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Bob McChesney: Authentic journalism is a public good, democracy requires it

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. Bob McChesney and Victor Pickard, both media scholars, have edited a new book, a collection of essays about the state of journalism in America. The book is titled Will the Last Reporter Please Turn Out the Lights: The Collapse of Journalism and What Can Be Done to Fix It. And here’s an introduction to the book. As the basis for self-government is an informed citizenry, and as the fourth estate, as the institution with primary responsibility for making an informed citizenry possible, the existential crisis for news media is in fact an existential crisis for self-government. Now joining us to talk about the book is Bob McChesney. Thanks for joining us, Bob.


JAY: Give us some context. First of all, why did you feel the need to produce the book? And what were its main findings?

MCCHESNEY: Well, the need to produce the book is in the title. We’re seeing a collapse of journalism as it’s been understood, going back, really, a century in the United States, and it’s really a worldwide phenomenon. All of this concentrates in the United States, where the number of working reporters today, the amount of resources that are dedicated to journalism on a per capita basis, are well below what they were ten years ago, and arguably as much as only 50 percent of what they were 25 years ago. At the same time, we’ve seen a skyrocketing in money for public relations and spin, so that we now have a ratio of basically four public relations officers for every working journalist. And 30 or 40 years ago, the ratio was more like one to one. And this has produced, as you said in the introduction, an existential crisis. We have much of governance in this country that’s no longer covered. There is huge swaths of government, relations between the government and business, government and policy, that are no longer being reported upon at all. At the same time, government is still making extraordinarily important decisions that shape our future and shape our lives. And that’s the nature of this crisis, which is really unprecedented in American history–was enough that we thought that we needed to have a book that came together to address it. Now, I’ve written my own book with John Nichols on this subject called The Death and Life of American Journalism. But in the process of doing that book, I discovered there is a lot of people writing about this who have a lot of interesting things to say, and it was breaking research. So we wanted to collect, Victor Pickard and I, about two or three dozen of the best pieces, put them together in one book, so there’d be a way for people to see the range of analysis and a range of solutions. And that was the purpose of the book, to get material that otherwise people wouldn’t see, and to get ideas into print immediately, during this crisis, not put ourselves in a situation where these’ll filter into journal articles and books and they’ll be accessible four or five, six years from now. We thought the crisis was such that people need to see this material immediately.

JAY: This issue of the rise of public relations as opposed to journalism is something [that] doesn’t get talked about very much. But I know when I go to journalism schools to speak, I often ask, you know, how many people in this journalism class actually want to go into journalism, and more than half the class is planning to go into PR and communications, another quarter of the class wants to go into sports reporting, and, you know, sometimes in a class of 30 or 40 kids you wind up with six or seven actually planning to go into journalism.

MCCHESNEY: It’s an absolute crisis. You really hit it right there in a nutshell. And the tragedy is, in my experience, there is still an enormous number of young people who want to be journalists, who want to do great work, but there aren’t jobs for them. So some of those kids you talk to who are going into public relations or some other field are just reading the market tea leaves and understand there are no jobs for them and there are jobs in public relations. But we’ve seen a real crisis in our journalism schools in responding to this issue, ’cause one of the articles in the book deals specifically with the fact that with only a handful of important exceptions, most of the journalism schools in this country have their head in the sand about this crisis and are either wilfully going along with it and sort of aiding and abetting the elimination of journalism and its replacement by spin and public relations or they’re just ignoring it and pretending they’re still living in 1975.

JAY: From the articles you collected and the other work you’ve been doing, what solutions have excited you? What seems original, fresh?

MCCHESNEY: Well, the work I’ve done has been very pointed in one area, and the work I’ve done both with Victor and then with John Nichols in my own book. And that points to the fact that we have to understand journalism as a public good, not as a private good. And as a public good, that means the market can never give us sufficient resources to have a credible, independent, competitive free press. It will require public subsidies. And in our research–and it’s in this book as well–what we discovered is that the American free press system, the American journalism system, from the very beginning, was based on enormous public subsidies, which were largely unknown to most Americans or underappreciated to scholars. And these subsidies built up our free press in the 19th century–postal and printing subsidies. And we need to return to that sort of vision of subsidizing a free and independent press today, ’cause it’s clear the market will not do a sufficient job. Now, while we make that argument in the book, that’s not the argument of the book. We wanted in this book to have a range of opinions. And the book includes an essay, for example, by Matt Welch from the libertarian publication Reason, who thinks that we’re completely wrong, and much of his ten pages is a critique of our argument and why he thinks that’s flawed. It also includes a number of people who aren’t interested in government subsidies, who are skeptical of them, but instead are interested in finding new ways to do digital journalism, online journalism, and finding new business models that might work. And then there are a handful of people who share my view and have different proposals, from you could have public money support journalism, would not allow any form of government censorship or control over the content. So we’ve really got a full range in the book. And the principle behind the book is to get the debate going. The principle behind the book is that for the last five years, when the crisis of journalism has accelerated, the problem we’ve had in the United States has been that there’s a knee-jerk response. So the government can’t do anything. The government is the enemy. And the logic of it is if capitalists, if corporations can’t make money doing journalism, then we just can’t have journalism. You know, just roll up the carpet and see if we can get another king to take over. And that struck me as absurd, and that strikes me as absurd to this day. The point of this book is to show the real traditions of American history, about how journalism developed, and try to get out tangibly real policy solutions, real possible solutions, so we can have a credible journalism and have a serious discussion about it [incompr.] name-calling, but based on evidence and core values that we all share.

JAY: One of the issues facing or did face government recently was the takeover of NBC by Comcast, the whole increased consolidation of ownership of media. What’s your assessment of the decision they made?

MCCHESNEY: Well, it was a horrible decision, it was indefensible, and it exemplifies the great corruption in Washington today on media policy-making, where you have enormous lobbies, like General Electric and Comcast, two of the largest companies in the world, two companies whose wealth is based preponderantly on government-granted monopoly licenses and on government contracts–they’re not free-market companies in the textbook sense of the term–they basically bought a merger that makes no sense from the public interest. It makes no sense in terms of market logic, either. It decreases competition. And these weren’t companies that were going out of business; these were companies that are both highly profitable. All it does is it gives them much more monopoly power. And as we’ve argued in our book, and [incompr.] I think the research demonstrates, when you allow fewer and fewer companies to dominate journalism who are motivated first and foremost, if not exclusively, by the maximization of profit in the near term, what you see almost always is a cutback in the number of working journalists. They find it very profitable to shrink newsrooms. It makes a lot more money in the near term. And they really aren’t in a position to give a darn what that means for society. That’s not their mission. Their mission is to take care of Comcast and to take care of NBC.

JAY: The attempts to build alternative, independent forms of media, which The Real News is one–and for full transparency I should tell everyone Bob is on our advisory committee and has been right from the very beginning of this project–none of us have gotten to scale. When we started this a few years ago, you know, we thought hitting 50,000 people at $10 a month, you know, would sort of be achievable within two or three years, and we haven’t, to be honest with everybody. You know, we certainly have monthly donors and we don’t accept government funding and corporate underwriting and all of that, but we haven’t gotten to the kind of scale by now that we would have hoped to. What do you think are–what’s blocking us–not just us, The Real News, but some of the other independent media organizations as well? No one’s been able to get a real public buy-in for just giving small amounts of money every month and get to a scale that can start competing with mainstream media.

MCCHESNEY: The reason you’re having so much trouble isn’t the quality of the product. I’m a huge fan of Real News. And there’s a number of other independent media in the same boat who are doing phenomenal work that are desperate to get people to donate money so they can continue to do their work. But the reason you’re having troubles–and other media are in the exact same boat–is that journalism’s a public good. It’s not inherently a private undertaking. And the problem is that it’s never been profitable for anyone. In the first 75 years of American history, the only reason we had a great press system was that those postal subsidies by the government and printing subsidies gave us a press that was probably ten times larger than it would have been otherwise. They were extraordinary subsidies. For the last 100 years or 125 years in the United States and in most of the world, we’ve had the illusion that news media and journalism was a profitable undertaking because advertising provided between 60 or 50 or 60 to 100 percent of the revenues for news media, and that made it very lucrative and profitable. But the problem with that was it was a fluke, it was a coincidence, because the advertisers have no interest in journalism per se. They only supported news media to the extent it helped them with their commercial aims. And now that advertisers have better solutions than supporting journalism, they’re jumping ship, and the percentage of the budget or revenue base that goes to journalism today that comes from advertising is plummeting, and we’re back standing in the stark truth, which is journalism just isn’t a very lucrative area for capitalists to make money in, especially [incompr.] advertising [incompr.] It never has been. And the problem has been, for those like Real News and all the other wonderful independent radio, TV, online news media, they’re all competing, then, for a very small group of people to donate–relatively small group of people to donate to. It’s not like you’re the only one with a tin cup, Paul Jay. You know, there’s a number of them out there, and they all deserve to get it. And the people who are trying to support this really don’t have the funds to do it, and they never have. It’s no discredit to any side of this equation. That’s why in rational societies, like the United States has been in the past, you institute huge public policies without any government strings attached to spawn and subsidize media to do competitive independent journalism. And that’s how it’s done in a democratic society, in my view, and I think that’s the solution we have to go to here. And I think we have to find ways to make it easier for The Real News Network and all the great independent media to have the resources to hire journalists, to pay journalists, and to cover stories that need to be covered. You know, I often talk to people who say, well, you know what? You’re talking about Bob McChesney with subsidies and government policies and breaking up media mergers and helping newsworkers to have unions and all these sort of things. These [incompr.] take years of hard work lobbying politicians and organizing. And, you know, that’s all great, but what do we do right now? And we can’t wait five or ten years for these solutions. In the meantime we’ve got wars, we’ve got economic crises, we have environmental collapse. We need real journalism right away, right now. And then the solution to that’s obvious, and it’s Real News Network, it’s the whole array of independent news media that are out there with talented people doing great work. Right now, without anyone’s permission, you can cut a check, you can make a donation to Real News or any independent media, and that money will be spent wisely and it will go very, very far.

JAY: Well, sorry for turning this into a bit of a plug for The Real News Network, but we were talking about journalism and that’s where it led. Once again, Bob’s book is Will the Last Reporter Please Turn Out the Lights. And before you turn out the lights, please click the donate button. And thanks for joining us again on The Real News Network.

End of Transcript

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