Current Issue 4/98:
Media Ownership and Control

The Political economy of global media

by Robert W. McChesney

By the end of the 1990s a major turning point was reached in the realm of media. Whereas media systems had been primarily national before the 1990s, a global commercial media market has emerged full force by the dawn of the twenty-first century. In the past, to understand any nation's media situation, one first had to understand the local and national media and then determine where the global market - which largely meant imports and exports of films, TV shows, books, and music - fit in. Today one must first grasp the nature and logic of the global commercial system and then determine how local and national media deviate from the overall system. The rise of a global commercial media system is closely linked to the rise of a significantly more integrated 'neoliberal' global capitalist economic system.

The rise to dominance of the global commercial media system is more than an economic matter; it also has clear implications for media content, politics, and culture. In many ways the emerging global media system is an extension of the US system, and its culture shares many of the attributes of the US hyper-commercial media system. This makes sense, as the firms that dominate US media also dominate the global system, and the system operates on the same profit maximizing logic. But there are also some important distinctions. On the one hand, a number of new firms enter the picture as one turns to the global system. On the other hand, and more important, a number of new political and social factors enter the discussion.

There are scores of governments, and regional and international organizations that have a say in the regulation of media and communication. There are also a myriad of languages and cultures, that make establishing a global version of the 'US system' quite difficult. But even if the US media system and culture will not be punch-pressed onto the globe, the trajectory is toward vastly greater integration, based on commercial terms, and dominated by a handful of transnational media conglomerates.

In this article I briefly chronicle the rise of the global media system and its core attributes. It is a system dominated by fewer then ten global TNCs, with another four or five dozen firms filling out regional and niche markets. In my view, the general thrust of the global commercial media system is quite negative - assuming one wishes to preserve and promote institutions and values that are conducive to meaningful self-government. It plays a central role in the development of 'neo-liberal' democracy; i.e. a political system based on the formal right to vote, but where political and economic power is resolutely maintained in the hands of the wealthy few.

The global markets for film production, TV show production, book publishing, and recorded music have been oligopolistic markets throughout much of their existence. Although there are important domestic industries in many of these industries, the global export market is the province of a handful of mostly US-owned or US-based firms. These not only remain important markets, but are also tending to grow faster than the global economy. The motion picture and TV show production industries are absolutely booming at the global level. The major film studios and US TV show production companies (usually the same firms) now generate between 50 and 60 percent of their revenues outside the United States. A key factor that makes these global oligopolies nearly impenetrable to newcomers are their extensive distribution systems. The rational choice for someone wishing to enter this market is to either buy one of the existing giants, or, if one does not have a spare $10 or $20 billion or does not wish to spend it, to set up an 'independent' and forge a link with one of the existing giants. The global film industry is the province of seven firms, all of which are part of larger media conglomerates. Likewise, the global music industry is dominated by five firms, all but one of which (EMI) are part of larger media TNCs. These five music giants earn 70 percent of their revenues outside of the United States.

What distinguishes the emerging global media system is not transnational control over exported media content, however, so much as increasing TNC control over media distribution and content within nations. Prior to the 1980s and 1990s, national media systems were typified by nationally owned radio and television systems, as well as domestic newspaper industries. Newspaper publishing remains a largely national phenomenon, but the face of television has changed almost beyond recognition. The rise of cable and satellite technology has opened up national markets to scores of new channels and revenue streams. The major Hollywood studios - all part of global media conglomerates - expect to generate $11 billion alone in 2002 for global TV rights to their film libraries, up from $7 billion in 1998. More important, the primary providers of these channels are the media TNCs that dominate cable television channel ownership in the United States, and have aggressively established numerous global editions of their channels to accommodate the new market. Neoliberal 'free market' policies have opened up ownership of stations as well as cable and satellite systems to private and transnational interests. As The Wall Street Journal notes, 'the cable colonialists continue to press on in Europe, Asia and Latin America, betting on long-term profit.' Likewise, the largest media TNCs are invariably among the main players in efforts to establish digital satellite TV systems to serve regional and national markets.

Television also is rapidly coming to play the same sort of dominant cultural role in Europe, Asia, and worldwide that it has played in the United States for two or three generations. After reviewing the most recent research, one observer noted in early 1998: 'Europe hasn't caught up to American TV consumption levels, but Europeans are spending more time than ever watching television.' In 1997 French children aged 4-10 years old watched on average nearly two hours of television per day, up 10 percent from the previous high in 1996; but this remains only one-half the amount of TV watching for US kids.

The close connection of the rise of the global media system to the global capitalist political economy becomes especially clear in two ways. First, as suggested above, the global media system is the direct result of the sort of 'neoliberal' deregulatory policies and agreements (e.g. NAFTA and GATT) that have helped to form global markets for goods and services. At the global level, for example, the WTO ruled in 1997 that Canada could not prohibit Time Warner's Sports Illustrated from distributing a Canadian edition of the magazine. In Australia, for another example, the High Court ruled against the legality of Australian domestic media content quotas in April 1998, stating that 'international treaty obligations override the national cultural objectives in the Broadcasting Services Act.'

Although there is considerable pressure for open media markets, this is a sensitive area. There are strong traditions of protection for domestic media and cultural industries. Nations ranging from Norway, Denmark and Spain to Mexico, South Africa and South Korean, for example, have government subsidies to keep alive their small domestic film production industries. Over the coming years it is likely that there will be periodic setbacks to the drive to establish an open global media market. In the summer of 1998 culture ministers from 20 nations, including Brazil, Mexico, Sweden, Italy and Ivory Coast, met in Ottawa, Canada to discuss how they could 'build some ground rules' to protect their cultural fare from 'the Hollywood juggernaut.' Their main recommendation was to keep culture out of the control of the WTO. In India, in 1998, a court issued an arrest warrant for Rupert Murdoch for failing to appear in court to defend himself on the charge that his Star TV satellite service broadcast 'obscene and vulgar' movies.

Nevertheless, the trend is clearly in the direction of opening markets to TNC penetration. Neoliberal forces in every country argue that cultural trade barriers and regulations harm consumers, and that subsidies even inhibit the ability of nations to develop their own competitive media firms. There are often strong commercial media lobbies within nations that perceive they have more to gain by opening up their borders than they do by maintaining trade barriers. So it was in 1998 when the British government proposed a voluntary levy on film theatre revenues (mostly Hollywood films) to provide a subsidy for the British commercial film industry, the British commercial broadcasters reacted warily, not wishing to antagonize their crucial suppliers.

Advertising: a major weapon
Advertising is the second way that the global media system is linked to the global market economy. Advertising is conducted disproportionately by the largest firms in the world, and it is a major weapon in the struggle to establish new markets. For major firms like Procter & Gamble and Nike, global advertising is a vitally important aspect of their campaigns to maintain strong growth rates. In conjunction with the 'globalization' of the economy, advertising has grown globally at a rate greater than GDP growth in the 1990s. The most rapid growth has been in Europe, Latin America, and especially East Asia, although the economic collapse of the late 1990s has doused what had earlier been characterized as 'torrid ad growth.' Advertising in China is growing at annual rates of 40-50 percent in the 1990s, and the singularly important sector of TV advertising is expected to continue to grow at that rate, at least, with the advent of sophisticated audience research that now delivers vital demographic data to advertisers, especially TNC advertisers.

It is this TNC advertising that has fuelled the rise of commercial television across the world, accounting, for example, for over one-half the advertising on the ABN-CNBC Asia network, which is co-owned by Dow Jones and General Electric. And there is a world of room for growth, especially in comparison to the stable US market. Even in the developed markets of western Europe, for example, most nations still spend no more than one-half the US amount on advertising per capita, so there remains considerable growth potential. Were European nations, not to mention the rest of the world, ever to approach the US level of between 2.1 and 2.4 percent of the GDP going toward advertising - where it has fluctuated for decades - the global media industry would see an exponential increase in its revenues.

In short order the global media market has come to be dominated by nine TNCs that all rank among the few hundred largest publicly traded firms in the world in terms of market value. They are: General Electric (#1); AT&T (#16); Disney (#31); Time Warner (#76); Sony (#103); News Corp. (#184); Viacom (#210); and Seagram (#274). Bertelsmann, the sole exception, would certainly be high on the list, too, were it not one of the handful of giant firms that remains privately held. In short, these firms are at the very pinnacle of global corporate capitalism. It is also a highly concentrated industry; the largest media firm in the world in terms of annual revenues, Time Warner (1998 revenues: $28 billion), is some fifty times larger in terms of annual sales than the world's fiftieth-largest media firm. But what distinguishes these nine firms from the rest of the pack is not merely their size, but that they have global distribution networks.

The media giants have moved aggressively to become global players. Time Warner and Disney, for example, still get the vast majority of their revenue in the United States, but both firms project non-US sales to be a majority of their revenues within a decade, and the other media giants are all moving to be in a similar position. The point is to capitalize on the potential for growth - and not get outflanked by competitors - as the U.S market is well developed and only permits incremental growth. As Viacom CEO Sumner Redstone puts it, 'companies are focusing on those markets promising the best return, which means overseas.' Frank Biondi, Chair of Seagram's Universal Studios, says 'ninety-nine percent of the success of these companies long term is going to be successful execution offshore.' Another US media executive stated that 'we now see Latin America and the Asia-Pacific as our 21st century.' Sony, to cite one example, has hired the investment banking Blackstone Group to help it identity media takeover candidates worldwide.

But this point should not be exaggerated. Non-US markets, especially markets where there are meddlesome governments, are risky and often require patience before they produce profit. The key to being a first tier media powerhouse is having a strong base in the United States, by far the largest and most stable commercial media market. That is why Bertelsmann is on the list; it ranks among the top US music, magazine publishing, and book publishing companies. It expects to do 40 percent of its $16 billion in annual business in the United States in the near future. 'We want to be a world-class media company,' the CEO of the U.K.'s Pearson TV stated, 'and to do that, we know we've got to get bigger in America.'

The essence of the first tier firms is their ability to mix production capacity with their distribution networks. These nine firms control four of the five music firms that sell 80 percent of global music. The one remaining independent, EMI, is invariably on the market; it is worth considerably more merged with one of the other five global music giants that are all part of huge media conglomerates, or to another media TNC that wants a stake in the music market. All of the major Hollywood studios, that dominate global film box office, are connected to these giants too. The only two of the nine that are not major content producers are AT&T and GE's NBC. The former has major media content holdings through Liberty Media and both of them, ranking among the 10 most valuable firms in the world, are in a position to acquire assets as they become necessary. Such may soon be the case for GE. NBC was forced to scale back its expansion into European and Asian television in 1998, in part because it did not have enough programming to fill the airwaves.

The global media market is rounded out by a second tier of four or five dozen firms that are national or regional powerhouses, or which have strong holds over niche markets, such as business or trade publishing. About one-half of these second-tier firms come from North America ; most of the rest, from western Europe and Japan. Each of these second tier firms is a giant in its own right, often ranking among the 1,000 largest firms in the world and doing over $1 billion per year in business. The list of second tier media firms includes, among others, from North America: Dow Jones, Gannett, Knight-Ridder, Newhouse, Comcast, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Hearst, McGraw Hill, Cox Enterprises, CBS, Advance Publications, Hicks Muse, Times-Mirror, Reader's Digest, Tribune Company, Thomson, Hollinger, and Rogers Communication. From Europe the list of second tier firms includes, among others, Kirch, Havas, Mediaset, Hachette, Prisa, Canal Plus, Pearson, Carlton, Granada, United News & Media, Reuters, Reed Elsevier, Wolters Kluher, Axel Springer, Mediaset, Kinnevik, and CLT. The Japanese companies, aside from Sony, remain almost exclusively domestic producers. I will discuss the handful of 'Third World' commercial media giants below.

In combination, these sixty or seventy giants control much of the world's media: book publishing, magazine publishing, music recording, newspaper publishing, TV show production, TV station and cable channel ownership, cable/satellite TV system ownership, film production, motion picture theatre ownership, and newspaper publishing. They are also the most dynamic element of the system. But the system is still very much in formation. New second tier firms are emerging, especially in lucrative Asian markets, and there will probably be further upheaval among the ranks of the first tier media giants. And firms get no guarantee of success by merely going global. The point is that they have no choice in the matter. Some, perhaps many, will falter as they accrue too much debt or as they otherwise enter unprofitable ventures. But the chances are that we are closer to the end of the process of establishing a stable global media market than we are to the beginning of the process. And as that happens, there is a distinct likelihood that the leading media firms in the world will find themselves in a very profitable position. That is what they are racing to secure.

Complex web of interrelationships
Corporate growth, oligopolistic markets, and conglomeration barely reveal the extent to which the global media system is fundamentally noncompetitive in any meaningful economic sense of the term. Many of the largest media firms share major shareholders, own pieces of each other, or have interlocking boards of directors. When Variety compiled its list of the fifty largest global media firms for 1997, it observed that 'merger mania' and cross-ownership had 'resulted in a complex web of interrelationships' that will 'make you dizzy.' Each of the nine largest media TNCs have, on average, equity joint ventures - where they share ownership of a media venture - with six of the other eight media giants, and usually more than one. Murdoch's News Corporation has at least one joint venture with each of the other eight. Murdoch summarized his philosophy by saying 'We can join forces now, or we can kill each other and then join forces.'

For the second tier of media firms, linking up with other media firms is equally mandatory, to reduce competition and risk, and increase the chance of profitability. As the CEO of Sogecable, Spain's largest media firm one of the 12 largest private media companies in Europe, put it to Variety, the strategy is 'not to compete with international companies but to join them.' Indeed, it is rare for a first tier media giant to launch a new venture in a foreign country unless they have taken on a leading domestic media company as a partner. The domestic firm can handle public outreach and massage the local politicians.

In sum, the global media market is one where the dominant firms compete aggressively in some concentrated oligopolistic markets, are key suppliers to each other in other markets, and are partners in yet other markets. As the headline in one trade publication put it, this is a market where the reigning spirit is to 'Make profits, not war.' In short, the global media market more closely resembles a cartel than it does a competitive marketplace.

The global media system's mission
When turning to the implications of the emerging global media system for journalism, politics, entertainment and culture, some caveats are necessary. Although fundamentally flawed, the system produces much of value for a variety of reasons. In addition, the global media system can be at times a progressive force, especially as it enters nations that had been tightly controlled by corrupt crony media systems, as in much of Latin America, or nations that had significant state censorship over media, as in parts of Asia. But this progressive aspect of the globalizing media market should not be blown out of proportion; the last thing the media giants want to do anywhere is rock the boat, as long as they can do their business. The global commercial media system is radical, in the sense that it will respect no tradition or custom, on balance, if it stands in the way of significantly increased profits. But it ultimately is politically conservative, because the media giants are significant beneficiaries of the current global social structure, and any upheaval in property or social relations, particularly to the extent it reduced the power of business and lessened inequality, would possibly - no, probably - jeopardize their positions.

The global media system is best understood as one that advances corporate and commercial interests and values, and denigrates or ignores that which cannot be incorporated into its mission. Four of the nine largest media firms are headquartered outside of the United States, but all of them - Bertelsmann, News Corp., Sony and Seagram - are major US players, indeed owning three of the major Hollywood film studios. They rank among the 70 largest foreign firms operating in the United States, based on their US sales, and all but Bertelsmann rank in the top 30. There is no discernible difference in the firms' content whether they are owned by shareholders in Japan or Belgium, or have corporate headquarters in New York or Sydney. Bertelsmann CEO Thomas Middelhoff bristled when, in 1998, some said it was improper for a German firm to control 15 percent of the US book publishing market. 'We're not foreign. We're international,' Middelhoff said. 'I'm an American with a German passport.' Indeed the output of the global media giants is largely interchangeable, as they constantly ape each other's commercial triumphs.

Some traditional notions of global media also tended to regard the existing non-TNC domestic commercial media as some sort of oppositional or alternative force to the global market. That was probably a dubious notion in the past, and it does not hold true at all today. Throughout the world, media consolidation and concentration have taken place in national markets, leaving a handful of extremely powerful media conglomerates dominating regional and national markets. These firms have found a lucrative niche teaming up with the global media giants in joint ventures, offering the 'local' aspect of the content, and massaging the local politicians. As the lead of Norway's largest media firm put it, 'We want to position ourselves so if Kirch or Murdoch want to sell in Scandinavia, they'll come to us first.'

The notion of non-US or non-TNC media firms being 'oppositional' to the global system is no less farfetched when one turns to the 'Third World.' Mexico's Televisa, Brazil's Globo, Argentina's Clarín, and the Cisneros group of Venezuela, for example, rank among the sixty or seventy largest media firms in the world. They have extensive ties and joint ventures with the largest media TNCs, as well as with Wall Street investment banks. These firms tend to dominate their own national and regional media markets, which are experiencing rapid consolidation in their own right. The commercial media powerhouses of the developing world tend, therefore, to be primary advocates for - and beneficiaries of - the expansion of the global commercial media market. And these Third World media giants, like other second-tier media firms elsewhere, are also establishing global operations, especially to nations that speak the same languages. And within each of their home nations these media firms have distinct pro-business political agendas that put them at odds with large segments of the population. In short, the global system is best perceived as one that best represents the needs of investors, advertisers, and the affluent consumers of the world. In wealthy nations this tends to be a substantial portion of the population; in developing nations, a distinct minority.

With this hyper-commercialism and corporate control comes an implicit political bias regarding the content of the media system. Consumerism, the market, class inequality, and individualism tend to be taken as natural and often benevolent, whereas political activity, civic values, and anti-market activities tend to be marginalized or denounced. This does not portend mind-control or 'Big Brother,' for it is much more subtle than that. (For example, Hollywood films and television programmes may not present socialism in a favorable light, and will rarely criticize capitalism as an economic system overall, but they frequently use particular businesses or business persons to serve as the 'bad guys.' Since businesses of one kind or another rank high on many peoples' lists of disreputable operators, to avoid using them as 'bad guys' in entertainment would leave the studio to resort to science fiction.) Indeed, the genius of the commercial media system is the general lack of overt censorship. As George Orwell noted in his unpublished introduction to Animal Farm, censorship in free societies was infinitely more sophisticated and thorough than in dictatorships because 'unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without any need for an official ban.' The logical consequence of a commercial media system is less to instill adherence to any ruling powers-that-be - though that can and does of course happen - than to promote a general belief that politics is unimportant and that there is little hope for organized social change.

As such, the global media system buttresses what could be termed 'neoliberal' democracy; i.e. the largely vacuous political culture that exists in the formally democratic market-driven nations of the world. The United States provides the pre-eminent model of 'neoliberal' democracy, and shows the way for combining a capitalist economy with a largely toothless democratic polity. Sometimes these points are made explicit. Jaime Guzman, principal author of Chile's 1980 constitution, believed that private property and investors' rights needed to be off-limits to popular debate or consideration, and he crafted Chile's 'democracy' accordingly. Since Chile is now considered a great global neoliberal success story both economically and politically it may be worthwhile to examine Guzman's thoughts. 'A democracy can only be stable when in popular elections... the essential form of life of a people is not at play, is not at risk,' Guzman explained. 'In the great democracies of the world, the high levels of electoral abstention do not indicate, as many erroneously interpret them, a supposed distancing of the people from the reigning system.' Non-involvement by the bulk of the population is in fact a healthy development. Guzman concludes that in the best form of capitalist democracy, 'if one's adversaries come to power, they are constrained to pursue a course of action not very different than that which one would desire because the set of alternatives that the playing field imposes on those who play on it are sufficiently reduced to render anything else extremely difficult.' Guzman's vision has indeed been a success, of sorts. Chile, which arguably once was among the most vibrant democratic political cultures in the world, has seen its political life reduced to a placid, tangential spectator sport.

This hollowing out of democracy is a worldwide phenomenon in the age of the uncontested market. As a Greek peasant put it following Greece's 1996 elections: 'The only right we have is the right to vote and it leads us nowhere.' The very term democracy has been turned on its head so its very absence in substance is now seen as what constitutes its defining essence. The Washington Post noted that modern democracy works best when the political 'parties essentially agree on most of the major issues.' Or, more bluntly, as the Financial Times put it, capitalist democracy can best succeed to the extent that is about 'the process of depoliticising the economy.' (Is it even necessary to note that in a genuine democracy, the matter of who controls the economy and for what purposes would be at the center of political debate and consideration?)

The global commercial media system is integrally related to neoliberal democracy with its attendant depoliticization at two levels. At the broadest institutional level, the rise of a global commercial media system has been the result of and necessary for the rise of a global market for goods and services dominated by a few hundred TNCs. On the one hand, both the global commercial media system and the growth and emergence of this 'global' economy are predicated upon pro-business neoliberal deregulation worldwide. On the other hand, the marketing networks offered by global media system are essential for the creation of global and regional markets for TNC goods and services. To the extent, therefore, the neoliberal global economic order thrives upon a weak political culture, the global media system is a central beneficiary as well.

But the global media system plays a much more explicit role in generating a passive, depoliticized populace that prefers personal consumption to social understanding and activity, a mass more likely to take orders than to make waves. Lacking any necessarily 'conspiratorial' intent, and merely following rational market calculations, the thrust of the media system is simply to provide light escapist entertainment. In the developing world, where public relations and marketing hyperbole are only beginning to realize their awesome potential, and where the ruling elites are well aware of the need to keep the rabble in line, the importance of commercial media is sometimes stated quite candidly. In the words of the late Emilio Azcárraga, the billionaire head of Mexico's Televisa: 'Mexico is a country of a modest, very fucked class, which will never stop being fucked. Television has the obligation to bring diversion to these people and remove them from their sad reality and difficult future.'

Journalism is deteriorating
The global journalism of the corporate media system reinforces these trends, with devastating implications for the functioning of political democracies. As in the United States, journalism worldwide is deteriorating, as it has become an important profit source for the media giants. Because investigative journalism or coverage of foreign affairs makes little economic sense, it is discouraged as being too expensive. On the one hand, there is a relatively sophisticated business news pitched at the upper and upper-middle classes and shaped to their needs and prejudices. CNN International, for example, pitches itself as providing advertisers 'unrivalled access to reach high-income consumers.' But even in 'elite' media there is a decline. The Economist noted that in 1898 the first page of a sample copy of the Times of London contained 19 columns of foreign news, eight columns of domestic news, and three columns on salmon fishing. In 1998 a sample copy of The Times, now owned by Rupert Murdoch, had one international story on its front page: an account of actor Leonardo DiCaprio's new girlfriend. 'In this information age,' The Economist concluded, 'the newspapers which used to be full of politics and economics are thick with stars and sport.'

On the other hand, there is an appalling schlock journalism for the masses, based upon lurid tabloid-type stories. For the occasional 'serious' story, there is the mindless regurgitation of press releases from one source or another, with the range of debate mostly limited to what is being debated among the elite. 'Bad journalism,' a British observer concluded in 1998, 'is a consequence of an unregulated market in which would-be monopolists are free to treat the channels of democratic debate as their private property.

It does not have to be this way. The 'wild card' in the global media deck are the people of the world--people constituted as organized citizens rather than as passive consumers and couch potatoes. It may seem difficult, especially from the vantage point of the United States and other wealthy nations, to see much hope for public opposition to the global corporate media system. As one Swedish journalist noted in 1997, 'Unfortunately, the trends are very clear, moving in the wrong direction on virtually every score, and there is a desperate lack of public discussion of the long-term implications of current developments for democracy and accountability.' And, as discussed above, this political pessimism is precisely the type of political culture necessary for a neoliberal economic order to remain stable.

But there are indications that progressive political forces in nations around the world are increasingly making media issues part of their political platforms. As the global media system is increasingly intertwined with global capitalism, their fates go hand-in-hand. The only possible way to generate viable media reform will be as part of a broader movement to arrest the anti-democratic essence of neoliberlaism and the market. In nations like Sweden, New Zealand, Canada, Brazil, Mexico and India, to name just a few, democratic electoral parties have made control and structure of media one of the main political issues for the 1990s. This is a new development, and it reflects the increasing recognition that control over media is a very important aspect of political power in a society.

In all of these nations media reforms proposals ranging from ownership restrictions and support for non-profit and non-commercial community media and public broadcasting to increased power for media workers to control journalism and media content and restrictions on advertising, especially to children, are being advanced. But we are at the very earliest stages of this movement. In the near future we should begin to see these national groups begin to coalesce and organize transnationally. The global media system will require a global democratic response, not merely a series of national or local opponents. The crucial point is that global media is not a bad thing per se, global media are bad to the extent they are unaccountable and serve the interests of the wealthy few, not the many.

It is going to be a very difficult fight, but it is not hopeless, and there is really little choice in the matter. Despite much blathering about the 'end of history' and the triumph of the market in the commercial media and among western intellectuals, the actual track record is quite dubious. Asia, the long celebrated tiger of twenty-first-century capitalism, is now mired in an economic depression. Russian capitalism has been an unmitigated disaster, something that was of little interest to Western pundits as Russian living standards collapsed in the early and middle 1990s, but became notable when it threatened the stability of their own economies in 1998. Latin America, the other vaunted champion of market reforms since the 1980s, has seen what a World Bank official terms a 'big increase in inequality.' The ecologies of both regions are little short of disastrous.

If - and perhaps only if - the reigning spirit of profits über alles ever confronts a serious political challenge, it seems likely that the corporate media system will be subjected to a well-deserved public examination as well. As the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu put it in 1997, what we need to do today is to rekindle reasoned utopianism, the notion that it is the right of the world's people to use their imaginations to construct the economy, the world, within reason to suit their democratically determined needs. And as Bourdieu, himself, concluded in the same address, the place to start should be by ridding 'the imperialism that affects cultural production and distribution in particular, via commercial constraints.'

Ideas for the above article were drawn from forthcoming Robert W. McChesney, Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Times (University of Illinois Press, 1999). For a version of this article with footnotes, send a self-addressed stamped envelope (large enough to hold a 15 page paper) to Bob McChesney, 126 N. Spooner, Madison, WI 53705, USA.

Robert W. McChesney is Associate Professor in the Institute of Communications Research at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, USA. He has written several books, including Corporate Media and the Threat to Democracy (1997), The Global Media: The New Missionaries of Corporate Capitalism, with Edward S. Herman (1997), and the forthcoming Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Times (1999).

©opyright: WACC 1998