act on all that’s been learned in the last thirty years, it’s not just that that culture matters, it’s that culture matters everywhere.

Take a current structural issue: the current experiments in wireless broadband, a possible candidate for the media infrastructure of the future (and a personal fascination of mine). At first glance, it seems to be all about technology standards, legal regulations, and money, stuff for self-important white guys in suits. Not what we spent all that time in graduate school deciphering Stuart Hall or Gayatri Spivak for.

But consider the following: in a recent interview, the FCC’s chief of policy development, Robert Pepper, was asked about new wireless networks. “Wireless ISPs,” he replied, “are some of the most exciting companies and developments that I’ve seen in a long time. You have a lot of little companies — we estimate somewhere between 2,000 and 2,500. They are providing broadband service in urban and also rural areas without subsidy. They are being deployed very rapidly at a low cost. They break even with relatively low penetration rates. They can operate on mountaintops. They can operate in inner cities and neighborhoods. This is very exciting.”

Notice that Pepper used the word “exciting” twice to describe Wireless ISPs. I don’t want to over interpret, but his use of the word “exciting” is significant. When someone like Pepper talks about, say, the transition from traditional to digital and high definition television, the talk is in the language of acronym-fluent technocrats: about orderly process, protecting stakeholders, striking a balance between competing interests, and so forth. All that stuff may sound important, but not “exciting.” Basically, Pepper’s description of wireless ISPs — small, fast, numerous, on mountaintops and in inner cities, and growing — follows the narrative lines of the tale of the plucky capitalist entrepreneur.

This is a moral discourse. It invokes a classic liberal narrative in which self-interested individual effort is constructed as a form of moral behavior. From Robinson Crusoe to Poor Richard’s Almanac to the novels of Ayn Rand to Little House on the Prairie, there’s a long and deep tradition of tales in which capitalist entrepreneurial behavior is celebrated as a sign of good character and a source of human progress. In the American context, these narratives have played a role in legitimating the very corporate capitalism that in the end undermines entrepreneurial possibilities. Pepper does not mention that these thousands of wonderful small businesses are eventually doomed to either be pushed aside by other technologies, or — if the technology does catch on — be swallowed up by larger corporate outfits (as has happened to the thousands of small phone-line-based ISPs that sprang up in the mid-1990s).

But it’s not all bad. Striking out on one’s own, taking a risk, making something new in a way that has integrity — these are all visions that have provided energy and support to many folks who could use it. The real question is how that discourse gets articulated. Currently, some city governments are exploring ways to build wireless broadband networks for their citizens that would operate on a non-profit basis, and the corporate world is doing everything it can to stop them, seeking to make such efforts illegal through state legislatures. How should struggles like this be framed? The traditional progressive tactic is to make it a struggle of the public good against private greed. But the “public good” can seem like a hollow phrase to many. Why not frame this another way? Isn’t this a case of local folks, through their city governments, setting out to build small and ingenious systems with which they can express themselves and connect to each other? Maybe it’s the cities that are on the side of the little guy and the experimenters, who are struggling against special interests who are using government to restrict the freedom to communicate. Competition is good, but allow the notion of competition to include accountable non-profit entities, like city governments, under its umbrella. (Michael Curtin has argued we need to support more and more diverse forms of public broadcasting; maybe the argument should focus on something like structural diversity; not just “public” channels or more channels, but more freedom in building channels.)

It’s now becoming routine in Hollywood to say that the media will change more in the next three to five years than it has in the last fifty. A struggle is now afoot over the future organization of media, a struggle that encompasses news, entertainment, and infrastructure. Up to this point, progressive activists are entering the struggle with a pretty narrow range of rhetorical tools, mostly focusing on the charge of media monopoly and a weak call to the “public good.” Let’s see if we can’t add a few more arrows, like structural diversity or nonprofit entrepreneurialism, to the activist quiver.

Note
[1]Raymond Williams, “Culture is Ordinary.” In Ann Gray and Jim McGuigan (Eds.), Studies in Culture: An Introductory Reader. London: Arnold, 1997 [1958], pp. 5-14.

Image Credits:
1. Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl XXXVIII mishap

Links
WISPA-Cut the Wires!
Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Home Page

Please feel free to comment.




Can the Social History of Audiences Contribute to Media Reform?

by: Thomas Streeter / University of Vermont

Zephyr Teachout, formerly a staffer for Howard Dean’s Presidential campaign, recently published an open memo to the Democratic Party about using the internet to help rejuvenate the Party at the grassroots. Teachout is intervening in a revival of an old argument: we are once again hearing that technology will save us. In recent years, the Dean campaign used the internet to overturn all the rules for political fundraising, internet bloggers have repeatedly made fools out of professional journalists, and internet downloads have been keeping media moguls awake at night. And so, some suggest, the two-way internet will triumph over one-way TV after all, the new media technology will turn us into a nation of active citizens instead of passive couch potatoes. The argument on the table is this: don’t just try to break up media monopolies or pass fairness doctrine regulations, or otherwise try to change the behavior of the mainstream media institutions in the hopes of forcing them to better serve democracy. No, go straight to the newest technologies and find your democracy there. The internet is the solution.

Many FlowTV readers will be aware of how familiar and generally disappointing the tradition of the technical fix has been: the telegraph was going to unite the peoples of the world, the airplane was going to end war (who would attack a country you could easily fly to?), cable television was going to end alienation and rejuvenate democracy (as was the CB radio), and of course we’ve already watched utopian hopes for the internet soar and crash once before, with the stock bubble.

Teachout’s version of the technical fix, however, is both more nuanced and has a twist: her argument is that the internet should be used to organize local, face-to-face Democratic groups, to create local organizations. Use the internet, not to disintermediate, but to reconnect, not to circumvent the local, but to facilitate local meetings of the like-minded, to find those in your community with whom you share a common interest.

This is the meetup.com model, which perhaps represents the one true internet innovation of the last several years. Blogs are just a variation on the personal web page, and political discussion lists are as old as email. The “Dean For America” meetups that occurred across the US were something new, however, and to the surprise of both the Dean staff and the rest of the world, they became a crucial part of the campaign. They provided strategic value, like fund-raising, and quick coordination of local with national efforts, but just as importantly they provided people with a uniquely intense, emotional connection to the campaign. There are now tens of thousands of Americans who will remember their experience of the Dean meetups of 2004 for the rest of their lives.

Teachout references Robert Putnam of Bowling Alone fame, but thankfully also Theda Skocpol’s less nostalgic work on the historical twists and turns of the relations of local community formation to political movements. Local groups, Teachout argues, amplify individuals’ sense of power; non-staffed local community building, she points out, has been central to the successes of the National Right to Life Committee, the Christian Coalition, and the National Rifle Association.

So what’s this have to do with the internet? “The internet,” she writes, “lowers the barrier to finding places to host public events, and telling people about them. If political . . . organizations with incentive and opportunity exploit this lowered barrier, the Internet could power a resurgence of a new version of the great American voluntary association.”

Perhaps. One wonders how much the internet can be the locus of much passion outside what Teachout acknowledges are “the prominent political blogs and sites that attract a primarily upper class white audience,” i.e., groups of people who already spend much of their day at the computer keyboard.

Part of what’s wrong with many instances of the technical fix is its naive view of media audiences: Americans, it is assumed, eagerly await clear access to information, and when new technologies give it to them, the scales will fall from their eyes and they will suddenly behave rationally, at the ballot box and elsewhere. The stereotype of the citizen yearning for enlightenment through information is American liberalism’s equivalent of the heroic worker of socialist realist orthodoxy.

This is where students of media and cultural studies have something to contribute: Fiskean simplicities about active audiences aside, a number of sophisticated ethnographic and, particularly, historical studies of audiences-as-communities have appeared in recent years. Focused on the complex relations of TV to communities and social conflicts, all point to a richer way of thinking about the relation of media to publics, polities, and social groupings. To mention just a few: Lynn Spigel, in her study of the introduction of the television set into suburban homes in the 1950s, argued that trends like the suburb or television should be seen not as the decline of community, but contexts for the formation of new types of communities; these new modes of life have their own distinct pressures and structures, but they are communities nonetheless. Kathleen Newman’s history of the intersections of radio with consumer actions like organized boycotts in the 1940s adds to the picture of the ways that media and new social movements can interact. And Steve Classen’s rich study of the relations of TV to Southern civil rights struggles in the 1950s and 1960s provides a vivid example of how legal and political struggles over the control of TV can become a galvanizing part of local organizing.

This work demonstrates neither naive optimism about audiences nor the sugar-coated cynicism of much marketing research. The TV set in the living room, the neighborhood Church, the hunting club, and yes, the internet-connected personal computer all can become, for various people at various times, not just a backdrop for and tools within the rhythms of our everyday lives, but tools that on occasion help crystallize groups into passionate political action. But the occasion for politically positive action is always complicated, involving a rich stew of struggles, cultural trends, and both self- and public-interests.

Michael Curtin, in his last column for Flow, argued that we need to emphasize “the potential of a public commons as a basic condition for modern democracy.” A public commons, though, is perhaps neither just a place nor a technology; it is a social event, a collective passion, something that bubbles up out of the complexities of social life, not a location or structure that is somehow shielded from those complexities. In the heat of the moment, both romances and revolutions seem like their own driving force and explanation. But years later, when we look back on them, we can recognize all the multiple things that came together to create the conditions for the passion. Making sense of the role of media in understanding how communities do and do not become politically energized, I think, is something our field can offer those working to create a more democratic world.

References

James W. Carey with John Quirk: “The Mythos of the Electronic Revolution,” and “The History of the Future,” in Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Society, Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1989, pp. 113-141 and pp. 173-200.

Steven Douglas Classen, Watching Jim Crow: The Struggles Over Mississippi Television, 1955-1969. Duke UP, 2004.

Kathleen M. Newman, Radio Active : Advertising and Consumer Activism, 1935-1947. U of California P, 2004.

Lynn Spigel, Make Room for TV: Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America. U of Chicago P, 1992.

Links
Tom Streeter on Media Left Out?
Michael Curtin on Murdoch
Frederick Wasser on the Fairness Doctrine
Toby Miller on Fox News
Howard Dean’s Democracy for America

Please feel free to comment.




Media Left Out?

by: Thomas Streeter / University of Vermont

Never has the need for media reform been more obvious, more urgent, or — judging by everything from Moveon.org surveys[1] to downloads of the Jon Stewart Crossfire clip — more popular. But what, exactly, are we asking for? What kind of media are we trying to create?

The demand for a media that simply “tells the truth” has a lot of bite right now. A “truth-based” journalism would certainly be an improvement over the journalistic habit of getting a quote from a Democrat and a Republican and calling it a day. And it’s horrifyingly plausible that, if the New York Times, with all its agenda-setting power, simply had gotten the facts straight about Iraqi WMDs, the US may never have gone to war in Iraq and the world would not now be facing an escalating cycle of violence, a globalized version of the nightmare of the West Bank.

But over the long term, factual failures are better understood as symptoms than as causes. It would be convenient if left positions and a self-evident “truth” were identical, but it’s more complicated. The power of, say, the anti-abortion movement can not be fully explained in terms of false facts, and even the astonishing persistence in the polls of the belief in a Saddam-9/11 link cannot be simply attributed to media falsehoods or silences. Face it: a few more CNN segments explaining the lack of a Saddam-9/11 link would not automatically have caused the scales to fall from the eyes of Bush supporters. If you think about it a little (and if you know something about the complexities of how people answer questions from pollsters), the persistent belief in a Saddam-9/11 link is probably a product of people trying to account for their world from within a system of belief; in this case, the misunderstanding about the link is a clue about underlying patterns of belief, not just an inaccurate data point that, if corrected, could change hearts and minds. Those interested in democratic social change are stuck, like it or not, with what Stuart Hall aptly called the “problem of ideology,” where the concept of ideology works, not as “false consciousness” or as an all-purpose excuse for why people disagree with us, but as a way into the slippery terrain of contest among implicit belief systems, belief systems that are as much about values as they are about facts.[2]

So is this is a straightforward right vs. left issue, where the right wants a media that reflects their ideology — more Fox, less NPR — and the left wants the opposite? That also can’t be right. First, if the left position is simply that media needs be more “leftish,” then what does that say about our relationship to our fellow citizens who voted for Bush — that we are simply smarter than they are, that we can see through the biased media and they can’t? Second, speaking as though it’s about left vs. right too easily plays into the hands of those powerful media interests who imagine themselves as “centrists” (e.g., the New York Times and big TV news operations), who smugly point to the fact that they are regularly lambasted by both Rush Limbaugh and Noam Chomsky as proof that they are “neutral” and “objective.” So accusing the main agenda-setting organs of the American news media of being “right wing” or “conservative” doesn’t really get at the root of the problem.

Calling them “corporate” media is a little closer to the point, perhaps, in the sense that they present a picture of the world congruent with a multinational capitalist system with giant, coordinated, transnational multi-unit enterprises at is core. But you have to read The Economist to find a news outlet that actually makes the argument for corporate capitalism. NBC, CBS, ABC, and CNN may be congruent with corporate capitalism, but they do not come out and say so. The problem is not just one of explicit political point of view; it’s a trickier one about the relation of media to power.

The fact is, as a leftist there are right-wing media that strike me as more honest than certain “liberal” media. I prefer, say, the conservative columnist George Will’s avuncular musings to NPR’s Cokie Roberts’ inside-the-beltway gossip dressed up as news. I’d rather read The Economist making the case that globalization brings people better lives than any other mode of development — at least that’s an argument — than watch thirty seconds of coverage on CNN that presents anti-globalization protestors as colorfully clueless, as if there was no argument to make. I recently stumbled on an episode of Faith Under Fire, a program on the conservative Christian entertainment network PAX TV, that featured a conservative Israeli Jew arguing with an articulate representative of the Nation of Islam on the question of whether or not Islam was an inherently violent religion; give me that debate over a typical PBS Newshour’s talking suits any day. Clear disagreement is preferable to obfuscation.

Perhaps the core of the problem is simply that which was laid out by media sociologists beginning in the 1970s: whether you take the analysis of Todd Gitlin’s Whole World is Watching, Gaye Tuchman’s Making News, or Hebert Gans’ Deciding What’s News, the general idea is that the media cannot simply present a picture of reality to the public, that news operations operate under constraints of time, money, and belief and so fall back on shared routines and a kind of “groupthink” that defines news as whatever other reporters say is news. This creates a kind of news that follows a standardized “master narrative” generated by the interaction of reporters with private and public bureaucratic power (“reliable sources”), and from that flows all those annoying journalistic traditions that we have all become accustomed to, such as substance-free strategy — and horse-race coverage of political campaigns that focus on trivia (swift boats) and that promulgate questionable underlying assumptions (Kerry is electable and Howard Dean is not). Or remember when Ahmed Chalabi was considered a reliable source, and Scott Ritter was an irrelevant ideologue? Jon Stewart’s Crossfire interview just made popularly available something that media sociologists have been arguing for decades.

But if we know this is the problem, what are we to do about it? The scholarly community reached a rather solid consensus on these problems in the early 1980s, yet the journalistic profession remains for the most part oblivious. Columbia professor Jay Rosen‘s heroic efforts in the 1990s to promote “public journalism,” to present things in a way that might simply persuade working journalists and news editors to behave differently, did not save us from WMDs or swift boats or over-playing of the Dean scream.

The problem is structural, a system of constraints that no amount of pleading with reporters will change. “Media monopoly” is the left’s favored buzzword for that structure, but that term has serious limitations: there are problems of definition (what level of ownership concentration is not a monopoly?) and the phrase simplifies the nature of the problem and its solution. As The Nation‘s Katha Politt once put it,

Would less megacorporate ownership mean more “democracy”? …the implication is that breaking up the media monopolies would mean more diversity of voices and views, more “progressive” politics in the media and in life. That chain of logic strikes me as questionable. . . If conglomeratization is the problem, how come Newsweek, which is owned by The Washington Post, is like a dumbed-down, hyped-up version of Time, and not the other way around? Was Time a more uplifting publication when it was run and owned by Henry Luce? Hasn’t mainstream journalism, for well over a hundred years, been in the business of delivering readers to advertisers and ratifying the status quo? The attack on conglomeratization veers uncomfortably close to a celebration of the nonexistent good old days.[3]

I’m trying to start a discussion here, rather than end it. So I’ll conclude with a series of perhaps provocative principles, in the hope that discussing them might lead us in the direction of a more effective progressive media politics. So, if we are to achieve a media that will encourage a more democratic world:

1) “Truth based” reporting is a necessary but insufficient criteria.
2) Efforts must focus on media structure, not merely the behavior of individual reporters and news outlets.
3) “Media monopoly” is at best shorthand for a much more complicated set of problems, and by itself the phrase does not point to solutions.
4) Something like the concept of “ideology” — in its cultural studies, not orthodox Marxist, sense — needs to become central to progressive media reform efforts.

Recent Flow articles of interest:

Toby Miller, “Why Fox News is a Good Thing.”
Frederick Wasser, “Fairness Doctrine Now, Will it Really Hush Rush?”

Notes
On Nov. 21 evening house parties across the country, MoveOn members were asked to determine “which issues were most important…to pursue together in the next four years.” The results:
1. Election reform — 5691 votes
2. Media reform — 4529 votes
3. The Iraq war — 4488 votes
4. The environment — 3581 votes
5. The Supreme Court — 3031 votes
6. Civil liberties — 3018 votes
“The Problem of Ideology – Marxism without Guarantees,” in B.Matthews (ed.), Marx 100 Years On. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1983.
Katha Pollitt, “Their Press and Ours,” The Nation, November 10, 1997, No. 15, Vol. 265; Pg. 9.

Links
Move On
Jon Stewart Crossfire clip
New York Times
Fox
NPR
Rush Limbaugh
Noam Chomsky
Faith Under Fire

Please feel free to comment.




Desperately Seeking Bandwidth

by: Thomas Streeter / University of Vermont

Until last winter, my home had been internet-free by choice. I had plenty of the stuff at work, it seemed to me. But then one morning my laptop, sitting on my dining room table and unconnected to anything, unexpectedly began retrieving my email all of its own accord. Mystified, I poked around a little and discovered that a neighbor had installed a wireless network in his home, and my laptop had detected that network and auto-connected. Broadband internet had chased me down into the privacy of my home.

And then it seduced me. My neighbor’s signal would fade in and out, but when it worked, it was oddly compelling. Yes, it was convenient to be able to check the movie schedule online, or send an email the moment it occurred to me. But there was something more, a craving, a constructed lack, evidenced by an outsized sense of frustration and annoyance when my neighbor’s system suddenly disappeared from the airwaves, leaving me in a state that had only a short time before seemed entirely satisfactory. Work on an online course gave me an excuse to give in to the urge and order broadband. But in the back of my head, I knew it was just an excuse. Really, I was responding to a compulsion.

My first try was with Verizon DSL. After a promising start ordering direct from their website — might friction-free ecommerce be a reality after all? — I ran in to problems. I went through countless rounds of vague robotic phone messages left on my answering machine (”Verizon has determined that we are unable to provide service to your address”) and lots of tinny Vivaldi while I sat on hold waiting for tech support. After three weeks I finally arrived home one day and found a phone message in the sonorous voice of Verizon spokesperson James Earl Jones, welcoming me to DSL and encouraging me to start my service. But then I picked up the phone. No dial tone. Every phone line in my house was dead. From hopes of high tech to no tech at all. It occurred to me that the message on my phone had the voice of Darth Vader.

No one needs broadband in the home. Plain old telephone service is cheaper, more reliable, and much more useful in life-threatening situations. Broadband belongs in the category of discretionary spending — alongside psychotherapy, mag wheels, and Barbie dolls. So why did this frustrating experience make me only more determined to get broadband?

When I was a kid growing up in the 1960s, telecommunications was just there, an unchanging part of the landscape. Phones were uniform, indestructible things solidly attached to the wall, and they all worked, pretty much all the time. As a child, once you’d learned the basics of dialing a rotary phone, there wasn’t much else to think about. We called the phone company “Ma Bell,” because it just seemed an inevitable and unchanging presence in the background of life, neither interesting nor worrisome (which perhaps also says something about how we understood motherhood back then). Those were the days of the AT&T monopoly, when one giant phone company owned just about everything, including the wires in your walls and the phones attached to them. That monopoly, established approximately a century ago and fully consolidated in the 1920s and ’30s, had by the 1950s provided the U.S. with the cheapest, most reliable phone system in the world.

But it also turned out to be against the law. In 1984 the U.S. Justice Department broke up AT&T into several regional divisions dubbed the “baby bells,” and made it legal to compete with the phone companies at multiple levels, from long-distance service to consumer devices. That event, combined with ever cheaper microchips and their derivations like microcomputers and modems, ushered in the era of answering machines, phones in bubble packs at the corner store, and dinner-time harassment from competing providers of long-distance service. The era of humdrum, reliable communications was over. The days of constant, eerily fluctuating ways to communicate had commenced.

So here I was deep in the new era. The next day, after being treated to more Vivaldi on my office phone, I asked the Verizon DSL tech support person, can DSL really wipe out someone’s phone service? He ticked off a list of what were to me incomprehensible technical phrases, and then concluded, “yes, it could happen.” He directed me to local phone repair office. “Should I tell them this might have been caused by DSL?” I asked. “Off the record,” he replied, “I’d say definitely not. If they think it’s the DSL division’s fault they might send you back to us and you could get stuck in an infinite loop between divisions. Just tell them your phone’s out, and let them figure it out.” As a Franz Kafka fan, I knew to follow his advice.

The local phone repairman who showed up to restore my dial tone, “Bill” (not his real name) was a pleasant, quiet man. He concluded he needed to put in completely new lines from the trunk. Watching him work, I was impressed by the fluid skill with which he stripped and wrapped wires, fitted boxes, and manipulated tools while high on the pole. At one point he looked at the wires in my basement and said, “That connection is older than me, and I’m almost fifty.” Bill’s expert craftsmanship was a legacy of the old era, embodying a century of institutional experience with copper wire telephone technology. And that skill was valuable; I needed it. As he left, I thought about the way the new era impacted him: phone company employees have been fighting a twenty-year, usually losing battle against downsizing and cutbacks, while their upper management simultaneously wildly inflates their own salaries and gropes for ways to replace their employees with nonunion workers and machines.

Having lost confidence in Verizon’s abilities to handle new-era technology, I then moved on to a new local start-up snappily named “Soundtivity,” which offered internet service that involved wirelessly beaming a signal to my rooftop from nearly a mile away, completely leapfrogging the old-era infrastructure. A few days later, a twenty-something young man stood at my doorstep in shorts, t-shirt, and tennis shoes, a coil of odd black cable over his shoulder: “Jeremy Ward, Soundtivity CEO,” according to his business card. Behind him stood Richard, “Director of Marketing” (which, judging by appearances, meant he was the guy who carries the ladder). “This shouldn’t take more than an hour,” said Jeremy confidently.

A month later, Jeremy and Richard had been to my house close to ten times, so often that they’d become friendly with my nine-year old son and familiar with where I kept the Cokes in the fridge; they were beginning to feel like roommates. There had been much drilling, fiddling with cables, servers, and antennas, and repeated scrambling in and out of my bedroom window to reach my chimney. It took them about a week to get a some kind of internet signal into my house, but it was slow, only a fraction of the 1.2 mbps they had promised, so they persevered. I’d been watching fairly closely, at first out of curiosity, and then out of fear for the integrity of my home’s walls, as it became clear that their installation skills were not exactly well-honed. Watching Jeremy balance at the top of the ladder, a laptop in one hand while grasping the chimney with the other, I wondered if he could afford to buy himself health insurance.

Jeremy sometimes called and asked me to test my connection speed using a special website. I began checking the site obsessively. You go to the site, click on a “test” button and, after a few minutes, a bar graph appears, with the kbps speed of your connection graphically indicated in a red bar, in between a series of green bars representing other typical speeds. The bars also have labels: the shortest green bar, 33.6 kbps, the speed of a modem on a slow phone line, is labeled “ugh.” As the bars get longer, up into 200-400 kbps range, the label shifts to “OK.” But the label “broadband” is reserved for 500 kbps and above. Curious, I eventually tried running the test on my laptop in a wireless-equipped coffee shop: over 2048 kbps, which earns the label “fast,” just below the green “very fast.” And then, on campus in mid-summer with no students to slow the network down, I jacked in my ethernet cable to a site which I knew to have extra-high-speed connections: the result, well over 5000 kbps, is labeled, “Dude!” Broadband’s perfect wave.

In the broad historical view, that 1960s “Ma Bell” sense of stability was really just a brief moment of calm in a longer history of weird turbulent change in how we communicate. From the spread of the telegraph in the 1850s to radio amateurs in the ‘teens to rural satellite dish aficionados of the 1980s, there have often been periods where manic tinkerers take the lead in exploring new possibilities for telecommunications, while the more stable, lumbering institutions struggle to adjust. Yes, it is driven by vertiginous capitalist forces, but not in a way that can be neatly reduced to need or rational economic calculation. As U.S. household penetration of broadband internet creeps towards fifty percent, it’s worth remembering that what economists call “demand” and what film theorists call “desire” are just as clearly related as they are different.

After four months, I’m getting a reliable 600 kbps speed from Soundtivity. Jeremy recently told me that he’s “deemphasizing” residential service (if every installation went like mine, I’d guess, he’d be out of business in no time). He’s noticed that, because Verizon is putting mid-sized broadband providers out of business by using its deep pockets to undersell them, DSL routing equipment is appearing at bargain prices on EBay. Nimble entrepreneur that he is, he hopes to send wireless internet signals to the tops of mountains and then use the recycled DSL equipment to run the service to farms and other isolated rural spots that the big companies do not want to bother with. But to his credit, he is not giving up on me. He’s proposed bumping my system up to a higher band, which might get the speed he originally promised. I don’t really need it. But it sure would be cool.

Links
Soundtivity
Wikipedia: “Bandwidth”
How DSL Works

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