- Pattern Languages
- Liberating Voices
- Civic Intelligence
- Digital Resources
Pattern number within this pattern set:537
Public Sphere Project (CPSR)
Democratic societies rely on diversity of viewpoints and ideas for the intelligence, engagement, enthusiasm and wisdom that they need to stay alive. This is particularly important during this current era of globalization and critical public issues that require public engagement. At the same time people all over the world are receiving more and more of their information from the mass media which is becoming precipitously less diverse. The control of much of the world's media is becomingly increasingly concentrated in a handful of giant corporations.
Although the exact situation will vary from place to place, virtually all communities are affected by the lack of media diversity and all communities have opportunities to help promote media diversity. In the consolidating world of corporate mass media, large companies are touting mergers and monopolistic ownership practices as being conducive to diversity of programming and community representation in broadcasting. This claim of diversity is a facade that circumvents and ignores the idea of true community access.
A rich, dynamic universe of public thinking helps to ensure that all sides in public matters will be taken into consideration thus promoting social — as well as economic — innovation. A paucity of diversity doesn't just jeopardize societal innovation however. It becomes a threat to democracy itself. When media diversity is too low, public opinion is less likely to provide the oversight that democratic societies require and is more likely to be engaged in public affairs and less willing to entertain new ideas.
Ben Bagdikian is generally credited with the sounding of the alarm on media concentration in the U.S. His book, The Media Monopoly (1983) revealed the disturbing fact that 50 corporations owned the majority of US media companies and this trend towards concentration was continuing. That trend has continued unabated for the 20 or so years since the original publication and now five corporations own approximately the same percentage of media output in the U.S as the 50 did in 1983. Today media corporations argue that when a company is able to monopolize a market, they can provide a more diverse array of cultures and voices than if that media landscape was broken into independently owned outlets. To use radio as a simple example, executives claim that when a corporation owns the majority of a market, the number of different formats increases dramatically. While it may be true that different formats increase, it's doubtfuil that this reflects an increased diversity of opinion. Many media corporations use the opportunity to record one radio show which they then rebroadcast from all of their other stations with similar formats, sometimes "localizing" the show with a few references (pronounced correctly hopefully).
A lack of media diversity invariably means media concentration and media concentration exacerbates problems of media homogeneity. The problem of media concentration extends beyond mere banality; it represents a major threat to the ability of citizens to act conscientiously and to govern themselves as democracy requires. Media concentration brings power above and beyond what mere information provision would demand; illegitimate political and economic power invariably comes with the territory and the nearly inevitable cozy connection with political elites leads to a self-perpetuating cycle that is extremely difficult to break. When media concentration reaches certain levels, it then can keep an issue out of the public eye and, hence, off the public agenda. An important and relevant point of fact is the virtual blackout on stories involving media consolidation over the past two decades. Intense media concentration also allows companies to more easily work with government to pass legislation in its favor, notably overturning laws that combat media concentration; and not stepping on government toes because of possible retribution. It may already be too late. As Bagdikian notes, "Corporate news media and business-oriented governments have made common cause."
The U.S. is not the only victim of media monopolization: Conrad Black in the U.K. and Canada, Silvio Berlusconi in Italy, and Rupert Murdoch in Australia (and, now, after a special act of congress, in the U.S. as well) [more?] and many others are huge players in national markets while global media consolidation is now proceeding ahead in increasingly troubling ways.
In the 1990s, when use of the Internet was beginning to explode into the among the general population — or, more accurately, of people who are relatively well-off economically, especially those who live in countries that are relatively well-off economically — some of the digerati were quite eager to dismiss any protestations over media monopolization in the "smokestack" (i.e. non-Internet-based) media industries that included broadcast, print and others. They reasoned that the inherent nature of the Internet made it more-or-less immune to human tinkering, in contrast to humankind's inventions. Not only was it inalterable but it would soon prove the obsolescence of the old-fashioned media and, at the same time, provide diversity of viewpoint despite corporate or government efforts. Within several years of the Internet's inception it has become incredibly commercial and now, 10 or 15 years later, a mere handful of sites accounts for half the number of sites first seen as their web browser is invoked. This is not to say that the Internet is not important. It's absolutely critical as millions upon millions of political actions initiated by civil society has demonstrated. And it's absolutely clear that citizen activism will be indispensable to prevent control from being seized gradually or not-so-gradually by corporate and/or government bodies. It's also clear that older forms of media should be not abandoned to corporate entities &mdash even if you believe that the Internet will put them all of business anyway!
Our media and information systems do not exist in a sealed bubble independent of the capitalist structure. Because you must either own or hold stakes in a news or entertainment company to have any semblance of control over its content, the rich control our news and entertainment. While community-operated media does exist in nearly every city, its saturation and distribution into the communities is extremely low because of financial restrictions. The news and entertainment offered by these resources are vastly diverse from the corporate-owned outlets, often representing conflicting accounts and stories. Because the conflicting programming often represents the viewpoints of a different social class than of that which owns the corporations, this programming rarely makes it into the mass media. The corporate owners claim they can provide an adequate diversity of community voice, when in truth the diversity they provide is severely limited by their moneyed interests.
People can get involved in the struggle in many ways. One of the most direct ways is to create and support independent media. This not only means developing videos, comics, zines, blogs, etc. with alterative points-of-view, it means developing funding and distribution approaches, and fighting for representation within the political system. For while it may be true that globalization and new communication technologies change the rules of the game, there are still likely to be rules and for this reason civil society must be vigilant: changes in protocols, domain name registry, domain servers, etc. etc. can have vast repercussions.
One of the most effective approaches, however, remains the development of public interest policy that promotes media diversity. Although critics of this approach are likely to scoff at its quaint, "smokestack" modus operandi, governments in democratic societies have an obligation to support democratic systems and the democratic experiment may be terminated earlier than anticipated by its original proponents if they fail in this duty.
The policies that governments can enact fall into two broad categories: those that limit the enclosure by the big corporations into various regions or "markets" and those that promote media diversity by promoting alternatives to corporate mono-cultures such as government subsidies or tax breaks to independent media or specific set-asides for radio or television spectra, etc. Media diversity represents both a desired state for the media environment and an absence of concentrated ownership of media. For that reason people need to fight for both: media diversity and diversity of media ownership.
Democratic societies require diversity of opinions. Although government is often negligent in this area, media corporations cannot be allowed to assume too much concentration. As in other realms, power corrupts, and media corporations are of course not exceptionss to this rule. Citizens must vigilant to ensure that a diversity of opinions is availale and that citizens have access to the media. Diversity of ownership of media is one approach that is likely to promote diversity of opinion in the media.