The Problem of the Media

Corporate values, horse-race coverage, double standards -- journalism's a mess. But, says Robert McChesney, there's real hope for a media system that truly serves the public interest.

| Mon Oct. 4, 2004 3:00 AM EDT

Robert W. McChesney is one of the nation's most vocal, and progressive, critics of the contemporary mass media system. In his most recent book, "The Problem of the Media: U.S. Communication Politics in the Twenty-First Century," he convincingly describes the ways in which corporate interests and values have distorted political news and discourse, and he outlines reforms that could create a media that truly serves the public interest.

McChesney is a professor of Communications at the University of Illinois. In addition to his writing and research -- he has written or edited eight books -- he is co-editor of the magazine, Monthly Review, and founder of Free Press, a media reform advocacy group.

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MotherJones.com recently spoke to McChesney about the upcoming presidential election, media deregulation, and the prospects for a thriving public broadcasting system.

MotherJones.com: I take it that you've been following coverage of the presidential election.

Robert McChesney: Unfortunately, yes.

MJ.com: Do you think the public has been well-served by that coverage?

RM: It's been horrendous. A big part of my book deals with the caliber of journalism. Our journalism in general is deplorable, and on elections in particular it's very ineffectual.

There are a lot of problems, a lot of them having to do with to problems within the professional code of journalism, which [defines its role as] the regurgitation of what people in power say.

Another big problem is that we allow people with money to basically buy what's talked about in campaigns through running TV ads. And candidate TV ads now are the lingua franca of our presidential campaigns, as we learned through the Swift Boat controversy. It means that journalism, to the extent that it exists, basically reports on the claims in these TV ads, but whether they're true or false seems less important than whether people believe them or whether they're effective.

Finally, an enormous double-standard has emerged. Through the way the system is set up, a similar set of facts for John Kerry or for George Bush, in the case of John Kerry get treated much differently than they would for George Bush. Or before that, Al Gore and George Bush, or Bill Clinton and George Bush. The conservatives have won the battle for the mainstream media, and they've won it dramatically.

MJ.com: Can you give some examples of how the candidates are treated differently?

RM: One need only look at the case of George W. Bush. Look at his business record prior to becoming president. Compare how Bill Clinton's business record is treated in the news media. Bill Clinton's Whitewater episode, which was a minor, small-time deal, generated countless articles and a special prosecutor that almost led to his impeachment. And they couldn't find a thing.

George W. Bush's business career, on the other hand, was almost exceptionally dubious. It was a succession of failures, basically, where he gets bankrolled and supported by people who want access to his father, and then later to him. It barely raised any notice in our media, whereas Bill Clinton almost got impeached.

One need only look at the Vietnam War coverage. George W. Bush compared to Al Gore or Bill Clinton, in terms of how they got out of the draft, there's like a 100 to 1 difference in the number of stories. Clinton was raked over the coals. Even now, here's this absurd situation where Kerry's getting raked over the coals by this Swift Boat stuff. It is utter nonsense, there's no factual basis for it, but it gets constant attention. And Bush's own military record, far more dubious, still gets far less attention.

MJ.com: Now you said there was no easy answer for why there's this double-standard, but could you try to give a short explanation?

RM: Well, I go into it for 20 pages in my book, but part of it comes from the power of conservatives to browbeat journalists, who are scared to death of being called liberal. Dan Rather is right now shitting five thousand bricks a minute on this thing that he just had bad sources on. Brit Hume has never shit a brick in his life over repeatedly spewing out nonsense about Swift Boats. I mean, there's no worry about that. Journalists know you can veer to the right and if you're ever accused you can just say you're just balancing off the liberal bias. But if you're accused of being a liberal, my God, that's close to being a pedophile.

MJ.com: You say that conservatives have won the battle for the mainstream media. If that's true, why has belief in the "liberal media" persisted?

RM: It's persisted because it's based on a lot of hard evidence, it's persisted because it suits very important political purpoose. It's worked very well. Conservatives at their own meetings will congratulate themselves for having won the battle of the media. But in the public they can never acknowledge it, they always have to say, "Well, the media's totally liberal." It appears to be a "heads I win, tails you lose" phenomenon. Any time there's an article critical of Bush, it's because of the liberal media. Any time there's an article favorable to Bush, they say, "Okay, fine, the media's got it right this time."

MJ.com: In your book, you also describe the current media system as "antidemocratic force." In what way is it actively hurting the democratic process in America?

RM: An informed public democracy means rule of the people. A media system is absolutely essential to that process, if people are going to be political equals, they to have to have the information and tools so they can actually be participants. That's liberal democracy 101.

Another question is, you look at the United States. We have an extraordinarily inegalitarian society for a rich nation. We have extraordinarily high degrees of voter apathy and lack of participation for a wealthy nation.

Then the question is, does our media system discourage these tendencies that are antidemocratic, or does it encourage them? Is the news media system overall doing the job to engage people who are not participating, to get them informed and active, or is it simply pouring gasoline onto the flames? And I would say that there's a little bit of each, and different media do different things, but on balance, if you add it all up, it is significantly and overwhelmingly an antidemocratic force.

MJ.com: In your book, you write about what's commonly called media "deregulation," which you claim would be more accurately described as regulation in the interest of corporations. Why do you describe it that way?

RM: Deregulation is a popular term that's used, and it's used by people across the political spectrum. And it's sort of one of these terms like "choice," that corporate interests have used because they know their focus-group buzzword testing makes it sound like a popular word. Because, I mean, who can be against deregulation? Being free, having liberty, not having someone tell you what to do, being deregulated, hey, that sounds great. But deregulation is a non sequitur in the realm of media policy or media regulation. The issue is never regulation versus deregulation; our entire system is built on media policies and subsidies. Even if someone wanted a purely free-market, competitive media system, it would require extensive government regulation to set up those markets. All our largest media companies are based on the grant of explicit government monopoly privileges and licenses, or franchises, or subsidies. The government didn't come in after the system was in place, it built the system in the first place.

So to understand how deregulation works in these debates, look at something like radio. This is an industry we were told was deregulated in 1996, when Congress, with no public participation, lifted the national cap at how many radio stations a single company can own. And understand that radio stations – there are roughly 11,000 of them in the United States – basically have licenses to monopoly rights to use the spectrum that no one else can use in the community. The government grants this monopoly privilege to private companies, at no charge. And in 1996, the government said, "Okay, we're going to let a single company own as many of these nationally as they want, and up to eight in a single community."

Overnight, radio was transformed, and turned into a commercial sewer. Companies like Clear Channel came along and bought up 1,200 stations worth. For decades they'd only been able to own 7, or 10, or 12. Local radio station ownership collapsed, and the system became the playpen of a handful of huge companies. And we're told radio's deregulated now, because capitalists can own more radio stations.

But it's not deregulated. If it was deregulated, someone could go up and start broadcasting at any signal in your community. You go try broadcasting on one of those Clear Channel monopoly signals and see how deregulated it is — you're going to end up doing 20 years in Leavenworth if you persist at it. Regulation is every bit as severe as ever before, but deregulation just means it's purely to serve private corporate interests. It has no pretense of serving the general public.

MJ.com: And when you have a system in which media and media policy are controlled by large corporations, do you think that this affects the day-to-day content of the news we see?

RM: Well, very rarely are you going to see the large shareholder or CEO of a corporation march into a newsroom and say, "Cover this story, don't cover that." It's a much more subtle process. The professional code adapts, but what we try to see, is how commercial and corporate pressure shape both the professional code and the sorts of things that are considered legitimate journalism and illegitimate journalism. And I think that's really the best way to understand it.

MJ.com: You said earlier that nothing in the last year has made you question the basic argument of your book. How does the recent upsurge of anti-Bush books and films, most notably Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, fit into your argument?

RM: As Michael Moore himself said, if our journalism wasn't so horrendous, there would be no [need] for Fahrenheit 9/11. All the information was readily accessible, we just needed someone like Moore to connect the dots. The existence of these books and documentaries shows that a significant part of the population actually likes aggressive journalism and is dissatisfied with what's available today.

Coverage of Iraq has plummeted, because people in power no longer want to talk about it suddenly. Journalists should be over there demanding front-page coverage, lead-story coverage every day. They should be demanding that no politician running for federal office can go to bed until they say what the hell they're going to do about Iraq and what how accountable they are for it.

MJ.com: In the book, you also offer suggestions for creating a more powerful, engaged public broadcasting system. Can you talk about some of those suggestions?

RM: Well, we don't really have public broadcasting in the traditional sense, which means well-funded, nonprofit, noncommercial service that provides the full range of programming, meaning entertainment, sports, drama, as well as news coverage.

If you go to go to countries in Europe or Asia or even Canada, even with all the Internet and cable TV and satellite, public systems tend to be the most popular stations in the countries. In some countries like Norway and Germany, public stations are, if anything, more popular than ever as people see what Rupert Murdoch's got in store for them in the commercial stations.

In the United States, commercial interests stole the airwaves early on, before public broadcasters could get a stab at it. And the deal that was made with public broadcasting was, "Okay, we'll allow there to be a handful of public stations to do the educational programming that commercial broadcasters don't want to do, but the deal is they can't do anything that can generate an audience, anything that's commercially viable. They can just do the shows that nobody wants to watch." Anything they do that could be commercially viable could be considered unfair competition to commercial interests and should only be on the commercial stations; they get first claim.

And because of that, public broadcasters are in a very difficult position. They've got to do shows that have a limited audience, then they've got to try to get a public subsidy for it, and politicians say, "Well, no one's watching your dumb shows, why should we give you money?" They end up having to appeal to rich people for pledge drives, so they do shows about ballets, and then they've got to get corporate underwriting, which puts distinct strings on the sort of content you're going to get and the biases that are built in. And I think it produces a very difficult situation, a downward spiral.

Now, the one thing that's clear is that we need nonprofit, noncommercial media — not just broadcasting — more than ever in the United States. We don't need a purely nonprofit, noncommercial system, but we need a significant nonprofit, noncommercial system. Advertising-run media, profit-driven media, simply is not acceptable as the entirety of our media system. There's no defense for it.

The current public television and radio system in the United States, while it's better than nothing, that's about the best you can say about it. It's nowhere near the standard it needs to be for our society, and we've got to make a commitment to rethink the system altogether. You know, just giving more money to what exists on PBS now would be not great; we've got to have a new vision of PBS.

MJ.com: While there are concerns now with corporate interests holding the purse strings of the media, wouldn't a public media have similar problems, just with the government controlling the money?

RM: This is a very legitimate concern. And I think the key solution there is to come up with policies that can have independent public media — not just broadcasting, but subsidies for other media too — that are accountable to some sort of public review, but at the same time are not under the thumb of government.

Ironically, the people who make that knee jerk response don't seem to be paying close attention to what we've got now, which is corporations getting massive subsidies, like the Fox News system with its TV system and copyright law, and then turning around and doing highly favorable, pro-government propaganda for things like the war in Iraq. One of the great ironies of the last two years has been that the commercial media in the United States is far more Pravda-like in its toeing the line for the Bush administration than the BBC was in Britain with regard to the Blair administration. So it suggests that just having corporate control and advertising support does not end the compromise with political power. In fact, it seems to be quite severe. And it also means that the public system doesn't, by definition, have to be Pravda. You can structure it in such a way as to have autonomy and accountability.

MJ.com: Sounds bleak. What do you think individuals can do to start moving media in the other direction?

RM: In the last two years we've seen a sea change in the United States on media issues. Two years ago, people would have read this, then opened the window on the ledge of the 18th floor and jumped. They would have said, "Okay, it's over, there's nothing I can do, it's just getting worse." But in the last two years, what we've seen is [that] millions of Americans have gotten aware of the issue, they've organized on it, they've risen up, and we're seeing the beginnings of a burgeoning media reform movement across this country.

That's very exciting, that's really in the process of doing exactly what needs to be done: getting people organized so that they can participate in media-policy debates, create policies that create a system that serves the people of this country and not just the interests of powerful corporations. I've been personally involved with a group called Free Press, which we started almost two years ago. It's been central in organizing media activism, getting people involved on a whole range of issues including public broadcasting, media ownership, copyright, Internet access, and the whole movement has exploded.

I'm a very optimistic person, because what I've discovered, and what all the people working with this issue have discovered, is that when people learn about this issue, when people hear about how the media system is not natural, is the result of policies, and when they learn how corruptly these policies are made by private, corporate interests, they get outraged. They don't like the lack of localism in their news media, they don't like the commercial carpetbombing of their children, they don't like the lack of campaign coverage, they don't like the vulgar fare that passes for entertainment. When people learn that it's not a natural system that Moses or God mandated, but in fact it's the result of corrupt policies, they say, "Well, let's change these corrupt policies."

And that's the moment right now, where people are waking up. And what it exposes is the Achilles heel of the corporate media system, which is always predicated on people buying the myth that it was a natural, God-given free-market American system. So I'd urge people to get involved. Not just with Free Press, but go to www.freepress.net, and we list all the groups that are active around the country, locally and nationally, hundreds of them, all the issues.

Get into this movement, demand that politicians address these issues, don't let them off the hook. Because what we discovered when we were able to stop the FCC from changing the media ownership rules in 2003 with 3 million people getting involved, is that politicians will listen if you organize well enough -- even corrupt politicians.

 

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