Speaking on the necessity of a free press in a democratic society, Thomas Jefferson once wrote:
The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.
Similar sentiments run strong today as grassroot networks struggle to stop Congress, from passing the Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement (COPE) Act of 2006. In spite of these efforts, it has already passed through the House of Representatives.
This paper attempts to call attention to the significance of this threat by pointing to certain historical precedents described by Robert McChesney and others. I situate my presentation of those precedents and their political ramifications through a critique of Robert D. Putnam’s arguments in his popular bestseller, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2001).
Many of the same telecommunications giants who willfully handed over millions of Americans’ phone records to George W. Bush’s National Security Agency stand to reap considerable financial gains if Congress passes the COPE Act. Given the crony-capitalism that has been the hallmark of the Bush administration and its Republican-controlled Congress, we could easily suspect some form of quid pro quo relationship between these recent events. COPE might well be the government’s payback to AT&T, Verizon, and others for their “patriotic” contributions to the ongoing “war on terror,” which has proven to be a greater deterrent to democracy than to terrorism. If it passes the Senate, COPE will seriously scale back the growing populist groundswell created by the internet’s power to allow us to by-pass the corporate media filters for our news, information, and ideas. COPE would bring those same filters to the internet, effectively privatizing control of internet content by placing it in the hands of corporations.
We shudder to think about where the progressive movement would be today in the absence of a free and open internet. In no small measure, the internet has become our new public forum, an electronic town commons. As investigative journalism has died a quiet death in the hands of corporate media conglomerates, independent bloggers have displaced newspaper, radio, and television reporters as the muckraking journalists of today. Blogs enable common citizens to share information, ideas, and opinions free from government or corporate censorship. The internet has triggered its own electronic Enlightenment and democratic Renaissance, mobilizing people to organize and resist the plutocratic and autocratic control of the corporate state. Though it also offers corporations tremendous opportunities for egregious profiteering, COPE threatens to bring this growing community of democratic dissent to a close by moving the internet from public control to private control.
Privatization carries the potential, as most words do, to hold more than one meaning. Typically, it refers to the act of shifting the ownership and control of some system created for the delivery or production of goods or services from what we call the “public sector” to the private sector. Furthermore, we associate this sense of privatization with neoliberalism, the dominant set of economic policies of the past twenty-five years. Privatization, according to Putnam, might also provide an apt description of what has happened to the American character over the past forty-five years. In his national bestseller, Bowling Alone (2001), Putnam feigns an effort to seriously consider this phenomenon, though he fails or refuses to discuss either the benefits it has held for our nation’s plutocratic elites or their role in bringing it about. Though he accurately identifies the fact of America’s civic disengagement, Putnam’s efforts to identify the factors behind it strike us as paradigmatic of what “the lively 19th century working class press” called “‘the bought priesthood’” (cited by Chomsky, 1995) of respectable intellectuals. Putnam, after all, holds the position of Peter and Isabel Malkin Professor of Public Policy, at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. In spite of all of the recent uproar over the alleged liberal bias of the American professoriate, you simply don’t get hired into such “prestigious” positions in elite universities (whose elite status is largely determined as a factor of how much money students’ parents can afford to pay) by discussing structural factors that have contributed to civic disengagement.
Short of following Henry Kissinger’s advice on how to become an expert (articulating the consensus of the powerful), Putnam chooses the well-traveled path of maintaining enough obfuscation in his analysis to allow the reader ample opportunity to reach the only reasonable conclusion: blame the victim. For example, in one breath Putnam laments how “union membership has been falling for nearly four decades, with the steepest decline occurring between 1975 and 1985” (1995). With the next breath, however — albeit in an endnote — , he attempts to dissuade his readers from succumbing to “any simplistically political interpretation of the collapse of American unionism,” that would ignore “the fact that the steepest decline began more than six years before the Reagan administration’s attack on PATCO (the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization). Data from the General Social Survey show a roughly 40–percent decline in reported union membership between 1975 and 1991” (Ibid). Putnam, here, wants readers to think that that any “political interpretation of the collapse of American unionism” would be both “simplistic” (and therefore not worthy of any further consideration), and limited in its scope to Reagan’s attack on PATCO. In performing this rhetorical maneuver, he effectively eliminates in his readers’ mind the possibility that a less “simplistic,” but nonetheless “political” interpretation, might link the “steepest decline” in unionism that “began six years before” Reagan, to the downsizing and outsourcing of the U.S. manufacturing sector (deindustrialization). Begun in the mid-1970s, the process resulted in devastating numbers of job losses, particularly in the heavily unionized sectors of the country’s manufacturing base. Putnam prefers to leave his readers believing that those job losses were as natural as the falling leaves in autumn, and that American workers just suddenly lost their interest in union activism, as if they quit caring about their wages, benefits, safety, and other issues tied to the their working conditions. And therein lies the ironic travesty of Putnam’s analysis. He writes a book lamenting the civic disengagement of America, but then perpetuates it by de-politicizing the milieu in which it occurred.
What more should we expect from someone who expresses less concern for the destruction of the working class’ primary mode of collective organizing than he does for what he sees as one of its favorite pastimes: bowling? “Between 1980 and 1993,” Putnam writes,
the total number of bowlers in America increased by 10 percent, while league bowling decreased by 40 percent. (Lest this be thought a wholly trivial example, I should note that nearly 80 million Americans went bowling at least once during 1993, nearly a third more than voted in the 1994 congressional elections and roughly the same number as claim to attend church regularly. Even after the 1980s’ plunge in league bowling, nearly 3 percent of American adults regularly bowl in leagues.) The rise of solo bowling threatens the livelihood of bowling-lane proprietors because those who bowl as members of leagues consume three times as much beer and pizza as solo bowlers, and the money in bowling is in the beer and pizza, not the balls and shoes. The broader social significance, however, lies in the social interaction and even occasionally civic conversations over beer and pizza that solo bowlers forgo. Whether or not bowling beats balloting in the eyes of most Americans, bowling teams illustrate yet another vanishing form of social capital. (1995)
Not only should we suspect that Dr. Putnam wouldn’t know a “7-10 split” if he saw one, we should also suspect that his research into the economics of bowling might have been lacking in some respects. It happens that my wife recently took our youngest son, Jacob, to our local AMF lanes. She won’t be doing it again anytime soon. Even before they left the alleys, she called me from her cell phone to tell me how shocked she was over the amount of money she had to spend for just over an hour’s worth of bowling. One game, for one person, cost $3.75, which meant it cost the two of them $7.50 per game, plus $3.00 each to rent shoes, and exorbitant prices for food and beverages. For two games each, plus shoes, snacks, and drinks, she paid nearly thirty dollars! Granted, we can attribute some of these high prices to the decline in league bowling that so concerns Putnam. However, perhaps Putnam could have turned to the work of his former Harvard colleague, Juliet Schor, author of The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure (1993), to explain how most families simply no longer have the time to bowl or otherwise accumulate the social capital that he views them as lacking. Alternatively, we could also attribute a significant amount of the drop-off in the popularity of bowling to the consequences of neoliberalism’s monetarist policies set in motion shortly after Paul Volcker, then Chairman of the Federal Reserve, proclaimed that: “The standard of living of the average American has to decline. I don’t think you can escape that” (Parenti, 1999, p. 119, cited in Hursh & Martina, 2003) – a matter to which I will return later in this paper.
An alternative approach to studying the privatization of the American character could begin, first, by challenging Putnam’s own “simplistic” discussion of what he identifies as its prime “culprit” – television. Though we should applaud Putnam for so correctly identifying the timing of the onset of America’s civic disengagement – the 1950s, he limits his critique of television to its qualities as a medium that renders its audience passive, and thereby inhibits people’s desires to engage in more active pursuits. He completely ignores — once again eschewing the political – any discussion of television as a pedagogical force that shapes public consciousness, and as part of that consciousness, individuals’ sense of political agency. To quote a popular slogan, “there’s a reason they call it ‘programming,’” and Putnam does nothing to address television’s role in mediating the relations between everyday class struggles and structures of power.
Putnam similarly ignores the history of broadcasting, and the political maneuverings responsible for creating the system of radio and television broadcasting that we have come to accept as natural and inevitable. As Robert McChesney points out, however, that system is neither natural nor inevitable. Rather, it “is the direct result of government laws and subsidies that created it” (2000). The problem,” as McChesney observes, lies with the fact that while “the system we have in radio and television today is the direct result of government policies that have been made in our name, in the name of the people, on our behalf,” those policies were established “without our informed consent” (2000).
Unlike today’s satellite radio industry, which was — like cable TV — born as a corporate dominated enterprise, radio broadcasting in the 1920 was remarkably decentralized. As McChesney informs us, “approximately one-third of the early broadcasters were affiliated with non-profit organizations like universities, churches and civic organizations; their stated purposes were eleemosynary, not profit-related” (1992). Furthermore, he goes on to explain, “there was no organized opposition to commercial broadcasting as that system did not exist and no one anticipated that it ever would” (Ibid). That, however, would change after 1926, when a Federal judge’s decision ruling it unconstitutional for the Department of Commerce to license radio stations created a crisis that led to the Radio Act of 1927. This legislation created the Federal Radio Commission (FRC) and, ultimately led to the corporate/commercial broadcasting system that we know today. 1926 and 1927 also witnessed the formation of the nation’s first, and for many years the nation’s only, broadcasting networks. In 1926, the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) bought WEAF, the nation’s first commercial radio station, from AT&T and created the National Broadcasting Company (NBC); 1927 marked the founding of the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS). These two networks would play a huge role in the subsequent decisions made the FRC, whose membership was almost exclusively comprised of people who either already had close ties to commercial radio, or who would eventually gain executive positions at either NBC or CBS. It should not surprise us, then, to learn that the FRC, working “in virtual secrecy from Congress or the public,” would, in reallocating the nation’s airwaves, award 37 out of 40 clear channel stations to the networks. “By the early 1930s,” McChesney writes,
NBC and CBS affiliated stations accounted for seventy percent of U.S. broadcasting when hours broadcast and power levels are factored in. Advertising went from non-existence on a national basis in 1927 to the point where the networks accrued $72 million by 1934. The other side of the coin was reflected in the equally dramatic decline of the non-profit broadcasting sector, from well over one hundred stations in 1927 to less than one-third that total by the early 1930s. Moreover, almost all of these stations operated with low power on shared frequencies. By 1934 non-profit broadcasting accounted for only two percent of U.S. broadcast time. For most Americans it effectively did not exist. (2000)
But this corporatization/commercialization of the airwaves did not go uncontested. Hundreds of displaced non-profit broadcasters helped lead what McChesney calls the “broadcast reform movement.” In 1930, nine national educational organizations, including the National Education Association (NEA — which would become the teachers’ union that we know today in the 1960s), formed the National Committee on Education by Radio (NCER). “Although crushed unmercifully by commercial broadcasters,” we should not ignore the fact that “these reformers generated an impressive critique of the limitations of an oligopolized, capitalistic media industry for the communication requirements of a democratic society, a critique which has aged very well.” Joy Elmer Morgan, leader of both the NCER and the NEA, wrote to Congress: “‘Private monopoly in industry is bad enough; monopoly in the agencies which control the distribution of ideas is infinitely worse. . . . It strikes at the very roots of free democratic government’” (1992). These prophetic words should surely resonate loudly for us today, as the level of corporate media monopolization has unabatedly intensified since the 1930s.
The events, of course, established the pattern that would later guide the allocation of broadcasting licenses for television. Hence, television was conceived as a primarily commercial medium. Putnam’s concerns over its role in damaging American’s civic engagement miss this point entirely. In doing so, Putnam contributes toward reproducing the mistaken belief that our present system of radio and television broadcasting is natural and inevitable. It could not have been designed along other lines, lines that placed greater (any) primacy on cultivating viewers’ civic responsibilities - as the arbiters of their own system of government and its policies - rather than their potential as consumers of advertised goods and propaganda.
Putnam also neglects to point out that by the time these events determined the patterns of ownership and control that would determine the structure of U. S. radio and television broadcasting, government and corporate elites had already made major advances in developing the principles and practices of propaganda aimed at limiting the scale and direction of civic activism. While the advent of radio and television aided in their deployment, the history of elite contempt for popular democracy dates back to the earliest days of the American republic. As originally established by our “founding fathers” – the plutocratic elites of their era — at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, American democracy was limited to white males in possession of sufficient property (wealth) to recognize their inherent advantage in James Madison’s argument that “‘our government ought to secure the permanent interests of the country against innovation,’ putting in place checks and balances in order to ‘protect the minority of the opulent against the majority’” (Madison, 1787, cited in Gonsalves, 2001) From the very beginning, then, elites sought to suppress civic activism that might advance the interests of the majority. As members of the majority struggled for their own franchise, elites grew more increasingly uneasy and sought new ways to control the democratic aspirations of the masses. Writing in 1909, before even radio broadcasting was popularized, Graham Wallas and A. L. Lowell warned that popular elections:
“‘may work fairly well as long as those questions are not raised which cause the holders of wealth and power’ to make full use of their resources. However, should they do so, ‘there is so much skill to be bought, and the art of using skill for production of emotion and opinion has so advanced that the whole condition of political contests would be changed for the future’ (cited in Carey, 1997, p. 21).
That same year, a vice-president of AT&T described what he termed “the public mind” as “the only serious danger confronting the company” (cited in Chomsky, 1989, p. 30).
The advent of radio, and then television, greatly enhanced the resource capacity of elites to deploy that “skill” and “art,” which had already been developed into a science during World War I by President Wilson’s Creel Committee (formerly the Committee on Public Information) to mobilize public support for the war by generating near hysteric levels of fear and hatred of Germans, and they did not hesitate in organizing themselves to fully exploit the advantages these new technologies offered their campaign to control the public mind.
As a consequence of the Great Depression, popular distrust of large corporations and plutocratic elites reached new heights. Labor also achieved unprecedented gains, culminating in the Wagner Act of 1935, and paving the way for Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation. Commercial interests, led by the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) organized themselves as early as 1934 to beat back this new groundswell of populist power.
“‘You will note especially,’” said NAM’s president to a group of business leaders, “‘that this is not a hit or miss program. It is skillfully coordinated to blanket every media . . . and then it pounds its message home with relentless determination.’” Indicative of the high levels of class consciousness among the plutocracy, and also reminiscent of the earlier cited statement from the AT&T executive, NAM’s board of directors “still found the ‘hazard facing industrialists’ to be ‘the newly realized political power of the masses’. It warned that unless their thinking was directed, ‘we are heading for adversity’” (cited in Carey, 1997, p. 24).
While NAM and other business organizations deployed anti-labor propaganda throughout the latter 19th and early 20th centuries, the Wagner Act’s prohibition of corporate intimidation and physical coercion of workers forced NAM to circulate a propaganda tactic, originally developed by the Remington Rand Corporation and known as the ‘Mohawk Valley Formula’, that aimed at generating such popular fear and hatred of labor that the public at large would “‘do to labour on industry’s behalf what the individual employer himself could no longer do legally’” (cited in Carey, 1997, p. 25). According to Alex Carey (1997), “this tactic, it was reported at the time, ‘envisages a public opinion aroused to the point where it will tolerate the often outrageous use of force by police or vigilantes to break a strike’” (p. 25).
While tracing a fuller history of the corporate owned and operated media that now threatens the freedom of the internet lies beyond the scope of this paper, understanding the origins of the corporate domination of these major means for shaping the public’s beliefs, attitudes, values, and behaviors as part of my critique of Putnam’s hand-wringing over the loss of American’s civic involvement remain crucial. Putnam’s writings suffer from a malady all too common to American consciousness. We might call it nostalgia, which suggests a longing for a more pristine, less corrupt “golden age” lodged somewhere in a mythic past. Putnam clearly plays upon this American love for nostalgia, failing or refusing to ‘simplistically politicize’ his discussion by making even the slightest reference to enormous sums of money spent by corporate and government entities to keep the public, whom Alexander Hamilton referred to as “the Great Beast,” at bay. In stating this, however, we should also acknowledge the extent to which the American propensity for nostalgia stems from the fact that the corporate media perpetuate myths of a golden American past in order to alternatively politicize or depoliticize select issues.
On this point, Cornel West (2004) offers us another, less innocent term to describe a variant of this broadly shared American tendency: “sentimental nihilism.” West applies the term to characterize the complicity of the broadcast industry in the multitude of lies and criminal behavior surrounding the neoliberal/neoconservative establishment that currently controls at least two branches of our federal government — the executive and legislative – and threatens to soon dominate the third. Sentimental nihilists, whether journalists or academics, West argues, prove themselves “willing to sidestep or even bludgeon the truth or unpleasant and unpopular facts and stories, in order to provide an emotionally satisfying show” (p. 36). Furthermore, this tendency helps fuel what West identifies as the defining characteristic of American democracy. “The American democratic experiment,” West argues,
“is unique in human history not because we are God’s chosen people to lead the world, nor because we are always a force for good in the world, but because of our refusal to acknowledge the deeply racist and imperial roots of our democratic project. We are exceptional because of our denial of the antidemocratic foundation stones of American democracy. No other democratic nation revels so blatantly in such self-deceptive innocence, such self-paralyzing reluctance to confront the night-side of its own history. This sentimental flight from history–or adolescent escape from painful truths about ourselves–means that even as we grow old, grow big, and grow powerful, we have yet to grow up.” (p. 21)
Carey, A. Taking the Risk Out of Democracy: Corporate Propaganda Versus Freedom and Liberty. Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois Press.
Chomsky, N. (1995) Rollback Part I. Z Magazine. January. Available at http://www.chomsky.info/articles/199505--.htm
Chomsky, N. (1989) Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies. Boston: South End Press, p. 47. Available at http://www.zmag.org/chomsky/ni/ni-c01-s05.html
Jefferson, T. (1787) Letter to Colonel Edward Carrington. January 16, 1787. Quoted in J. Bartlett Familiar Quotations. 13th ed. Boston: Little Brown and Co., 373.
Madison, J. (1787/2001) quoted by Sean Gonsolves, “The Crisis in Democracy,” Cape Cod Times, 19 June. Available at http://www.commondreams.org/views01/0619-01.htm.
McChesney, R. (2000) “Rich Media, Poor Democracy: an interview with Robert McChesney by Daniel Zoll.” San Francisco Bay Guardian. September 20. Available at http://www.sfbg.com/media/mcchesney.html
McChesney, R. (1992) Media and Democracy: The Emergence of Commercial Broadcasting in the United States, 1927-1935,” in Organization of American Historians (OAH) Magazine of History. Available at http://www.oah.org/pubs/magazine/communication/mcchesney.html
Monaghan, F. (1935) John Jay: Defender of liberty. New York: Bobbs-Merrill.
Parenti, C. (1999) Atlas Finally Shrugged: Us Against Them in the Me Decade. The Baffler, 13, 108-120; cited in Hursh, D. Martina, C. (2003) Journal for Critical Education Policy Studies: 1:2 (October).
Polanyi, K. (1944) The Great Transformation. New York: Farrar & Rinehart.
Putnam, R. D. (2001) Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Putnam, R. D. (1996) “The Strange Disappearance of Civic America.” The American Prospect, 7:24. Available at http://www.prospect.org/print/V7/24/putnam-r.html
Putnam, R. D. (1995) “Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital.” Journal of Democracy, 6:1. Available at http://xroads.virginia.edu/~hyper/DETOC/assoc/bowling.html#REF1
Schor, J. (1993) The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure. New York: Basic Books.
West, C. (2004) Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight Against Imperialism. New York: Penguin Books.
 Kissinger defined the notion of an “expert” as a person skilled in “elaborating and defining [the]…consensus [of]…his constituency,” those who “have a vested interest in commonly held opinions: elaborating and defining its consensus at a high level has, after all, made him an expert.” cited in Chomsky (1989). http://www.zmag.org/chomsky/ni/ni-c03-s01.html
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