The Problem of the Media

David Barsamian interviews Robert McChesney

Z magazine, February 2006


Robert McChesney is president and co-founder of Free Press, an organization working to increase public participation in media policy debates, and to generate policies that will produce a more democratic media. He is professor of communications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and author of numerous books including Rich Media, Poor Democracy. His latest is The Problem of the Media.


BARSAMIAN: What is the problem of the media?

MCCHESNEY: The first response most people have is that the problem of the media is its lousy content and bias. The conclusion then is that if you have good media content, there's no problem. That's the conventional way-taking the system for a given and then evaluating the content the system produces.

What I mean by the problem of the media is the way a mathematician talks about a problem, that you have something you have to solve. Every society faces what I call the problem of the media-how you organize your resources and structures to produce information and content that people need as humans in a social environment. As societies become more complex and larger, the role and importance of the media grows proportionally.

Ben Bagdikian, in his 1983 classic, The Media Monopoly, identified 50 corporations as controlling most of the media. Today that number is down to 5. What are the consequences of that kind of concentration?

If you look at all these media firms, there are really three tiers. There is a first tier of maybe five or six conglomerates that are major players in a number of different sectors. They own all the film studios, all the networks, and they often own book and music divisions, cable channels, and cable systems. They are Viacom, Disney, Time Warner, General Electric, and News Corporation. The second tier is another 15 or 20 firms that are somewhat smaller, but are still major players. They might be major book publishers or Clear Channel Radio, something like that. Then, once you get past the first 20 or so, there are smaller firms that don't have a great deal of power and that exist mostly at the mercy of the largest ones because it's not profitable for them to go in and swallow them up. So it's not purely five that dominate everything.

The real issue? Is it acceptable to have this sort of concentration. There is very little evidence to suggest that having such concentrated control over media benefits anyone except those that have the political and economic power that comes with the concentration. The greatest impulse among media firms is to have company towns for media because you can ratchet down your costs and have one newsroom serve your newspapers, TV, radio, and cable system-one newsroom for the whole community. No competitive pressure. You have leverage over advertisers: they have to pay higher rates. That's why the biggest media companies desperately want to get ownership limits removed so they can gobble up all of the media in a single town. The profits will be off the charts.

It's like building a mining town in Montana owned by some Wall Street company. As they have more concentrated market power, they're going to do what makes perfect sense for people to do as capitalists, they're going to slash costs to the bone, they're going to shrink newsrooms, they're going to take fewer and fewer chances of antagonizing people of political influence and other strong economic interests in their community.

You also talk about drive-by journalism.

The crisis in journalism today has to be understood in the context of how we got to the high point of journalism. The notion of professional, neutral journalism- nonpartisan journalism-is a relatively recent phenomenon in the United States. For the first 120 years of the Republic, we had partisan journalism. Far more than the very partisan Fox News you see today. If you picked up a newspaper in those days, you knew instantly from the top half of the first page where they were coming from. In the 1890s, if the paper was Republican, it might not even cover a Democratic candidate for president through the entire election and think nothing of it.

That partisan system worked fairly well in the 19th century. The reason was that there was a broad range of partisan views. If you lived in a community in the mid-19th century, it probably had 15 daily newspapers. If you didn't like any of the 15, you didn't have to be a millionaire to start the 16th. Advertising played a small role, so a newspaper that had 5 percent of the readers could make a profit and survive.

The problem with that style of journalism came as market pressures emerged and companies wanted to get bigger and bigger. There were fewer and fewer newspapers. Advertising really forced a situation where, by the end of the 19th century, towns only had a couple of newspapers-except in the largest cities- and the economics became such that it was impossible to start a new newspaper. There was what economists call barriers to entry.

This was the spawning ground of the notion of "objective" journalism. More or less what happened was the owners and publishers of our major media said, Okay, what we have to do is no longer have explicit political control. We are going to have to cede that if we want to keep our system going so we can make money, we have to create a journalism where there would be what they called the Chinese wall between church and state where the editors and reporters would be neutral and independent from the owners who would make all the money and run it. The readers would trust the content and it wouldn't matter what the political views were of the owners. That was the theory behind professional journalism.

It was a way of distracting people from the consolidation that had taken place. Instead of looking at the owner, you looked at the journalists to see whether they were meeting the so-called professional code. There were no journalism schools in the U.S. in 1900. By World War I every major journalism school in the country had been founded.

Professional journalism had some good parts to it. I don't want to leave one thinking that this was necessarily a huge step backwards. The idea that journalism wouldn't simply be pushing the owner's political agenda, which was almost always a right-wing, pro-business, anti-labor agenda. To most communities that looked really good.

But at the same time, the way it evolved, it produced some very serious problems for professional journalism. To determine what a legitimate news story is, journalists rely on people in power to say what a legitimate news story is-what are called official sources or credentialed facts. So if people in power are debating an issue, journalists can cover it because they are "objective reporters." It makes journalism a prisoner of what people in power say.

How does concentration of ownership affect the news?

At its high point-I think the Watergate era is considered that-reporters had the liberty to root around and find good stories. That's sort of the golden age of professional journalism. Even then it had severe weaknesses. The coverage of the Vietnam War is a classic case. It went along with that war, got us into that war, swallowed government lies pretty much hook, line, and sinker. It's really since then that we've seen this two-pronged attack on professional journalism and whatever the benefits of professional journalism were, we've lost.

So now we've sort of got the worst of both worlds. The two-pronged attack on professional journalism has been, first of all, the corporate attack. This means that the largest media companies have entered a period of consolidation, abetted by government policies. This especially affects news because big companies buy up newspapers and broadcast networks with news divisions. The owners of these companies, which often have to pay a fortune to buy them, want the same return from their news divisions as they want from their other divisions.

That separation of church and state that existed under professional journalism-reporters and editors with a lot of autonomy and the owners keep hands off except to count the money-no longer made as much sense to the owners. Now they're saying, Why the heck should we give these guys all this autonomy when we're driving all our other divisions to maximize profit?

The thing that goes very quickly is international coverage. Who needs a lot of correspondents around the world? They cost a lot of money, they don't bring any money in. You can just use a wire service instead. Pick up Reuters or AP or just don't cover it. Who cares?

The next to go is local coverage. It costs a lot of money. It's sort of hard to do because you have to have reporters out there. Why not just have one person go cover the opening of the yogurt stand or something?

Then, worst of all, investigative journalism disappears-the sort of journalism where journalists go out and dig and get at stuff people in power don't want you to know. Our best journalism oftentimes is investigative journalism. That is anathema to these owners. It costs a fortune. It takes six months for a team of your best reporters to work on a single story. That's like flushing money down the tube. Those same reporters could be filing stories every day on easy stuff to cover, filling your news hole or your time slot on your TV show. Also, at the end of six months, they might not come up with anything and that's probably better from the owners viewpoint than if they do hit a home run because, when a good investigative story comes through, it's probably going to expose the people in power. Media owners don't want any part of that.

So investigative journalism makes no sense in the calculus of the corporation. As Chuck Lewis, former head of the Center for Public Integrity, says, "What passes for investigative journalism in the media today, almost entirely in the case of broadcast media, is really when someone in power leaks a document to a journalist because they want to get it publicized."

You also see a real softening of what the standards of journalism should be. So now, increasingly, there are celebrity stories, royal family stories, accident stories, stories that don't deal with the conflict of politics.

To what extent are journalists complicit in this game?

This is a difficult question to answer because for every answer you can possibly give there are going to be exceptions. I think the way to understand newsrooms is not unlike the way you understand any other organizational structure. You internalize the cues of what works and what gets you ahead. It's true in academia, it's true in business, it's true in any institution. So the journalists who are most comfortable internalizing the crucial values and do it naturally, not agonizing over it, are going to advance to the highest echelons.

Having said that, one thing I've learned-and it's really become clear in the last two or three years working with reporters in this country-is that there is a spectacular frustration among journalists with what's happened. The system has gotten so bad that this internalization process has gone haywire, the wires have gotten crossed, because it's almost impossible to internalize the current corporate values without twisting yourself into such a pretzel that you can't stand up. People who go into journalism tend to go into it because they really care-they want to contribute to their society, they want to help people govern their lives, they want to investigate people in power, they want to do good work. So many of them get out because they can't internalize the sort of new corporate ethos and they get very frustrated.

In The Problem of the Media you talk about a number of myths. I'd like you to address two of the most popular ones-the first being that the news media has a liberal, left-wing bias and the other is that the commercial media is giving people what they want.

The first part of the attack on "professional journalism" was the commercial/corporate assault on news-cutting back resources, covering trivial stories. The second has been this organized right-wing campaign to push journalism to the political right. That's done under the ruse of saying professional journalism, existing journalism, has a strong liberal bias. So for the last 25 years conservatives have worked incessantly to make the news media in this country more sympathetic to right-wing opinion, more hostile to left-wing or liberal opinion. Not the left-left-wing opinion has always been dismissed-but liberal opinion within the elite and the Democratic Party. This campaign has assumed a number of forms-creating right-wing media like the Washington Times and student newspapers as farm clubs for right-wing journalists.

Then there are the think tanks that have been created in Washington by the right wing, such as the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, and Cato. They are filled with well-paid pundits who spew out right-wing expertise for the media and are taken seriously, believe it or not, by journalists. The biggest claim that they hang everything on, is that the media has a left-wing bias and that therefore they have to bring it back to where it ought to be, in the center. But in fact what it's all about is pushing it strongly to the right.

Of course, the argument doesn't hold up as it is premised on the idea that working journalists and editors have the power to aggressively use the news to promote their liberal political agenda. It's just ridiculous. No one who walks into a newsroom today can possibly think that editors and reporters have complete control over the news, like there is some sort of hippy commune that can do whatever they please-they can suddenly start favorably covering the Communist Party and the owners and advertisers have no effect whatsoever on them. It's a nonstarter.

A special target of the political right for several decades has been public broadcasting. What's the evidence of left-wing bias at NPR and PBS?

Public broadcasting in the U.S. is quite unlike public broadcasting in most other countries in the world. In Britain, Norway, Germany, Japan, India, Canada- countries that have set up public broadcasting-it was intended to be a nonprofit and noncommercial service, with a full range of programming to the entire country. So you see sports and entertainment. If you lived in England in the 1960s when the Beatles would do commercial-free shows, they would do them on the BBC. That was the institution you did them on to the whole country. It wasn't a commercial enterprise. Those broadcasters had a direct relationship with their viewers and listeners.

Commercial interests in the U.S. stole the airways in the 1920s and 1930s. Public broadcasting was to do the programming the commercial guys didn't want-the symphonies and nature shows and serious stuff that the commercial guys were always being lambasted for not doing. Essentially public media was supposed to do programs there wasn't an audience for. If they tried to put on popular shows, some of the commercial broadcasters would go to their politicians in Washington and say, "Why are you subsidizing competition? Tell those guys at PBS and NPR to stop doing shows people want to listen to or want to watch."

It created a very difficult situation for the managers of public broadcasting in this country because they had to do the shows that only had a marginal audience. Then they couldn't get funding from Washington because why should they fund a program that no one is going to listen to or watch? Increasingly, it depended on two constituencies -wealthy and affluent viewers who could pledgedrive money and commercial institutions that would do the underwriting. The people who started public broadcasting in this country in the 1960s understood they couldn't have a BBC here. Commercial interests are too powerful. But what we could have is an edgy public broadcasting system, one that took chances, that covered communities that the big guys and the advertisers weren't interested in-immigrant communities, minority communities, young people, artists, controversial news stories. That was their vision. It was a great vision.

Public broadcasting's founding document, the Carnegie Report, says it should be "a forum for controversy and debate, and to provide a voice for those in the community who may otherwise be unheard."

That's right. But, of course, politically that lasted less than a nanosecond because, as soon as they started doing some good stuff, the politicians in Washington exploded. So they got the worst of both worlds: they didn't have the resources to do conventional programming that would attract listeners and they couldn't take the chances they were supposed to take because politicians went bananas. They were forced to stay within the same ideological confines as the commercial media without the resources to compete with them. In that context, the fact that they've been able to survive in the game for 40 years and develop what they've developed is astonishing. But it also explains the great weaknesses that people have chronicled in public broadcasting, even at its best.

Public broadcasting has been sort of in a downward slope, given this trajectory. Especially television. Radio has done better because the costs are so much lower. Along comes the Bush administration and they don't like a particular show on PBS, Bill Moyers's "NOW." The reason they don't like it is that Bill Moyers does journalism and that's something they're not very comfortable with. Since the Bush administration is in power and corporations have a lot of power in this country, Moyers's show got investigated a lot. This campaign was really driven by the Bush administration's concern that this show was on the air doing journalism.

So initially the pressure was from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting on PBS to balance the Moyers show. How do you balance a show that does journalism? It was just an absurd thing. Unfortunately PBS capitulated and the Moyers show was cut in half. Moyers left and was replaced by another journalist and they put on the "Carlson Show" and the "Wall Street Journal" to sort of "balance" the Moyers show. It was a sad day for journalism in this country.

We later learned that Kenneth Tomlinson, the head of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, secretly used public money to hire someone to monitor the Moyers show for liberal bias. That was the only show that was monitored like this. We also learned that Tomlinson secretly instructed a Republican polling firm to do a massive survey to demonstrate that Americans didn't like public broadcasting and that it had a liberal bias. This was outrageous, but this wasn't even the worst of it. Turns out the survey Tomlinson commissioned discovered virtually the opposite-i.e., that Americans didn't think there was a liberal bias to PBS. In fact, they found out that PBS had the highest reputation of all the broadcast media in this country. So does Kenneth Tomlinson, who is supposed to be working to foster public broadcasting, proudly announce this? No. He suppresses it.

If we're going to start talking about the problem of balance in public broadcasting, let's talk about the balance between the coverage of labor and consumers, on the one hand, and business. Public broadcasting is weighted down in shows about business and investment and looking at the world from the vantage point of the top 2 percent of the population-"Wall Street Week in Review," the "Bloomberg Business Report," and on and on and on. But how many shows are there about working people, organized labor? How many shows are there aimed at the 45 million Americans without health insurance and the conditions they face in their lives? Why isn't Kenneth Tomlinson concerned about balancing in that direction?

You say that this is a moment of spectacular opportunity. Talk about that and Free Press.

The whole idea of the problem of the media is that corrupt policy making created the situation we've got. We have to have informed public participation. We have to organize to force public participation in issues like media ownership, allocating the airwaves, Internet access, and public broadcasting. We shouldn't let these issues be decided behind closed doors. We have to get the public involved. This is something no one even thought possible five years ago. It wasn't even considered something you could do anything about. I thought it would be a difficult fight, too. The whole idea of Free Press, the group I started with John Nichols and Josh Silver in 2002, was that we were going to try to expedite this process, make this an issue. The only way you beat organized money is with organized people, the famous Saul Alinsky maxim. When we started, we thought it might take maybe 10, 20 years, it might be hopeless. It might be purely a wishful dream to think we could do this.

But it's taken off.

For a number of reasons it's exploded. We've had our second conference. We had 2,500 people there. We could have had 5,000. We had to shut down registration. It's an exciting moment because we're growing rapidly. The great thing about social movements is that when people are moving forward, the little things that can divide you go into perspective because it's not that big of a deal. The things that unite you, changing the world, draws people together. And that's where we are right now.

The reason it's working is that once people understand that media systems are something created by laws and policies in their name, it's like a light switch goes on and it's the easiest organizing we've ever done. Once we get out there, we win. That's why the other side, their whole strategy is to keep this thing under the table because they know once the American people have a chance to talk about what they want from the media, that the guys in power are going to lose, the corporations are going to lose.


David Barsamian is founder and director of Altetrnative Radio in Boulder, Colorado. He is the author of numerous books including Imperial Ambitions (with Noam Chomsky) and Speaking of Empire (with Tariq Ali).

Robert McChesney page

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