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In Person

Robert McChesney and John Nichols

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Diagnosing America’s journalism crisis has become something of a cottage industry for media pundits, foundations and scholars —especially since the financial crisis in 2008 accelerated the demise of the newspaper industry, triggering round after round of layoffs and a steady death knell of shuttered newsrooms.

And it’s not just newspapers struggling to survive: the Washington Post Company put Newsweek up for sale in early May, more proof the for-profit business models that have long supported American print publications are withering into obsolescence.

As many small towns adapt to life without newspapers, the chorus of concerned citizens clamoring for action is growing louder. But what, exactly, can and should be done to save and sustain real reporting? The most radical critiques of America’s media system have long been coming from the prolific pens of Robert McChesney and John Nichols, who have co-authored four books on the subject.

Their latest, The Death and Life of American Journalism, offers a brisk eulogy for the corporate media system, a dismissal of the Internet’s power to revive it, and a call for what they see as a return to government-supported U.S. media. The stakes for American democracy are too high to leave to a “free market” that no longer wants to invest in journalism, McChesney and Nichols argue. If Americans really want public-interest journalism to survive in the 21st century, they must financially support it—to the tune of $35 billion annually, which they note is close to what some European nations spend on media subsidies on a per capita basis.

I caught up with McChesney and Nichols—a University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign professor and Washington D.C. correspondent for The Nation, respectively—in Chicago a few months after their book was published in January 2010, just before they spoke to a packed DePaul University auditorium about what must be done to deal with journalism’s crisis.

In These Times Web Editor/Associate Editor Jeremy Gantz

In The Death and Life of American Journalism, you challenge the conventional wisdom of blaming the Internet for killing off newspapers and print media. How and why does the crisis predate the ascent of the Internet?

McChesney: The layoffs of journalists, the closing of [news] bureaus, the declining quality of journalism all predate Google, even the World Wide Web. They go back to the 70s. Fundamentally, it can be attributed to increasing conglomerate corporate chain ownership and non-competitive markets, which made it very profitable to gut newsrooms and make more money by lowering your costs and gut any consequences in the marketplace.

And this was hidden from people until very recently because the profits were booming for these companies and in America we say if someone’s making a lot of money they must know what they’re doing, they must be doing something right, when in fact they were just stripping it for parts.

But I would add this, the important argument of our book is that the entire commercial system of journalism was an anomaly in some respects, because it was predicated on this enormous amount of advertising to subsidize it. And that era of advertising providing 60 to 100 percent of the revenues to support journalism, and make it a commercially viable area, that is in the process of declining, if not ending.

Nichols: The rise of the Internet in combination with a serious turn in our economy has accelerated trends that a lot of the big corporations thought that they could ride out or at least ride down graciously. And they can’t. And the reality is that now they’re in crisis, and they took so much debt to buy these institutions, buy these newspapers and other outlets, that they’re in a terrible mess…

They cannot afford to sustain their debt, they made a bad business decision, and now rather than accept that they made some bad decisions and gut it out, do what traditionally businesses might have done, they’re just saying ‘oh we know how to save some money, we’ll get rid of journalism.’ … But to blame the Internet or to even to blame the economy, would be like blaming the person who has a lot of fundamental health problems and then dies of pneumonia at the end; the fundamental health problems were there long before the ailment came.

Why have the responses or supposed solutions to journalism’s crisis up until now been inadequate, and why do you think they will continue to be inadequate?

Nichols: What we say in the book is that there are two types of folks who still think they have the answer. One is old-media fantasists. We still once in awhile run into somebody who says, ‘Oh well, advertising is going to come back,’ they literally aren’t buying into the reality. And then [there are] new-media fabulists who think that it’s just a matter of time before everything comes together. … The new media fabulists are still kind of in the game, and they peddle about every six months some theory on how things are going to go.

What’s weird about it is that an idea will crash and burn, and we’ll all think, ‘Oh we buried it, it’s dead.’ And then it will come back. The classic is pay-walls. They tried pay walls awhile back and it was a complete failure and everybody said well this is the stupidest thing ever done, it crashed and burned and now Rupert Murdoch’s brought it back. And the New York Times is saying next year they’re going to start doing some sort of pay-to-read scenario. But the truth is that these are such ridiculous approaches.

On the pay walls, they’re at war with the basic concept of the Internet. … [A pay wall] denies the logic of platform, but more importantly and perhaps more dangerously is, it is inserting a horrible class bias into our communications. Because if the only quality communications … can only be accessed by people who can pay for it on the Internet, right off the bat you’re knocking out tens of millions of people that don’t even have any kind of realistic Internet access. 54 percent of rural Americans at this point don’t have broadband, 36 percent of Americans generally. And so there’s a real crisis there of who you cut out of the system, and then if you’re saying online, well you’ve got to pay for it, again you’re cutting people out.

Your most radical idea is responding to the crisis with government subsidies or tax-supported government programs to make sure journalists keep working and more are hired. Why should Americans not be afraid of government action to support and rejuvenate news organizations?

McChesney: They should just look at the real history and the real evidence. I think most Americans make two false assumptions, and I did too when I was raised and before I studied it. One is that America has always had a free market press system where there’s been no subsidies at all, and two, that governments that do have subsidies of journalism invariably become like Stalin’s Pravda or Pol Pot’s Cambodia. And if you held those two beliefs as true, then the idea of using government subsidies would be an anathema. But as we chronicle in detail in the book– even nauseating, exhaustive detail…

Nichols: Actually I think it’s in brilliant, and highly enjoyable, detail.

McChesney: Very readable chapter.

Nichols: Like a Harry Potter book.

McChesney: Swashbuckler.

Nichols: Swashbuckling tale!

McChesney: Of daring do.

Nichols: A page-turner.

McChesney: Starring Tommy Jefferson and Jimmy Madison as our heroes, like Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn…

As we chronicle, in the American press system in the pre-advertising years, the first hundred years of American history, there was no illusion or no belief by anyone – it was unthinkable – that the private sector could provide all the journalism we’d want, we just had to unleash them to make money. That was not even remotely thought, really, until the beginning of the 20th century in the United States. And we instituted enormous press subsidies – printing and postal subsidies which we chronicle in the book – which our entire press system was built upon, it gave us this very rich, diverse set of voices that wouldn’t have existed otherwise, it was the basis of our democracy.

So that’s the real American history. And once we understand that, we look at, ‘Gee, how did they do that so that you didn’t have censorship, how did they do that to encourage dissent, not to squash it?’ When you look at it you see that actually you can have policies that are really progressive, that don’t favor one political viewpoint over another but raise them all, and let people control the quality of media, but give them the resources to do it so they’re effective.

The response of people when they learn the actual real history of American journalism is like, ‘Wow, that is really amazing, I had no idea.’ And in fact it becomes even more striking when you read the Supreme Court decisions on the First Amendment and freedom of the press, every single one says the first duty of the government is to make sure you have the independent, credible fourth estate, otherwise the Constitution can’t work. The government has to make sure it exists. Now that the market’s not doing it, that means it’s back to square one.

The other half of that is simply that the idea that if you have government subsidies, invariably you end up with Pravda or Pol Pot’s Cambodia. Our argument is we’re looking at the wrong countries. Those really aren’t the relevant countries to compare to the United States. Why don’t we look at the countries that are similar to us economically, similar to us politically, have similar freedoms and liberties and constitutions like us? So why don’t we look at Canada, Britain, Germany, France, Scandinavian countries, Switzerland, Japan, South Korea, even India? And what we find of all those countries, without exception, they have huge press and public media subsidies—and compared to the United States, enormous ones. And what was really striking in our research is that the countries with the very largest press subsidies … are ranked by The Economist magazine as being the most democratic nations in the world, way ahead of the U.S.

And the countries with the largest press subsidies, national government subsidies to support journalism or public media, are regarded by Freedom House as having the most flourishing, uncensored private media in the world, so they’re not contradictory.

Nichols: Just to add to it, I’ve been doing journalism since I was 11 years old. I started getting paid on my weekly newspaper when I was eleven. I have run major metro daily newsrooms. … If I thought for one second that what we’re proposing posed even the most minimal threat to the ability of a single journalist to do his or her job, I would lead the opposition to it…passionately. …

Anybody who’s been paying attention knows that their lives are shaped far more today by corporations than they are by government. And if the government is an extension of us, if we shape our government, if our taxes and our votes shape our government, I’d much rather have the government in there. In a content neutral, journalism sustaining way, I’d much rather have the government in there making sure that everybody has access to information, rather than leaving it to some, at this point, fantasy of a free-market solution.

Politics

That delivers me to my next question. We’ve seen how difficult it was for the current Congress to deliver any real action on healthcare reform, and how polarizing and persistent “government takeover” rhetoric is. What have you heard from people currently in office about the government’s role in dealing with the journalism crisis?

McChesney: Well, it’s an issue that’s very much in flux. A year ago, when the initial wave newspaper closings and layoffs really hit, and the profits were plummeting, it became a big news story. At that point both the House and Senate each called congressional hearings to discuss it, and John Nichols testified at the house hearing. But the tenor of those hearings was very much like, ‘Here’s a crisis, I don’t know if there’s anything we can do about it but it’s so important we aught to talk about it.’

But what we’ve seen in the last year has really been a sea change in the understanding of the crisis and I think it’s really moved much in the direction of what we write in the book, which is an understanding that the core commercial system of journalism is failing and that it’s not coming back. … And I think we’ve gotten to a point in Washington now where the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission both have explicit study groups working on the crisis of journalism. …

And so I think there’s a much more realistic understanding of the depth of the crisis and that it’s going to require government involvement. Now we’re still at the very beginning of this process – what that government involvement is, is still a sensitive issue. But I think it’s understood there’s going to be government involvement. …

Nichols: Let me offer one other notion too – one of the great challenges here is not merely congressional buy-in, because anybody who follows politics knows that Congress and the federal bureaucracy doesn’t respond unless it’s getting pressure from someplace. Now, clearly, there are old media companies and some players that [have pressured] government to do things that will continue to benefit them. I mean, obviously the government’s highly involved already. These are the people’s airwaves and yet they’re pretty well colonized by big media companies. So there’s going to be a lot of fight here, this is going to be a long-term struggle. But clearly breakthroughs are being made in this crisis moment. … The other thing that we’re doing right now is going out to the constituencies that we think actually care about journalism. In April I [spoke] to the American Society of Newspaper Editors. The notion that our ideas would be seriously considered by what’s really a very cautious group is a big deal.

They usually would never entertain government intervention.

Nichols: I’m not sure they’re going to. I don’t know if they’ll give me a standing ovation. … [W]hat’s happening is that in this crisis moment there is an opening on the part of core constituencies for a dialogue both inside the federal government structures but also at the edges of them among the people whose voices are often heard.

Culture

How do you respond to Chris Hedges’ article in Truthdig in February, which said basically, the crisis of journalism isn’t just a financial and economic crisis, it’s also a cultural crisis – people don’t value journalism anymore, and therefore wouldn’t want to pay for it. Do you think that’s not true?

McChesney: We love Chris. I treasure his critique, but I think he has a very pessimistic view of our species at this point in time, especially the American variant of our species. And I think if you have that attitude it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. You can find examples of everyone’s life where – oh that person really is a moron, they’re watching Jerry Springer, they’re going to wrestling, they’re listening to loud music, they’re incapable of rational thought, and it’s hopeless. The forces of darkness have overwhelmed the forces of literacy, and reason, and light, and all the good things. And I think Chris can find that, that’s something he demonstrates [in his 2009 book Empire of Illusion]…the end of literacy.

But I mean I would say in my view, and I think human beings are far more complex than that, and I’m sure he would reject that as a simplistic view. But I would say that – maybe complex isn’t the right term – but rather that someone can watch the Jerry Springer show or go to a wrestling match, and also be concerned about the quality of their life and their community. That it’s not like there’s one road or the other, and if you go down the Jerry Springer road you’re hopelessly lost to any sort of sane life.

I think most Americans aren’t even in that grim scenario where they don’t really care at all. Most Americans do care. They’ll say give me the information that’s really good and I’ll start paying more attention. I think my experience is that the people in this country desperately care but they’ve felt powerless. …

Nichols: What Chris says is something that we’ve heard at every event we’ve done. At every single event we’ve done. And so this is the interesting thing: People who will rouse themselves from their life, from watching whatever on television to come to a public event, will say “You know, I care. But I don’t think those folks out there care.” And I think in a sense that’s what Chris is saying. Chris cares very deeply, but he’s starting to have his doubts about whether the folks out there care.

Our experience is, that is a very common crisis on the left right now. Right? We have a lot of progressives who really are very frustrated with Obama, they’re seeing the Tea Party get all the attention in a failed media system that loves a Tea Party, and they’re starting to feel like wow, it’s just, this is overwhelming. But what we’re trying to do is sort of bridge that and say look, you know if you came to this event, if you care enough to still rouse yourself and come, there’s hope. I mean, we can build from that. Everything that ever happened in this country was built through people gathering in a room and saying I care, I object.

And the other thing too is that … an awful lot of Americans who will not consume the New York Review of Books, or even The Nation —or heaven forbid In These Times! — still are glad that it’s there, and that’s something really, really vital. That the watchdog role of journalism functions in a way that society values very, very deeply even if society doesn’t consume every article, every day. So, when we start to understand journalism as a public good, it is a necessary part of this democratic experience. Not everybody has to consume every bit of it for people to understand that it is absolutely vital. And that if we lose it, what do we have? What’s our situation? 24-7 communications – we’re not going to be without information, we’re not going to be without bells and whistles. We’re going to have 24-7 communication produced by power. And power will tell us what to buy, what to think, and how to vote.

McChesney: It’ll be public relations primarily. What we’re seeing in American news today – I hesitate to use the term journalism, because that still has some dignity attached to it – is that the ratio of reporters to public relations people, or public relations people to reporters, which used to be 1:1, the historical ratio in the middle twentieth century, gradually nudged up to 1.2 public relations people to one journalist in 1980. Today it’s 4:1. There are four people trying to doctor the news … to represent the interests of their corporate or government paymaster, to get a story to look like legitimate news, for every working journalist trying to cover the news.

It’s a complete mismatch and at current rates of change in decline in journalists and increase of public relations employment, we’re looking at a likelihood of a ratio of 7:1 or 8:1 in a few years.

Media

So let’s say nothing you suggest in the book is done during the next 10 or 20 years, what do you see our journalism landscape looking like?

McChesney: It’s not even that long. This isn’t global warming where we can wait another generation before we lose the coastal areas. We’re losing our coastal areas right now.

Nichols: On tour [McChesney and I] do something we don’t always do, which is watching cable television. … While we were touring Tiger Woods was going on and on about being a Buddhist. The Greek economy is collapsing, potentially taking down the Euro and ultimately the dollar, and it’s like, ‘But we don’t have time for that because of Tiger Woods.’

So, where are we headed? We’re headed to where we’re at right now, on steroids. And that is that, there will be a point ten years from now – if we do not intervene – where any rational person will look back and say I wish for the glory days, I wish for those wonderful days when we got all that great coverage of OJ Simpson, and Britney Spears, and Tiger Woods. Because as bad as things are now, it will be so much worse, and the ugliest part of it is, in that moment it will be highly packaged with anchors and pretty people telling us so.

But the one place where we will take that final drop, if you will, off the cliff is that you will see our serious political and governmental coverage move over and be completely produced for the elites. It will be like the Wall Street Journal for investors, and politics will be an investor sport, the real political life. And there will be an elite media that serves them at a very high cost, but for the rest of us it will be a spectator sport and all that we will do is watch as every decision about whether our children are sent to die in wars, whether we have jobs, whether our communities live or die, will be made at such a far reach from us that it will be what we learn about after it has happened.

It’s a nightmarish scenario, it is absolutely Orwellian. In fact, we say that if Orwell could look at the current circumstance, he’d scrap 1984. He’d say, ‘I used to think the scary thing was Big Brother was watching you, but the scary thing is you’ll be watching Big Brother.’

What would you say – if you can boil it down to one sentence – to someone who’s young and grown up on the Internet with this paradox of having this huge amount of free information – why should they pay through their taxes for what you’re talking about?

McChesney: Just having something that is data—bits and bytes—doesn’t make it journalism. Journalism – coverage of the world with public affairs – requires skilled paid labor, competing newsrooms, requires factcheckers, proofreaders, copy editors, quality content. That doesn’t come for free. Journalism is mandatory for self-government to work. There’s no way around it, no matter how many bits and bytes you have of material you can wade through about any subject – that doesn’t answer the journalism issue. That requires actual journalists.

Personal

My last question is more personal. You guys have written four books together now. How does the process work?

McChesney: John does all the writing and I put my name on it.

Nichols: People think it’s odd to collaborate. … But I will tell you that my favorite part about it is the occasional review that says, oh wow, we’ve got this kind of working journalist, scrappy journalist, and this high falutin’ academic. And then they’ll quote some line from the book, and they’ll say well there’s a very well written line, that must be by Nichols. And in fact it will invariably be a line that Bob put in.

The truth of the matter is that we’ve been working together for a very long time, and you get a relatively seamless web, a lot of shared ideas. We’re bringing two sides to this, as you’ve seen in the interview. I’ve done journalism for a very long time, in very practical ways. Bob has too, he’s run publications and done things, but he is an academic and a brilliant researcher. … Ultimately, when you’re trying to communicate with people, your core goal is not merely to give a bunch of facts, it’s to make a human story. What we’ve written in this book is a very human story of a crisis in our democracy. We’re not writing a history of the crisis, we’re writing a call to action.

This interview was edited for clarity and concision.

—May 18, 2010