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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