The Multinational Monitor

JUNE 1990 - VOLUME 11 - NUMBER 6


Democratic Illusions

An Interview with Herbert Schiller

Herbert Schiller is Professor of Communication at the University of California in San Diego. He is the author of a number of books, including Information and the Crisis Economy and Who Knows: Information in the Age of the Fortune 500. Most recently, he has written Culture, Inc.: the Corporate Takeover of Public Expression.

[Large companies] claim that by their very great size, they can take more risks... In reality, we find that they just use their resources to quickly dispose of any activity which, in their estimation, is not pulling its own weight. MULTINATIONAL MONITOR: The subtitle for your book Culture Inc., is "The Corporate Takeover of Public Expression." What does this mean?

HERBERT SCHILLER: It means that the creation of individual consciousness through imagery and information increasingly is under the auspices of corporate cultural industries: film, television production, radio, book publishing, magazines, entertainment theme parks, even architectural structures and shopping malls. All of these activities constitute the range of imagery and value systems....

MM: What are the underlying forces that are leading to this corporate expansion?

SCHILLER: Well, I think that it's a convergence of the customary drives of private enterprise to control as much of the market as possible. A second factor is new technologies which allow a rapid expansion in traditional and new fields. And a third consideration is the globalization which comes out of both the new technologies and the larger size of the enterprises that are involved in these developments . As an example, you get a company like the Walt Disney Corporation ... that produces movies, that makes television shows, more recently has opened up stores that sell various kinds of merchandise which are based on the characters in the movies and the TV shows. You have, as well, the largest activity of all, the Disney theme parks in Florida and California and, soon to be added, huge parks outside Paris and in Tokyo.

All this is tied together by the internal structure of the company seeking to move from one medium to another, to utilize one medium, that is either film or TV, to promote other activities. It's a self-contained, although constantly expanding, field of operations.

MM: And Disney is a typical example?

SCHILLER: Disney, of course, is a very important example but by no means unique. Last year, for example, Disney made, I believe, something over $700 million in profits. That puts this kind of company up in the higher ranks of the major corporations in the United States and in the world.

In this same [category], going across media boundaries, is the gigantic company, Time-Warner. Time-Warner is an organization ... with assets approaching $20 billion, and which straddles and basically dominates publishing, cable television, recordings, tapes and filmmaking. And here you have probably the prototype of the kind of media cultural combine that is expected to be dominant in the world arena in the next decade or so.

MM: What difference does it make if there's only five or six or seven of these huge conglomerates?

SCHILLER: [This means] that what has customarily been regarded as diversity, many voices, a wide range of expression, all these kinds of necessary features of what we might call a truly functioning democratic society are threatened.

We have as an example of this the very recent episode in New York in which a major media conglomerate, not the same size as Time-Warner but still significant, the Newhouse Group, pulled the plug or at least severely limited the activities of one of its subsidiaries, the Pantheon Press. [The] explanation [provided to the public] was that it was ... not making enough money.

Now this is the very opposite of what these large-scale corporations claim that they are doing, and how they are benefitting people by being so large. They claim that by their very great size, they can do more things, take more risks, be more capable of offering a rich diversity; that's their creed, they say. In reality, we find that they just use their resources to narrow their offerings and to quickly dispose of any activity which, in their estimation, is not pulling its own weight. What do they mean by pulling its own weight? They mean contributing adequately to the profit ratios that Wall Street appreciates.

MM: To what extent do you think the media function as a tool of major corporate interests versus operating as their own self- interested industry?

SCHILLER: Well, I don't really think there's such a contradiction or such an incompatibility [between these two views]. I think that the media industries are not that apart or separate from the main concerns of the rest of industrial, or what remains of industrial America. If we come down to basic questions such as the place of labor, and we ask, "What is the media industry's view of labor?" (and you will never get the answer to that in specific terms), it is clear that the large- scale media are large employers. Accordingly, they have a view [toward] labor that hardly differs from that of large-scale automobile manufacturers or the large-scale service industries and insurance companies. Labor is a cost and you do your best to hold that cost down. That's a standard employer view. So I regard a very large part of the media as [having] the same kinds of overall interests as the rest of the corporate community.

The media frequently find that their own profit-making concerns cause the rest of the corporate community some anxiety and vexation. For example, the Exxon Valdez oil spill. The media were very quick to take that up and show some very vivid imagery of the effects of that spill. It's obvious that the oil industry wouldn't be too enthusiastic with that media coverage. The media did it not to undermine the corporate system; the media did it because that kind of imagery is just very compelling, and it means that they will attract a larger audience to view that imagery. Plus the fact, of course, that the event happened and they can't just totally turn away from it.

So there can be ... on occasion, incompatibilities between the media cultural industries and the rest of the corporate structure, but, in general, I would say there are probably more commonalities than these contradictory situations.

MM: What is the sociological effect of being bombarded with advertisements, specifically in terms of politics and how the citizenry views democracy and its input into it?

SCHILLER: Well, here again, ... one has to be somewhat tentative and even speculative because you can't get answers from the citizens themselves. They will say that there is practically no effect. But I would say that you get a certain kind of a reaction, very pronounced here in the United States; it is that we have the highest form of democracy because we have choice. This is constantly re-asserted. It is the repeated theme and refrain of our political leadership.

One has to examine that choice very carefully.... [T]he very idea of choice gets confused because it gets defined as a choice between products, between material items. You go into a supermarket and you see five different kinds of soaps. You see several brands of coffee. You see heaven knows how many varieties of dry cereals. Now, in making [their] selections, many of which are determined or at least partly influenced by advertisements, ... people have come to believe that constitutes their democratic heritage.

The fundamental process of choosing between significant political possibilities, these have been almost extinguished. They are certainly very feeble.... We no longer have a two-party system, we have basically a coalition party with the Democrats in coalition with the Republicans. Well, no one seems to think that's so upsetting as long as you can go into the supermarket and make your choices. What I am saying is the choices you are making in the supermarket are also largely directed, but [in any case] they are not the central choices of organizing a society or a community. Those seem to have just been put at the margins.

MM: What's your perspective on the U.S. relationship with UNESCO?

SCHILLER: First of all, UNESCO was very much an American- sponsored organization from its foundation and its early development back at the end of World War II. American educators and intellectuals had a very important role to play in its formation. And in the first 20 years of UNESCO's history, American policies were the dominant policies that guided that organization. In many other international organizations, including the entire United Nations system, the United States played the dominant role. No one ... in our media at that time [worried] that these organizations were "political." That they were carrying out the positions that were favorable to the U.S. leadership was taken as a matter of course.

When international organizations, including UNESCO, changed in terms of their constituencies because they enlarged their memberships as a result of the new nations that came out of the crumbling colonial empires, a whole new trend in these organizations also emerged. Instead of just being a club of very favored Western European and North American states, you had the Asian, African and Latin American members. And naturally their interests were not quite the same as those who had been running the organization up until that time. And it was this constant pull and tug of these new interests and differing claims that was increasingly resisted by the United States leadership. U.S. policy was unwilling to make the kinds of adjustments or yield to any of what I would regard as frequently very justified demands of a very large part of the rest of the world.

[T]his situation was not only characteristic of UNESCO. It was present in many other international organizations. But UNESCO was the weakest ... By pulling out of UNESCO, the U.S. has severely hampered that organization and turned its back on a structure that was largely of American origin.

What I'm saying doesn't mean that UNESCO doesn't have flaws, didn't have problems, that everything done in UNESCO was beneficial and virtuous. But this is not the point. Much more relevant is that it continues to be attacked by the United States government under Reagan and Bush and that the whole media, with very few exceptions, have joined in this attack, taking up without question the general argument of a right-wing governmental policy.

MM: What was UNESCO's new international information order initiative?

SCHILLER: Again, you have to be clear that this demand for what was called a new international information order was a demand that antedated the beginning of UNESCO; you can find instances of that demand in an earlier period, as far back as the beginning of the 20th century. But after World War II, when international organizations began to include the new nations, this became a more active issue. It concerned the flow of international information, and not just news, but the flow of all kinds of cultural and informational products: movies, TV programs, magazines. This flow has been, and to a very large extent remains, a one-way flow from a few highly developed centers to the rest of the world.

[T]he demand for a new international information order was couched in very general terms and never was a particular document [with] a .. . specific list of demands. It was rather a general conception: ... that this flow should be broadened, that there should be other sources that could contribute to the flow. In other words, other places that should have their news, their movies, their books circulated in the general flow.

[T]here were also other demands. Not all of these demands were always agreed to by all of the people and all of the groups that were involved in the overall issue. One other demand was less commercialization of the flow and a more public character to some of the information. That would be translated into what we would call more public interest programming rather than exclusively a commercial flow. But these were the main ingredients of the international information question.

[W]hat we have today is really a new international information order: ... a transnational corporate information order [in which] the whole flow of information is largely determined by the large companies that I alluded to earlier in our discussion. That plus the information flows that go between the large companies in their business pursuits constitute the largest category of international information flow today and is practically invisible to the general public. [T]hat is the real information order as it currently operates.

MM: What were the main ways the United States was able to derail the demand for a new international information order?

SCHILLER: [T]hrough tremendous attacks on UNESCO, making the whole operation sound [like] a dictatorial initiative which was intolerable. The use of our entire informational machinery and our media structures [gave] such a dreadful interpretation of the whole notion that the term has itself become almost a reprehensible concept. Of course beyond just image-making, no assistance was given whatsoever to any structural changes and, as a result, those structures which had, at that time, dominated the international flow of programming ... are ... more powerful today.

MM: Is the European plan to protect its market from U.S. television significant?

SCHILLER: Well, again, some of that rhetoric picked up on the same kind of themes that I've been talking about, that Europe was being inundated with American programming, that the cultural sovereignty of the area was being threatened. So you have a great deal of that kind of thinking and speech in Europe. But I would say, in terms of hard reality, the issue is "Can European industries--film industry, television production industry--be kept alive, and can they, in one way or another, be encouraged to ... hold their own local and regional markets?" So it's a very important trade issue or industrial issue as well as a cultural issue.

But, in reality, the positions taken by the European Commission have not been very strong. They sound much stronger on paper than they are in reality. The kinds of provisions are quite porous and not very demanding, and there's hardly likely to be any real exclusion or limitation of the existing heavy flows coming in, mostly from the United States, to Europe. In fact, all of the changes in Europe in terms of their broadcasting systems, the privatization that's been going on, the commercialization that's been going on, have all been part of the deregulatory wave that began here, was pushed there [and] which the transnationals have been very diligently promoting. [A]ll of that feeds the increasing penetration by the most powerful media, cultural industries, which still are in the United States.

MM: Do you anticipate an expansion of the same sort of system into Eastern Europe now?

SCHILLER: Very much so. In the last couple of months, Advertising Age, the trade magazine of the advertising industry, has been licking its chops and gloating at what prospects are available, and already many things have happened.

These huge media combines have moved into Eastern Europe very, very actively. In East Germany, they have already bought up newspapers and publishing houses. In Hungary they've bought up newspapers. The same thing has happened in Poland. And we have the familiar cultural predators: we have Murdoch; we have Berlusconi; our own big organizations have been ... active all across Eastern Europe. So, I think you're going to have a very rapid integration of these areas into the dominant cultural media spheres.

MM: Do you see any significant countervailing forces to these media combines?

SCHILLER: At the present moment, no. Of course, I again qualify what I am saying by adding that the picture is not totally one of unrelieved domination by these giant forces. They are dominant; they are moving rapidly across the entire international field. But, even taking our own country as an example, ... we do have some other voices which do their best to express themselves.

These other voices are still limited; these other voices are mostly local; these other voices are underfinanced; these other voices have great difficulty finding national expression; but we shouldn't ignore the fact that they exist, that they are numerous, that they are dedicated and that they do have alternative messages. [I]n the field of video, we have independent filmmakers, and I would say that, although at this stage they still remain mostly a peripheral force, their numbers are not insignificant, and we may look forward, at some point, to some kind of larger coordination efforts.

There are already embryonic indications of this. There is for example an outfit called Deep Dish Television; this is an operation bringing public interest, public access television, utilizing a satellite, buying time and then having the programs transmitted and picked up around the country by public access groups. I don't want to exaggerate how important that is in terms of what currently prevails, but it is an alternative....

MM: What about public television and radio?

SCHILLER: Well, public radio has done some good things, and I think that there we have maybe one of the more positive examples for us, although it has its problems still. Public television, unfortunately, has been largely penetrated by the very same forces that dominate commercial television.

[P]ublic television, when it was established 25 or more years ago, was supposed to be a totally alternative channel to commercial television; it was supposed to prohibit advertising, and it was supposed to be an innovative and alternative system of TV programming. Well, to a very limited extent there's been some alternative programming and some individually fine efforts. But, overall, public television has, because of its [deliberate] underfinancing, ... been forced to move ever closer to the corporate fountain of support.

[S]o any of us who watch public television can't help but note that more and more programs are sponsored explicitly or discreetly. And it's not only so much that they're sponsored, which would already be an invasion of the commercial presence in an area where it was not supposed to exist. But, more than ... its ... visible and ... somewhat jarring presence, is its invisible presence where it operates as a force to discourage the public television programmers from putting on their channels materials that might inconvenience, or displease, or, one way or another, vex their sponsors. So we have the same kind of neutering effect occurring on public television that exists on the commercial channels. [I]n a real sense, we have the institutionalized censorship by capital of the creative process. This is of course the basic fact of life of the commercial system, and unfortunately it's increasingly the case on public television as well.

MM: Ralph Nader talks about a form of audience access based on the idea that the public owns the airwaves and government could mandate each television and radio station provide one hour of prime-time TV and drive-time radio to an organization run by citizens. What do you think of this idea?

SCHILLER: [I] think it's certainly in line with the whole course of American history and even in the early stages of broadcasting, itself. When we first began to get radio and the very early days of television also, it was regarded as an absolute, unchallenged principle that the public interest had to be protected. It was also part of this fundamental principle that the airwaves, the radio spectrum, were national and natural resources and had to be treated as such.

I regard the media as [having] the same kinds of overall interests as the rest of the corporate community.
By pulling out of UNESCO, the U.S. has severely hampered that organization and turned its back on a structure that was largely of American origin.
Public televion, unfortunately, has been largely penetrated by the very same forces that cominate commercial television.

Table of Contents