”DEMOCRATIC ILLUSIONS” An Interview with Herbert Schiller
DEMOCRATIC ILLUSIONS An Interview with Herbert Schiller Herbert Schiller is Professor of Communication at the
MULTINATIONAL MONITOR: The subtitle for your book Culture Inc., is "The Corporate Takeover of Public Expression." What does this mean?
HERBERT SCHILLER: It means that the creation of individual consciousness through imagery and information increasingly is under the auspices of corporate cultural industries: film, television production, radio, book publishing, magazines, entertainment theme parks, even architectural structures and shopping malls. All of these activities constitute the range of imagery and value systems....
MM: What are the underlying forces that are leading to this corporate expansion?
SCHILLER: Well, I think that it's a convergence of the customary drives of private
enterprise to control as much of the market as possible. A second factor is new
technologies which allow a rapid expansion in
traditional and new fields. And a third consideration is the globalization
which comes out of both the new technologies and the larger size of the
enterprises that are involved in these developments .
As an example, you get a company like the Walt Disney Corporation ... that
produces movies, that makes television shows, more recently has opened up
stores that sell various kinds of merchandise which
are based on the characters in the movies and the TV shows. You have, as well,
the largest activity of all, the Disney theme parks in
MM: And Disney is a typical example?
SCHILLER: Disney, of course, is a very
important example but by no means unique. Last year, for example, Disney made,
I believe, something over $700 million in profits. That puts this kind of
company up in the higher ranks of the major corporations in the
MM: What difference does it make if there's only five or six or seven of these huge conglomerates?
SCHILLER: [This means] that what has customarily been regarded as diversity, many voices, a wide range of expression, all these kinds of necessary features of what we might call a truly functioning democratic society are threatened. We have as an example of this the very recent episode in New York in which a major media conglomerate, not the same size as Time-Warner but still significant, the Newhouse Group, pulled the plug or at least severely limited the activities of one of its subsidiaries, the Pantheon Press. [The] explanation [provided to the public] was that it was ... not making enough money. Now this is the very opposite of what these large-scale corporations claim that they are doing, and how they are benefitting people by being so large. They claim that by their very great size, they can do more things, take more risks, be more capable of offering a rich diversity; that's their creed, they say. In reality, we find that they just use their resources to narrow their offerings and to quickly dispose of any activity which, in their estimation, is not pulling its own weight. What do they mean by pulling its own weight? They mean contributing adequately to the profit ratios that Wall Street appreciates.
MM: To what extent do you think the media function as a tool of major corporate interests versus operating as their own self- interested industry?
SCHILLER: Well, I don't
really think there's such a contradiction or such an incompatibility [between
these two views]. I think that the media industries are not that apart or
separate from the main concerns of the rest of industrial, or what remains of
MM: What is the sociological effect of being bombarded with advertisements, specifically in terms of politics and how the citizenry views democracy and its input into it?
SCHILLER: Well, here again,
... one has to be somewhat tentative and even speculative because you
can't get answers from the citizens themselves. They will say that there is
practically no effect. But I would say that you get a
certain kind of a reaction, very pronounced here in the
MM: What's your
perspective on the
SCHILLER: First of all,
UNESCO was very much an American- sponsored organization from its foundation
and its early development back at the end of World War II. American educators
and intellectuals had a very important role to play in its formation. And in the first 20 years of UNESCO's history, American policies
were the dominant policies that guided that organization. In many other
international organizations, including the entire United Nations system, the
MM: What was UNESCO's new international information order initiative?
SCHILLER: Again, you have to be clear that this demand for what was called a new international information order was a demand that antedated the beginning of UNESCO; you can find instances of that demand in an earlier period, as far back as the beginning of the 20th century. But after World War II, when international organizations began to include the new nations, this became a more active issue. It concerned the flow of international information, and not just news, but the flow of all kinds of cultural and informational products: movies, TV programs, magazines. This flow has been, and to a very large extent remains, a one-way flow from a few highly developed centers to the rest of the world. [T]he demand for a new international information order was couched in very general terms and never was a particular document [with] a .. . specific list of demands. It was rather a general conception: ... that this flow should be broadened, that there should be other sources that could contribute to the flow. In other words, other places that should have their news, their movies, their books circulated in the general flow. [T]here were also other demands. Not all of these demands were always agreed to by all of the people and all of the groups that were involved in the overall issue. One other demand was less commercialization of the flow and a more public character to some of the information. That would be translated into what we would call more public interest programming rather than exclusively a commercial flow. But these were the main ingredients of the international information question. [W]hat we have today is really a new international information order: ... a transnational corporate information order [in which] the whole flow of information is largely determined by the large companies that I alluded to earlier in our discussion. That plus the information flows that go between the large companies in their business pursuits constitute the largest category of international information flow today and is practically invisible to the general public. [T]hat is the real information order as it currently operates.
MM: What were the main ways the
SCHILLER: [T]hrough tremendous attacks on UNESCO, making the whole operation sound [like] a dictatorial initiative which was intolerable. The use of our entire informational machinery and our media structures [gave] such a dreadful interpretation of the whole notion that the term has itself become almost a reprehensible concept. Of course beyond just image-making, no assistance was given whatsoever to any structural changes and, as a result, those structures which had, at that time, dominated the international flow of programming ... are ... more powerful today.
MM: Is the European plan to protect its
SCHILLER: Well, again, some of that rhetoric
picked up on the same kind of themes that I've been
talking about, that
MM: Do you anticipate an expansion of the
same sort of system into
SCHILLER Very much
so. In the last couple of months, Advertising
Age, the trade magazine of the advertising industry, has been licking its chops
and gloating at what prospects are available, and already many things have
happened. These huge media combines have moved into
MM: Do you see any significant countervailing forces to these media combines?
SCHILLER: At the present moment, no. Of course, I again qualify what I am saying by adding that the picture is not totally one of unrelieved domination by these giant forces. They are dominant; they are moving rapidly across the entire international field. But, even taking our own country as an example, ... we do have some other voices which do their best to express themselves. These other voices are still limited; these other voices are mostly local; these other voices are underfinanced; these other voices have great difficulty finding national expression; but we shouldn't ignore the fact that they exist, that they are numerous, that they are dedicated and that they do have alternative messages. [I]n the field of video, we have independent filmmakers, and I would say that, although at this stage they still remain mostly a peripheral force, their numbers are not insignificant, and we may look forward, at some point, to some kind of larger coordination efforts. There are already embryonic indications of this. There is for example an outfit called Deep Dish Television; this is an operation bringing public interest, public access television, utilizing a satellite, buying time and then having the programs transmitted and picked up around the country by public access groups. I don't want to exaggerate how important that is in terms of what currently prevails, but it is an alternative....
MM: What about public television and radio?
SCHILLER: Well, public radio has done some good things, and I think that there we have maybe one of the more positive examples for us, although it has its problems still. Public television, unfortunately, has been largely penetrated by the very same forces that dominate commercial television. [P]ublic television, when it was established 25 or more years ago, was supposed to be a totally alternative channel to commercial television; it was supposed to prohibit advertising, and it was supposed to be an innovative and alternative system of TV programming. Well, to a very limited extent there's been some alternative programming and some individually fine efforts. But, overall, public television has, because of its [deliberate] underfinancing, ... been forced to move ever closer to the corporate fountain of support. [S]o any of us who watch public television can't help but note that more and more programs are sponsored explicitly or discreetly. And it's not only so much that they're sponsored, which would already be an invasion of the commercial presence in an area where it was not supposed to exist. But, more than ... its ... visible and ... somewhat jarring presence, is its invisible presence where it operates as a force to discourage the public television programmers from putting on their channels materials that might inconvenience, or displease, or, one way or another, vex their sponsors. So we have the same kind of neutering effect occurring on public television that exists on the commercial channels. [I]n a real sense, we have the institutionalized censorship by capital of the creative process. This is of course the basic fact of life of the commercial system, and unfortunately it's increasingly the case on public television as well.
MM: Ralph Nader talks about a form of audience access based on the idea that the public owns the airwaves and government could mandate each television and radio station provide one hour of prime-time TV and drive-time radio to an organization run by citizens. What do you think of this idea?
SCHILLER: [I] think it's certainly in line with the whole course of American history and even in the early stages of broadcasting, itself. When we first began to get radio and the very early days of television also, it was regarded as an absolute, unchallenged principle that the public interest had to be protected. It was also part of this fundamental principle that the airwaves, the radio spectrum, were national and natural resources and had to be treated as such.