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Transnational media: creating consumers worldwide.

By the end of the 1980s, "globalization " had become the term for accelerating

interdependence.... The primary agent of globalization is the transnational

corporation. The primary driping force is the revolution in information and

communication technologies.(1)

Contrary to the conventional wisdom that recent advances in communications have led to the emergence of the "global village," I do not believe that globalization of the media industries sector has resulted in the formation of an international civil society as such.(2) Rather, this process has resulted in an international order organized by transnational economic interests that are largely unaccountable to the nation-states in which they operate. This transnational corporate system is the product of a rationalized and commercialized communications infrastructure, which transmits massive flows of information and has extended its marketing reach to every corner of every hemisphere. While the U.S. role in the creation and reproduction of this worldwide consumer society has lessened, the supporting institutions and the content of the information still bear a heavy American imprint.


The reality of American global information mastery was strikingly on display throughout the war in the Persian Gulf. During the actual hostilities, one account -- that of the transnational U.S.-based Cable News Network (CNN) -- dominated television screens around the world.(3) Though press interpretafions of the war may have varied from country to country, the broadcast images of high technology combat were identical worldwide. However remarkable a demonstration of the American information monopoly -- now challenged by an expanded British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) World Service Television and France's newly created Euronews programming -- even this barely suggests the vast capabilities of American broadcasters and U.S.-based cultural industries to define reality.

CNN's broadcasts are but one kind of image, sound and symbol production. Such output also comes to us in the familiar forms of films, television programs, video cassettes, compact discs, books, magazines, on-line data and computer software. The transmission of this production is neatly explained by Walter Wriston, former chief executive officer of Citicorp:

The single most powerful development in global communities has

been the satellite, born a mere thirty-one years ago.... Satellites

now bind the world for better or worse, in an electronic infrastructure

that carries news, money, and data anywhere on the planet at

the speed of light. Satellites have made borders utterly porous to


Wriston properly makes no distinction between news, money and data: "...[H]undreds of millions of people around the world are plugged into what has become essentially a single network ...of popular communication."(5) Those global corporations and media-cultural conglomerates that have the capability to use the global satellite systems are indifferent to formal communication boundaries; digitized electronic communication transforms all messages and images into a uniform information stream.

This globalization of communication since the 1960s can be best understood as the phenomenal growth of such transnational media-information corporations as Time Warner, Disney, Reuters, SONY, Murdoch and Bertelsman -- based mostly in the developed economies -- in achieving a worldwide market share.(6) While state, non-governmental and non-corporate organizations have made good use of these new electronic networks, their use is dwarfed by that of the transnational companies. The capability of the private, resource-rich conglomerates to shift capital, currency, production and data -- almost at will -- constitutes the true levers of contemporary power.

Edward Herman describes the integration of broadcasting into a global market in recent decades, achieved largely through "cross-border acquisition of interests in and control of program production and rights, cable and broadcasting facilities and the sale and rental of program stocks, technology and equipment."(7) This international economic expansion in broadcasting "[has] tended to increase the strength of commercial broadcasting and reduce that of public systems."(8) Herman concludes that

the strength and momentum of the forces of the market in the last

decade of the twentieth century are formidable. It therefore seems

likely that the U.S. patterns of commercial hegemony over broadcasting

will be gradually extended over the entire globe.(9)

Herman's predictions have been validated with astonishing rapidity and singular effect. While the American cultural product -- film, television, fashions and tapes -- still dominates screens, homes and shops throughout the world, local outputs are also increasing. Yet, invariably, they are fashioned on the American model and serve as the same kind of bait with which to snare the potential consumer. French television dramas, for example, repeat worn U.S. formulae; Brazil's powerful television-production industry is at the beck and call of the same transnational advertisers who dominate North American television screens.(10) The American pop cultural product has obvious hegemonic properties, which can be attributed to a century of marketing experience and the rapid utilization of state-of-the-art technologies to achieve compelling special effects.(11)

As Wriston enthusiastically makes clear, efforts by individual states to protect and insulate their societies from these stimuli have been futile. Global notions of what constitutes freedom, individual choice, a good life and a desirable future come largely from their output. Because of market imperatives, institutional infrastructures in country after country have been recast to facilitate the transmission of the American informational and cultural product.

Clearly, the media industries' unexceptional quest for profitability has had a direct -- albeit immeasurable -- impact on human consciousness. While the ultimate effect of their cultural packages on the human senses is impossible to assess concretely, the existence of the effect cannot be ignored. The worldwide output of America's cultural industries probably has as great an impact as any other form of American power. Already it has actively assisted in the transformation of broadcasting and telecommunications systems around the world. People everywhere are consumers of American images, sounds, ideas, products and services.


In the United States, despite a seemingly thick network of organizations and social groups comprising a rich civil society, the voice of the corporate speaker has succeeded in dominating the national discourse. Although the corporate perspective has held a privileged place in American society for generations, it was balanced in earlier times by the opposing voices of farmers' movements, organized labor and civil rights organizations on the national stage. Since the end of the Second World War, however, structural economic change and the evolution of media industries have contributed to a decline of opposing voices -- such as the American labor movement -- and an eclipse of a comprehensive adversarial view.(12)

Corporate control over the means of communication thus has immediate political implications: The rising price of television air time has caused the cost of political candidacy to spiral. In 1992, the New York Times reported that

spending for House seats by 427 Democrats, 416 Republicans and

294 candidates not affiliated with either party totalled $313.7 million,

compared with about $220 million two years ago.... The

combined spending for House and Senate seats increased to $504

million in 1992,$113 more than in the same period two years ago.(13)

This means that in order to wage a successful campaign, a political candidate must either be independently wealthy or be able to convince those who have resources to offer support. In either case, the electoral process is transformed into a mechanism for representing the advantaged.

More broadly, corporations enjoy the protection of law. More than a century ago, the Supreme Court ruled that corporations had the constitutional rights of individual citizens.(14) With such protection, it has been exceedingly difficult to monitor and control corporate activities and behavior. In the late 1970s, the corporation was once again the beneficiary of a Supreme Court decision, which stated that corporations had First Amendment rights, and that their speech -- with some limitations -- was as protected as individual expression.(15)

This and related rulings codified the pre-eminent role of corporate expression in the contemporary American cultural landscape. Corporate expression literally has no serious competition. Public television, which was supposed to be a non-commercial alternative to advertiser-supported television, has been co-opted by sponsorship. Cable television, although receiving most of its revenues from subscriptions, is steadily drawing more support from advertisers. Given the overwhelming reliance of American radio and television on commercial advertising, the domestic informational system has become, in effect, a marketing and ideological apparatus of corporate influence. Robert McChesney finds that the media are the national and ultimate interpreters of reality;(16) it iS a reality fashioned according to their own corporate advantage.

Media and cultural power, already awesome, is further enhanced by its capability to define and present its own role to the public. This self-constructed picture never fails to emphasize the objectivity, dedication to the public interest and fragility of the cultural industries' activities. Its hegemonic effect is evident: Corporate ascendancy, untouched by social accountability or federal oversight, has gone almost unchallenged and largely unremarked in the fora of public opinion.

As could be expected, the realm of permissible debate has narrowed appreciably in recent decades. For all the talk shows, personal witness programs and endless hours of sports spectaculars and crime dramas, the national discourse is astonishingly bland -- except insofar as personal accounts of behavioral excesses are concerned -- and almost totally reticent about the structural determinants of American existence. Programming that might shed some light on the country's deepening social crisis does not seem to impress the program decision makers as worthy of much attention. Only after South Central Los Angeles burned did the cameras turn -- and only briefly -- to the American urban condition.

And so it goes. While single-issue constituencies sometimes receive prominence and some public issues generate a modicum of excitement, consensus on the essential features of the social order prevails within the media industries. The main business of corporate America -- marketing -- proceeds without interruption. Fundamental institutions have been reshaped to accommodate the dominant presence of the corporation in American life, thereby offering seeming confirmation that their hegemony must be the outcome of inescapable natural forces.

The rich fabric of American history, a story of unceasing struggles against plutocratic privilege and continual efforts to achieve social dignity and equality for working people -- including women and African-Americans -- is rarely visible to a national audience; the little that does get noted is generally either decontextualized or fragmented. This thin and largely expurgated presentation of the national experience is the underside of the daily retailing of corporate images and messages, and the endless affirmations of commercial culture. In recent years, these highly selective accounts of society and history are no longer confined within national boundaries; they have become globalized through the massive export of American television programs and films.(17)


There is nothing unanticipated about the increasing authority of corporate media actors. These powerful private economic conglomerates are moved by common impulses: the search for markets, cheap and non-union labor, low taxes, compliant governments and secure property rights. Corporate enterprise insists on concessions in these areas wherever it undertakes operations. In the period following the Second World War, corporations demanded "deregulation," which was essentially the removal of limitations from the unrestrained pursuit of profit. The achievement of this freedom has been a successful and indispensable achievement of the international corporate system; the American contribution to this trend has been substantial and decisive.

In particular, the transnational corporate order places the highest priority on deregulation in the broadcasting and telecommunications spheres. Telecommunications provide the means of linking and coordinating globally dispersed operations, a crucial requirement for transnational corporate operations. Broadcasting, when deregulated, enables the super-companies and their advertising agencies unrestricted access to national television screens. Utilizing this access, they can transmit in ever-increasing volume their advertising messages and general programming, the latter of which is no less a carrier of the sales message.

Consequently, there exists today a corporate-induced and -administered global environment of consumer capitalism that follows identical prescriptions and uses a uniform rhetoric.(18) This includes the espousal and protection of corporate speech and the justification of whatever programming is produced and transmitted as the proof of consumer choice and sovereignty. International efforts to combat or counter the now-pervasive condition of corporate dominance have been defeated by the counterattack of the transnational corporate order and its national surrogates.


In the 1960s and 1970s, a group of post-colonial Third World states made mostly rhetorical efforts to create a New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO) that challenged the Western -- mostly American -- domination of world news, and information and cultural flows. The NWICO proponent's views have been summed up by Zimbabwean prime minister Robert Mugabe:

In the information and communication field, the Non-Aligned

Nations and other developing countries are adversely affected by

the monopoly which the developed nations hold over the world's

communications systems.... The old order has ensured the continued

dependence of our information and communication infrastructures

and systems on those of the developed nations. Such

dependence constitutes a serious threat to the preservation of our

respective cultures and indigenous life-styles.(19)

Third World efforts on behalf of the NWICO agenda crested in 1978; the concept, however, was overwhelmingly rejected by the United States and its few developed allies. Further, the unity of NWICO advocates was shattered by a U.S. offer of limited assistance for a development program in communication technologies, calculated to win some Third World support. This was complemented by a frontal assault -- concentrated in the Western mass media -- on the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which was an important locus for NWICO advocates.(20) This campaign culminated in the U.S. withdrawal from UNESCO in 1984, and was part of the Reagan Administration's agenda to browbeat the international community into accepting U.S. global information policy.

Global corporate actors have sought to cripple other international agencies and state structures that might have served as shields against unlimited transnational corporate power. For example, in Europe there has been unrelenting pressure to eliminate or marginalize the Post, Telephone and Telecommunications entities (PTTs). These governmental bureaucracies, for all their faults, at least represented in part national public communication interests. Branded by their transnational corporate adversaries as "monopolies," however, their authority has been eroded by liberalization and privatization initiatives -- advanced by the transnational corporate sector and its allies. Their capability to monitor and prescribe the behavior of the communication companies operating in their national space has been largely lost and their survival is threatened. As the Financial Times describes with manifest relish:

The European Commission will soon decide whether to abolish the

telephone monopolies which exist in most member states. Its decision

will not only be a watershed for telecommunications but will

also define its overall attitude to public monopolies.... The Commission

has already taken small steps down the path of liberalization

... but Europe has already waited long enough and nothing less

than full competition will do.(21)

Another example of growing corporate hegemony in transnational information flows is the evolution of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). Founded in 1865 as the International Telegraph Union, the ITU was renamed in 1932 and charged with regulating the international allocation of the radio spectrum. Recently, however, the ITU has been restructured in order to diminish the possibility of Third World influence and enhance the role of the private sector in its policy making.(22) Its very existence as a U.N.-specialized agency is being contested. One report, reflecting corporate sentiment, wondered "what role the U.N. intergovernmental agency will play in an evermore commercial world."(23) Similarly, a spokesman for an international telephone company questioned "the role of an inter-governmental organization in a global business that is overwhelmingly a private-sector business."(24) Still another voice in the same chorus admonishes: "As more and more [of its] members become commercial, so must the ITU, all the way to the top."(25)

The creation of the trade-in-services area of the Western-dominated General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) is additional evidence of the transnational corporate onslaught against international efforts to oversee its activities. The creation of this trade category was intended to safeguard the increasingly important electronic data flows, including intellectual property, that are so crucial to transnational corporate operations.(26) Writing from a Third World perspective, which derives from centuries of colonial oppression, Chakravarthi Raghavan explains this seemingly benign move:

...among all the fora for dealing with such issues, the Third World

countries are the weakest inside GATT, in terms of collective organization

and bargaining.... Unlike UNCTAD [U.N. Conference on

Trade and Development], U.N. or other parts of the U.N. system,

inside GATT there is only a tenuous informal group of less developed

contracting parties [countries] that meets from time to time

to exchange information ....(27)

The extreme sensitivity of the corporate order to the global information climate was further demonstrated by the successful effort to expunge the subject of transborder data flows (TDF) from the language and the agendas of international economic meetings. For a brief period in the 1970s, TDF -- the term for mostly electronic data crossing national frontiers -- was a subject of great debate. Yet its implications for the examination and possible oversight of the data flows of the global companies came too close to the nerve centers of the transnational business system. For this reason, the term itself was neatly shelved and subsumed under the opaque and innocuous trade-in-services category of the GATT.(28)

Having neutralized international and state opposition, the media super-companies can carry on their worldwide operations, almost completely outside of any scrutiny; their activities are completely ignored in the general discussions of American economic public policy. International organizations like the United Nations, the ITU, UNESCO and the U.N. Centre for Transnational Corporations have either been bypassed, restructured, weakened or neutered.(29)


Publicly unaccountable media-cultural power today constitutes the ultimate "Catch-22" situation. The public interest demands information that is, however, dependent on private image providers whose own interests are often incompatible.(30) To begin to confront this condition is the one of the greatest challenges of the next century. (1.) Sylvia Ostry, "The Domestic Domain: The New International Policy Area," Transnational Corporations 1, no.1 (February 1992) p. 7. (2.) For an opposing perspective, see Mike Featherstone, ed., Global Culture (Newbury Park, CA: Sage, 1990). (3.) Hamid Mowlana, George Gerbner and Herbert I. Schiller, Triumph of the Image: The Media's War in the Persian Guy: A Global Perspective (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1992). (4.) Walter B. Wriston, The Twilight of Sovereignty (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1992) p. 12. (5.) Ibid., p. 130. (6.) "America's Most Valuable Companies," Business Week, 1993 Special Bonus Issue, passim. (7.) Edward S. Herman, "The Externalities Effects of Commercial and Public Broadcasting," in K. Nordenstreng & H.I. Schiller, eds., Beyond National Sovereignty: International Communications in the 1990s (Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Corp., 1993) pp. 108-9. (8.) ibid., p. 108. (9.) ibid. (10.) O.S. Oliveira, "Brazilian Soaps Outshine Hollywood: Is Cultural Imperialism Fading Out?" Paper presented at the meetings of the Deutsche Gesellschaft fur Semiotik (German Society for Semiotics), Internationaler Kongress, Universitat Passau, 8-10 October 1990. (11.) These and other factors are described in more detail in Herbert Schiller, "La Culture Americaine au service des marchands," Le Monde Diplomatique, October 1992, p. 28. (12.) Herbert I. Schiller, Culture Inc., The Corporate Takeover of Public Expression (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989). (13.) "Spending on Races for U.S. House Soars to a Record $313.7 Million," New York Times, 2 January 1993, p. 12. (14.) Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad, 118 U.S. 394 (1886). (15.) First National Bank of Boston et al. v. Bellotti, Attorney General of Massachusetts et al., 435 U.S. 765 (1978). (16.) Robert W. McChesney, "Off Limits: An Inquiry Into the Lack of Debate over the Ownership, Structure and Control of the Mass Media in U.S. Political Life," Communication 13 (1992) pp. 1-19. (17.) Herbert I. Schiller, Mass Communications and American Empire (New York: A. Kelley, 1969; 2nd ed., Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1992). (18.) Leslie Sklair, Sociology of the Global System (Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press, 1991). (19.) Speech delivered at the official opening of the Second Conference of Ministers of Information of Non-Aligned Countries, Harare, Zimbabwe, 10 June 1987. A good summary of NWICO argumentation and positions can be found in "Many Voices, One World," International Commission for the Study of Communication Problems (New York: Unipub, 1980). (20.) William Preston, Jr., Edward Herman and Herbert I. Schiller, Hope and Folly: The United States and UNESCO, 1945-1985 (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1989). (21.) "Free Speech in Europe," Financial Times, 4 February 1993. (22.) Eileen Mahoney, "The Utilization of International Communications Organizations, 1978-1992," in Nordenstreng and Schiller, pp. 314-34. (23.) Malcolm Laws, "ITU to Reorganize," Communications Week International, 18 January 1993, reproduced in Teleclippings, International Telecommunications Union, no. 901 February 1993) p. 4. (24.) ibid. (25.) ibid. (26.) Chakravarthi Raghavan, Recolonization: GATT, the Uruguay Round and the Third World (London: Zed Books, 1990). (27.) ibid., pp. 60-1. (28.) William Drake, "Territoriality and Intangibility: Transborder Data Flow and National Sovereignty," in Nordenstreng and Schiller, pp. 259-313. (29.) The U.N. Centre for Transnational Corporations was reorganized and put into the Transnational Corporations and Management Division of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Development in March 1992. (30.) C. Edwin Baker, "Advertising and a Democratic Press," University of Pennsylvania Law Review 140, no. 6 (June 1992) pp. 2097-243.
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Title Annotation:Power of the Media in the Global System
Author:Schiller, Herbert I.
Publication:Journal of International Affairs
Date:Jun 22, 1993
Previous Article:The media's role in U.S. foreign policy.
Next Article:Toward a NWICO for the twenty-first century?

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