A Thesis on the Cause and Effect Relationship of the Mass Media and the Independent.

Tyler Adam Smith

Western Connecticut State University


The main goal of this report is to evaluate and understand the phenomenon of the independent media movement in the United States. In particular the research sought to substantiate a cause and effect relationship between the state of the mass media (specifically the content and ownership of), and the resulting independent media movement.

Cause and Effect Relationship of the Mass Media and the Independent

This research rests upon the Democratic-participant media theory of McQuail, and on the definitions of alternative media as provided by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization [UNESCO]. A combination of sources spurred the hypotheses that mainstream media marginalizes selected issues while propagating others. Also considered herein are the opinions of media literacy scholars and cultivation scholars in testament to the effects of mainstream media. Ultimately, a very brief evaluative study of The New York Times was performed, to little avail of the argument presented.


To understand the independent media movement, a relationship between it and the mass media must be actualized, as does the current institutional media system need to be defined, as does 'alternative media'.

McQuail's Democratic-participant media theory is frank in its statement of principles. It reads:

* "Individual citizens and minority groups have rights of access to media (rights to communicate) and rights to be served by media according to their own determination of need.

* The organization and content of media should not be subject to centralized political or state bureaucratic control.

* Media should exist primarily for their audiences and not for the media organizations, professional or the clients of media.

* Groups, organizations, and local communities should have their own media.

Small-scale, interactive and participant media forms are better than large-scale, one-way, professionalized media.

* Certain social needs relating to mass media are not adequately expressed through individual consumer demands, nor through the state and its major institutions.

* Communication is too important to be left to professionals" (McQuail, 1983, p.97).

Embodied in such a philosophic gesture are the criteria for an ideal democratic-participant media society. That this theory is so liberal it's difficult to imagine would be understating it, considering the media system operation of the 21rst century. In the Untied States the mass media is dominated by large Trans-national media corporations and is not remotely reflective of these principles (for reasons that will be evidenced later in this report).

To define alternative the research relied on reports filed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Communications Organization [UNESCO] Commission. Upon reporting their findings of community media they attempted to define key terms and prospective goals of alternative media.

* Community is understood in its sociological and geographic meaning as the base unit of horizontal social organization. Community media are those media designed to encourage participation by a broad representative cross-section of socio-economic levels, organizations and minority or sub-cultural groups within a community. In some cases, community media can refer to a geographic or geo-cultural group...

* Alternative communication refers to those communication structures and traditions that are established as a supplement to the mainstream tradition because the latter does not fully satisfy the communication needs of certain groups.

* Access to mainstream media refers to processes which permit users to provide relatively open and unedited input to the mass media...

Participation in media management and production refers to practices which give media users a voice in the functions of the media. Participation is present in almost all forms of community media, alternative communication and, by definition, access to mainstream media (UNESCO, 1989, cited in Lewis, 1993, p.11-12).

The UNESCO study evidences that serious alternatives are being sought because the existing mainstream media must not provide for all as McQuails theory suggests it should. So, it has shortcomings. Thus, there are several documented motivations for establishing an alternative to the existing media. Critics of the media system in the United States are concerned because the media operate on public airwaves and feel that the mainstream flow should be a result of public input rather than commercial. Ideally, the people seeking alternatives in the US should have greater access to their system in addition to the use of cable access channels and editorials.

When considering this it seems prudent to address the Independent Media Center model in the United States. It is a system where 'ordinary' people (as defined above) can participate in information sharing so long as they have access to the World Wide Web and a desire to input. Particular to the phenomenon of 'indymedia' is the existence of the physical, community based, independent media centers that are affiliated with the web-based entity at "www.indymedia.org". When actualized and equipped, these physical centers can acquire a link from the main Internet site, thus enabling local and state action to be read about on the World Wide Web, in addition other news. Although this research does not include a statement from the institutional media concerning it's positions on public participation, the avenues of public control are fully advertised at independent media center web sites.

Their mission statement reads: "The Independent Media Center is a network of collectively run media outlets for the creation of radical, accurate, and passionate tellings of truth. We work out of a love and inspiration for people who continue to work for a better world, despite corporate media's distortions and unwillingness to cover the efforts to free humanity"[indymedia.org, April, 2001]. Again the idea that the institutional mass media is victim of shortcomings is apparent.

Also significant to the phenomenon of independent media is the UNESCO defining terms of what may be a relative supplement to the mainstream media. It reads:

(a) "Motive or purpose, e.g. rejection of commercial motives, assertion of human, cultural, educational ends.

(b) Sources of funding, e.g. in different places state or municipal grants are rejected, or in other, advertising revenue.

(c) Regulatory dispensation, e.g. alternative media may be supervised by agencies different from those usually concerned (Ministry of Communications or Culture), or be autonomous, or local.

(d) Organizational Structure, e.g. the media may be consciously alternative in their way of operating.

(e) Alternative in criticizing professional practices, encouraging the use of volunteers or the production, participation and/or control by 'ordinary' people; trying to adopt different criteria for selection of news stories, for instance.

(f) Message content may be alternative to what is usually available or permitted. An established medium (e.g. satellite channel) may be used for this purpose.

(g) The relationship with audience/consumers may be different. This might relate to the degree of user/consumer control, or to a policy of allowing media 'needs' and goals to be articulated by the audience/consumers themselves.

(h) The composition of the audience may be alternative, e.g. young people, women, rural populations, etc.

(i) The range of diffusion may be alternative, e.g. local rather than regional or national. (Lewis, 1993, p.12)."

Much like the definitions listed above, this (along with the other UNESCO listing), have addressed an underlying theme of dissatisfaction with the mass ('mainstream') media.

The mission statement of 'indymedia.org' continues on a such a theme. The site elaborates on its incarnation when various independent and alternative media organizations and activists formed it to offer grassroots coverage of the protests against the World Trade Organization when the WTO met in Seattle in November, 1999 (indymedia.org, March/April 2001). Government plans such as NAFTA and more recently the FTAA, remain thoroughly considered issues on the independent media web sites. Critics contest that these major trade proposals are significantly detrimental to labor and the environment, both in the US and abroad.

This begins to underscore the cause and effect relationship between the a mass media system that has commercial pressures upon it, and the one that is relatively free of these influences. One concentrates on entertainment as a format for information fowarding, one solely on news gathering and information sharing.

Excerpts from theorists who write on media act to substantiate other concerns with mainstream media, particularly the responsibility of creating the 'mainstream'. Studies in Media Literacy suggest that messages in mainstream media are not consciously evaluated by some, and are even taken at face value. When coupled with sentiments of Cultivation Analysis professional George Gerbner, the influence the mainstream has upon the public, and the concern of what that message is, can be understood.

The term 'mainstream' has been used in this research to label the information content of the mass media system. George Gerbner writes of it: "Mainstreaming: a relative commonality of outlooks and values that heavy exposure to the features and dynamics of the television world tends to cultivate. It represents the theoretical elaboration and empirical verification of the common perspectives. Former distinctions (which flourished in print culture because of diversity) are blurred as successive generations and groups become enculturated into TV's version of the world (Morgan & Signorielli, 1990, p.259).

Media literacy professionals state: "The difference in high level media literacy and lower levels of media literacy are that of the former being able to interpret and critique an established and organized structure based on cognitive, moral, ethical, aesthetic, e.g., logic. On lower levels of the continuum, a show is seen as an undifferentiated mass or blur. Higher on the continuum, you are aware of the values on the surface of the messages. At the highest levels, you perceive patterns of values underlying messages across different vehicles, and you take a clear moral position in favor of or in opposition to those values" (Potter, 1998, p.5).

Nancy Signorielli writes on mainstreaming: "Mainstreaming means that heavy viewing may absorb or override differences in perspectives and behavior that ordinarily stem from other factors and influences. In other words, differences found in responses of different groups of viewers, differences that usually are associated with varied cultural, social, political characteristics of these groups, are diminished or even absent from the responses of heavy viewers in these same groups"(Morgan & Signorielli, 1990, p.22). It is no coincidence that the groups that Signorielli feels are effected by mainstreaming are similar to groups categorized by the UNESCO study, as probable groups searching for alternative forms of communication.

The common perspectives that the television world mainstreams and thus cultivates, have been further evidenced in many studies as cited by Nancy Signorielli. She writes: "Doob and Macdonald reported that exposure to media violence boosts public estimates of crime and violence, although not equally in all groups. Carlson found significant relationships between exposure to crime shows and approval of police brutality and bias against civil liberties. Bryant, Corveth, and Brown and Zillman and Wakshlag found that television viewing was related to feelings of anxiety and fear of victimization, although Wober did not find similar patterns. More recently, however, Gunter and Wober found that heavy viewers report higher risks than comparable groups of light viewers from lightening, flooding, and terrorists. A large scale survey.... concluded that exposure to violence both in the press and on television relates to expressions of fear" (Morgan & Signorelli, 1990, p.87). Cultivation theorist believe that steady exposure to the structural components of TV programming tends to cultivate stable images of society and self (Morgan & Signorelli,1990). Critics of the institutional media consider the structural components of the mainstream to be biased toward propagating (among other things) irrational consumption of products and political indifference. There is also concerned that the variety of messages forwarded by the mass media is decreasing in as the concentration of ownership increases.

Using the theories of media literacy in tandem with media affects helps evidence that mainstream media is a highly organized presentation system which has a patterned value system that shapes people's perspectives. With this in mind, it can then be recognized that the content of commercial mass media is made up of patterns of meaning.

It is assumed by the researcher that those who input into the mainstream media are among the most 'media literate' people. Thus the mainstream and the underlying patterns of the media messages in which 'moral positioning' often results, are messages synthesized and distributed by those who control it. Those who control the media have a unique responsibility, therefore their operation is of grave concern. Considered that the mainstream leads to actualized convictions, the notion of this influence being used to enable only select convictions, while rendering others obsolete can be realized. Studies of television introduction to remote towns in Canada and Alaska stand to evidence the biases that can be actualized from television content: See a librarian.

Media Ownership & Operation

The mass media have been consolidating in the recent years. The consolidation of channels of information flow brings about concern as to what entities control those gateways to those channels. The information exists, but the channels it flows through are being concentrated to fewer and fewer entities.

In Ben Bagdikian's 1983 book entitled The Media Monopoly main ownership of mass media was factored down to about 50 (multi) national corporations. The present number of multinationals that dominate the world's media is today is 9. Graduating from largest size they are: Time-Warner, Disney (ABC), Bertelsman, Viacom, News Corporation, TCI, General Electric (owner of NBC), Sony (owner of Columbia & Tri-Star Pictures and recording interests), Segram (owner of Universal Film & music interests) (Mediachannel.org, April, 2001).

These mass media managers are an increasingly smaller number of Trans-national media corporations who may also each own stake in book and magazine publishing, television & radio broadcast rights, telephone services, Internet services, cellular phone services, major league sports clubs, etc. The consolidation of information flow is only furthered as these other enterprises of communication services are managed by fewer entities. According to mediachannel.org, the 6 largest of these media corporations have significant vested interests in multitudes of media information. In a commercial society it is then possible that only certain information (be they products, points of view, arguments, etc.) can afford to be propagated, while others can not. With only a handful of big business entities at the controls, those desiring input will have to adhere to an increasingly uniform taste. In considering the prior evidence of the power of mainstream influence, and the history of greed and monopolization of big business, the types of entities that a communications conglomeration procures tends to be curious.

One example of such a conglomeration is the Bertelsman organization of Germany. Amongst other ventures Bertelsman owns the UK's channel 5 as well as TV and radio stations across Europe, including 18 radio stations and 22 TV stations in 10 different countries. They are also owners of Random House book publishing, making them the largest single publishing house in the world. BMG is the company's music interest, operating in 54 countries. It's US labels own some 200 labels internationally. It's Online ventures include online book shopping through Barnes & noble.com and command of Lycos web portal.

Another issue concerning the gateways of information flow has to do with the operations of these Trans-national media corporations. In particular is the joint interests that media corporations have with other national and trans-national corporations. Each media corporation has a Board of Directors upon which sit representatives from other large corporations, many of which are non-media, non-news, oriented. This conglomeration of non-media business interests with those of the mass media represents a curious grouping of business elite, especially when the resumes of these peoples are scrutinized.

"Last Year researchers at project Censored looked up the names of the people who serve on the boards of directors of the eleven media companies dominating the U.S market. A total of 155 people sit on these boards. They include men like:

Frank Carlucci, who sits on Westinghouse's (CBS) board, was former deputy director of the CIA, and later Secretary of Defense under President Bush;

Andrew Sigler, who serves on GE's (NBC) board, also sits on the board of directors of Chemical Bank, Bristol Meyers Squibs, Allied Signal, Champion International and Chase Manhattan Bank; or

Douglas Warner III, who sits on GE's (NBC) board, also sits on the board of directors of Bechtel Group, Anheuser-Busch, and is CEO of J.P. Morgan Company.

The top 11 media corporations in the U.S form a solid grid of overlapping interests and affiliations. The 155 directors of these 11 media corporations sit on the boards of directors of 144 of the Fortune 1000 corporations and interlock with each other through shared directorships in other firms some 36 times. NBC, Fox News, and Time Warner each has a board member who sits as a director on tobacco producer Philip Morris's board. CBS (Westinghouse) shares directorships on Fortune 1000 boards with the Washington Post, Time-Warner, NBC (GE), Gannett, Viacom and the Times Mirror Corporation (L.A. Times).( Ruggiero & Suhulka, Eds., 1999, p.8).

Parenti offered similar sentiments in these statements made in 1997: "The Boards of Directors of print and broadcast news organizations are populated by representatives of Ford, G.E, G.M, General Dynamic, Coke, ITT, IBM, Dow-Corning, Philip Morris, AT&T, and others. Given that distribution of ownership it's not surprising that the concerns of labor are downplayed in the media" (Peoples V., 1997).

Critics hypothesize that such operations are the cause for what they consider the margenilization of issues such as labor and the environment in the mainstream media. In Michael Parentis speech to students and faculty at the University of Vermont he stated: "The concerns of labor are your concerns, they're the concerns of ordinary working people. They're the concerns about wages, work conditions. They're the concerns about job opportunities; they're the concerns about consumer safety, occupational safety, and environmental protection. These are the things that the more progressive labor unions have been fighting for and talking about for years. You wouldn't know it, it's not the business owned media. You've got a business section for that 2, 3, 4 percent that own about 80 percent of the capitol in America. Where's the labor section? Where's the labor news? Where are the concerns of working people?" (Peoples V.,1997). Again, the ideas of media watch group and independent researchers at the State University of Sonoma, California: Project Censored.

"The U.S media ignores fundamental issues like:

* Who loses in the process of economic growth and wealth accumulation?

* What about the one billion people in the world who are seen as surplus labor and un-needed in the international workplace?

* What about the global issues of environmental sustainability and the using up of our natural resources?

These are the questions of socio-environmental apocalypse." (Project Censored)


To build a cause and effect relationship, reassess it's parts. The cause for the quality of the mainstream is a result of the controls of that message. The affect of the mainstream message(s) is substantial. The cause for the independent media movement is the institutional media's operation system. The effect of that operation then is the the birth of an alternative in media.

The notion that the contents of mainstream media are influenced by ownership and operations, is not a radical departure from most cause and affect scenarios. For example, mediawatch.org. reports that in 1998 ABC (owned by Disney) discarded an investigative news story about the hiring and safety practices at Disney World (2001). The idea that the news is subject to this sort of censorship is further evidenced by Noam Chomsky's in his book Manufacturing Consent. Chomsky researched events in Nicaragua that the US initiated or responded to and analyzed the institutional news coverage of those events. His summary (cited here) typifies his rational after completing his research. It states: "It is their [the media's] function to amuse, entertain, and inform, and to inculcate individuals with the values, beliefs, and codes of behavior that will integrate them into the institutional structures of the larger society. In a world of concentrated wealth and major conflicts of class interest, to fulfill this role requires systematic propaganda" (1987,xii). For a giant media company like Bertelsmann of Germany, the notion of propagating 'codes of behavior' has already been actualized. Heinrich Mohn, who headed the company since 1921, was a sponsoring member of the 'SS' and so was the company a major producer of Nazi propaganda (mediachannel.org, April 2001).

In the United States the mainstream occurs over publicly owned airwaves and evokes the democratic spirit (as was evidenced by Gary Gelson, Executive director of Minnesota News Council). "Broadcasting is a Public Trust. The public needs to demand that these news agencies deliver to the public. They may own the buildings and the cameras but not the frequency. The Public owns the frequency and must tell those that are broadcasting that they can not own those frequencies unless they provide critical public journalism"(Michael, A., 1995).

The United States prides itself on democratic principles, but as is evident, the Democratic-participant media theory is not practiced in the US mass media. Independent media centers have taken up this responsibility.


To discern whether the topics of environment and labor are marginalized in the press, a study of the New York Times daily newspapers was performed. During the months of February, March, and April of 2001, issues of the newspaper were studied at random and the headlines printed on the front page were then analyzed for subject matter. If the subject matter of the headline was relative then it was placed into one of five categories. Those that didn't fit any category were omitted. The categories were (1) War and Foreign Policy, (2) Economy, (3) Labor, (4) Environment, (5) Sports.

In the 30 issues studied during these three months, Category #1 "War and Foreign Policy" tallied 63 headlines. Category #2 "Economy" tallied 47 Headlines. Category #3 "Labor" tallied 18 headlines. Category #4 "Environment" tallied 8 headlines. Category #5 "Sports" tallied 16 headlines for a total of 146 headlines.

The reseach also showed that the New York Times had a business section, a sports section, and sometimes a travel section, and that it never had a labor section or an environmental section, although they do occasionally have a science section where environmental studies are reported.


Logic follows that influences upon the controllers of the channels of information and communication may lessen the objectivity of coverage presented over these channels. When it is considered that mainstream content leads to convictions, the notion of this influence being enabling certain select convictions has to be realized.

In the spirit of the theorists mentioned herein, the scope of these messages is of grave importance. Critics are concerned because a decline in the number of routes of information may lead to a decline in the routes of thought.

When considering the conglomeration of corporate America together with corporate media the consolidation of interests is profound. An analogy to this could be visualized in a schoolyard setting. On a playground children will often decide upon two captains to select teams for a game. Those 'captains' then choose their teammates usually upon physical abilities or degree of friendship. In the media, these captains can be equated to the trans-national media corporations. Their decisions affect who plays in the game, whose voice is heard. Those who are chosen last, are generally least involved. Those who don't get chosen do not play. Those who aren't 'playing' in the mass media are likely not to be restricted by ability. Rather it may be due to their abilities of objective criticism (which is not in alignment with the practices of the institutional media) that they are denied access. These people are marginalized, as are their views, their opinions, and the issues they are concerned with. An example of this is Ralph Nader, who has done much to establish regulations for both worker safety and environment, yet his presence in the US media is at best marginal. And there are hosts of others who have educated ideas and research to share, but will not be part of the mainstream message.

The research on the New York Times headlines bears a direct correlation to the ideas of media critics Michael Parenti and Project Censored concerning the marginalization of labor and environmental issues. Only 18 labor headlines were gathered compared to the 16 sports headlines.

Concerning the indymedia phenomena is the idea that marginal stories of labor and environment, do find a venue here. Indymedia.org represents a generous exchange of information, news, editorials, especially concerning these two specific issues. It was the intention of this research to show that a causal relationship does exist between the mass and the independent, and how profound its implications are

If this research were to continue, it would be prudent to conduct comprehensive studies of other newspapers in addition to the Times, and to obtain statements from broadcast media corporations on the policies of there operations. This would enable a comparison relating networks positions on the publics input versus that of the board of directors. It seems inevitable that the market economy would also have to be analyzed to counter any argument that the mass media is outwardly competitive amongst it's own.

The fact that the Untied Nations has gone to these lengths and has commissioned studies on alternative media phenomena acknowledges that there is a global awareness of this movement. With this in mind, the ideas of Dennis McQuail are given some credence that the 'ideal' is being sought not only nationally, but by people throughout the world.


Chomsky, N. & Edwards, H. (1988). Manufacturing consent: The political economy of the mass media. New York: Pantheon Books.

Indymedia.org, April, 2001

Lewis, P. (Ed.). (1993). Alternative media: Linking global and local. (Reports and Papers on Mass Communication. No. 107). London, UK: UNESCO Publishing.

McQuail, Dennis (1983). Mass communication theory: An introduction. London: Sage Publications. [p.96/97]

Mediachannel.org, April, 2001

Michael A. (Producer). (1995). Rethinking the world: control of the media. (Videotape). Minneapolis, MN: Ground Zero Minnesota.

Morgan, M. & Signorelli, N.(Eds.). (1990). Cultivation analysis: New directions in media effects research. California: Sage Publications.

Peoples Video/Audio (Producer). (1997). The hidden ideology of the mass media featuring Michael Parenti. (Videotape), Seattle, WA: Peoples Video/Audio.

Potter, J. (1998). Media literacy. California: Sage Publications.

Ruggiero, G. & Sahulka, S. (Eds.). (1999). Project censored: The progressive guide to alternative media and activism. New York: Seven Stories Press.

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