March 27, 2003
Fascism is rearing its ugly head once again. It is not the virulent racist type that we associate with Hitler and Mussolini. But rather the ideologically pure fascist relationship between government and industry.
This is illustrated by many ongoing and recent developments. The recent appellate circuit court decision to strike down laws prohibiting television networks from owning local affiliates, cable systems and each other is a dangerous encroachment on diversity in the marketplace. Having 100 cable channels to choose from isn't the kind of diversity I'm referring to. Rather, the concentration of communication resources into the hands of fewer and fewer companies, no matter how many movie and sports channels they give us, limits the opportunities in the marketplace for all but the top of the corporate and financial food chain. Creative and employment opportunities in the media are also restricted.
This movement began shortly after Reagan took office. His presidency ushered and promoted legislation that allowed for mergers, acquisitions and mega-mergers that had previously been prohibited by securities regulations and anti-trust legislation.
This made it possible and fashionable for companies to buy into industries they knew nothing about, while insisting on applying their own corporate model to whatever they swallowed up. A new owner might know nothing about running a radio station or ad agency, but they want it done their way.
When fewer companies own the resources of entire industries, a regimentation of industry occurs. This is one of the features of classical fascism. A natural outgrowth of this is government control of product and distribution, another insidious element of fascism.
Given the lobbying ties that communications giants have in Congress, the line between government and a free communications industry has become thin and fragile. Couple that with a Supreme Court proven to favor corporate over consumer interest, and the future does not look good for individuals and small companies who want to own and manage their own newspapers, radio and television stations.
For three years I worked as a DJ and program host at WREC-AM 600 in Memphis. It is one of the nation's oldest radio stations, with a broadcasting history dating to 1921. When I was hired, the programming featured news, sports, music, talk shows and information segments like stock market and farm reports. It was the local flagship station for CBS News and Sports, the local affiliate for University of Tennessee basketball and football; and offered comprehensive Olympic coverage. It also offered locally oriented talk shows that weren't entirely devoted to sports or hate-mongering, and a music format that the trade-industry journals patronizingly dubbed "Great Music". This encompasses a broad spectrum of jazz and swing from the 1920's through the 1950's, classic standard and ballad singers, 1950's pop smarm, folk, light rock from the 1950's through 1970's and some elevator music. (Somehow, not all of the elevator music got played on my watch.)
WREC was bought and sold several times between 1970 and when I left in 1993. The new ownership, New Market Media trashed that universally appealing format in order to bring G. Gordon Liddy, Dr. Laura and like-minded talking heads into the Memphis Market. I stuck it out for 6 months going for the bait of promised raises, promotions and creative opportunities that never happened. (Eventually the strain of right-wing blowhards whipping the masses into a frenzy of hate, and canned music beds became too much to take and I resigned.)
WREC is now owned by Clear Channel Communications, which owns 1,200 other radio stations in the United States. They swallowed up all prior ownership groups so that they no longer exist. Clear Channel is the company that has organized pro-war rallies across the country through its centralized office in San Antonio, while claiming each rally is locally generated. Is there anything wrong with a broadcast outlet generating its own news? William Randolph Hearst didn't think so. Neither does Tom Hicks, the Clear Channel VP who is a long time friend of Bush Jr., and who just happened to buy Junior's share of the Texas Rangers in 1998. Bush Jr. made millions off of that one.
Clear Channel has made many enemies in the music industry by refusing to play music by artists who don't tour with their concert division. They've dictated radio formats across the country, music selection, while crippling creative and employment opportunities for musicians and radio personalities alike. If you ever worked for a Clear Channel station and, say, lobbied against a format change, don't expect to get hired anytime soon while they rule the industry.
The problem isn't that there are no liberal talk show hosts, but that Clear Channel and similar corporations don't want them on the air! They own the airwaves.
Clear Channel's virtual monopoly of the radio industry was made possible by the Telecommunications Act of 1996 that eliminated ownership restrictions on radio and TV stations. Previously, corporations were limited in the number of media outlets they could own in a single market. It also enabled a form of vertical integration that used to be prohibited by anti-trust legislation. Bush, Jr. and some Congressmen are floating legislation to further this consolidation.
Tune into any National Public Radio station in the country and you'll hear the same programming you're accustomed to at home. While NPR presents an enriching quality of news and information, along with a little music and humor on weekends, most local affiliates have few, if any choices to develop and present local programming. All over the country the jazz, blues and bluegrass music shows in the evening have been replaced by re-runs of Fresh Air, All Things Considered and the other daytime staples.
In fairness, NPR was forced to retool in the wake of drastic funding cuts initiated by Newt Gingrich, and like-minded legislators who objected to the network's perceived freedom to trash the Republican agenda. NPR began to rely on hard survey numbers to determine its greatest listening peaks nationwide, and decided that what was good for one was good for all. Therein lies the problem of one company owning many outlets, or more than one segment of an industry.
Fascism is on the rise in other areas, in part because we don't recognize its elements. Cameras in the workplace, and being required to sign away various constitutional rights upon being hired have become common place. Forcing new employees to agree to corporate-sponsored mediation, while forsaking the right to sue regardless of what crimes or personal violations may occur, are now standard corporate procedures. Applications at most large corporations contain clauses binding the applicant to renounce numerous legal rights, giving the company right to search your person and property; and to take samples of your blood and urine--privacy violations that are off limits to law enforcement agencies without cause. The pretext of these encroachments is to keep illegal drugs out of the workplace, a valid concern in many industries. But these days, any prospective employee is presumed to be guilty until his blood and urine shows otherwise. ("I Owe My Soul To The Company Nurse").
The resistance to substantive campaign reform shows that many elected officials don't want to let go of their ties to industries. Both major parties routinely accuse the other of catering to special interests, and the Enron grease on both sides of the congressional aisle gives ample evidence that both parties are guilty, though not equally so. Republican ties to the corporate agenda drive much of the resistance to campaign reform. Enron's access to the White House and privileges in writing our nation's energy policy, illuminate a drift toward government and industry squeezing out consumer interests, and a cynical abuse of the political process.
Another classical definition of fascism is that it assumes that people live for the promotion and perpetuation of the state. The effort by Republicans to marginalize consumer interests and environmental safeguards in favor of a corporate agenda removes any veil of secrecy on that account.
Now we are being introduced to a new national office for disseminating information, or in some cases, disinformation. Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld promises that the new Office of Strategic Influence won't lie, but is only there to help foreign correspondents, international opinion makers and other governments understand Bush's ideas and policies. This effort to centralize public diplomacy is unprecedented in this country, and usually associated with authoritarian governments and literary myths.
Even before the tragedy of 9/11, the Bush Jr. Administration advocated a tendency toward regimenting industry, commerce and finance while creating alarm in the opposite direction. The Republican habit of promoting legislation for the bedroom, but not the boardroom was manifested by drastic cuts in corporate and business taxes, less enforcement of commercial, work safety and environmental legislation, and the disingenuous idea of allowing industries to police themselves. Many Bush Jr. appointees oversee industries where they once worked, and expect to again in a few years. But the growing trend of merger upon mega-merger, and sharks eating sharks has led to a code of uniformity and increased regimentation, while diminishing opportunities for new ideas and creativity in many industries.
That 9/11 brought a news sense of American nationalism has a double-edged sword. Republicans and right-wingers no longer exclusively own the rights to display the American flag. But it has given Bush, Ashcroft, Rumsfeld and their lap-dog, Ari Fleisher, a pretext to bulldoze through an agenda of censorship, and suppression of opposition in the media. The idea that journalists' questioning Bush Jr's motives and agenda, weakens our national defense effort, speaks of paranoia not seen in the White House since Nixon. This discloses another element of fascism in our political landscape.
Bush Jr.and his cadre can't overtly dictate to the media what they should say or how to cover the stories behind the war. But it is clear they want to control the content of the news to a degree that is unprecedented and unconstitutional. Embedded reporters on the war-front represent a frightening co-opting of the 5th Estate. Since taking office Bush has brazenly sought to erase some of the checks and balances between our three branches of government, and now the mainstream media is being co-opted as a cheerleader and mouthpiece for the Bush Jr. agenda.
With fewer news organs having the ability to report independently and disseminate their product (information) effectively, it is easier for the people who send out the press releases and spin the stories to cover their bases without opposition or competition. Centralized media is another element of fascism. The Supreme Court will soon have a chance to determine whether this will become a permanent part of our cultural and political landscape, or if the media trades will remain free-market enterprises. A Congressional rollback of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 will also be necessary to restore freedom of the press, and equal employment opportunities in the media industries. Bad judicial decisions can only be trumped by new Congressional legislation. But we better hurry while checks and balances still exist.