"The press is free only to those who own one." -- A. J. Liebling, 1947.
Business influence on the Mass media is not much discussed these days. Yet a look at some themes which can be found in any day's news show that it is largely pro-business propaganda.
There is no discussion in the mass media about their own pro- business bias. We cannot expect a propagandist to educate us against his own propaganda. Yet the peculiarity of the media is that we get our news from them. So, few people recognize this unseen bias.
Because of this bias in the media, the limits of what is considered "respectable" opinion on any subject are confined to disagreements about what is best for employers. Public discussion of every issue is distorted in an elitist direction, towards the "right" of the political spectrum.
This has tremendous consequences. For the mass media "set the agenda" of public discussion. The public becomes concerned largely about those issues the media promote as significant. And they never discuss any issue from the viewpoint of the interests of any other group, much less of the majority -- white- and blue-collar workers.
One reason the media hide their pro-business bias involves the question of interest. "Cui bono"? Who benefits" Whose interest does an argument or statement serve? is a question we are not trained to ask of what the media present to us.
Example: When the media speak of "the US," they always mean more than just "those who control the government." They create, and reinforce, the unspoken assumption that what hurts the policies of the US governing elite also hurts the US working person.
This false notion -- the idea of "national interest" -- is itself an example of pro-business propaganda. Business interests run the US government, setting both foreign and domestic policy goals. 1 And business interests are in conflict with employee interests.
A few examples will illustrate this conflict.
A. The Business Party Line. The media attack high welfare payments, arguing that they are against the interest of all taxpayers, especially of working people, who pay most taxes. So, they say, workers should oppose high welfare payments.
B. How It Serves Business But Not You. Media corporations are large employers of labor. Employers make more profit if workers do the same work for lower wages. The lower the welfare payments, the cheaper the labor, the more profit for employers.
Welfare acts as a "floor" under wages, keeping them higher than they would be without it. The higher the welfare payments, the higher the wages employers will have to pay to attract someone off welfare onto the job rolls, or to keep them there. In reality, high welfare payments are in the interest of workers, and the higher, the better!
This is an example of a conflict of interest between employers and employees. It is also an example of a conflict of interest between the media and its audience. Most of this audience are employees, not employers.
Finally, it illustrates an important fact about media propaganda. Media propaganda tries to convince employees that their interests are identical to those of employers, when in reality the interests of employers and employees are antagonistic.
High unemployment compensation and a high minimum wage also tend to raise wage rates -- good for workers, bad for employers. Try to find a newspaper, even one with a working- class readership like the Daily News or Post in New York -- that supports raising unemployment benefits or opposes lowering the minimum wage!
A. The Business Party Line. The media, like the politicians, often state that illegal immigrants take jobs from US workers and cost more money in benefits they get than they contribute in taxes. They tell us it is in everyone's interest to stop illegal immigration, and to deport illegal immigrants.
Yet the government is not very effective at stopping the influx of illegal immigrants. Why?
B. How It Serves Business But Not You. It is not in employers' interest to get rid of cheap "illegal" immigrants -- only to deprive them of any rights.
Illegal immigrants provide cheap labor, and therefore higher profits, for many employers -- but only because they have no rights. If illegal immigrants, once within the borders, had the right to join unions, receive unemployment compensation, Medicaid, etc., they would be able to fight for better conditions. Then, they would not lower wage rates as much. Nor would they provide so much cheap labor, and profit, for employers.
It is untrue and illogical as well to say that any workers "takes jobs" from another. Untrue, because no worker can "take" a job. Only an employer can hire. Illogical, because it would be just as "true" to say that every employed worker is "taking a job away" from every unemployed worker!
It is not in the employer's interest to reduce unemployment. Unemployment tends to drive wages down and create a "buyer's (employer's) market" for jobs. At times of labor shortage, workers are always imported to create a labor surplus and drive wages down.
Conversely, it is in the interest of every employee to give full rights to every worker inside a country's borders so that they cannot be forced to work at substandard pay and conditions and thereby drive down conditions and pay for the rest.
Try to find a newspaper or television station that conveys even a little of the conflicts of interest surrounding this issue! They all take the "business party line"!
A. The Business Party Line. Competition from foreign countries like Japan is driving US companies out of foreign and domestic markets. This competition is "unfair": governments subsidize the exports, and foreign workers are paid much less. Therefore, it's in everyone's interest -- so the argument goes -- to "save American jobs" by buying American-made products.
B. How It Serves Business But Not You. Obviously, it hurts any consumer economically to buy an inferior product or one of higher price, while it helps the capitalist whose company builds the inferior product or more expensive American product.
If the Japanese come to dominate the US computer market, as some fear, they will do so by producing high-quality goods at low prices. This is how Japanese companies have come to dominate the camera, motorcycles, and consumer electronics fields, to say nothing of automobiles. Contrary to the Business Party Line, this Japanese domination has benefited American consumers.
But what of workers in companies subject to foreign competition? Surely they are benefited by "Buy American" propaganda? Isn't this one example in which employers and employees have the same interests? Not at all!
If the government really wanted to help workers, it would give the billions to the workers as unemployment pay, for retraining, continued benefits, and early retirement, and let the obsolete industries go bankrupt. Instead, the government helps the big investors -- banks and millionaires -- by "bailing them out" (Chrysler, Lockheed) while firing 50% or more of the workers and drastically cutting the pay of the remaining workers.
So most workers are screwed while the "lucky few" do more work for half the pay. The unions, which long ago abandoned their membership's interests, help convince workers this is a "good deal."
A. The Business Party Line. The media are fond of repeating that government workers should not be paid "too much," as this is "against the taxpayers' interests," since taxes pay their salaries. The media echo the claim that government workers should not be allowed to strike, since this would be "striking against the public."
B. How It Serves Business But Not You. All revenue comes ultimately from "the public" -- that is, from employees. Where does the revenue of Ford or US Steel come from except from "the public"? By this logic, every salary increase for workers and every strike is "against the public interest." Once again, business interests push this argument against the interests of employees.
Government workers are by far the largest single group of employees in the country. Employers benefit by creating among the public a climate of opinion hostile to wage increases and strikes by this huge group. All workers are harmed by the presence in their midst of government employees who work for lower wages than those in other fields and are not as free as others to fight for higher wages. This helps keep down the general wage rate, and creates an air of suspicion of all strikes and demand for higher pay.
The highest standard of living in the world is enjoyed in Western European countries, where both wages and taxes are high and most workers are unionized. Anti-strike laws abound only in fascist dictatorships, in which workers' standards of living are poor -- and in the US! It is no mistake that the US supports virtually all of these fascist, anti-worker dictatorships -- because American corporations invest there to take advantage of the low wages forced on the working class, thus taking jobs away from American workers and lowering wage rates at home as well!
Of all Western industrialized nations, only in the United States are public employees forbidden to strike.
There are at least four inter-related reasons for the overwhelming pro-business, anti-employee bias in the mass media:
(1) Self-Interest. All significant daily newspapers, and all television stations, to say nothing of the three giant television networks, are big businesses themselves. It would be amazing if the owners and managers of media businesses did not share the prejudices common to other large capitalists. It would be illogical if they did not try to pursue their own interests. 2
(2) Monopoly. Over 95% of daily newspapers have a virtual monopoly in their areas. So the readers are at their mercy since, without competition, a reader has no place else to go. Under these circumstances there is no reason whatever for a newspaper to try to "print what the public wants."
(3) Advertising. Even where competition among newspapers exists, far more revenue comes from advertising than from readers. Advertiser pressure is another powerful force promoting pro-business bias in the media. 3
(4) The Structure of News-Gathering. Sociologists have shown that the news media reinforce the status quo by choosing to cover "legitimate institutions;" by relying upon "legitimate officials" as their main sources; and by sowing great reluctance to question these sources (the doctrine of "objectivity"). 4
Capitalism Is An Employers' Dictatorship. The four factors listed above all function because, in a capitalist society, all economic and political power resides with the capitalists -- the largest banking and industrial business class. It is simply not possible to have truly "democratic" or "employee-oriented" mass media in such a society.
Fundamental change in the media can only come with fundamental, revolutionary social change to get rid of capitalism.
These factors combine to make the American mass circulation newspaper virtually an organ of propaganda for business interests. They have disturbing implications for the widely- accepted notion that there is "freedom of the press" in this country.
1.A good demonstration of this from a non- Marxist is G. William Domhoff, Who Rules America Now?. (Prentice-Hall, 1983). Back
2. For example, see Robert Cirino, Don't Blame the People. (Random House, 1971). Back
3. See Ben Bagdikian, The Media Monopoly (Beacon Press, 1984) [Editor's note, 1996: now in its fourth edition]. Back
4. See Gaye Tuchman, Making News: A Study in the Construction of Reality. (Free Press, 1978), especially Chapter Five. Back