06 03 2003
No Issues Amidst the Noise
An interview with Ben Bagdikian
In the course of Amsterdam's World-InfoCon media critic and former dean of Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism Ben Bagdikian spoke to World-Information.Org about the control of the media and its orientation around advertising and what that means for a democracy.
Q: The presenters at this conference have talked about different ways in which control is exercised in sophisticated and often undetected ways in modern societies, where media play a crucial role. Where do you see the main issues in terms of democratic governance?
A: There is a real problem for the majority of citizens. Certainly in the US and in a number of other countries. I think the first problem is what the commercial operators of the news, mostly the broadcasters and the newspapers, do not say. The issues they do not raise, or the issues that they raise but do not pursue. And in order to make an impact on the public I think it is necessary for the newspapers and the commercial broadcasters of any country to not just make mention of a problem or issue once. A modern citizen in a modern state is so surrounded every minute of the day by messages, mostly commercial messages. One estimate is that the average person is exposed to 18.000 messages a day by billboards, radio, TV, newspaper ads, posters on lampposts, and so on. It is very hard for the average citizen to perceive a single issue in the midst of this noise. That means that the media of a country, if it were to be totally responsible for public need, would have many programs, many articles, many internet sites devoted to the central problems of that particular society. And that this means that you donít always talk about the latest scandal of a celebrity, or of making major presentations of what are really minor matters, but that you deal with the central problems that people are dealing with in their lives. I think the media fail for the most part in doing that.
Q: But if this is the case, what kind of scenario is emerging in terms of democratic governance? Information monopoly and implosion of democracy?
A: I am talking about both: the control of the media and its orientation around advertising, and I am talking about what it means for a democracy. In the United States a shrinking percentage of eligible voters actually vote. It is not unusual in a national election that most people who are eligible to vote do not vote. The usual analysis in the regular media is that they are just apathetic, they are bad citizens. I donít think thatís true. First of all, our election days are not holidays, and many people have to work in two jobs. More importantly, there is some proof that if the major political candidates centered their campaigns on what are the problems must urgent for the average ordinary citizens, more votes would come out. Several years ago, an African American, Jesse Jackson, a very skilled politician, but representing a minority of our citizens, who have a very low voting record, centered his campaign on the needs of the poor. It is not just African Americans who are poor, there are many others who are poor. It activated a million votes. When next election came, those votes dropped of. That tells me that many of the people who do not vote are not bad citizens, they simply do not hear from their politicians the policies and problems that affect their personal lives. They hear rhetorical, generalized, almost biblical statements that have a very grand sound to them, but they are not talking about what most people really need, in terms of health care, housing, etc. The US is the only industrialized country in the world that does not have universal health care. 41 million Americans have no health care. Thatís a scandal. No candidate is making a major issue of it in his campaign. That is one reason why people donít vote. We have a perpetual shortage of housing, and a growing number of homeless people. We have been told that we need 600.000 affordable housing units. We have a population of 340 mn people. We are a rich country. We could very well have government build decent public housing for those who need it. It does not happen, because these are people who are not influential and do not spend large amounts of money on advertised goods. I think they tend to drop out of the electoral picture. There are many problems which are not stressed by the media, or stressed sufficiently to make an impact on not just the public, but the politicians.
Q: In terms of educating the public about these issues, educational institutions obviously play a pivotal role. But in the aftermath of 9/1 there seems to have been a resurging of patriotic sentiments and requirements in teaching. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni, presided by the wife of Vice President Cheney, has compiled and circulated this collection of supposedly unpatriotic statements by university teachers. Do you think that this kind of witch hunting is an individual occurrence, or is it part of larger tendency to restrict and ideologize university work.
A: I think it is no t universal. There is No question that those in political power will stress those things that are useful to them. But in fact there is a great deal of activity among civil liberties groups at universities who organize mass demonstrations and teach-ins all over the country.There is considerable protests on the failure of both the commercial media and national politics to deal with these questions, or dealing with them in ways that are considered harmful to the democratic system. But unfortunately the party presently in power is largely representative of corporate interests in the country, they are anti-environmentalists, they hate labor unions. It is a rather reactionary regime. Now we tend to fluctuate in the US between more conservative and less conservative administrations, but the commercial media have not been useful in stressing national needs that would be to the interest of the opposition party. The opposition party has been intimidated by 9/11 so we now have a lack of audible voices. But that does not signify that are not many people who would disagree with what is happening in governmental action.
Bagdikian has also published a variety of books including "Media Monopoly" (2000) and "Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War" (1993).