Feb 5 2010

Robert McChesney and John Nichols on The Death and Life of American Journalism


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This week on CounterSpin: a special look at the state of the media in America. Every week on CounterSpin we talk mostly about what the media are getting wrong. But the big story inside the news industry is the collapse of the business itself. What are the implications for citizens? What can we do about it? And how concerned should we be about the failures of corporate owners that have done so little to promote good journalism in the first place? We’ll talk about all that and more with our guests Robert McChesney and John Nichols, co-authors of the new book The Death and Life of American Journalism: the Media Revolution That Will Begin the World Again.

That’s coming up, but first we’ll take a look back at the week’s press.

—Barack Obama pledged to do something about the military’s Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy in his State of the Union address, and it looks like that might be happening. It’s interesting to watch, then, the way some media outlets talk about gays and lesbians serving openly in the armed forces. Some reports refer to repealing the law as a controversial move; but according to whom? Opinion polls on the question show that, by a wide margin, the public supports allowing gays and lesbians to serve. A Gallup poll from May of last year found 69 percent in favor of the idea. So be on the lookout for reporting that tries to tell you differently. Or take the case of ABC‘s Good Morning America, where on January 31 anchor Bill Weir announced that this issue was “very controversial from both sides of the political spectrum.” The ensuing interview featured only one guest: an opponent of gays in the military. Though viewers did see a graphic on the screen reminding them that the views they were airing unchallenged were those of a distinct minority of the public.

—At the end of January, Obama Education Secretary Arne Duncan told a cable news show, “I think the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina.” In reporting on Duncan’s remark the January 30 Washington Post failed to quote anyone who might challenge the idea that Katrina was a good thing.

CNN aired a segment the same day featuring guests Roland Martin, a CNN regular, and the host of Washington Watch, the TV One program where Duncan made the remarks in question; and CNN education contributor Steve Perry, a magnet school founder, champion of vouchers, and all-around public school critic.

Martin applauded the progress in New Orleans public schools, citing improving test scores. But Perry, who said he agreed with Duncan, went much further, sounding unhinged as he actually lamented that there could not be more Katrinas for the sake of U.S. education: “I’m saying that we can’t have a Katrina in all of the 50 states.”

Nowhere in the CNN segment or the Washington Post report was there anyone to challenge Duncan’s remarks or to explain that the reason New Orleans test scores have increased is that post-Katrina rebuilding has largely driven out the poor and black populations who had been so poorly served by the city’s schools pre-Katrina.

All in all, it was education coverage designed to make you dumber.

—There are still some people who think that it’s a stretch to talk about class bias in the media. But even when corporate outlets aren’t openly endorsing anti-worker policy or calling for tax breaks for the rich, they show just that sort of bias in their taken-for-granted assumptions about how most Americans live. The latest example came from CNN‘s American Morning on February 1, when anchor Kiran Chetry was interviewing White House OMB director Peter Orszag. Noted Chetry: “You also talk about letting tax cuts expire for families that make over $250,000. Some would argue that in some parts of the country that is middle class.”

Anyone who argued that would be wildly misleading, of course, unless they acknowledged they were talking about some teeny, tiny parts of the country, perhaps a few blocks across. Households that make $250,000 or more a year make up 1.5 percent of the U.S. public. But it shows whose view Chetry and CNN think are worth speaking up for.

(To his credit, Orszag replied “Well, I guess it’s not the parts of the country where I’ve been.”)

—David Brooks is a conservative New York Times columnist who likes to speak for the little people in the red states ignored by the urban media elite. He once criticized Barack Obama for not seeming to be “the kind of guy who can go into an Applebee’s salad bar and people think he fits in naturally there”—which is typical of the type of populist sociology that Brooks regularly offers—in the sense that Applebee’s don’t actually have salad bars.

It’s worth asking, though, what Brooks’ populism actually consists of besides vague suggestions that people in the more rural, whiter parts of America are somehow more authentically American. In a column published by the Times on July 29, he laid out a political program of sorts: Calling deficit reduction “the issue that unlocks everything else,” he urged Obama to “force the country to accept common sacrifice.” Brooks explained what he meant specifically: “Establish your credibility and offer to raise taxes on the lower 98 percent.”

Now, when you hear people talking about “common sacrifice,” it’s important to remember what’s been going on in this country for the last four decades or so: The total output of the U.S. almost doubled, but the typical U.S. family’s income rose only about 13 percent. Where did the rest of the economic growth go? Mostly to the wealthiest families—whose average income over the past 45 years has multiplied by a spectacular 27 times.

After a long period where the economic gains of the country have flowed almost entirely to a tiny elite, at a time when workers are suffering from 10 percent unemployment, Brooks thinks regular people aren’t sacrificing enough. He should go to the nearest Applebee’s and see what the folks at the salad bar think of that.

—And finally, when progressive historian Howard Zinn died on January 27, NPR‘s All Things Considered marked his passing the next day with something you don’t often hear in an obituary: a rebuttal.

After quoting Noam Chomsky and Julian Bond, NPR‘s Allison Keyes turned to far-right activist David Horowitz to symbolically spit on Zinn’s grave:

There is absolutely nothing in Howard Zinn’s intellectual output that is worthy of any kind of respect…. Zinn represents a fringe mentality which has unfortunately seduced millions of people at this point in time. So he did certainly alter the consciousness of millions of younger people for the worse.

Horowitz’s attack contributed nothing to an understanding of Zinn’s life or work, other than conveying that he’s disliked by cranky right-wingers. He seems to have been included merely to demonstrate that NPR will not allow praise for a leftist to go unaccompanied by conservative contempt.

It’s a principle that doesn’t seem to go both ways. Take the February 2008 death of William F. Buckley, a figure arguably as admired by the right as Zinn was on the left. There was much to criticize about Buckley, who was a supporter of, among other things, white supremacism in the U.S. South and in South Africa, McCarthyism and the tattooing of AIDS patients’ buttocks. But of their six segments NPR aired commemorating Buckley, none included a non-admiring guest. The celebration culminated on February 29 with the words of Weekend Edition host Scott Simon: “Emphysema, such an unseemly thing for a man who was so often a breath of fresh air.” Howard Zinn will be remembered as much more than that, of course—just maybe not on National Public Radio.


CounterSpin: With grim economic news all around, the fate of one industry in particular has received more media attention than some others: the media itself. Corporate revenues have tanked; advertising revenue has dropped sharply. Subscriptions are down. Journalists are laid off by the dozens at major national outlets, while some communities have seen their local paper all but vanish or vanish literally. Those that haven’t are a shell of their former selves. Solutions for the crisis in American journalism are easy to come by, offered by reporters who are still employed, and those recently terminated. But in an era of rapid technological change, with free journalism available at the click of a mouse, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where advertiser-driven media survive—or one where citizens feel like journalism is something you need to buy.

Our next guests survey the sorry state of American media in their new book, and somehow remain optimistic about it—and our—future. Robert McChesney is a professor of communication at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, as well as the host of the weekly radio program Media Matters. John Nichols is the Washington D.C. correspondent for the Nation magazine. Between them they have written more books than you could possibly imagine; they joined forces to help co-found the policy group Free Press, and they are here to talk about their new book, The Death and Life of American Journalism: the Media Revolution That Will Begin the World Again. It’s available now from Nation Books.

Bob and John, welcome to CounterSpin.

Robert McChesney: Our pleasure to be here.

John Nichols: Thank you.

CS: Bob, let’s start with some of the history here. The collapse of the media business can be measured any kind of number of ways—there’s probably no need to go over the sorry numbers. But part of the argument you’re making in this book is that the causes of the collapse can be obscured or just misunderstood in these conversations. If I had a dollar for every journalist who blamed it all on Google, I’d retire today. You point out that, in the case of job cuts though, big media outlets were slashing staff in the 1990s, and that’s when things were good from a profit perspective. So what is the right way of thinking about what got us to where we are today?

RM: Well, the right way to think about it is that in the end, journalism’s a public good, much like national defense or public education, and that that was obscured for the last century because advertising supported so much of journalism. It emerged out of the blue in the late 19th century and it provided 60-100 percent of the revenues of journalism. And what happened in the last third of the 20th Century was that the private firms that produced journalism or news media became increasingly concentrated, they became part of conglomerates, and they were largely monopolistic and uncompetitive markets. And what they were able to do is make more money by slashing back journalists and bureaus—and consumers, readers, audiences, communities had fewer recourse to go elsewhere. And in that context what you saw the rational thing for capitalists, for firms, these big companies, was to keep slashing journalism, make more money in the near term, not worry about the long term, and finally it caught up with them. And then the Internet came along, and all it did really was accelerate the process, and sort of push over the tottering giant and make it irreversible, leaving us in the situation we’re in now, where for the first time in a very long time, really in American history, we don’t have the resources to provide even a small percentage of the journalism that’s required for self-government to work.

CS: Now the book is about solutions, obviously, at least part of it, and the options vary. But fundamental to your argument is the idea that government has to intervene in some fashion. And you note that the discussion of subsidies or assistance from the government is usually cut off before it begins, often by journalists. This isn’t a big surprise to anyone, given the pro-corporate ideology of the mass media, but what’s your response to that to, “keep the government out of my newsroom” mentality?

JN: Sure. Look I’ve been a journalist since I was eleven years old. I literally started on my weekly paper in rural Wisconsin, and so I was raised in a certain way of thinking that the government’s the enemy, you are in this game to go out and speak truth to power. Now what we know, in large part thanks to the incredible work of FAIR and groups like FAIR, is that, for an awfully long time, corporate media hasn’t been speaking truth to power; in fact it’s actually been stenographic to power. You’ve exposed that and done terrific work on it. And so then we step back and say okay, well if corporate media isn’t doing the job, if the market isn’t providing us with a civic and democratic media that sustains our citizenship, how do we get that and how have we gotten it historically?

Well, that’s why the book is so important, because it really reveals a hidden history of the First Amendment and a hidden history, a stolen history if you will, of the freedom of the press protection. The founders of the Republic, very imperfect men, were thinking about how to shape some sort of democratic experiment. What they understood was people needed information, and so when they wrote that freedom of the press protection into the First Amendment, they understood freedom of the press as a two-fold reality.

First, no censorship: you had the freedom to create a journalism that did speak truth to power, that did dissent, that did challenge. But it had to be real. I mean, it isn’t just a promise. You don’t say, oh you’re going to have an uncensored free media; they have to have a reality of it. So that understanding led them to develop massive press subsidies in the form of postal and some printing subsidies that fostered the most vibrant, diverse media this country has seen. In the founding years of this republic, our founders created a media that condemned and attacked them, and it was done with taxpayer dollars, with subsidies. And so what I say to journalists who scream about this is A) corporate media’s not doing the job, it’s not speaking truth to power, and B) if we go back to our roots, if we go back to our traditions, what we understand is there are ways to have an uncensored free press, but also a press that has the resources and the authority to go after power and challenge it.

CS: Now the book points out in several ways—and the comparisons are not always perfect but they’re interesting—that you have countries that have more generous public subsidies for their media, and their citizens tend to be better informed. Again, the comparisons are what they are but it’s striking to see that government intervention doesn’t seem to lead to a propaganda state. That said, people who aren’t paying attention to this, who are just listening to some of the argument will say government getting involved that sounds like a bailout, haven’t we bailed out ten different industries, didn’t we just bail out Wall Street—are we going to walk around to the Chicago Tribute Company with a checkbook and say how much do you need? Is that the idea?

RM: Absolutely not. In fact, if you frame the question as do you want to have your taxes raised or take federal money to give money to the big media corporations that have run journalism to the ground, people say no, and we agree. Any public subsidies should go to non-profit and non-commercial media, first and foremost. It’s a public good and it should be regarded as such. Commercial media, we wish them the best of luck, we want no interference with them, they should be able to do what they want. But they should absolutely not be getting public money without strings attached or even possibly with strings attached—just stay clear of that.

You know, I think the point you raised, Peter, about international comparisons are extraordinarily important. Most Americans are unaware of them. When we think of government supporting media, oftentimes people say, oh that’s Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia and Pol Pot’s Cambodia and Idi Amin’s Uganda. They pick these horror stories of totalitarian and authoritarian regimes that have no civil liberties, no elections, no free political parties, no free media, and the relevant comparisons to us aren’t those countries. The relevant comparisons are other democracies, other constitutional republics with legal political parties and civil liberties. If you look at virtually every other major democracy in the world in Asia, in Europe, and in the Third World in some countries, you find extraordinarily large public subsidies of public media, community media journalism relative to the United States. And the numbers, I’ll give them to you quickly because they’re really astonishing. If you compute on a per capita basis what these other countries spend—countries like Norway, Sweden, Finland, Germany, Britain, Japan, Singapore—if you compute their numbers and put them per capita in the United States, we’d have to spend at the federal level supporting journalism and public and community media between 20 and 35 billion dollars a year to equal them. And we spend currently just around 400 million on all of public and community broadcasts on the federal level.

Let me put an exclamation point on that because this is where it gets interesting. Well people said, well then those countries clearly aren’t as democratic as us because the government’s meddling with their media, that’s really a dangerous thing, they’ll say. And you know what we realized, we looked at the Economist magazine, and they rank every country in the world on how democratic it is and how open its governance is, how little corruption there is, how free people are, their civil liberties—the Economist magazine, mind you—and the top six countries they ranked as the freest, most democratic countries were just about the six heaviest press-subsidizing nations in the world. The United States ranks well below them. Then we looked at Freedom House, a conservative group whose whole mission is to monitor government censorship and harassment of private commercial media, that’s its whole reason for existence, and it ranks every country in the world on how free the private press are in each of these countries every year. And it always fits all communist countries go in the “Not Free” zone, all dictatorships go in the “Not Free” zone, and in fact, what it does, it puts even countries like Venezuela, which has a free press and an opposition press—but just because the Chávez government criticizes the commercial media, it goes in the “unfree” press because of the chilling effect. So these people have the sharpest antennae in the world for any sensitive harassment of private media. Well you go down their list of the six freest private presses in the world and they’re pretty much in the six most heavy press-subsidizing nations that have those vibrant freest press systems. The United States is tied for 21st.

CS: You know you were saying, you were talking about comparing the U.S. to other countries in terms of subsidies, but in your book you also talk about how in the early days of the U.S. that it was in the tens of billions of dollars if you translate the situation. Before the rise of the advertising model, was that all the monies that these newspapers had? Where did they get their other revenue?

JN: It was a substantial portion of it. I mean one of the things to understand is that in the early days of the Republic we had a really thriving local media in this country. And the newspaper in Philadelphia, the newspaper in Charlotte, the newspaper in Boston circulated not just locally but sometimes well beyond its turf. And it was all through the mails. Do you know that 95 percent of the mail was newspapers in the early years of the Republic? The postal system was the largest employer, and it was really the circulation department, if you will, the business side of newspapers. It got the newspapers to the people. They had some advertising, it’s true. And they also had legals, you know, where the government would buy ads, which we still have to this day, sustaining local weekly newspapers.

One of the things we outline in the book is that the driving force for expanding subsidies, postal subsidies and even printing subsidies, was the abolitionist movement. These are the people who said the Congress of the United States will not debate the original sin of the American experiment: slavery. The presidential candidates won’t talk about it. We will force this into the dialogue. And it was such a rebel, radical movement that the debates over these subsidies caused riots. Post offices were burned because this was what was in play. And the reason we bring this up is because our vision of subsidies, our vision of some way of getting out and creating the next media system, the media system of the 21st Century is really about saying to the next abolitionists movements, to the next dissenters, the people who really are—be they left or right—but the ones who are really challenging authority: you know, we’ll give you the resources to go out and get your ideas in play, the ideas that power and elites won’t debate. If we don’t do that we’re not going to have those new abolitionist movements; we’re not going to have reforms and real change. And frankly, we are heading toward a propaganda state.

CS: The kind of techno-utopian response to these arguments, I guess is that the technology exists, it’s called the Internet. We’re at the very beginning of it, and subsidies to old media, or dying media, or dinosaur media is beside the point because you and I can jump online and create a website, get our message out, the “tea party” movement seems to be organized largely through Internet organizing. How do you respond to people who say it’s there and we’re just getting our feet wet?

RM: It’s a very important point, and I think that is the standard response. First people say the Internet killed journalism, then they say its going to solve it for us—it’s an interesting argument. The problem with that argument—and we actually spend a whole chapter reviewing what’s going on online with journalism, seeing what’s working, what isn’t, what the problems are—the problem with it is very simple: there’s no business model that works, there’s no, you know, the number of working journalists who are actually supporting themselves online today in 2010, who aren’t affiliated with old medias paying the bills for the working journalist online, could probably fit in this studio, or two rooms this size. So we’re talking about hundreds of people at most, if that, who are actually getting full pay for doing journalism online, and it’s not changing much. There’s no business model.

Incredible journalism requires paid labor, and that’s the problem. We talked to all these wonderful ventures online, and some of them might employ five, ten, fifteen people, like Talking Points Memo, and there are others like that. But most of them, especially at the local level, are all going dry. They’re doing it on volunteer labor. And the truth of the matter is, it’s a public good. We can’t expect the market to generate it. Advertising is fleeing; they no longer need to support journalism. That era is over. They can go online and find many other options for reaching their commercial ends than supporting journalism. And indeed to the extent bloggers have to turn to advertising, the strong pressure that, because advertisers have all the leverage now, compromises their editorial integrity to the extent that we don’t even want advertising to support journalism if we really want credible journalism. We really have to find another way to do it and it’s just not happening online.

The bottom line is that no one can look at the evidence and say, yeah, we can realistically forecast somehow in the next 20 years we’ll have a hundred thousand paid journalists in competing independent newsrooms doing the news online. The current path will have dozens, not thousands or tens of thousands.

CS: Well, the book imagines what you guys call a post-corporate newsroom, and it’s a fascinating package of subsidies and initiatives that folks will have to read the book if they want to get into. I want to ask you finally, both of you, the question that sort of nags at the back of any media critic’s mind, which is we’ve watched these institutions so fundamentally misinform and disinform the public, they’re getting their just desserts now as people flee in droves because the newspaper doesn’t offer you anything. How do you deal with the response, which I suspect you probably are hearing quite often, which is if these dinosaurs leave and something new eventually comes in its place, isn’t that just a fine development? Didn’t we want these corporate media outlets to disappear in the first place?

JN: Well, yes, in fact we know your work and love what FAIR’s done all these years. You know our work, most of our books have been condemnations of corporate media and what the consolidation of media’s done to journalism and so there’s simply no question that there’s a lot to celebrate in this transition moment. And as we say, if you had a ship that was owned by a really lousy, rotten shipping company, and it was going down, you might say, fine let’s let the ship sink. But let’s send the Coast Guard out to save the passengers, let’s go rescue journalism or at least some concept of a journalism that will serve democracy. The Coast Guard being, by the way, a governmental agency.

And, but let’s also understand this, and perhaps the most vital thing in this whole dialogue, which is that nothing that we’re writing or talking about is saying save old media, save the media that gave us a stolen election in 2000, save the media that gave us a war in Iraq in 2003, save the media that gave us a financial collapse in 2008 with a bank bailout—no, this is ridiculous; of course we don’t want to say that. What we want to do is say to Americans, and we’ve been blown away on this tour—the response to this—what we want to say is that for an incredibly minimal investment of your tax dollars, roughly when we talk about this billions of dollars sounds like a lot but we’re talking about three or four percent of the bank bailout; we’re talking about twelve weeks in Iraq. For that sort of investment, up front, paying for journalism, getting it out in a diverse, dissenting, uncensored, challenging way, we can avoid the next war in Iraq; we can avoid the next bank bailout, because if we have a civic and democratic journalism that speaks truth to power there will still be journalism that does stenography—we know that—and it’s going to exist.

Media critics are going to have plenty of work in the future. But we think a little bit of truth has so much more power than a lot of lies. The fear we have, though, is if we don’t intervene now, the 21st Century will be defined by such overwhelming power on the side of the lies, that the little bit of truth won’t be heard. That’s the struggle we’re about, and it really is a struggle that grassroots folks get and buy into. The people that don’t get it, the only people who don’t get it are the elites in politics and media. And so we’re going to have to do what we’ve always done: go out and build a movement, bang on the doors, and make this happen.

CS: I hate to ask somebody to follow up on that, but do you have anything else, Bob?

RM: Well, absolutely, I do. I think that there’s a lot that’s actually happening. We’re in this free fall collapse. It truly is disintegrating journalism, and we’re at the pace now where there will barely be any newsrooms at all except for those going to elite audiences within two or three years. But it will be so small it will be meaningless for the most part. And it’s a moment in which political choices are going to have to be made. And since the conventional wisdom is collapsing too—the idea that the Internet will solve our problems, or that corporate media can just direct electronic barbed wire in the Internet and that will solve our problems—those are fanciful ideas that don’t add up at all. People are going to be looking around for something that actually will work, and we think this is the only thing that has shown to work historically and internationally. And already in Washington right now the Federal Communications Commission is beginning a notice of inquiry on the collapse of journalism. There are going to be opportunities. People have to go to FreePress.net and FAIR.org as well because there are going to be opportunities for people to participate, say this is what we want from journalism in our society and really begin the groundswell of popular organizing, demand the resources and institutions to give us real journalism, not just corporate propaganda.

CS: We’ve been speaking with Robert McChesney and John Nichols, co-authors of the new book The Death and Life of American Journalism: the Media Revolution That Will Begin the World Again, out now from Nation Books. Thank you both very much for joining us on CounterSpin!

RM: Our pleasure.

JN: Thank you. Thanks for FAIR.


—”How to Save Journalism,” by Robert McChesney and John Nichols (book excerpt, Nation, 1/7/10)