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Robert McChesney on the Wicked Wild West of the Corporate News Media


Free PressNowComment.

 

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"Lohit Hindi";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>Robert McChesney: The history of Free Press in a nutshell: John Nichols [JP— McChesney's frequent co-author] and I had written some articles and a couple of pamphlets together between 1999 and 2002, basically saying that it’s time to have an organized media reform campaign in the U.S. that could effectively mobilize grassroots support and challenge the nature of our media system. It grew naturally out of the research I had done and have done since then on the policy fights over the establishment of U.S. media. So we had always been calling for this. John’s a journalist; I’m a college professor. We’re not professional organizers. Finally a guy named Josh Silver, who had been a successful organizer on campaign finance reform in Arizona, contacted me in early 2002 and said he wanted to organize the group to do something on media issues. He didn’t know much about media, but he’d read one of my books and wanted to meet with me. For some reason I agreed to meet with him, even though I had no reason to know if he knew anything or had his act together. I met with him. As did John and a couple of other people, including, I think, Janine Jackson of Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting, Inc. (FAIR). We met with Josh at his home in Washington, as I recall. It was a good talk. We talked about what needed to be done. Then we didn’t hear from him for something like six to eight months, when he got back with us at the end of 2002 began working on it full time. We talked some more, and we decided to start a group. Free Press was officially launched in 2003.

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"Lohit Hindi";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>We got this huge rocket thrust with all this interest. So suddenly instead of being on the sidelines thinking we were going to be organizing for years, Josh and a couple of people that were working with us by the summer of 2003 found themselves in the middle of this uprising. So that was the beginning of Free Press. We weren’t expecting it. But it forced us to get serious about political organizing much sooner than we had thought and gave us phenomenal practical experience. It probably condensed years of experience into months—even weeks—and put us on our path.

 

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"Lohit Hindi";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>McChesney: I don’t know if there are clearly defined subsets within the movement with distinct agendas or programs, even strategy and tactics. I don’t think we’re that developed, actually, to get to that point. I can only judge Free Press, and in terms of resources it is by far the largest media reform group in the country today. Free Press—and I think this is the tone that filled the conference—in the second half of the last decade, really put an emphasis on working inside the beltway in Washington and getting favorable results from politicians far more than we ever intended when we started the group. We intended it largely to be an outside the belt-line grassroots group that would put pressure on politicians, but we had so much success in the second term of George W. Bush’s administration that we sort of filled a vacuum, and I think we put a lot of chips on the Obama number.

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"Lohit Hindi";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman";color:#00000A”>JP:  You argue that declining coverage of local political campaigns is a factor in reducing voter turnout and producing a generally less informed public. What led to the decline of local coverage, and what do you think should be done to reverse it?
 

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"Lohit Hindi";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>On the one hand, we have seen the political standards of professional coverage of campaigns has devolved to basically what is called “horse-race coverage”—an obsession with who is winning, who is manipulating people better, and who is trailing in the polls. So the people who are ahead in the polls get good coverage, and the people who are behind in the polls are sort of criticized as morons who don’t know how to run a good campaign. It’s all about spin, assessing the quality of the spin, and how well candidates can B.S. people. It’s pretty much nutritionless and garbage for anyone actually trying to be involved in serious matters of governance and politics.

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"Lohit Hindi";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>To the extent that they get any coverage, it’s so small as to be inconsequential. There are almost no debates that are aired for any races aside from the president and maybe some statewide races periodically. And the debates that do exist are moronic as a rule. They are written up in such a way as to be people just bandying their talking points at each other, and their slogans and their sound bites. Everyone’s in the gaffe game hoping someone is going to catch their opponent saying something that can be taken to make them sound like a moron. All of it, put together in a cocktail is not conducive to people getting very interested in politics. We have very serious problems in this country that require political attention and political solutions. The political system is often times aggravating the problems, not solving them. Our elections, our debates, and our press coverage of elections are doing very little to draw people effectively into participation in the governance of society. That’s where we are today. It is a great crisis of our times.

 

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"Lohit Hindi";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>McChesney: The comparison is not so much that the rise of business journalism should be contrasted with the decline of other types of journalism, other hard journalism or better journalism. Rather, the way to look at business journalism is to compare it to labor journalism. Even in the U.S. with the commercial news media owned by private interests, what’s striking is if you go back to the 1930s, 40s, and even into the ‘50s, we had pretty strong labor journalism, even on our mainstream newspapers. It was a standard position to have a labor editor at any respectable daily newspaper, and many times to have several staff writers that covered labor issues. By one count, there were several hundred full-time labor journalists working for daily newspapers in the 1940s and ‘50s. I don’t have the exact data, but there were a lot. A major newspaper like the New York Times or even the Chicago Tribune, which was vociferously anti-labor, would have several reporters just covering labor issues. What happened between the 1960s and the ‘90s was that labor journalism was gradually eliminated from American journalism. It really doesn’t exist anymore. I don’t know when we had our last full-time labor journalist who covered labor issues or the labor movement. It was probably a good decade ago… there might be one straggler out there that I don’t know about.

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"Lohit Hindi";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>So at the same time that labor journalism has collapsed, you see a meteoric rise in the amount of business journalism. What’s striking about that business journalism is how lame it is! There is some good business journalism. The Wall Street Journal traditionally had some great reporters in its employ over the last 40 or 50 years. If you look at the heart of business journalism, all the crucial matters—corporate crime, the economic/financial bubbles—they have almost all completely missed it. They’ve been too busy genuflecting before heroic CEO’s to really pause to see that they haven’t done journalism. They’ve done hagiography, more often than not. Enron, for example, won something like Fortune magazine’s best company in the world several years in a row before it collapsed, and its whole scandal and scam was exposed. In 2008, Queen Elizabeth of England reportedly called together the leading economists in Britain. She basically said, “hey economists. You guys are supposed to be so smart. How did you let us down and completely miss this crash? This is doing so much damage to our country.” And anyone could have asked the same question to the business journalists of the U.S., who were also completely sucked in with the hot air that was filling us up about the great boom that was going on and missed all the clear signs of a forthcoming crash and ultimate depression.

 

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"Lohit Hindi";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>McChesney: I’ll be honest with you. It’s so depressing that I can’t even read it or watch it anymore, basically. I find it appalling and depressing. There is so much here that is outrageous. First of all, it’s outrageous that this is a story that has to wait for Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, and The Guardian newspaper when it has just been in plain sight, really, for years and years that this has been going on. There has been so much evidence. It was just sitting there for any self-respecting editor, producer, or reporter in this country to say, “this is an important story. I’m going to get out there.” Yet our entire mainstream media was basically taking a nap with a few wonderful exceptions. One of those was Dana Priest of the Washington Post who did a fantastic series, three or four years ago, that turned into a book on the military-industrial complex—the national security complex. But again, those are the exceptions that prove the rule.

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"Lohit Hindi";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>It was striking that when the plane they thought Snowden was on landed in Moscow, they showed the Moscow airport, and there were three or four dozen journalists with cameras ready to cover it. Why weren’t any of those people covering the actual spying that the NSA has been doing? I would say that the coverage is too small, and if I were a betting person, I’d say that Congress will do nothing as a result of this exercise—except lip service—and we’ll go back to business as usual. I hope I’m wrong. I don’t see any reason to think I am.

 

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mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman";color:#00000A”> In April of this year, PBS decided not to air a documentary called Citizen Koch for fear of offending billionaire conservative activists David and Charles Koch. What does this say about editorial freedom at PBS? Is there any interesting backstory you can share with us?
 

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"Lohit Hindi";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman";color:black”>JP:
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"Lohit Hindi";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>McChesney: They were fantastic in the sense that they showed that people do care about these issues. They demonstrated how quickly people could mobilize online. They were effective at the time. That’s the first lesson we can learn from those protests. But there were two unfortunate follow-up lessons that we should take to heart. One is that it was an inter-corporate squabble to a certain extent, too. We’re dealing with a handful of companies that own copyright—the movie companies, the studios—that are pushing this. Then some of the other Internet companies that don’t own those copyrights but use that material weren’t as sympathetic to having such onerous standards. So they were not as willing to be on it. They were even going to oppose it. That was a crucial factor. If you have the entire corporate community on one side and no one else on the other, mass protest is not going to work. That’s the way politics works in America—it’s so corrupt. There is just issue after issue where you can see that the bulk of Americans are on one side, but all the money is on the other side. We almost always lose those debates. That’s one lesson.

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"Lohit Hindi";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman";color:#00000A”>JP:
Your just-published book Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex Is Destroying America notes widespread public opposition to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling that political spending by corporations was a form of protected political speech. How important is this ruling in your view? How have you been involved in the fight against Citizens United?
 

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"Lohit Hindi";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>Of course, what we learn from 2012 and what John Nichols and I write about in Dollarocracy is that nothing of the kind has happened, and nothing of the kind will happen, because much of the money comes from anonymous sources. It’s almost entirely unregulated. There’s no accountability. So we’re really in this wicked Wild West where billionaires and corporations can channel money so no one can trace it—huge amounts—to influence elections. It’s an absolute outrage. Now if we had a credible Supreme Court that actually was serious about the rule of law, democracy, and fairness in the constitution, it would immediately reconvene and say, “OK, we made a huge mistake here. The assumptions we based our Citizens United ruling on clearly were wrong. We’re going to throw it out now.” But they won’t, because this Supreme Court—this five vote majority: Roberts, Alito, Scalia, Thomas, Kennedy—they’re basically bagmen for what we call the “dollarcrats”—for the Koch brothers, for billionaires and corporations. For them, the whole mission is to advance the ability of the rich and powerful to control our politics, and minimize the chance that those without property can influence governance. They want to undermine “one person, one vote” and enhance “one dollar, one vote.” Roberts was aiming at Citizens United from the day he took the bench. If you look at his career, that’s what he wanted. It wasn’t like “oh, gee whiz–didn’t see this one coming.” No. Not only did he see it coming; he intervened, and said he wanted to re
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"Lohit Hindi";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman";color:#00000A”>JP: Dollarocracy questions our country
''s at stake here? 

You might ask, “How come Citizens United now (2010)? How come renouncing the Voting Rights Act so that states can more easily monkey with voter suppression? Why now?” I think this is the most important political point I would make, which is that America today is in a very interesting political space.

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"Lohit Hindi";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>Then on the other side, we have a population that is eager and desirous of real debate and real solutions dealing with fundamental, intractable problems in this society that aren’t being heard. It’s a growing chasm between the corrupt system and the people of the country, and it can’t last forever. The solution of the Koch brothers and the Roberts Supreme Court is just more of the same… put on the accelerator… give rich people more power, and limit the power of poor people even more. Give them their tough medicine and we’ll grind through it like we’re in some Dickensian era. I hope that they will be proven wrong. I don’t think there is popular support for that approach. But that’s really the political job we face—all of us today.
 
 

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"Lohit Hindi";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>McChesney: Journalism as we know it, news media, is what economists call a “public good.” That means it is something society desperately needs, especially a democratic society. But the market, commercial interests, will not provide it in sufficient quality or quantity. That was understood at the beginning of this country and for the first hundred years of American history. We had massive postal and printing subsidies, which spawned a much more vibrant and extensive press system that wouldn’t have existed had it only been left to market forces. It wasn’t even considered plausible to just let market forces generate journalism, because they knew that would mean you would only have journalism for property owners and wealthy people, and that the Constitutional system wouldn’t survive. The idea that journalism could be profitable, in a commercial undertaking left to the market, really emerged when advertising came to provide the vast majority of the revenues for journalism by the end of the 19th century and into the 20th century. That gave the impression that journalism was a commercially successful undertaking, and a lot of people did make a killing on journalism in the 20th century.

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"Lohit Hindi";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman";color:#00000A”>JP:  You and John Nichols have pointed out that the origins of our diverse news media landscape lay in the abolitionist movement’s struggle against slavery. What made the slavery debate different from other issues that also inflamed passions? What lessons if any should we take away from that history?
 

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"Lohit Hindi";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>JP: Thank you very much for your time.