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Robert McChesney and John Nichols on “The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution that Will Begin the World Again”

StoryFebruary 04, 2010
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University of Illinois Professor Robert McChesney and The Nation correspondent John Nichols, two leading advocates of the media reform movement, join us to talk about their new book, The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution that Will Begin the World Again. McChesney and Nichols argue that journalism should be seen as a public good and that the government should help save American journalism by granting more subsidies to newspapers and media outlets. [includes rush transcript]

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

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, 2009 was one of the bleakest years in memory for the news industry. One count found that 142 daily and weekly newspapers closed down, nearly triple the number in 2008.
Colorado’s oldest newspaper, the Rocky Mountain News, shut its doors last February. The nation’s oldest gay and lesbian newspaper, the Washington Blade, abruptly closed in November. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer scaled down to a web-only publication. The Christian Science Monitor became a weekly publication.

Many other news organizations slashed the size of their newsrooms. An estimated 90,000 workers lost their jobs last year in the newspaper, magazine and book publishing industry.

Our next guests argue that journalism should be seen as a public good, that the government should help save American journalism by granting more subsidies to newspapers and media outlets. Robert McChesney and John Nichols make their case in a book titled The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution that Will Begin the World Again. They argue that government subsides for journalism have a long history in the United States dating back to the founding of the country, when newspaper and journal publishers received large printing and postal subsidies.

AMY GOODMAN: Robert McChesney and John Nichols write, quote, “Like all public goods, we need the resources to get it produced. This is the role of the state and public policy. It will require a subsidy and should be regarded as similar to the education system or the military in that regard.”

Well, Bob McChesney and John Nichols join us here in New York. Robert McChesney is a professor at the University of Illinois. John Nichols is the Washington correspondent for The Nation magazine. Together they helped found the media organization Free Press. Their new book is called The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution that Will Begin the World Again.

Welcome, both, to Democracy Now!

ROBERT McCHESNEY: Great to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: Bob McChesney, “the media revolution that will begin the world again”?

ROBERT McCHESNEY: Well, that’s a quote from Tom Paine, because we think we’re in a moment of crisis right now for journalism, not just the sort of the long-term crisis we often talk about and you chronicle on this program, but really a freefall collapse in which, in the next few years, the decisions we make will determine whether we even have journalism as it’s been known traditionally.

The business model that has supported journalism for the last 125 years in this country is disintegrating. There will be some advertising, but much less. There will be some circulation revenues, but much less. And if we’re going to have journalism in this country, it’s going to require that there be public subsidies to create an independent, uncensored, nonprofit, non-commercial news media sector.

And we argue in the book, as you said, that we actually have a very rich tradition of this. The first hundred years of American history, the founders did not assume the market would give us journalism. There was no such assumption at all. They understood it was the first duty of a democratic state to see that a vibrant, independent, uncensored Fourth Estate exist.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And in terms of the — it’s not just in the early years of the republic, obviously, but the government has helped to subsidize the research into all the different technologies, whether it was the telegraph, whether it was radio, whether it was the internet, all of the work that was done by the National Science Foundation to fund the development of the internet. So there is a long tradition of this. But then, why is there so much resistance now to say, well, if journalism is in trouble, what should be the government’s role?

JOHN NICHOLS: Well, I think the most important thing that we bring out in the book, perhaps the vital message, is that there is a hidden history of the First Amendment, a history that was really stolen from us as we entered into a commercial age in the last century, century and a half.

At the founding of the republic, there was a deep understanding on the part of the founders that if you promise people freedom of the press, that was a wonderful notion, a great concept, but it was an empty promise, meaningless, if there wasn’t a press. You know, you say, “Well, we’re not going to censor you.” Well, if there’s nothing to censor, it doesn’t matter. And so, the founders understood, and well into the nineteenth century there was an understanding, that you never censored, you set up a landscape where independent journalism could be practiced and could come in all sorts of forms.

Since then, some of that understanding has remained, with creation of some of the technologies you discussed. But the theft of that definition of freedom of the press, that it really is uncensored, but also easily developed, and that when it’s needed it comes into play, that’s been stolen. And in the book, we talk a lot about who really drove the development of an understanding of a press subsidy system. It wasn’t Jefferson and Madison. They favored it. They thought it was a kind of a necessary evil, you’ve got to have it. The people who drove it were the abolitionists, the people on the outside, saying the original sin of the American experiment must be addressed, and they said, you know, we’ve got to have the resources to create independent, dissenting, small-town weeklies, and they did.

AMY GOODMAN: Go into that further. Who were these abolitionists?

JOHN NICHOLS: People you know. People who died, literally, struggling to create independent weeklies. African — freed slaves and runaway slaves, as well.


JOHN NICHOLS: Garrison himself. People who were killed at their presses.

The fact of the matter is, at the founding of the country, we had a baseline press subsidy system, but it wasn’t sufficient to really sustain it. And so, for decade after decade, there were congressional debates over how to extend it and whether to really take off the postal subsidies for the smallest papers, which circulated, you know, at a local level. It was the abolitionists who fought for it, people like Garrison and others. But the fascinating thing is, when you start to rip open this history, go to the truth, you find that Uncle Tom’s Cabin has scenes where post offices are being attacked by Southern slavers who don’t want the abolitionist press to be delivered. I mean, this is such rich, good history.

And what we understand, what we come to realize, is that we can create a system in this country today that allows the new abolitionist movements, the new dissenting movements, to have a voice. It won’t be a dominant voice. It won’t be as much as we’d like. But they can be in play. But if we don’t act now, we, the people, as citizens, we’re going to end up in a situation where the vast majority of our news and information is packaged by power, by elites, but the same people who didn’t want the abolitionists to have a voice 200 years ago.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Bob McChesney, I’d like to ask you, we got reports today, in today’s paper, CBS News is laying off another 100 people. ABC News is expecting a new round of layoffs. There are those who argue, well, the internet is providing now the kind of platform in news and information that the old media — radio, TV and newspapers — are no longer able to do so and that the internet will eventually supplant this, this is only a transition period. You argue in your book somewhat differently about the nature of newsrooms and their value vis-à-vis what’s appearing on the internet.

ROBERT McCHESNEY: Yeah, it’s a really important point, Juan, because, you know, everything is going digital. This program is largely received, or will be, digitally at some point in the very near future, not just on television and radio systems. And it’s not a technological argument we’re making about one technology supplanting another. We understand the digital times we’re in. The argument that’s crucial is whether the internet is going to provide the basis for substantive journalism to replace what’s disintegrating before us. And we go through this very carefully in the book.

And I think it’s obvious that if we want to look at actual resources, so people who get paid money to cover beats, who are accountable for them, who are competing with other journalists, who have proofreaders and copy editors and fact checkers and institutions to support them in their work, they’re just not happening online. The resources there barely exist. There are only a handful of journalists who can make a living doing journalism online. And what you have there, too, is if you’re seeking out advertising support, it puts journalism in a very compromised position, because there’s such a competition for the scarce ad dollars. It really undermines the integrity of news that is essential for a credible free news system.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, and even within the old media, newspapers are still the, as I say, the fountainhead of news. I remember once in 1985, I was at Philadelphia Daily News and Inquirer. We were on strike, and we were on strike for five weeks. And all my friends in TV came to me and said, “When are you guys going to go back to work? Because without you, we don’t know what to report.” This is the TV news.

JOHN NICHOLS: Hey, Juan, let me tell you how real that still is, and this is the scary part. There’s a new Pew Center study out. They actually studied Baltimore. They looked at where all the original newspapers came from. They looked at all the independent media, all the online, everything. They found that 96 percent, almost 96 percent — there’s a little debate about the precise figure, but well over 90 — came from old media, largely from the daily newspaper, the Baltimore Sun. But here’s the scary part: the footnote. The Baltimore Sun is producing 73 percent fewer original news stories today than twenty years ago. So new media is commenting on old media, but it’s not filling the void of news. Old media is giving us a lot less.

And so, you say, well, OK, come on, Pew Center folks, tell us, where is the news coming from? Who is generating it, if it’s not — well, it’s in there. Eighty-six percent of the stories came in the form of public relations, either from government or from corporations; only 14 percent produced by a reporter who went out and tried to speak truth to power. This is a scary zone we’re entering.

AMY GOODMAN: So you talk about these press releases and corporations. Let’s, instead of talking about old and new media, talk about corporate media and public media. Bob McChesney, you say the crisis didn’t come with, oh, the internet is just putting newspapers out of business. Explain that divide and what you think has brought journalism to where it is today.

ROBERT McCHESNEY: There’s been a long-term tension between private ownership of media and the public good that is journalism, what we need to govern our own lives. And it really, a hundred years ago, first became a major crisis. And that led — as newspapers became monopolized in city after city, you only had one or two newspapers in most cities in the country by the second or third decade of the century, except in the largest cities. And the solution then was the idea of professional journalism, that was sort of a reckless barrier between the newsroom and the owners and the advertisers. So you could — it wouldn’t matter if you only had one newspaper in a town, because professional journalists wouldn’t be influenced by their owners or advertisers. They’d be trained at J-schools, journalism schools, to do the right thing.

And that system worked, for better or for worse, into the middle or second — the final third of this last century. But what happened then is you saw the increasing conglomerization, concentration, takeover of newsrooms, both broadcast and print, by large chains. And they basically found a monopolistic environment, so they could gut newsrooms and get away with it, because no one had any alternative. So we saw the diminution of resources to news from the closing of Washington bureaus, of foreign bureaus, of statehouse bureaus, began in earnest in the 1980s, and it accelerated greatly in the 1990s, long before Google existed, long before the internet. By the time the internet came along, what it did is that it just sort pushed over the tottering giant. It accelerated the process. It made it permanent, but it didn’t create it, nor will it solve it on its own.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now you have some solutions, some unusual solutions, that you posited in your book in terms of how the country can invest in the infrastructure of news dissemination for the public. Could you talk about some of those solutions?

JOHN NICHOLS: We try. And one thing that we’re trying to do with this book, though, is open a dialogue, not close it. We think we have ideas. We want to throw them in the mix. But we throw them into the mix primarily to get people thinking about it and to say to citizens, you can be part of this discourse about the media that you want in the twenty-first century. You can have more Democracy Now!s. You can have more, all these institutions. But you have to figure out how to support them. There’s great people out there trying to do it, but they’re starving. How do we feed them?

And one of the things we suggest is that we’re losing a generation of young journalists right now, kids who want to go into this craft, who love it, for the same reasons that you and you went in some — a few years ago. And we have in America now an Americorps, where we say to a kid who wants to teach, you can go into a community, an underserved, rural or urban community, and start teaching there, and the government will provide a little bit of a stipend, some support. Why not a News Americorps, where we send young people into communities to work at community radio stations, to work in — to develop news sites in underserved places, maybe to supercharge a high school radio station, something like that? And why not, at the same time, supercharge funding to begin to get to something akin to European levels for public media, public broadcasting, and especially community stations around this country? There are simple things we could start doing right now, and these are not recreating the wheel. These are really policy choices.

AMY GOODMAN: What are those European models? How much do they put into public media, Bob McChesney?

ROBERT McCHESNEY: Well, I think the research we did in the book was really mind-boggling and eye-opening. Just start with the American tradition first, our own tradition in the first half of the nineteenth century. We wanted to compute, you know, this federal subsidy from the post office, which primarily was the distribution arm of newspapers — that’s 95 percent of its traffic — and the printing subsidies in the first half of the nineteenth century. How significant were they? And so, we actually went back and determined what percentage of GDP they were in the first half of the nineteenth century. If we had the same percentage of gross domestic product today, by the federal government as a subsidy to journalism, how much would the federal government pay? And it was $30 billion. I mean, it was such an enormous investment by the federal government to create a free press. It wasn’t just a piddly side thing; it was, after military, the largest expense of the federal government for the first seventy-five years of our history, into the Civil War period.

And then we went to look at other — you know, generally, when people ask about government subsidies, they think of Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, Pol Pot. They think of all these terrible dictatorships. We said, well, that’s not really the relevant comparison for the United States. We should look at other democracies. What are they doing in Europe and in Asia, and even in third world countries that are democracies? And what we discovered is, all of them, or almost all them, have significantly large public media, community media and journalism subsidies. They vary from country to country, but they’re all enormous compared to the United States. And if you look at northern Europe, for example, this average country up there in Scandinavia or Holland or Germany, in US terms, if you put it to per capita basis and put it in the United States, we’d have to spend between $20 and $35 billion a year to subsidize public media and journalism to be equal to those countries.

JOHN NICHOLS: And if I could just add, that figure sounds like a lot of money, especially when everybody in Washington is telling us that we’re broke. That’s about twelve weeks of the war in Iraq. That’s about four or five percent of the first bank bailout. And I would just suggest to you that when you go out and talk to Americans and tell them, for this investment, you can avoid the next war in Iraq, you can avoid the next big bank bailout, because we will really have information to serve civic and democratic purposes, rather than commercial entertainment, you’d be blown away by the extent that they get it. There’s a great disregard for the American people, especially in this issue. When we’ve been traveling around the country, we’ve been blown away by the extent to which citizens are scared and concerned. They’re afraid that we’re moving toward something very akin to a propaganda state, and they want to make sure that they have the information to govern. And that investment, while it’s a big figure, it’s a small figure when you look at what’s at stake.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to John Nichols and Bob McChesney. We’re going to break and then come back. They have co-written The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution that Will Begin the World Again. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Our guests are John Nichols and Bob McChesney. They both founded Free Press, and they’ve come out with a new book. It’s called The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution that Will Begin the World Again. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan Gonzalez.

So, you talk about subsidies for journalism today. People might be saying, wait, what about the separation of press from the state? Won’t that compromise it? Bob McChesney.

ROBERT McCHESNEY: Well, you know, it’s really the central issue we all care about. I mean, I think there are two great components of free press in the United States in our tradition. The first great component is the one we all know about, that government shouldn’t censor content, it shouldn’t regulate journalists, it shouldn’t prohibit anyone from entering doing media, like any of us. And that should never be compromised.

But the second great tradition of the American free press tradition is that it’s the first duty of the state to make sure free press exists. And that part has been lost in the shuffle. One of the striking things we discovered, Amy and Juan, when we did our research is we reread all the First Amendment cases of the US Supreme Court in the last hundred years, all the freedom of the press cases. And what was striking in Hugo Black, in Potter Stewart, in all the great cases, was the assumption that it was the first duty of a democratic government to make sure a credible Fourth Estate exists. Otherwise the entire governance of the country will collapse. You cannot have a democracy and self-government and the rule of law.

And when I read those words initially in graduate school thirty years ago, I didn’t pay any attention, because we had a press system. For better or for worse, it existed. You know, you might dispute the quality of it, but it certainly existed in sufficient quantity. And now, though, when you read those words, they jump off the page at you, because we’re seeing a disintegration. It really says that if we understand the First Amendment properly, it’s not that it condones our creating new media, it demands it.

JUAN GONZALEZ: In terms of some of the proposals you have in the book, you have one, for instance, about a tax — a federal tax credit that would help support media. Could you talk about that? But also in the context of the fact that — I wouldn’t say now that journalists have a high rating among the American public, that, generally speaking, there is a sense, in great proportions of the American population, that the media are part of the problem. Now, admittedly, much of that is directed at the commercial media, but even the fact that the nonprofit media doesn’t even register that much in terms of the public’s concern, the issue then becomes, how do you get the public to marshal behind government support of the media when there’s such a public discontent with the media?

JOHN NICHOLS: Look, the first thing you say is, we’re not here to save the media that gave you George Bush in a stolen election of 2000 or gave you the war in Iraq. I mean, that was a lousy media system, and if that system is going down, let’s not send the Coast Guard out. But, if we’re going send the Coast Guard out to save anything, let’s save some journalists. Let’s save the concept of gathering information and speaking truth to power.

And this — you know, you’re right. The surveys will show, do you like mainstream media? No, they don’t. But if you ask people, do you want information, and do you want it in an easily accessible way, where I can get it when I need it and not have to spend six or seven hours trolling the internet trying to find the truth? Yeah, they say yes.

You know, we frame our entire dialogue, and our entire message here, not for, you know, somebody who’s working in journalism, not for somebody who’s got an immense amount of time to consume journalism. We say this is not a dialogue about journalism, newspapers or media. This is a dialogue about democracy. And James Madison, for all of his failings — again, part of this hidden history — James Madison said that a supposedly democratic system without freedom of the press and access to the information that it provides is a prologue to a tragedy or a farce or both. What we’re suggesting is, this old media system, for however we refer to it, produced tragedy and farce: a war, an unelected president. What we want to talk about now is how we create a new media system that works and sustains democracy.

And you know what? At every event we’ve done across the country, and in dialogues all over — and I think, the truth is, you two know this — you start talking about it in that way, and you start saying these are public policy choices that citizens can be involved in, people get very engaged, and they come up with better ideas than Bob and I have written about already. And that’s where we want this discourse to go. We don’t want to end it; we want to start it. It’s going to take a long time, but if we don’t have this discourse, I can guarantee you, in the next ten years, we will move to a state where we will look back longingly to the days of the great media of the late 1990s or early 2000s. That’s how dangerous the future looks.

AMY GOODMAN: What are the latest issues that the Free Press has taken on? For example, the issue of net neutrality. Where is it now? Are the corporations, the cable companies, the telecoms, writing the legislation that would privatize the internet?

ROBERT McCHESNEY: They are. Right now, the phone and cable companies are putting a full-court press on on Washington to try to get net neutrality eliminated as policy, meaning that they would be able to privatize the internet, in effect, and determine which web servers — which websites, which services come through, and which don’t. And they would be like the cable companies. You’d have to pay them off to get through, and they could even prohibit you from going through if they wanted to. And it is a central fight right now. The future of the internet hangs in the balance.

And Free Press is leading the fight. They’re fighting at the FCC. They’re fighting in the court system. They’re basically fighting behind closed doors. They’re not doing it at Congress yet, but we have to be authority. And again, in this struggle, compared to journalism, with what Free Press is doing, we’re fighting the biggest lobbies in Washington, just about. And these are companies, AT&T and Comcast, that are not free market companies. They’re created by government monopoly licenses. They’re not very good at what they do. Consumers hate them. But what they’re great at doing is buying off politicians. That’s their specialty. That’s their added advantage over everyone else.

The journalism fight is a little different, though, that Free Press is engaged in, because there, the corporations are heading out the door. They’re saying, “See you later. We had a nice run for a hundred years. We cashed in our chips. Now we’re moving on to something else.” Here, there’s this massive void we’re trying to fill, and I think it’s a different political fight for that reason. And it gives us hope that we could have more success, since the sort of stuff we’re talking about will increase journalism. And actually, if you look at European countries, those countries that have instituted the most journalism subsidies for independent, community and public media, for alternative newspapers, the private media prosper, too, the private journalism, because there’s a real community of journalism, and the sort of the tide raises all the boats. So, there, I think the political fight is — we’re farther away from people envisioning that we have the power in us to change it, but we don’t have the same direct corporate opposition that we face in net neutrality, where truly we’re fighting giants that are determined to destroy us.

JUAN GONZALEZ: One of the interesting things, though, about this net neutrality fight, what’s different, is that they’ve not only — the telecoms have not only bought off the politicians, they are increasingly neutralizing and winning over major civil rights organizations, so that in the past, where civil rights movement was part of the movement to democratize the media, what’s happening now, unfortunately, is, whether it’s the National Council of La Raza or several of these other civil rights groups, they’re lining up now with the telecoms on this issue and making it a lot more difficult to build a more solid mass movement around it.

JOHN NICHOLS: Well, Juan, these are the struggles we always have. And again, these are — Joe Rogers has this phrase, an offhand phrase, but one that describes it: you know, hungry people fighting over food don’t demand what they need, right? And so, we have many groups that have limited resources, especially in this bad economic time, and so the telecoms and others are looking around for anybody that they can influence.

But I want to defend a lot of folks in the civil rights community. Congresswoman Donna Edwards, a person who comes from civil rights and activism, has been just incredibly outspoken on these issues and has fought hard. Members of the Congressional Latino Caucus — or Hispanic Caucus and Black Caucus — we have many allies. Not as many as we want. We’re fighting. But I honestly believe that that’s not the core challenge. It’s a part of it. It’s one we have to be concerned about. We’ve got to do a lot of movement building.

But the core challenge is when policy is made behind closed doors, when we don’t have the light of day on it. And that’s what the telecoms are trying to do. They’re trying to come in at a moment when we have so many other issues we’re worrying about — wars and a bad economy and all that — and move behind the scenes. Our great struggle is to push this into the open. And we have, amazingly enough — and I’ve been very critical of President Obama on a lot of issues, but just the other day, he said, in a YouTube interview, that he’s passionately in favor of net neutrality, that it is absolutely essential, didn’t back off a bit. And that’s important, because everybody’s looking for the tiniest opening. The bad guy is looking for the tiniest opening. The President sent a good signal there.

AMY GOODMAN: What about Comcast’s takeover of NBC?

ROBERT McCHESNEY: Well, it’d be horrible. It’s exactly the wrong direction to go. You know, I think this gets back to the journalism issue again, because, you know, it’s funny, people say, well, if you subsidize independent, nonprofit, non-commercial media, you’re letting the government get its hands in the way. Well, if you do nothing, what we’re evolving to very rapidly in this country is sort of a nexus of corporate power and government power, where corporations are driving it, much like the Gilded Age, but, you know, on steroids. That should frighten anyone who’s genuinely concerned about government power. And when you allow — the government allows these companies like Comcast and NBC, both of which were built on government monopoly licenses — these are not
free-market companies, they’re built on government monopoly licenses — to merge so that the same company that dominates internet service provision also is producing the content that goes over those wires, so it has a stake in basically setting up a private network.

JUAN GONZALEZ: So, like Cablevison and Newsday here in New York, the same thing.

JOHN NICHOLS: And in communities across this country.

ROBERT McCHESNEY: Everywhere, and wiping out any alternative voices. It is exactly the darkest Orwellian future. It’s why the journalism fight now is so important, because it has to be the counterbalance to this combined corporate-government power.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to leave it there. I want to thank you both for being with us. Robert McChesney and John Nichols, their new book, The Death and Life of American Journalism.

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