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Ask Auntie Pinko

September 2, 2004

Dear Auntie Pinko,

I live in a "swing state" with a lot of electoral votes (Ohio) so I am deluged with advertising and campaign events from both sides. I have noticed that the Bush campaign events are hard to get into or even near to but John Kerry rallies welcome anyone, even if they're wearing a Bush t-shirt. But to go to an event Bush was scheduled to be at, I had to request a ticket. They would only give out tickets if I signed a "pledge of support" for Bush.

I am honestly undecided, or at least I was, but that creeped me out. And it really made me notice the whole issue of how scripted everything is and how the mainstream media is still playing from the corporate playbook. My parents are Hungarian, and they say that the media in America is starting to look a lot like the state-controlled media they left behind when they fled to America. Is the press really turning into a branch of government? Is there anything we can do about it?

Paul G,
Columbus, OH

Dear Paul,

"Mainstream" media in America is rapidly consolidating into a few mega-corporations, and they are owned and controlled by people who greatly benefit from unfettered capitalist exploitation. So it should not surprise us that they are becoming increasingly cozy with the government forces that ensure them the operating conditions they need to make money.

There are still a great many people in mainstream media companies who are genuinely concerned with real journalism, creative entertainment, and responsible corporate citizenship. But I think they tend to be at the lower and middle levels, and it must be very frustrating for them to be unable to really use all their talents, skills, and creativity. Many seem to be branching out from the ranks of "mainstream" media into the less-controlled medium of the Internet. While that allows them the freedom to really use their gifts, the audiences are smaller, it's easy to get lost in the "noise," and you can't make a living here.

The main problem with the world of media as we in America experience it today is not that any segment of it, even the "mainstream," is too controlled - though it is - rather, it's that we have far too many choices and far too much available to us to be able to reliably sort out the worthwhile stuff from the dreck and the pablum. It requires actual effort to identify sources of information and entertainment that are consistently reliable, not just switching on the TV or radio, or opening the local daily paper.

In the not-so-distant past, Americans could rely upon a well-established system of print, television, and radio to provide them with a limited range of choices. Most people had access to half a dozen or so television channels, a couple of dozen radio stations, and perhaps two or three daily/weekly newspapers. The small number of sources meant that we didn't have to spend much time making our choices, but regulations ensured that those choices represented private enterprises controlled by a genuine range of different national, regional, and local owners. They also ensured that certain considerations of fairness and objectivity would be applied in news reporting, and community benefit would be considered in the allocation of airtime and advertising resources.

Now the average television can receive hundreds of channels by satellite, cable, and broadcast, there are hundreds of radio options available, you can get major national and regional newspapers delivered even in small rural towns, and all of these "traditional" media are being increasingly supplemented by millions of websites offering news, commentary, analysis, and entertainment.

So if all you want is a reasonably unbiased, well-selected summary of what happened in the world yesterday, you have thousands of places to look, rather than a couple of dozen. By default, this helps the "mainstream" media keep a pretty strong hold on the public. And that "mainstream" media is tightly-controlled, not by the government directly, but by corporate hegemons who are concerned with quarterly earnings reports - first, last, and only.

I'm not surprised that your parents get that familiar feeling of being manipulated. It takes a lot of effort to look past what's being shoved in our faces, and find really informative and entertaining material. But it is out there.

The key to breaking the stranglehold of the corporate "mainstream" is twofold: First, we need to "vote with our feet" (or fingers on keyboards) and show that creativity and quality matters to us, even if it takes extra time to seek out. Second, we must restore the regulations that keep monopolistic mega-corporations from controlling too much market share, and ignoring community benefit in favor of profits.

Neither of these options will really work alone. In a capitalist economy we must rely on the market to truly reward effort, and too much regulation can have a damaging effect. By focusing too much on regulation, we generate the kind of opposition that has so effectively mobilized to let the genie of unchecked monopoly out of the bottle already. So we must provide the incentive of market rewards by paying the "price" of making extra effort to find what we really like, rather than just what happens to be convenient.

It's not going to happen overnight, Paul, but there is still hope. Thanks for asking Auntie Pinko!

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