Old-fashioned patriotism involves substantial government financial support for aggressive and even offensive journalism

July 5, 2012 | By | Reply More

Robert McChesney and John Nichols have written an excellent book advocating substantial public support (much more than the government currently gives) to support first-rate journalism. The book is titled The Death and Life of American Journalism: the Media Revolution That Will Begin the World Again (2010).

This book begins with a diagnosis of modern journalism. One of the main problems is that modern journalists rely far too much on officials in power to set the news agenda. In fact, when politicians aren’t arguing about an issue, it tends to go completely under the media radar. Another problem is that much of our news is regurgitated press release material issued by powerful government and business officials. “The dirty secret of journalism is that a significant percentage of our new stories, in the 40-50% range, even at the most prestigious newspapers in the glory days of the 1970s, were based on press releases.” In the 1980s, the national workforce of PR specialists was about equivalent to the number of journalists in newspapers, radio and television. As of 2008, there were four times as many PR specialists as journalists. (Page 49).

Image by Razvanxr of dreamstime (with permission)

Over the past two decades, softening standards of journalism mean that cheaply produced stories about sex scandals and celebrities have dominated the airwaves. News has become slanted to appeal to affluent consumers that are attractive to advertisers. A look at your daily newspaper will immediately show you that what qualifies as “news,” is information that appeals to middle and upper classes. (Page 50). Modern journalism has become less diverse than one would have believed a few decades ago. More than 42% “of newspaper newsrooms now employ no journalists of color whatsoever.” (Page 50). Today’s news is business friendly: in the modern newsroom, one can barely find any newspaper that has a labor beat. “Poor and working class people are, for all intents and purposes, only newsworthy to the extent that they get in the way of rich people.” The type of news that we have been getting is paying dividends in one area: Americans “more than hold their own when it comes to knowledge of entertainment stories and celebrity scandals.” (Page 51). The situation is likely to get worse, given that system has become “hostile to great journalism.” The modern news media spoonfed us government lies regarding the alleged weapons of mass distraction in Iraq. They “cheered on the housing bubble.” In 2009, they did almost nothing to investigate “where the trillions of public dollars being spent by the Federal Reserve and treasury were actually going, but spared not a moment to update America on the Octomom, who gave birth to eight children.”

McChesney and Nichols applaud the various forms of new journalism making use of the Internet, including citizen journalism. This will not be enough to rejuvenate journalism, however. Quoting Todd Gitlin, the authors hold the position that “in the end, it is public policy and only public policy that will determine what kind of journalism survives.” (Page 59). Somehow, the dominant position today is that we need to minimize the role of government is much as possible and to resist all public funding for the media. The dominant idea today is that all government involvement is bad, even in the media. (Page 59).

The authors are not advocating that the government write checks directly “to the handful of profit driven firms that dominate the news media.” This would reward irresponsible and anti-journalistic entities. In fact, the federal government has been so lax in applying antitrust law to media that the industry has over-consolidated to an absurd degree, resulting in ubiquitous cross-ownership and dramatic shrinking of new staffs. Nor is it a solution to allow existing news organizations to try to survive over the Internet by requiring readers to pay for content online. There has been very little success in this area–consumers are simply not willing to pay a reasonable price for quality journalism online. (Page 68). They quote Bob Garfield, who asks: “Have you clicked on a banner ad? Ever? In your life?” McChesney and Nichols quote Clay Shirky: “There is no general model for newspapers to replace the one the Internet just broke.” (Page 75).

McChesney and Nichols are big fans of citizen journalism, but citizen journalism does not have the money or the expertise to do first-rate investigative journalism. Despite the fact that we now see new excellent quality journalism emerging in many parts of the Internet, citizen journalism is not enough on its own.

We can see a new and dramatically superior caliber of journalism emerging as a result of the Internet area it will be a journalism that will overcome the great limitations of professional journalism as it has been practiced in the United States: Among other things, reliance upon the narrow range of opinion of people in power as a legitimate parameters of political debate, and a bias toward seeing the world through middle-class and upper-class eyes. It will be a journalism that can truly open up our politics, in the manner Democratic theory suggests. Because there are so many variables with the technology it is impossible to project exactly how this new system of journalism will work and what it will look like, but the ingredients for a genuine media revolution are in place. One way to conceptualize his new journalism, at its best, is to imagine it as a great jazz performance. Citizen journalists, bloggers,pro-am journalists and innovators we cannot even imagine would contribute along with paid professional journalists. … For the new system to work… there needs to be a significant body of full-time paid journalists covering their communities, the nation, the world, in competition and collaboration with other paid journalists. There need to be independent newsrooms where journalists who are secure enough in their livelihoods to focus on their work can collaborate and receive professional editing, fact checking and assistance. There needs to be expertise, developed over years of trial and error, in vital areas of specialty and paid journalists accountable for those beats. We need journalists trained in languages and history and culture to work international beats, and to have the credentials to protect them from governments. There need to be news institutions that can preserve and promote journalism. As Ben Bagdikian once put it, “Great journalism needs great institutions.” Institutions that can support long-term investigative work, and free up journalists to do their work, rather than having them try to hustle their next meal for shaking down an Internet micro-payment or a commercial advertisement for their blog. Institutions that are respected and, yes, feared by the powerful players in business and politics.

(Page 82). How can we bankroll such a new version of the media? “It looks like we’re down to three options: volunteer labor, individual donations and foundation grants.” Volunteer labor works for many current bloggers for, but it will not provide professional journalism. “Unless journalism can provide adequate compensation, it will be limited to a small number of self-selected people, either desperate for money or independently wealthy.” As far as donations, “relying on the generosity of virtual strangers tends to extend the privileges of the upper middle class and wealthy into the digital future, to paraphrase the bank robber Willie Sutton, that is where the money is in bloggers seeking to survive will be inclined to follow it. Foundations would certainly be a source of funds, but the authors question whether we should rely upon foundation money to keep journalism afloat, because focused funding of this sort cannot be a viable replacement for broad spectrum journalism. Even more important, foundations provided only $20 million for investigative reporting in 2008. This is only 1/10 of the annual newsroom budget of the New York Times.

The solution, according to McChesney and Nichols, is to consider quality journalism to be a “public good,” and to then follow through to support it as we support other public goods, such as the military.  Quality journalism certainly has many of the hallmarks of public goods. (Page 102). To those who would argue that the government should stay out of the business of the press, McChesney and Nichols remind us that the press is the only industry specifically mentioned in the United States Constitution. Many commentators have watered-down the phrase “freedom of the press” construing it as synonymous with “freedom of speech.” This is an unreasonable interpretation, however. (Page 111).

The authors criticize the prevailing “Immaculate Conception” theory of the press. The press did not grow to what it once became free of connection to the government. To the contrary, the government financially supported the press with numerous subsidies, including hefty mail subsidies. Benjamin Franklin argued that the job of the press was to stimulate debate and to even offend. “The press was understood as a political and in many practical senses public institution, necessary to self-government, and with obligations to serve the citizenry.” Starting page 116, the authors detail the high esteem that the nascent federal government had for the hundreds of private newspapers that constituted the early press.

The one universally accepted premise was that the government needed to heavily subsidize the creation and development of the press if the constitutional system were to succeed. There was no notion in the early Republic, not a single solitary voice anywhere, that the press should be left to “the market” and that commercial hospices could effectively and efficiently guide journalism as long as the heavy hand of the state remained out of the way.

Both Madison and Jefferson held that a vigorous press was critically important for self-government. “A free press was necessary to create the informed citizenry that made popular sovereignty and democracy possible. No journalism means no democracy, and no constitutional form of government based upon popular sovereignty.” (Page 118). The authors offer the following quote by Thomas Jefferson: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” (Page 119). The material in this part of the book is highly detailed and compelling, leading to the main thesis: The early federal government actively subsidized the press through numerous subsidies including postal subsidies.

On page 122, the authors quoted Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence in a champion of the Constitution:

For the purpose of diffusing knowledge, as well as extending the living principle of government to every part of the United States-every state-city-County-village-and Township in the union should be tied together by means of the post office… It should be a constant injunction to the postmasters, to convey newspapers are free of all charge for postage. They are not only the vehicles of knowledge and intelligence, but the sentinels of the liberties of our country.

Page 122). As of 1794, newspapers made up 70% of the weight of post office traffic. By the 19th century, the figure was over 90%. Hence, Congress substantially subsidized the production and distribution of newspapers in the early years of the United States. In the early 19th century, they cost between six and $.25 to mail letter, but the maximum postage for a newspaper was 1 1/2 cents. (Page 125).

Much as federal subsidies allowed citizens to run their government back in the early days of the federal government, the authors make a strong case that substantial subsidies are still necessary to maintain the quality journalism ordinary citizens desperately need to take back their country from extremely wealthy and powerful individuals and companies.

I will pause this review at this point and pick up at a later point with a description of the specific proposals of McChesney and Nichols.

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Category: Citizen Journalism, Journalism, Media, Politics

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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