April 13, 2012

George Scialabba: Media Malaise and this American Condition

George Scialabba: Media Malaise and this American Condition

George Scialabba
flatters and provokes with a comment on Jay Rosen‘s view of dysfunctional media and the Tony Judt thread of Open Source conversations. George is an independent essayist — erudite but not academic, as his friend John Summers has noted, critical but not rancorous.

We posted a general gab with George Scialabba three years ago on the occasion of his collection What are Intellectuals Good For? You can read his own strong essay on Tony Judt’s Ill Fares the Land on George’s website.

About Jay Rosen’s view that the American misadventure in 2012 is a story “too big to tell,” George writes:

I think the problem with the media, and public discourse generally, is the concentration of ownership. Clear Channel has wiped out radio as a democratic medium. Conglomerates own broadcast TV, and large investors press furiously on cable networks to meet profit targets. Murdoch is a journalistic pestilence, and Sam Zell, who ruined the LA Times and/or Chicago Tribune, is likewise, in his different way. Publishing is a wasteland of corporate rationalization, hopelessly profit-driven and plagued by marketing departments horning in on editorial decisions.

The problem is fundamental and systemic, not contingent. As long as information and access to audiences are treated as commodities rather than as public utilities, there will be a race to the bottom, with the inevitable degradation of quality/individuality and then wholesale abandonment, exactly as happens with other industries. The only way to halt and then reverse the hollowing out of the culture or the economy, the public or the private sphere, is robust democracy: the determined and persistent self-assertion of the populace against the many-tentacled corporate hydra, which now wholly owns government. But of course this is the worst possible time to look for such self-assertion: no unions, one in six working-age people un- or under-employed, the rest mainly dependent on employers for health-care and retirement security. Of course the populace is insecure and overstressed – not the frame of mind in which to create a vast grassroots movement, even if we weren’t continually bombarded by right-wing propaganda.

I haven’t used the word “capitalism” because I don’t think it’s necessary to decide on the exact shape of a new society before addressing the obvious malfunctions of the present one. And although I think the only lasting solutions are radical ones, that doesn’t mean that I think one must begin by seizing the state, or even running a candidate for president. I think efforts like Ralph Nader’s public service groups – ongoing, low-cost, outside the electoral racket – are useful. The Z media network here in Boston is useful. There are lots of little magazines, small publishers, independent documentaries, seat-of-the-pants websites, and of course conscientious academics like Jay Rosen. It’s not really a problem of ideas – the people and outlets I’ve just mentioned have lots of great ideas. It’s a problem of resources. In this society, as in any (forgive me) capitalist society, the people with the resources are likely to have little concern for the public good, and the people with the most concern for the public good are likely to have the fewest resources. But that’s life before democracy.

Other resources for listeners: Chomsky and Herman’s great Manufacturing Consent; Glenn Greenwald’s invaluable column in Salon; the independent community TV channel in Cambridge, which shows many superb documentaries that you’ll never see elsewhere; Ralph Nader’s underappreciated book Only the Rich Can Save Us; and of course, Radio Open Source.

Inviting further comments — please! and of course. Thank you.

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  • Hi Chris
    Thank you for introducing me to George Scialabba. Fascinating conversation. And through him, others.

    I was struck by his point that while one section of society is racing into the future, the other is still coming to terms with the present. This cognitive dissonance, aided by fundamental material & systemic inequities, extends into unexpected areas. I had recently written an essay for a widely read magazine out of Delhi called Caravan. It was a profile of an artist/painter who lives in Kerala. It seems that the same diagnosis that George makes trickles down into art, ideas of history. Please put it on your reading list: http://photos.plumtreeisland.net/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/Apr2012_Art_Feature1_CS5.pdf

    Also, before I forget, thanks to your conversation with Pico Iyer on Graham Greene, I have gone back to reading Emerson. Perhaps Whitman summarized it best: “I was simmering, simmering, simmering. Emerson brought me to a boil.”


    PS: While it is hardly a place for me to suggest, here are my top 10 people I would love to hear you to talk on your show. Thought you might find it of interest.
    1. Wendell Berry
    2. Scott Russell Sanders
    3. Anita Desai
    4. Daron Acemoglu
    5. Louis Menand
    6. V. Ramachandran
    7. Ved Mehta
    8. Michael Ondaatje
    9. Emanuel Derman
    10. Daniel Mendelsohn

  • Potter

    We (the US collective) have succumbed.

    The other day we had a conversation with a carpenter who is doing work for us. Eager to have an exchange, what came out was the equivalent of right wing talk radio views. This is not a unique personal example. I talk to people. My neighbor, who flies the American flag high and proud in the woods (!!!) of her backyard complains that she is worried about Obamacare and also worried that the local high school may have an illegal immigrant. I must look at this flag from my backyard knowing what it has come to mean these days… Fox TV and talk radio, Limbaugh and his ilk who provide the input to the brains of hard-working people too tired to learn or look at the whole story..

    If I may- a quote from Scialabba’s essay on Judt’s book that you link above, thankful for this space:

    In fact, free-market ideology did not triumph because economists and statesmen began to find it more persuasive than they had formerly. It triumphed because a great many businessmen never accepted the New Deal, never stopped trying to roll it back, and eventually found the right strategy: concentrated ownership of the media; increased business funding (and with it, control) of scientific and economic research; the growth of corporate public relations and business-funded think tanks, directing a constant stream of propaganda at Congress and the media; increased spending on electoral campaigns and political debate, especially through new forms like PACs; revolving-door employment of former legislators and regulators; and coordination of these efforts by the Business Roundtable, the US Chamber of Commerce, and industry associations. They became a juggernaut, then simply hired or promoted economists and statesmen with suitable opinions. “In every age,” Marx pointed out, “the ideas of the rulers are the ruling ideas.” … Still, however we lost social democracy in the United States, Judt is unquestionably right about the importance of regaining it. He has packed a great deal of wisdom into this short book and leaves us very much in his debt.

    Regaining it, but how? Discussion like this one are off in a corner, maybe a far corner with no megaphone.. The cry for anarchy on both extremes is a common disgust and despair signaling a feeling that the only way is to break it all apart… get everyone’s attention. We are halfway there with our economic and social struggles which may get worse. But the conversation has to get deep enough yet still remain simple. This Judt seems to do in his book.

    More reverberating!