Mar 21 2008

The propaganda machine-4: Major developments in its creation

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

The third tier pundits are a byproduct of five significant developments in media ownership and control.

The first is the rise of 24/7 cable news networks that has created a voracious demand for people to fill all that airtime. There is just not enough real news to report, and creating good investigative reports on important topics costs money which eats into profits. There is a limit to how much time one can spend on celebrity gossip. Even coverage of Britney Spears can get stale. The supply of attractive young women who go missing, another source of endless cable news media fascination, is also limited. As a result, the cable news networks depend heavily on talk shows since having people give opinions costs little money. But the people who have studied issues in depth and have informed opinions based on deep knowledge tend to be academics but they have jobs that require them to teach and do research and thus are not readily available at a moment’s notice to come and talk about the day’s events, assuming they even wanted to. This leaves a niche for a large number of professional pundits whose job is to be at the media’s beck and call. The third tier pundits fill that niche.

The second development that facilitated the growth of the propaganda machine is the rise of talk radio. Along with cable news TV, it came to prominence in the late 1980s as a result of satellite technology, and its functioning was greatly aided by the increasing use of toll free phone numbers (which originated in 1967), which enabled nationwide call-in shows to become popular.

A third factor is the increasing concentration of media ownership in a few hands. As former dean of the University of California-Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism Ben Bagdikian says in his book The Media Monopoly (1997):

With each passing year … the number of controlling firms in all these media has shrunk: from fifty corporations in 1984 to twenty-six in 1987, followed by twenty-three in l990, and then, as the borders between the different media began to blur, to less than twenty in 1993. In 1996 the number of media corporations with dominant power in society is closer to ten. In terms of media possessions and resources, the newest dominant ten are Time Warner, Disney, Viacom, News Corporation Limited (Murdoch), Sony, Tele-Communications, Inc., Seagram (TV, movies, cable, books, music), Westinghouse, Gannett, and General Electric.

As Robert McChesney says in his book The Problem of the Media (2003, p. 224-235), in the late 19th and early twentieth centuries, the issue of what to do with the power of corporations, including media, was a burning issue. There were many alternative models that were possible that would have allowed for diverse views in the media. But the government, under the powerful influence of corporations, decided to allow private, profit-making entities to rule the media. They were aided in this by one of the most controversial Supreme Court decisions ever, the 1886 ruling of County of Santa Clara v. Southern Pacific Railroad Company which was erroneously interpreted as granting personhood (and thus constitutional rights protections) to corporations. In other words, it is now widely (but erroneously) assumed that the Supreme Court has ruled that corporations have the same rights as you and me, although they have much greater powers than us. (After all, they can be in many places at once, have much greater resources of all kinds, and live far longer than people).

The media giants had long-chafed at the limits placed on the number of media outlets that could be owned by a single entity. Even though the Federal Communication Commission was very sympathetic to media owners and wanted to accommodate them, overturning those restrictions proved to be difficult because the general public had an intuitive sense that such restrictions were a good thing and opposed moves to remove them. But Bill Clinton in 1996 had legislation passed that eliminated the caps on the number of radio stations that companies could own nationally and as a result, “Almost overnight, the radio industry’s structure was turned upside down. Well over half the stations were sold until a few massive firms like Clear Channel (owner of more than 1,200 stations) and Viacom came to rule the roost.” (McChesney, p. 231)

Of course, you are not likely to find the media reporting on this topic extensively. The media is quite shy about revealing the extent of its own reach and power and dominance.

Next: The other two developments: the Fairness Doctrine and the Powell memo

POST SCRIPT: Arthur C. Clarke

Arthur C. Clarke died on Tuesday at the age of 90 in his adopted country of Sri Lanka, where he had lived since 1956. I am not a huge fan of the science fiction genre in general but I liked the writings of Clarke, who was grounded in good science, although he never went to college. You can see the list of his scientific predictions here. The one that came true most spectacularly being the idea of geosynchronous communication satellites. [UPDATE: Commenter Vasantha corrects me and says that Clarke went back to college after serving in World War II and earned a first class degree (the highest category awarded by British universities) in physics and mathematics.]

I had the pleasure of meeting Clarke when I was teaching at the University of Colombo. I was teaching an optics course and wanted to show the students holograms, which were somewhat of a novelty in the early 1980s. I tried to make one in the physics department darkroom but failed miserably. I heard that Clarke had some and went to his home to see if I could borrow one. He was very friendly, and in addition to lending me a few holograms, he also enthusiastically talked about science.

Clarke’s death reminded me of how much pleasure I derived from two of his books Childhood’s End and Rendezvous with Rama and Stanley Kubrik’s terrific film 2001: A Space Odyssey, all of which I experienced long ago while I was in college. I plan to enjoy them again soon.


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  1. 1
    Norm Nason

    Thank you for your insight about Arthur C. Clarke, Mano. How nice that you two were able to meet and discuss science together. I too enjoyed the books you mentioned, and I recently recommended “Childhood’s End” to my wife, who is reading it now.

    Have you ever read Clarke’s 1948 short story called “The Sentinel,” upon which “2001: A Space Odyssey” was based? Highly recommended.

  2. 2


    No, I haven’t read The Sentinel but am planning to.

    Thanks for the recommendation.

  3. 3
    Vasantha Madanayake

    Hi Mano,

    Although you say “….Clarke, who was grounded in good science, although he never went to college.”. biographical articles indicate that he went back to Kings Collage London in 1947 and was awarded a first class honoures degree in Physics and Maths.

    Although it is not important after a life time as a very sucessful as a writer and all other activities, it may be appropriate to set the record correct.


  4. 4


    Thanks a lot for the correction, which I have made in the post. I must have missed that somehow.

  5. 5


    I am curious about your lack of interest in science fiction. Clarke and Asimov are fun to read because of the way in which scientific possibilities into the distant future. Of the two Clarke almost never moved into the realm of science fantasy – which is where a very large mass of US based SF writers operate from. Asimov through his general writings took care to point out where his fiction strayed into fantasy.

  6. 6


    I don’t think it was that I disliked science fiction but that I liked other genres more. At the time that I was reading fiction voraciously, I tended to go for detective stories and humor and classic novels, and I think science fiction just got squeezed out.

  7. 7

    Hey, just wondering if anyone’s checked out Satires.net or not. It looked cool but every link goes to an external page. Nice site though!

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