To the editors:
In the upside-down world of mainstream journalism, “public relations” is Newspeak (meaning, thought- and attitude-control) for propaganda. The purpose of “public relations” is to control the range of what the public can think and feel about something in which powerful interests–generally having an institutional basis in their ownership of the private economy, and therefore having staked a claim to the “right” to control its secondary institutions, namely, the state, the media, and the schools–don’t forget, we live in a capitalist democracy–have an investment, whether material or ideological, but usually both. In short, the purpose of “public relations” is to reduce the scope of human thought and action, by attuning the public to that narrow range of thoughts and feelings commensurate with the needs of the owners of the private economy–the state capitalists, that is. So that:
In “Power Advertising: Com Ed Gets Shocked, Pulls Plug” (Hot Type, Oct. 13), Michael Miner told a very important story about why Commonwealth Edison is angry with Chicago Times magazine. In its September/October issue, CT published an article by Mary O’Connell in which she criticized Com Ed for having abused its monopoly in northern Illinois by pursuing an investment policy in nuclear generating plants that has resulted in Com Ed’s present overcapacity, hence inefficiency, hence high-end electric rates. Since Com Ed’s forty year old franchise is up for renewal, O’Connell had concluded that it’s time “to pursue the kinds of alternatives–and the lower costs–that people in other cities take for granted. It’s time to challenge the arrogance of power,” meaning Com Ed’s abuse of its monopolistic privilege, of course.
But as Miner noted, the same issue of CT that ran O’Connell’s article, pages 43-47, also ran a full-page ad by none other than Com Ed itself, page 8. “What does a magazine owe an advertiser who’s certain not to like an upcoming article?,” Miner wondered. “Advance notice,” in Com Ed’s opinion. Not only would Com Ed have pulled its ad from CT in order to avoid appearing in the same issue as O’Connell’s criticism of the utilities giant; but, angered over CT’s having failed to notify it regarding O’Connell’s article, Miner reported that Com Ed has cancelled all its future ads with CT. “Our policy is not to advise people about what the content of the magazine is,” Todd Fandell, the magazine’s publisher, told Miner in justification of the ways of his sales and editorial departments. “I think it’s ethically improper for a publication to do that.” Miner apparently agrees. Anyway, I do.
Far more important than this ethical question is another question: I’m not surprised everybody has missed it. What does this conflict between Chicago Times and Com Ed, especially the latter’s withdrawal of its advertising support, a punitive measure against the magazine for having run Mary O’Connell’s article, tell us about the nature of the advertiser-driven media, the scope of free expression within them, and, lastly, who ultimately controls them?
Miner pointed out that both Time and Newsweek regard it as “standard procedure” to keep advertisers informed about potential conflicts between upcoming stories and ads. An unidentified Time spokesman even told Miner “It’s a courtesy offered advertisers.” Well, these two organs for disseminating state capitalism’s view of the world hardly comprise a decent precedent class for assessing CT’s treatment of Com Ed. Nonetheless, one point is clear. As James Curran and Jean Seaton argue in Power Without Responsibility, their 1985 study of the rise of advertiser-supported media in Great Britain, the Com Ed case also shows that it, Com Ed, being an advertiser, has something like “a de facto licensing authority” over CT, since, without the support of Com Ed (that is, without the support of advertisers in general), the Chicago Times Company would be driven out of the magazine business altogether.
Indeed, what Miner said counts as a “courtesy” in the offices of Time and Newsweek is in reality an effective veto power over stories deviating from the material and ideological needs of advertisers–here understood as comprising a highly self-conscious, singular class. Both advertisers and the advertiser-supported, or commercial, media occupy the same class position. Just take a glance at the type of ads that ran in the September/October issue of CT. Not hard to guess which class of readership its pages were intended to deliver to its advertisers.
Similarly, Com Ed’s cancellation of its account with CT must be seen as a form of capital fight. It was telling anyone who cared to listen (and I’ll bet that Todd Fandell did listen) that CT had done wrong by criticizing Com Ed. In fact, it’s in the kind of pressure that Com Ed brought to bear on CT by withdrawing itself as a source of income that we catch a glimpse of the institutional basis of thought- and attitude-control which exists in this country. For conformity with the material and ideological needs of the state capitalist system, rewards aplenty; and the greater the conformity, the greater the reward. But for genuine independence? There are all sorts of gulag.
The advertiser-driven media are essentially unfree. Somebody always has to pay for the privilege to communicate. That that somebody most often happens to be advertisers isn’t a coincidence. Their financial input has the predictable output of steering and, when this fails, disciplining the media. For every “The Arrogance of Power,” there’s a dozen “Why Did Sears Spurn the Tower?”