Herbert I. Schiller

Public Information as a Function of Private Profit

VTR Date: November 24, 1991

Guest: Schiller, Herbert I.


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Herbert I. Schiller
Title: “Public Information as a Function of Private Profit”
VTR”: 11/24/91

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND.

It was Calvin Coolidge who years ago said that “the business of America is business”. And it is my guest today who most forcefully and consistently among American communications scholars has long described and decried what he sees as a situation in which information gathering and dissemination have become more and more the business of American business. Public information has become a function of private profit. No profit, no information.

Herbert I. Schiller is Professor Emeritus of Communications at the University of California. “As the idea of information as a good for sale, a commodity, advances”, he wrote recently – “the idea of information as a social good, the cornerstone of democratic life recedes”.

Now this is not a new idea for my iconoclastic friend. In essence, we talked about it long ago here on THE OPEN MIND as he analyzed American television and film entertainment and information seemingly to me as purposive tools for building and expanding an American empire overseas. Then I vigorously challenged the presumed purposefulness of this imperial formulation…and I do now, too. But now I also find it difficult, if not impossible, to ignore his fear for the fate of the idea of information as a social good, as the idea of in formation as a commodity advances.

So that I begin today by asking Professor Schiller his own question: “Can the processes that are leading to the end of social information be halted, or better yet, reversed”? And that’s the question, Herb, that you ask yourself in this piece, and I wonder what your own answer is?

Schiller: Well, I wish I had a clear cut answer and I wish I had a very hopeful answer. And I can’t say in either case that that’s the way it is. I feel that if nothing else, what is needed is such a far ranging public debate, such an enormous upsurge of attention and I don’t see that happening, although I continue to hope maybe it will occur, that the questions that are troubling us, that are troubling the information era, our times, have to be considered as, as urgent as any other question facing us. And we have some other major, urgent questions, I admit.

Heffner: You know, it’s interesting. Each time that I have at this table someone who is professionally very much involved in gathering information and communicating it, basically journalists, the notion that they are in a business…it always comes up, after all it is a business, but very quickly they leave that understanding behind and come up with the notion that they are applying professional standards, and I think in your terms, still thinking of information as a social good, rather than a commodity. But you say that isn’t true in our society any longer.

Schiller: No, I think it‘s been moving in this direction for quite some time. I don’t want to give an impression that there ws a “golden age” when information was always social and it’s…we’ve drifted away from that. But I think there was at least a little bit better balance in an earlier time that there is now. Because I think everywhere one looks and when we use the word “information”, I’m using that in a very broad sense, I’m using it in the most obvious way to discuss such things as news, the news of the day. I’m using it to understand what is happening in the world and what’s happening in our various sciences and professions. But I’m also using it in a social sense to describe the way people live, the kinds of clothing and the shelter and their entertainments and their values…all of this is related to my notion of information. And I’m saying more and more we’re seeing that these kinds of relationships and conditions are tailored to a market specification, they’re not tailored to a human need and they’re not tailored to the social need, to the national need…they’re tailored…and again not because they’re a bunch of malfeasants out there, or that there are a bunch of people plotting this…this is not my feeling, but that processes, certain kinds of dynamic relationships are going on that makes it less and less possible for an individual to apply a different standard, for an individual in whatever capacity that individual may be.

Heffner: You know, as I read this, “Public Information Goes Corporate”, this article that you wrote for the American Library Association, was the speech, I began to think, “By gosh and by golly, Herb Schiller is becoming benign as the years go on”. You…I’ve always thought that there was some kind of a “devil theory” that informed your feelings about information, particularly about the information empire or the role that information entertainment plays in the development of an American empire. You seem not now to be pressing that. Was it my misperception before? Or is there a chance in Schiller?

Schiller: Well, let…let’s put it in terms of perhaps you read it a little bit more rigidly according to your perspectives, and I wrote it not quite as usefully as I intended. Because I never intended to suggest that there was some kind of a grand plan at work that was pressing American media products and informational and entertainment items into the global orbit. I don’t think one has to predicate what’s going on in that kind of an explanation. I would say a significant number of media producers and decision-makers and business people were following their own interests…which is customary. But in following those interests the end result was a world, or a very large part of the world which was increasingly receiving a torrential flow of these types of cultural products. And, again, you can give all types of justifications for this. You can always say, “Well, if the people didn’t want it, they wouldn’t get it”. But in many cases it wasn’t any question of a referendum of people wanting it or not wanting it. It was a way for certain kinds of revenues to be made. Places would buy the materials because the materials were both well-made, of course, but also because they were very cheap. You’re certainly familiar with the fact of the incredible bargains that could be had buying US TV programs abroad when I wrote that book. Maybe it’s not quite the same bargain basement sale as it is…as it was then. And so for many of these countries they bought these materials because they were cheap as well as attractive or compelling. But the end result was you had national industries, whether they were film industries, whether they were TV production industries…sometimes even publishing industries that were stunted, that were…weren’t able to develop with the kinds of consciousness relating to their own societies as they might have and I think that was the basis for some
of these early items that I wrote about.

Heffner: Well, you put your emphasis upon two things: one upon the economics of the situation that we managed to…I won’t say “dump” entertainment materials overseas, but we did manage to sell overseas bargain basement…

Schiller: Exactly.

Heffner: …at bargain basement prices, but there was also that business about our capacity, and I don’t know how you can identify it otherwise…to appeal to, if not the lowest common denominator, at least a common denominator, in relation to entertainment for peoples all over the world. Now that hasn’t changed, has it?

Schiller: Well, I would say it has changed. But, again, in my sights it’s changed in a, in a direction that we should all be very concerned with. And it’s something that we are…that I would be troubled by, not only because of foreign audiences and what affect it may have on them, but for our own audiences. And the way it’s changed, as I view it, is that techniques have been developed over many, many years and sometimes they fall under the very general term of “special effects”. You know, if you go to see a movie and you’ll see when they bring the credits on they’ll role down the various kinds of professional inputs and increasingly you’ll see more and more attention to “special effects”. And we know that’s the case and the big block-busters have special effects and a lot of other things…

Heffner: Why…

Schiller: …now what do I say that’s a problem?

Heffner: …why does it bother you?

Schiller: It bothers me because we are increasingly short-circuiting the minds and going straight, if I may use the expression, to the gut. Now up to a point that’s…one gets a certain charge out of it. Obviously, it’s very popular, but we’re finding that increasingly the challenge to think, the challenge top see that ideas are in play, and I’m not putting this at some exoteric, academic level, I’m putting it just ordinary, conventional levels of existence where the whole idea to trace out a question, to see whether or not it makes any sense, to see whether or not what’s being presented holds together…all of that is being, I would say, to use that expression, short-circuited and instead, if there’s some kind of a particular event or a certain way they’re using the cameras, or a certain way sound is employed, or a certain way color is certainly used, or a combination of all three, or a certain kind of energy or noise, or motion…all of these things which are done with incredible dexterity…I don’t have to tell you that. They’re done by the most capable, talented, creative people in our society, and I wish them well, and I’m not attacking them. But the end effect of all of this is that we now have an entertainment menu, an entertainment menu on which we feed, on which we derive our sense of ourselves, our sense of what the world is…what everything is all about. In terms of not having any component in that which relates to our ability to think about them, it’s all emotional, it’s all visceral.

Heffner: Doesn’t that lead you, Herb, to join with me in saying I’m glad I’m not young anymore because there doesn’t seem to be anything in the future other than a continuing movement down that path?

Schiller: Well, well, Dick, I just wouldn’t put it quite so strongly because I wouldn’t mind losing 30 years.

Heffner: But do you see any reversal of what you’re saying?

Schiller: I see only the potential of reversal. I don’t see anything in these processes that are likely to reverse because as you are aware and many others, the so-called overseas market is becoming ever more attractive, ever more allure, and that is going to be an increasing incentive to even do more of this kind of special effects and everything that I’m lumping into that. But what I see as I…I want to remind you that I’m saying this only in a hopeful potential sense. I see more people in the United States, more people than any other country. In this way I’m a little bit more hopeful about the United States than I am about almost any other country you can mention who have had experience with these products, experience with these sensations, have a sense of some of the things that we’re talking about, and who have…up to this point…in very limited ways begun to express reservations and begin to ask for other alternatives. And I believe that maybe there’s going to be enough of a growth of this type of reaction, but I certainly wouldn’t guarantee it.

Heffner: You know I’m, I’m interested that you, living mostly in California, in the land of the body, and I live mostly in New York, the East, the Northeast, which some people consider the…as, as antagonistic, maybe the land of the mind, as opposed to the land of the body, or as opposed to the land of the senses, that you should say that. Indeed, I find more and more people who feel just exactly the opposite of what you have…of the way you see things as potentially developing…thinking that we’ve gone to hell in a wheel barrow and we’re going further and further, and that when you appeal to the senses this way, when you entertain this way and inform this way, increasingly, it’s easy to descent into hell, it’s very difficult to re-trace your footsteps.

Schiller: Oh, I, I certainly am fully in accord with that, and as you know, my work is basically an effort to lay it out as well as I can, and show what I regard as the engines of this development and how far they’ve taken us. Oh, I’m…we’re, we’re…we don’t have any disagreements there. I think…all I’m trying to do is not to allow myself to be enveloped by gloom. It’s, it’s very easy to feel that these processes are so, so great, so grand, so now near universal because they do have that kind of a quality to them. And they’re backed up by the most powerful force in our time…the new technologies and every day, every year the new technologies offer even more technical means of doing precisely what we’ve just been talking about. So that, that’s not a prospect that makes it seem like we’re going to go into reverse. But I’m talking about the only thing that is going to make it go into reverse is, is the human being, you see. And after the extent that I read where they’re always talking about “Will Machines replace Human Beings?”, “Will the Computer Think Faster than a Human Being?”…that depresses me incredibly.

Heffner: Herb, suppose I accept the fact that it depresses you and it depresses me, and it depresses many of the people who are watching us. The question is, do you disagree, do you think that that’s not the case? If you had to make a bet, would you not bet that way, that the tendencies that you’ve described are those that we’re going to continue to follow? That the path you describe is the path that we will continue to take? What’s your guess?

Schiller: My guess is that it’s going to continue along that way for some time, but I’m also putting my chips on the fact that there’s still enough resilience in this country that there are still some human resources and some institutional resources that may be able to pull this out of the fire.

Heffner: Well, all I can say to you is that when I read this piece “Public Information Goes Corporate”, I’m not now talking about the American information empire. I’m talking as you are here, as you write, about de-regulation, which has contributed significantly to the erosion of the national information base. You’re talking about an erosion that has taken place. You’ve said that information that was available to the public…information of all kinds, that was available to the public at one time, we considered it the obligation of government, for instance, to make information available…that in the age of de-regulation, that is less and less true. Information has become privatized, too.

Schiller: That’s right.

Heffner: Now you feel strongly about that?

Schiller: Very much so. It’s been the basis of much of my work. So I’m saying that this is what’s happening. But you see all of these things happen not only as economic phenomena, although those are very crucial aspects of it…but it’s also a political age as well. We live in a political environment, we live in a social environment. And I would say that we may even now be entering a time where certain kinds of forces, the very kinds of forces that we’ve been describing here in, in …clearly and I think justifiably negative terms may produce a counter-reaction. Now let me, let me give an example of that. We, we’ve been hearing de-regulation and that’s a mystical term, but it really means dismantling…in my, in my definition…social accountability. In other words, getting rid of whatever kind of mechanism there happens to be to make some kind of a social intervention if things aren’t working out well. And that, to my mind, is what this de-regulation has been. But I am seeing just in these recent months a new tone beginning to appear and all of this hullabaloo and celebration of de-regulation and the government not being involved, I think there are more and more people taking a second look at that. And you ask the reason why…is it because this is something coming out of just the reasoned mind? Well, it’s…relates to that, but it also relates to the material underpinning in our society which is visibly not working.

Heffner: We’re talking together, November 1991…

Schiller: Right.

Heffner: Now there are many people who assume that six months from now, and maybe this program won’t be seen until then…six months from now either economically things will be worse, and then what you say may come to pass…there may be a, a great public outcry for the kind of interventionism that before arose out of troubles, or if things go well, economically is there any reason why you can feel now that we will move back from this de-regulation phase?

Schiller: No, I can’t. I…but you see my, my, my way of reading our current situation and the near-term future…five, ten, 20 years…is that I can only see things pressing in and that all of the unsolved problems that have been deferred and excused and abused in our society by what I would call deficient political leaderships are going to be experienced by more and more of our fellow citizens and of course, one isn’t given any certainty that this will lead to positive directions and directions which will attempt to resurrect some of the kinds of arrangements in the society that would give us more hope. But at least it’s a possibility.

Heffner: Let’s look back at the question of, of information to perhaps give those who are watching us today a better sense of what you mean about public information going corporate. How has that most egregiously manifested itself?

Schiller: Well, it occurs in so many ways that you can select one or another and go on from there. I would say one way is that there has been such pressure exerted on the national government in the last 20 or so years to cut back their public informational activity, to restrict it, to not make it available because we must recognize that the largest generator of information in our country is the national government. It produces vast amounts of data on people’s lives, on their health, on their welfare, on their education, on their…you name it. There are governmental studies, reports and materials. Now what happens to all that information? In the past this was the repository of the nation. It may not have been used by everybody, but it was there and you could get it. For example, I remember when I was a college student, I could send a penny postcard…even that’s fascinating…

Heffner: (Laughter)

Schiller: …penny postcard…write to my Congressman or to a government agency…”I read about this report, would you make it available?” And I’d get that report back in, not that many days. Today if you wanted to do that, first of all you wouldn’t probably even be aware of the report. Secondly, if that report was made, it would now be in some kind of a private cache of information and you would have to pay for the report. And this is the kind of thing that’s been going on. Government data being basically coming out of taxpayers’ money, if I even may use that expression, the whole set of governmental activities produces information which came out of original taxpayer funds, and that information has been sequestered more and more into the private sector.

Heffner: But the question I think I have to ask again is “Why?” Because our nation doesn’t have enough tax dollars to continue to respond to the once penny postcard? I remember getting all the TNEC reports…

Schiller: I did, too. I did, too. Fifty-five or forty-five volumes.

Heffner: Today…

Schiller: Yes.

Heffner: …one would have to have thousands of dollars. Now…

Schiller: You’d have to have thousands of dollars. But that’s not…it’s not because they can make money…the government makes money from it…it’s because of this over-arching outlook that social activity cannot be left as it is and it has to be turned over to private money-making and that has, in a sense, underpinned this large scale disposal of this informational stockpile into largely corporate hands.

Heffner: So things have moved into the market place from what once was the…

Schiller: The public fund of information…yes. So that’s one thing. Then we could go on. For example, we know that the major form of industrial and economic organization in our society today is the corporation, alright. But that also means that the corporation becomes a major organizer, generator and repository of information, too. Well, that is not open information. And that is information that remains inside the company. Let me give you an example. There are many parents, and here I touch on a subject you probably have a certain amount of knowledge about. But there are large numbers of parents who are very concerned with what their children see and hear on television and in the movies and they’d like to have, or at least some of the organizations that take these concerns seriously, would like to have some detailed, what you would call research, or empirical or, you know, solid information to go on…you know, “Is there any damage, or how do these things work? And what happens to the child when the child is watching this or that kind of program?” Well, you know who holds these studies…there are large numbers of these studies, but these studies are held in what is known as proprietary condition. Which means privately owned because the studies are done by large scale organization who want to know this information for their own reasons. I don’t challenge them knowing this information. But I challenge the fact that they’re the ones who are the only ones who know this information and we don’t have any real social, let us say, database or informational structure to be able to say “When you show a child six hours of certain kinds of programming, that child’s likely to develop this kind of behavior”.

Heffner: And now, because of my own involvement with the media, I hope you don’t think that that’s the reason I say, “I’ve got the signal that our time is up”, but I think you’re absolutely right in what you’re saying, Herb. And I hope that you do come back and let us continue this discussion about information. Herbert Schiller, thank you so much for joining me today on THE OPEN MIND.

Schiller: Thank you, Dick.

Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, about our intriguing guest, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Edythe and Dean Dowling Foundation; The Thomas and Theresa Mullarkey Foundation; The New York Times Company Foundation; The Richard Lounsbery Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.