Herbert Schiller

Intellectual scourge of media manipulation and sceptic of the information revolution

Friday February 18, 2000
The Guardian

Some commentators may be enthused by the internet, the spread of new technologies, or simply the pleasures of soap opera, but for Herbert Schiller, who has died aged 80, the $100bn alliances between the likes of America On-line, Times Warner and EMI were of greater consequence. They symbolised a world of information dominated by consumerist values and commercial principles. Alongside Noam Chomsky, Schiller occupied a premier position as a critic of American media practice and policy.

From the late 1960s, he persisted in emphasising the significance of age-old capitalist activities. He pioneered the political economy approach, insisting on the primacy of business imperatives in the realm of information. One of his abiding themes was the dangers of corporate takeovers of public institutions limiting possibilities of expression, submerging the majority in escapist entertainment and dulling the critical imagination.

Born in New York and raised there during the depression, Schiller retained his passion for the city - and his radicalism. He spent the last 30 years of his life in southern California, but regularly returned to his home city. The hard times of a decade when his father was unemployed remained an abiding influence.

He studied at City College, New York, alongside a cohort which included Melvyn Lasky, Seymour Lipset, Irving Kristol and Daniel Bell. He took a master's degree at Columbia and a doctorate from New York university. During the second world war he was a military economist, and, in defeated Germany, his observation of the curtailment of de-Nazification - with the cold war and the need to re- establish business confidence - left an indelible impression. He married Anita, a research librarian, in postwar Paris.

During the 1950s, Schiller taught economics to artists at New York's Pratt Institute of Art, keeping a low profile during the McCarthyite hysteria, when he held several part-time jobs and had a young family to support. He moved to the University of Illinois and, in 1969, to the University of California, San Diego, where the German Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse and the black American communist Angela Davis were teaching radical ideas. Schiller established a communications programme and made his department one of the best regarded in the world.

Handsome, tall and angular, he was a magnetic speaker. Arms flailing, and possessed of a passionate but sardonic humour, he lectured at his best without notes. This talent was wonderfully exploited in a Public Service Broadcasting television series, Herb Schiller Reads The New York Times, in which he presented an alternative account of the day's news straight to camera. By the 1980s, student radicalism in southern California had ebbed, yet he still enthralled undergraduates; they would applaud his classes - before going on to jobs at the likes of Disney or MTV.

Schiller travelled extensively, holding visiting positions in Amsterdam, Tampere in Finland, and Paris. He was in constant demand as a star speaker, a skill that contributed to his influential role in Unesco debates, where the free-flow-of-information doctrine began to be seen as a pro-west ideology. This criticism was a factor in the American and British withdrawal of financial aid from Unesco in the mid-1980s.

Schiller wrote for many publications, including Le Monde Diplomatique in France and the Nation in the US. Mass Communications And American Empire (1969) and The Mind Managers (1973) are probably his best-known studies. They stressed the propagandistic dimensions of mass media, and even the disguised ideology underlining the National Geographic magazine.

Schiller stood against information society utopians. Whenever business leaders enthused about new communications, he argued, they were selling wares rather than improving the knowledgeability of the public. In Culture Inc (1989), he highlighted the corporate invasion of public spaces. He warned that, as the sponsor came to dominate the means of expression, so information was increasingly treated as a private rather than a public good, with an associated decline in challenging ideas and reliable information, displaced by "infotainment". He also underlined in Who Knows? (1981) and Information Inequality (1996) the divisions that accompany the "information revolution" - low-income consumers receive a glut of "garbage information" that "tells them everything about anything of no significance", while the privileged get premier information services.

Schiller enjoyed the irony of living in a small but lovely house in La Jolla, an affluent Pacific coast town. Enthusiastic walkers, he and Anita relished their nightly walks through vacant streets amidst the armed response signs, electronic alarm systems, and the automobile - which ensured a thoroughly privatised existence.

Schiller is survived by his wife and two sons.

Frank Webster

Herbert Irving Schiller, critic and sociologist, born November 5 1919; died January 29 2000

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