Robert McChesney: The Decline of American Journalism

Yves here. Much of the discussion of the state of journalism in the US will be familiar to readers. However, it gives short shrift to how the Internet killed newspaper revenues. First, over half of ad revenues came from classified ads, which went poof thanks to Craigslist. Second, the fact that you could get stock prices during the day for free, initially on a 20 minute delay if you didn’t have a paid price feed, eliminated another reason to subscribe to a paper: for investors to look at stock prices. And in the old days, paid circulation did account for about half of total newspaper and magazine revenues; the New York Times for many years was desperately dependent on its shrinking base of print paper subscribers. The loss of so much in revenues led to gutting of newsrooms, the closure or shrinkage of many papers (most decent sized cities once had an AM and evening paper; Birmingham’s former daily now publishes only three times a week). Local reporting is a foundation of newsgathering. The loss of local papers, IMHO, is a big contributor to the blindness of coastal elites to what goes on in the heartlands.

A single interview can only cover so much ground, but another element that bears on this discussion is Matt Taibbi’s historical account and analysis in Hate Inc. The 50,000 foot version is that influential journalist understood early on that partisan, emotional-button-pushing slants would be way more profitable by creating and catering to audiences that were attracted to a daily fix of a Two Minute Hate lite. However, publishers in those days were opposed to moving in that direction due to a sense of propriety and perhaps not wanting to be blackballed at country clubs and important charities for mixing things up too much. There was a bright line between tabloids and Respectable Journalism. Murdoch, and more specifically in the US, Roger Ailes broke that mold.

A final issue is class. In the old days, newsrooms were full of smart men from blue collar backgrounds who had little respect for their betters and had few compunctions about following stories where they took them. The shrunken reporting world is full of Ivy League grads and elite wannabes. As Michael M. Thomas pointed out some years back, the end of the New York Times as a serious journalistic enterprise dates to when Punch Sulzberger joined the board of the Met: “He was dining with people he should have been dining on.”

By Paul Jay. Originally published at

The media is driven by the enormous profits made during election campaigns. Feeding the fury and the fear of all types is just good for business. Bob McChesney joins Paul Jay on podcast.

Paul Jay

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Montage of local news reports

Hi, I’m Fox San Antonio’s Jessica Headly. And I’m Ryan Wolfe — our greatest responsibility is to serve our Treasure Valley communities — the El Paso/Las Cruces communities — eastern Iowa communities — mid-Michigan communities. We are extremely proud of the quality, balanced journalism that CBS 4 News produces — but we are concerned about problems plaguing our country.

Paul Jay

In many countries, newspapers and television news and media shows make no pretense of being anything other than partisans of political parties. In the United States news still postures as being more objective. But here the partisanship is to the political duopoly. The only politics that’s worth covering is the horse race between the Democrats and the Republicans. The urgency of the climate crisis, the threat of nuclear war and militarization, union organizing, protests that aren’t violent or enormous, the inequality gap, structural racism — unless there’s a video of egregious police violence — are rarely considered newsworthy, if covered at all. The major cable news networks have lost even the pretense of impartiality, with the Fox model of throwing red meat to the base now fully adopted by CNN and MSNBC. The degeneration of political discourse is a great threat to civil rights and what’s left of American democracy. To a large extent, when it comes to the media, it is driven by the enormous profits made during election campaigns. So, feeding the fury and the fear of all types? It’s just good for business.

And so, what can we do about it? Now joining us is Robert McChesney. He’s a professor emeritus in communication at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He’s written several books on media and politics, including People Get Ready, The Fight Against the Jobless Economy and a Citizenless Democracy and Blowing the Roof Off the 21st Century: Media, Politics and the Struggle for Post-Capitalist Democracy. Thanks for joining us, Bob.

Robert McChesney

My pleasure, Paul.

Paul Jay

I was just telling Bob off-camera that when my eight-year-old daughter was four, I said to read the cover of Bob’s book. And she said, “People get ready to change your clothes” instead of change the world. And then she said, “People get ready to rule the world,” which I thought was pretty good. Maybe she was inspired by the book.

Anyway, let’s talk about the state of media. So, this election campaign we’ve just come through. Obviously, Fox’s business model is to support the right wing of the Republican Party, not just the Republican Party, although Karl Rove and his type, some of the more center/center-right Republicans have a pride of place there. But on the whole, it was feeding the Trump fury. CNN used to have some pretense of being an actual news organization. I think they just completely dropped it now. MSNBC, I guess, was more Fox-like. What’s your take on what’s happened and what significance does it have since so many people get their news from cable news?

Robert McChesney

Well, you framed it well. I think you also framed the fact that even at its best, commercial journalism in the United States has had real problems, even back in the glory days when we actually had journalism with reporters and newsrooms actively covering communities, which we don’t have any longer. And the problem that professional, commercial journalism had at its peak in the United States has been the range of legitimate debate on political issues. That’s always been pretty much set by people in power.

So, you know, economic issues were looked at from the perspective of the dominant interests of the Republican and Democratic parties, which reflected the dominant commercial interests in society. Foreign policy was looked at pretty much the same way by both parties: the United States was a benevolent empire, had the right to rule the world as it saw fit, and the military was a necessary part of it. It wasn’t really up for debate in the US news media in the 20th century. That was just a given, certainly in the second half of the 20th century. And during that period, we had a blossoming, resource-rich journalism for many of those decades. Yet still, its coverage of war and peace matters and of the economy tended to skew to a very narrow range of the sort of people who were leading both political parties and the economy.

And that was in the glory days. Those look like wonderful days today when you look at what passes for journalism. And so, the problem we have today is we still have elite opinion setting the boundaries of what a legitimate story from what an illegitimate story might be. But we also now don’t have the resources.

I’ll tell a story that’s not apocryphal — it’s a true story — but it is apocryphal otherwise. A little over twenty years ago, a guy named Rick Kaplan, who was the head of CNN at that time and before that had been the head of MSNBC, just when it was starting, I think. But he certainly was the head of CNN in the late 1990s. I got to know Rick Kaplan because he was an alum of the University of Illinois where I taught and he would come every year for a week to meet with students in the journalism program. And for several years in a row, I spent a lot of time with him talking to him during that week when he would be on campus.

He told me a really interesting story about when he was at CNN the late 90s. This was just when Fox News had started. He had a great year in the late 90s — like 1998, I think it was. He was going to meet with the CEOs of Time Warner, the parent company of CNN, and he was expecting to be patted on the back and get a big bonus and be told what a great job he was doing. He went in for his annual meeting, and the poo-bahs at Tim Warner were not totally excited.

And he said, “Well, what’s the problem? I’ve just had the best year ever in the history of CNN. It’s been a landmark year for our network.” And they said, “Well, look over here at this Fox News, what they’re doing. Fox News has made the same amount of profits as CNN and they’ve done it with far lower returns. They’ve managed to milk those profits out of a much lower revenue base. Why can’t we get that sort of return out of our revenue base?” And Kaplan said to them — and I’m paraphrasing from memory — “But if I do that, I’ll have to get rid of all my reporters.” Apparently, the poo-bahs at Time Warner were basically, like, “That’s not such a bad idea.” Because of how much profit that Rupert Murdoch was making with Fox News.

And what that got to was the commercial basis of the decline of journalism, why it has made so much sense economically to junk the reporters. Fox News found out if you got rid of reporters, you’d have to offer your audience something. You couldn’t get rid of your reporters and then have bland Associated Press reports. No one’s going to watch your network. But you get rid of your reporters and then tap into a section of the market that watches TV news and give them the take on the news they will appreciate, that’s really inexpensive. And you can build a name for yourself. That’s why Fox News was as brilliant a commercial idea as it was a political idea. It was a truly brilliant commercial idea. And I think what we’ve finally seen with CNN and MSNBC is they’ve adopted the same model. The right lane was taken so it took the left lane.

But they’re still within the boundaries of sort of elite thought. There’s no lane for you, Paul. There’s no lane for The Intercept. There’s no lane for Democracy Now. There’s no lane for the sort of investigative journalism that even our mainstream media provided in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s in our great newspapers where you’d see some deep, wonderful digging. That doesn’t exist anymore. What we have is commercially driven, this journalism-free pontificating, especially on cable TV news, satisfying an audience by sort of just talking to the same talking heads and covering the same two or three stories in every cycle.

I mean, you could watch MSNBC and CNN from now until the cows come home and you’d have no idea what’s happening in Latin America. None whatsoever. I’ll daresay that if you watched US news media in the 1970s — or certainly read newspapers — you’d have a decent idea of who the heads of state were in all the major states when elections were coming along, what the great political issues were. I know, because that’s how I followed Latin American politics. And I knew a lot more in the ’70s than I know today by watching CNN and MSNBC. You’d think the world ended at our borders, basically.

Paul Jay

A couple of things. One is if you watch the financial news, read financial newspapers, watch or listen to Bloomberg, you will get more of that kind of actual journalism. You will know more about the world because the investor class, they actually do want to know this kind of stuff. But the elites have more and more come to the realization that as far as the majority of the population goes, the more ignorant people are, the better.

Robert McChesney

I think you’re right. We see this. The business press is for the people who have to invest money and have a lot riding on the outcome. They need to know what’s actually happening in the world to a certain extent in order to protect their interests. And so, you’re going to find much better reporting in The Wall Street Journal or The Economist or Bloomberg than you’re going to find in the conventional general news media.

But it also has all the biases of the class it is pitched to. So, in that world, labor movements are by definition highly suspect. Deregulation or pro-market reforms are by definition enthusiastically embraced as probably a really good idea of as long as they’re implemented properly. That’s just a given. That’s not subject to debate, despite whatever empirical evidence there might be.

Paul Jay

To you get back to cable news, it’s not entirely driven by the business model. For example, most of the people I interview on The Analysis would make superb guests on MSNBC or CNN. In fact, most of my guests are better informed than most of the guests that they’re talking to already. But they don’t fit in with this duopoly narrative. The Analysis goes beyond just Republican versus Democrat.

So, even at that level, they have a political kind of bias and censorship. Like, AOC is rock-star material — purely from a moneymaking point of view, how could you not have her on almost every day on MSNBC? But it doesn’t play into the pro-corporate Democratic narrative. So, there’s also this political bias, which sometimes even trumps what would make money. For example, the fight between the progressive wing and the corporate Democrats is a good narrative. People would want to watch that. There’s a bit of it, but not much.

Robert McChesney

You’re absolutely right. In fact, you may see a bit of a change here. When MSNBC was first cutting its teeth as a liberal network during the George W. Bush era, 2001 to 2009, they frequently had guests like Glenn Greenwald or Jeremy Scahill.

Paul Jay

Or Thomas Frank.

Robert McChesney

Yeah. They’d been doing really good investigative critical work, exposing the Bush administration and its various crimes around the world. And then they were OK to be on the air. But as soon as Obama came in and they applied the same standards to Obama that they applied to George W. Bush, that was unacceptable. They were basically ushered out the door. That showed the strict line that was there in the sand of how far you could go. Your analysis is completely correct.

When Trump came into power, they did not open the door to the progressives in the journalism community, like they had during the Bush era. Then, to the contrary, it seemed they battened down the hatches. They called up McClean [in Virginia, the home of CIA headquarters] and said, “Get your guys over here and explain the world to us from the CIA’s perspective because that seems to be where the smart people are.” And they called in the NSA and they called in Wall Street. Basically, the corporate wing of the Democratic Party, the corporate worldview, was accepted as the proper frame of reference for journalism on this network, MSNBC. And I think that more or less trickles to CNN pretty much the same. Although I will say that occasionally stuff leaks out of CNN that would never leak out any more at MSNBC.

Paul Jay

Yeah, but not very often.

Robert McChesney

Not very often. Occasionally.

Paul Jay

Yeah. I’ve interviewed Thomas Frank a few times. He wrote a bestselling book, you know: What’s the Matter with Kansas? He was writing in major newspapers. Well-known. And he’s also a good guest. Not everybody who writes successful books is good on TV, but Frank’s good on TV. He’s funny. He knows stuff. He doesn’t get booked by anybody anymore because he was critical of the Obama administration.

Robert McChesney

I mean, Paul, the book he wrote recently, Listen Liberal, which I’m sure you’re familiar with, was a frontal assault on everything MSNBC and CNN stand for. It says, basically, the Democratic Party has abandoned the working class and embraced the professional class and rich people, and that’s a big reason why we have Trump. That’s not an argument that I think MSNBC has any interest in recognizing as legitimate. I think that was just not going to happen. When he was wondering why Democrats weren’t getting the votes they ought to get from in Kansas, that was OK when they’re out of power. Maybe he’s got some way to help them get those votes in a general election.

But when he’s actually writing a book that goes right after the Democrats saying it’s not just the Republicans who changed in the last forty years by moving so far to the right now that they’re sort of into the fascist zone, to be blunt. The Democrats have done the same thing: they’ve moved significantly to the right and on issue after issue. And that’s part of the dance with the Republicans that puts us in the situation we’re in. That discussion is verboten on MSNBC or CNN, except maybe to bring someone out if they’ve got a best-seller to yell at them. But they don’t even recognize it. It’s just not allowed there. You’re going to get the same drumbeat of a few talking points that come right out of the heart of the corporate Democrat wing of the party, which is the dominant wing. It’s where all the money is. And that’s what you’re going to hear over and over and over. In that sense, it’s not that much different from Fox or the rightwing media. But that doesn’t do justice to just how bad Fox and the right are to leave it just right there.

Paul Jay

We’ve talked in the past about concentration of ownership and the extent to which just a tiny handful of media companies own the news. But in the last few years, especially since the crash, there’s been the emergence of these big asset managers like BlackRock, State Street and Vanguard. Now it’s mostly finance that owns the media. The New York Times, I believe is 93 percent owned by financial institutions. For every major media company, with the exceptions of Bloomberg and The Washington Postwhich are privately owned, institutional investors own controlling interests in those companies. Now, it doesn’t mean they run them day-to-day, but they do get to choose who runs them day-to-day. And if they don’t like the way it’s being run, they can change the management.

Finance has control over the media in a way it didn’t have before. And what’s important is not only the imperative of short-term returns on capital invested, but also the same financial institutions own Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, and the rest of the military-industrial complex. They own a controlling interest of shares of fossil fuel companies. So, these media companies now are not just monopolies, they’re integrated and part of financial monopolies that kind of own everything. You know, they have to get on the phone to do their quarterly reports. So, no wonder they don’t want to see the left wing of the Democratic Party showing up on television.

Robert McChesney

You know, that might have some bearing on a CNN or MSNBC or Fox because those are the most visible incarnations of national news. But in a way, I must say, I think that misses the point of what’s happening in America today by a wide mark. In the 1980s and ’90s, I was one of the scholars who did this: there was a lot of emphasis on concentration, ownership, the influence of the profit motive and concentrated ownership and monopolistic markets of news. That scholarship called, basically, for opening up more competitive markets and more public-funded voices to give some better journalism.

I think it was proper analysis at the time. But something has changed fundamentally, which I’m going to return to over and over as long as you interview me, which is that journalism is no longer profitable. No one’s investing to do traditional journalism anywhere if they’re out to make money. They might be doing it because they have a political edge they want to push. They might be doing it for this reason or that. But it’s lost all its commercial value. It is no longer profitable. The capitalist class has basically abandoned journalism altogether. The only people buying up media outlets today are these hedge funds and equity funds that are buying them to strip them for parts. They don’t care about journalism. That’s the only people in the market. You can’t find an investor to buy papers to do news or to buy news media to do news if they want to make a profit on their investment.

There are a lot of reasons for this. It goes back sixty years that the process began, empirically, but it accelerated in the last fifteen or twenty years, and now it’s collapsed. The reason is that the economic basis for commercial journalism in the United States, for 120 years, has been advertising support which provided between 60 and 100 percent of the revenues. It supported journalism in the country all during that period. It all came from advertising.

Well, in the last fifteen years, advertising has left journalism. They no longer need to support a local newspaper to reach their target audience. They no longer need to use conventional news media. They can go digitally online. They found much better ways, much more cost-effective ways, to target their audience to reach it. And for that reason, there’s just no revenues there. The only thing we’re left with is subscribers. The subscribers aren’t going to subscribe to a newspaper which is, like, two pages long because it has no ads to pay for anything. There’s just not enough money coming from subscribers.

So, the whole market’s collapsed. That’s where we’re at. That explains why the hedge funds own what remains of news media. But the problem isn’t that they are bad owners and that if they were nice guys we’d have better media. The problem is the whole system’s dead. They’re not buying to create journalism. And the fact that we’re even talking about MSNBC, CNN and FOX is a sign that we have no journalism. These are three stations that don’t do any journalism. They basically have a bunch of people sit around and gossip about the news. They don’t break any news. They talk about it. If you watch it, you won’t have any idea what’s going on, for the most part, in the country or the world. But you know what the chattering classes think is important for us to hear about, depending on your perspective. Political spin. That’s not journalism.

To the extent you see journalism on CNN or MSNBC, more often than not, they call in a reporter from The Washington Post or The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal, three of the remaining newsrooms that cover national politics left in this country who are actually covering stuff. That’s not very many people covering a huge country of 330 million people. It’s absurd. We have no journalism left at the local level in this country. What remains is virtually extinct at this point. It’s on the verge of extinction.

Paul Jay

Yeah, I’m not sure we’re disagreeing.

Robert McChesney

I’m just re-framing it. The traditional idea is, well, you get more owners, more different companies producing it, you’ll get better results. You’ll have more competition, you’ll get new ideas. New types of stories would get covered that wouldn’t be covered before. Well, you’re assuming the marketplace will encourage that, if there’s a lot of different owners and participants. There’s no marketplace anymore. I mean, that’s the point. No one is starting up new media successfully. No investor is trying to anymore. They understand that. They’ve gotten the memo: “If you want to lose your money, invest in journalism. Get out.”

When Bezos bought *The Washington Post* — I forget the price he paid for it — but he probably paid one tenth of what he would have had to pay for it a decade earlier. I mean, it has no value. [Laughs.] And he bought it not to make money; it’s a vanity buy so he could influence politics and push his agenda. It’s not because he said, “This is a great investment!” It’s a crappy investment. It’s the worst investment in his portfolio, no doubt. But it’s the best method to get political influence that will protect his portfolio. Then it’s a real winner.

Paul Jay

Now, The New York Times does seem to be a bit of an exception to the rule. They are making money, aren’t they? And there are a lot of journalists working there.

Robert McChesney

The New York Times has become the national newsroom. It is the only place that has a newsroom that covers national politics seriously, that has a staff that does it. And for that reason, it’s a national newspaper. It has subscribers all over the country. It’s the only place you can go. So, there’s room for one paper. There’s room for one newspaper that can make money nationally and do what The New York Times does. Doesn’t seem like there’s room for much more than that. Certainly, for general news. Not just business news or a specific area — sports news.

So, we’re down to one. But you know what we had forty years ago in the United States, by comparison? There were probably a dozen major American newspapers that not only had a big Washington bureau, they had bureaus in London and Paris and Moscow. In South America. They were covering the world. You actually saw international news, which doesn’t exist anymore — ironically, in the global age. So, there’s one newsroom left. And to some extent, The Washington Post will cover domestic politics. It champions the stuff in Washington. And The Wall Street Journal does some good reporting, still

But the rest of it? It’s mostly just gossip. Now, there are some great reporters, don’t get me wrong, and you’re one of them. There are some great reporters covering stuff, but it’s not in that world. It’s on the margins, on the fringes. It’s being supported through — like you have to do — trying to find people to support you, willing to give you money, who understand the importance of the work. But there’s not enough money out there, even if you find rich people to give you money, to bankroll the sort of resources you need to cover Baltimore, Maryland, or Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania or anywhere else in the country. That’s the great crisis we face, not to mention the national news.

Paul Jay

Yeah, I agree with all that. The thing about this concentration of ownership that I was saying is that the interest of finance is now so directly involved in the media that the boundaries of where they are willing to go is still within the realm of the two-party duopoly. Even though The New York Times is unparalleled in the United States, in terms of a functioning international and national newsroom. It’s still about Republicans versus Democrats.

But even on other issues. I’ve been preoccupied with BlackRock, this big asset management company. It controls seven trillion dollars. Between them, State Street, Vanguard and some of the other smaller ones, they vote the shares that control something like 95 percent of the S&P 500. But when I tried to find stories about BlackRock that really are revealing, the place I found them was on Bloomberg. Well, Bloomberg is privately owned, whereas The New York Times is owned by BlackRock, Vanguard, State Street, and the other institutional investors. I guess people know where their bread is buttered. In no way am I disagreeing with how the market for journalism is collapsed. I’m just saying it’s gotten worse than that because the ownership is so intertwined now that the same people who write about nuclear weapons and nuclear war strategy work for the same ownership that owns the twelve companies that make nuclear weapons.

Robert McChesney

So, it reinforces the problems to begin with and then some.

Paul Jay

Let’s talk about how to change this. To really change it, we’re going to need a breakthrough politically, at least at some state levels. We haven’t seen anything with the donor model get to scale. Even The Intercept, which has some serious money from Pierre Omidyar and does good investigative journalism and does get referenced in the mainstream press. I guess maybe Democracy Now is the most successful outlet based on the foundation-and-donor model. But the vast majority of Americans have never heard of Democracy Now.

So, it’s going to be connected to the issue of a political breakthrough at the national and state levels because there needs to be some really serious public money put into a real democratic media. And that’s a political problem. The private donations alone are just not going to be enough. Like, you could imagine a state, especially a bigger state like California, say, putting up real funding for independent media if they would have the political guts to do it.

But, anyway, how do you imagine this changing?

Robert McChesney

Well, I think I’m open minded. I think we have to see what works. Throw a lot of ideas out there, work on them, and see what develops. I don’t think there’s one plan that will solve it, necessarily, although there are some things we know for sure. What most Americans don’t realize is that the First Amendment to our Constitution, as Justice Potter Stewart put it, is a structural demand on the government to make sure there is a press system, that there is an independent free press. It’s not just, don’t censor the press. You’ve got to have a press that exists in order for it to be protected from censorship. Our free-press tradition has two parts.

The first the first part I talked about, that there actually be a free and independent press, was forgotten by the time the commercial media giants came along in the 20th century. It was assumed that the market would always produce a huge news media. That was never a problem. You’d always have this huge news media and the only thing you worried about was the government censoring it.

Well, in fact, at the time of the American Revolution, there was no guarantee you’d have a press system. It required massive public subsidies to have a press system. We had enormous public subsidies. The primary one was the post office, which was created to be the free (or for a nominal fee) distribution arm of every American newspaper for the first hundred years of American history. This made it possible for to have this plethora of diverse views in newspapers which were foundational to our political democracy, the best parts of our democracy. There wasn’t a single social movement of value from abolition to the suffragettes to labor — all the rights to expand the franchise — that wasn’t led by editors, that wasn’t led by news media. The media was the center of democracy. Those media only survived because they were supported by the post office providing free distribution or really inexpensive postage that covered all their distribution costs.

That’s our American tradition. We had this rich tradition of understanding the exact problem you outline, that you need a news media to have a functioning democracy and we can’t bank on the market to provide it. And we’re in a situation now where the market clearly has given up. It’s failed. This is a public good, news media. It’s something society desperately needs, but the market won’t produce in sufficient quality or quantity.

So, how do we solve that? The great political problem: how do you get sufficient public funds to support independent, uncensored news media, but without letting the government control who gets the money and how it’s used? That’s the problem. Is it solvable? Well, the postal subsidy solved it. The postal subsidy? Everyone got it if you were a newspaper. They didn’t care what your politics were.

In fact, the reason why we know it was such an extraordinarily successful policy is that the first great scandal with the post office till big newspapers came was in the antebellum period when Southern postmasters refused to carry abolitionist newspapers. And that was considered such an outrage in the North, it was one of the main factors that drove northern anger at the South and hatred of slavery. It would take away democracy if you couldn’t even talk about slavery or abolition. There’s a handful of other incidents in which you have the post office attempting censorship. They were always criticized. In fact, during World War I when anti-war tracts were censored, what the US government did was deemed so outrageous that it led to all the great First Amendment decisions the Supreme Court made that we live with today. They came on the heels of World War I. A lot of that came from most Americans considering the post office’s censorship of anti-war material just obscene.

So, we have this rich history of solving that problem successfully. Now we’ve got to come up with how we do it in the digital age. How do we do it in era in which you don’t need ink in newspapers, in an era in which you want to have local media? Local media disappears in the digital era because once you go digital, localness means nothing. For you to do your program, Paul, even if you want to do just Baltimore, Maryland, when you put it online, it’s seen as easily by someone in China as it is in Baltimore, Maryland. You basically have an international audience automatically. Localism is stripped out of the technology. And for that reason, we’ve got to come up with a way to have local media that covers communities, that draws people together — independent, competitive media that’s functional and accountable.

Can it be solved? Well, I think it can. I’ve worked for years with a number of people not just in the United States, but in Canada and in Europe on plans to do it. We think it should be a publicly funded budget. People in local communities would vote every year for whichever non-profit media they wanted to get it. So, you know, if it’s $200 per person, it would mean you do it at the county level because then counties are the core unit. Everyone in the county could vote for how to allocate the budget for that. You pick a few and then everyone who gets over three percent of the vote qualifies. For however many votes they get, they get that amount of money. And you have it every year, so it’s competitive. No one gets to just lock in a position and ignore the public. But something like that, starting with that principle.

Now, maybe it can be done at the state level first, but I think we ought to really think nationally. I guess we’re at a point now where you look at the information level of American politics today compared to what it was even in the Reagan era, and it’s frightening. There’s no other word for it. It’s utterly frightening to see QAnon and to see this other stuff that’s being widely circulated as legitimate. The reason for that is that conspiracy theories are the only theories trying to make sense of the world. [Laughing.] No one else is trying to explain how to understand the world. You don’t have journalism. We’ve got to get journalism, in competitive groups, back in communities explaining the world to people. Not just one voice, but multiple voices.

Paul Jay

Models of public support like this already exist in Europe. In Scandinavia, I believe, there are some countries where they have actual elections and based on who wins, they have three or four channels that get resources. In the United States there is a structure that exists that could be built on, which are these community cable channels where cable companies have had to open up channels as part of their obligation to cities to put up their cable lines. But they’re completely under-resourced. The idea that cable companies had to pay money so these channels could function has been so whittled away that most of these cable channels, outside of a city like Manhattan or San Francisco, have very few resources.

But there actually is space. There are channels that exist. If they were really resourced… And they have a bit of democratic structure to them now because at least I believe some are supported via elections in the communities who runs these community channels. That infrastructure could be built on. I think the national politics is just too screwed up right now but maybe at a state level, or a city level, even, there could be some breakthroughs.

Robert McChesney

You might be right. I’m open-minded. I don’t want to stop any city or state from pursuing something like this. But at the same time, I do think it’s time that whenever someone talks about media that we inject this conversation at the beginning. Unless we get the resources to have an independent, uncensored news media that’s actually covering our communities — unless we get that right in the middle of everything — then everything else we’re doing about democracy is pretty much irrelevant. This is the foundation of democratic theory, not just in this country, but globally. You’ve got to have some semblance of a credible, independent press. We don’t have one anymore. And so, I’m fine for everyone to do it.

But that’s probably why I answered your question about media ownership in the way I did. We’ve got a bigger problem than just who owns the media. Not that that isn’t a problem. We don’t have media to be owned. I mean, we don’t have the resources there that are doing the job.

In the 1970s, there was no term for homelessness. That is, homelessness didn’t exist really. By the 1980s it was commonplace. We had millions of people who couldn’t afford housing. And now we’re have a new term that’s never existed in America before. It’s become the fastest growing concept in journalism. It’s called the “news desert.” These are places in America where there are no reporters covering a community. None, zero, nunca. And no newsroom, certainly. And if you expand news desert to mean that you have to have a minimum number of reporters per hundred thousand people, then a wide portion of this country is now a news desert where there’s no really credible journalism covering your state, your community.

You know, the difference for anyone our age, Paul, is that even given the problems of journalism as it used to be, if you read your local newspaper and listened to the AM news, you had a pretty reasonable idea of what was going on in your community. You had a baseline. There’s none of that today. Most people don’t have any clue of what’s going on in their city or their community.

And that’s what happens. Boy, you just really can’t… The system is not going to work very well as long as that’s the case. In fact, we’re seeing the results now: it makes possible someone just like Donald Trump. And it’s not an error that the far-right in this country, the far-right parts of the world — the Mercers, the Bannons — revel in the collapse of journalism. They revel in the idea that they can basically control the narrative and not have really a voice they have to contend with. They can just dismiss it as baloney, as fake news. This is a serious issue.

Paul Jay

And nothing more serious than the lack of coverage of the climate crisis even if there’s a certain amount of action by the Biden administration. Some leading scientists from the IPCC a couple of years ago published a report that said that even if every country that signed the Paris Accords fulfilled all of their commitments, by 2050 we would still hit two degrees warming above the pre-industrial average. Well, the science is getting pretty clear now that if you hit two degrees, you have an effect called “runaway.”

In fact, I have an interview I’m publishing in the next couple of days with a climate scientist. Runaway is, for example, more forest fires, more carbon emission from the fires, more melting of the Arctic, more methane released. You start getting this runaway effect after you hit two degrees warming. It gets difficult if not impossible to prevent hitting three and then four, and you essentially have an unlivable planet. How is that not the most compelling story night after night after night? It’s not just a politics story.

Robert McChesney

It’s an extraordinary story. Obviously, going back to the point of departure for this interview, the framework for American journalism is sort of what elites consider relevant issues, what they’re debating. And this clearly is not especially relevant issue for the elites of this country because they’re not encouraging this debate whatsoever. Their politicians aren’t encouraging it. They’re not paying for politicians to encourage it. And we’re living with the consequences.

Theoretically, in a democratic society, even if the people who run the country don’t want to talk about it, there’s a news media that’s focused on the issues that aren’t always going to be popular with people in power. That’s what a free press is for, and they would be doing exactly this. They would be beating the drum on this issue, publishing the work, talking to people, talking to activists about what they’re doing. So, if you live in a community, you’d know what people are doing in the community on this issue. Right now, most Americans are living in a closet, so to speak, with the light off because they have no idea what’s going on in their community. There might be lots of people actively organizing on this. They’ll have no idea. They’ll have no idea why it’s a big deal. They’re clueless and it’s not their fault. I mean, you say, well, they should know. How are they supposed to know about something if you’ve never heard about it?

Paul Jay

Seventy-four million people just voted for Trump.

Robert McChesney

I mean, there’s a bunch of related issues right up there. Issues of war and peace, which are also potentially catastrophic for our species, are completely off-limits in our commercial news media and in our mainstream news media: NPR as well. You know, the range of debate, to paraphrase Jeff Cohen’s great line, is from GE to GM. [Laughter.]

Although I must say the Republicans are caught in this new fascist element, which is really their special contribution to the last decade. You know, the range of debate used to be narrowly within a sort of corporate-liberal viewpoint on foreign policy. Now, we’ve edged into the isolationist, you know, racist, screw the rule of law — I mean, just the dark underbelly of neoliberalism. And so that’s our range of debate now. It’s, like, well, those are your two choices. It’s no choice at all.

Paul Jay

All right. Thanks for joining us, Bob.

Robert McChesney

My pleasure, Paul.

Paul Jay

And thank you for joining us on theAnalysis.News podcast. And I hope Bob will be back often in the future. And don’t forget, we have a fundraising campaign on now. Go to the website; it explains everything. It’s a matching grant campaign. And if you donate, it’s going to get matched those. Thanks for joining us on podcast.

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  1. Sound of the Suburbs

    Capitalism is all about competition.
    The US had very diverse media outlets catering for all tastes.

    Clinton passed legislation that allowed the US media to consolidate to a point where it was nearly all owned by six companies.
    These corporations could control the narrative from the US media.
    You may not like Fox, but they have to show there is some diversity in the US media; otherwise it would be too obvious.
    Everything was nicely under control.

    Oh blimey, now look what’s happened!
    They had got everything nicely under the control of six corporations and then independent media outlets started springing up everywhere.
    They could no longer control the narrative and they don’t like it one bit.

    1. Societal Illusions

      The are independent media outlets for sure, and the point made above is that there are few local outlets and there is no commercial viability in journalism as a business any longer. So six corporations can extract some profit or the meta profit covers the losses.

      If local community and non-elite serving issues aren’t covered, is there any wonder those screaming “corruption” aren’t being heard?

  2. Mark Gisleson

    Thank you for this. I saw McChesney speak at a Fighting Bob Fest years ago. The other speakers included Bernie and Chris Hedges but McChesney’s speech was the one I remember best.

  3. The Rev Kev

    When people lived in towns and small cities, gossip would spread news – both good and bad – among the inhabitants fast and is still used today. As populations increased, newspapers arose as another form of spreading information. So as the fractals of populations grew, so did the forms of communicating. My point here is that whether you are talking about a small organism, a human or the population of a country, that these forms of communication form a sort of ‘nervous system’ for that body. To be successful, each ‘organism’ needs to perceive and understand their environment accurately in order to mount a proper response. You could consider the classic ‘fight or flight’ a set of responses but to use either, a proper assessment of the situation is needed first.

    And therein lay the rub. The ‘nervous system’ of countries like the US, the UK and others has been corrupted so the body of the citizenry is now receiving a false picture of what is going on in order to serve the purposes of a small elite. Russiagate is one such example which ended up denying proper responses to more dangerous, real threats such as climate change, police militarization, de-industrialization and structural racism and are all ignored. Even worse is when the news sources of the elite are corrupted as well. This article says that you ‘find much better reporting in The Wall Street Journal or The Economist or Bloomberg than you’re going to find in the conventional general news media’ but I am here to say that I have seen just as much delusional rubbish in them as you would expect in The Daily Beast or Zero Hedge. So the so-called elites are using a faulty ‘nervous system’ as well and that is not good that. That way lay breakdowns.

    1. LilD

      Eh, maybe.
      Though I think news tends to be decent. The audience wants good info in order to manage money and resources. CNBC is the financial “p*rn” entity…
      But editorial side is, erm, different

  4. Steve Ruis

    Maybe I missed it but there was a time when TV news was a cost absorbed in the public interest. (To make money, well that’s what “I Love Lucy” was for.) But somebody thought that TV news should make a profit (or else) and that was the end of that.

    I suspect that had an effect on the decline of TV journalism.

    1. Another Scott

      Maybe, but I also remember the movie Network, made in 1976. There was a great quote from Faye Dunaway’s character, Diana Christensen that critiques the quality of TV news at the time.

      “I watched your 6 o’clock news today; it’s straight tabloid. You had a minute and a half of that lady riding a bike naked in Central Park; on the other hand, you had less than a minute of hard national and international news. It was all sex, scandal, brutal crime, sports, children with incurable diseases, and lost puppies. So, I don’t think I’ll listen to any protestations of high standards of journalism when you’re right down on the streets soliciting audiences like the rest of us. Look, all I’m saying is if you’re going to hustle, at least do it right.”

    2. Edr

      “Finance has control over the media in a way it didn’t have before. And what’s important is not only the imperative of short-term returns on capital invested, but also the same financial institutions own Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, and the rest of the military-industrial complex. They own a controlling interest of shares of fossil fuel companies. So, these media companies now are not just monopolies, they’re integrated and part of financial monopolies that kind of own everything.”

      And local news reporting is dead.

      And here I thought gossip was a much more powerful force. Go figure.

      I don’t think govt direct funding of this or that is the way to go.

      What about a set of local platforms – no ink needed, named after each city. Section like economy, pro-environmentalism, con, socialism, con, corruption, con nice and separated out. A short specific civilian-reporterter guidelines. Some funding from the roosevelt institute of carnegie to advertise a few cityo aligned that are up and running….

      The joy of gossip should still have some but power….

      1. Memento mori

        The finance industry controls the media, that is pretty obvious, look how every time the stock markets go down all the media is screaming Armageddon to frighten everyone and give cover to the bureaucrats to bailout their interests.
        On the other hand, I think we are only about to find out if we can tolerate free speech with the advent of the internet. Before the internet free speech was mainly a concern for a group of media outlets heavily biased and influenced by powerful interests, but at the individual level free speech was irrelevant or non consequential. If you tried to have your opinion published in a national newspaper, good luck or you could go on a public place and deliver a speech but the amount of people you would gather around would be small.
        Everyone now can have his opinion exposed to millions through Twitter or other platforms. Now we are entering an age of true freedom of speech epoch and will inevitably find out if we can live with it or not. There was no free speech before the internet for the masses.

  5. Bob Burns

    I live in the 3rd most populated part of Oregon—the Eugene/Springfield area. What passes for a local newspaper is, frankly, tragic. A conglomerate bought our only paper and trimmed it back to almost nothing but a front page, sports, and the weather. Even the physical size of the paper has actually been trimmed. The local news “Section B” has literally disappeared and is a single page buried in the back of “A.”

    Likewise, the local TV stations are corporate owned now. We, too, are a news desert.

    1. Generalfeldmarschall von Hindenburg

      The one in Portland has largely ceased to exist. Save as a badly designed web site.

  6. John Emerson

    This is speculative, but might the decline of WAPO and the NYT be partly the result of “going public” , which meant that financial return became more important and any degre of integrity harder to maintain? And wasn’t the financialization motivated in part by the desire of some of the new generation of the families to cash out their inheritance,

    I’ve wondered about this for years and NC is probably the best place I could go for someone to set me straight.

    1. Generalfeldmarschall von Hindenburg

      There’s probably an interesting story there. NYT was family owned for a long time. I remember them going public and people at that time wondered aloud if they’d lose their independence. But they’d been a shill for particular interests going way back. WJC, the Pentagon. When Noam Chomsky did his famous study, they were still technically family owned.

  7. MDA

    Analogous to how the government once used the post office to support a free press with subsidized distribution, would it make sense for the government to provide free high speed internet to every household, with guaranteed net neutrality? That would be a nice foundation on which future press structures could be constructed. The government already spends a fortune to connect every household with actual streets and roads, and regulates other utility connections. Why aren’t we having a high profile conversation about putting internet in the same category? Maybe we could put internet under the USPS umbrella and leverage some existing laws such as mail fraud.

  8. Carolinian

    This is a great discussion of this topic–perhaps he best I’ve seen–so thanks so much. However when he says many people are getting no local news he fails to mention local TV stations which do still make money–lots of it–and arguably have had as much to do with the decline of newspapers as the loss of ad revenue. Of course this is hardly the kind of in depth news coverage we would prefer but important local news events are getting some kind of coverage.

    And I also think websites like this one have greater influence than he thinks. Yves said the other day that she gets a million and a half page views per month. That’s not the same as a newspaper subscription but those who care to know what’s going on do still have some means for finding out. After all those cable news networks all have low ratings compared to network television and still exert a great deal of influence.

    And finally McChesney is surely right that the glory days were never as glorious as mainstream journos like to pretend. The Cold War period gave us horrific wars that were fully supported by those national newspapers and that gave rise to an alternative print press in the sixties. Being in print may have given them greater prominence than a website but the financial struggles were much greater and almost all have now disappeared. The web is what we have now. We should defend it.

    1. Jeff

      Most “local” stations aren’t really local. Sinclair and Nexstar own nearly 400 stations just between those 2 companies.

      1. Carolinian

        Well in that sense our newspaper hasn’t been local for many years either–having once been owned by the New York Times and currently Gannett.

        Local TV stations do have local reporters though to cover all those fires and car crashes.

    2. apleb

      NC is clearly a very international site with mostly international or at least national news. So locally I can’t see any impact unless you mean local as in all of California with all CalPers benefittees.

      Are there any blogs about local issues? Local newspapers, at least here, cover things like a new street done, or some news about a local club, some fire in town, small town council meetings, etc. And they do this regularly. I don’t know of any blog that does this but it’s still news of some, localized, importance of sorts.

      Imho these newspapers all died or are in the process of dying slowly. And I don’t see any replacement for this. When there isn’t, there will be not much if any knowledge in their community they left about how this new street came to be, what dastardly thing the mayor did in the councilmeeting, no human interest stories about the seniors in the community and what they did in their life,etc.
      Small town politicians are not less corrupt and evil than Mrs. Pelosi, only the freezers and the contained bribes (you didn’t think this was actual ice cream, do you?) are smaller.

      I don’t read a local newspaper either, but this clear lack of newspapers or other newssource is another reason or result, hard to tell, maybe both, for the ongoing atomization of society Yves always complains about here.

      1. Acacia

        Are there any blogs about local issues?

        “Dr. Housing Bubble: How I learned to Love Southern California and Forget the Housing Bubble”

        There must be others.

    3. Donald

      Yeah, there were no glory days. That part was oversimplified. You did have local coverage. But the coverage of foreign affairs was wildly distorted. Chomsky wrote book after book on that subject— he used some stories in the American press and some from foreign sources but in those days ( I started reading him in the 80’s) he played the role that websites like this play now. You had a few fringe lefty magazines and a few people like Chomsky, but the mainstream press was 98 percent propaganda. Chomsky would say you could glean a lot from reading it closely and critically, but I think you had to realize that— most people would take the spin at face value.

      On the local level things might be worse, but on the level of national and international events things are better in some ways— I don’t have to go to a very good library or bookstore to find dissident points of view and information the mainstream isn’t covering. I remember telling a well read fairly typical liberal friend about what we did in supporting the Indonesian invasion of East Timor— he didn’t believe me. I had to loan him some books ( which I never got back) for him to take me seriously, because the story was on the front pages in 1999 ( when Indonesia committed a last set of masssacres) but the press didn’t make clear just how much of the blame for the 25 year occupation and genocide was ours. To my friend I was a crackpot conspiracy theorist. Nowadays I could send him links.

    4. freebird

      Many people get no local news because there is literally no broadcast news in many small towns and rural areas. I travel widely in the US and there are many places where the only stations are junky outlets sending out reruns and Jerry Springer. You would never even know if there was a tornado warning. People with spare cash subscribe to cable, which likewise carries a long list of crap stations but nothing local in the public interest. People get their ‘news’ in one-sentence blurbs from radio and whatever Apple or Google wishes to send to their phones.

      The cities, small and large, which do have multiple broadcast stations–as McChesney stated regarding newspapers, also do not have journalists asking tough questions. They have anchors who are basically spokesmodels, and reporters who do not ask the simplest follow up questions, merely restate press releases or narrate who-shot-who. We went from having seasoned journalists who had been through WWII to having 22 year olds who grabbed broadcast journalism off the list of easy majors in college, more gullible and easily spun than their audiences.

      The web is wonderful with all the new alternative news sites, but they are no match for the giant brainwashing systems that are the networks, both TV and radio, pushing corporate spin day in, day out, to many many millions of people daily.

  9. Palaver

    Every time I watch PBS Frontline, I remember what TV journalism is suppose to be like. At least there is BBC News and DW News. Hell, even Al Jeezera does better investigative journalism. Quality journalism feels outsourced.

    Once everything has been outsourced, we will just be a nation of finance, lawyers, and health care workers. That is all the services one would require if they were on their deathbed. A nation on its deathbed with its decrepit ruling class.

    1. rowlf

      PBS Frontline lost me when they fell in line with the Bush II administration and stopped having critics of the Iraq War on their panels. I work with a bunch of younger engineers that think the NYT and Wapo are reliable sources, to with I remind them that journalists have been jailed and executed for supporting the committing of war crimes. Weird how everyone has blocked out Iraqi WMD lies from their memories, but maybe nobody wants to admit to being the baddies.

      And don’t even get me started on anonymous government sources talking smack being quoted.

  10. rowlf

    A great interview. I spent three years at Rutgers studying Journalism before I decided to drop out and go to tech school as I felt, due to the economy under Reagan, that working on physical objects would provide more job security and require less flexible ethics.

    I liked this part of the interview: “Issues of war and peace, which are also potentially catastrophic for our species, are completely off-limits in our commercial news media and in our mainstream news media: NPR as well.”

  11. Edward

    This interview didn’t talk about the internet, but I think that has been the good news in this bad situation. The internet has broken the news monopoly and the censorship of the establishment press. American foreign reporting has always been riddled with propaganda (the “wurlitzer” I think CIA director Dulles called it) and my feeling is we are better off without it then with false news. The problem with U.S. reporting deceptions, written about by people like Chomsky, would not have been so bad if Americans had had access to other sources of information, but before the internet that was not the case. The establishment is now experimenting with censorship on the internet at Facebook and Twitter.

      1. Edward

        We did! Are you the “Donald” from Mondoweiss? Anyone who follows the I-P issue has had a very bad experience with American foreign reporting.

        You probably missed my comment because it was in moderation.

    1. Edward

      Or survival of the most amoral. A person can gain an advantage by disregarding ethical boundaries or social responsibilities. The virtuous are punished and the wicked rewarded.

  12. David in Santa Cruz

    This idea of using public funding and elections to fund journalism is ridiculous. It would instantly be corrupted, politicized, and become propaganda.

    Where is the discussion of the relentless anti-trust waivers, perpetrated by Slick-Willie and Shrub in particular, which made it lucrative for Private Equity to consolidate and strip news media outlets? Government played an outsized role in the dismantling of local media by facilitating consolidation. The media might have limped along for decades without these anti-trust waivers.

    A free and neutral internet is a better answer, but that medium is being strangled by the Google and Facebook monopolies abetted by the lax anti-trust oversight of the state.

  13. John Medcalf

    Compliments to the podcaster for transcribing your podcast.
    I don’t believe productive people have time to listen to many / any podcasts.
    Being able to scan them is much appreciated.

  14. Heruntergekommen Sein

    Good buddies, you could drive a Peterbilt through the crack in this blue-collar paradigm, CB handle: “William Randolph Hearst”. Yellow journalism, while putting people on notice of select industrial horrors, was also used to shape the markets at the direction of peer rivals of the same industrialists dubbed “robber barons”, and even launder their reputations for a fee. – Historically in the New World, the printed word was the literal god of the grim pre-industrial New Englander until the syncretic conquest of printed money, a trickster deity, born of the same, fart-smelling papermills as Thomas Paine’s pamphlets. So perhaps it is the death of the triune that has people in a state of shock. By all accounts, contemporary commercial media enters a strange digital “ghost dance” phase to reconcile the abandonment. [At the risk of digression, “homeless” has had its modern usage since 1857. And McChesney’s occupation is listed as… “professor”. Which is why I point it out, half expecting his dissertation to have been about the coconut-radio media sphere on the Island of Gilligan.]

    The common man still has access to more free information now than the contents of every library that has previously existed, combined. Open-source software has placed the most sophisticated media-creation tools just a download away. This is a liberation for humankind, scary as heck. So that the future cannot be categorized as dystopia nor utopia, for those terms presuppose civilization’s foundations remain intact. Instead, even accounting for historical chauvinism and the vanity of apocalyptic thinking, this a sea-change on the level of the agricultural revolution. For example, had the common farmer of Ancient Egypt had access to the Nile River Valley’s irrigation engineering techniques, then codified as both religious observance and attributed as the benevolent will of living royalty, there would be no Ancient Egyptian empire.

  15. Bern

    The beauty of the 6 corporations owning the media at large is that they probly do not care if all those corporate toady operations make any money at all in the traditional sense. As long as the corporate agendas prevail across the board then any additional money from the “news” is gold-plated gravy.

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