The future of journalism and democracy

by Robert McChesney,
speech delivered in Boston, MA,
7 April 2011,
available from Alternative Radio

Robert McChesney is co-founder of the Free Press, a non-profit organization working to increase public participation in media policy debates and a creator of the National Media Reform Conference (www.freepress.net). He is professor of communications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He’s the author of numerous books including Rich Media, Poor Democracy, The Political Economy of Media, and co-author with John Nichols of The Death and Life of American Journalism.

We’re in an extraordinarily deep crisis in journalism, an existential crisis which very much threatens the ability of our governing system to work at all effectively. As flawed as it is, this will look like a golden age in 10 years, the way we’re going right now.

There is a study that came out about a year ago that really captured what’s going on with American news media. Because what we’re seeing right now is the corporate news media for the most part have decided they can’t make money doing journalism. They’re jumping ship. That’s what’s taking place. I’ll give you a study that explains what’s going on, why we’re seeing the end of journalism as we know it in this country. The Pew Center, which is a mainstream group funded by the Pew Foundation, the Pew family, does a lot of research on journalism in the U.S. They did a major study of Baltimore, Maryland in the fall of 2009. For one week they went into Baltimore and said, “We want to see what the news ecology is in this major American city,” that’s pretty much representative of a major American city. It’s blue-collar, it’s got universities, it’s got the standard mix of what you would expect from a city of a million, million and a half people. They wanted to look at all the news for a week and ask, Where is the news coming from and who is doing it? And how much is the Internet filling the gap? They looked at original news stories, not just sort of repeating what someone else did but where someone actually did something original in journalism.

They found out, to a lot of people’s surprise, that 96% of the original news stories in Baltimore, in that week of 2009 came from old media. New media only produced 4%. I think people were surprised that new media weren’t doing much more. Although they shouldn’t necessarily have been surprised. But before you get out the champagne corks at the Baltimore Sun newspaper, the other information in the study was rather depressing. The first thing that the Pew Center found out was—because they have been doing this every five years for the last 25 years in Baltimore, is that there were 30% fewer original news stories in 2009, than there had been in 2001. A 30% drop in a decade in original news stories. And, more striking, there had been a 73% decline in the number of original news stories in Baltimore from 1991 to 2009.

Pretty much this is what John Nichols and I have found in our research for our book. We’ve probably gone to 20 cities in the last year, major cities, including Boston a year ago. We usually go to major journalism schools or newspapers, to the newsrooms, in every city. And pretty much everywhere we go the reporters or the professors say there has been about a 50% decline in the number of working reporters here from, say, the mid- to late 1980s. There is about half as many as there used to be. That’s pretty much standard everywhere we’ve gone. It varies in some cities, but that’s pretty much it. We’re seeing a sharp drop-off in reporters in coverage. State houses have far fewer reporters covering them than ever before. County governments are barely covered at all anymore. There are whole branches of governance in this country that have strong links to private commercial interests. They’re just uncovered now completely.

That’s the good news. It gets worse. What else did the Pew Center study find out? They wanted to look at the source of a news story. Where does the news come from? It’s critical in media, one of the first things you learn in media education and media literacy when you see a news story is, why is that story in the paper? Why are they taking that perspective? What are the sources for the story? Why does that story exist? What the Pew Center did was they looked at all the original news stories, and it found out that 86% of the original news stories came either from a press release or came from an official source saying something that was reported. That was an original news story: “The Mayor said today” or “The Governor said today.” What the Pew Center found out was of those 86% of stories, in the vast majority of them there was no reporting at all. They simply repeated what a press release said, with no intervention, no calling to check the facts. Just, Here’s the press release, and that’s our original news story. Only 14% of the stories were done by reporters going out and making a story, saying, “I’m going to cover this and find out what happened and report it.” Eighty-six percent PR, official sources; 14% actual reporting.

To put this in context, a generation ago there was a lot of PR information and official sources in our news media. That’s not a new thing. But the ratio was much more like 40-60 or 50-50, not 86-14. That’s an enormous difference. And of that 40% or 50% of the stories that were based on public relations, press releases, and the like, there actually was reporting done. They would call up and check out the facts, they would get another opinion on it. They just wouldn’t run verbatim the press release.

There is a lot of data to support this. Some of the research we did for our book was we wanted to look at the number of PR people there are in America working, getting paid to do public relations compared to the number of working journalists. We think that’s sort of an interesting ratio. The number of people trying to doctor the news surreptitiously so you think it’s a legitimate news story but you don’t know that they’ve actually planted it versus the number of people that are supposed to cover the news out in the open so you know what’s going on. In 1960 that ratio was .75, three-quarters of one PR person for every one working journalist. .75 to 1, 1960. In 1980 the ratio was two PR people for every one working journalist. So it went from .75 to 2 in 20 years. Today, the ratio is four PR people for every working journalist, a 4- to-1 ratio. And at current rates it’s going to be 6-to-1 in two years, with the growth of PR and the decline of working journalists.

In this environment, what else could you expect but nothing but propaganda? And that’s what we have. That’s where we’re at and that’s where we’re looking for journalism. The immediate question when you hear that is, what caused that? Why do we have this deplorable situation? Why is it no longer profitable for corporate and commercial news media to do journalism? Why are they jumping ship? Why are they lowering the number of workers and no longer taking it seriously?

The conventional wisdom says, Oh, the Internet is responsible. The Internet is taking away advertising, the Internet is taking away young people, and everybody has gone online now, so the traditional newspapers, radio and TV news no longer have the commercial support they’re used to, and as a result they can’t make any money. The problem with that argument is that it doesn’t account for the fact that a lion’s share of this began long before Google ever existed, began long before Yahoo or Facebook or Twitter. The peak of employment for journalists in this country was in the mid- to late 1980s on a per-capita basis. It’s been falling since then. Anyone who has studied news media in the 1990s knows, even though those companies were making record profits throughout that decade, they were closing down bureaus, they were laying off reporters. They were doing whatever they could to make as much money in the here and now, and laying off reporters was one of the key ways. So what the Internet really did is it aggravated a situation that was already taking place.

A key factor that’s been overlooked is what we saw starting in the 1970s, an enormous amount of concentration in media ownership. You have fewer and fewer companies with much less competition. In these huge empires, when you have less competition, the first thing you do is cut off workers—that’s the red ink to you—and you still keep the same amount of black ink. So they were gutting the system long before Google came along. But however you look at it, the system is now at a point of teetering on total collapse, and it’s already collapsed a good bit of the way.

Ironically, the same people who have blamed the Internet for destroying journalism as we know it say that the Internet will also solve the problem for us. It’s the cause and the solution simultaneously. All we have to do is sit back, relax, and people will come up with new ways to find a way to support themselves doing journalism online. The evidence is now in on that idea. It’s not happening. That one’s not going to happen, not at all. In fact, we might be further from shore today than we were a year ago. We’re not getting closer to that port; we’re getting farther from that port. In fact, what we’re finding is, as traditional news media go under and traditional media stop having resources, then they fire their digital reporters, too, because they are being bankrolled by the traditional media.

Ironically, on the Internet what happens is that because the geographical issues are eliminated—there are no regional newspapers on the Internet, geography means nothing—there is no middle class, there is no mid-size media. So media or political Web sites on the Internet are more concentrated than old media. There are fewer actual sites being used than in old, traditional newspapers. That’s true of the blogosphere as well. So it isn’t producing the effect we were told. Having the right to open a Web site and go on there and jump up and down and, “Hey, look at me,” does not mean anything if no one knows you exist. If you’re not on the first page of a Google search, you don’t exist. Maybe on the second page you’re in the suburbs, but if you’re past page 2, you don’t exist. Most of those Web sites aren’t even on the first 10 pages of a Google search. That’s the problem they face. That’s why that’s not solving the problem.

At this point Americans—and I apologize to our Canadian friends, this is a quasi-ethnocentric talk I’m giving—throw their hands in the air and say, “Well, I guess it’s hopeless. If corporations can’t make money doing journalism, I guess we can’t have journalism. We’ll just have to throw in the towel and call up Queen Elizabeth and ask her if she’s got any relatives who want to take over our country, since we can’t have democracy anymore since we don’t have any journalism. That’s really where we’re left. We have this fantasy that journalism is a business, pure and simple, and if you can’t make money at it, then you can’t have it. That’s the way it’s got to be, that’s what our Founders wanted.

In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Instead, what we should understand and the message that I would bring to you tonight and you should take from this talk is that the crisis in journalism, the collapse of journalism in the U.S. is a very solvable problem. It’s a very easy problem to solve. We just have to open our eyes to our own history and to the experience of other democratic nations in the world. Let me explain and make it a little concrete. What we have to understand is journalism is not a commercial undertaking. Journalism should be understood as a public good. What I mean by public good is it’s something society desperately needs that the market can’t produce in sufficient quality or quantity.

The classic examples of public goods that are used in economics textbooks are things like defense spending, military spending. We figured out a long time ago, you have governments handle all national defense. That’s the only way it works. Everyone’s covered, everyone pays for it. It’s not a marketable enterprise. If you leave it to markets, you don’t have a country.

The same thing with public education. If you leave public education to the market—which this might be a test in our new Dickens era we’re entering, we might find out the answer to this—you will probably have a system where a significant percent of the population will not be educated at all because there is no money to be made in educating working-class kids or poor kids. It’s a public good. That was one of the great revolutions in this country in the 19th century, was understanding education is a public good.

Basic research is a public good. Corporations will be glad to do research to get you from the one-yard line into the end zone, where they can cash in some chips, but they have no incentive at all to get you from the 50-yard line to the 1-yard line. That’s why basic research is done at public universities and you only do it through public support. Corporations will never support it. If we didn’t have basic research as a public good, we wouldn’t have things like the Internet. The Internet is a result of 40 years of public-good expenditure by the government. AT&T was offered the Internet in the mid-1970s, the story goes. The government said, “We’re tired of paying for this darned thing. You guys to want take it?” AT&T studied it and said, “We can’t make any money off it. You keep it.” That’s the story from the 1970s. So the Internet is a result of basic research as a public good. Public good is a very important concept, and journalism should be understood, first and foremost, as a public good.

Another reason you should understand journalism is a public good—this is a very crucial point—is that public goods are something that you can’t as a citizen use the market to express your desire for. It’s not something that as a citizen I can say, “I want this. I’m going to vote in the marketplace by buying something so I can get it.” Here’s an example I would give. I promise you, I make a holy vow that I will never go to a national park again in my life. If I do, it will be purely by accident. I have no intention of ever going to one again. The reason simply is I’ve been to several, I like them, they’re great, but I’m 58 years old, and in my remaining years, when I have some my free time, there is other stuff I would rather do than go sit in a national park. It’s just not going to do it for me. According to traditional economic calculus, the people going through their Milton Friedman textbook, they would say, “Well, Bob McChesney clearly doesn’t like national parks. He’s not visiting them, he’s not going to them. He wants to pave them over, sell them off, turn them into parking lots, just lower his taxes. That’s what Bob McChesney wants.” My market behavior says that. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. I’m willing to pay more taxes to have national parks, because I understand having national parks is a good thing, it’s a very healthy thing. I’m willing to pay for it. And it’s not just about whether I go to it. The world’s not just about me. We’re complex people. We can want things even when we aren’t going to consume them ourselves. We understand that. That’s what public goods are all about. And journalism is a public good.

How come no one, until Bob McChesney came up with this brilliant theory, thought of it as a public good? The reason is, for the last 125 years the existence of advertising has given us the deception, the illusion that journalism could be a commercially solvent enterprise, that the market would produce sufficient quantity, if not quality, of journalism. Because advertising has provided since the late 19th century anywhere from 50 to 100% of all the revenues for our news media. No major news medium received less than 50% of its money from advertising. That’s the catch. That advertising was only there for opportunistic reasons. Businesses advertised because they wanted to sell their product. They had no concern about journalism per se. If they found another way to accomplish their commercial ends, they would do that, but journalism was the best way they could do it. Now advertising is jumping ship. They’ve found better ways to use their funds to accomplish their commercial ends, and journalism is now withering down to less advertising support. In 2010, for the first time in its history, The New York Times got less money from advertising than it did from other sources, under 50%. Those of you who know your newspaper economic history know that 20 to 30 years ago The New York Times got, like most daily newspapers, 65%, 70%, 75% of its revenues from advertising. Now it’s under 50. It’s going away. It’s not coming back. Advertisers have no concern about journalism per se. Why should they?

The truth of the matter is that readers, viewers, purchasers of journalism have never provided enough money in our country’s history or any country’s history to give us the full-throttle journalism that a democratic society needs. Never. It’s never been. It never has been and it never will be. It’s a public good. It never will be markedly solvable. Advertising deceived us into thinking it was. Advertising is gone. Now journalism is standing naked in the market and it’s shivering. What are we going to do?

At this point my smartest students say, “Okay, Mr. Smarty Pants Professor, if advertising deceived us into making us think it’s not a public good for the last 125 years, how do you account for the fact that for the first 100 years of American history, before there was that much advertising, we had the most dynamic press system in the world? We had probably 10 times the number of newspapers per capita of any other country—Britain, France, or Canada—in the first half of the 19th century. And there was very little advertising in those papers. How do you explain that?” That’s a good question I think we all should ask. And that’s why we wrote this book.

We did a lot of research into the first hundred years of American journalism, into the First Amendment to answer that exact question. That is really the key to solving the problem. What we discovered was, if you look at the founding of this country, the Constitution and the creation of the republic, in the first hundred years of American history, there were two core principles of freedom of the press, at the beginning of this country and for the first several generations. We know one of them today. We all know it. It’s the one we think is the only core principle. That is the government shouldn’t censor media, shouldn’t censor journalists. We all agree with that. We think that’s the be-all and the end-all of the First Amendment. But it isn’t.

There is a second core component of the First Amendment, freedom of the press, that our Founders understood and wrote about and internalized. It wasn’t even debated, any more than they debated the censorship thing—it wasn’t debated that much; it was just understood and internalized—which was, the first duty of the democratic state is to make sure that you actually have a press system, that you actually have a fourth estate. If you don’t have a viable fourth estate, the right to not have it censored doesn’t mean anything. You’ve got to actually have a press system in place that’s independent before you worry about whether you censor it or not. No one in the beginning of this republic thought the market would deliver the goods. That wasn’t even thinkable for the first hundred years of American history. “Oh, we’ll just leave it to the market. The entrepreneurs will figure it out. We’ll get our free press from them.” No one said that. No one, nada. So where did it come from? And this is the interesting part of the story. It came from extraordinarily large public subsidies. Off-the-charts, huge public subsidies created the press system in this country, primarily through the Post Office, but also through federal and state printing subsidies, from the State Department, Congress, and the White House.

To get some sense, before I go into these subsidies, I think it’s worth backing up, because part of the research that John and I did for the book is we went back and we reread or for the first time read a lot of Jefferson’s and Madison’s work especially, because they were the two framers who talked the most about press issues. To understand why they were so obsessed with press, other than the obvious, sort of almost cliché that you need to know what’s going on and the press gives people the information they need to have self-government work. In both the case of Jefferson and Madison, they both wrote specifically about the core reasons, from their understanding, of why the press thing was central to everything.

In Jefferson’s case, in his most famous essay in 1787 he wrote about—someone asked him, “Why do we need this freedom of the press thing, Jefferson? What’s that all about?” And Jefferson said,

It’s very simple. Look at Europe. In Europe basically the society is divided between the wolves, and the lambs and the wolves are devouring the lambs.

For those of you who aren’t good with allegory, he said the wolves were the rich and the lambs were everyone else.

And we will have the exact same thing here unless we have a credible press system, because the only thing that prevents inequality, the only thing that can prevent inequality and make our system work, is if people without property have access to the same information as people with property. People with property will always get the information they need to run society. That’s never a concern. But people without property, that’s the concern. People who are poor, that’s the concern. They cannot participate unless they have access to the information they need equal to the access given to the wealthy and powerful, the property owners.

That was Thomas Jefferson in 1787.

Madison took it up a notch. especially late in his life, when he wrote pensively after he left the White House. Really, this was a theme throughout his life, but his best words were after he left the White House. Madison was a classical scholar, as were most of the framers. He knew Greek and Latin. He studied ancient Greece, he studied the Roman republic. And he knew that the decline of the Roman republic and classical Athens had been when those democracies had become formal empires. Basically, there is a conflict between being an empire, a militaristic state, and being a democracy. Something has to give. In Greece and in Rome what gave was the republic or democracy. They became full-throttled empires.

So Madison was obsessed with not letting the U.S. become a military empire. That was one of the core things. As George Mason said, one of the other framers,

When we wrote the Constitution, the idea was to make it really hard to go to war. We didn’t want to make it easy to go to war. We wanted to make it extremely difficult, put lots of barriers in front of the government before it could take us to war.

Madison’s most famous quote on this was,

A country cannot remain free if it is simultaneously at permanent war abroad. There will be corruption, there will be inequality, there will be secrecy.

All the things that come with empire, antithetical to democracy and to self- government. In Madison’s view, the only thing that would prevent the U.S. from becoming an empire would be a credible press system that would keep an eye on people in power. Because as in Athens, as in Rome, it would be the same in the U.S. No matter how benevolent our elected leaders are, when you’re sitting on top of the richest country in the world—and even in 1790 it didn’t take a genius to see where this country was going—even the most benevolent elected leaders are going to get imperial ambitions. It just goes with the territory. It happened in Greece, it happened in Rome, it happened in Britain, it would happen here. And the only thing to prevent that, and therefore the destruction of the republic to an empire, would be a press system that would monitor government and make it very difficult, if not possible, to go to permanent foreign war.

What’s interesting about Jefferson’s and Madison’s point, I think, if you look at our news media and our society today, in retrospect, I would give them sort of an A+ on the Nostradamus scale. These guys sort of nailed it, if you think about it. If you look at the two core, great crises of our society—grotesque inequality, a collapsing public sector as a result; and an empire and all the things that come with it, secrecy, corruption—that’s right there, that’s the problem we have. And they hit it on the head. That’s why they were obsessed with creating a free press and not just leaving it to the market, leaving it to rich merchants to produce journalism for each other, but instead they had a democratic press.

They did it through extraordinary subsidies, the most important of which is the postal subsidy. I don’t know how many of you are familiar with the history of the American Post Office. It’s certainly fair enough, if you know nothing about it, it’s been a source of ridicule for the last generation, jokes, a silly sort of place. It’s nothing of the kind. It’s a truly great democratic institution. America’s great tangible contribution to democracy and the world was the Post Office. The Post Office was by far the largest branch of the government for the first 100 to 125 years of American history. 80% of all federal employees in the 19th century were postal workers.

First and foremost, what the Post Office delivered was newspapers. Ninety-five percent of the weighted traffic of the Post Office in the 19th century was newspapers, 70% of the individual units were newspapers. The Post Office was the distribution and circulation department for all American newspapers until the 1820s, and all weekly newspapers deep into the 20th century. That’s how they distributed all their papers. Non-postal deliveries of newspapers only began in the largest cities in the 1830s, where it was sold independent of the post office. Otherwise it was mailed. The Post Office used to go out two or three times a day in large cities in that period. What the Post Office charged to mail a newspaper was determined by how many newspapers you had. It was an absolutely foundational issue, what they were going to charge newspapers to be mailed, how many newspapers would exist.

Today, of course, if you listen to Glenn Beck’s rendition of Tom Paine, you would expect that they would have been waving copies of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations and demanding these newspapers pay full freight: no free lunch, no free ride, no corporate welfare, no subsidies: newspapers pay full freight. Instead, what we find, if you look at the debate starting in 1792 on the floor of the House on what to charge newspapers, the debate went something like this, because the Constitution required Congress to set up the Post Office.

At one extreme position were those who argued that newspapers should be very, very heavily subsidized compared to normal mail and the government should chip in money to subsidize the mailing of newspapers. So if a first-class letter cost 24 cents to mail, a newspaper would cost 1 or 2 cents, even though the first-class letter could be very small and the newspaper could be very fat. It didn’t matter. One or 2 cents to 24 cents. A huge subsidy to encourage newspapers. That was one extreme position. The other extreme position, supported and endorsed by no less than President Washington at the time, who, interestingly enough, was considering making Tom Paine the first postmaster general at Jefferson’s urging, the other position, the position of James Madison, was that all newspapers at all times should always be sent for free anywhere in the country. Any charge for postage, Madison said, would be a form of censorship, because the first newspapers to go out of business would be the most marginal, dissident newspapers, the most “out there” would be the first ones to go under. Madison was a person from the Enlightenment. He said,

Those are exactly the viewpoints we need.

Because in the Enlightenment view, that’s where the truth came from. The truth never came from the powerful. That’s where the lies came from. So you have to encourage keeping those viewpoints open with a subsidy. That’s an investment in democracy. That was Madison’s position, and Washington’s.

The former position won, not the latter. They were extremely heavily subsidized. But to give some sense, I said 95% of the weighted traffic, 70% of the individual units for newspapers in the 19th century. Only 10 % of the revenues for the Post Office came from newspapers. There were also huge printing subsidies. I won’t go into those. But I will tell you this, that as part of our research we were so astounded when we looked at the original data on this. The Post Office did studies to find out how much it was costing them to send all these newspapers everywhere. We went back and looked at the original data and tried to figure out, what would the U.S. Government have to spend today as a percentage of GDP if the federal government subsidized journalism today to the same extent it did in the 1840s, where we have hard data for both the printing and postal subsidies? The figure is $35 billion. Just to keep this in context, we’re currently spending $420 million total federally on public and community radio and television. Thirty-five billion dollars is what we would spend if we were spending the rates of the 19th century.

And it paid off. I urge you all, if you haven’t read de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, or if you read it and didn’t know this, go back and reread it. There are like 10 pages where he writes about newspapers. And he’s flummoxed. First he says,

The Post Office is amazing. It connects all of America, from the Atlantic to the Mississippi. It’s more connected, thanks to the Post Office, than a single province in France. That’s how brilliant this Post Office is that they have in America. There are newspapers everywhere. You can publish a newspaper even if you only have a couple hundred people reading it. It’s incredible.

He couldn’t understand the economics of it. How do they do this? How do they have a newspaper with 200 readers and it can stay in business?

It’s because of the postal subsidy and the printing subsidies that kept them going. And the genius of these subsidies was that no one in the government said, “You get it, and you don’t.” No one is cherry-picking. The abolitionist press got it and the slave-owning press got it. Everyone was eligible; there was no cherry-picking. That did didn’t become an issue until World War I. It was a long time before the Post Office got in the game of cherry- picking winners and losers.

It’s because of the postal subsidy and the printing subsidies that kept them going. And the genius of these subsidies was that no one in the government said, “You get it, and you don’t.” No one is cherry-picking. The abolitionist press got it and the slave-owning press got it. Everyone was eligible; there was no cherry-picking. That did didn’t become an issue until World War I. It was a long time before the Post Office got in the game of cherry- picking winners and losers.

That’s something we should be very proud of. Most nation states in the world in the 19th century in Europe primarily were just armies, they were just police forces, they collected tariffs. They were bad guys to the people in the country. That’s why there’s the government evil thing that runs through Western theory. Our national state was different, because we had this Post Office. We had this enormous subsidy in making democracy happen, in making a free press happen. It’s really our tangible great contribution to the world. It’s one we’ve forgotten, but interestingly, as I’m about to tell you, the world learned after we forgot it. That’s the good news.

Oftentimes at this point people will go,

Okay, professor, that was back in the 19th century. That wasn’t the real America. The Founding Fathers, let’s face it, those guys were weird. They were almost French. They didn’t have football, they didn’t have shopping centers, they didn’t have electric guitars, they didn’t have pizza. They had nothing that real America is all about. So maybe the Supreme Court, when it considers freedom-of-the-press issues, says, We’ve got to take a mulligan on the 19th century. Freedom of the press starts in the 20th century, when corporations kick into gear and they own the news media. And the First Amendment now is to protect their right to do whatever the heck they want. That’s the meaning of the First Amendment. Because, let’s be honest, the Supreme Court tends to frame its interpretation of law given the environment it’s in. It changes it given the political winds. And maybe the Supreme Court said, We’ve got to rethink the First Amendment in light of the fact that now the news media is run by big corporations making money and that’s got to be the new sacrosanct right.

So as part of our research we went back and reread the seven or eight major Supreme Court decisions on the First Amendment in the 20th century—and there have only been seven or eight—that consider the relationship of the press system to the government. We reread them. I had read them all in graduate school 30 years ago. And to put it mildly, it’s astonishing to reread them. The words that I didn’t even pay much attention to in 1985 jumped off the page at me.

There are a couple of great decisions, for those of you who are really interested in this. The AP v. United States decision in 1945 has a majority opinion by Hugo Black that’s one of the most brilliant statements of freedom of the press that’s ever written; the 1971 Pentagon Papers case, Hugo Black again and Potter Stewart, two extraordinary statements. What they said in these statements was, in effect, that it’s the duty of the government to make sure you have an independent fourth estate. It’s not an option; it’s a duty, it’s a requirement. The entire constitutional system depends on it. If there isn’t a viable, credible, independent news media, fourth estate, nothing works. We lose our freedoms, the whole system collapses, corruption takes over. It’s not an option; it’s a duty on a free people to do that. That’s what they say.

And for those who didn’t read the law opinions, Potter Stewart in 1974 wrote an article in the Yale Law Journal. I don’t have the exact quote in front of me, but he said, in effect, the free-press clause of the First Amendment is a structural requirement on the U.S. government to create a press system—a structural requirement—because without it you can’t have the governing system work. It’s the only way you can keep tabs on people in power. And in Stewart’s 1971 Pentagon Papers opinion, he basically channeled James Madison. It was just exactly what James Madison had written about empire and press, was what Potter Stewart wrote in 1971 in the Pentagon Papers case.

So the Supreme Court, if we take it seriously, we’re going to be a strict constructionist and take what the Court has said repeatedly, in every decision, including recent decisions. It doesn’t just give us the right to intervene in our press system, it requires it of us. Not the right to do subsidies, since the market has failed, but the obligation to do subsidies. The logic, in my view, is obviously, we have to have massive public subsidies to create independent, uncensored competitive newsrooms, largely nonprofit and noncommercial. That’s the only way we’re going to have a credible press system that’s going to work in this country going forward. That’s the obvious conclusion I think the evidence points to. I see no other conclusion that works.

Let’s look at all the other major advanced democratic nations of the world with similar economies to ours and that have democratic systems, not dictatorships but countries that might have more in common with us, and see what they’re doing. Maybe we can learn more from Canada, Britain, Germany, and Sweden than we can from Uganda and Pol Pot’s Cambodia. Maybe that’s a more relevant pool of comparison for us if we want to figure out our way out of this problem. What do we learn then? This is what we learn.

We learn, for example, that if the U.S. spent, if all levels of government spent, to support just public broadcasting per capita the same level as Canada, New Zealand, or Australia—and this is the low end—we would have to spend on a per capita basis, instead of what we’re currently spending, the $420 million federally, and a billion if you include all the states and universities and all that, we would have to spend between $7 billion and $10 billion annually, not $1 billion. If we were to ramp it up to the next level and we were to support public and community radio and television to the same level of, say, Japan and Britain, then we would be look more at the $20- billion-a -year rate. That’s what our government budget would be, $20 billion as opposed to what it is, $1 billion, even less. And then, if you want to take it to the top level—Germany, Sweden, Iceland, Finland, Norway, Denmark—then we’re looking at $35 billion a year. That’s what they spend per capita. We would have to
spend that if we had the same per capita rate as they do in federal subsidies, government subsidies to journalism, $35 billion. Remember that number 35? You heard that before, didn’t you? That seems to be the democracy level. If you’re going to invest in credible democracy, that’s the sort of amount you spend, $35 billion. That’s what we used to do and that’s what these countries do.

But wait a second. We have to be skeptics here. How do we know that money is being spent effectively? How do we know those countries are really democracies? So what we did is we looked at a couple of measurements. One is The Economist. I’m sure many of you are familiar with it. It’s a British weekly news magazine, very pro-business. Loves Ronald Reagan, loves Margaret Thatcher, loves free markets. It’s also libertarian on social issues. And it does some very good reporting at times as well. Every year they rank all the countries in the world in what they call their Democracy Index. They’ve been doing it for a long time. You can go online to The Economist Democracy Index. They rank them from top to bottom, the most democratic nation in the world to the least democratic. The least democratic is invariably North Korea. Any communist country is down at the bottom. They use traditional political science criteria for who are the most democratic: ease of vote, lack of corruption, ability to start parties, civil liberties; anything political scientists say, This is what a good democratic society would have. What’s interesting, in last year’s, the most recent ranking of the Democracy Index, The Economist put the U.S. 17th in the world. And guess who the first four countries in the world are, just a wild guess? I wouldn’t mention it if it wasn’t who you think it’s going to be. Denmark, Norway, Finland, Sweden. The countries with the highest per-capita press subsidies in the world are the most democratic countries, according to The Economist.

They don’t talk about free press exactly there, so maybe that’s not good enough evidence. So what I did is I went to another group you may have heard of, Freedom House. Freedom House is a group that was started in the Cold War to monitor the freedom of people around the world. They’re especially monitoring freedom in left-wing governments and communist countries. They’re particularly concerned with communist countries harassment of individual civil liberties and the private press system percentage of the media. Every year Freedom House, which is based in Washington and has a very close relationship with Langley, (CIA) as well as the State Department, ranks all the countries in the world on how free their press systems are.

They have a number of criteria. It’s actually a very sophisticated system. It’s not just government harassment of private media. But they rank all the countries as either a free press, a semi-free press, or an unfree, not free, press. Every communist country in the world is tied for last, because they don’t have any private media. So they are unfree; they’re hellholes. But they have very sensitive antennae, again, for any government harassment of private media. Venezuela, which has a thriving private media that is extraordinarily critical of the sitting government and gets a lot of attention in the country and not very much censorship, ranks as an unfree press, because they’ve been threatened by the government enough that it’s a chilling environment, according to Freedom House. So Venezuela ranks right down there with Cuba as the only country in the Western Hemisphere that has an unfree press. These guys at Freedom House are not left-wingers. You get the picture of where they’re coming from.

So Freedom House ranks all the countries in the world. Guess who their most free presses are? The top five are the heaviest press-subsidizing countries. The U.S. is ranked 24th in the world, this free press system, for a variety of reasons, including the fact that it’s hard to get access to sources and there is so much secret information in this country. Freedom House says the freest systems in the world, private press systems, commercial press systems, are in the countries with the largest public subsidies of journalism.

The evidence is pretty clear. You can easily have huge press subsidies that not only promote democracy but also make it possible to have a private, independent news media that prospers with less censorship and more credibility and does better. In fact, the research now that’s come out, and it’s conclusive, is that in Europe, as they’ve increased subsidies for journalism in Norway, Sweden, Finland, and France, it’s increased the opposition to the government. It hasn’t created a more quiescent, lackey press, it’s had the opposite effect, because the subsidies are set up to encourage the second, third, and fourth papers in a town to survive, not just have one newspaper in a community. So it creates more diversity.

The reason I go through all this is not that we should imitate those countries but that this is a very solvable problem. That’s my point. Other countries are all doing it. They’ve figured out ways. They’re struggling, they don’t have perfect answers. They’re going through the same stuff we’re going through with their commercial media. But at least they’re sort of pointed in the right direction, like we once were. And it’s the direction we have to go if we’re going to solve this problem. There’s just no other way around it.

At this point, again, in my talks, what tends to happen is I open it up to questions, and the first question is,

Are you insane? Do you honestly think you could ever do anything like that in America? How crazy are you, professor? What is going on with you?

I think that that’s an understandable response, and I take it seriously, although I’m an optimist, as you can probably tell. Or maybe you can’t. But I am. I wouldn’t be doing this if I wasn’t. I’m an inveterate optimist, and I think it’s grounded in good reasons. But understand this: In the last two years there has been such a sea change that even people who normally wouldn’t notice it are noticing it. We have major studies being done right now at the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission on the collapse of journalism, with the idea to come up with policy recommendations to address the crisis. And I can tell you, they understand the problem. They definitely understand the problem, from talking to the heads of these commissions and key people doing the research. Whether they’ll do much about it and make the sort of recommendations that I think the evidence leads you to, that’s probably not going to happen, at least not in the near term, for political reasons, because they’re scared to death of the sort of attacks that have said, “You want to create Pravda or Izvestia and kick Glenn Beck off the air,” and that that’s their mission in life,” which might not be a bad mission. Hi, Glenn.

It’s going to be difficult because of that, but this is just the near term. Let me talk a little bit about where I could go, what sort of solutions in the near term we could look at and where I think we’re going to have to go in the next few years if we’re going to solve it.

First of all, let’s dramatically increase the money to public and community radio and television. I emphasize community there, because I think a lot of people say, “I really don’t like PBS. I’m really tired of their mainstream news. I really don’t like NPR. I don’t like their mainstream news.” The first stations that go under when that funding goes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting are all the community stations in the country. Those are the first ones that go down. WGBH is the last one to go, the community and college stations are the first ones to go. Understand that immediately. So that is a war we have to fight. That is a war we can’t afford to lose. We should be spending instantly $5 billion or $10 billion so we have competing newsrooms, public, community, college stations in every town independently run covering their communities, because no one else is covering them.

Secondly—and I talk to a lot of students—this is probably the worst labor market for a young person wanting to be a journalist in American history. I think it would have been easier in 1932 to graduate from an American college with a journalism degree and get a job in a newsroom than it is today. I’m dead serious. In fact, I’m positive it would have been easier in 1932. It’s hopeless today. There is such downward pressure in wages, and the work you end up doing is PR spin junk, it’s not journalism. It’s a dreadful situation, and it’s something we can’t tolerate.

The thing we have to do, take 10,000 kids out of college and give them a one- or two-year stipend. Like Teach for America? Make it Write for America. Assign them to newsrooms all over the country. Get them working, get them covering this community, assign them to the community stations. Get people doing journalism. We can’t lose a generation. All the research shows that when people do journalism, they respect it and they respect freedom and democracy a lot more. When people stop doing it, they don’t really appreciate it anywhere near as much. We can’t lose a generation. And I can tell you right now there are thousands of people. I talk to them all the time. I just came from Ohio University. Young people are desperate to do journalism. It’s frightening to think they won’t even be able to get a minimum-wage job doing that, let alone a job where they can pay their bills. We can’t allow that. I want to close on two points.

The point I would make here on why it is so important is that what’s happened to the current administration is they have accepted the Republican framing of the economy, which is basically that the economy is in bad shape because we have a deficit, so if we get rid of the deficit or lessen the deficit, the economy will grow. That’s a type of economics that comes from Herbert Hoover, it comes from the Great Depression, it comes from Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon. That was basically, lower taxes on rich people, slash all social services, balance your budget, and the economy will magically grow. It’s preposterous economics.
That’s an aside.

The reason I mention all this is that President Obama and his administration, regrettably, have bought into that and they’ve accepted that logic as the defining logic. So there can be no new expenditures unless you can pay for them. Unless it’s a war. That’s another matter. But anything else that’s good, you can’t add it to the payroll, to the budget unless you can pay for it. Otherwise it’s off limits, even though that would be very good for the economy, probably. But that’s another matter.

So Nichols and I said,

Okay, what are we going to do, then? If we can’t add new programs like Write for America or more money for public broadcasting, what could we do with the current spending in our budget to address the journalism crisis? There are two places we could go right away that would make a huge dent in it, with current spending. The federal government today spends roughly $4 billion a year on public relations through all its bodies, and a lot of this in the Pentagon. Why not take half of that and devote it to journalism? Maybe there is some good use for public relations, they have to do some stuff, but a lot of this is just PR people spinning journalists so they have a favorable treatment of some government program or agency. That’s offensive in the first place, but it’s especially offensive when we have an army of PR agents spinning no journalists left to spin. What a joke! Why don’t we just give the money to journalists, let them cover the thing, and get rid of the PR agents? Right there we could come up with 10,000 reporters that we could get working around the country.

Secondly, another place we could go with currently being spent money, most Americans aren’t aware of this, but we spend roughly twice as much money on Voice of America and overseas broadcasting than we do on NPR and PBS. We spend $750 million a year on Voice of America and overseas broadcasting. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was just in Washington at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee testifying about this two or three weeks ago, and she acknowledged that it’s a complete failure, that our radio message, especially in the Middle East, isn’t working. Our commercial stations come across as just junky with advertising, like CNN International, and our Voice of America, publicly subsidized stations, come across as clumsy propaganda that’s not telling the truth. Al Jazeera in the region totally blows us out of the water. She said that, Hillary Clinton. So we need much more money to do the job; we’ve got to change our strategy.

I agree. Let’s say we can’t get the money for now. But we can change the strategy. Currently it’s illegal for Voice of America to be broadcasting in the U.S. That’s the condition of its existence. We aren’t allowed to hear that propaganda, apparently, or that journalism. It’s now off limits. What I recommend we do is take most of that money, not all of it, keep some for translations, and take the rest and give it all to public and community stations in the U.S. And all the money has to go exclusively to international coverage. And then what we’ll do is we’ll take the results of that and we’ll air it around the world. We won’t have a double standard. The same journalism we get we’ll air to the Middle East and to Africa and Asia, and they can hear what we’re getting, too. That’s $500 million. That buys you a lot of journalists. That gets you more foreign coverage than we’ve ever had in our history.

When we finished our revised edition, we were depressed. This is in January. This is hopeless now. The Obama administration is not doing anything, really, to speak of. They’ve pretty much sold us out. It doesn’t look good for this election. The last election was bad. It seems like we’re playing defense. It seems like we’re getting nowhere. And it seemed like our argument, when we started drafting the new version of the book, we thought, We’re going to have to go back to the streets, we’re going to have to get demonstrations, we’re going to have to raise hell. And then we looked at each other and said, “What are the chances of that?”

That conversation took place literally the day before all hell broke loose in Madison, Wisconsin. We were both in Madison. We live there. I must say, even if you watched sympathetic media—and there has been some. Amy Goodman and Democracy Now! Ed Schultz, Cenk Uygur, Rachel Maddow—that’s about it. Even if you watched that, you had no idea what took place in Madison and what an extraordinary, life-changing experience that has been for everyone who was involved in it. It reminds you, first and foremost, that one of the five core freedoms in the First Amendment is the right to assemble. Another one of the five core freedoms in the First Amendment is the right to peaceably address your grievances to the government, because the power that comes from 150,000 people together, united, the words are not in our language to convey it. You have to experience it. People in power understand that. That’s why that’s in our First Amendment.

If you were there in Madison, you saw large chunks of the people demonstrating every single day, at least 10- or 15,000 people coming down, and on weekends 50-,100-, 150,000. You would see these large chunks of the people assembled and you would say, “This looks like what we’re told by the media is a Tea Party rally.” Working-class white people. They’re supposed to be really reactionary? I was there every day. I was in the crowd. I wasn’t the leader; I was just one of the people there. I didn’t see a single racist thing, I didn’t see a single immigrant-bashing thing. By the end of it, the last two weeks, the chants were: “Tax the Rich! And “Stop the Wars!” It was sort of like being in France in 1789, the vibe. It got more radical every day. And the spirit, the nonviolence, the compassion, the humanity of the protesters, again, it was life-changing.

I mention this now because if we’re going to change the sort of the stuff I’m talking about in journalism, that is a revolution. It really is. If we got what I’m talking about, that’s a revolution in this country. It’s not going to come in the abstract. It’s not going to come in isolation and everything else in this country stays the same: the same horse-manure health system, the same crappy tax system, the same unemployment, the same inequality, the same garbage-can environmental policies. It’s not like those things will all stay the same, plus we’ll get this world-class media system. Who is kidding who? It doesn’t work that way. They’re all together. We win them all or we win nothing. We organize together on all or we lose everything. It’s basic politics. Saul Alinsky put it well:

The only way you beat organized money is with organized people.

That’s the oldest rule of politics. It’s as true today as it was back in 9000 B.C., when they planted the first seed between the Tigris and Euphrates.

We can win. But we’ve got to do some serious organizing. And part of it is we’ve got to change our media. Because the media coverage that took place in Madison was appalling. But it did do one thing of great value. For the people of Wisconsin participating, when they go home and watch the news or pick up the paper, go online and check the coverage, they get a world-class education in bad journalism and how important it is to have good journalism. Now they’re media reformers. Because when you get involved in politics, you learn pretty quickly, you have to be a media reformer if you want to win your cause. That’s the lesson we got there. Thank you very much.

For information about obtaining CDs, MP3s, or transcripts of this or other programs, please contact:
David Barsamian
Alternative Radio
P.O. Box 551
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(800) 444-1977
info@alternativeradio.org
www.alternativeradio.org
©2010

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