What does today's media system mean for the notion of an informed public cherished by democratic theory? Quite literally, it means that virtually everything the average person sees or hears outside of her own personal communications, is determined by the interests of private, unaccountable executives and investors whose primary goal is increasing profits and raising the country's share price. More insidiously, this small group of elites determine what ordinary people do not see or hear. In-depth coverage of anything, let alone the problems real people face day to day, is as scarce as sex, violence, and voyeurism are pervasive.
Successful business model or not, by democratic standards, this is censorship of knowledge by monopolization of the means of information. In its current form, which Barry Diller happily describes as “oligopoly,” media growth has one clear consequence. There is more information and easier access to it, but it's more narrow and homogenous in content and perspective, so that what we see from the couch is overwhelmingly a view from the top. The pioneering communications scholar, Mary Edelman, wrote that opinions about public policy do not spring immaculately or automatically into people's minds. They are always placed there by the interpretations of those who most consistently get their claims and manufactured cues publicized widely.
For years, the media marketplace for opinions about public policy has been dominated by a highly disciplined, thoroughly networked, ideological noise machine, to use David Brock’s term. Permeated with slogans concocted by big corporations, their lobbyists, and their think tank subsidiaries, public discourse has effectively changed the meaning of American values. Day after day, the ideals of fairness and liberty and mutual responsibility have been stripped of their essential dignity and meaning in people's lives. Day after day, the egalitarian creed of our Declaration of Independence is trampled underfoot by hired experts and sloganeers, who speak of the “death tax,” “the ownership society,” “the culture of life,” “the liberal assault on God and family,” “compassionate conservatism,” “weak on terrorism,” “the end of history,” “the clash of civilizations,” “no child left behind.” They have even managed to turn the escalation of a failed war into a “surge,” as if it were a current of electricity through a wire, instead of blood spurting from the ruptured vein of a soldier.
The Orwellian filigree of a public sphere in which language conceals reality, and the pursuit of personal gain and partisan power is wrapped in rhetoric that turns truth to lies, and lies to truth, so it is that limited government has little to do with the Constitution or local economy anymore. Now it means corporate domination and the shifting of risk from government and business to struggling families and workers. Family values now mean imposing a sectarian definition of the family on everyone else. Religious freedom now means majoritarianism and public benefits for organized religion without any public burdens. And patriotism has come to mean blind support for failed leaders.
It's what happens when an interlocking media system filters through commercial values or ideology, the information and moral viewpoints people consume in their daily lives. And by no stretch of the imagination can we say today that the dominant institutions of our media are guardians of democracy.
From a speech by Bill Moyers in January 2007. Read the full text of the speech here.