Film Studies: How America is edging closer to insecure tyranny

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The Independent Culture

The bitter refrain from many American television-watchers is that as the number of available channels increases, so real choice withers. On any evening here in San Francisco I can choose from about 15 movies, or I can watch the four networks (ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox). I can also follow the local baseball team, the news in Chinese, Spanish-language soap opera, the BBC news, a couple of shopping channels, a 24-hour weather channel, coverage of Congress, and more.

So if, most of the time, I get no thrill from TV, maybe it's because the medium is innately drab and dishonest. It nags "Watch me!", yet it doesn't believe in seeing.

Such thoughts came to mind when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) made recent proposals to relax ownership. Nearly everyone involved in independent or adventurous programming howled. The FCC is currently an insult to many of us for the inadvertent reason that it is headed by a man named Michael Powell. That name rings such clarion bells in the soul of anyone who loves movies, that it is crushing to discover that this Mr Powell is actually the son of Secretary of State Colin Powell - but far duller. He is, as you can predict, a Bush appointee.

His commission has now proposed (by a three-two majority) changes in the rules on ownership in the media that will foster monopoly. In America, a land of many nations or areas, these refer to local markets such as cannot exist in Britain. But what the FCC wants - and describes as necessary "surgery" - is a means by which one or two conglomerates (like Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation) can own several TV stations, radio stations and newspapers. Not even a hint of viewer benefit is offered on behalf of these changes. Quite simply, they are proposed as necessary to business vitality and liberty. And our business is now so supine that the fallacy prevails that there is no other way of measuring the nation.

The FCC was created under Franklin Roosevelt in the spirit that the air waves were a national asset (like the environment), and that while it was reasonable for operators to get their hands on a piece of the band-width to make money, still they had responsibilities to the public good, and its education and their tenancy was to be licensed.

Anyone with an ear to history may recall or enjoy being reminded that in the late 1940s the US government (through anti-trust legislation) compelled the major movie studios to sell off their theatres on the principle that it was oppressive to make and sell movies while controlling their outlets.

Days of innocence! Today, the economy is based upon the idea of protecting the rich and the powerful, and American television and the newspaper business are loaded so as to make life as hard as possible for independent operators.

Mr Michael K Powell is at his least Powell-like when he deplores his own lack of power and says that the majority really had to do what they did.

As another member of the three, Kathleen Abernathy, said, "I cannot tell the American people what they should believe, what they should read, or what they should watch or listen to for their own good."

Whereas, of course, our George W (especially in alliance with the jingoistic Fox network) presented the recent misunderstandings in Iraq as a set of trumpeted lies which it deemed absolutely essential for the American public.

There are networks (including Public Broadcasting) that have a theoretical opportunity to be outraged by W - or any US government. But the critical voice has been muted to a degree, in part because Public Broadcasting is terrified that the Republicans will remove all its funding, and because the rival networks are caught between old ideals of journalistic independence and the corporate need to keep up with the upstart Fox.

The FCC measures will also fragment American television and there are many oligarchs happy to have any critical voices reduced to the chaos of a hundred minorities.

In a country this big, where such things as mass media exist, a majority is as decisive as a few votes in Florida in 2000.

Never forget that the drastically reckless and mindless measures of late were taken by the smallest majority in living memory. The true majority are the rich and the would-be rich. These new regulations secure that alliance and make the room for ideas, criticism and independence smaller.

You may ask how is this possible in a country where education is encouraged? But in this country it is not, any longer - as witness the severity with which W made it a chief aim of his campaign.

Protestation is the new lying. And so the Republic edges closer to the kind of insecure tyranny that could turn really nasty. If provoked.

d.thomson@independent.co.uk

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