Losing Control of the Media

One of the most striking things to observe in the recent communist election defeat in Yugoslavia was how quickly the news media asserted its independence. Its reporting had been sharply limited by the government’s centralized control for decades, but that melted away in a matter of hours as the true results of the election became clear. As soon as that point was reached, there was no going back, because a nation suddenly learned how much their former government’s misguided policies had cost them.

As I watched this, I couldn’t help musing about the possibility of the same thing happening in the United States. I must hasten to add that the United States is not a communist country. In a communist system, government controls the business sector. But the American system is not so different as you might imagine. In U.S. politics, it is the major, wealthy business interests that primarily fund, and substantially control, the two major political parties that run the government. They are the same business interests that fund and substantially control the media, or at least the major media that have such a great influence on public policy discussions and popular culture. The government and media work together to promote a particular agenda and to minimize voices of dissent.

You can see this most vividly in the treatment of third parties, which represent the greatest threat to this centralized control of American culture. The government passes laws that make it almost impossible for third parties to be involved in the political process. Meanwhile, the major media ignore third parties, in spite of the fact that they have millions of members, draw significant numbers of votes whenever they manage to get on a ballot, and have the potential to win elections. The media message is that third parties don’t count for much, and the message is repeated so many times that it becomes the popular perception.

As you can see, in a system in which there is very little real independence among the government, business, and the media, the exact locus of control does not make a great difference.

However, this whole system could break down. The election reform measures that are discussed almost every year could, if enacted, greatly limit big business’s control over the major political parties. Meanwhile, the growth of the Internet is loosening big business’s control over the media — the World Wide Web is just too wide open for even the 5,000 richest companies in the world to control in any meaningful way. The failure of hundreds of well-funded “dot-com” companies demonstrates that, on the Internet, money does not equal control. And when people start to realize that there is much more going on than the government and the media are talking about, things could change quickly.

There are already some indications of change. This year’s biggest fashion trend is a case in point. People are wearing clothes without designer labels — often actually removing the labels from items they purchase. It’s their way of saying, “This is my clothing. This is me.” Consider, also, the explosive growth in yoga, meditation, tai chi, and similar disciplines in the last two years. It hasn’t been advertised or reported, but the lack of media attention hasn’t stopped it from happening. Another example is Linux, a computer operating system that is being developed without money being spent, but which now has about as many users as the multi-billion-dollar Windows NT. We can expect a lot more little changes like these before this wave of change finally hits the government and the media — but when it does, it could very well be the same kind of defining moment that Yugoslavia experienced when their news media suddenly started to report what was really going on.

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