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Robert McChesney: Corporate media making millions from political ads, then cover ad driven horse race as news

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington.

Bob McChesney, a well-known scholar and expert on media in America, recently wrote a piece called “The Bull Market”. Here’s a little excerpt from that:

“The U.S. electoral system is wallowing in a sea of money, idiocy, and corruption precisely at the moment the nation’s growing problems demand solutions that work to the benefit of the vast majority of Americans—the 99 percent—who have no role in the current regime except to be manipulated and exploited.”

Now joining us to talk about his article is Bob McChesney. Bob is a professor of communications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His books include The Political Economy of Media and The Problem of the Media. Thanks for joining us again, Bob.


JAY: So your piece to a large extent is about political advertising, partly as it has been affected by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which allows practically unlimited corporate spending on television advertising, and you take up the whole question of advertising, sort of put this in the context of advertising in general. But one thing that kind of falls out of what you’re saying in the article is you got this crazy system whereby the entities that benefit most from this money in politics are the media organizations, the mass major news organizations that get all this and billions of dollars of paid advertising, and then they report in what their—supposed to be their journalism on—mostly on poll results, poll results affected by TV buys which they’re benefiting from. I mean, it’s a crazy cycle. Give us your take on this.

MCCHESNEY: Well, that’s a pretty good summary of what we argue in the piece. You know, most democracies in the world have nothing like the United States in terms of this huge amount of money that gets spent by television ads, most of which are attacking the other candidates, not promoting your own candidate. And the reason for that is that it’s driven in the United States by commercial broadcasters, the commercial television stations. And really we’re talking about less than a dozen companies that own the vast majority of the stations that participate in selling TV ads. They are making a killing from this cash-drenched system. Literally between 18 and 25 percent of all the revenues of a commercial TV station this year will come from selling TV political candidate ads. And, you know, this is a profit center for them that’s beyond belief. They’re driving the system.

So you have—the commercial broadcasters are to campaign finance reform what the National Rifle Association is to bans on assault weapons. They are the number-one lobby to promote massive amounts of money in politics, because our electoral system in America has basically converted into a system where billionaires and corporations give tons of money to politicians, who then give most of that to commercial media to buy inane ads. And that’s really what we have for our system. And the beneficiaries immediately of this are the commercial broadcasters [crosstalk]

JAY: And we don’t hear them declaring conflict of interest when they report, for example, on the Supreme Court decision on Citizens United.

MCCHESNEY: No, you don’t. And that would be exactly what credible journalism would do, because champagne corks went off in the General Electric or Comcast offices, the Disney offices, the night that decision was made. That was a glorious evening for corporate news media, corporate media in the United States when Citizens United was done.

It is—you know, and I think the point that’s got to be understood by your viewers is that the companies that get these monopoly broadcast licenses—you have television stations or radio stations, cable systems—they get these monopoly privileges at no charge from the government in exchange for doing something in the public interest. In every major definition that’s ever been given of what the public interest requirements ought to be of commercial broadcasters, number one on the list is always that they should do outstanding campaign coverage above and beyond what they would do if they were just out to make money, that basically that’s where they put all their emphasis, to draw people into public life as voters, as citizens, to understand the candidates and the issues. And what we’ve seen is just the opposite. In the last 20 years, as the percentage of revenues going to commercial broadcast stations has gone from around 2 percent 20 years ago on average to 20 percent on average today, if not more. We’ve seen the amount of journalism covering campaigns on commercial television plummet. Lots of races get no coverage anymore. It’s not any better, really, in newspapers. And what coverage that does remain is appalling. I mean, it’s like you said. It’s like going over polls. It’s sort of like reviewing whether an advertising attack ad is successful at manipulating people, not, you know, discussing how inane it is in the first place.

JAY: Yeah, that’s the story. The story is: is their campaign working or not? Are they rising in the polls or not? Very, very little reporting on is there any substance to the claims, and, I mean, it’s entirely horse race sports coverage.

MCCHESNEY: I think it’s fair to say that you could’ve had the equivalent type of journalism as American cable news coverage of campaigns or broadcasters’ coverage of campaigns, you could have easily had that sort of journalism in China today covering elections to the Central Committee. You know, that would probably be—that’s something not fair to China. But my point simply is that this sort of journalism is compatible with an undemocratic society, ’cause it has such little substance involved in it.

JAY: I mean, part of the issue, too, is you do get some on some of the cable channels—for example, MSNBC, you’ll get—on a Rachel Maddow show or some of these other more progressive shows, you’ll get some digging into some substantive point that’s wrong with, say, a Republican Romney statement, and they’ll take it as a thing in itself and dispute it. Frankly, you’ll get the same thing on Fox, and sometimes legitimately they’ll take up some claim from Obama or the Democrats and legitimately poke some hole in a fact base of it—although I don’t think it’s equal, ’cause I think Fox makes up a lot more stories than anyone else does. But you don’t get any broader conversation that, one, we’re in a deep economic crisis, that—two, that, you know, we could be on the precipice of a decade of recession, or even depression, like, no real sense of the world.

MCCHESNEY: You’re absolutely right, Paul. In fact, what you get at its best on MSNBC and Current—and there are some really good shows there, and I think Rachel Maddow’s an excellent journalist. [ʤæn.kjugÉš], I think, does a terrific job. There are some good people out there. But what they do at their best is they simply debunk right-wing nonsense.

But the point is, the right wing sort of is shaping what they’re talking about, I mean, to a large extent. The right wing doesn’t spend any time debunking [ʤæn.kjugÉš] or Rachel Maddow. They barely know they exist. So the right wing is in—sitting behind the driver’s wheel steering the car, and these guys are in the back seat hitting them in the side of the head like mosquitoes.

The problem, though, is less that than what you were talking about, this whole range of issues that no one in power wants to talk about—the U.S. empire around the world; all our military commitments; the huge amount of spying the government is doing in collusion with internet companies and private companies on private citizens, far in excess of anything we ever really have had in United States before; and then the whole raft of economic issues about the way people’s lives are actually going, the collapse of the public sector around the country. These are pretty much uncovered anywhere in the news. The issues that really matter to people in this country are not as interesting as, you know, the physical appearance of a candidate or whether someone said a gaffe or whether someone is sort of a moron.

JAY: I mean, what did you make of the media coverage of Ron Paul in the Republican race? You know, for quite some time he was coming in second, coming in third in some of the races, but he was so marginalized right from the get-go. And I would think part of that has to do with the logic of the media and of these journalists is, well, we know he doesn’t have the money to overcome a Romney and he doesn’t have the money to overcome some of the other leading guys; so even if he’s doing fairly well in the polls, we can already predict he can’t win, ’cause he doesn’t have that kind of money; so we’ll kind of ignore him.

MCCHESNEY: You know, I don’t think it was the money in the case of Ron Paul. I think that that’s a minor factor, because both Gingrich and Santorum got treated as serious contenders, and they never really had much money either, certainly compared to Romney [crosstalk]

JAY: Well, Gingrich had his own billionaire, and so did Santorum.

MCCHESNEY: Yeah, that’s right. They did have their sugar daddies that showed up. But I think they were purely dependent on one sugar daddy, and their financial situation was pathetic compared to Romney, so they were never really serious candidates. It’s sort of a fluke that they got to the point they did, because the other so-called serious candidates, like Pawlenty, shriveled up and folded, and so did Huntsman.

I think the problem Paul faced more than money—not that money wasn’t an element of it—was that on one particular issue, foreign policy, he’s completely outside the dominant consensus of the American elite, both Republican and Democrat. And to say, basically, the United States should not invade other countries, the United States should not occupy other countries, to say that it’s understandable that people in the Middle East would be upset at the United States ’cause we have invaded countries there and killed people for no reason, these are things that are not allowed to be said in American political culture by anyone. And I think that really is the reason. If Ron Paul did not have that foreign policy, I think he would have gotten much better coverage.

JAY: Right. So what’s the public policy solution to this? I mean, the way you describe it in your article—and I think most people would agree—the political process in America is rather dismal. What needs to be done?

MCCHESNEY: Well, a multi-front fight. First of all, I think the sort of work that The Real News Network is starting to do and I think is really taking off around the country, which is genuine grassroots work at the community level, where the power of the money is a lot less, where people meeting together in small groups can actually take charge of a neighborhood or community, or city, eventually, and building from the ground up, where the propaganda of television ads and corporate media is going to be less effective going up against people actually in contact with each other in their communities—so I think that’s where a lot of the action’s taking place. That’s our hope now, ’cause the big-money side—thanks to Citizens United in particular, but it was already there before Citizens United—has pretty much made the traditional civics class options for reform all but impossible for the visible future.

You know, we’re in a situation now where issue after issue after issue, large moneyed interests completely own the board in Washington. And it’s impossible, frankly, to imagine how you can take that away from them if we just play by their rules. We’ve got to try a whole lot of different other approaches and work on a lot of different fronts.

Now, one of the things I believe we have to work on is a constitutional amendment that corporations are not people, money isn’t speech, and maybe even have publicly funded elections go that far. But we have to—you know, the court itself, the Supreme Court, has clearly identified itself with the most unbelievable interpretation of the Constitution. And they’re all—these Republicans appoint these guys when they’re in their 30s. These guys are going to be around forever. So we have to have a constitutional amendment, I think.

But that’s not enough. It’s got to be part of a broader social movement, political movement (fortunately we are seeing the beginning of it dramatically in the last year) that simply is going to say, enough is enough, this entire system is rotting, and we have to replace it.

JAY: Yeah, I think it’s a really important point you make, ’cause I hear a lot of people writing who are very against this money in politics, but then they say nothing will happen until we get money out of politics. I mean, if you wait for that, then ain’t nothing going to happen.

MCCHESNEY: I agree. (I’m sorry. I’m just pouring some water. Didn’t mean to goof up the acoustics.) I agree completely about that. We don’t have the option of waiting. I mean, what does that mean? And I don’t think we have the option of just working on money in politics, ’cause I don’t think we’ll ever get the momentum to get money out of politics as a single issue. I think, like media reform, like tax reform, like labor law reform, these things are going to rise and fall together, and our ability to build coalitions and to get people out and understand the linkages between these issues is going to be the basis of whatever success we might enjoy.

Now, two years ago if we had this conversation, you know, they’d probably think I was, like, writing science fiction or a fantasy freak. Instead, I think it’s pretty clear that something’s going on in this country—in fact, better put, something’s going on globally, that we’re seeing it in country after country, especially among young people.

JAY: Yeah, we have a story today on The Real News. In Quebec, 165,000 students in Quebec on strike against tuition hikes. Almost 200,000 people came out in a protest a few weeks ago to support that movement. Another seventy, eighty thousand came out last Saturday. Yeah, there’s something happening.

MCCHESNEY: You look at a country like Spain, which had probably the largest protest in the world last fall, where the country’s literally in a depression and it’s like the 1930s in North America, and, you know, I think young people in that country, all people were actually saying, we’ve done nothing wrong, we played by the rules. How come we have an economy now that can’t employ half of the people who are young people and a quarter of the people who want to have jobs? You know, rather than have the people of our country suffer, let’s change our system so we can actually have a credible community and a credible economy. And I think that logic that the economy is there to serve the people, the people aren’t there to be plugged into some crazy economy that doesn’t work, is growing everywhere, ’cause it makes perfect sense and it’s long overdue.

JAY: Thanks for joining us, Bob.

MCCHESNEY: My great pleasure, Paul.

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


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