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McChesney and Nichols propose solutions for crisis facing journalism

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington with Bob McChesney and John Nichols, cofounders of Free Press and authors of the book The Death and Life of American Journalism. Thanks for joining us again.


JAY: Alright. So in the first segment of the interview we talked about the broken economic model, and the broken content model, too. So start talking about your solutions.

MCCHESNEY: Well, again, the place to look is what did the United States do in our own history before the advertising model emerged and gave us that temporary period in which we thought the market would solve the problem. And what we discovered in our research and what the book chronicles in great detail is that there’s really two great traditions of freedom of the press in the United States. One tradition we all know. That is that the government shouldn’t censor content; it shouldn’t register journalists; it shouldn’t prevent anyone from doing journalism who wants to. We all agree with that. That’s absolutely a core principle of any freedom-of-the-press notion that we want to have. But the second half of the freedom of the press in the United States historically is that it’s the first duty of the government, of the people, to make sure an independent fourth estate actually exists. We don’t have a fourth estate, an independent free press. It’s a hollow right to say it won’t be censored. And our founders, in the first hundred years of American history, took that for granted. They held those two beliefs simultaneously as complementary, not contradictory. They had no illusion that you can just sit back and let rich people try to make money doing journalism and that would be satisfactory, and if they couldn’t do it, you just roll up the carpet and find a king. No one thought in those terms. Instead, they instituted extraordinarily large postal subsidies and printing subsidies to spawn the richest, most diverse print media culture in the world by far, the foundation of American democracy. The extent of these subsidies—we go through them in detail in the book. We calculated them. If the United States had the same subsidy by the federal government as a percentage of our GDP today that we routinely had in the first half of the 19th century—the federal government had spent $30 billion subsidizing independent journalism.

JAY: Which is not much more than what would be happening in places like Britain, to some extent Canada. I mean, that kind of subsidy already exists most places in the world.

JOHN NICHOLS, AUTHOR, THE DEATH AND LIFE OF AMERICAN JOURNALISM: You’re spot-on with your question, because when we calculated for the founding moment and the early years of the republic, we really did do a lot of work, and we found that roughly $30 billion number. And then, amazingly, if you take countries like Norway and Sweden, countries that are rated by The Economist magazine as having the freest culture in general, most democratic states, and certainly freest press; and by, also, Freedom House, which rates, you know, how the commercial press is doing [inaudible] all this—all of these measures say these are places that really do work, that really do a good job, when you calculate their subsidy [inaudible] based on population, compared to US, comes to about $30 billion. It’s the amazing reality is that there’s a model here, there’s a model that shows how you can have a freewheeling, really rich and robust journalism in a democratic state, both public noncommercial and also commercial. It really works. It sustains democracies.

JAY: So talk about some of your concrete proposals.

NICHOLS: We have a lot of concrete proposals. And let me begin with one of the easiest ones, one of the ones that has been extremely popular everywhere we’ve gone in the US, and that is to take our starved public broadcasting and community broadcasting system and feed it, give it the resources that would allow it to build up not with just one network in a state, as is often the case, but with multiple networks, competing public networks, covering different things at competing newsrooms, in a public and a community newsroom in every city. That’s very doable with a really relatively small—. We can double—. Let me put it this way: we can double the amount of money that we put into public broadcasting community. We still wouldn’t be to $1 billion. And people really like that. People—the notion that public broadcasting is unpopular is a fantasy. The fact of the matter is that if you go across this country, even people that are not great consumers of it want it, because they see it as a good watchdog.

JAY: Well, what are you hearing here in DC? Because the first stimulus package I don’t think had much in terms of developing public broadcasting. There’s talk about another jobs program. Stimulus money could be used in this kind of area, and it would create jobs. But are you getting any—what’s your reaction you’re getting in DC?

MCCHESNEY: Well, the one area where the stimulus money should definitely go, and another measure that is extremely popular, is—. You know, we’re losing an entire generation of young people among journalists that can’t find work. I mean, we’re literally losing a generation right now. And why not take something like the AmeriCorps program for teachers, which sends young kids out to teach for a year to rural areas and inner cities where they can’t find teachers, and do that for journalists? Send 25,000 people, who have to be journalists working for websites, nonprofit, noncommercial broadcasters all across the country covering these communities. And that would be a job spillover. It’d also create a whole new generation of people who want to do journalism. So that would be the sort of thing that would be a rational solution to the immediate crisis. I say in Washington, from our experience here, the good news is that there’s a recognition by politicians that the crisis [inaudible] politicians see it. Politicians know that ten years ago, if they did something, it was covered by ten journalists in their district. Now they have to call up and beg—if they can find a journalist. [inaudible] they understand that this is a problem. There is no coverage. Now, unscrupulous ones benefit by it and enjoy it, and [inaudible] substitutes are people yelling at each other for journalism. But the other ones understand this is a real issue if you’re trying to build something and do something in terms of public service. And already the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission have each launched studies and inquiries into what to do about the collapse of journalism, understanding what policy measures could be taken. So we’re at the early stages, but I think we will see action within the next year or two.

JAY: So one of your proposals is about a citizen journalism voucher. Tell us what that’s about.

NICHOLS: It’s developed out of ideas of Dean Baker, the great economist, and a lot of other folks who’ve been looking at this in different ways and saying: how do we get citizens in a position of sustaining journalism and demanding the journalism that they want, giving them some resources to move around? So what we say is that every citizen of the United States ought to have a news voucher. It’s funded with public broadcasting. You get it at the start of the year. You can assign $200 to whatever public or noncommercial media that you think would provide you with the journalism that you want. There’s some basic standards to avoid fraud, but not a lot of rigidity on it. You want to sustain journalism in your neighborhood, and you’re just not been covered. Maybe you live in an inner city that has been abandoned by the traditional daily paper ’cause it ran to the suburbs to cover things that the rich people want to have covered. You want some journalism in your community, so you go to maybe your union or your church or whatever, get folks together, and you say, hey, let’s pool our vouchers and give them to some, you know, entity that’s not-for-profit, community-based here to cover us. And you understand, $200, you get 100 people to do that, you’ve got a base of money to hire a kid to go out and cover this.

JAY: So if you take all your proposals, what do they cost? ‘Cause it’s all really fundamentally about subsidy, which [inaudible]

MCCHESNEY: Yeah, that’s right.

NICHOLS: Absolutely.

MCCHESNEY: The last proposal, the citizens news voucher, which is really sort of the visionary future one—and that one, I mean, to put it in correct context, the principle behind that is a massive subsidy that’s a public subsidy, but the government has no control over who gets the money; individuals make the decision directly. And it’s also a subsidy that, rather than fighting the Internet and the digital world and trying to put up barbed wire everywhere, passwords and payments, says everything is produced—we pay people in advance, and everything that’s produced goes into the public domain. It’s available for free to everyone in the world. So it’s a massive subsidy [inaudible]

JAY: And I think, in your proposal, to be eligible for the subsidy you have to be nonprofit.

MCCHESNEY: In our view, that should be [inaudible]

JAY: And number two, you shouldn’t take advertising.

MCCHESNEY: It shouldn’t take advertising [inaudible]

NICHOLS: And one of the—can I just say [inaudible] Bob to continue on this, but [inaudible] the reason for that is we don’t want to bail out the people that drove journalism off the cliff. We don’t want to say to the people who did a lousy job, “Oh, here’s a whole bunch of taxpayer dollars.” The American people won’t stand for that. But what we believe they would stand for is the creation of the new and better journalism of the 21st century.

MCCHESNEY: Yeah, and if commercial media want to sell ads, fine. We aren’t going to take their ads from them. More power to them. Go ahead. Do your thing, pal. Good luck. We’re not trying to—. One of the ironies or one of the interesting developments research-wise is those countries with the greatest amount of subsidy of journalism and public media in the world also have the healthiest, most vibrant commercial news media. So we don’t see that as—this isn’t like we’re fighting them. We’re wishing them luck. But we’re not waiting for them. We can’t. They’re going to drag along in the caboose in all likelihood. So this would cost a lot of money if everyone did it. It’d be $20 billion if everyone in the country took advantage of that. Probably they wouldn’t. But, you know, that’s not that much money if you think about it. If you look at it per person in the United States, we’re a nation of 300 million people. What does that factor out? We’re looking, then, basically at—it’s $100 a person that this comes up to, or $200 per person, you know, the cost of actually having newsrooms in your community covering it, so you’re actually covering government, so you know what’s going on. And, also, these sort of measures like this would give us—they’re libertarian [inaudible] they’re tremendously competitive. If, let’s say, for example, The Real News Network, which I think would be a natural to receive—people will say, “I want to support it and give it my voucher.”

JAY: And of course I now have no conflict of interest in this interview at all. Continue.

MCCHESNEY: But, I mean, for example—.

NICHOLS: You’ve still got to be good.

MCCHESNEY: That’s what I mean. Let’s say you were able to convince people who watch this to give you some of their voucher and you did a lousy job. Well, they would only give it to you one year, and the next year someone else’ll come along, “I’m going to do a better job,” and they would give it to them. So the competition here would still exist, but it would be a noncommercial competition: it wouldn’t be a competition for advertisers; it’d be a competition for doing great work.

JAY: Well, I mean, it seems like almost a no-brainer. What is the pushback you’re getting on this, at least at an intellectual level? I mean, one pushback obviously is the political level—you just can’t get anything through this type of DC.

NICHOLS: Let’s talk about the pushback. Frankly, from people who’ve been taught about journalism in a certain way in America, they weren’t taught that free-press tradition, that of the founders that said, yeah, we guarantee a free press, but we also make sure there is a free press, ’cause barring censorship doesn’t mean much if you have nothing to censor. And so the pushback we get is from a lot of people who say if government touches journalism in any way, if it touches media in any way, you suddenly have Pol Pot’s Cambodia, right? It’s just right off the cliff; you’re with Idi Amin or Stalin, right? And what we really try to emphasize to these folks who say that is, no, those are not the logical comparisons. Let’s compare ourselves to democratic states with, you know, very developed, modern culture, and functional places where maybe Americans might even feel comfortable, like Norway or Germany or England or Canada. And, you know, when you get it to that point, that argument starts to crumble. And so we think we can talk our way through that and think our way through that. The bigger problem, honestly, at the end of the day, is a huge sense in this country that nothing is possible, that we’ve reached a point where restoring and strengthening our infrastructure of democracy is just an impossibility, ’cause the special interests control everything. And what we keep saying to people as we go across this country is, you know, this is the place to begin the fight, to begin the fight to really do what Tom Paine said we had it in our power to do, and that is to begin the world over again. It is always in a moment of crisis, when an old system is crumbling, and when people know that they don’t want to go back to what they had, they want something better, these are the points at which we can entertain what are, in the best American sense, radical ideas, new ideas that are different and bold, that borrow from workable models in other places, but really, at the end of the day, have a unique American frame to them, with the ultimate goal of saying to every American, look, for less money, less money than you’d spend in ten weeks in Iraq, less than 2 percent of the initial bank bailout, we can give you a journalism that makes sure that you will never have another Iraq or another bank bailout. You can have a democracy where you are the governor, you are in charge, because you have the information to make the decisions.

MCCHESNEY: Wow. That sounded pretty good. We ought to write a book about that.

NICHOLS: Hey! Hold it! Didn’t that—that sounds almost like a conclusion. Yeah.

JAY: It’s called The Death and Life of American Journalism. You can get it on your bookshelves, and you can also buy it through the store of The Real News Network. Thanks for joining us.

MCCHESNEY: Our great pleasure, Paul.

JAY: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee complete accuracy.

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Robert McChesney is the Gutgsell Endowed Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Illinois. In 2008, the Utne Reader listed Robert among their “50 visionaries who are changing the world”. Robert has written and edited 17 books, and his work has been translated into 21 languages.

John Nichols is the Nation’s Washington correspondent, and the associated editor of the Capital Times in Wisconsin. John has covered seven presidential races and reported from two dozen countries. He is the author or coauthor of eight books on media and politics.