Robert McChesney is the Gutgsell Endowed Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. His work concentrates on the history and political economy of communication, emphasizing the role media play in democratic and capitalist societies. McChesney has a particular interest in the state of journalism, and the relationship of media systems and structures to effective self-governance. He is also a co-founder of Free Press, a national media reform organization that organizes the annual National Conference for Media Reform. Jesse Phillippe interviewed him by phone on June 28, 2013 for NowComment.
JP: You helped found Free Press in 2003 when the FCC was taking major steps to loosen restrictions on news media consolidation. Give us a little of the history of media consolidation and how Free Press came into being.
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.
Our original plan was to do grassroots mobilization. We planned to have only a modicum of presence inside the beltway, with maybe one or two staffers in Washington initially. Our office was in Massachusetts, and most of the work would be field organizing, getting people mobilized on media issues. We didn’t figure that we would have any success in Washington for years and years. That wasn’t even on our radar at the time. Coincidentally, just as we formed Free Press, the FCC launched its plans to get rid of, or greatly loosen, media ownership rules. This became a firestorm like no one expected, including myself, because it coincided with the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003. When the U.S. invaded Iraq, the news media in this country rabidly cheerled the idea of an invasion. There was hardly any dissidence whatsoever in the news media. It was basically parroting the government line and the lines of Democratic hawks about weapons of mass destruction and how we had to invade Iraq. It was in that period that Michael Moore was booed off the stage at the Oscars. It was a very dark moment. So it just so happened that this invasion takes place—because all this corporate media had been cheerleading it—that, even at the time, we knew was bogus. So then the FCC’s hearings, which were going to allow Rupert Murdoch to double or triple the size of his empire, become well known. And so it seemed like the entire anti-war community sort of gravitated to that issue.
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.
JP: This year’s National Conference for Media Reform (NCMR) brought together people from the Indy Media movement, the Allied Media conference, and other groups pushing for media reform. How would you describe the divergences in strategy and tactics that the leading groups in the reform movement advocate?
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.
Obama’s program, as he ran for president, was very much something we helped his campaign with. We anticipated we would get a lot done, and it failed. There’s no other way to put it. We basically got hosed. We got nothing. Obama’s administration and his FCC head Julius Genachowski basically chose to maintain the status quo and not rock the corporate boat. So I think at the NCMR, Free Press and the whole media reform movement were trying to figure out how we get back on course since the strategy hasn’t been successful at all, in fact, in recent years. So I think there was an identity crisis, or at least an identity moment for everyone connected to Free Press. We have a lot of hard thinking and a lot of work to do.
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?
McChesney: I think the empirical evidence is in that when there is less coverage of a political race in news media, people will know less about it and be less inclined to participate and vote. I don’t think there is a lot of debate about that. You can debate how much coverage is required and how much it affects, but that’s a clear relationship that I think everyone acknowledges. It’s pretty obvious, and fairly self-evident. If you don’t know who is running in races, how are you going to vote? How would you even know to vote? You won’t know why you should vote. So the news media play a central role in our political system working and people learning about candidates—learning about issues. Our news media have generally done a fairly poor job but, in recent years, have done a beyond-belief, off-the-charts, dreadful job. In the book that John Nichols and I just wrote, Dollarocracy, we go through the whole development of news media coverage of campaigns through the 20th century pretty carefully. It was never outstanding by any stretch. Although in the 19th century it wasn’t too bad by comparison. So it was never outstanding, but it has still devolved.
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.
Paradoxically, as bad as that coverage was, what’s striking is that now there’s almost no coverage at all, because the amount of resources going to news media plummeted in the last 15 or 20 years, especially in the last five or six. So there are far fewer journalists working, covering anything for a living today, than there were 20 or 25 years ago. By my rough calculations, we probably have less than half of the number of journalists and resources going to covering the news than we did, say, in the late 1980s. That’s just a casual observation based on visiting a couple dozen cities, and in each city asking journalists how many working journalists there are today compared to the late ‘80s. Generally it’s in the 40 to 50 percent range compared to what existed then, although it varies. And with the decline in working journalism, you have the decline of campaign coverage. Now most races on the ballot get zero coverage.
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.
JP: Business journalists failed to uncover many of the corporate scandals of the late 1990s (e.g. Enron) and were slow to recognize the severity of the 2008 economic crisis. How do you connect this lethargy among business journalists to the decline of the news media in general?
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.
Instead of having it be a major beat that is covered, it no longer exists. To put this in context, when I was growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, in the 1960s, going through middle school and high school, it was standard for anyone who just listened to the news on AM Radio, or looked at the headlines, even for just a little bit of news, for everyone to know the head of the AFL-CIO, head of the Teamsters, the Auto Workers and the Steel Workers. They were public figures that were as well-known as any U.S. Senator. Labor conventions were covered. They were news stories. It wasn’t a big deal. The news would report on these people, and not always as if they were a bunch of crooks (which you would get sometimes). That has completely disappeared along with the labor movement, itself. We have no labor journalism. We have no movement. But people still work. There are still labor issues; they’re just not covered.
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.
JP: How do you think the media is doing covering the current disclosures about NSA domestic surveillance?
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.
So along comes the Guardian with the expose presented by Snowden. It’s not unlike what happened with the Wikileaks revelations a couple years ago. What's been depressing is that there is sort of an immediate recognition that what’s being exposed is illegal and awful, and American people ought to know about it. But it’s quickly followed up by the full throttle PR campaign counterattack that shifts all the attention away from the actual crimes—the great concerns people ought to have about the end of privacy and the illegal activities of the government and large corporations working hand in hand. It turns away from that to questions of whether Snowden is a smart guy; whether he’s a traitor; whether he had a high school degree or not; how cute his girlfriend was; whether he was in Russia; what he eats for breakfast; how big of a jerk is he… you know… a bunch of inanities, to be frank. That’s exactly where they want the discussion, and our mainstream news media—to no small extent—has played along with this.
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.
JP: 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?
McChesney: I’m not privy to any particular backstory. I think it’s pretty self-evident what is going on there. I’m sure there is probably some hot air public relations mumbo jumbo that PBS out of New York used to explain its decision. This is why you can’t have corporate underwriting of public broadcasting. It should be truly public media. No advertising, no underwriting, but instead publicly supported, as it is in most other democratic nations like Britain or Sweden or Germany. It’s not as if some big militarist is bankrolling the BBC, so that they can control the content. It just doesn’t work that way. It’s just an absurd situation. It’s a recipe for disaster.
JP: In 2012, there were large internet protests against SOPA (the Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (the Protect Intellectual Property Act) that forced the government to back off efforts to further restrict what information could be uploaded to the Internet. What’s your take on the significance of those protests?
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.
The other lesson is that unfortunately the movie companies, the copyright holding companies that really want to extend copyright and make it more onerous, basically just started cutting private deals with the Internet Service Providers and the search engines like Google, bypassing Congress altogether to set up their own copyright enforcement regime. And I don’t know if that is really that much better, because now we have a regime that is developing. It hasn’t really been approved by Congress or debated by the people. It’s just sort of implemented by a handful of monopolies in a backroom.
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?
McChesney: The Citizens United ruling really encapsulated 20 to 30 years of efforts by the corporate Right to render campaign spending limitless and to allow corporations to make unlimited campaign contributions. Citizens United basically ended that trail and said “Yes, unlimited money can be spent.” Corporations can spend all they want. They can come through as third party groups not associated with a campaign, not regulated like campaigns are regulated. Everything is fair game. What Citizens United said was that there is no reason to fear that this might lead to corruption, undermine the integrity of elections, or throw the elections to the candidates with the most money, because the Internet would set us free. The Internet would provide all the information on funding. Voters could go look up who’s paying for whom, and they could make their own informed decisions about who to support, understanding who’s spending the money. And this is actually in the Supreme Court’s majority decision, justifying the preposterous decision that is Citizens United.
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–argue it over much broader terms than the original case had. So he could basically throw out all existing campaign finance rules.
JP: Dollarocracy questions our country's commitment to everyone having the right to vote, citing, among other factors, gerrymandered electoral districts and the disenfranchisement of felons. What's at stake here?
McChesney: Right. So the other side of the coin to Citizens United is the Voting Rights decision that was reached recently. In addition to having unlimited money in elections, the great move of the corporate Right is to perpetuate voter suppression—to limit the ability of poor people, minorities, students, young people, people who aren’t going to vote for Republicans or for sufficiently pro-business candidates—to restrict them from voting. It was an absurd decision—an indefensible one, like Citizens United—but it was a given that they were going to do that. 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.
We’re in a situation where the great bulk of the population of this country is far more progressive than it has been in a long time. And the owners of this country know that. They know that if there were general elections that were relatively fair with news media coverage, lots of choices and debate, and a turnout of at least 70-75% like you get in most democracies, that this country would never opt for the sort of policies that are routinely being embraced by both parties in Washington—slashing Social Security, increasing military spending. All sorts of crazy stuff would never pass muster if the majority of the people had a say. And they are threatened by this fact that the population can’t be revved up with homophobia, jingoistic saber-rattling, race-baiting and the like to the same extent that they could do in the past. So these efforts to suppress votes, to make it easier to buy elections, to do everything you can to repress popular interest in politics is the backstory of all of this. That’s what we write about in Dollarocracy. This is really the great chasm that defines politics in our era: on one side there is our corrupt governing system and dominant political parties and the limited range of policy solutions they are willing to countenance; where, as my friend Jeff Cohen says, the range of debate extends all the way from GE to GM.
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.
JP: The U.S. government has long subsidized the press, but much less now than in the past. What's the history and impact of those subsidies, and what was behind the shift away from subsidization?
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.
But now with the rise of the Internet, advertising is jumping ship. It’s going online. And it’s no longer supporting content of any kind. As a result, journalism is disintegrating. There isn’t the commercial basis for it. And you return ironically to the situation that the framers of this country had in the first generation. If you want to really have independent, competing journalism, we’re going to have to pay for it. And I think that means we have to set up non-profit, non-commercial institutions that provide journalism, that are uncensored, and that are competitive. That should be a goal we have—a public policy goal. Creating a press system is a public policy issue—as the U.S. Supreme Court has said—of the highest possible magnitude. It’s not something you leave to the market. That’s a preposterous idea. I think that’s a central issue for all Americans going forward—having the resources so that our communities and our lives get the journalism that we need to participate effectively in the process of self-government.
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?
McChesney: The abolitionist movement in the U.S. was basically a newspaper movement. The abolitionist movement, for the 30 years or so prior to 1861 in the northern states, was a movement of newspaper editors. As far as I can tell, almost every abolitionist leader—Frederick Douglass on down the line—edited or published a newspaper. That’s how they organized; that’s how they communicated; and that’s really true of all progressive politics ultimately… it might be a website today… but you’re communicating with the intent to reach people and educate them and organize them. The abolitionists knew that what they needed for that movement to succeed was being able to publish newspapers. These were not commercially viable undertakings. They didn’t start abolitionist newspapers to get rich. They started them, because they wanted to get rid of slavery. And they depended upon postal subsidies as much as, if not more than, any other newspaper. They couldn’t be distributed without being heavily subsidized by the post office, which charged almost nothing for their distribution. So the abolitionist movement was very much at the center of the understanding that their fate was going to be determined by the size of the postal subsidies. They were beneficiaries of them, and they were aware of that. It is arguable that without the postal subsidies, the abolitionist movement, as we have known it, would not have existed. Most, if not all, of those papers could not have survived.
JP: Thank you very much for your time.