Radical media, politics and culture.

Meedja Criteek

Some thoughts on media criticism.

The Decline and Fall of Public Broadcasting, David Barsamian.

Rich Media, Poor Democracy, Communications Politics in Dubious Times, Robert W. McChesney

As a stalwart veteran of alternative media production through his radio work based out of Boulder, Colorado, and his accessible interviews with Said and Chomsky published in print by South End Press, one would expect Barsamian to have an insightful critique of the contemporary media landscape. But despite its many qualities, this book proved something of a disappointment. Essentially the text falls victim to a series of flaws, several of which have come to characterize leftist attempts at media critique.

The first of these is a simplistic revising of the history of the FCC which would lead one to believe that its purpose also the originally honorable has now been perverted. Thus Barsamian writes:

"The New Deal-era politicians who created the FCC in 1934 viewed the communications infrastructure as a vital public resource, like utilities or the railroads. The agency was originally charged with protecting consumers from industry monopolies and price gouging. But a September-October 2001 Mother Jones article, "Losing Signal" by Brendan L. Koerner, exposes an emergent corporate-friendly FCC, as embodied by Powell."

First off this is a strange way to describe an agency established by the 1934 Communications Act as originally having had a consumer protection design. In fact, the 1934 law as the final act in a government operation undertaken in collaboration with commercial broadcasters to marginalise non-commercial broadcasters and create the circumstances which would allow an advertising driven conception of programming to develop a stranglehold over the US audience. This process had begun in 1927 with the Radio Act that created the Federal Radio Commission, an institution that rendered non-commercial broadcasters unsustainable through imposition of costly technical requirements. On this point see McChesney, telecommunication... and democracy. The squashing of FM radio in the 1940s and cable in the 1960s provides examples historically the FCC has been the vehicle through which incumbent players have held innovative technologies threatening their position at bay. The inventor of FM was so dispirited by this that he threw himself out the window of his apartment in 1954. The most recent instantiation of this pattern is the thwarting of Low Power radio by commercial broadcast interests in combination with the doyen of public broadcasting, NPR, which was among the final acts of the Clinton administration in December 2000 (See Hazlett p.46 - 90). On the movement for and potential of Microradio & Democracy: (Low) Power to the people, Greg Ruggiero, Seven Stories Press, 1999.

A sad reflection on the poverty of leftist critique is that a critical history of the FCC is produced with far more accuracy and panache by the libertarian right as exemplified by the Brooking's Institute Tom Hazlett (himself a former FCC economist) in his paper 'The Wireless Craze, The unlimited bandwidth myth, The Spectrum Auction Faux pas and the Punchline to Ronald Coase's 'Big Joke' - an essay on Airwave allocation policy.' Obviously Hazlett has other aims, namely the promotion of a policy built on maximal property rights and market mechanisms, yet perversely he succeeds also in producing something useful to left observers. Hazlett provides a sobering narrative of the origins of radio regulation (see especially his reconstruction of the period from 1926-27 which saw the 'breakdown of the law' at p.97 -100) and a skeptical outline of the protean content of both the 'public interest' and the 'fairness doctrine', two foundational legal doctrines upon which leftists would build their 'progressivist' new Jerusalem not knowing that this is a base of sand rather than stone. Notably, Hazlett has no compunction in using technical data supplied by Rappaport et al. from the media foundation and essentially lifts important sections of his historical analysis from Chesney. His section on LPFM particularly could be easily inserted in the contents of a Z magazine without drawing controversial comment.

Of course there are moments which might attract the more attentive readers suspicions. Political economy and the corruption of institutions are not something to which Hazlett is blind, thus he argues for market processes as a means of diminishing their influence. For Hazlett, Markets indeed are synonymous with the only type of ' democracy'; he conceives as practicable.

Secondly, in order that the value of spectrum is maximized he advocates maximal property rights. For leftists of course this is high blasphemy to the 'public' who are the 'owners' of the spectrum, and thus actually selling would constitute the abandonment of the public trust and a handover to corporate interests of the media on a massive scale. The hard truth is that leftists are so demoralized that the only means they see to advance their political objectives is through then ideological instrumentalising of the state to impose order on capital by authoritarian means. Yet their public ownership of the airwaves dream-sequence is just that, a daydream based on hopelessness. Broadcasters understand their relationship with politicians very well, and vice versa: they are each other’s very oxygen. Broadcasters provide politicians with publicity and frame issues so as to exclude the merest possibility of popular self-government and more specifically with cash to finance their political campaigns. In return, politicians grant them all the laws they desire to copperfasten their control over the public's attention through extension of intellectual property laws, spectrum giveaways (such as the estimated 60 billion dollars of spectrum given to television network incumbents under the 1996 telecommunications act. Thus, on a fair reading of the evidence, Hazlett's claim stands, even if one differs with his concept of preferential outcomes as produced by a property regime. The wisdom of exclusive rights now forms the crux of the polemic between those with the stomach to involve themselves in the opaque world of spectrum licensing; influential critiques have been made by Naom (on the basis of price efficiency), Lessig (on the basis of abundance) benkler (on the basis of abundance and the potential for a democratic decentralised model).

In order to counter Hazlett at root requires a serious examination of two aspects of markets that his utopianism neglects to scrutinize. The first is the question of externalities, that is the positive and negative byproducts of a process that whose costs and benefits are not taken into account in the price setting mechanism. These may be positive or negative. In the area of information, a positive externality is considered to be its effect of informing social actors and equipping them with the knowledge to make informed decisions about their lives. The same information may also help to encourage technical innovation, or can have a negative effect through phenomena such as desensitization to violence. In the area of information goods, one form of externality that has received considerable attention in recent years is that of network effects, contexts where each additional user of a specific standard of equipment or software platform for example, adds value to the other users experience or capability. This issue lies at the heart of the controversy over Microsoft’s antics to maintain and extend its dominance.

The other critique which goes to the heart of market optimists claims is the fact that most markets do not work along a simple supply/demand matrix, principally because eof inequalities in bargaining power between market actors, and the ability of deep-pocketed organizations to manufacture demand through marketing etc. This is the context in which a reading Manuel deLanda’s ‘Markets and Anti-Markets’ is very useful, turning as it does the market critique in on itself.

Spectrum allocation remains basically void of social critics with the exception of critical legal commentators and Robert McChesney, whom for reasons later elaborated spoils his performance by ignoring the impact of new technologies and the new centrality of intellectual property law.

The abiding legacy of the 1990s is a paradox, which is that at the very time when media ownership has scaled to what would once have been though unthinkable levels, the variety of conduits for the dissemination of mass media has diversified enormously. Decentralized protocols such as TCP/IP, which lie at the heart of the Internet, have also enabled the emergence of high-speed wireless networks. The telephone infrastructure is now ripe for the delivery of television programming to the home. Cable lines have been basically opened up for consumers to become producers of information themselves. Satellite systems are trying to get in on the action. At the root of all these things lies packet switching technology and digitalization. While dystopian curmudgeons take glee in the meltdown of the dotcom boom, they are missing the essence of the change, refracted in their eyes through the yuppie culture that was the period’s concubine. Yet radical groups have taken advantage of these tools and to Barsamian's credit, although he does not appear too closely informed on the matter, he does dedicate a chapter to Independent Media Alternatives, focussing bon Z magazine' transition to a digital portal, the Indymedia network and democracy Now. These examples are a pretty reasonable place to start the discussion as what has happened.

Treating the Indymedia network as a whole is a misleading exercise due to the pronounced decentralization behind it. Beyond the trademark layout of the interface and use of logos of a somewhat similar style, at one point it could be considered as a piece as each node despite its editorial independence functioned on the same software Active X. This code was developed in advance of the WTO meeting in Seattle 1999, and was designed to allow for maximum popular participation in coverage of the protests. To minimize time between observation and reportage, and to give effect to principles of DIY media and free speech, the defining characteristic of the interface and upload mechanism was to allow for unfiltered open publishing. Nowadays this identity is no more, as at least five different pieces of software (Active, Active X, slashcode, python and java) are used by different groups.

In addition, the notion of an unfiltered newswire has been jettisoned by many nodes, particularly those in Europe where liberal notions of free speech have been overwhelmed by leftist canons such as anti-fascism; thus all fascist posts are removed on the German and Italian sites, and given the history of those two countries this is hardly surprising although not uncontroversial.

This diversity in infrastructure has positive and negative elements. The advantage is that there are multiple different sets of code in development and addressing problems in different ways at any given time, the correlative disadvantage is that the attentions of politicized coders are divided and the threat of platform incompatibility is ever present.

McChesney’s book has several merits, one amongst them being this corrective lesson in the history of the FCC. Elsewhere, one of his key concerns is a dissection of the claim that the advent of the Internet will lead to a democratization of economic life and the media in particular. The concession of control to commercial forces and forms of private governance is fingered as the main reason why it is unlikely for ‘the Internet to set us free.’ This section of the book combines a healthy skepticism of the ‘democratic’ nature of the free market and a cynical eye on its more populist exponents, a little a la Thomas Frank and the Baffler. More importantly perhaps, he highlights the key role played by the state in the development of the technology and the regulatory influence exerted over markets in the form of monopoly grants, such as in the case of cable systems. This point is even more relevant to the discussion about intellectual property, and it’s an observation made elsewhere and with great insight by James Boyle. Yet there is an infuriating lack of substantive explanation; thus, when he claims that:

Business interests are coming to play the dominant role in establishing web technical standards, which are crucial to expediting electronic commerce.”

Now this is obviously true, and there is ample documentary evidence on the point, but the problem is that it is absent from McChesney’s text, and one needs to look elsewhere, such as the works of Larry Lessig to find a useful articulation of the point.

Another aspect of the picture neglected by McChesney is the real tension that exists between different players in the online environment. According to his theory, modern capitalism is defined by the attempts of large conglomerates to acquire an oligopolistic position in the market and milk the rent available to the maximum degree through means other than price competition. Thus the author traces a seemingly unending taxonomy of strategic partnerships, joint ventures and cross-investment between the major industry players in recent years, agents that according to the market prescription ought to be practically cutting one another’s throats with competitive enthusiasm. The problem is that this ignores some of the technological changes that really have disintegrated some of the walls between markets. For example, wireless networking through components built into hardware can erode the power of the owners of the telecommunications infrastructure. Thus apple builds in Airport to their systems and Nokia integrate networking protocols into their wireless devices. While this example exists at the level of the delivery conduit, similar processes have been at work over the years in content – think about the fact that the telecommunications companies make money when you download ‘free’ MP3s. Likewise Sony litigated for nearly seven years to fend off the notion pictures studios attempts to outlaw the video recorder, in a case that foreshadowed many of today’s conflicts between consumer electronics companies and media proprietors. Of course Sony is no in the ‘content’ business too, but that doesn’t stop Apple, Diamond etc. for building machines designed to capitalize on mass practices of copyright infringement. McChesney perceives many of these companies to represent the same agenda ‘the commercialization of the Internet’, when there are in fact important divergences in their interests, divergences which create space in which other processes can develop. The now classic example of this is the Music Industry and MP3s, where because the technology had enough time to develop, there is now a legacy of millions of MP3s that simply can’t be put back in the bottle, irrespective of what happens to the next generation of devices, many of which will probably integrate copyright management systems designed to thwart ‘piracy’.

The other force deflating the liberatory potential on the network in McChesney’s eyes is the centrality of the e-commerce portals as defined principally by AOL, and to a lesser degree by the likes of MSN and Yahoo.

“… or an inside the beltway public interest lobbyist so used to being ignored that just seeing the words ‘public interest’ in a government report was a life-defining event. (158)

The greatest blind spot in McChesney’s analysis however concerns his silence on the issue of intellectual property. Thus, he devotes a section of his internet-chapter to examining the role played by a traditional media manufacturers in determining the contours of the new landscape, their advertising forecasts, their partnerships for the distribution of music, their ownership of high-profile brands etc. without so much as mentioning the important evolution which is taking place in file-sharing technology that is revolutionizing media distribution. What began as a basically centralized model vulnerable to legal attack (Napster) has evolved through at least two further generations. The Gnutella network (Bearshare/Limewire) represents the first, which is decentralized client server application. This allows a much more robust network in the sense that connectivity is not dependent on the legal health of a single operator. A trade-off with this is inefficiency in the locating of files and the problem of free riding users, which actually impede the functionality of the system beyond simply failing to contribute material. Limewire addresses this problem to some degree by providing the option to refuse to download files to users who do not share a threshold number of files. Unfortunately this cannot attenuate the problem of inefficient searches per se, merely offering a disciplinary instrument to force users to contribute. In order to sharpen search capacities in the context of a problematic network design, these networks have taken recourse to nominating certain nodes as super-peers, by virtue of the large number of files they are serving themselves. While essentially efficacious, the consequence is to undermine the legal robustness of the network. The threat is made clear in a paper published last year by researchers at PARC Xerox that analyzed traffic patterns over the Gnutella network and found that one per cent of nodes were supplying over ninety per cent of the files. These users are vulnerable to criminal prosecution under the no electronic theft act and the digital millennium copyright act. The music industry has been reluctant to invoke this form of action thusfar, principally because of their confidence that the scaling problem of the Gnutella community reduces the potential commercial harm it can inflict. As super-peering etc. becomes more effective this may change.

Another interesting attribute of the limewire system is the option it provides to set up virtual private networks, so that users can establish perimetered community based upon their own social affinities. Now this is the nightmare of the IP police.

Third generation file sharing systems begin with the Freenet architecture outlined by Ian Clarke in 1999. Although the Freenet network has not achieved anything like the same adoption scale as other systems, its design characteristics set the standard, which has been emulated by others, specifically those built on top of the ‘fast track’ system. The crux of Freenet’s genius is in its adoption of ‘small world’ organization. This refers to the experiment carried out by Milligram in the 1960s where 160 people throughout the United States were given letters to be delivered to stockbrokers and asked to pass them only through people that they knew to get them to their final destination. 42 of the letters arrived, using an average of 5.5 intermediaries. The purpose was to illustrate the level of social interconnectivity, and is an experience with which most us are familiar, as when one meets a stranger from a distant clime and discover that you know someone in common. It’s not that everyone has such an expansive social sphere, but rather that there are individuals whose circle of acquaintance cuts across a wide range of social groups. Freenet utilizes this principle through by giving its software a feature, which allows it to retain knowledge of the content available on other nodes; information is retained between sessions. The result is search capability an extremely effective storage and retrieval system. As a result this feature has been emulated by systems such as Audio Galaxy, Kazaa.

A crucial point in all of this is that both Gnutella and Freenet are open source/free software, thus allowing non-commercial motivated individuals and groups to take up the baton as the main players progressively move towards a rapprochement with industry. Napster has died attempting to placate its erstwhile enemies, whilst Kazaa will not allow downloads above 128 kilobytes per second in an attempt to appease the same industry, with whose representatives they are currently in negotiation for a license to move to a full commercial platform. These are both proprietary technologies so that they can exclude any rivalrous non-compliant competitors. Audio Galaxy however is under the General Public License. AG deals with the ‘tragedy of the commons’ in a more determined manner(!). Specifically, it only allows the user to transfer more than one file at a time if they are sharing a minimum of 25 files. Likewise, there is no option to not share – the only means of not sharing is to exit AG, which means of course that the user cannot download files either.

Similar systems are now been offered by these companies to commercial media distributors such as Cloudcast (Fasttrack) and Swarmcast, using technical devices to allow distributed downloads that automate transfer from other notes when one user logs off. The intention here is clearly the development of software based alternatives to the hardware offered by Akamai, the principle player in delivering accelerated downloads and used by CNN, Apple and ABC amongst others.

The point of all this is that there is distribution system available now that can allow the global distribution of critical media. This network is not globally inclusive and is predicated upon access to a telephone line, computer and (preferably) a high speed network connection, but other more powerful economic forces are driving the permeation of all these technologies so that this is a problem which will be progressively mitigated. In any case, exclusion is a fact of all media, whether one considers literacy (print), purchase capacity (television/satellite). Radio is probably fundamentally the most democratic media in an ideal sense, since the cost of acquisition of a receiver is relatively low, and the spread of linguistic range in the content available is basically quite comprehensive.

An unfortunate fact on the other hand is that in the affluent west where the technology is accessible, it is not been taken up. A cursory search over Gnutella and Kazaa for files tagged indymedia (for example) turned up a grand total of one result: an audio track from a Ralph Nader rally….. On Audio Galaxy, one file was found… an audio recording of a lecture by Richard Stallman! This represents failure, a deep failure of ambition. But behind this, there is another problem, namely that most producers of critical audio-visual programming continue to refuse to make their works available digitally due to an outmoded belief in the copyright orthodoxy: they simply cannot conceive of any other way of receiving remuneration for their work, and thus they decide to limit dissemination to physical world networks where they can leverage distribution in exchange for fixed price payment. (insert note on italy indy and software which allows you to break up large files).

And the enormous resources devoted to fast-tracking legislation expanding and reinforcing copyright, trademark and patent monopoly rights. This appears anomalous when set aside the attention a given to the 1996 telecommunications act and the symbiotic nature of the relationship between politicians and corporate media generally in the book. In total, apart from a passing reference to the passage of the 1996 WIPO Copyright treaty, only one paragraph is allotted to the issue (179). In the mid-term, such a lacuna is even more striking as in a very real way it involves bringing both state and private forces of control and enforcement into the domestic sphere of everyday America.

Despite these weaknesses Rich Media… is an important historical contribution, and especially noteworthy in this respect is the attention paid to the phony Gore commission investigation into public interest standards for broadcasters in the aftermath of their successful customization of the 1996 Telecommunications act and the now infamous HDTV giveaway. The Gore Commission effectively functioned as a mechanism for laundering the ill-gotten gains under a rhetoric of public interest which mandated nothing literally nothing, and coming past-factum to the grant of the licenses to the broadcasters by the FCC couldn’t have been anything but impotent irrespective of the nature of its recommendations. In addition, despite a fundamental disagreement with his optimism in state orchestrated reform, McChesney’s concluding chapter conveys a confidence in ordinary people, and a healthy disrespect for paternalistic liberals, in a genuinely populist form that is unfortunately rare. His commitment to democracy has substance beyond the promotion of ideological agendas.

15,000 words for $8.00 certainly suggests Barsamian and South End press put a high price on what they do,