Cambridge Book Review

"The Global Media:
The New Missionaries of Corporate Capitalism"
By Edward S. Herman
and Robert W. McChesney
Cassell, 1997

Reviewed by Amitabh Pal
[This review appeared originally in the September, 1997 issue of The Progressive, and is reprinted here by permission.]

The global village is not what it was made out to be. The rich, the middle class, and many poor people around the world consume the same media products from a handful of huge multinational corporations based in the West. The effect is pernicious.

Edward S. Herman, professor emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania, and Robert W. McChesney, journalism professor at the University of Wisconsin, take a look at the major corporate players in this new information age. These firms not only provide goods and services but propagate an entire worldview, the authors argue.

"The global media are the missionaries of our age, promoting the virtues of commercialism and the market loudly and incessantly through their profit-driven and advertising-supported enterprises and programming," the authors write. "This missionary work is not the result of any sort of conspiracy....It developed organically from their institutional basis and commercial imperatives."

Today, a two-tiered grouping of large firms dominates the world communications system, the authors report. The first tier consists of ten megacorporations, including some well-known names like Time Warner (the largest in the world, with annual sales approaching $25 billion), Disney, and GE. Others are not so recognizable, including Viacom, PolyGram, TCI, and even the Rupert Murdoch-controlled News Corporation, which the authors call "the archetype for the twenty-first century global media firm."

The second-tier consists of some three dozen smaller firms, hankering for tie-ups with each other and with the real bigwigs. Many are newspaper companies, including Dow Jones, The New York Times Co., The Washington Post Co., Gannett, and the Tribune Co.

The domination of the information flow by a few large firms is profoundly undemocratic, the authors contend. The pressure to make profits and serve advertisers leads companies to disregard public service and hype entertainment and violence. As the authors put it in their introduction, "Such a concentration of media power in organizations dependent on advertiser support and responsible primarily to shareholders is a clear and present danger to citizens' participation in public affairs, understanding of public issues, and thus to the effective working of democracy."

As Herman and McChesney point out, the threat to the free flow of expression comes not only from government censorship, as is often supposed. Rather, private commercial ownership of the media imposes its own forms of censorship. The corporate media tend to favor a pro-business political environment and are reluctant to air views that challenge that environment. And advertisers insist that programming cater to the lowest common denominator. As a result, the media shun "discussions and documentaries that dig deeply, inform, and challenge conventional opinion."

Media globalization has some good aspects, as the authors admit. For instance, Western corporate media have helped spread values like political freedom and the rights of minorities and women. However, McChesney and Herman contend that any such benefits are dwarfed by the dangers of a profit-driven, commerce-saturated system. Besides, they say, the preaching of values like freedom and democracy is mostly irrelevant when it comes into conflict with the profit motive. A good example of this happened in 1994 when Rupert Murdoch yanked BBC World Television Service off his Star TV satellite service to China after learning of the Chinese government's displeasure with BBC's broadcasts.

The authors provide a chapter on the history of the Western-dominated communications system, which began in the mid-nineteenth century with the formation of wire services, such as Reuters and the Associated Press. As Hollywood, radio, television, and the music industry grew to maturity, the media firms extended their reach.

In the 1970s, developing countries began to resist Western-based media domination. This led to bitter wrangling. The developing countries demanded alternatives to the Western grip on information, while the West insisted that the "free" flow of information was sacred. Resistance on the part of the developing nations effectively ended with a series of economic crises in the 1980s. Strapped for funds, these countries accepted the free-market nostrums peddled by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

This change in policy enabled large corporate entities to tighten their hold over global information technology, the authors argue. In the Third World and Eastern Europe, laissez-faire capitalism opened up local media markets to Western corporate penetration.

The United States, with its private, hyper-commercialized media, serves as the model for the current global media system. The commercial broadcasters gained control of the airwaves after an intense debate from the 1920s to the 1940s over the nature and ownership of broadcasting. The Reagan years and the Telecommunications Act of 1996 marked their complete triumph. Today, the media corporations lording over the world are mostly U.S.-based.

The advent of the global media giants has led to a downsizing of public-service broadcasting systems around the world. The notion of the media performing any sort of public service in educating and informing a citizenry is slowly being replaced by the commercial imperative -- be it in Great Britain and Italy or Brazil and India. This, the authors say, has meant "giving full play to audience-attracting programs featuring sex and violence, all in accord with market logic," as the media conglomerates are "treating audiences as consumers, not as citizens." Once-venerable institutions like the BBC, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and our own PBS have all suffered cutbacks and diminution. Under the gun from conservative politicians and rightwing think tanks, they have had to turn to advertisers for support, becoming additional outlets for entertainment in the process.

Herman and McChesney are ambivalent about the potential of the Internet. Although they laud its possibilities as a forum for the expression of diverse viewpoints, they fear its increasing commercialization and dominance by corporate entities. They hold off, however, from making any definitive predictions about the future of the medium.

So what are the alternatives? Herman and McChesney seem hopeful about the possibility that alternative broadcasts may make a meaningful dent in the current system. They praise media watchdog groups in the United States and Europe, as well as community radio stations around the world. Worthy as these efforts may be, it seems unlikely they can hold back the corporate onslaught.

Herman and McChesney provide a valuable roadmap for this corporate-dominated information age. However, the book doesn't devote enough space to the questions of what a global society dominated by such a system will look like. What are the implications when in India "The Bold and the Beautiful" and "Santa Barbara" are among the most popular programs on cable and satellite television at a time when one-third of the population lives below the poverty line?

The media work hand-in-glove with other forces of globalization to make regions like Latin America and South Asia even more stratified than they were before. The result is an elite that identifies more with the West than with its own people.

This process of globalization also produces a backlash, with large numbers of people retreating into religious fundamentalism and nationalism as a reaction to the perceived loss of traditional values, a process chronicled by Rutgers University professor Benjamin S. Barber in his "Jihad vs. McWorld" (Random House, 1995). Herman and McChesney don't make more than tentative forays into such territory, perhaps considering it to be beyond the scope of the book. Still, the implication of this near-total control by a handful of megacorporate entities is alarming and deserves greater scrutiny.

In the past couple of months, Murdoch has bought the Family Channel from Pat Robertson and expanded his U.S. satellite TV service exponentially by combining with an existing service, PrimeStar. Meanwhile, Ted Turner has challenged Murdoch to a boxing match. Globalization marches forward.

Books like "The Global Media" help make sense of what's going on.


Amitabh Pal is Associate Editor of The Progessive Media Project. Originally from India, he has M.A. degrees in journalism and political science from UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. State University, respectively.

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