Trump Stands atop a “Failing Pile of Garbage”: a Case for Media Reform

For over a century, a key feature of the USA’s propaganda system, more commonly known as its mass media, has been the glorification of businessmen (and sometimes businesswomen). That’s one of the main reasons why the corporate media, when it finally turned against Donald Trump after providing him with free publicity for much of his campaign, proved ineffective at bringing him down.

If there is more dirt on Trump then it’s the US, not Russian, elite that surely has the bulk of it. A significant amount of dirt on him has already been leaked. We know he is a sexual predator who dodges his taxes. His lies, bigotry and other repugnant behaviour didn’t have to be leaked. It was never hidden. None of that was enough to get the preferred establishment candidate elected. Aside from pro-business propaganda, Trump also benefited from the media’s normalization of islamophobia. One of the loudest anti-Trump voices at the moment is Bill Maher, a “liberal” islamophobe with his own TV show.  

Trump supporters tell me he will “run the government like a business” as if that were a good thing. Businesses are dictatorships that are glorified by other businesses, the mass media, that are tasked with providing us with news and entertainment.

Can you imagine a reality TV show doing for union leaders what NBC’s “The Apprentice” did for Trump? Unions and elected governments, to the extent the general public can influence them, impose serious constraints on the power of private tyrannies. The corporate media instinctively seeks to keep those constraints to a minimum.

Much of the corporate media is presently being slapped around by Trump. It is outraged that he can now use the enormous platform they handed him to by-pass them.  In the Internet age, many corporate news outlets are, in narrow business terms, “failing” – the term Trump has loved to aim at the outlets he hates.  As Thomas Frank described, “The newsroom layoffs never end” but, even though “as a group, journalists aren’t economically secure”, “Beltway pundits” continue to thrive and disregard their “plummeting peers”. The plummeting peers are also under tremendous pressure to conform to keep their jobs like all workers who fear layoffs. In short, the corporate media’s decline will make it even worse: more incapable of debunking the pro-business propaganda that helped pave the way for Trump.

If neither a thriving nor a failing corporate media will break the pro-business stranglehold on public debate then what is the answer?

Step one is abandoning the dogma that the mass media should be profit making businesses.  Government owned media can provide a progressive and effective counter-weight to corporate media if, and this is a huge “if”, the public can succeed in electing a progressive government. This has happened in numerous countries in Latin America over the past two decades. However, this approach has its downside. As the courts are supposed to be, mass media should be independent of the government of the day. Defenders of the corporate media will eagerly raise this point while ignoring that the salaries of corporate journalists are paid by wealthy owners and advertisers.

Some progressives believe that “citizen journalism” that is “crowdfunded” can grow into an effective alternative to corporate and traditional state media. Unfortunately, this is like the belief that charities can take the place of government run health care and education. In depth journalism takes time and resources – so much so that even for-profit businesses struggle to pay for it. 

I have yet to see a better proposal than the one made by John Nichols and Robert McChesney: allow each voting age person control over an equal amount of government money (vouchers) that he or she can direct to any non-advertising, non-profit media outlet of their choice. In the United States, a $250 voucher for every voting age person would provide a $60 billion dollar year subsidy to media that is truly independent. That represents less than 2% of the federal government’s annual budget, but would be enough to pay a $30 per hour wage to about a million full time journalists. [1] The outlets these journalists work for would have to prove their value to the pubic to get the subsidy – not to media barons like Rupert Murdoch, not to corporate advertisers, not to the politicians who are in power, not to wealthy donors or the foundations they own.   

The mass media, like the courts are supposed to be, would then be funded by the government but, at the same time, independent of the government and also independent of rich people. It would be ultimately accountable to the voting public as it should be in a democracy, and also capable of reflecting the diversity of the public. The audience would no longer be a product sold to advertisers, nor, since all voters have access to the same amount of government money, would wealthy audience members “count” for more than everyone else.

Without deep reform of the mass media, conmen like Trump (and let’s face it, Obama) will continue to prosper, along with bigotry and injustice, while the planet cooks.  


[1] To put it another way, the subsidy would be about 38 times larger than the gross revenue of the New York Times which in 2014 was  $1.588 billion. See page 18 of this financial report.


  1. avatar
    Joe Emersberger February 4, 2017 2:12 pm 

    Thanks for the encouraging words Clive. However I disagree that anything positive comes from Trump except through resistance to Trump that opens up possibilities for a serious third party challenge or at least very significant reform of the DNC.

  2. Clive Ray January 26, 2017 2:26 pm 

    A superb article that faces truths that most shy away from, particularly that Obama is every bit as much a conman as Trump. But if any US president is ever going to agree to the proposals made by Nichols and McChesney, strangely, it’s likely to be Trump.

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