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A vast wasteland

In 2018, the Duterte regime cancelled the registration of online news site Rappler for its supposedly being foreign-owned.

Some of the regime flunkeys in the House of Representatives tried the same ploy in 2020 in justifying the shutdown of the free TV and radio services of ABS-CBN network and their denial of its franchise renewal application. But the same clique have, off-and-on, also proposed the lifting of the Constitutional provision limiting media ownership only to Filipinos.

In favoring the repeal of that provision, they assume that in the age of the internet, satellite-transmitted video, audio, and film programs, and cable television, national boundaries and laws are still a hindrance to the capacity of international media corporations to reach and influence mass audiences anywhere on the planet.

With hardly any basis have the proponents claimed that foreign media corporations would be encouraged to invest in the Philippines and would make more jobs in the media sector available not only to journalists but also to other workers in media.

Absent in that claim is the neo-liberal thesis that doing so would provide the media audiences a wider range of choices of information and entertainment sources in the “free market of ideas.” The conviction that the market should decide what’s best is precisely what drives many free expression and press freedom groups to support foreign media ownership in the Philippines and elsewhere.

Although unarticulated, the demand to “liberalize” media ownership assumes that, 1.) among the products of the mostly Western media organizations that some think would find it profitable to operate in the Philippines are informative, accurate, relevant and excellent news and entertainment programs, and that, 2.) those media conglomerates differ from each other in their interests, perspectives, and policies enough for them to offer media audiences a diverse variety of news and entertainment options.

Whether that first assumption is accurate is at the very least problematic specially when it comes to television.

US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chair Newton Minow described US television as “a vast wasteland” in 1961, or 60 years ago, shortly after his appointment as head of the FCC. But his observations on the state of that widely available medium are still as valid today as in the 1960s.

Addressing the US National Association of Broadcasters then, Minow said that while television can be “good” and even better than newspapers and magazines, when it’s bad, “nothing is worse.” He invited his audience of broadcasters to watch TV for a day without a book, a newspaper, or a magazine, and “without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract (them).”

What they will see, he said, “is a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons. And endlessly, commercials — many screaming, cajoling and offending.”

Minow granted that there were exceptions to this boring fare, but that they were “very, very few.” He insisted that as powerful a medium as it is, television has a responsibility to educate and enlighten its audiences on issues of relevance to the citizens of a democracy.

Despite the six decades that have passed since then, Minow’s “vast wasteland” characterization of television is still as valid today as when it was first made. Forced to stay home and to watch more television than ever before because of the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of locked-down Filipinos have fallen victim to the boredom mentioned by Minow.

The tedium is driven by the perpetually the same dullard’s fare. It mostly consists of mindless comedies, violence-ridden police and crime series, absurd “superhero” and fantasy films, sex-obsessed teenagers’ stories, insipid cooking shows, dreary “action” and spy flicks, and forgettable pseudo-dramas. As in Minow’s time, there is also the endless stream of buy-this-buy-that ads that are so mind-numbing and annoying viewers have developed the habit of “zapping” — jumping from channel to channel during commercial breaks.

This is true of both supposedly “locally produced” news and entertainment commodities that in many cases are either franchised, copied, “localized,” or modified versions of their Western counterparts, and of the foreign-sourced programs that constitute much of the entertainment fare in Philippine cable television.

If the first assumption of excellence in foreign-sourced news and entertainment is mistaken, so is the second.

Both media critics and concerned practitioners have long challenged the assumption that there is a multiplicity of views and perspectives in the products of the huge media conglomerates that bombard the planet daily with trillions upon trillions of bytes of information and entertainment.

The biggest of these giants are no more than seven, according to Ben Bagdikian, former Dean of the University of California at Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, in his book The Media Monopoly. Some even have interlocking directorates. The result is a uniformity in their views on such urgent issues as war and peace, global warming, economic development, human rights, and world hunger.

That homogeneity is reflected not only in what information they choose to air or print and how, but also in their entertainment programs which primarily provide distraction and deception rather than enlightenment. Those programs provide a surfeit of shows celebrating the ideology of violence, trivial pursuits, mindlessness and indifference, competition rather than cooperation, etc., etc. which the dominant countries advocate in furthering their political and economic interests and ambitions.

Over and above the unstated assumption that foreign-owned and -controlled media offer a wide variety of viewpoints and that their products are so superior as to enhance the capacity of the media audiences to understand their social and natural environments, is the belief that it is necessary to lift the ban on foreign ownership of the media to open the airwaves and even newspaper and magazine publication to them.

Anyone who has watched enough television in this country should by now have realized that it is not. In the age of media globalization and the new media and communication technologies, the “vast wasteland” created by, among other media corporations, the foreign television oligopolies do not need to have the ban on non-Filipino-owned media lifted.

Ban or no ban, they are big enough and powerful enough to influence the public mind. They have a monopoly over news, and, even more tellingly, on entertainment. They already have a dominant place in Philippine television, which has no choice but to air their programs.

That dominance is validated by, among other studies, the fact that when asked in one media studies class in the University of the Philippines (UP) to name the TV show or movie they value most because of its impact on the concerns, personal or otherwise, that matter to them, every communication student without exception named one from a foreign source. When asked in another study who their heroes are, high school students did not mention Rizal or Bonifacio, but Batman and Superman.

The mindless programs manufactured by the Western media factories may bore the more critical and more demanding. But there are others glued to their television sets daily who implicitly think the global media to be the truth-tellers the times require. Their views on many issues are thus shaped, often without their being aware of it, by the giant media corporations that control most of the information and entertainment that reach billions of people all over the world daily. It helps explain why, in this Information Age, so many remain uninformed.

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