David Gabbard examines television programming, corporate ownership of the airwaves, and the necessity of a free press in a democratic society in his Mediating Democracy: What Robert Putnam Wouldn’t Tell Us in Bowling Alone.  

For starters, Gabbard swoops down to review the Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement (COPE) Act and how it really provides another give-away to corporations at the expense of American individuals.

The telecommunications giants who willfully handed over millions of Americans’ phone records to George W. Bush’s National Security Agency stand to reap financial gains if Congress passes the Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement (COPE) Act of 2006.  Given the crony-capitalism that has been the hallmark of the Bush administration, COPE might well be the government’s payback to AT&T, Verizon, and others for their “patriotic” contributions to the ongoing “war on terror,” which has proven to be a greater deterrent to democracy than to terrorism. If it passes the Senate, COPE will seriously scale back the growing populist groundswell created by the internet’s power to allow us to by-pass the corporate media filters for our news, information, and ideas.  COPE would bring those same filters to the internet, effectively privatizing control of internet content by placing it in the hands of corporations.

Throughout what is ostensibly an analysis of “civic disengagement” as identified in Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone, Gabbard establishes that Putnam’s book ignores privatization as a root cause of Americans withdrawal from participating in civic affairs.

Typically, privatization refers to the act of shifting the ownership and control of some system created for the delivery or production of goods or services from what we call the “public sector” to the private sector.

Privatization, according to Robert Putnam, might also provide an apt description of what has happened to the American character over the past forty-five years. In his national bestseller, Bowling Alone (2001), Putnam feigns an effort to seriously consider this phenomenon, though he fails or refuses to discuss either the benefits it has held for our nation’s plutocratic elites or their role in bringing it about.

Putnam chooses the well-traveled path of maintaining enough obfuscation in his analysis to allow the reader ample opportunity to reach the only reasonable conclusion: blame the victim.

Gabbard’s read of Putnam sees a disservice to blue and white collar workers.  For example, as Gabbard states:

Putnam prefers to leave his readers believing that job losses are as natural as the falling leaves in autumn, and that American workers just suddenly lose their interest in union activism, as if they quit caring about their wages, benefits, safety, and other issues tied to the their working conditions. And therein lies the ironic travesty of Putnam’s analysis. He writes a book lamenting the civic disengagement of America, but then perpetuates it by de-politicizing the milieu in which it occurred.

A number of citizen and community online news outlets gathered with others from traditional media over the past weekend at the Media Giraffe project and high on the list of topics was in the age of media saturation, Media Literacy needs to be taught.  For more on the wonderful conference, see ilona meagher’s photo essay and report ePluribus Media Giraffe Project: A Great Blend.  Gabbard notes that Putnam acknowledges the role media, specifically television, plays in our civic disenfranchisement, but he asserts that Putnam does not go far enough.

An alternative approach to studying the privatization of the American character could begin, first, by challenging Putnam’s own “simplistic” discussion of what he identifies as its prime “culprit” – television. Though we should applaud Putnam for so correctly identifying the timing of the onset of America’s civic disengagement – the 1950s, he limits his critique of television to its qualities as a medium that renders its audience passive, and thereby inhibits people’s desires to engage in more active pursuits. He completely ignores — once again eschewing the political – any discussion of television as a pedagogical force that shapes public consciousness, and as part of that consciousness, individuals’ sense of political agency.  To quote a popular slogan, “there’s a reason they call it `programming,'” and Putnam does nothing to address television’s role in mediating the relations between everyday class struggles and structures of power.

Propaganda, or as Penny Coleman’s book Flashback on PTSD (reviewed at the ePluribus Media Journal ) notes the Bush Administration calls it, “Perception Management,” occurs when the few gatekeep information.  Gabbard points out that:

Putnam also neglects to point out that by the time these events determined the patterns of ownership and control that would determine the structure of  U. S. radio and television broadcasting, government and corporate elites had already made major advances in developing the principles and practices of propaganda aimed at limiting the scale and direction of civic activism. While the advent of radio and television aided in their deployment, the history of elite contempt for popular democracy dates back to the earliest days of the American republic.

In fact, Gabbard goes on to illustrate that it is the conglomeration of Media Giants that enables the widespread “programming” of American thought:

The advent of radio, and then television, greatly enhanced the resource capacity of elites to deploy that “skill” and “art,” which had already been developed into a science during World War I by President Wilson’s Creel Committee (formerly the Committee on Public Information) to mobilize public support for the war by generating near hysteric levels of fear and hatred of Germans, and they did not hesitate in organizing themselves to fully exploit the advantages these new technologies offered their campaign to control the public mind.

The entire article is Mediating Democracy: What Robert Putnam Wouldn’t Tell Us in Bowling Alone.

ePluribus Media folks who contributed to this effort: aaron barlow, vivian, biblio, rba, standingup and cho.

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