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High Noon for the News

Robert McChesney thinks government can save the news—but not without a fight.

News graphic

Are you ready for another big bailout? If you’re like many Americans—that is, fists clenched at the very thought—give Robert McChesney a chance to explain. In short, democracy needs journalism, says the influential media scholar and activist, and journalism desperately needs a life-preserver.

Keep him in proper perspective. McChesney has worked in the news business, but he left that career long ago to study the industry as a historian; now he’s one of its most scathing critics. McChesney, the Gutgsell Endowed Professor in the Department of Communication, describes American news with words and phrases such as “an abject failure,” “tepid,” “weak-kneed,” and “an antidemocratic force.”

News outlets have been acquired by giant corporations “determined to generate the same sort of return from them that they received from their film, music, and amusement park divisions,” he writes. “This meant laying off reporters, closing down bureaus, using more free PR material, emphasizing inexpensive trivial stories, focusing on news of interest to desired upscale consumers and investors....”

On this subject you could spend days reading his writings, viewing his videos, or listening to his commentary—the “dean of media historians,” as one colleague describes him, has written or edited 17 books and written 150 journal articles or book chapters—but suffice it to say McChesney makes a thorough case that American journalism took a wrong turn in the mid-19th century when newspapers resorted to advertising for revenue. They were previously largely funded by enormous government subsidies (newspapers accounted for 90 percent of U.S. mail in the 1830s, but thanks to subsidies they provided only 15 percent of mail revenue).

“Our founders understood that press was so foundational to having a Constitutional system that it was the first duty of the state to guarantee you had a viable press,” McChesney says. “There was no sense that you turned it over to rich people and hoped you got lucky. That wasn’t the thinking until rich people started making money at it.”

If this viewpoint reminds you of, say, corporate critic and former presidential candidate Ralph Nader (a recent guest on McChesney’s radio show), you’re not alone. McChesney draws similar response. Critics have called his ideas “naïve” and “Marxoid” (he did in fact co-edit the independent socialist magazine Monthly Review from 2000 to 2004, a fact he proudly includes in his curriculum vitae), and in 2006 prominent conservative author David Horowitz included McChesney in his book, The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America.

Robert McChesney

Yet McChesney’s ideas also resonate deeply, and for reason. You’d be hard-pressed to find an opponent whose criticism has stumped McChesney, and people fed up with the American way of news look to McChesney for leadership. He is co-founder and former president of Free Press, a national media reform organization with 600,000 members, and his 2000 book Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communications in Dubious Times still receives awards. He’s made 500 conference appearances or guest lectures, appeared on TV and radio more than 600 times, and hosts “Media Matters,” a weekly radio program on NPR-affiliate WILL-AM radio. In 2008 Utne Reader called McChesney one of “50 visionaries changing the world.”

Mark Crispin Miller, professor of media ecology at New York University, appeared with McChesney in the documentary Rich Media, Poor Democracy, detailing the influence of corporations upon news coverage. Crispin Miller calls McChesney a “dedicated public intellectual” who “has done far more than anybody else to help us understand the close interrelationship between democracy and media.”

McChesney’s commentary and study of media history has helped people understand that you can’t have democracy without a media set up in the public interest, Crispin Miller says.

“Bob’s work is not just of immense historical interest, but provides the basis of a very powerful critique of the commercial media system now in place—a system that is now collapsing, making Bob’s work timelier than ever,” Crispin Miller says.

That means McChesney has a lot of listeners—sympathetic or not—in this watershed moment. Newspapers are downsizing or closing, journalists are being laid off, and newspaper advertising revenue was down by 25 percent in 2008. Increasingly, government business is going unreported or underreported, and the rise of bloggers can’t possibly fill the void left by full-time journalists, McChesney says. He believes the country is facing a democratic emergency.

“Now that advertisers, for a variety of reasons, have found more effective ways to reach audiences or regard journalism not as effective as other methods, they’re jumping ship,” McChesney says. “While some will say some advertising will remain, it won’t be sufficient to bankroll the caliber press system that our society needs at a local and national level.”

In a March 2009 article in The Nation and in a new book set to be released in September, McChesney and his colleague, John Nichols, proposed a three-year, $60 billion economic stimulus for journalism, including eliminating postal rates for periodicals that garner less than 20 percent of revenues from advertising.

In return, publications would make at least 90 percent of their content free to access online. The plan also calls for funding a student newspaper and low-power FM radio station at every middle school, high school and college, to increase young people’s connection with the industry.

“The last thing I’m interested in is bailing out the same companies that destroyed journalism in this country,” he says. “We want to urge them to continue the process of getting out of journalism before they wreck it any further.”

Free speech advocates, however, and even some in the news industry, oppose the idea for fear that government intervention could lead to censorship or jeopardizing journalists’ independence. “The cost to the American taxpayer would be at least $60 billion, but the cost for the First Amendment and our democracy would be incalculable,” responds Adam Thierer, senior fellow and director of Center for Digital Media Freedom, in City Journal.

Mike Reed, chief executive of GateHouse Media Inc., tells Reuters in a recent story that the industry must reinvent its business model. “That’s not really the government’s problem,” he says.

McChesney counters that there won’t be much news industry left to argue over if nothing is done. He adds that government intervention doesn’t necessarily mean censorship, as shown in the 1800s, when subsidies were available to any newspaper despite its political slant.

“We’re in a deep crisis, and the sort of ideology that freedom of the press means that government does absolutely nothing about journalism, even to create positive institutions and funding for journalism, that’s not very productive,” he says.

There has been some movement toward intervention. Both the U.S. Senate and House have held recent hearings on the issue (McChesney’s colleague, Nichols, testified in the House), and U.S. Senator Benjamin Cardin, of Maryland, introduced legislation to allow newspaper organizations to become not-for-profit organizations. McChesney feels the crisis is so profound that some kind of government intervention may come within months.

“Crises also force some kind of resolution,” McChesney says. “The lingering problems that have been growing for decades have to get resolved one way or the other and I think we can come out of this with the best journalism this country has ever had.”

By Dave Evensen
Fall 2009