The Multinational Monitor


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Culture, Inc.

The Corporate Takeover of Public Expression

Culture, Inc.: The Corporate Takeover
of Public Expression

By Herbert I. Schiller
New York: Oxford University Press, 1989
201 pages, $22.50
Reviewed by Claire Riley

Culture, Inc. documents "the envelopment of informational and cultural space by the transnational corporate system" by examining the changing role of information in the U.S. and world economies since World War II. Herbert Schiller finds that computer technology and the expanded need for many forms of information have strengthened already powerful multinational corporations and created "cultural industries." Together, these entities have coopted significant segments of cultural and symbolic speech for profit-making purposes, diluting public expression and the influence of public opinion here and abroad.

The lack of attention these developments have received is itself indicative of the dominant role of multinational corporations in controlling information. Schiller documents the extent to which the media is owned and operated by the very interests which are transforming speech and culture into commodities for sale. While illustrative, this is not the strongest part of Schiller's work; Ben Bagdikian's The Media Monopoly (see "The Media Monopoly, Multinational Monitor, September 1987) is better at detailing the disastrous consequences of a handful of corporations restricting access to the media.

Culture, Inc., however, is broader in scope. It is an excellent overview, placing the factors which caused the cultural industries to flourish in historical context and outlining recent trends in their development. Schiller goes beyond the traditional analysis of corporate power by discussing the declining influence of once important forces in U.S. life, such as populist farmers, organized labor and a strong urban consciousness.

Schiller also emphasizes that these developments are largely ignored by the popular press, which is owned by the very forces effecting this transformation of speech and culture into commodities for sale. He brings to light a more insidious reason as well: it is in the corporate interest to allow some activity to survive in public spaces while transforming the activity's function.

A prime example is museums, which maintain the appearance of being a public resource and site of creative expression but are being usurped as corporate public relations instruments. He argues that corporate sponsors of museums, which contributed $1 billion in 1987, supply popular but unprovocative and unchallenging exhibits void of social or historical messages.

Libraries are being similarly transformed. In the postwar United States, the federal government was the prime gatherer and generator of information. This information, such as census data, was available to all at a minimal cost through federal depository libraries. However, due to the enhanced role and value of information, private companies now gather, arrange and distribute for profit the data previously collected by the government. This corporate takeover threatens to bring an end to government's role as information gatherer as well as the library system's guiding principle of free and equal access to all users.

A fascinating element of the takeover phenomenon is the corporate pressure on the physical landscape in the United States and its effect on public expression and freedom. Schiller maintains that corporate-managed festivals rob communities of authentic historic experiences. "In their place are the frictionless social events, synthetic, up-beat concoctions that life insurance companies, banks and department stores feel comfortable with. One can look in vain for the social struggles that mark life and history in the sanitized commercial pageants that now regularly fill TV screens and national landscapes." Since shopping malls have virtually replaced the streets as the nation's main public thoroughfare, the corporate cooption is nearly complete in this regard. Malls are privately held property and are designed solely for consumerism. They are inhospitable places for social nonconformists to freely circulate ideas or engage in social action.

Schiller outlines the major factors causing the growth of the cultural industries. The Supreme Court has significantly expanded the First Amendment free speech rights of corporations through decisions which ignore their power as sources of information, and concentrate instead on the rights of the public to receive the information corporations choose to provide. As the right to protected speech expands, so do the industries' claims for protection, such as the cable industry's call for the exclusion of all public speakers from the channels over which it exerts monopoly control. The Court has ignored that private monopoly power over news, TV programs, films, music, data processing, publishing and advertising by multinationals with huge resources and far-reaching interests reduces diversity by blocking out independent speakers and sources of information.

In the last decade, deregulation was also a significant force in the corporate takeover of public expression. Perhaps the deregulation policy with the most obvious effect was the abolition of the public interest standard in the regulation of television and radio. Stations are now able to drop any pretense of public service and operate strictly for profit. Deregulation also permitted a wave of mergers, which led to vertical and horizontal integration of culture industries, now dominated by fewer owners and more powerful companies.

Cultural industries have both followed and fuelled other corporate drives to dominate world markets. Information industries circulate data and capital around the world, allowing them to change the international division of labor and to shift production sites worldwide. The cultural industries have also expanded internationally for their own direct material gain. Television networks pressure autonomous state-run broadcasting systems across Europe and the Soviet Union to include transnationally supplied broadcasting under threat of being bypassed with satellite or other technology.

The United States actively assists this transnationalization. By promoting privatization and deregulation, the United States works to diminish or destroy the international public communications sector. Schiller supplies a telling example: in 1985 the United States unilaterally withdrew from the United Nations Educational, Scientific Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The pullout followed a furious and, Schiller shows, unjust campaign waged by the U.S. government in cooperation with the U.S. media against UNESCO, which had promoted some moderate proposals for a New International Information Order (NIIO). The vague principles underlying the NIIO urged respect for nations' right to control national culture and offered support for national public broadcasting systems.

At stake was more than a heavy import of Anglo-American media material by the rest of the world. Fundamental economic data are also transferred internationally, ranging from travel reservation information to banking and insurance transactions to engineering and architectural design. These sorts of data transfers, combined with cultural flows, have created a system dominated by multinational companies. "The essential point is that an entire broadcast, informational, and cultural system, privately owned and managed, often helped by government policy but mainly dependent on transnational advertising on behalf of corporate sponsors (or corporate users in the case of electronic data flows), is being set in place. When such a system is consolidated, the utility of analyzing the effects of the program or medium is futile. The entire social mechanism has been transformed into a corporate exhibit or channel."

Schiller offers a useful analysis of the potential for challenging the information-cultural complex. Altering the status quo. will not be easy. "The democratization of the informational order, its disengagement from an all-encompassing corporate connection, and ventilation of genuinely alternative social visions collide directly with the underpinnings of power in the economy at large." There are, however, steps to be taken: challenge the prevailing belief that private ownership is synonymous with and a guarantor of a free press, "persist in making the systemic links of the info-cultural complex widely known and understandable to as many as possible," support alternative modes of expression such as cable access channels and the independent press, roll back the Reagan-era policies of privatization of information and communications systems and dethrone technology as a social end in itself.

Ultimately, Schiller concludes, for any new political movement to make a significant difference, the issue of who controls cultural and informational flows must surface as a high-priority item. "The possibility of a new social orientation in the United States--which will influence the world at large--is dependent on what happens to the national informational-cultural condition." Schiller maintains that legislative safeguards to ensure access to information and meaningful self-expression against private monopoly are just as necessary as those implemented a hundred years ago against the monopoly practices of railroads, grain millers and big banks.

There have been small moves toward political recognition of the centrality of these issues. The negative influence of advertising on children has been the subject of much debate as well as proposed regulation limiting corporate speech in this area. Similar limits on tobacco advertising have been implemented worldwide, including an outright ban in Canada. International efforts to enforce Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights define the right to freedom of opinion and expression and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers as a basic human right. And, though the possibility is rapidly dwindling, the recent opening of the Eastern bloc could add a new twist to Schiller's analysis: by resisting the commercialization of communication and information systems that has prevailed in the West, the Eastern European countries could maintain cultural autonomy and set an example for the rest of the world.

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