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Monopolies, NPR, & PBS
An interview with Robert McChesney
Robert McChesney is Professor of Communications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is a leading critic of corporate media. He is the author of Telecommunications, Mass Media and Democracy. His latest book is Rich Media, Poor Democracy, published by University of Illinois Press.
DAVID BARSAMIAN: Will Rogers once said, I only know what I read in the newspapers. If Will were around today and looking at the media scene and opening up the newspapers, how much would he know?
ROBERT MCCHESNEY: He would probably have a pretty good idea of what life is like for an upper-middle-class or upper-class person living in a suburb in a 5,000-square-foot house with investments and doing e-trade, because thats the world of our newspapers today. But all of our journalism and media increasingly are pitched along the class divide of our society. If you take newspapers as an example, in the 1940s, every major daily newspaper had at least one or two labor reporters or editors. Some estimate that there were over 1,000 in the country.
Today, you know how many full-time labor reporters we have? Less than a half-dozen. From as many as a thousand to five or six. At the same time the number of business reporters has increased so exponentially that I dont even think they call them business reporters any more. Theyre merged. Like cable TV news today, if you watch the Fox news channel, or CNBC or CNN, business news and news are almost interchangeable now. CNNs flagship news program is called Moneyline. Its entirely geared towards the markets that advertisers are interested in, which is the upper middle class. Newspapers have written off the bottom 30 or 40 percent of the populations in their markets. Often they dont even sell papers in poor neighborhoods.
Another change that Rogers may have noted is how few newspapers there are. New York once had seven major dailies. Now its down to three. In Houston and lots of other cities around the country there is only one paper.
There are only a handful of cities with competing dailies with different owners, where they dont have some sort of cartel agreement. Something like 98 percent of American communities are one-newspaper towns. These newspaper companies have discovered that they can make a fortune by low-balling journalism and using lots of syndicated material and fluffing it up. In 1985 Gannett, one of the big chains, bought the Des Moines Register, historically one of the great American newspapers. The Register at that time had a full-time reporter in every county in Iowa, so wherever you lived you could follow state politics. Gannett, which owns 100 monopoly newspapers around the country, said, What are these jokers doing for the bottom line? and fired almost all of them. They shifted the coverage to focus on the wealthy suburbs of Des Moines and the business community. Their profits shot up. Their costs went down. They ran syndicated material, comics and wire service articles. But the citizens of Des Moines, of Iowa, lost out. Theres no coverage of their state.
You make an urgent connection between media and democracy. Why?
This is nothing original. Obviously you cant have a plebiscite on every decision. But people in representative democracies can make the fundamental value decisions and elect people to implement them. Thats what we can hope for. To have that be effective and viable, you need some sort of media system thats going to do two things. First of all, its going to ruthlessly account for the activities of people in power and people who want to be in power so you know what theyre actually doing. Secondly, its going to give a wide range of opinions on the fundamental social and political issues that citizens need to know about. It doesnt mean that each medium has to do that, but the system as a whole has to provide that as an easy alternative for people who want to participate as citizens. Thats the test of a media system in a democracy. By that standard, our current media system is a fiasco.
Theres been a huge explosion of trash media. What accounts for it?
The conventional wisdom is that its demand-driven, that the audience is demanding more stories about car crashes and JFK, Jr. Theres an element of truth about that, to the extent that if youre fed a steady diet of something, eventually youre going to demand it. Its a given. But the real motor force behind it isnt demand. Its supply driven. The reason why this sort of journalism dominates is that its inexpensive to do. Its extremely non-controversial to anyone in power. It will attract an audience. It doesnt take skilled journalists. Take the same reporters covering the JonBenet case and have them examine toxic waste dumps in the U.S. Take all that human labor and money into that. The same money would probably cover a lot fewer stories, because it takes a long time to do and it takes six months to break a story. Then if it does pan out youre going to get some very powerful corporate and governmental interests pissed off at you. Thats the last thing these corporate media giants want to do. People consume it and the media bosses say, People are really interested in this. Take the OJ trial. Even I was interested in whether Kato Kalin was going to get a job after a year of this. You get exposed to enough of it and it becomes a sort of soap opera.
The corporate media managers, the conservative critics of your argument, will say, Look, thats fine. We are giving the public what it wants. The proof of that is that they can vote with their remote. They can just click off that Seinfeld rerun if they dont want to watch it. No one is force-feeding them.
The relationship of supply and demand isnt one of obedient media giants giving you whatever you bark out your command for. Its a complex interactive relationship. Let me give you one example of how that works. In the mid-1970s, 10 percent of the films exhibited in theaters were foreign films, made outside the U.S. In the mid-1980s it was down to 6 or 7 percent. Today its one-quarter of 1 percent. In the traditional give-the-people-what-they-want theory, this would mean that some time in the last 20 years the American people said, Get these foreign films out of our theaters. We hate them. We refuse to go to them. But thats not what happened. It was the direct opposite. Starting in the mid-1970s, single-screen theaters were replaced by multiplexes. One camera person operates all 12 screens. One popcorn crew operates all 12 screens.
All the foreign films were coming into single-screen theaters. So there were two dozen foreign film theaters in Manhattan alone in the 1970s. Today I think theres one, if that. Cities like Seattle, where I lived, had six. It was commonplace. But those sorts of theaters were replaced by these multiplexes. So then when a French or Japanese filmmaker came to the U.S. and wanted to screen a film, the multiplexes said, You have to be in all 215 multiplexes, and you have to pay a marketing budget equivalent to what a Hollywood studio spends to buy those big ads that you have to run the weekend before you come out. The amount of money was prohibitive for them, several times more than they paid to make the film. Over time they stopped being carried. I ask my students, How many of you watch foreign films? Most of them dont even know they exist. They dont have a chance to be exposed to them.
Its actually ironic, given all the claims made about the market. Its a very poor mechanism for creativity. Look at popular music. These record companies are desperate to make money. So they want to give people what they want, the five companies that sell 90 percent of the music now, all but one part of these huge giants we just named. The problem they have is that the commercial impulse isnt always very good for creativity. All the great breakthroughs in rock and roll and popular music in the last 40 years have been outside of their web. It happens in the nooks and crevices. Once these corporate guys get hold of it, they try to recreate it. Real creativity cant be sparked on Wall Street.
What are the implications of the recent court ruling on Microsoft? The judge commented on the predatory monopolistic tendencies and actions of Microsoft. Were you surprised by that decision?
A little bit, but not especially. They were guilty as charged. At the same time, Im not breaking out any champagne bottles over it. First of all, what Microsoft did was just classic capitalism. If youre an investor in Microsoft, you would want them to eliminate competition. Oracle, Sun Microsystems, all of them would do that had they been in that position.
I asked Noam Chomsky about the increasing media concentration. He said, Theres not much evidence that the media before all these takeovers and mergers happened were producing any better product.
I would disagree in one way. I think Chomskys generally right in the sense that to romanticize more competitive markets is wrong. There were fundamental problems with our media system before. But what has happened with concentrated ownership is that what autonomy journalists did have, and they didnt use it very effectively for the most part, has come under sustained attack by corporate owners and advertisers. The result is a softening of news stories and a reluctance now to attack major advertisers. That wasnt the case ten or twenty years ago. You see a real merging, the breakdown of the separation of editorial and commercial content. As a result, journalists who used to be the foremost defenders of the commercial media system are now some of its strongest critics because they can see that the profit motive and commercialism undermine their ability to do anything remotely close to public service journalism. Thats a big change. And that has only taken place due to concentration.
The founding document for public broadcasting in the U.S. is the 1967 Carnegie Commission Report. Among other things, it said that public broadcasting programming should serve as a forum for controversy and debate, be diverse and provide a voice for groups that may otherwise be unheard. In the about 30 years now of PBS, the TV service, as well as National Public Radio, how closely aligned has the programming been to those founding principles?
Its almost nowhere near those principles. In fact, if one were to look at NPR or PBS today and say, What groups in society is it trying to give voice to? it would not be the dispossessed, the marginalized, those outside the power structure. Its giving voice to the business community, the entrepreneurs, the upper middle class. I dont think anyone can claim otherwise. In NPRs audience data that they provide when theyre trying to appeal to underwriters, theyre bragging about the wealth, education, and sophistication of their listeners.
In some of the discussions about public radio and TV, theres an underlying current that when they werent as well funded and didnt have as many listeners, the programming was more cutting edge.
Im not an expert on that. But my sense is that in TV, for example, prior to the 1967 Public Broadcasting Act, National Educational Television, an early version of PBS, actually did some cutting-edge antiwar and civil rights stuff. They got tremendous political heat because of it. Thats always been the case. When good stuff does get through that goes outside the boundaries of the establishment commercial system, that takes chances, they invariably take heat from Washington. Its sort of the worst of both worlds for public broadcasting. On one hand, they have to turn to corporations to support them because they dont get enough government support. On the other hand, they get enough government support that whenever someone takes chances they get reamed by political forces. The result is the tepid programming that you get.
But theres a fundamental issue here thats even more important in public broadcasting and that is to understand the dilemma historically. Public broadcasting in most places in the world, Canada, India, Britain, Scandinavia, Germany, has generally been seen and crafted as being a nonprofit, noncommercial service for the entire population, with entertainment, educational, and political programming covering the whole spectrum. In the U.S. that was never the case. The reason was that the commercial broadcasters in the 1920s and 1930s were able to swipe the airwave space without any public recognition or understanding. Then when public broadcasting came along, its job was to do the programming that the commercial stations couldnt make any money on. Trying to do stuff that was popular, they would catch holy hell on Capitol Hill for competing with the private sector. So they were second-tier immediately, which put them in a very difficult position historically. They go to Washington and say, Give us funding, and Washington says, Why should we fund you? No ones listening to you. But if they try to do popular shows, the commercial broadcasters scream bloody murder. Why are you subsidizing a competitor to us? Its an impossible situation.
Some purists, let me call them, in public radio and TV want to jettison any government subsidies for the very reasons that you just alluded to. They feel that the system would be stronger, independent, and not have to answer to Congress. What do you think about that?
I think there are very legitimate concerns about setting up the system so that you cant have political censorship. But there are ways to do that without abandoning the public subsidy. We have to study how other countries have done it and see what the best way is to maintain a public subsidy but not permit constant interference by political sources. The BBC has a better way. Every ten years or so they have big public hearings on the BBC, set up its budget, and set it off for another ten years. Its basically on its own for ten years, independent and autonomous. Then it comes back for public hearings. So if theres some serious controversy in the fourth year, no one in Parliament can say, Were going to close the BBC down. Theyve got autonomy. So thats the sort of system we ideally need. But the question about resources, I disagree completely with the purist view. Our media system, which is not well understood, is basically largely subsidized by the public. The gift of spectrum, the airwaves, to broadcasters is a huge amount of corporate welfare. We give tax breaks, deregulation breaks to these big companies to make them profitable. Our government actively works as their ambassador around the world to open up markets and make them profitable across the planet. Its ridiculous that we say, OK, we dont want to take government money for community and public broadcasting because that would taint us. The rational thing to say is, If were going to be subsidizing public broadcasting, and I think we should because it plays an important part in a free and good society, then we want to create a system where there are fewer strings attached and money cant be used by political interests.
One popular notion is that NPR, to a greater extent than PBS, is somehow liberal. Is there any evidence for that?
In the narrow confines of American mainstream politics, traditionally the sort of people who work at NPR would be considered liberals. The way we define liberal is crucial, because the whole thing is loaded as to how you define these terms. A liberal or conservative is often defined on the basis of social issues. Take flag burning. Should you have a constitutional amendment against it? Do you think there should be mandatory school prayer? Should there be drug testing? What do you think of affirmative action? These sorts of issues are a litmus test of whether one is a liberal or conservative. By the measure of social issues, its fair to say that a significant chunk of the NPR employees and on-air staff are probably in favor of not having mandatory state prayer. Theyre probably in favor of gay rights and lesbian rights, or more open-minded about it. But I think thats not the best measure to understand the core politics. The crucial politics of government, affairs of state, resource allocations, making wars, military budgets, environmental issues, the research shows that the so-called liberals at NPR often have almost identical politics to conservatives. Theyre pro-business. Theyre anti-regulation of business, for the most part. Theyre not interested in progressive taxation. Theyre not in sympathy with the political and economic interests of the bottom 50 percent of this country. Theyre having a turf war with their fellow members of the upper middle class. Thats the whole strength of the right-wing critique. When you isolate the left as being the upper middle class that wants to go to Harvard and Yale and lord it over everyone else, that resonates with a lot of people. Thats a legitimate critique. Thats a scary group of people. When that becomes defined as the left in our society, were in trouble, because thats not the left. That has nothing to do with the historic notion of left.
John Stauber of PR Watch in Madison has documented the number of public relations firms that write stories and produce videos that then appear in the media.
I like to tell the story of one of our top students in Madison. She was the editor of the student paper. She got the leading internship in Washington, DC that we had at the university. She took my class and said, When I get to Washington Im going to make sure I use Greenpeace and all the alternative sources. When stories come up that affect people, Im not just going to use the conventional wisdom. Then she came back after the summer sort of sheepish. She didnt come to see me. I thought that was sort of strange because we were on good terms. I finally ran into her and asked, Whats up? How was the internship? She said, Well, you know, uh...it didnt really turn out like I thought it would. The first day or two I was trying to call up all these groups to get these alternative views on stories I was covering. But I was under deadline pressure. I had all these stories to cover. They gave me the Rolodex. After a couple of weeks, I didnt even think about it any more because the pressure was so great. I had no time to dig into the stories that I was being given. I just had to report them. The problem with good journalism is, it invariably gets you in hot water with people in power. Its going to piss someone off. Thats anathema to the corporate media. The classic example today to see this process at work is to watch how Time Warner, Disney, News Corporation and now Viacom are rolling over to suck up to the Chinese leadership. They want that Chinese market so bad that theyll do anything. Theyll censor themselves.
Didnt Rupert Murdoch take the BBC off the air in Asia for fear of offending the Chinese?
His Asian company, Star satellite, took the BBC off. His publishing house, HarperCollins, had a contract to publish Chris Pattens memoirs. He was the last governor general of Hong Kong. He was critical of the Chinese record on human rights. The Chinese told Rupert they didnt like it and so he yanked it and didnt publish it.
Theres also a paradox in the newsroom, perhaps reflecting the larger economic order. At the top end youve got million-dollar celebrities like Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings, and Diane Sawyer. At the lower end, you have the situation you just described, where people are underpaid and overworked.
That is the paradox. Basically, at the top end, the whole market for them is not as journalists but as celebrities and entertainers. The reason why Dan Rather gets paid $7 million per year is because he brings in advertising. Thats the only reason. Its not because he breaks great stories. In fact, one of the ironies, and James Fallows described this a few years ago in his book Breaking the News, is that the celebrity journalists, making the big incomes, do almost no journalism. What they basically do is sort of pointless prediction and pontification. You see it on shows like Hardball, Geraldo, and Crossfire. They yell and scream and make predictions, but no one actually does journalism.
What would a good broadcasting system look like?
Creating a better media system would be part of broader social changes. You wont get changes in media unless you have a popular movement thats going to also challenge institutions in our society. But just for hypothetical cases, what I recommend we organize around, and what there actually is organizing around, are a few things. Real public radio and TV, a bona fide, non-profit, non-commercial sector. A couple of well-funded channels in every market. Community public access, plus a national system of good resources. To the extent we have commercial broadcasting, I would regulate it heavily. Since its our property, we have a right to say, This is what we need in our society if youre going to use our property. If not, well get someone else to use it.
I can hear the voice of Limbaugh in my inner ear, saying, There goes McChesney again. He wants pointy-headed bureaucrats in Washington telling us what we can listen to and watch.
Listen to what I have in mind, though. Specifically, I dont want any bureaucrat or anyone going in and telling people what to do or not to do on their show. Thats not the type of regulation I envision. Thats the sort of regulation we have now, with Wall Street and Madison Avenue. One, I would ban political advertising as a condition of a broadcast license. Political advertising is part of the process that has basically destroyed electoral democracy in this country. Getting rid of it wont solve the problem, but it will go a long way towards lessening the cash crisis that has reduced our democracy to a pathetic status. Its closely related to media reform.
The National Association of Broadcasters, the commercial broadcasting organization, is the number one lobby that opposes any campaign finance reform. They will get this gift of tons of money in 2000 for political ads. Its cash up front. Bottom line, they dont have to produce any of these ads. Its the easiest money theyve ever gotten.
Another thing is, no ads to children under 12. What we do to children in this country is obscene. Theres no justification for it. There are four full-time cable channels now aimed at kids. The advertisers have demographically and scientifically broken down the day into parts so that one- to three-year-old boys and girls are carpet-bombed with ads virtually from the moment they leave the womb. Sweden doesnt allow advertising to kids under 12 on television. In fact, its such a powerful thing there that when one of these commercial networks wanted to bring their commercial network into cable, the National Labor Federation of Sweden called for a boycott. It was such an important issue in Sweden not to let that happen to their children.
We need to do that here. All commercial stations should have 12 hours a week taken away from them and give that time to educators and artists and let them put on kids programming that isnt directed by Wall Street and Madison Avenue. Weve got to do something, and quickly.
Another thing I would do is to take the ads off news on television as a requirement of a license. As with childrens programming, I would set aside a couple of hours a day on the channels and have that programming be done by journalists, not controlled by the owners or advertisers. To pay for the journalism and the kids shows, Id levy a tax on the revenue of the station and put it into a fund to pay for it. This is the way we need to start thinking creatively.
Finally, antitrust. Lets break up these big companies. When we went into Germany and Japan in 1945 we broke their media up. We said concentrated media was anti-democratic and promoted fascism. I think we should take a dose of our own medicine.
You mentioned Sweden. Lets talk about another Scandinavian country, Norway. Your wife is Norwegian. Whats the media system like there?
If youre in America and you dont leave the country, you dont quite understand what a astonishing, world-historic transformation the media have gone through in the rest of the world in the last 10 or 15 years. When I first went to Norway in 1986, they had one television station that was only on five hours a day with no commercials--public broadcasting. My initial response was, This is horrible. How can people live in this society? What do you do all day? Well, you talk to people, read a book, go for walks. If you go to Norway now, theres cable or satellite TV everywhere. There are commercial stations. The cable system is 30 or 40 channels, nearly half of them in English, many owned by the same companies that own our cable channels. Its become a global system dominated by U.S.-based companies and a couple of European ones that provide heavily commercial-laden fare across the world. This is whats happening in Norway and elsewhere.
Youre getting the same problems now increasingly in Europe, Latin America, and Asia that were seeing here. Garbage can journalism, public relations replacing real politics, spinmeisters, and political advertising are growing in these other countries, often countries that historically have had much stronger political traditions than weve had. Theyre getting this superficial, best-politics-money-can-buy approach. Its a real crisis around the world. Its a crisis of democracy.
What are the points of resistance?
One of the exciting things is that in so many countries, Sweden being one of them, this is generating a political response from the democratic left political parties primarily. Basically theres been a split in left political parties around the world in the 1990s on the issue of globalism, whether youre going to be pro-business or oppose these pro-business reforms. Blair in Britain, Schroeder in Germany have gone the route of pro-business. But many have gone the other way. In Sweden, for example, the left alliance broke away from the dominant Social Democrats. This is an alliance of former Communists, feminists, Greens, former Social Democrats, and labor who are opposed to neoliberalism. They regard media as such an important issue that its in the preamble of their platform. They are talking about abolishing advertising and breaking up concentrated media ownership. Concentrated media ownership has grown around the world just like in the U.S. In Sweden the left party, which makes media the central part of their campaign, got 12 percent of the national vote. In Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Brazil, Finland and elsewhere, its becoming an issue. The mainstream parties have to respond. They cant ignore it. Theyre finding out voters arent interested in having a media system dominated by two or three companies, where everythings commercial and public service values are disregarded.
I think we need to build a coalition here of all the organized groups in society that already have an interest in this, such as labor, religious groups, educators, librarians, artists, creative people, journalists, all of whom are deeply concerned about the moral bankruptcy of this sort of media system. Get all these groups up to speed on these issues and try to get it on the political agenda. Get the main political parties, the Progressive Caucus of the Democratic Party, the New Party, the Labor Party, and the Greens, to make it an issue.
Another extraordinary development in the past few years is microradio. This is an extremely inexpensive technology that offers the promise of opening up a whole new sector of community broadcasting for citizens. Microradio is a rare opportunity to provide a democratic layer of broadcasting. Not surprisingly, the commercial broadcasters oppose microradio because they fear competition. There is a crucial struggle going on right now that will determine the future of microradio. FCC chair William Kennard has proposed a new set of rules that would give licenses to hundreds of microradio stations.
What might be some strategies for getting beyond the choir to the congregation?
There are a thousand different directions to go. Lets say that there are groups you want to reach that youre not currently reaching in the community, go into those communities, get programmers, give them training, see what they want to do. Engage in a process of bringing people aboard. Thats the only way you can really do it that I can think of. The way not to do it is to hire some high-ticket demographic expert from the advertising industry who comes in with reams of charts and statistics, telling you, Play this song and you get this audience. Thats not community radio. Community radio is developing an audience and an interaction in a community. You talk to people, bring programmers in. Thats the way to do it.
How did you get political?
My family has often wondered that. Im sort of an aberration. I come from a middle-class family in suburban Cleveland. None of the friends I grew up with is political. I think it was primarily due to growing up in the 1960s, coming of age during the antiwar movement. It was an era when the coolest people were more critical. It was very different from today. If youre political today on a college campus, youre looked at like a kook. But in that generation intellectuals worked and fought hard. They were critical and respected. The dissidents and radicals often were very thoughtful people. I said, Id better take this seriously. Id better find out what theyre talking about. This looks like something important. There was also a sense that the sort of world that I lived in was fundamentally a lie. It was saturated with inequality and misery produced by market mania and greed. The same people who were saying how great America was and how great the system was working were the people who downplayed racism, militarism, environmental degradation, and social inequality. For someone raised to take the Declaration of Independence seriously, these mainstream voices lost all credibility with me.
The other key factor to my political developent came in 1969 when I attended an affluent boarding school in Connecticut. On the weekends I would stay with my mothers sister and relatives in a working-class community nearby. It was then that I grasped the tremendous advantages of class that are built into our system and into our culture. Rich kids who were complete screw-ups still went to great colleges and are now bigshot lawyers or are running big companies. Smart working-class kids went to Vietnam and tried to stay in one piece. I have never been able to take the pronouncements of our elites at face value ever since. Z
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