The unabridged first amendment

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

This week, as I prepared to discuss the first amendment of the US Constitution with my students, I found myself pondering the meaning of the statement “Congress shall make no law […] abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press,” especially in light of the Qur’an burning controversy in Gainesville. The Reverend Terry Jones, of the Dove World Outreach Center, had planned to burn as many copies of the Qur’an as he could gather on the anniversary of the September 11 attacks.

Now, here is a case that definitely touches upon the heart of the first amendment. It involves the rights of a religious congregation to assemble and reduce another religion’s holy book to cinder. How could this be possible?

In simple terms, it could be possible because, as symbolic speech, this act is protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution. That congress shall make no law applies here. However, it is not that simple. Abridgment of the First Amendment, though prior restraint,  is possible in situations involving national security as well as clear and present danger to public safety. The Gainsville case brings up both issues. Nevertheless, the handling of the controversy purposefully avoided any mention of either stipulation, at least not on the part of the federal government.

Indeed, the Federal government, from starting with the president, deplored the situation. General Petreus denounced it as a potential danger to American troops, and Secretary Clinton hoped that the press would stop covering it. On the local level, though, the City of Gainesville did act. It denied Jones and his flock a burning permit, on the grounds of “public safety and environmental protection“. In other words, this is a local application of the Clear and Present Danger doctrine. The thing is, though, that Jones would merely risk a fine, and until just a few hours, he intended to go ahead with the plan.

He apparently decided to back down. He will now travel to New York to convince Imam Feisal Rauf to relocate a planned Muslim Community Center away from ground zero. For Reverend Jones, this is a done deal, or at least that is how he represented it to the media. Imam Feisal and the developers of the Park51 deny that such a deal has even been discussed, according to CNN.

I wonder what the pastor plans to do about that.

The situation, aside from touching upon the first amendment, also sheds light on the nature of today’s press. In the past week, coverage has been relentless.  He was on Rick’s List, and on Fox, and on ABC, etc, etc, ad nauseum. It reached absurd proportions, considering that this is a really small church group.Probably Brian Stelter, of The New York Times, put it best. He merely asked if there was a way of keeping track of Terry Jones’ media appearances.

http://twitter.com/brianstelter/status/24038713092

With all the scrutiny, did the media make matters worse? According to at Chris Coumo, from ABC news, the answer is yes.

http://twitter.com/ChrisCuomo/status/24043605275

Naturally, not everyone will agree. The press is there to report on matters of public interest. That is the Jeffersonian ideal. Nevertheless, shouldn’t we expect the press to show some sense of proportion?

In hindsight, not only members of the press, like Cuomo and Stelter, pondered this question. The AP, Fox, ABC, NBC, and CBS all issued statements about how they would cover the event. The AP, furthermore, explicitly said that it would not publish any pictures depicting the Qur’an set ablaze.

Self-censorship is still the most effective way to abridge the First Amendment, at least in this case. The press strategized, but did not get to act on its strategy, and Pastor Jones decided to pull the plug on his own plans. His stated reason is, again, the relocation of Park51. Unstated, though, is all the pressure he must have received over the past week, and by that I don’t just mean the death threats, or even to public uproar. I’m referring to getting calls from the Secretary of Defense, visits from the FBI, and pressure from Gainsville city officials, who warned people to “stay away” from the site of the Dove World Outreach Center, and to remain vigilant because “the Gainsville police department is depending on you to be their eyes and ears in the community.”  That is a pretty ominous statement.

I began this post thinking about the first amendment, and pondering whether or not it should be abridged in situations like Gainsville. I don’t really have a conclusive answer. Based on the actions of government officials, it is clear that Reverend Jones’ actions would be protected under the first amendment. However, the rights of the immediate community, and concerns about national interest should also be taken into account. In the end, the Reverend may have found a crafty way out of his conundrum, one that places the ball on Park51’s court.

We’ll see how the media reports on that.

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Venezuela and Chavez

When it comes to Venezuela, it’s impossible to understand today’s media landscape without thinking about Hugo Chavez. The controversial Venezuelan president is one of the most media savvy politicians in the Americas. Alo Presidente, Chavez weekly radio/television show, is an unscripted, populist stage, but it serves Chavez well. His countrymen see him as the populist hero, who sings, rides around in tractors, or horses, and explains his hopes, ambitions, dreams, and plans to the average Venezuelan.

Venezuela is technically a free media market. The commercial sector has a long history in the country, and what Chavez has done is curtail their influence. He did not renew the license for Radio Caracas Television (RCTV), a media company that supported the 2002 failed coup against Chavez. He has also openly criticized and ridiculed any media outlets that dare speak against him. But it doesn’t stop there, as journalists can probably live with ridicule. Censorship, on the other hand, is a completely different animal. With a new law governing media content, Venezuelan media cannot broadcast anything that can be deemed against national security, they cannot “disrespect” the president or other government officials, and cannot broadcast information that could cause civil unrest, which is a direct jab at the media’s role in the 2002 Coup (Diehl, 2005). RCTV, Venevision, and Globovision strongly supported the coup. However, Chavez only shut down RCTV, surprisingly waiting five years to do so.

Moreover, Chavez’s controversial closing of RCTV is still felt. The station, no longer free to broadcast over the air, made the move to cable and was still available there. However, in late January of 2010, cable companies dropped RCTV and 6 other stations. The reason? they failed to broadcast Chavez’s speeches, and were thus deemed in violation of Venezuelan telecommunications law (Bright, 2010). In 2003, a new statute required all Venezuelan broadcasters to broadcast government announcements in matters including, but not limited to, development policies, education, conservation, and democratic participation. The speeches, probably, fall under any of those rubrics.

Duffy and Everton, in their chapter  in, Global Communications: Toward a Transcultural Political Economy, try to explain the government’s position. To them the measures introduced in the Media Law passed in 2003 are very similar to statutes in place in Canada, Europe, and the United States. They include a ratings system, to protect children, and “prioritize social and cultural objectives above the commercial imperatives of owners” (Duffy & Everton, 2008, p. 137). The authors, who from the tone of their writing, are very much in favor of the Chavez communication policies — in terms of promoting community access to broadcasting, the government has, in fact opened up spaces for marginalized groups — have to rationalize the need for reform. While they admit that “open ended language in these clauses could open the door to authoritarian abuses in the future” (p. 137), they wax optimistically about the Venezuelan experience:

These measures suggest both an innovative model of the state as facilitator of relatively autonomous participatory democratic initiative and also the possibility of a post-neoliberal communicative order based on a radical reconceptualization of democratic communication rights. While history unfortunately offers no guarantees, and Venezuela’s Bolivarian revolution is a complex political phenomenon with its own potential internal contradictions, it is nonetheless possible that this trajectory of structural media reform could indeed play an important role in the construction of a democratic “socialism for the twenty-first century” (Duffy & Everton, 2008, p. 139)

I do agree that developing a stronger community media fosters greater democratic participation. However, I fail to see how quashing dissent can be liberating to anyone. In fact, I also fail to see how the closing of RCTV can be construed as anything other than censorship. In 2007, as the closing was announced, Reuters suggested that the big beneficiary from the closing would be Venevision, another one of Venezuela’s top media companies. Gustavo Cisneros, the owner of Venevision, is also part-owner of Univision. He met with Chavez, according to Reuters, and agreed to stop criticizing the government. In return, Venevision had its license renewed, while RCTV, who became even more virulent, lost its license (Reuters, 2007). I don’t know how these events fit into Duffy and Everton’s rosy views of the Venezuelan media landscape.

Isn’t that interesting?

According to Human Rights Watch, the media laws in Venezuela promote self-censorship. The government can use the legal system to persecute the opposition, which has left the Venezuelan public airwaves practically deprived of opposing viewpoints. Globovision is the only television station left that is still openly critical of the president. In July of 2009, 32 radio stations lost their licenses for the same reason (Human Rights Watch, 2009).

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References

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Oh Canada, so close to the US…

If history is right, Porfirio Diaz, one of Mexico’s most infamous dictators, once decried his nation was too close to the United States and too far away from God. Canada, though not as dramatically, might feel the same about the neighborhood. The God issue is another subject altogether.

Nevertheless, proximity to the United States has been an extremely influential factor in the development of Canadian culture. This is a practical matter, because no nation develops a sense of self without defining what makes them different from other nations around it. We can’t deny, however, that the United States and Canada do share commonalities; they were both colonized by the British, and both share the English language. Yet the differences are also striking. For example, where Americans describe their nation as a melting pot, Canadians consider theirs as a mosaic, a multicultural state, in which different groups are not expected to assimilate. Instead, they co-exist, or so it goes. Whether or not the coexistence is harmonious, or equitable, is debatable, but the fact that Canadians claim it is worth noting as an important ideological difference. And it does not end there. The political system (parliamentary), bilingualism (because of Quebec), and even the fact that Canada remained under British rule until the twentieth century contrast starkly with the American experience.

How does broadcasting fit into this picture? According to Michael Arpin, Vice Chair for Broadcasting of the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), Canadians view telecommunications and broadcasting as crucial for the development of the nation. This should not come as a surprise since Canada, after all, is the second largest country in the world (the United States is the third). The problem is that Canada is also sparsely and unevenly populated. The eastern seaboard, which includes Ontario and Quebec, and the areas around the US border are the most demographically dense, whereas the central and northern portions of the country are not densely populated at all. Still, a nation does not exist without internal cohesion. Transportation, telecommunications, and broadcast systems are part of this process, as Arpin reminds us:

With the possible exception of the development of a national railway system in the 1800s, few industries have played as important a part in unifying Canada as telecommunications, broadcasting and satellite distribution of signals. From the days of the telegraph, and from the introduction of radio and television, we have understood that these technologies are powerful tools that allow Canadians to connect with each other across great distances, help develop our economy, shape our national identity and assert our cultural sovereignty (Arpin, 2007).

The last sentence is the  key to Canadian broadcasting philosophy: it views telecommunications and information technologies as “tools” that support national development, both economic and cultural. Furthermore, broadcasting in Canada, at least in terms of philosophy, is about nation building, about creating a common culture through a shared media experience.

The quest for cultural sovereignty, Canadian style

Sovereignty is a quality of nation states. In political theory, it indicates that a state has control over a territory, and, with autonomy, can exercise political power through policy, law, and/or coercive means. Cultural sovereignty, in the Canadian case, suggests independence; it implies the ability to produce an autonomous culture, that is distinctly Canadian (i.e. not American).Yet, sharing a border, as I stated previously, has complicated Canada’s quest for cultural sovereignty. Once broadcasting began, in the early years of the twentieth century, the situation became even more complex because you obviously could not stop radio waves at the border. They spilled into Canadian territory from the United States, and interfered with Canadian signals. According to Skinner (2008), some American stations were “explicitly built to broadcast over the border and exploit Canadian advertising markets” (p.). Regulation was first introduced not just to bring order into chaos, but to extend sovereignty to the Canadian airwaves.

This is the recurring theme of Canadian broadcasting, and it is an issue that kept Canada from following the British broadcasting model too closely. Like the British did, Canada also envisioned a strong public broadcaster, that would “inform, enlighten, and entertain” (Broadcasting Act of 1991, I(l)) the Canadian public. Furthermore, they originally intended for this public broadcaster to take over all aspects of broadcasting in Canada, that is, it would not only provide services, but also regulate the operations of commercial broadcasters. However, Canada is not Great Britain. License fees, first of all, would have been completely impractical because people had more choices. Nevertheless, Canadian regulators believed that they could fund public broadcasting through other means, through government allocations, or by instituting the obligation to carry Canadian content. Early on, it became clear that the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Corporation (CRBC) never had enough funding to live up to these expectations. As a consequence, Canada developed a mixed system, which now, following the passage of the 1991 Broadcasting Act, includes public, commercial, and community broadcasters. With technological advances, like cable, satellite, and the Internet, cultural sovereignty became even more elusive.

Canadian Content

For me, one of the most interesting, albeit frustrating, facets of the Canadian broadcasting system is the issue of Canadian Content. All players in the system are supposed to provide Canadian content, and abide by the quotas established by the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). But what is Canadian content? Let’s look at some Canadian television shows and see if we can figure it out.

According to the CRTC, Canadian Content is defined by specific criteria, none of which seem to have anything to do with content itself. Music, for example, qualifies as Canadian if it fulfills any two of the following conditions: it is produced in Canada, performed by a Canadian, composed by a Canadian, or performed and/or recorded in Canada. Television programming, on the other hand, is Canadian if the producer and key staff are Canadian, by how much money is spent in services provided by Canadians, and by how much money was spent on lab processing done in Canada. Co-productions can also qualify as Canadian content, provided that Canadians hold 50% of the investment and receive 50% of the profits. Cable and pay per view systems also abide by Cancon rules, but those decisions are made on a case by case basis (Media Awareness Network).

As it stands, the CBC provides most of the Canadian content because, according to Cancon rules, 60% of the programming aired daily between 6 am and midnight, must be Canadian. Commercial broadcasters, on the other hand, are not bound by this requisite. They only have to air 60% overall, for the year, and of this 60%, half must be broadcast between 6 pm and midnight.

The Cancon Rules leave plenty of leeway to Canadian commercial broadcasting. They exemplify the liberalization and de-regulation policies that are meant, in theory, to make countries more competitive in a global economy. The other side of that coin is, though, that commercial broadcasters have very little incentive to produce Canadian content that reflects Canadian culture in any explicit manner because, as Skinner suggests:

Not only [is] Canadian programming more expensive to produce than foreign programs [are] to buy, but if a Canadian program [is] scheduled to replace a foreign program – even if it drew as large an audience as it replaced – any return on investment would be roughly equivalent to that of the imported program” (Skinner, 2008).

Media Concentration

In Canada, media ownership is heavily concentrated. Currently, three private companies — CTVGlobemedia, Canwest, and Rogers Broadcasting — dominate Anglophone television sector.  Quebecor and Remstar control the Francophone sector (CRTC, 2009).

The latest controversy: Fee for Carriage

Canadian television broadcasting faces the same challenges that other systems are facing. For one, it is not easy to protect local broadcasters from the competition they face from Satellite and Cable, or from the Internet. Audience fragmentation is very real, in spite of the overwhelming media concentration of Canadian media, or of the regulations that are meant to protect Canadian  productions.

In 2008, one of the most heated debates regarding broadcast policy was about fee for carriage. In a nutshell, Canadian media companies, spearheaded by CTVGlobemedia and Canwest, presented a fee-for carriage proposal to the CRTC. They argued that the economic crisis  had forced them to take drastic budget cutting measures, including layoffs, and program cuts. The solution, or at least something that would slow the crisis down, was fee-for carriage. Under this scheme, CRTC would mandate cable and satellite providers to pay Canadian companies  50 cents per subscriber for the right to carry their signal.

In November, CRTC denied the request. Instead, they passed the following policies:

  • Beginning August 31, 2011 distributors (cable and satellite companies) can offer channels to customers in an a la carte fashion (instead of the current system where subscribers buy a basic cable package and then purchase themed bundles of additional channels). This gives viewers more direct choice in the channels they watch.
  • Effective Sept. 1, 2009, a new fund will support the creation of local content (i.e. TV news) by conventional broadcasters in markets with fewer than a million people. Broadcast distributors currently provide 5% of their revenues to fund production of Canadian programming. This will be increased to six percent, with the extra 1% benefiting this new Local Programming Improvement Fund. The CRTC said it expected the cost of the fund – totaling around $60 million annually – not to be passed to subscribers (i.e. our bills wont go up to pay for the fund). However, cable and satellite TV operators aren’t happy about the increase and have indicated to the press that anytime their expenses go up, the consumer pays one way or another.
  • Currently a U.S. channel that offers similar programming to a Canadian specialty channel can be barred from entry into our broadcast market. However, the CRTC has decided that Canadian news and sports services are financially healthy and already face competition so new foreign services will be allowed. As a result, expect more American sports and news channels on your TV program guide once this ruling takes effect in 2011.

(Binning, 2009)

I can’t get over the fact that Canada now has ala carte cable. But that’s an entirely different matter. I guess it is far more important to ponder whether or not Canadians have created a broadcasting system that enhances cultural sovereignty.  In terms of organization, they recognize the role of three components in over the air broadcasting. In terms of structure, media concentration in the commercial sphere is severe. In terms of regulations, generating Canadian content has been a major concern, but the nature of that content is loosely defined as economic participation, and/or opportunities for Canadians. With this in mind, Cancon regulations do not facilitate productions with strong cultural elements, especially in the private sector. After all, Canadian producers still want to compete in the international market, and out there, Degrassi is easier to sell than Little Mosque.

In other words, the answer to my question is yes and no. Yes, because the regulations and philosophy of the system are unique and different, and no because the context in which operations occur, and the pressures from in a commercial environment are important deterrents.

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References

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Italy: Berlusconi’s Media Playground?

Even before I ever began researching, writing, and comparing media systems around the world, I was familiar with the name Silvio Berlusconi. I knew him as Italy’s prime minister, and also as the billionaire media mogul. I did not know, however, that he and Rupert Murdoch used to be buddies, but are now rivals, or that Berlusconi is the co-owner of Endemol, the Dutch production company that brought us Big Brother (Osborne, 2007; Israely, 2009). Clearly, it would be futile to try to understand the landscape of Italian television today without Berlusconi.

But how did such degree of media concentration and power come about? I mean, Berlusconi did not just materialize from ether. He, like any other industrialist/politician, is the product of a political, social, and economic environment. At least that would be what author’s Daniel Hallin and Paolo Mancini would argue. They suggest, in Comparing Media Systems: Three Models of Media and Politics, that political institutions, beliefs, traditions, power-sharing agreements, economic variables, and the evolution of civil society influence the development of the media system. Their thesis, though similar to that espoused in Four Theories of the Press, is not as deterministic or as simple. That is, where Siebert, Peterson, and Schramn, the authors of of Four Theories of the Press, proposed four models — authoritarian, the liberal, the social responsibility, and the Soviet Totalitarian — to explain media behavior, and believed that differences between them were about philosophy,  Hallin and Mancini believe the picture is more complex. There are no ideal types, and the purpose of studying media comparatively should not be limited to pointing out failures. In other words, we should not expect media in different countries to follow a liberal model, which was the ideal for Siebert, Peterson, and Schramm. Instead, we should try to understand the key influences that make them different, and the layers of complexity that make them contradictory:

The Liberal Model enshrined in normative theory, based primarily on the American and to a somewhat lesser extent the British experience, has become so widely diffused around the worlds – partly, as Blanchard (1986) points out, as a result of campaign mounted by the U.S. government and press in the early years of the Cold War — that other conceptions of journalism often are not conceptualized clearly even by their own practitioners. Even within the United States, the normative ideal of the neutral independent watchdog leads to blind spots in journalists’ understanding of what they do […]. The gap between ideal and reality is far greater in countries such as Italy or Spain where journalists will express allegiance to the Liberal model of neutrality and objectivity, while the actual practice of journalism is deeply rooted in partisan advocacy traditions (Hallin & Mancini, 2004, p. 13-14).

So, what key influences should we look at to try to unravel the Italian media system? According to Hallin and Mancini, we should look at (1) the development of media markets, (2) political parallelism, (3) the development of journalistic professionalism, and (4) degree and nature of state intervention.

Development of Media Markets

For Hallin and Mancini, this category describes when, how, and which types of media develop in a nation. For example, in the United States, newspapers “tend to be addressed to the mass public” (p. 22), whereas in Southern Europe, which includes Italy, they are usually geared to the elites. Some countries, furthermore, have a national media, while others have regional and local media.

Political Parallelism

The media, all claims to the contrary, is never truly impartial, or truly disengaged from political power. Hallin and Mancini explain this relationship through the variable of political parallelism, which they define as “the extent to which the different media reflect distinct political orientations in their news and current affair s reporting, and sometimes also the entertainment content” (p. 28).

Professionalism

This dimension refers to whether or not the media are autonomous. That is, whether or not the individuals that produce content for media organizations can work with relative lack of pressure from, either, owners, or the government. Professionalism also refers to the existence of ethical norms, which, in the case of broadcasting service, include the obligation to serve the public.

State Role

States shape the media system by enacting policies and regulations, by granting subsidies, and by protecting local media production from outside competition, among other tools. States can also intervene through outright ownership of the media, and through funding.

The Model at work in Italy: How did we get to Berlusconi?

Lets see how useful Hallin and Mancini’s model is to explain the Italian situation. First, the media in Italy did not develop as nation-wide markets. They were, and remained for the most part, local and regional in character. Furthermore, the press, and the media by extension, developed with strong party affiliations, with papers like L’Unita (Communist Party), Il Popolo (Christian Democrats), and l’Avanti (Socialists), and l’Ossevatore Romano, which is the official paper of the Catholic Church, and one of the most influential dailies in the country. Hiring practices in all of these outlets reflected ideological commitments. Moreover, fascism exacerbated the political affiliations of the press:

Under Fascism, of course, the media were expected to serve political ends – Mussolini was a journalist. And with the Liberation the first newspaper licenses went to anti-fascist political forces […]. The party press was extremely important in the immediate post liberation period (Hallin & Mancini, 100).

In terms of political parallelism, the practice of lottizzazione is prevalent, in public broadcasting (RAI) and commercial media (Hibberd, 2007). As in the UK, RAI was established by government charter, and given public service obligations. RAI also held a monopoly over broadcasting, which remained in effect until 1976 (Hibberd, 2004; 2007). The Christian Democratic Party was in control of policy, programming, and operations until 1963, when the Socialists began joining government coalitions, and were given roles in the direction of the institution.  The power sharing arrangement is known as lottizzazione.

Lottizzazione is a distinctive characteristic of the Italian media system, and it speaks to its level of professionalization and independence. It parcels out control over public broadcast media, among other public services, between different political forces. Lottizzazione, according to Padovani, determined not only how the RAI was carved up, but who would be hired to work there:

During the first decades of television broadcasting, journalists’ entry into RAI was determined by political and social homogeneity with the government party. In some cases the broadcaster itself trained its journalists, who were chosen from among young intellectuals, often in line with the dominant ideology of the time. Candidates were selected upon the recommendations of political leaders and friends of the director general and, only on rare occasions, they were selected from among the winners of national exams. Selection procedures, which consisted mostly of interviews, written and oral tests, and professional tests, were often fictitious, while determinant factors were personal and party connection and the “right recommendation (Padovani, 162).

Hibberd (2007) traces the institutionalization of Lottizzazione to around 1975, which was the year in which the Broadcasting Act divided the RAI into two networks:

The formation of two networks facilitated the creation of two broad ideological camps: the first for a Catholic culture and the second for a lay culture, with the result that the two camps were gradually subjected to political control. RAI was effectively partitioned along party lines running from the President (Socialist) and the Director General (Christian Democrat) down to the TV and radio networks, Raiuno (Christian Democrat) and Raidue (Socialist). Radio channels came under the sphere of influence of minor government parties (p. 885).

In terms of the role of the state, it is important to first understand how the state is organized to exercise power. Italy has enjoyed formal democracy since the mid 1800, when electoral laws were first introduced. These laws, however, only extended suffrage to landowners, and literate, male individuals. Universal male suffrage was established in 1913, and universal suffrage came about in 1946, which is when Italy became a Republic. In 1948, Italy adopted parlamentarism as a form of political organization of the government. Under parliamentary systems, voters elect the members of parliament, and they, in turn, elect the President, who holds ceremonial power. The president, in turn, names the Prime Minister, who holds executive power; he/she forms the government, by selecting the members of the Council of Ministers. The system, though modeled after British parlamentarism, has been notably unstable, as there have been at least 60 different governments since 1945 (US State Department, 2009).

As stated previously, RAI held a monopoly over broadcasting until 1976, when the Courts decided to allow commercial broadcasting based on the fact that “technical advances meant that television frequencies were no longer as scarce as they once were and commercial broadcasting could be permitted at a local level” (p. Hibberd, 2006, p. 886). However, the Courts left the system unregulated until the passage of the 1990 Broadcasting Act. The lack of regulation not only allowed for the proliferation of local channels, it also opened the door to Silvio Berlusconi, whose company, Fininvest, “gained gradual control of the commercial television market” (Hibberd, 2007, p. 886). By 1980, Berlusconi had almost achieved national coverage. By 1984, through acquisitions, he was RAI’s only national competitor. Though the Italian courts revoked his license that same year, Socialist Prime Minister Bettino Craxi reopened them by decree. Since Craxi was a personal friend of Berlusconi’s, the decree known as the Berlusconi Decree is an obvious example of political clientelism (Hibberd, 2007).

Who is this guy? And why does he matter

Berlusconi is, without a doubt, one of the most controversial figures in contemporary Italy. He is a media mogul, and according to Forbes, he has more money than Rupert Murdoch (Forbes, 2009). Through his family’s holding company, Fininvest, he has controlling interests over Mediaset, the largest private media company in Italy, the AC Milan, Mondadori publishing, Il Giornale newspaper, and over 100 companies more. Foreign Policy magazine described him, in 2009, as “a master of legal maneuvering” who has managed to avoid jail for corruption, tax evasion, and embezzlement, and has been elected prime minister 3 times in spite of it all. His trials and tribulations involve a sex scandal, a high profile divorce, and ever-recurrent embezzlement allegations. Here is what BusinessWeek has to say about his latest brush with Italian law:

The latest probe, dubbed Mediatrade-Rti, is an offshoot of investigation that led to one of those trials. In that trial, the premier and others are accused of overpaying for rights to show U.S. movies on Berlusconi’s TV networks and pocketing the differences (D’Emilio, 2010).

What a guy, and what a system! Berlusconi, his critics say, exercises and incredible degree of control over Italian broadcasting. Hibberd points out that he has used his position to advance Mediaset’s interests, and to unermine the RAI. Hence, in this sense, “Berlusconis’s conflicts of interest are very real and are detrimental to the economic and cultural development of media in Italy.” However, Hibberd also indicates a measure of pluralism, as the system offers a wide array of media choices (2007). Consequently, he argues that it is too simplistic to blame everything on Berlusconi, or to accuse him of controlling 90% of Italian media. The problems, in fact, pre-date the controversial media mogul, as they may be linked to “the slow development of democratic norms and practices” which include “the lack of effective safeguards guaranteeing essential media freedoms” (Hibberd, 2007, p. 29).

Personally, I believe Berlusconi is a creature of his environment. He has benefited from the institutions, practices, and political arrangements that have plagued Italian politics since the early days of the unification of the peninsula. Since the problems are structural, you cannot expect them to go away by wishing them out, or even by jailing Berlusconi. Political systems and practices do not change overnight, and in Italy’s case, the lack of separation between public and private interests will keep the door open to further encroachment upon the public sphere. The Internet, apparently, is next on the list, as Berlusconi’s government is seeking control “over online video content and force anyone who regularly uploads videos to obtain a license from the Ministry of Communications” (Israely, 2009). The legislation will also require sites like Youtube and Dailymotion, as well as blogs and other online content providers, to screen video uploads for pornography and violence. Fines for non-compliance will range from about $210 to $210,000 should the law pass (Barry, 2010).

It will be interesting to see how this law, which some experts believe is a direct challenge to Google, plays out. Berlusconi’s government argues that they are only attempting to enforce the European Union directive “to set up media rules” (Barry, 2010), yet only the Italians have taken it as far.

Did anyone say China?

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References

 

Cynical media: Is Jon Stewart bad for democracy?

What is going on in the United States? Once — and it was not so long ago– idealism was the mark of a worthy politician (at least as far as popular films were concerned). Frank Capra, for example, gave the country iconic images of the ideal senator. Jefferson Smith, the naive country boy, reaches the senate only to discover that his idol, Senator Joseph Paine, and his ilk have betrayed every principle in favor of special interests.

Ah… the good old days! Jefferson Smith could prevail at the end because politicians could come around. They just needed a reminder. Clearly, American society was a lot less jaded and cynical than it is today, or so the story goes. But the United States was neither kinder, nor gentler, nor more naive back in the 1930s. There was considerable turmoil in the United States as the country reeled from the Great Depression. As John O. Hunter explains, throughout the 1930s Americans were concerned about “housing, education, discrimination, and unemployment” (Hunter, 1966, p. 230). Hence, questions like What America should do for the Joads? were very important.

So, why do we think that American society then had less to feel discouraged about, less to gripe about, and less to be cynical about than we do today? The answer, according to Robert Hariman, is loss of innocence:

For the past decade we have had to contend with noxious politics and irresponsible media: A relentless persecution having no possible public benefit, vicious political operatives destroying dedicated men and women with lies and more lies, and an administration using egregious deception and highly coordinated propaganda campaigns to advance policies that are fundamentally damaging to the national interest, human rights, and the democratic process (Hariman, 2007, p. 275).

Under the circumstances we need a laugh. But more importantly, we need Jon Stewart and his brand of political comedy. In American society, parody has always been a vehicle to bring serious issues to the public. In other words, political parody stimulates democracy and public discourse. It raises awareness about society’s problems that would otherwise go unnoticed, especially in light of the overwhelming amount of information that circulates every day. Accordingly, Robert Hariman asks us to see the Daily Show for what it is. Not idle and corrosive cynicism, but “a defense of democratic deliberation” (Hariman, 2007, p. 274).

Roderick Hart and Johanna Hartelius, on the other hand, take the opposite view. They see Jon Stewart’s comedy as cynical, and thus detrimental to American democracy. Using rhetorical devices like diatribes (rants deriding public figures and institutions)  and chreia (“statements about an incident or situation, followed by a pungent remark”), cynics like Stewart offer vacuous, self-indulgent criticism, but no alternatives or solutions.

Here is an example of a rant, by Lewis Black.

And this is an example of chreia:

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Doubt Break ’09
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political Humor Ron Paul Interview

Hart and Hartelius* write that politics is a serious affair that demands seriousness:

Politics, of course, depends on more than mere attention. It depends on serious beliefs seriously pursued. Cynicism, in contrast, promotes only itself, summoning followers to abandon conventional society and its stultifying love of order, predictability, and progress (Hart & Hartelius, 2007, p. 267).

Nevertheless, cynicism is very popular. It is a mode of address that fits the generations of Americans of the television age. Television creates spectacles, superficial heroes, vapid pseudo-events (see Boorstin, “The Image”), and celebrities that fill our time, our screens, and that seep into our conversations. Jon Stewart can aptly play to us, as an audience because we are “quickly bored and often surly” and have little patience for “intractable problems” (Hart & Hartelius, 2007, p. 270). In other words, those of us who have always had television available want instant gratification. We want neat, uncomplicated endings, and we want to escape into lala-lands where we don’t have to reflect on the seriousness of real life.

Ironically, The Daily Show has a life of its own. We know that it is satire, but since it offers commentary about real events, it is taken seriously. In 2004, when Jon Stewart appeared on CNN’s Crossfire, co-host Tucker Carlson accused him of not asking poignant questions. To this, Stewart responded: “if your goal is to compare yourself to a comedy show you’re more than welcome.”

Tucker Carlson is not alone. Bill O’Reilly also felt the need to set the record straight. His concern? that young people in America, who make up the Daily Show’s key demographic, may believe Jon Stewart is painting an accurate picture of the country

And this is how CNN covered “the feud”

Perhaps O’Reilly is not off the mark: Did you know that, according to Time magazine, Jon Stewart is America’s most trusted newscaster? I was surprised, but only because I never did consider him a newscaster. I consider him a satirist and a political commentator. But, in terms of serving one of the key function of a free press, the Daily Show has become the watchdog of the watchdogs. Here is a good example of what this means:

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Queer and Loathing in D.C.
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political Humor Ron Paul Interview

References:

  • Hariman, R. (2007). In defense of Jon Stewart. Critical Studies in Media Communication. 24(3), pp. 273-277
  • Hart, R.P & Hartelius, J.E. (2007). The political sins of Jon Stewart. Critical Studies in Media Communication. 24(3), pp 263-272.
  • Hunter, J.O. (1966). Marc Blitzstein’s “The Cradle will Rock” as a Document of America, 1937. American Quarterly. 18(2). 277- 233.

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Notes:

* The issue of Critical Studies in Media Communication in which Hart & Hartelius, and Hariman were published recounts the mock trial of Jon Stewart, during the Annual Convention of the National Communication Association. Their comments are meant to be taken with a grain of salt.

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