Long ago Karl Marx argued that the ruling ideas are the ideas of the ruling class. Twentieth century Italian theorist, Antonio Gramsci, who spent his last years in jail for his ideas, argued that power and control came from the capacity to shape idea systems, ideologies, as much as having guns and bombs. In other words, our political and economic institutions are as much fashioned by the struggle over ideas as they are by the struggle for weapons.
More and more of experience of the world is framed for us by television, radio, movies, the internet, and sound bite communiqués from Facebook and Twitter. As we withdraw to the world of smart phones and radio/TV receivers, the frequency of our direct experiences of each other declines. And, more and more of the dissemination of information, emotional and descriptive, is controlled by fewer and fewer institutions; corporations that control what we know, hear, see, feel, and are exhorted to consume. Rough estimates suggest that ten media conglomerates control about half of all messages we receive about the world.
As the structures of media conglomerates began to change after World War II, with dramatic declines in competing print media outlets and the globalization of control of radio, television, and films, grassroots activists began to struggle for the re-democratization of the flow of information and entertainment. Since the 1960s, alternative newspapers, radio stations, television programs, and networks of friends have been created to challenge hegemonic control by creating community media institutions. More recently, the blogosphere and web sites constitute a new hope as well.
At the national level, pressure mounted for the creation and public support for radio and television programming. In 1971, National Public Radio was launched with the goal of creating alternative sources of national and international news, providing diversity of perspectives on the world’s happenings, and information and analysis from those who traditionally had been voiceless in the society. Ever since then sixties generation activists, long-time liberals and radicals and other independent-minded people living in cities and towns around the United States have habitually sought out NPR outlets on local stations for their news and information. A 2004 report indicated that there were 22 million listeners to NPR on 750 radio stations.
By the 1980s, Republicans and other conservatives had made attacks on publicly financed radio and television a centerpiece of their efforts to transform the goals of an independent media into becoming clones of the dominant corporate media. And, of course, it worked.
Funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the federal source of moneys for NPR constitute ten percent or less of radio operations. Despite the fact that most of NPR’s funding comes from fees paid by local stations and grants, NPR clearly shifted to the right. This has been seen in its coverage of news, its sources, and its declining representation of workers, people of color, women, and dissidents critical of United States foreign and domestic policy. All of this was confirmed in empirical research done on NPR reporting (“How Public is Public Radio?” Extra, May/June, 2004).
Major coverage of stories in the 21st century includes the following:
1)NPR became a major celebrant and sponsor of U.S. wars on Afghanistan and Iraq, marginalizing questions being raised about the morality of the first and the accuracy of claims being made about the need for the second (Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction”).
2)NPR has been an unceasing critic of Cuba, using the Cold War “dictatorship” frame of the island. Stories ridicule Cuba’s historic resistance to market based capitalism, celebrating Cuba’s economic difficulties, while presenting minimal coverage of the impacts of the US blockade of the island and the horrific damage done to Cuba by recent hurricanes.
3)For the better part of a year, NPR, like its fellow stations such as Fox News, have been trumpeting the growth of the Tea Party, emphasizing its grassroots character and minimizing its central funding and organization by reactionary billionaires.
4)Again, for almost a year, NPR has communicated the frame that the Republicans will win dramatic victories in the fall, 2010 elections. On Saturday October 23, Scott Simon interviewed an “expert” from The Weekly Standard on the shape of the new Republican Congress. They analyzed the new Republican leadership in the Republican House of Representatives as if the election were over.
5)And, of course, voices of opposition to the right wing, to the Obama corporate agenda, to U.S. foreign policy are rarely heard on NPR. “Left-wing” perspectives usually come from such “extremists” as the Brookings Institution. Occasional references to research reports from the Economic Policy Institute refer to that body as left-leaning or tied to labor unions while The Heritage Foundation is referred to merely as a think tank.
Despite the reality of NPR’s service to the construction of ideological hegemony, the fall fund drive season brings out the old propaganda about NPR’s mission: we are “the alternative to corporate controlled news.” All around the country local stations, who often have varied and creative programming, are having fund drives. Many people face a dilemma: they recognize the hegemonic role of NPR but wish to support the work of their local stations.
To further NPR’s effort to mystify the public, it fired Juan Williams, the commentator who did extra duty for Fox News and who made one racial slur too many on a Fox broadcast. (At least one other NPR regular has done double duty on Fox over the years). Now the NPR spokespersons will trumpet the Williams firing as proof of their record of defending diversity and non-partisanship against the Fox enemy. The fact is that NPR is the Fox enemy but in sheep’s clothes.
What to do? Some may choose to continue their support of public radio. Ways need to be developed to encourage the independence and creativity of local public stations that do strive to achieve the original mission of public broadcasting despite shrinking resources. Some may find their ways to commercial alternative radio represented by the survivors of Air America. For sure, progressives need to support national ventures such as Amy Goodman’s radio/television program “Democracy Now,” which is an example of authentic independent, informative media.
And, finally, progressives should continue that tradition of building movement alternative local media: radio, television, print, blogs and websites. There may be something about the old adages about how “the truth can make you free” if we “speak truth to power.”