Robert McChesney is Professor of Communications at the University of Illinois
at Urbana-Champaign. He is a leading critic of corporate media. He is the
author of Telecommunications, Mass Media and Democracy. His latest book
is Rich Media, Poor Democracy, published by University of Illinois Press.
DAVID BARSAMIAN: Will Rogers once said, “I only know what I read in the
newspapers.” If Will were around today and looking at the media scene and
opening up the newspapers, how much would he know?
ROBERT MCCHESNEY: He would probably have a pretty good idea of what life
is like for an upper-middle-class or upper-class person living in a suburb
in a 5,000-square-foot house with investments and doing e-trade, because
that’s the world of our newspapers today. But all of our journalism and
media increasingly are pitched along the class divide of our society. If
you take newspapers as an example, in the 1940s, every major daily newspaper
had at least one or two labor reporters or editors. Some estimate that
there were over 1,000 in the country.
Today, you know how many full-time labor reporters we have? Less than a
half-dozen. From as many as a thousand to five or six. At the same time
the number of business reporters has increased so exponentially that I
don’t even think they call them business reporters any more. They’re merged.
Like cable TV news today, if you watch the Fox news channel, or CNBC or
CNN, business news and news are almost interchangeable now. CNN’s flagship
news program is called Moneyline. It’s entirely geared towards the markets
that advertisers are interested in, which is the upper middle class. Newspapers
have written off the bottom 30 or 40 percent of the populations in their
markets. Often they don’t even sell papers in poor neighborhoods.
Another change that Rogers may have noted is how few newspapers there are.
New York once had seven major dailies. Now it’s down to three. In Houston
and lots of other cities around the country there is only one paper.
There are only a handful of cities with competing dailies with different
owners, where they don’t have some sort of cartel agreement. Something
like 98 percent of American communities are one-newspaper towns. These
newspaper companies have discovered that they can make a fortune by low-balling
journalism and using lots of syndicated material and fluffing it up. In
1985 Gannett, one of the big chains, bought the Des Moines Register, historically
one of the great American newspapers. The Register at that time had a full-time
reporter in every county in Iowa, so wherever you lived you could follow
state politics. Gannett, which owns 100 monopoly newspapers around the
country, said, What are these jokers doing for the bottom line? and fired
almost all of them. They shifted the coverage to focus on the wealthy suburbs
of Des Moines and the business community. Their profits shot up. Their
costs went down. They ran syndicated material, comics and wire service
articles. But the citizens of Des Moines, of Iowa, lost out. There’s no
coverage of their state.
You make an urgent connection between media and democracy. Why?
This is nothing original. Obviously you can’t have a plebiscite on every
decision. But people in representative democracies can make the fundamental
value decisions and elect people to implement them. That’s what we can
hope for. To have that be effective and viable, you need some sort of media
system that’s going to do two things. First of all, it’s going to ruthlessly
account for the activities of people in power and people who want to be
in power so you know what they’re actually doing. Secondly, it’s going
to give a wide range of opinions on the fundamental social and political
issues that citizens need to know about. It doesn’t mean that each medium
has to do that, but the system as a whole has to provide that as an easy
alternative for people who want to participate as citizens. That’s the
test of a media system in a democracy. By that standard, our current media
system is a fiasco.
There’s been a huge explosion of “trash media.” What accounts for it?
The conventional wisdom is that it’s demand-driven, that the audience is
demanding more stories about car crashes and JFK, Jr. There’s an element
of truth about that, to the extent that if you’re fed a steady diet of
something, eventually you’re going to demand it. It’s a given. But the
real motor force behind it isn’t demand. It’s supply driven. The reason
why this sort of journalism dominates is that it’s inexpensive to do. It’s
extremely non-controversial to anyone in power. It will attract an audience.
It doesn’t take skilled journalists. Take the same reporters covering the
JonBenet case and have them examine toxic waste dumps in the U.S. Take
all that human labor and money into that. The same money would probably
cover a lot fewer stories, because it takes a long time to do and it takes
six months to break a story. Then if it does pan out you’re going to get
some very powerful corporate and governmental interests pissed off at you.
That’s the last thing these corporate media giants want to do. People consume
it and the media bosses say, People are really interested in this. Take
the OJ trial. Even I was interested in whether Kato Kalin was going to
get a job after a year of this. You get exposed to enough of it and it
becomes a sort of soap opera.
The corporate media managers, the conservative critics of your argument,
will say, Look, that’s fine. We are giving the public what it wants. The
proof of that is that they can vote with their remote. They can just click
off that “Seinfeld” rerun if they don’t want to watch it. No one is force-feeding
The relationship of supply and demand isn’t one of obedient media giants
giving you whatever you bark out your command for. It’s a complex interactive
relationship. Let me give you one example of how that works. In the mid-1970s,
10 percent of the films exhibited in theaters were foreign films, made
outside the U.S. In the mid-1980s it was down to 6 or 7 percent. Today
it’s one-quarter of 1 percent. In the traditional give-the-people-what-they-want
theory, this would mean that some time in the last 20 years the American
people said, Get these foreign films out of our theaters. We hate them.
We refuse to go to them. But that’s not what happened. It was the direct
opposite. Starting in the mid-1970s, single-screen theaters were replaced
by multiplexes. One camera person operates all 12 screens. One popcorn
crew operates all 12 screens.
All the foreign films were coming into single-screen theaters. So there
were two dozen foreign film theaters in Manhattan alone in the 1970s. Today
I think there’s one, if that. Cities like Seattle, where I lived, had six.
It was commonplace. But those sorts of theaters were replaced by these
multiplexes. So then when a French or Japanese filmmaker came to the U.S.
and wanted to screen a film, the multiplexes said, You have to be in all
215 multiplexes, and you have to pay a marketing budget equivalent to what
a Hollywood studio spends to buy those big ads that you have to run the
weekend before you come out. The amount of money was prohibitive for them,
several times more than they paid to make the film. Over time they stopped
being carried. I ask my students, How many of you watch foreign films?
Most of them don’t even know they exist. They don’t have a chance to be
exposed to them.
It’s actually ironic, given all the claims made about the market. It’s
a very poor mechanism for creativity. Look at popular music. These record
companies are desperate to make money. So they want to give people what
they want, the five companies that sell 90 percent of the music now, all
but one part of these huge giants we just named. The problem they have
is that the commercial impulse isn’t always very good for creativity. All
the great breakthroughs in rock and roll and popular music in the last
40 years have been outside of their web. It happens in the nooks and crevices.
Once these corporate guys get hold of it, they try to recreate it. Real
creativity can’t be sparked on Wall Street.
What are the implications of the recent court ruling on Microsoft? The
judge commented on the “predatory monopolistic tendencies and actions of
Microsoft.” Were you surprised by that decision?
A little bit, but not especially. They were guilty as charged. At the same
time, I’m not breaking out any champagne bottles over it. First of all,
what Microsoft did was just classic capitalism. If you’re an investor in
Microsoft, you would want them to eliminate competition. Oracle, Sun Microsystems,
all of them would do that had they been in that position.
I asked Noam Chomsky about the increasing media concentration. He said,
There’s not much evidence that the media before all these takeovers and
mergers happened were producing any better product.
I would disagree in one way. I think Chomsky’s generally right in the sense
that to romanticize more competitive markets is wrong. There were fundamental
problems with our media system before. But what has happened with concentrated
ownership is that what autonomy journalists did have, and they didn’t use
it very effectively for the most part, has come under sustained attack
by corporate owners and advertisers. The result is a softening of news
stories and a reluctance now to attack major advertisers. That wasn’t the
case ten or twenty years ago. You see a real merging, the breakdown of
the separation of editorial and commercial content. As a result, journalists
who used to be the foremost defenders of the commercial media system are
now some of its strongest critics because they can see that the profit
motive and commercialism undermine their ability to do anything remotely
close to public service journalism. That’s a big change. And that has only
taken place due to concentration.
The founding document for public broadcasting in the U.S. is the 1967 Carnegie
Commission Report. Among other things, it said that public broadcasting
programming “should serve as a forum for controversy and debate,” be diverse
and “provide a voice for groups that may otherwise be unheard.” In the
about 30 years now of PBS, the TV service, as well as National Public Radio,
how closely aligned has the programming been to those founding principles?
It’s almost nowhere near those principles. In fact, if one were to look
at NPR or PBS today and say, What groups in society is it trying to give
voice to? it would not be the dispossessed, the marginalized, those outside
the power structure. It’s giving voice to the business community, the entrepreneurs,
the upper middle class. I don’t think anyone can claim otherwise. In NPR’s
audience data that they provide when they’re trying to appeal to underwriters,
they’re bragging about the wealth, education, and sophistication of their
In some of the discussions about public radio and TV, there’s an underlying
current that when they weren’t as well funded and didn’t have as many listeners,
the programming was more cutting edge.
I’m not an expert on that. But my sense is that in TV, for example, prior
to the 1967 Public Broadcasting Act, National Educational Television, an
early version of PBS, actually did some cutting-edge antiwar and civil
rights stuff. They got tremendous political heat because of it. That’s
always been the case. When good stuff does get through that goes outside
the boundaries of the establishment commercial system, that takes chances,
they invariably take heat from Washington. It’s sort of the worst of both
worlds for public broadcasting. On one hand, they have to turn to corporations
to support them because they don’t get enough government support. On the
other hand, they get enough government support that whenever someone takes
chances they get reamed by political forces. The result is the tepid programming
that you get.
But there’s a fundamental issue here that’s even more important in public
broadcasting and that is to understand the dilemma historically. Public
broadcasting in most places in the world, Canada, India, Britain, Scandinavia,
Germany, has generally been seen and crafted as being a nonprofit, noncommercial
service for the entire population, with entertainment, educational, and
political programming covering the whole spectrum. In the U.S. that was
never the case. The reason was that the commercial broadcasters in the
1920s and 1930s were able to swipe the airwave space without any public
recognition or understanding. Then when public broadcasting came along,
its job was to do the programming that the commercial stations couldn’t
make any money on. Trying to do stuff that was popular, they would catch
holy hell on Capitol Hill for competing with the private sector. So they
were second-tier immediately, which put them in a very difficult position
historically. They go to Washington and say, Give us funding, and Washington
says, Why should we fund you? No one’s listening to you. But if they try
to do popular shows, the commercial broadcasters scream bloody murder.
Why are you subsidizing a competitor to us? It’s an impossible situation.
Some purists, let me call them, in public radio and TV want to jettison
any government subsidies for the very reasons that you just alluded to.
They feel that the system would be stronger, independent, and not have
to answer to Congress. What do you think about that?
I think there are very legitimate concerns about setting up the system
so that you can’t have political censorship. But there are ways to do that
without abandoning the public subsidy. We have to study how other countries
have done it and see what the best way is to maintain a public subsidy
but not permit constant interference by political sources. The BBC has
a better way. Every ten years or so they have big public hearings on the
BBC, set up its budget, and set it off for another ten years. It’s basically
on its own for ten years, independent and autonomous. Then it comes back
for public hearings. So if there’s some serious controversy in the fourth
year, no one in Parliament can say, We’re going to close the BBC down.
They’ve got autonomy. So that’s the sort of system we ideally need. But
the question about resources, I disagree completely with the purist view.
Our media system, which is not well understood, is basically largely subsidized
by the public. The gift of spectrum, the airwaves, to broadcasters is a
huge amount of corporate welfare. We give tax breaks, deregulation breaks
to these big companies to make them profitable. Our government actively
works as their ambassador around the world to open up markets and make
them profitable across the planet. It’s ridiculous that we say, OK, we
don’t want to take government money for community and public broadcasting
because that would taint us. The rational thing to say is, If we’re going
to be subsidizing public broadcasting, and I think we should because it
plays an important part in a free and good society, then we want to create
a system where there are fewer strings attached and money can’t be used
by political interests.
One popular notion is that NPR, to a greater extent than PBS, is somehow
liberal. Is there any evidence for that?
In the narrow confines of American mainstream politics, traditionally the
sort of people who work at NPR would be considered liberals. The way we
define liberal is crucial, because the whole thing is loaded as to how
you define these terms. A liberal or conservative is often defined on the
basis of social issues. Take flag burning. Should you have a constitutional
amendment against it? Do you think there should be mandatory school prayer?
Should there be drug testing? What do you think of affirmative action?
These sorts of issues are a litmus test of whether one is a liberal or
conservative. By the measure of social issues, it’s fair to say that a
significant chunk of the NPR employees and on-air staff are probably in
favor of not having mandatory state prayer. They’re probably in favor of
gay rights and lesbian rights, or more open-minded about it. But I think
that’s not the best measure to understand the core politics. The crucial
politics of government, affairs of state, resource allocations, making
wars, military budgets, environmental issues, the research shows that the
so-called liberals at NPR often have almost identical politics to conservatives.
They’re pro-business. They’re anti-regulation of business, for the most
part. They’re not interested in progressive taxation. They’re not in sympathy
with the political and economic interests of the bottom 50 percent of this
country. They’re having a turf war with their fellow members of the upper
middle class. That’s the whole strength of the right-wing critique. When
you isolate the left as being the upper middle class that wants to go to
Harvard and Yale and lord it over everyone else, that resonates with a
lot of people. That’s a legitimate critique. That’s a scary group of people.
When that becomes defined as the left in our society, we’re in trouble,
because that’s not the left. That has nothing to do with the historic notion
John Stauber of PR Watch in Madison has documented the number of public
relations firms that write stories and produce videos that then appear
in the media.
I like to tell the story of one of our top students in Madison. She was
the editor of the student paper. She got the leading internship in Washington,
DC that we had at the university. She took my class and said, When I get
to Washington I’m going to make sure I use Greenpeace and all the alternative
sources. When stories come up that affect people, I’m not just going to
use the conventional wisdom. Then she came back after the summer sort of
sheepish. She didn’t come to see me. I thought that was sort of strange
because we were on good terms. I finally ran into her and asked, What’s
up? How was the internship? She said, Well, you know, uh…it didn’t really
turn out like I thought it would. The first day or two I was trying to
call up all these groups to get these alternative views on stories I was
covering. But I was under deadline pressure. I had all these stories to
cover. They gave me the Rolodex. After a couple of weeks, I didn’t even
think about it any more because the pressure was so great. I had no time
to dig into the stories that I was being given. I just had to report them.
The problem with good journalism is, it invariably gets you in hot water
with people in power. It’s going to piss someone off. That’s anathema to
the corporate media. The classic example today to see this process at work
is to watch how Time Warner, Disney, News Corporation and now Viacom are
rolling over to suck up to the Chinese leadership. They want that Chinese
market so bad that they’ll do anything. They’ll censor themselves.
Didn’t Rupert Murdoch take the BBC off the air in Asia for fear of offending
His Asian company, Star satellite, took the BBC off. His publishing house,
HarperCollins, had a contract to publish Chris Patten’s memoirs. He was
the last governor general of Hong Kong. He was critical of the Chinese
record on human rights. The Chinese told Rupert they didn’t like it and
so he yanked it and didn’t publish it.
There’s also a paradox in the newsroom, perhaps reflecting the larger economic
order. At the top end you’ve got million-dollar celebrities like Dan Rather,
Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings, and Diane Sawyer. At the lower end, you have
the situation you just described, where people are underpaid and overworked.
That is the paradox. Basically, at the top end, the whole market for them
is not as journalists but as celebrities and entertainers. The reason why
Dan Rather gets paid $7 million per year is because he brings in advertising.
That’s the only reason. It’s not because he breaks great stories. In fact,
one of the ironies, and James Fallows described this a few years ago in
his book Breaking the News, is that the celebrity journalists, making the
big incomes, do almost no journalism. What they basically do is sort of
pointless prediction and pontification. You see it on shows like Hardball,
Geraldo, and Crossfire. They yell and scream and make predictions, but
no one actually does journalism.
What would a good broadcasting system look like?
Creating a better media system would be part of broader social changes.
You won’t get changes in media unless you have a popular movement that’s
going to also challenge institutions in our society. But just for hypothetical
cases, what I recommend we organize around, and what there actually is
organizing around, are a few things. Real public radio and TV, a bona fide,
non-profit, non-commercial sector. A couple of well-funded channels in
every market. Community public access, plus a national system of good resources.
To the extent we have commercial broadcasting, I would regulate it heavily.
Since it’s our property, we have a right to say, This is what we need in
our society if you’re going to use our property. If not, we’ll get someone
else to use it.
I can hear the voice of Limbaugh in my inner ear, saying, There goes McChesney
again. He wants pointy-headed bureaucrats in Washington telling us what
we can listen to and watch.
Listen to what I have in mind, though. Specifically, I don’t want any bureaucrat
or anyone going in and telling people what to do or not to do on their
show. That’s not the type of regulation I envision. That’s the sort of
regulation we have now, with Wall Street and Madison Avenue. One, I would
ban political advertising as a condition of a broadcast license. Political
advertising is part of the process that has basically destroyed electoral
democracy in this country. Getting rid of it won’t solve the problem, but
it will go a long way towards lessening the cash crisis that has reduced
our democracy to a pathetic status. It’s closely related to media reform.
The National Association of Broadcasters, the commercial broadcasting organization,
is the number one lobby that opposes any campaign finance reform. They
will get this gift of tons of money in 2000 for political ads. It’s cash
up front. Bottom line, they don’t have to produce any of these ads. It’s
the easiest money they’ve ever gotten.
Another thing is, no ads to children under 12. What we do to children in
this country is obscene. There’s no justification for it. There are four
full-time cable channels now aimed at kids. The advertisers have demographically
and scientifically broken down the day into parts so that one- to three-year-old
boys and girls are carpet-bombed with ads virtually from the moment they
leave the womb. Sweden doesn’t allow advertising to kids under 12 on television.
In fact, it’s such a powerful thing there that when one of these commercial
networks wanted to bring their commercial network into cable, the National
Labor Federation of Sweden called for a boycott. It was such an important
issue in Sweden not to let that happen to their children.
We need to do that here. All commercial stations should have 12 hours a
week taken away from them and give that time to educators and artists and
let them put on kids’ programming that isn’t directed by Wall Street and
Madison Avenue. We’ve got to do something, and quickly.
Another thing I would do is to take the ads off news on television as a
requirement of a license. As with children’s programming, I would set aside
a couple of hours a day on the channels and have that programming be done
by journalists, not controlled by the owners or advertisers. To pay for
the journalism and the kids’ shows, I’d levy a tax on the revenue of the
station and put it into a fund to pay for it. This is the way we need to
start thinking creatively.
Finally, antitrust. Let’s break up these big companies. When we went into
Germany and Japan in 1945 we broke their media up. We said concentrated
media was anti-democratic and promoted fascism. I think we should take
a dose of our own medicine.
You mentioned Sweden. Let’s talk about another Scandinavian country, Norway.
Your wife is Norwegian. What’s the media system like there?
If you’re in America and you don’t leave the country, you don’t quite understand
what a astonishing, world-historic transformation the media have gone through
in the rest of the world in the last 10 or 15 years. When I first went
to Norway in 1986, they had one television station that was only on five
hours a day with no commercials–public broadcasting. My initial response
was, This is horrible. How can people live in this society? What do you
do all day? Well, you talk to people, read a book, go for walks. If you
go to Norway now, there’s cable or satellite TV everywhere. There are commercial
stations. The cable system is 30 or 40 channels, nearly half of them in
English, many owned by the same companies that own our cable channels.
It’s become a global system dominated by U.S.-based companies and a couple
of European ones that provide heavily commercial-laden fare across the
world. This is what’s happening in Norway and elsewhere.
You’re getting the same problems now increasingly in Europe, Latin America,
and Asia that we’re seeing here. Garbage can journalism, public relations
replacing real politics, spinmeisters, and political advertising are growing
in these other countries, often countries that historically have had much
stronger political traditions than we’ve had. They’re getting this superficial,
best-politics-money-can-buy approach. It’s a real crisis around the world.
It’s a crisis of democracy.
What are the points of resistance?
One of the exciting things is that in so many countries, Sweden being one
of them, this is generating a political response from the democratic left
political parties primarily. Basically there’s been a split in left political
parties around the world in the 1990s on the issue of globalism, whether
you’re going to be pro-business or oppose these pro-business reforms. Blair
in Britain, Schroeder in Germany have gone the route of pro-business. But
many have gone the other way. In Sweden, for example, the left alliance
broke away from the dominant Social Democrats. This is an alliance of former
Communists, feminists, Greens, former Social Democrats, and labor who are
opposed to neoliberalism. They regard media as such an important issue
that it’s in the preamble of their platform. They are talking about abolishing
advertising and breaking up concentrated media ownership. Concentrated
media ownership has grown around the world just like in the U.S. In Sweden
the left party, which makes media the central part of their campaign, got
12 percent of the national vote. In Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Brazil,
Finland and elsewhere, it’s becoming an issue. The mainstream parties have
to respond. They can’t ignore it. They’re finding out voters aren’t interested
in having a media system dominated by two or three companies, where everything’s
commercial and public service values are disregarded.
I think we need to build a coalition here of all the organized groups in
society that already have an interest in this, such as labor, religious
groups, educators, librarians, artists, creative people, journalists, all
of whom are deeply concerned about the moral bankruptcy of this sort of
media system. Get all these groups up to speed on these issues and try
to get it on the political agenda. Get the main political parties, the
Progressive Caucus of the Democratic Party, the New Party, the Labor Party,
and the Greens, to make it an issue.
Another extraordinary development in the past few years is microradio.
This is an extremely inexpensive technology that offers the promise of
opening up a whole new sector of community broadcasting for citizens. Microradio
is a rare opportunity to provide a democratic layer of broadcasting. Not
surprisingly, the commercial broadcasters oppose microradio because they
fear competition. There is a crucial struggle going on right now that will
determine the future of microradio. FCC chair William Kennard has proposed
a new set of rules that would give licenses to hundreds of microradio stations.
What might be some strategies for getting beyond the choir to the congregation?
There are a thousand different directions to go. Let’s say that there are
groups you want to reach that you’re not currently reaching in the community,
go into those communities, get programmers, give them training, see what
they want to do. Engage in a process of bringing people aboard. That’s
the only way you can really do it that I can think of. The way not to do
it is to hire some high-ticket demographic expert from the advertising
industry who comes in with reams of charts and statistics, telling you,
Play this song and you get this audience. That’s not community radio. Community
radio is developing an audience and an interaction in a community. You
talk to people, bring programmers in. That’s the way to do it.
How did you get political?
My family has often wondered that. I’m sort of an aberration. I come from
a middle-class family in suburban Cleveland. None of the friends I grew
up with is political. I think it was primarily due to growing up in the
1960s, coming of age during the antiwar movement. It was an era when the
coolest people were more critical. It was very different from today. If
you’re political today on a college campus, you’re looked at like a kook.
But in that generation intellectuals worked and fought hard. They were
critical and respected. The dissidents and radicals often were very thoughtful
people. I said, I’d better take this seriously. I’d better find out what
they’re talking about. This looks like something important. There was also
a sense that the sort of world that I lived in was fundamentally a lie.
It was saturated with inequality and misery produced by market mania and
greed. The same people who were saying how great America was and how great
the system was working were the people who downplayed racism, militarism,
environmental degradation, and social inequality. For someone raised to
take the Declaration of Independence seriously, these mainstream voices
lost all credibility with me.
The other key factor to my political developent came in 1969 when I attended
an affluent boarding school in Connecticut. On the weekends I would stay
with my mother’s sister and relatives in a working-class community nearby.
It was then that I grasped the tremendous advantages of class that are
built into our system and into our culture. Rich kids who were complete
screw-ups still went to great colleges and are now bigshot lawyers or are
running big companies. Smart working-class kids went to Vietnam and tried
to stay in one piece. I have never been able to take the pronouncements
of our elites at face value ever since.
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