Professor Robert McChesney of University of Illinois, Urbana is considered by many the leading historian of contemporary media. McChesney's work is not neutral; his eloquent and erudite essays and books describe the transformation of journalism in America from “watchdog of democracy” to a tool of corporate mega conglomerates who view the news primarily as a strategy for selling advertising and reaching consumers—and who “censor” the news by deciding what to cover and by defining the boundaries of public debate. McChesney, 55, is not just an academic; he is also an important activist who has played a key role in galvanizing popular support in the battle against the commercialization of the Internet.
McChesney's seminal book, Rich Media, Poor Democracy (1998), details what he calls a “hyper-commercialization” that has become disastrous for American – and global – Democracy. Two mutually reinforcing processes are responsible for turning journalism from the eyes and ears of democracy into a form of commercial entertainment directed at consumers rather than citizens. One involves the concentration of media outlets in the hands of a few corporate giants through hundreds of mergers and acquisitions that have taken place over the last few decades. This concentration is vertical as well as horizontal, enabling a single corporation not only to produce content – newspapers, magazines, films, CD's – but also to control the TV channels through which the content is disseminated.
The other process is the “deregulation” of the media that has allowed this concentration and commercialization of media to occur. Corporate lobbying has reversed legislation meant to insure that the media inform the public and serve as a platform through which a variety of views could be sounded. Laws such as the 1927 Radio Act, the 1949 Fairness Doctrine put strict limits on the number and kind of media outlets that could be owned by one person or company, created publicly funded journalism, and mandated the airing of opposing viewpoints. One of McChesney's important points is that the “deregulation” that has allowed, say, “Clear Channel Communications,” an American based corporation, to own 1200 radio stations, actually depends very directly on strict government regulation guarding licensing and ownership rights. If someone would try broadcasting their own station on one of the frequencies that “Clear Channel” has been licensed to hold by the government, they would very quickly find their equipment confiscated and themselves behind bars.
Because American media conglomerates have gone global in their ownership and because the Israeli business scene—including the communications business—is heavily influenced by the United States, McChesney's insights are also highly relevant to Israel. Eretz Acheret interviewed McChesney at his home in Madison Wisconsin.
Print journalism seems to be in collapse in the United States and in Israel. Is this because of the Internet?
Journalism in general as understood in the United States is truly in collapse, free fall… in stunning decline. Twenty years ago, when you talked about the commercialization of journalism and the weakening of democracy people considered you part of a radical fringe. Now everyone has recognized that these trends are happening. No one can deny it any more. In simple terms, the cause of this collapse is that commercial corporate interests decided, after waves of consolidation and weakening of the journalist unions, that traditional journalism just didn't make enough money. So for example – and I'll give more examples later on – in terms of print journalists, there has been sharp, rapid drop-off in the coverage of local, community affairs. By some accounts, there are half as many print journalists covering communities as there were two decades ago. And it's not that TV or radio have picked up the gauntlet. Radio news barely exists except for public broadcasting, and local television journalism is so flimsy and pathetic it has become the punch-line of a joke.
The reason for the collapse is very simple. The corporations were just not making enough money covering news. So they stopped doing it, and in monopolistic markets they could get away with it. But we have to be very clear about this: It didn't and doesn't have to be this way. For many years, into the 1970s, there were very clear government regulations requiring every radio station, in exchange for receiving an exclusive monopoly broadcast license on a particular frequency, to fulfill certain service requirements. One of these was to devote time every day for newscasts. Every station had to have someone who did that. But in the 80s, after intensive lobbying on the part of telecommunication industry, there was massive relaxation of the public interest requirements. You no longer had to broadcast the news. This also affected print journalism: Many of the journalists who come of age in the 1960s and later became journalists were first exposed to the news on the radio. For example most people my age heard about the Six Day War on the radio. Now kids can go through life with no such contact with the news.
The Internet is not the cause, by any stretch of the imagination, of the crisis of print journalism. In the early 1990s there were already a number of works by major journalists about this process of the commercialization of journalism that is leading to the death of journalism as we know it. So the attack on professional journalism by corporate money makers has been going on for several decades already. If print journalism in the US between the 1970s and the 1990s had been in a process of strengthening and expansion, the Internet would not have had the effect that it is having. Part of the reason for the great power of the Internet is that it emerged after journalism had already been stripped down, and was already in crisis.
How did corporate control over journalism evolve?
Well into the 19th century newspapers were partisan – sponsored and connected to political parties. That changed over time, until the logic of publishing became more commercial and less political. By the beginning of the 20th century, journalism in the US was dominated by largely commercial, privately owned papers – family businesses for the most part.
These family-owned, privately held news companies had their advantages--they did not have to make their accounting public for example. But the way the US commonly works and the way the law works, there are specific benefits to being part of the corporate system and creating a public company. You can raise lots more money, for one thing. There are tremendous financial advantages to being publicly traded and disadvantages to the family ownership model, particularly after the first generation or two. Passing along a family owned newspaper, after the principle has died, one encounters onerous tax laws. In addition, by the time you have twenty-five great grandchildren, it is impossible to run the company; it's like herding cats. It's easier just to sell the company to a large corporation and give each of the heirs shares.
In a way, the era of privately owned newspapers marked the golden age of journalism in America. And yet even then, there was no clear idea of what journalism should look like. The type of professional journalism that we ended up with then was not particularly strong; in fact it was weak. It had its strengths, but overall it was tepid journalism that was in accord with the political commercial interests of the media owners and advertisers. Some working journalists had a very different vision. They didn't want to be party hacks; they thought that professional journalism should represent everyone outside of power, and that there should be the same journalistic standard for everyone with power or aspiring to power. This was a model of journalism, but it was not the model that became standard because it scares the hell out of the corporate owners. The kind of journalism that actually became prevalent is about what people in power want to talk about. In other words, it was not considered a journalist's job to raise new questions, but to report debates or conflicts between elected officials or others in power.
That model of journalism might work in theory because the officials are elected and debate among them is ostensibly important; but what if every one in power agrees? A classic example in America of the weakness of reliance on official sources is that the question of whether the US has the right to invade other countries is considered far outside legitimate journalistic debate. Because the leaders of the United States, economic and in both political parties, share the belief that the USA alone has the right to invade countries when it wishes, or the right to deputize another nation like Israel to do so. No one else is allowed to be in the invasion business. In fact, if any other nation does it, it is a striking blow against the rule of law and civilization. But this hypocrisy never dawn upon our elite, and therefore never occurs even to our most serious and respected journalists. So no journalist would ask this as a basic question because no one in power debates this question. If a journalist raised this question – say, what right does the United States have to invade Iraq or Panama or wherever -- she would be accused of being unprofessional, of having an axe to grind. Another example: there is no debate among politicians on the size of the military. Both parties agree that our military should grow, and that we should spend unbelievable amounts of money on it. This is the weakness of professional journalism even during its heyday: allowing official sources to set the limits the debate. You learn to put on blinders, to not even to think outside those terms that have been set. If you did, you would never make it to the Washington Post or the New York Times.
Now we are in another era, the era of corporate ownership. When a corporation buys a newspaper or chain, they pay a large sum of money and they expect to make money. The way to do that is to decrease costs and increase revenues, and the obvious place to do that is by cutting the news staff, running more advertiser-oriented stories, by reinventing the news as something directed toward high earners who are the consumers that the advertisers are interested in reaching. This is a disaster for the idea of public service journalism.
What are some examples of stories that are not covered in the era of corporate control of the newsroom?
In the US in the early 1950's there were perhaps as many as one thousand labor reporters working in the United States. Newspapers in every major city had labor reporters. The heads of all the major unions were household names. It's true that unions have been weakened and are thus less relevant—but part of the reason they are weak is that they can't get coverage anymore. Instead we are flooded in business information. You would have thought that every American owns piles of stocks—which is not the case at all. Poor people are only of interest to the way news is reported now to the extent they get in the way of rich people.
One example of the way this prejudice influences the news is the way that the story of prisons in the United States is ignored in the press and other media. The United States has a huge prisoner population. Twenty-five percent of all prisoners in the world are incarcerated in the United States. The only countries that have ever topped us in this are nations like Nazi Germany, Stalin's Soviet Union and South Africa under apartheid. But for our papers and TV, this is a non story, because the prisoners and their families are all poor, in the bottom 15-20 percent of the economic hierarchy. They no more exist for the media corporations than the untouchables in India. If the prisoners consisted of half the graduating class of Yale University, it would be the most important in history. This kind of non-coverage undermines the most fundamental tenets of journalism.
Another classic example is the way trade issues are covered in the US press: trade agreements almost always are portrayed as tremendously beneficial. Anyone who covers this story in a different way is considered an absolute fool or primitive.
In actuality, trade deals, negotiated under the direct guidance of monopolistic firms, are tremendously complicated, with thousands of specific exceptions tailored to corporate needs. What you get in the press is corporate propaganda 101. If you read the news media, you think that the business world is run by genius entrepreneurs. Take the story of Enron, the company that turned out to be a kind of house of mirrors of illegal activity. For a number of years, Fortune magazine crowned Enron with its highest accolades. It got the sort of press that Bill Gates gets. Enron's CEO's were portrayed as gods walking on water. At the exact same time they were getting all this praise, there were citizens groups and NGO's who were calling their practices into question, but these concerns were never reported. All we got was the spin coming out of Enron's PR division.
Can the Internet be a force for re-democratizing journalism?
Just in and of itself, the Internet is not going to rejuvenate the public discourse. It is not a magic wand, but it does have the potential to make extraordinary contributions. There is an important battle going on now for the future of the Internet. The telephone and cable companies are trying to make the Internet their personal private property. What has made the Internet as democratic as it has been until now is that these companies have had to follow the telephone laws that were passed in the 1930s, which stated that the telephone companies could not discriminate between users by denying service or charging different rates to different customers. These laws were applied when the Internet came into being. Every website had to be given the same service. That was the genius of the Internet. But now the telephone and cable companies are using their huge lobbying power to try to change these laws, so that they can discriminate between users, to sell instant speed to companies that can pay a lot of money, and for other websites put up by people who can't pay that kind of price, they want to be able to slow things down so that you will have to wait three minutes to download their information. They even want to deny websites who can't pay fees the use of their phone lines. They want to turn the Internet into cable TV. This is the core free speech fight of the digital era. If we lose this fight-- and I don't think we will--then the First Amendment will be meaningless. This is one of the things that is at stake in the next election. If the Democrats win, we will be able to prevent this kind of commercialization of the Internet.
Still, even if we do win, it doesn't solve the problem of journalism. We still need to have policies to encourage journalists to cover all kinds of stories. That is our big political goal. Then we can use the Internet for something special. Otherwise we will just have the blogosphere, and that is not good enough.
What kinds of policies are needed?
There are a number of things we can do in the short term. We can dramatically expand public funding for community and public radio and TV. We have to ensure that media ownership rules create diverse sources of news. Right now there is corporate pressure to create newsrooms that integrate TV, radio, and newspapers into one newsroom for the whole community. But there is a lot of public support to prevent this from happening. We also need to encourage worker ownership of news media, and community ownership, so that we have a viable model of communities covering their own news.
The cutbacks that the education system has suffered in recent decades have also had an effect – they have meant a sharp cutback in student media and newspapers. When students aren't engaged in media during their school years, they are far less likely to be involved in journalism later in life. We have lost a generation of media people. Now we have to rejuvenate student media.
One of the things we have to realize when we fight for publicly supported media is that right now the huge media conglomerates get huge subsidies from the government in the form of monopolies on bandwidth and in the copyright laws. Licensing a company to give them exclusive rights to certain bandwidths is a form of subsidy. Using government law enforcement and the judicial system to enforce the monopoly privileges provided by copyright laws is a subsidy. So even though the process that now allows one corporation to own hundreds of radio stations when there used to be clear limits to the amount of stations one group can control is called deregulation, it is in essence a very precise and fierce form of regulation—just try broadcasting your own radio or TV on a bandwidth that has been licensed to some large corporation—you can land up in jail. There is no reason why these same regulations should not guarantee democracy's need for a free and independent press by supporting journalism not controlled by mega-corporations that see news only in business terms.