The Problem of the Media
obert McChesney is president
and co-founder of Free Press, an organization working to increase
public participation in media policy debates, and to generate policies
that will produce a more democratic media. He is professor of communications
at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and author of
numerous books including
Rich Media, Poor Democracy
The Problem of the Media
BARSAMIAN: What is the problem of the media?
MCCHESNEY: The first response most people have is that the problem
of the media is its lousy content and bias. The conclusion then
is that if you have good media content, there’s no problem.
That’s the conventional way—taking the system for a given
and then evaluating the content the system produces.
What I mean by the problem of the media is the way a mathematician
talks about a problem, that you have something you have to solve.
Every society faces what I call the problem of the media—how
you organize your resources and structures to produce information
and content that people need as humans in a social environment.
As societies become more complex and larger, the role and importance
of the media grows proportionally.
Ben Bagdikian, in his 1983 classic,
The Media Monopoly
identified 50 corporations as controlling most of the media. Today
that number is down to 5. What are the consequences of that kind
If you look at all these media firms, there are really three tiers.
There is a first tier of maybe five or six conglomerates that are
major players in a number of different sectors. They own all the
film studios, all the networks, and they often own book and music
divisions, cable channels, and cable systems. They are Viacom, Disney,
Time Warner, General Electric, and News Corporation. The second
tier is another 15 or 20 firms that are somewhat smaller, but are
still major players. They might be major book publishers or Clear
Channel Radio, something like that. Then, once you get past the
first 20 or so, there are smaller firms that don’t have a great
deal of power and that exist mostly at the mercy of the largest
ones because it’s not profitable for them to go in and swallow
them up. So it’s not purely five that dominate everything.
The real issue? Is it acceptable to have this sort of concentration.
There is very little evidence to suggest that having such concentrated
control over media benefits anyone except those that have the political
and economic power that comes with the concentration. The greatest
impulse among media firms is to have company towns for media because
you can ratchet down your costs and have one newsroom serve your
newspapers, TV, radio, and cable system—one newsroom for the
whole community. No competitive pressure. You have leverage over
advertisers: they have to pay higher rates. That’s why the
biggest media companies desperately want to get ownership limits
removed so they can gobble up all of the media in a single town.
The profits will be off the charts.
It’s like building a mining town in Montana owned by some Wall
Street company. As they have more concentrated market power, they’re
going to do what makes perfect sense for people to do as capitalists,
they’re going to slash costs to the bone, they’re going
to shrink newsrooms, they’re going to take fewer and fewer
chances of antagonizing people of political influence and other
strong economic interests in their community.
You also talk about drive-by journalism.
The crisis in journalism today has to be understood in the context
of how we got to the high point of journalism. The notion of professional,
neutral journalism— nonpartisan journalism—is a relatively
recent phenomenon in the United States. For the first 120 years
of the Republic, we had partisan journalism. Far more than the very
partisan Fox News you see today. If you picked up a newspaper in
those days, you knew instantly from the top half of the first page
where they were coming from. In the 1890s, if the paper was Republican,
it might not even cover a Democratic candidate for president through
the entire election and think nothing of it.
That partisan system worked fairly well in the 19th century. The
reason was that there was a broad range of partisan views. If you
lived in a community in the mid-19th century, it probably had 15
daily newspapers. If you didn’t like any of the 15, you didn’t
have to be a millionaire to start the 16th. Advertising played a
small role, so a newspaper that had 5 percent of the readers could
make a profit and survive.
The problem with that style of journalism came as market pressures
emerged and companies wanted to get bigger and bigger. There were
fewer and fewer newspapers. Advertising really forced a situation
where, by the end of the 19th century, towns only had a couple of
newspapers—except in the largest cities— and the economics
became such that it was impossible to start a new newspaper. There
was what economists call barriers to entry.
This was the spawning ground of the notion of “objective”
journalism. More or less what happened was the owners and publishers
of our major media said, Okay, what we have to do is no longer have
explicit political control. We are going to have to cede that if
we want to keep our system going so we can make money, we have to
create a journalism where there would be what they called the Chinese
wall between church and state where the editors and reporters would
be neutral and independent from the owners who would make all the
money and run it. The readers would trust the content and it wouldn’t
matter what the political views were of the owners. That was the
theory behind professional journalism.
It was a way of distracting people from the consolidation that had
taken place. Instead of looking at the owner, you looked at the
journalists to see whether they were meeting the so-called professional
code. There were no journalism schools in the U.S. in 1900. By World
War I every major journalism school in the country had been founded.
Professional journalism had some good parts to it. I don’t
want to leave one thinking that this was necessarily a huge step
backwards. The idea that journalism wouldn’t simply be pushing
the owner’s political agenda, which was almost always a right-wing,
pro-business, anti-labor agenda. To most communities that looked
But at the same time, the way it evolved, it produced some very
serious problems for professional journalism. To determine what
a legitimate news story is, journalists rely on people in power
to say what a legitimate news story is—what are called official
sources or credentialed facts. So if people in power are debating
an issue, journalists can cover it because they are “objective
reporters.” It makes journalism a prisoner of what people in
How does concentration of ownership affect the news?
At its high point—I think the Watergate era is considered that—reporters
had the liberty to root around and find good stories. That’s
sort of the golden age of professional journalism. Even then it
had severe weaknesses. The coverage of the Vietnam War is a classic
case. It went along with that war, got us into that war, swallowed
government lies pretty much hook, line, and sinker. It’s really
since then that we’ve seen this two-pronged attack on professional
journalism and whatever the benefits of professional journalism
were, we’ve lost.
now we’ve sort of got the worst of both worlds. The two-pronged
attack on professional journalism has been, first of all, the corporate
attack. This means that the largest media companies have entered
a period of consolidation, abetted by government policies. This
especially affects news because big companies buy up newspapers
and broadcast networks with news divisions. The owners of these
companies, which often have to pay a fortune to buy them, want the
same return from their news divisions as they want from their other
That separation of church and state that existed under professional
journalism—reporters and editors with a lot of autonomy and
the owners keep hands off except to count the money—no longer
made as much sense to the owners. Now they’re saying, Why the
heck should we give these guys all this autonomy when we’re
driving all our other divisions to maximize profit?
The thing that goes very quickly is international coverage. Who
needs a lot of correspondents around the world? They cost a lot
of money, they don’t bring any money in. You can just use a
wire service instead. Pick up Reuters or AP or just don’t cover
it. Who cares?
The next to go is local coverage. It costs a lot of money. It’s
sort of hard to do because you have to have reporters out there.
Why not just have one person go cover the opening of the yogurt
stand or something?
Then, worst of all, investigative journalism disappears—the
sort of journalism where journalists go out and dig and get at stuff
people in power don’t want you to know. Our best journalism
oftentimes is investigative journalism. That is anathema to these
owners. It costs a fortune. It takes six months for a team of your
best reporters to work on a single story. That’s like flushing
money down the tube. Those same reporters could be filing stories
every day on easy stuff to cover, filling your news hole or your
time slot on your TV show. Also, at the end of six months, they
might not come up with anything and that’s probably better
from the owners viewpoint than if they do hit a home run because,
when a good investigative story comes through, it’s probably
going to expose the people in power. Media owners don’t want
any part of that.
So investigative journalism makes no sense in the calculus of the
corporation. As Chuck Lewis, former head of the Center for Public
Integrity, says, “What passes for investigative journalism
in the media today, almost entirely in the case of broadcast media,
is really when someone in power leaks a document to a journalist
because they want to get it publicized.”
You also see a real softening of what the standards of journalism
should be. So now, increasingly, there are celebrity stories, royal
family stories, accident stories, stories that don’t deal with
the conflict of politics.
To what extent are journalists complicit in this game?
This is a difficult question to answer because for every answer
you can possibly give there are going to be exceptions. I think
the way to understand newsrooms is not unlike the way you understand
any other organizational structure. You internalize the cues of
what works and what gets you ahead. It’s true in academia,
it’s true in business, it’s true in any institution. So
the journalists who are most comfortable internalizing the crucial
values and do it naturally, not agonizing over it, are going to
advance to the highest echelons.
Having said that, one thing I’ve learned—and it’s
really become clear in the last two or three years working with
reporters in this country—is that there is a spectacular frustration
among journalists with what’s happened. The system has gotten
so bad that this internalization process has gone haywire, the wires
have gotten crossed, because it’s almost impossible to internalize
the current corporate values without twisting yourself into such
a pretzel that you can’t stand up. People who go into journalism
tend to go into it because they really care—they want to contribute
to their society, they want to help people govern their lives, they
want to investigate people in power, they want to do good work.
So many of them get out because they can’t internalize the
sort of new corporate ethos and they get very frustrated.
The Problem of the Media
you talk about a number of
myths. I’d like you to address two of the most popular ones—the
first being that the news media has a liberal, left-wing bias and
the other is that the commercial media is giving people what they
The first part of the attack on “professional journalism”
was the commercial/corporate assault on news—cutting back resources,
covering trivial stories. The second has been this organized right-wing
campaign to push journalism to the political right. That’s
done under the ruse of saying professional journalism, existing
journalism, has a strong liberal bias. So for the last 25 years
conservatives have worked incessantly to make the news media in
this country more sympathetic to right-wing opinion, more hostile
to left-wing or liberal opinion. Not the left—left-wing opinion
has always been dismissed—but liberal opinion within the elite
and the Democratic Party. This campaign has assumed a number of
forms—creating right-wing media like the
and student newspapers as farm clubs for right-wing journalists.
there are the think tanks that have been created in Washington by
the right wing, such as the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise
Institute, and Cato. They are filled with well-paid pundits who
spew out right-wing expertise for the media and are taken seriously,
believe it or not, by journalists. The biggest claim that they hang
everything on, is that the media has a left-wing bias and that therefore
they have to bring it back to where it ought to be, in the center.
But in fact what it’s all about is pushing it strongly to the
Of course, the argument doesn’t hold up as it is premised on
the idea that working journalists and editors have the power to
aggressively use the news to promote their liberal political agenda.
It’s just ridiculous. No one who walks into a newsroom today
can possibly think that editors and reporters have complete control
over the news, like there is some sort of hippy commune that can
do whatever they please—they can suddenly start favorably covering
the Communist Party and the owners and advertisers have no effect
whatsoever on them. It’s a nonstarter.
A special target of the political right for several decades has
been public broadcasting. What’s the evidence of left-wing
bias at NPR and PBS?
Public broadcasting in the U.S. is quite unlike public broadcasting
in most other countries in the world. In Britain, Norway, Germany,
Japan, India, Canada— countries that have set up public broadcasting—it
was intended to be a nonprofit and noncommercial service, with a
full range of programming to the entire country. So you see sports
and entertainment. If you lived in England in the 1960s when the
Beatles would do commercial-free shows, they would do them on the
BBC. That was the institution you did them on to the whole country.
It wasn’t a commercial enterprise. Those broadcasters had a
direct relationship with their viewers and listeners.
Commercial interests in the U.S. stole the airways in the 1920s
and 1930s. Public broadcasting was to do the programming the commercial
guys didn’t want—the symphonies and nature shows and serious
stuff that the commercial guys were always being lambasted for not
doing. Essentially public media was supposed to do programs there
wasn’t an audience for. If they tried to put on popular shows,
some of the commercial broadcasters would go to their politicians
in Washington and say, “Why are you subsidizing competition?
Tell those guys at PBS and NPR to stop doing shows people want to
listen to or want to watch.”
It created a very difficult situation for the managers of public
broadcasting in this country because they had to do the shows that
only had a marginal audience. Then they couldn’t get funding
from Washington because why should they fund a program that no one
is going to listen to or watch? Increasingly, it depended on two
constituencies —wealthy and affluent viewers who could pledgedrive
money and commercial institutions that would do the underwriting.
The people who started public broadcasting in this country in the
1960s understood they couldn’t have a BBC here. Commercial
interests are too powerful. But what we could have is an edgy public
broadcasting system, one that took chances, that covered communities
that the big guys and the advertisers weren’t interested in—immigrant
communities, minority communities, young people, artists, controversial
news stories. That was their vision. It was a great vision.
Public broadcasting’s founding document, the Carnegie Report,
says it should be “a forum for controversy and debate, and
to provide a voice for those in the community who may otherwise
That’s right. But, of course, politically that lasted less
than a nanosecond because, as soon as they started doing some good
stuff, the politicians in Washington exploded. So they got the worst
of both worlds: they didn’t have the resources to do conventional
programming that would attract listeners and they couldn’t
take the chances they were supposed to take because politicians
went bananas. They were forced to stay within the same ideological
confines as the commercial media without the resources to compete
with them. In that context, the fact that they’ve been able
to survive in the game for 40 years and develop what they’ve
developed is astonishing. But it also explains the great weaknesses
that people have chronicled in public broadcasting, even at its
broadcasting has been sort of in a downward slope, given this trajectory.
Especially television. Radio has done better because the costs are
so much lower. Along comes the Bush administration and they don’t
like a particular show on PBS, Bill Moyers’s “NOW.”
The reason they don’t like it is that Bill Moyers does journalism
and that’s something they’re not very comfortable with.
Since the Bush administration is in power and corporations have
a lot of power in this country, Moyers’s show got investigated
a lot. This campaign was really driven by the Bush administration’s
concern that this show was on the air doing journalism.
So initially the pressure was from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting
on PBS to balance the Moyers show. How do you balance a show that
does journalism? It was just an absurd thing. Unfortunately PBS
capitulated and the Moyers show was cut in half. Moyers left and
was replaced by another journalist and they put on the “Carlson
Show” and the “Wall Street Journal” to sort of “balance”
the Moyers show. It was a sad day for journalism in this country.
We later learned that Kenneth Tomlinson, the head of the Corporation
for Public Broadcasting, secretly used public money to hire someone
to monitor the Moyers show for liberal bias. That was the only show
that was monitored like this. We also learned that Tomlinson secretly
instructed a Republican polling firm to do a massive survey to demonstrate
that Americans didn’t like public broadcasting and that it
had a liberal bias. This was outrageous, but this wasn’t even
the worst of it. Turns out the survey Tomlinson commissioned discovered
virtually the opposite—i.e., that Americans didn’t think
there was a liberal bias to PBS. In fact, they found out that PBS
had the highest reputation of all the broadcast media in this country.
So does Kenneth Tomlinson, who is supposed to be working to foster
public broadcasting, proudly announce this? No. He suppresses it.
If we’re going to start talking about the problem of balance
in public broadcasting, let’s talk about the balance between
the coverage of labor and consumers, on the one hand, and business.
Public broadcasting is weighted down in shows about business and
investment and looking at the world from the vantage point of the
top 2 percent of the population—“Wall Street Week in Review,”
the “Bloomberg Business Report,” and on and on and on.
But how many shows are there about working people, organized labor?
How many shows are there aimed at the 45 million Americans without
health insurance and the conditions they face in their lives? Why
isn’t Kenneth Tomlinson concerned about balancing in that direction?
You say that this is a moment of spectacular opportunity. Talk
about that and Free Press.
The whole idea of the problem of the media is that corrupt policy
making created the situation we’ve got. We have to have informed
public participation. We have to organize to force public participation
in issues like media ownership, allocating the airwaves, Internet
access, and public broadcasting. We shouldn’t let these issues
be decided behind closed doors. We have to get the public involved.
This is something no one even thought possible five years ago. It
wasn’t even considered something you could do anything about.
I thought it would be a difficult fight, too. The whole idea of
Free Press, the group I started with John Nichols and Josh Silver
in 2002, was that we were going to try to expedite this process,
make this an issue. The only way you beat organized money is with
organized people, the famous Saul Alinsky maxim. When we started,
we thought it might take maybe 10, 20 years, it might be hopeless.
It might be purely a wishful dream to think we could do this.
But it’s taken off.
For a number of reasons it’s exploded. We’ve had our second
conference. We had 2,500 people there. We could have had 5,000.
We had to shut down registration. It’s an exciting moment because
we’re growing rapidly. The great thing about social movements
is that when people are moving forward, the little things that can
divide you go into perspective because it’s not that big of
a deal. The things that unite you, changing the world, draws people
together. And that’s where we are right now.
The reason it’s working is that once people understand that
media systems are something created by laws and policies in their
name, it’s like a light switch goes on and it’s the easiest
organizing we’ve ever done. Once we get out there, we win.
That’s why the other side, their whole strategy is to keep
this thing under the table because they know once the American people
have a chance to talk about what they want from the media, that
the guys in power are going to lose, the corporations are going
Barsamian is founder and director of Altetrnative Radio in Boulder,
Colorado. He is the author of numerous books including
(with Noam Chomsky) and
Speaking of Empire