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The Problem of the Media: An Interview with Robert McChesney

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BKM: You also claim that it's a myth that commercial media gives consumers what they want. But don't commercial media outlets attempt to create the best programming possible given consumer tastes, thus insuring greatest profitability?

RM: [Laughing out loud] "Best programming possible." The argument is that commercial media companies, no matter how heavily commercial the system is - ads everywhere, product placement; no matter how much concentration so there's very little competition between the players; no matter how deeply flawed the system is (and this argument by the way doesn't apply to journalism; no one claims it should run by market principles - this applies to the entertainment side of the equation); no matter all these problems, it's still the best possible system because competitive pressures force companies to satisfy public interests. And that doesn't necessarily mean the best programming. Most of the people that make this argument will acknowledge that most of the content of media sucks. They'll just say, "Well it doesn't suck 'cause the companies are bad, it sucks 'cause the morons out there are demanding it." It has nothing to do with best possible content.

BKM: OK. But then how do you account for the argument that media producers just give consumers what they want?

RM: The "giving people what they want" argument simply is the problem with our media system. If there is a problem, it comes from the demand side, not the supply side. The suppliers are more than willing to give the morons out there whatever they want, and if the morons want to watch reality shows, that's what they're going to get. If the morons want "Masterpiece Theatre," you can darn well bet that the companies will find it in their interest to give them "Masterpiece Theatre." That's the importance of this argument.

BKM: It seems that the morons are dying for more reality shows.

RM: That's right. So, the argument goes: "Don't blame the system, the system works perfectly. Blame the morons! Blame the idiots who read your newspaper, and who watch reality shows if any of them do. It's their own fault. If they don't like it they should be watching 'Masterpiece Theatre' and ballet and giraffe shows on PBS. Then we'll get a whole range of cable channels giving us ballet and giraffe shows, just like you get on PBS." That's the logic of the argument. And gosh, isn't that compelling? Doesn't that fit perfectly within the world view of our culture, which is blame the victim? Take the person with the least amount of power in a situation and say, "It's your fault that you're fucked." I mean that's the perfect logic. And it's all especially strong because there's a strong element of truth to it. No movie studio makes movies they don't think anyone's going to want to see. No television station or network puts shows on primetime that they don't think anyone's going to want to watch. No one records a DVD or records a CD and puts it out to market if they don't think someone's going to want to buy it. And if a company puts out shows no one's going to want to watch, their competitors are going to put out shows people will want to watch. And either they're going to have to get with the program or they're going to go out of business.

But the problem with this argument is that it's really simplistic and a vulgar way to explain a very complex relationship. You can't really talk about changing our media system unless you critique it. And not to cop out here but I can't give a comprehensive answer. But I can say a few things. There are a couple of real flaws in this argument. One is that it is predicated on the idea that demand creates supply. So, say people are born with a full slate of preferences, at birth. What sort of music do you like?

BKM: I like rock music.

RM: OK, what sort of movies do you like?

BKM: I like drama.

RM: OK, well, I doubt it. You like rock music and drama. Theoretically. Clearly hypothetical. And so, at birth, as this theory goes, you have those tastes fully evolved in you. When you were born, you liked rock music and drama, and then you were going to throw out your demands to the obedient media giants who are going to compete to try to meet your demands, and they respond to what you say. Well that's absurd. It's not just that demand does not creates supply - supply creates demand. You develop a taste for something because you're exposed to it. It's a complex, long-term relationship. And if you understand it that way, then what happens is these companies give you what they can make the most money doing, and when you consume it and develop a taste for it, they tell you they're giving you what you want. My 10-year-old daughter has a taste for reality shows. She wasn't born with it. But if you're exposed to enough reality shows, you develop a taste for them. And enlightened media policy allows for the fact that you've got to cultivate taste. And I think that that's what we need to strive to do. We've got to allow new things to blossom, not simply let commercial interests pummel us with what makes the most money that's the least expense to produce, that generates a quick audience as cheaply as possible.

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