Robert McChesney, co-founder of Free Press, a national media reform organization. He is the author of several books on media and politics.
“We are in an information war, and we are losing that war,” said U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last week as she praised Al Jazeera’s dedication to “real news.” To win the war, Clinton called for expanding U.S. propaganda TV and radio broadcasts overseas. At the same time, public broadcasting and community media are under attack in the United States. Last month, the House voted to eliminate all financing for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting by the year 2013. We speak to Robert McChesney, co-founder of Free Press, and broadcast highlights from Amy Goodman’s three-day "Don’t Ice Out Public Media" tour in Colorado. [includes rush transcript]
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: We move from Libya to issues here at home involving public media. Public broadcasting is coming under attack. The House recently approved a bill that eliminated all financing for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting for the year 2013. This was the first time in recent memory that such a zeroing-out measure passed a vote.
The author of the bill, Colorado Republican Doug Lamborn, said, quote, "We live in a day of 150 cable channels — 99 percent of Americans own a TV, we get Internet on our cell phones, we are in a day and age when we no longer need to subsidize broadcasting." Lamborn went on to say, we now look at public broadcasting and decide, "Has the time come for it to stand on its own two feet?"
In the context of such wide-ranging funding cuts, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the U.S. is losing the global "information war." Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last Wednesday, she said the Arabic news network Al Jazeera is gaining more prominence in the U.S. because it offers "real news" and is far more effective both in the U.S. and abroad.
SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY CLINTON: Viewership of Al Jazeera is going up in the United States because it’s real news. You may not agree with it, but you feel like you’re getting real news around the clock instead of a million commercials and, you know, arguments between talking heads and the kind of stuff that we do on our news, which, you know, is not particularly informative to us, let alone foreigners.
AMY GOODMAN: To discuss the cuts in public broadcasting and Hillary Clinton’s calls for funding of state media to be broadcast abroad, we’re joined by Robert McChesney in Madison. Bob McChesney is the author of several books on media and politics. His most recent is The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution that Will Begin the World Again. Professor McChesney is also co-founder of Free Press, a national media reform organization.
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Bob McChesney. Talk about Hillary Clinton’s statements before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
ROBERT McCHESNEY: Well, I think Hillary Clinton, over the past decade, has been probably one of the most perceptive critics of American news media, going back to her work on the effect of advertising to children and the effect of commercialism on children in the first part of the decade. And this is another example of it. I think she understands the asininity of American corporate television news, how uninformed and misinformed it leaves the American people and how worthless it is, in the final analysis. And probably going abroad and seeing the problems of U.S. foreign policy and looking at Al Jazeera and other media and seeing what the people of the world are responding to only underlines the importance of this media critique she’s developing.
AMY GOODMAN: But Bob, if you could talk about her analysis, the description is Al Jazeera is offering real news; what the U.S. media is offering is not. But the prescription to pour millions into, well, state media broadcasting abroad?
ROBERT McCHESNEY: No, that’s bogus. That’s the wrong solution to a proper prescription. You know, currently the United States spends roughly twice as much money bankrolling international broadcasting — Voice of America and the various Radio Martís and things like that — than it does paying for domestic public broadcasting and community broadcasting, roughly twice as much — $750 million, roughly, last year. And the idea of raising that and putting more propaganda out to sort of enhance the view of the United States vis-à-vis other nations of the world is entirely the wrong way to go.
The smart thing is do is to take most of that $750 million, add it onto what’s being spent currently in the United States, and create a really dynamic, strong, competitive public and community broadcasting system that treats the U.S. government the same way it treats other governments, the same standard of journalism, then broadcast that to the world, make that fully accessible to the world. And I think that would show the United States at its very best. And that would be a voice that would have great appeal to people around the world who are yearning for freedom and democracy, and it would enhance the U.S. position in the world more than anything possibly could.
AMY GOODMAN: Let me go to a little more of what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said.
SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY CLINTON: We are engaged in an information war. You know, during the Cold War, we did a great job in getting America’s message out. After the Berlin Wall fell, we said, "OK, fine, enough of that. You know, we’ve done it. We’re done." And unfortunately, we are paying a big price for it. And our private media cannot fill that gap. In fact, our private media, particularly cultural programming, often works at counter purposes to what we truly are as Americans and what our values are. I remember having an Afghan general tell me that the only thing he thought about Americans is that all the men wrestled and the women walked around in bikinis, because the only TV he ever saw was Baywatch and World Wide Wrestling. So, we are in an information war, and we are losing that war. I’ll be very blunt in my assessment. Al Jazeera is winning. The Chinese have opened up a global English-language and multi-language television network. The Russians have opened up an English-language network. I’ve seen it in a few countries, and it’s quite instructive. We are cutting back. The BBC is cutting back.
So, here’s what we are trying to do. You know, in the State Department, we have pushed very hard on new media. So we have an Arabic Twitter feed, we have a Farsi Twitter feed. I have this group of young, you know, techno experts who are out there engaging on websites, and we’re putting all of our young Arabic-speaking diplomats out so that they are talking about our values. Walter is working hard with his board to try to, you know, transform the broadcasting efforts, because most people still get their news from TV and radio. So, even though we’re pushing online, we can’t forget TV and radio. And so, I look — I would look very much toward your cooperation to try to figure out how we get back in the game on this, because I hate ceding what we are most expert in to anybody else.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Hillary Clinton testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Professor Bob McChesney, one of the co-founders of Free Press, can you talk about the distinction between state media, like Voice of America, and public broadcasting?
ROBERT McCHESNEY: Well, yeah. The United States has had a strange relationship to publicly funded broadcasting historically. We spent much more, huge amounts of money, since 1945 to subsidize Voice of America, which is an English-language and actually multiple-language service around the world. And I think Hillary Clinton is right: it was, by the standards of American journalism, at the high end of broadcast journalism for much of the Cold War period. But it was not permitted to be broadcast in the United States. So we’re — the United States taxpayers were funding a world-class public broadcasting system, but they weren’t allowed to hear it. We were forced to listen to the commercial guys and a much less-well-funded public broadcasting system that emerged in the late 1960s. And, you know, this has always been a contradiction, a conflict of America, that — and we thought we don’t subsidize journalism, but we do. And the tension plays out right now because around the world people have access to quality information. And Hillary Clinton, I think, is accurate, that Al Jazeera is a very credible news source that is far more relevant to the people of the world, including this country oftentimes, than what passes for journalism either in our Voice of America but especially in our corporate news media.
And the way out of this, though, I think, as I’ve said before, is that we need to really have a huge subsidy for competing community and public broadcasting in the United States and then make that available to the world, show the world our best journalism, a journalism that is as critical of the United States government as it is of other governments, that has one standard of evidence, one standard of judgment, not a double standard. Nothing could be a more powerful statement to the people of the world that we’re committed to democracy than approaching it in that manner, rather than saying we have one message for the domestic audience, and we have another message for the world, and never the twain shall meet.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the Smith-Mundt Act after World War II, Bob McChesney, that addressed the issue of propaganda, the difference between public media at home and Voice of America, and explicitly state propaganda abroad. I mean, isn’t it true the [Smith]-Mundt Act made it illegal for the Voice of America to be broadcast at home, because it was considered propaganda?
ROBERT McCHESNEY: Yeah, and the main reason for that was that conservatives and some liberals feared the idea of having government broadcasting propaganda to the Americans. They had no qualms about government broadcasting propaganda abroad. But there was also a commercial factor. The big commercial networks in this country wanted a monopoly over Americans’ minds, and they didn’t want the American people to see what Europeans were able to see, which is that if you had a well-funded public service, the commercial guys really weren’t that necessary.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I just returned early this morning from a whirlwind weekend "Don’t Ice Out Public Media" tour through nine cities in Colorado. We rode snowmobiles between Paonia and Crested Butte over the Kebler Pass, were picked up by the program director at KBUT in Crested Butte with a gang of DJs on snowmobiles, and rode that pass so we could go from supporting KVNF in Paonia, the community radio station there, to KBUT in Crested Butte, in our trip. When we were in Paonia, Sally Kane addressed a group of hundreds of KVNF listeners, talking about the importance of community media.
SALLY KANE: The Communications Act of 1935 set aside a small spectrum of the airwaves to serve the public interest and to be free of commercial influence. For rural America, this public service is essential and vital. Ironically, it’s the rural stations who would suffer the consequences disproportionately if funding is eliminated. Once again, it’s cutting services to those who need it most, while protecting those groups who can afford a posse of lobbyists to defend their interests. I refuse to imagine my region without my community radio station.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Sally Kane, head of KVNF in Paonia, Colorado. Bob McChesney, your response?
ROBERT McCHESNEY: Well, I think the crucial point you’ve already made, Amy, and she made, is that the funding for public broadcasting in this country does not simply go to PBS- and NPR-affiliated stations. It also is a crucial form of support for community stations. In fact, the smaller the nonprofit station, the more important that support is for survival. So, this is really a central flight.
The other point that’s worth making, this has really nothing to do with the budget. The amount spent currently on public broadcasting by the federal government, and community broadcasting, is around $420 million. It is all about a political attack on dissidence, and it’s the only way it makes any sense whatsoever. The same people who right here in Wisconsin are doing everything in their power to make collective bargaining for public workers illegal are the same people who are leading the fight to get rid of public and community broadcasting. And it’s part of the same fight, which is to narrow the range of options and institutions that serve the broad people of this country, that provide a dissident view, and sort of stack the deck so that those who sit atop the system have less dissident voices they have to deal with and can run the country more peacefully, in their view.
AMY GOODMAN: We should also make clear that the CPB hasn’t been cut; it was just the House that voted —
ROBERT McCHESNEY: That’s right.
AMY GOODMAN: —- to cut the funding of public broadcasting. It has not gone to the Senate -—
ROBERT McCHESNEY: Exactly.
AMY GOODMAN: — and of course to President Obama to sign. There’s a large movement around the country that is taking this on, as they did 15 years ago when, during the Republican Revolution, Newt Gingrich, then the House Speaker, led the charge to cut public broadcasting. Finally, Bob McChesney, the Free Press conference is going to be taking place in April in Boston. We’ll be broadcasting live from there. But talk about the significance of this meeting of thousands of people and what you’re hoping to accomplish.
ROBERT McCHESNEY: Well, this will be the fifth National Conference for Media Reform in Boston. I’m more excited about this one than any of the other four, because I think politically in this country right now, with what’s happening in Wisconsin, with what is happening with the battle over public media, with the battle for an open and uncensored internet, the network neutrality fight, I think this is going to be an organizers’ conference. This is going to be an activists’ conference. This is going to be a conference for people to get engaged with issues and learn how to effectively fight, because I think what we’re learning now is that on issue after issue, the vast majority of the American people support us. They care about these issues. And all they need to do is drop a match on that prairie, and we’re going to have a fire. And that’s what we’re going to be doing in April in Boston. It’s going to be an extraordinary event.
AMY GOODMAN: I can’t help but leave you where you are in Madison, Wisconsin, by asking about the mass protests that have been happening here. It seems that it’s public that’s in the crosshairs, whether we’re talking about public employees in the huge controversy in Wisconsin, the huge uprising in the Midwest that we’re seeing, the protest against Governor Walker’s bill to end collective bargaining rights for many public employees, whether we’re talking about public employees or public media, the wave we’re in right now.
ROBERT McCHESNEY: You know, Amy, you’ve been here, and your listeners and viewers have had a chance to see it because of that and get a better take on what’s happening, but to experience what’s taking place in Wisconsin in the last three-and-a-half weeks has been nothing short of incredible. It’s nothing like I’ve seen in America throughout my lifetime. The karma, for lack of a better term, the solidarity across all public and private workers, and the sophistication and the grassroots nature — this is an entirely grassroots-driven thing. This isn’t like the Tea Party stuff where some corporate-funded think tank sort of bankrolls an operation and hires everything and makes the sign for you. This is genuinely grassroots. It’s extraordinary. And I think it’s one of the most promising signs we’ve seen. And the key development right now we need is for people — and I think it’s happening — to make the connections between the Scott Walker attack on unions and on public institutions, like public education and public broadcasting, to the broader problems in our economy, the stagnation, the inequality, the real dire issues, and the fact that we need a real reformation, a real renaissance in this country, going forward, that’s sweeping.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much for being with us, Bob McChesney, co-founder of Free Press, freepress.net, a national media reform group, author of a number of books, including his latest book, which is called The Death and Life of American Journalism.
This is Democracy Now! When we come back, Michael Moore on the steps of the Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin, addressing thousands of people. Stay with us.
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