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The Problem of the Media: U.S. Communications Politics in the 21st Century

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We speak with University of Illinois professor Robert McChesney about his new book, The Problem of the Media: U.S. Communications Politics in the 21st Century. McChesney is the author of eight books and is the co-founder of Free Press organized which last November’s National Conference on Media Reform. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: We’re going to move now to another guest, Robert McChesney. He is a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, the author of many books on the media and most recently his latest book “The Problem of the Media: U.S. Communication Politics in the 21st Century.” Welcome to Democracy Now!

ROBERT MCCHESNEY: Great to be here, Juan.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Bob, could you talk a little — your new book, what I found interesting about it, the — you’ve gone a lot more in this book into sort of the history of the development of communications and media policy in the United States, actually, going back to the time of the founding fathers in the first debates that occurred among U.S. leaders about what should be the role of government in the promotion of a free press. I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about that.

ROBERT MCCHESNEY: Yeah, I’d be glad to. I think right now there’s some important scholarship that is coming out, not just myself, Paul Starr at Princeton has a new book out “The Creation of the Media,” which discusses this, too, which really demonstrates that our media system historically, through to the present day, has nothing to do with free markets and magical technologies. It has nothing to do with some biblical command from Moses or the founding fares, but in fact it’s due to a policy making, subsidies, government monopoly franchises that lay the foundation for how our media system will work, who has power, who doesn’t what the logic is going to be. And what’s extraordinary, when you look at the history, is, at the founding period of this republic, there were tremendous media subsidies, press subsidies or printing subsidies and especially postal subsidies, which were used to really spawn a much more diverse, wide open and democratic press then would have existed if we just left it to the market. And the moral of the story, why this is important is, it gives us today as citizens who are dissatisfied of the caliber of journalism we’re getting and dissatisfied with the type of media that we’re getting, the power to know that the system we have today isn’t natural law, but a result of policies. Today though unlike in the first generation of the republic, they’re made extraordinarily corruptly behind closed doors by powerful special interests. But armed with this knowledge, as real citizens in a democracy, we have an obligation, not just a right, but obligation to establish free press.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And in terms of those postal subsidies, I think that most of us are not that aware of the mass media. How were the postal subsidies used to promote a greater variety and diversity of viewpoint?

ROBERT MCCHESNEY: You know, when the post office was put in the constitution, one of the first great acts of Congress was to pass the Post Office Act in 1872, it was by far the largest federal agency. It was the most important federal agency because it was going to be the body that linked the entire country. But what a lot of people don’t understand, and there’s no reason they should, is that in the 1790’s, well over 70 % of the traffic of the post office was newspapers. By the 1830’s, it was 90 %. Basically the post office was the communication system for our press, for our free press. That’s what it delivered in those days. It was all about media and press. And the key question that the first Congress had to resolve and it was debated aggressively in Congress thereafter, is what to charge publications to be mailed. And no one thought you should charge them the full expense. They knew that would throw out all the marginal, all the small, and dissent publications couldn’t survive if they had to pay the postage expense to be distributed. The debate was whether you would have had a heavily subsidized press system on one hand or on the other hand is the total free mailing for publications to encourage the diversity of ideas and that’s how the debate volleyed for a long time and it really worked. When Tocqueville came to the United States in the 1830’s, he wrote on and on about the plethora, range and extend of literacy in the northern states and print material way beyond anything in Europe, that wasn’t the result of a free market, that was the result of aggressive but enlightened and aggressive policies, which really made it possible to have a rich, diverse press that the market never would have supported.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And in terms of — you also talk about a variety of myths that you try to explodes in the book and one of them, of course is, and we who work in corporate media hear this all the time, that the media are giving the people what they want and that they’re only responding to, in terms of what they produce in the news or on broadcast in terms of the desires of the public, they’re not trying to shape those desires in any way.

ROBERT MCCHESNEY: Well, that’s a crucial point. A lot of my work tries to address this, because if you can’t address this successfully, we can’t win your fight. That is really sort of their trump card at all times. To give some example of how flawed that is, it takes a complex relationship between supply and demand and makes a vulgar and simplistic relationship. But you can get some sense of how flawed that is, consider this: Just two weeks ago in the “New York Times” there is was major study that was reported on by the ad industry that had been commission by the ad industry, which showed that something like 65 % of Americans today are dissatisfied with the amount of commercialism their media and with the amount of advertising — they want a lot less advertising and commercials is said. But I have news for you: That’s something they aren’t going to give you. They’ll give you what you want, but only within the range of makes the most money for them, which is a much narrower range then what people should have in a free society. No one likes their children carpet bombed with advertising. But we’re not given that option because there is so much money to be made there. Then once the children consume these products marinated in advertising, they tell us we’re giving you what you want.

JUAN GONZALEZ: It’s been about six months since the big Media Democracy Conference out in the Midwest. It’s been about a year now in Madison, Wisconsin, the conference was held that you were a prime organizer of. It’s been about a year now since the up surge of protests against the FCC, the changing of rules in terms of media ownership. Where do you see the battle over a more democratic media right now? And people are still obviously waiting for the federal court decision in Philadelphia. But where do you — how does it stack up right now?

ROBERT MCCHESNEY: Well, in a way what we’re doing now is we’re trying to cap a gusher because we saw this explosion of political interests in media. As soon as people understand that media wasn’t something you could do anything about, that it was God-given or the founders demanded that we have this sort of media system, as soon as people understood that wasn’t the case, their media system is actually a result of policy, sort of put in place in the public’s name, but without our informed consent, people could get involved in change the policies, change the structure and change the caliber of the media–all bets were off. And suddenly we saw this explosion of interest. Three million people approximately have been in touch with Congress or the FCC to talk about media concentration. So, we’re trying to cap this gusher. And there is a lot of groups out there, including Free Press, the group I work with at freepress.net and we have got a lot of organizers working on it. One of the exciting thing about media, for years we were told this is an impossible issue to organize around, media policy. What we are finding is that once people get this understanding that they are allowed and they have to, they have a responsibility to these policies, it is just the opposite. People are excited to work on it. That is whole range of issues, starting with things like media ownership, preventing concentrated ownership, trying to encourage local media ownership or minority media ownership, but also coming up with policies in terms of copyright, things people might not think about on the surface as being important, but the tremendous importance for the ability of a free press to survive, of ideas to circulate without having all sorts of commercial barbed wire throughout the culture. I would recommend people go to the website freepress.net because it has a full catalog of the issues being worked on and the groups, and there are hundreds of them now, across the country working on these issues.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But now, ever since the Super Bowl, the attention in terms of media policy by at least the corporate media, has shifted now to the battle over decency on the airwaves. Do you think this is largely a distraction? Are there any interface or links between the general media democracy movement and this revulsion against the continued exploitation of sex by some of the — sex and profanity — by some of the media companies?

ROBERT MCCHESNEY: Oh, yeah. I think that, you know, the way it’s covered and portrayed as an issue just censoring some out of line disk jockey is really a very comforting way for the corporate media to go by. The real issue here is why do we let one company, in this case VIACOM, which owns CBS, Answer, Infinity Radio and Paramount Pictures and Simon & Schuster and Blockbuster and MTV and Nickelodeon and Showtime, why do we let one company dominate our media so much? Why do we give them so much power? 'Cause what we see in our media, and I think it's not even debatable, the more concentrated commercial power we put in the hands of the huge companies like VIACOM, like Clear Channel, the more they use that power to do vulgar affair. And the vulgarity is at its all-time highest on the largest companies because it is the cheapest way for them to generate an audience without doing character development and plot. It is a proven winner for inexpensive attention getting and it is the way you make the most profits. It is not for nothing that you don’t see people complaining about vulgarity on community stations or public access stations for the most part. Vulgarity in the sort of crass commercial sense simply only exists in a commercial environment.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Also in terms of the — of other issues that is are now coming up before the FCC that the public should be aware of that may have a major impact on a greater democracy of greater accountability by the media, are there any upcoming over the next few months that you want to alert the public about?

ROBERT MCCHESNEY: Not just the FCC, but at Congress, too, there’s a series of crucial issues about funding for public broadcasting, which is constantly under threat. Public broadcasting has its weaknesses, but it is an institution of principally having noncommercial media is something that is invaluable for a free society. That’s crucial. An issue I know, Juan, you’re concerned about, which is the ability of journalists to get paid for overtime, which is now under threat by the Congress and is something that we’re fighting on there right now. Because you can’t have a free press of journalists who are working 60-70 hours a week and you don’t have control over their labor. The quality of work simply can’t survive in that crassly commercial, exploitive environment. And then internet access. We always talk about how great the internet is and it’s done some wonderful things. But it is not going to be greats if its’ become sort of a commercial duopoly where the phone companies and cable companies can bilk us out of a lot of money because they have monopoly wires into the house. We need creative policies to blast open the internet to make it accessible to everyone, to make it accessible inexpensively to everyone in this country and also for noncommercial utilization. Not to turn it into like the Walmart of the ether.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And finally in about a minute that we have left, the conference that you’re attending there in St. Louis, can you talk a little bit about that?

ROBERT MCCHESNEY: Yeah. It’s a group called The Union for Democratic Communications and it is a group of progressive and activist media scholars in this country. It is a small group, I regret to say. I wish we had thousands here. Instead there will just be a few hundred. But it is people who really believe strongly that academics who have tremendous privileges that I have and other people who are university professors have an obligation to do public outrage, to talk to citizens on these crucial issues, to link up the privileges, we have to do this research and put it in terms that can weigh in on the important political debates we face. And the media, this is more important than probably any other area I can think of because we have these crucial public issues. And if the scholars don’t step forward and work with citizens, we will have a much more difficult time having a democratic free press.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, I want to thank you, Bob McChesney for being with us. Robert McChesney one of the major media scholars and critics in the country. His latest book “The Problem of the Media: U.S. Communication Politics in the 21st Century,” and I urge you all to get a copy. Of course, his classic “Rich Media, Poor Democracy” is used in media courses and by community groups all around the country. And that pretty much does it for today’s show.

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