Robert W. McChesney: “This is the sort of thing we can build right now without anyone else’s permission, from the government, or from the business community.”
ROBERT W. MCCHESNEY, PRESIDENT, FREE PRESS: To give the best example of how bad it was, Colin Powell’s speech at the United Nations shortly before the US invasion and President Bush’s press conference shortly before the invasion, the sort of the two opportunities for the press to deal with the case being made by leaders to take us to war. In the case of Colin Powell’s press conference, the response to that talk by US news media across the board was one of unimaginable praise of the great evidence that was brought forward, how the case was closed, our media said. In a recent study by a former reporter from The Des Moines Register’s gone through all the media and basically chronicles it. There were no dissenting voices in our mainstream press—radio, television, newspapers, magazines; case closed. Colin Powell settled it for all time. Well, six months later, a reporter for the Associated Press fact-checked the speech for the first time, said it was entirely full of flaws. There was no evidence to support any of the claims. They don’t hold up at all. Six months later, well after the war was long since begun, Scott Ritter, the weapons inspector, the former Marine, the Republican, who’d been on the ground in Iraq and came back and said, “These claims are ridiculous. I’ve been there. I was part of the weapons inspection. They don’t have weapons of mass destruction,” was given a character assassination by the Bush administration that made him more difficult for a network news show to have him on the air as an expert than it would have been to have Michael Jackson on as an expert. I mean, he was simply absolutely obliterated from legitimacy, although evidence has now proven him to be one hundred percent correct on every single point he made. It’s been backed up, reinforced. But he was treated like a lunatic by our news media. Now why is it? Why did our press system in the United States do such a dreadful job of preparing people to war and then covering the war and occupation after hostilities commenced? It’s not an easy thing to answer, there’s not a simplistic answer, but I think there are two or three crucial factors that have to be considered. First of all, we have a code of professional journalism that’s developed in the United States over the past hundred years that’s developed in a peculiar way. Well, with regard to people in power say are the source of legitimate news, and people outside of power are not considered a source of legitimate news. So if a reporter just reports what the president says and what the head of the Democratic Party says (assuming the president’s a Republican) and reports on their debates, that’s considered objective, neutral, professional journalism. Now, if they’re both lying, you’re just out of luck—you’re reporting lies as if they’re the truth. And if someone’s telling the truth outside of power, if you report on their comments seriously you’re considered being partisan, why are you weighing in their opinions? They’re not in power. It’s one of the myriad problems built into the way professional journalism’s developed in the United States. And I hasten to add that professional journalism need not be that way. There’s nothing intrinsic to the notion of having professional journalism that means it must be dependent upon what people in power say is legitimate news. In the 1930s in the United States, the founders of the Newspaper Guild, George Seldes and Heywood Broun, argued—in fact, this is in the Newspaper Guild’s charter—this is the union of journalists in the United States—that we need to have professional journalism that wasn’t dependent on official sources but in fact was critical of everyone in power on behalf of the general public. And it had to see its role as being outside of power altogether, being independent, but not being partisan, not picking one party over another, and subjecting everyone to harsh criticism. That was their vision of what a bona fide professional journalism is. Another crucial factor has to do with the highly concentrated ownership of our news media in the United States as we see around the world there are a very small number of corporate hands. The actual people who control news, in particular over television in this country, who generate news, you could fit the owners of those companies at a table. It’s a very small group of people that do this and that cover wars and that send out the reporters. If you add the print companies, you might have to add a few more chairs at the end, but not much more. You can get them around a table of twelve, for all intents and purposes. These are companies that by definition are going to be small-c conservative. They’re beneficiaries of the status quo. They’re run by extraordinarily wealthy and powerful individuals who think the world looks pretty good just the way it is. And in the media organization, they’re going to send the vibes down implicitly, if not explicitly, “This is the way the world looks. We like it this way.” And those who succeed in the institution are always going to adopt those values. The problem with that, and the problem with what the corporate news firms have done to our journalism, is that means they depend almost entirely on the State Department, the White House to set the cue for what the debate should be about, and they have no evidence on their own to say, “Well, wait—what about this? We were over there. We saw what was going on out here. That’s not what we saw.” No one’s challenging them. The journalism then more and more becomes a regurgitation of what people in power say without a critical impulse. But in the general public it looks like real news, it looks like real journalism. And that has been a deep, fundamental problem of commercially run news as it’s developed in very uncompetitive markets in the United States. There’s one other great domestic example of the problems of our news in the United States and one that needs to be talked about. It’s almost never mentioned, ’cause people just take it for granted now. And that’s the spectacular class bias of US journalism. Back in the 1930s, the 1940s, it was standard for every daily newspaper to have at least one or two labor editors and beat reporters. It was understood that the working class, the laboring classes, were a significant part of the community, and news that affected them was central news that had to be covered for a viable journalism operation or an outlet. By the 1980s or 1990s, that position basically was discontinued in US news media. You can’t find very many labor editors. On the other side of the coin, however, interestingly enough, we’ve seen a vast increase in business journalism, business reporting. I mean, it’s skyrocketed in the past two decades. You know, some newspapers have much larger business sections than they do have news sections at this point. When we look at the big media companies in the United States, the ones that control the major broadcast news stations—and print news stations, increasingly—there’s only a handful of them. We’ve got to remember a couple of things about them to put the news and the content into context. First of all, we see that the largest US media, US-based media firms, the conglomerates, all look at the area outside the United States as their growth zone. The thing that gets Sumner Redstone waking up in the middle of the night, or Rupert Murdoch, in the middle of the night, you know, in a cold sweat, is the thought of China or India, markets of a billion people that are growing rapidly economically. And if you can get them consuming advertising and media consumption anywhere close to the rate of the United States or western Europe, you’re looking at growth rates that are going to be astronomical for a generation. That’s the future for these firms. And what’s striking about this, though, as these companies move around the world, and try to improve their chances, and change copyright laws and trade laws to make it easier for them to dominate commercial media markets worldwide and buy up stuff, they find there’s one institution that is their number one protector, one institution that leads the fight for them, that is their knights of the round table for corporate media expansion, and that’s the US federal government. The US government at every turn leads the fight for these companies, so they can expand their holdings in other countries, so the media in other countries can be more owned by transnational firms, can be more commercialized, US firms can advertise there more easily across the board at every point. Well, this creates a spectacular conflict of interest, if you think about it, in the coverage of all sorts of issues—global trade, for example, where these companies have a decided stake, the global trade laws be shaped to encourage private investors and big firms to own whatever they want without any local regulation or prohibition. And it’s very unlikely to think you’re going to see General Electrics, NBC, create hard-hitting critical analysis on global trade deals. Their future depends on it economically. It’s just that what you would rationally expect. Television is the place where most people look for news. I mean, what we see strikingly—and the research shows this—is that, you know, you can have all sorts of interesting stories in print sometimes, like the case in the war in Iraq. In the run-up to the Election Day, you saw in our print media in the United States, in The Washington Post and The New York Times, lots of stories about how the situation in Iraq was a complete fiasco. I mean, crime, graft—the bottom had come out of the cup. And virtually everything the president had said about it was wrong. And if you read the newspapers regularly, you would basically come to that conclusion—president’s simply full of it; this war’s a fiasco. Yet if you were to watch broadcast news and especially cable TV news during the same period, you would not have reached that conclusion, ’cause it was presenting, again, a video version sort of sanitized by the Bush administration that showed a war that, for every time they showed something remotely critical, they felt an obsession to show something to balance it that was pro-war. But television is the final-end product where people learn about the world, much more than print for the vast majority of people, and that’s not going to change. We’re an audio-visual species; we respond to textures and images and sound much more than print. Print is a hard thing for people to grasp; video-audio isn’t. It’s part of our being, as our nature as human beings. That’s not going to change. TV journalism’s going to be the center of journalism for the foreseeable future, for the foreseeable generation or two. Even in the digital era, that will not change either. It might be over the Internet that people are getting a lot of it, but it’s going to be what we consider TV journalism. I think that Independent World Television plays a real central role in where ideally our media system would go in the United States and globally. Crucially, what we need to have—I mean, the core of any vision of a good media system is that it’s going to be pluralistic and heterogeneous. And that’s the best possible media system, one with a number of different institutional setups. It’s going to be much less likely for anyone in power ever to control it, much more likely that dissident ideas can get to the top, the truth will win out in the classic case of a marketplace of ideas, so it’ll be harder to snuff out the various sources of inquiry. That’s where Independent World Television plays a central role, because it can be one of those cornerstones, one of the legs of the democratic media system. It can be something independent of government, independent of commercial pressure. There is one of the ways to provide high-quality, serious political-public affairs coverage of the world. In being there, then it’s not just an alternative voice, an independent voice, but is also a check, then, on the other three legs of the table.
Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.