In their classic 1988 book Manufacturing Consent, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky demonstrated how corporate media select topics, place emphasis, set boundaries, ask questions and shape content in accordance with broad capitalist imperatives. It’s a largely unconscious process driven by conformist human beings, and infinitely more effective than the heavy-handed methods of past communist regimes.
During the 20th century, ballooning marketing budgets played a crucial role in the marginalization, and ultimate extinction of influential labor-based/progressive media. Today’s mass media subservience to elite power structures is an inevitable consequence of the pursuit of profit. Advertising revenues continue to flow to any given publication, radio or TV station on the condition that its reporting and general content supports a business-friendly status quo.
News/ad-consuming audiences are literally a product for sale, though we more closely resemble victimized bystanders. Above all, the oppressed and impoverished of the world are done a grave disservice as a consequence of writers being selected for a proven disposition to respect traditional authority and elite power. Capitalist society in this context represents a filtering system in which the most powerful are overwhelmingly the least radical. Needless to say, the hierarchy of journalism is no different.
THE PROBLEM IN REVOLUTIONARY VENEZUELA
Venezuela’s socialist national project is well underway and making ever more significant strides, in spite of an entrenched, privileged minority in opposition, relentlessly spurred on by the corporate media and its vociferous attacks. As the anti-capitalist character of the Chavez government revealed itself, it became starkly clear that democratic opinion was not being reflected in the established private media. Influential newspapers dropped their pretenses of varying “liberal” tendencies, and increasingly appeared to be acting from an agreed playbook.
The single most popular TV station (RCTV) has already been relegated from the free airwaves to satellite-only broadcasting, ostensibly for having materially assisted a US-led coup in April 2002, but principally to minimise the effect of a daily programming schedule rife with machismo, the objectification of women, consumerism, violence and general idiocy. That decision not to renew RCTV’s license, which expired in 2007, was entirely down to government prerogative. Other options exist in Venezuela: revoking an active license can be done under certain circumstances, broadcasters can be suspended, and the national government reserves the right to expropriate any privately-held enterprise.
Alongside its general entertainment, RCTV featured regular streams of distorted news reports reflecting badly on the Chavez government. This continues to be the raison d’être of Globovision, a 24-hour channel dedicated almost entirely to news and political opinion. In contrast to competitors such as Televen and Venevision, who sensed the winds of change and made boardroom decisions to enforce some degree of impartiality, Globovision persists in its role as the shrill, irrational, almost comical incarnation of opposition hatred and hysteria. This was presumably also a boardroom decision, albeit an infinitely less responsible one.
It appears that Globovision has no genuine interest in self-preservation, let alone in providing any kind of platform for the majority opinion in Venezuelan society. Overseen by a director who works at the highest level with opposition politicians and imperial agents, “Globo” will continue to dress itself up as the last bastion of free speech in the face of hurtling communist totalitarianism. Presumably, they hope their siege mentality and inevitable fate will immortalize the brand and spark mass revolt. This is quite simply a capitalist institution in the throws of pathological extremes, revelling in its status as the leader of a twisted niche market.
Globovision’s free-to-air license will come up for renewal by the sitting government in 2015, though unlike in the case of RCTV, Chavez has all but assured the nation he will not wait patiently for that moment. Presidential bravado aside, three official charges of impropriety await the channel: early reporting of exit polls in two states in 2007, fear-mongering reports in the immediate aftermath of a recent tremor, and a prime-time guest permitted to opine that Chavez is headed for a popular lynching, Mussolini-style. If any of these charges stick, Globo will find itself banned from the airwaves for 72 hours (with another offense within the subsequent five years sufficient to revoke a license). If guilty of two or more, its license might be immediately revoked.
If Globovision’s free-to-air license comes to a premature end, one might end up wondering if it was worth the time, effort and controversy. After all, satellite TV is a staple presence in the vast majority of middle/upper-class homes, let alone in a surprisingly large number of hillside “barrio” residences. The channel would continue in precisely its present form, being viewed by more or less the same audience. Notwithstanding these facts, opposition propaganda is already repeating the same idiocies as graced the RCTV affair: Globo is in danger of “closure” for political reasons by an autocratic government permanently threatened by freedom of expression.
Capitalist media can never be relied upon to report in the public’s best interest, without routine omissions of facts or relevant context. The profit motive can only coincidentally coincide with human interest, and usually directly contradicts it. A truly socialist society must be served entirely by grassroots-based organs, connected in local and regional networks, and firmly under the democratic control of workers and society at large. The eventual demise of Globovision, RCTV, Televen, Venevision and all privately-held media is a necessary condition for the establishment and maintenance of true democracy. The only debate in truly revolutionary circles is how, and at what pace to make the transition.
It isn’t that Globo represents a thorn in the side of a government eager to maintain an electoral majority — one would be a fool to bet against Chavez being re-elected in 2012 with over 60% of the vote. Rather, responsible citizens should consider the extent to which Globo is psychologically damaging a sizeable proportion of Venezuela’s population with day-and-night doomsday reporting (whether related to seismic tremors, the exchange of Venezuelan oil for Cuban doctors, crime stories or the economy). Any significant ingestion of Globovision’s perceptions and analyses should invoke increased anxiety and stress as an absolute minimum.
The government has rightly designated Globo the head of domestic “media terrorism”: a political party masquerading as a selfless provider of news and opinion. Guests are typically frequent regulars, trained in the art of repeating platitudes with authority and professionalism, but unable to provide in-depth analysis and often visibly on the verge of exasperation. Phone-in callers attempting to defend the government are treated as ignorant practical jokers, while coverage of Chavez is brief and sporadic, shamelessly avoiding inconvenient truths at any cost.
Those who claim Venezuela’s greatly-expanded state media is far more deserving of the “political party” accusation should recognise that most revolutionaries here are not in favor of comprehensive and uncritical pro-government media controlled by the government itself. Nevertheless, with 80% of all privately-owned domestic media (not to mention the foreign press!) using their airtime and columns to denigrate government personnel and actions, there is no other medium-term option than to take advantage of state privileges and resources, responding to attacks and promoting revolutionary achievements in what has been termed the guerra mediatica (media war).
A common view is that Globovision and RCTV, or particularly the exposure they grant to opposition figures, actually play a positive role in mobilizing the revolutionary base. Therefore it should be of strategic benefit to wage a war of attrition, progressively weakening certain media where justified, but permitting them to continue as viable commercial entities for some time into the future. This avoids major controversy — something of a priority with elections of some kind every year — while upholding some semblance of justice. Which other country would permit TV stations that barely stop short of calling for rebellion and assassination of the democratically-elected president?
Satellite-only transmission would imply a reduced likelihood of undecided/apolitical voters stumbling across and persisting with Globovision, but quite possibly only to a marginal degree. However, the immediate threat of less viewers would be accompanied by a corresponding fall in advertising revenues, and presumably a disproportionate reduction in the value of the company. It all adds up to a potent initial sanction, as RCTV shareholders are likely to be discovering to their discontent.
However, this revolution must be awake to the dangerous possibility that later stages of this “media war” might tend towards a slippery slope of curbing legitimate free speech. For those who understand that for-profit media is anything but free, priorities should be clear: the focus should always be on managing the downfall of corporate media institutions, while tackling the difficult process of strengthening and empowering popular media. Anything else, and particularly the unchecked dominance of state-controlled media, must inevitably lead towards an uniform, suffocating, unsavory future.