Media activist Robert McChesney, co-founder of Free Press and co-author with John Nichols of Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America, gave a lecture Monday on the University of Iowa campus. McChesney has most recently authored Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism is Turning the Internet Against Democracy. Click here for more information about Robert McChesney.
The title of the talk was “The Crisis of Democracy is a Crisis of Journalism: They Had a Past, But Do They Have a Future? It was a discussion of how journalism has declined in America and why this is a major problem for the survival of Democracy. About 50 people were in attendance.
The reasons for the decline are not what you think. Most people simply blame the internet for stealing the newspapers’ advertising revenue but McChesney pointed out that newspapers were laying off reporters and reducing newsroom staff before the internet even existed. According to McChesney, the internet did not cause the problem, but it did exacerbate it and made the situation permanent.
Depressing news and it didn’t get better as the evening wore on.
McChesney outlined the rise and fall of journalism from the founders through the 20th century to now. He walked us through the era of the Wilson administration and the propaganda used to promote WWI, and spent some time on Walter Lippmann, a journalist who was drawn into the war cause, becoming a propagandist himself who was ultimately shocked and dismayed at how easy it was to get people to believe anything they wanted them to. (Interestingly, Lippmann came to believe that people are more apt to believe “the pictures in their heads” than make decisions by critical thinking and that voters were largely ignorant about issues and policies, lacked the competence to participate in public life, and cared little for participating in the political process LINK).
McChesney pointed out that prior to the 20th century, all journalism was partisan. But back then, that was not so bad because one city could have dozens of newspapers – they were easy to start up and sustain, so many views could be represented, unlike now where a large city may have just one or two newspapers, owned by a corporation with a corporation’s point of view.
Professional journalism was an attempted solution by Lippmann to the problem of partisan journalism. The idea was that professional journalists would have an obligation to represent the public interest, to debunk the political and corporate (those with power) spin and cut through the propaganda. Thus the populace would have tools to effectively participate in Democracy.
In the 1920s and 1930s the newspaper guild came into being and their mission was that journalism should represent everyone outside of power over everyone in power.
Today, journalism is a mere shadow of its former self. News coverage has been reduced to reporting only what those in power say. It is considered bias for a reporter to attempt to unpack the spin. Further, it is now considered taboo for reporters to attempt to start a conversation about anything that those in power (politicians, institutional leaders, and corporatists) are not already speaking about.
McChesney said that for awhile, journalism had a commercial model that worked. Newspapers could make money selling papers via advertising, but that is no longer possible. When papers began to go online everyone assumed that advertisers would just buy ads on their websites and money could be made that way, and for awhile that is what happened. But now, advertisers do not need to buy ads from a particular website because they buy advertising from Google and Yahoo, etc. and the ads follow you the consumer wherever you go around the web. For example, the advertiser says, I want to reach 30-something males interested in cycling gear and Google and Yahoo can deliver those consumers. This means that little money can be made by newspapers online.
This led to a conclusion that McChesney and John Nichols have reached that basically goes like this and was the most important thing he said: Journalism is necessary to a healthy Democracy. It is a public good, meaning it is something the public needs and requires that the consumer market cannot provide in sufficient quantity or quality on its own. The public good theory says that something is never going to be profitable, but we still need it. Like parks and schools and libraries, they must be publicly supported.
This just makes sense. And this is where politics comes in, but McChesney didn’t get too political in his talk. Only to say that when he and Nichols went to DC to talk to the FTC and the FCC, they proposed public funding for newspapers. They were told that the only idea they offered that would work was vouchers (yes, think Milton Friedmans’ school vouchers model) and that that would never work because of the existence of the tea party congress who would obstruct its passage.
So the upshot of McChesney’s talk as we were running out of time was that a voucher system whereby every citizen could designate a certain amount of money to the non-profit news organization of their choice is currently the most viable idea on the table. And McChesney seemed to be of two minds about it, thinking it could possibly work, but he didn’t seem entirely sold on it if someone could come up with a better idea. No one in the room offered one.
My view is that the solution will need to be political and that just because the tea party congress is able to obstruct every good idea that comes along now, doesn’t mean they will have that same power forever. And when this current situation changes, we need to push our electeds for real public funding of newspapers. We can’t just say something is impossible because the tea party doesn’t like it at this brief moment in history.
What should media activists be doing?
McChesney said that the organization he co-founded, Freepress, has been successfully pushing back against complete corporate takeover of the internet for commercial and monopolistic purposes and encouraged everyone to sign up for their action alerts and newsletters. He encouraged everyone to contact our congressional representatives about media issues. I would like to see Freepress organize state groups of activists that could collectively work on media issues at the state and local levels.
It seems clear that if we are going to have journalism at the level we need for self-governance, it must be publicly funded.
There was one final depressing footnote to top off the evening. There was no press coverage of the McChesney event. I contacted both local papers, the Iowa City Press-Citizen and the Daily Iowan to find out why they had not sent a reporter. In my e-mail I suggested that being newspapers, they might recognize the public interest value of educating the public on why newspapers are still needed. Sadly, the Press-Citizen said they could not cover the event because they only had one reporter available to cover all events in Iowa City on any given evening and their lone reporter was sent on another assignment. The DI did not respond to my inquiry.