Politics and the Media   /   Summer 2008   /    Articles

Journalism: Looking Backward, Going Forward

Robert W. McChesney

“The condition of American journalism in the first decade of the twenty-first century can be expressed in a single unhappy word: crisis.”11xThis essay is adapted from chapter five of my latest book, The Political Economy of Media: Enduring Issues, Emerging Dilemmas (New York: Monthly Review, 2008). So began a 2007 report made by a scholar ensconced in the heart of mainstream academia.22xWilliam Powers, “Hamlet’s Blackberry: Why Paper Is Eternal,” Discussion Paper Series, Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, Harvard University (2007): www.hks.harvard.edu/presspol/research_publications/papers/discussion_papers/D39.pdf. 

Such a comment would have been far less plausible in the political mainstream only a decade earlier, and its rapid evolution to becoming the new conventional wisdom among both academics and much of the news media is little short of breathtaking. For the past quarter-century this argument was made primarily by critical analysts of the U.S. news media, especially those from the political economy of media tradition. In the

1980s and well into the 1990s, it was subject to categorical dismissal by many journalists and journalism professors. Today it is those who wish to defend the commercial system as doing a superior job at generating quality journalism that must provide the hard evidence.

In this essay I wish to address the contours of the now-roundly accepted crisis in journalism and suggest how we may most fruitfully consider it. There is an opportunity before us to reinvigorate journalism and, with that, democratic governance in the United States. But we need to correctly understand the source of the problem to prescribe the solutions. Without journalism we not only make viable democracy unthinkable, we open the door to a tyranny beyond most of our imaginations.33xSee Naomi Wolf, The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot (White River Junction: Chelsea Green, 2007); Joe Conason, It Can Happen Here: Authoritarian Peril in the Age of Bush (New York: St. Martin’s, 2007). For a recent analysis of the importance of journalism for democracy, with an eye to the current crisis, see Jeffrey Scheuer, The Big Picture: Why Democracies Need Journalistic Excellence (New York: Routledge, 2007). I argue herein that the study of the political economy of media is uniquely positioned to provide the insights necessary for constructive action.

The place to start is by understanding what we mean by viable journalism for a democracy, what the crisis of journalism entails, and what caused it. Democratic journalism must provide a rigorous accounting of people who are in power and people who wish to be in power, in both the government and corporate sector. It must have a plausible method to separate truth from lies, or at least prevent liars from getting away scot-free. And it must provide a wide range of informed opinions on the most important issues of our times—not only the issues of the day, but the major issues that loom on the horizon. These issues cannot be determined primarily by what people in power are talking about. Journalism must provide our early warning system. It is not necessary that all news media provide all these services; that would be impractical. It is necessary that the media system as a whole makes such journalism a realistic expectation for the citizenry. Indeed, the measure of a free press is how well a system meets these criteria. Understood in this manner, journalism requires resources, institutions, legal protection, and people who work at it full-time to be successful. Understood this way, our current news media earn a low grade, even using a curve.

What Does the Crisis of Journalism Entail?

The corruption of journalism, the decline of investigative reporting, the degeneration of political reporting and international journalism, the horse-race coverage of campaigns, the collapse of local journalism, the increasing prevalence of celebrity and scandal—all are now roundly acknowledged by all but the owners of large media firms and their hired guns. Washington Post editors Len Downie and Robert Kaiser wrote a critique of journalism in 2002 that was nothing short of devastating in its evaluation of how commercial pressures are destroying the profession.44xLeonard Downie, Jr., and Robert G. Kaiser, The News about the News: American Journalism in Peril (New York: Knopf, 2002). See also Eugene Roberts, Thomas Kinkel, and Charles Layton, eds., Leaving Readers Behind: The Age of Corporate Newspapering (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2001). The 2006 Report from the Project for Excellence in Journalism observes: “At many old-media companies, though not all, the decades-long battle at the top between idealists and accountants is now over. The idealists have lost.”55xThe report details the hard decline in the number of reporters actually covering communities over the past two decades, as well as the domination of commercial values of the public interest in the determination of news. Project for Excellence in Journalism, “State of the Media 2006: An Annual Report on American Journalism”: http://www.stateofthenewsmedia.org/2006/index.asp.

In February 2007, the Washington Post published an article on the state of international coverage in the American news media by veteran foreign correspondent Pamela Constable. She wrote:

But instead of stepping up coverage of international affairs, American newspapers and television networks are steadily cutting back. The [Boston] Globe, which stunned the journalism world last month by announcing that it would shut down its last three foreign bureaus, is the most recent example.…

In the 1980s, American TV networks each maintained about 15 foreign bureaus; today they have six or fewer. ABC has shut down its offices in Moscow, Paris and Tokyo; NBC closed bureaus in Beijing, Cairo and Johannesburg. Aside from a one-person ABC bureau in Nairobi, there are no network bureaus left at all in Africa, India or South America—regions that are home to more than 2 billion people.66xPamela Constable, “Demise of the Foreign Correspondent,” The Washington Post (18 February 2007):http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/02/16/AR2007021601713_pf.html.

Working journalists routinely state that few outside the newsroom truly grasp how completely commercialism has gutted journalism over the past two decades. Linda Foley, the head of the Newspaper Guild, the union for print journalists, states that the number one concern of her members, by far, is how commercial pressure is destroying their craft.

So thorough is the recognition that the existing corporate system is destroying journalism, that the acclaimed scholar Michael Schudson—who has been a singular critic of political economists who made structural criticism of U.S. news media, and who for years has argued that things are not so bad with the press—is concerned about Wall Street’s negative impact on journalism:

While all media matter, some matter more than others, and for the sake of democracy, print still counts most, especially print that devotes resources to gathering news. Network TV matters, cable TV matters, but when it comes to original investigation and reporting, newspapers are overwhelmingly the most important media. Wall Street, whose collective devotion to an informed citizenry is nil, seems determined to eviscerate newspapers.77xMichael Schudson, “Owning Up: A New Book Stops Short of Deepening the Discourse on Media Concentration,” Columbia Journalism Review (January/February 2007): 58. See also Michael Schudson, The Sociology of News (New York: Norton, 2003) 38, 40.

What Accounts for the Present Crisis?

In much of conventional parlance, the crisis is due primarily to the internet providing competition to the dominant commercial news media and draining resources from traditional journalism. This has led to an economic downturn for broadcast news and, especially, for daily newspapers, the guts of news procurement in the United States. As the internet takes away advertisers and readers, daily newspapers lay off journalists, board up newsrooms, and prepare to join the horse and buggy in the annals of American history. To add insult to injury, in the minds of some professional journalists, for all the blather about “new media” and their empowering effect, on balance the internet has hastened the degradation and commercialization of news values across the board.88xNeil Henry, American Carnival: Journalism under Siege in an Age of New Media (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).

The solution, to listen to the media corporations, is to permit existing media companies to merge and combine and become effective monopolies at the local level. Governments should, in effect, ratchet up their inducements, privileges, and direct and indirect subsidies to the media giants so they will have the resources to provide us with the journalism we need.99xThis argument in defense of allowing greater media concentration has a loud proponent in FCC Chair Kevin Martin. See Kevin J. Martin, “The Daily Show,” The New York Times (13 November 2007). And we need not worry about monopoly because the internet is providing a forum for everyone else.

The weakness of the “internet has killed the economic basis for journalism” argument is that the crisis in journalism emerged long before the internet. In the 1980s and certainly by the 1990s, news media were cutting back on reporters and resources. They were doing so when they were flush with money because it was the profitable thing to do in the short-term. News media were discouraging hard-hitting and expensive investigative reporting and softening their standards on trivial but commercially friendly news stories about celebrities and the like. By the early 1990s, in fact, a small but vocal group of prominent journalists were already declaring the “death of journalism.” In their view, the corporations that dominated the U.S. news media—and that had become fewer in number due to considerable consolidation—were running it into the ground as they sought ever greater profits.1010xJohn Herbert McManus, Market-Driven Journalism: Let the Citizen Beware? (Thousand Oaks: Sage,1994); Penn Kimball, Downsizing the News: Network Cutbacks in the Nation’s Capital (Washington, DC:Woodrow Wilson Center, 1994); James D. Squires, Read All About It! The Corporate Takeover of America’s Newspapers (New York: Random House, 1993); Doug Underwood, When MBAs Rule the Newsroom: How the Marketers and Managers Are Reshaping Today’s Media (New York: Columbia University Press,1993). The corporate mindset had little respect for the autonomy of professional journalism and was inclined to seeing the news converted into an immediately profitable undertaking first and foremost.

By then—before the world wide web—the marked decline in youth newspaper readership was also evident. Some, like Ben Bagdikian, argued that if the news media stopped doing actual news and started doing “infotainment” and “lifestyle” reporting to allegedly draw these young readers/viewers into the fold, it would ultimately fail. Hollywood would easily trump the news media improving young people with entertainment; once the news media stopped doing original and important journalism, they would have a difficult time attracting new and younger readers and viewers. And if young people were not in the practice of being regular readers or viewers of conven- tional news, it would be much harder to draw them in as they grew older, with their media patterns well established.1111xFor a recent discussion of this issue by an ex-journalist, see David Simon, “Does the News Matter to Anyone Anymore?” The Washington Post (22 January 2008).

Put this way, the policy solution offered by the industry and its advocates—to permit increased media concentration so the handful of media giants remains flush with profits—is a non-starter. The media giants were scrapping resources to journalism when they were swimming in profits because there was even more money to be made by gutting the newsroom. Good journalism costs money, so it is always tempting to water down the fare. Why on earth should anyone believe they are not going to continue to gut newsrooms when their profits are even harder to come by? Indeed, the one clear outcome of permitting firms to establish ownership of newspapers, cable channels, and broadcast stations in the same community—media company towns, if you will—is that they will eliminate competing newsrooms and have one newsroom serve all outlets. Less competition leads to a nonchalant approach to the news and no great punishment for a continued reduction in resources for journalism over time. The sad truth is that the media firms determined long ago that doing journalism was bad for the bottom line, and that conviction is more strongly held than ever, if one looks at these firms’ actions rather than listens to their rhetoric. To the extent that the Bagdikians of the world made a plausible argument about the long-term wisdom of spending more on journalism in the short-term, the response of the media corporations seems to have been to let some other chump test out that theory.

There is an even larger problem with the conventional wisdom that the crisis in journalism is due to the internet: it rests on the assumption that all was fine with the world of American news media in the not-too-distant past. Such an assumption is bogus. Part of the problem is the misunderstanding about the origins and nature of professional journalism. In the conventional explanation, professional journalism emerged because of new technologies—for example, the telegraph and the Associated Press—which made it necessary to have neutral content acceptable to a broad range of papers, or because it was in the economic interest of monopolistic publishers, who were eager to serve the public-at-large by publishing non-partisan journalism so as not to alienate part of the market. Although these were important factors, what tended to be missing was a crucial component: the immense public dissatisfaction with the sensationalistic and decidedly conservative journalism of the times. New research, including extensive work by Ben Scott, has highlighted just how significant a factor this public controversy was in pushing the emergence of professional journalism. In addition, there was a concurrent intense struggle between newspaper publishers and journalists to define professional journalism and gain control over the newsroom.1212xBen Scott has been doing research on this at the University of Illinois for his dissertation. See Ben Scott, “Labor’s New Deal for Journalism: The Newspaper Guild in the 1930s” (Diss., University of Illinois, forthcoming). This struggle boiled over in the 1930s and 1940s with the organization of the Newspaper Guild, and the journalists lost.

Understood this way, professional journalism, which emerged over the course of the first half of the twentieth century, was far from perfect. The type of professional journalism that emerged was one more conducive to the needs of media owners than to journalists or citizens. Professional journalism’s capacity to keep implicit commercial values out of the news was always nebulous, as the power to hire, fire, and set budgets always resided with the owners, but journalists were allowed a certain measure of autonomy and independence from commercial and political pressures. Professional journalism certainly looked to be an improvement over what it replaced, and it had a commitment to factual accuracy that was admirable and perhaps its greatest legacy.

Professional journalism’s core problem, and by no means its only problem, was that it devolved to rely heavily upon “official sources” as the basis of legitimate news. Official sources got to determine what professional journalists could be factually accurate about in the first place. When elites were in general agreement, as was often the case concerning fundamental economic and foreign policies, professional journalism spoon-fed the conventional wisdom, which was often dead wrong, and offered little protection for the citizenry.

This reliance upon official sources has always made professional journalism especially susceptible to well-funded corporate public relations, which could mask its self-interest behind a billion-dollar fig leaf of credentialed expertise. This problem only increased as newsrooms had fewer and fewer journalists to interrogate the public relations claims. So it was that between 1995 and 2005 nary a single one of the nearly one thousand refereed, academic, research journal articles on climate change disputed the notion that something fundamental, dangerous, and influenced by humans was taking place. Yet in our news, media sources representing the interests of oil companies and other major polluters provided a significant official opposition to the notion that global warming was a problem, or that pollution had anything to do with it if it was. How significant? Over one-half of the 3,543 news articles in the popular press between 1991 and 2005 expressed doubt as to the existence and/or cause of global warming. The public would rationally assume this was an issue very much under debate by scientists, and thus the best policy would be to do nothing until the debate was sorted out. This data is often presented as prima facie evidence of the power of corporate public relations laid bare. It is that, but it is even more a statement on weaknesses built into professional journalism as it developed in the United States.1313xSee Al Gore, An Inconvenient Truth: The Crisis of Global Warming (New York: Viking, 2007) 160–5. Gore pursues this issue again in chapter seven of his book The Assault on Reason (New York: Penguin, 2007).

There are some who suggest that concerns about the decline of conventional journalism are greatly exaggerated because people learn about politics and the world around them through many other means than the news media. In particular, entertainment media such as the Onion and the Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and Bill Maher comedy shows are increasingly where young people learn about the world.1414xSee Theodore Hamm, The New Blue Media: How Michael Moore, MoveOn.org, Jon Stewart and Company Are Transforming Progressive Politics (New York: New, 2008). Ben Barber has noted that one antidote to the commercialization of society (and toothless journalism) may come from Hollywood films, which in his view have demonstrated surprising and impressive social awareness in recent years.1515xSee Benjamin R. Barber, Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole (New York: Norton, 2007). Popular music, too, often addresses social and political issues. Maybe we don’t need the news after all, or, perhaps, its importance has been exaggerated? The problem with this reasoning is that the social commentary of comedians, filmmakers, and musicians is predicated upon a certain baseline understanding of the world that is provided by journalism.

The Political Economy of Media

Having viable journalism is mandatory for a self-governing society, and the current crisis is at the very center of what type of world we will be living in for the coming generations. The prudent course is to look at the critics whose analysis best explains the current crisis of journalism and whose analysis has been on the mark the longest.

In the 1960s and 1970s, our news media were seen as effective at keeping our leaders in check and allowing citizens to have the power to govern their own lives. Bookstores were filled with tomes by heroic journalists discussing the great work they had done vanquishing the powerful and protecting the Republic. There was clear dissent to this generated by the New Left and the social movements of the 1960s, but surprisingly little compared to the uproar surrounding media in the 1930s, the Progressive Era, or even today. In the late 1970s, the field of sociology produced four notable books that dissected professional journalism, by Mark Fishman, Gaye Tuchman, Herbert Gans, and Todd Gitlin.1616xAlthough two of the books were published in 1980, they were all written in the 1970s. Herbert Gans, Deciding What’s News: A Study of CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, Newsweek, and Time (New York: Random House, 1979); Mark Fishman, Manufacturing the News (Austin: University of Texas Press,1980); Gaye Tuchman, Making News: A Study in the Construction of Reality (New York: Free, 1978); Todd Gitlin, The Whole World Is Watching: Mass Media in the Making and Unmaking of the Left (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980). One other excellent book on journalism produced in the 1970swas journalist Edward Jay Epstein’s News from Nowhere: Television and the News (New York: Vintage,1973). Another sociologist who wrote an influential book on journalism in this period was MichaelSchudson, Discovering the News: A Social History of American Newspapers (New York: Basic, 1978). This outstanding research dramatically advanced the hard process of examining American journalism critically, but it tended to accept the dominant institutional arrangements as a given. The institutions were unassailable, and the work tended to concentrate upon newsroom organization, professional practices, and the implications for content.

Soon thereafter, Ben Bagdikian’s The Media Monopoly, published in 1983, and Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent, published in 1988, advanced this critique to draw in the political economic framework of analysis. The two books fundamentally changed the way the news media were regarded, not only in the political economy of communication subfield and among activists in the United States, but eventually by a much broader public. Bagdikian’s work is often cited for quantifying the extent of concentrated media ownership in the United States, but it did far more than that. It also began the crucial process of linking up the development of professional journalism to the manner in which the newspaper industry was restructured in the early part of the twentieth century. It demonstrated the cozy relationship between media corporations and politicians. Bagdikian also pointed to an immediate future where journalism would get considerably worse and the best aspects of professionalism would get demolished by corporate pressures.

Manufacturing Consent took the step of linking up a structural explanation of news media content with an argument about how news tended to serve elite interests in the United States and was often significantly propagandistic and anti-democratic. The work highlighted the important role media play in politics in general, and in popular and progressive political movements specifically. This work, and the research it inspired, demolished the notion that professionalism in journalism was neutral, objective, or democratic. It also highlighted the way commercial imperatives shaped the news directly and indirectly, through influencing how the professional code emerged.

It is arguable that nowhere has the power of the study of the political economy of media been more evident than in its critique of journalism. Many of the main insights are now roundly accepted, though often times without acknowledging their political implications. It has provided the foundation for understanding the present crisis in journalism. The starting point for a political economic analysis is that structure matters and institutions matter. The importance of structures, of institutions, for shaping journalism and media content directly and indirectly is well understood when looking at other nations; it is only recently that American exceptionalism in this regard has begun to erode. It is not that owners, advertisers, and managers need to directly interfere with or censor editors and journalists; rather, organizational structures transmit values that are internalized by those who successfully rise to the top.

U.S. journalists have internalized the values of their profession, and those values have biases built into them. The professional code has eroded but values—political and commercial—are still communicated to journalists. Those that rise to the top of the corporate news media in the United States today tend to be those who internalize them and regard them as appropriate. When journalists see an iconic editor the stature of Bill Kovach leave the Atlanta Constitution and Atlanta News because, in part, he had the temerity to suggest that great journalism is willing to critically investigate the most powerful businesses in Georgia against the wishes of the papers’ owners, smart journalists accept that there are some stones best left unturned. When they see an accomplished investigative journalist like Gary Webb driven from the profession for having the audacity to investigate the CIA, smart journalists learn that this is a topic best left to others. Those journalists whose antennae fail, or who do not internalize the dominant institutional values, end up working beats other than politics, or they end up at the bottom of the journalism food chain, maybe as freelancers, or they look for work teaching journalism at a college or university, or they go into some other line of work. The starting point is to understand that the institutional and structural context is the main determinant.

From research into the political economy of media, there are a handful of propositions to guide understanding, scholarship, and action.

First, media systems are not natural or inevitable; they are the result of explicit policies and subsidies. The types of media systems societies end up with are strongly influenced by the political economy of the nation, but it is not a mechanistic or vulgar relationship. That commercial media is not a “default” system is clear from liberal democratic political theory: free people opt for the institution of private property because they regard it as the best way to advance their values. Likewise, free people opt for commercial media because they determine it is the best way to promote the type of press system they deem desirable.

But, even in capitalist societies, it is not a given that the entirety of the media or communication sys- tem will be run for profit. Capitalist societies have had elements, sometimes significant, of their communication systems operating outside the marketplace during their history. When telegraphy came along, or radio broadcasting nearly a century later, the United States was certainly a capitalist nation, but there were debates about whether these emerging industries should be conducted by private, profit-maximizing concerns, even by people who favored capitalism otherwise. Even today, professional journalism is explicitly a public service that does not, at its best, follow the commercial logic of the companies that house it.

Second, the First Amendment is not a piece of protectionist legislation meant to grant the special privilege of exemption from government regulation to investors in the communication sector.1717xThis is the text of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” It does not lock us into the status quo and render all structural media reforms unconstitutional. The oft-stated “libertarian” or neo-liberal position—the idea that the Constitution requires that capitalists be the natural rulers of all media to do as they please without government interference, regardless of the nature of the content they provide—is dubious, if not bogus. The “libertarian” position holds that almost any regulation of media is unconstitutional. Media companies have consistently argued that it violates the First Amendment to, among other things, limit how many broadcast stations or cable companies a corporation can buy. Their argument rests on the assumption that media companies are just like individuals and that a good democracy must treat them like individuals.

C. Edwin Baker has done trailblazing research on the relationship of freedom of the press and freedom of speech. Baker concludes that court interpretations of the Constitution clearly see the press as a necessary institution distinct from people exercising free speech rights, and also as distinct from other commercial enterprises.1818x C. Edwin Baker, “The Independent Significance of the Press Clause Under Existing Law,” Hofstra Law Review (forthcoming); available at http://papers.ssrn.com/abstract=960308. But in academic discourse the question is usually framed as: “does the press get special privileges individuals do not have?” It is not usually framed as: “Can the media be saddled with extra obligations that individuals do not have?” or “Can the people enact policies to create a press that meets its constitutionally understood functions better than the existing press is doing?” Baker’s theory, although supported by the evidence, is outside the mainstream of constitutional law at present, and its implications have not been addressed by the Supreme Court, but it could become important in the years to come. Baker has argued persuasively that the First Amendment permits the government to play an active role in creating media and structuring the media system.1919x Whenever I write about freedom of the press issues and the Constitution, I find myself invoking the name of Ed Baker because his work provides the foundation on which I stand. It is ironic that a law professor is doing so much cutting-edge communication research. His latest book is another example of his enormous talent: C. Edwin Baker, Media Concentration and Democracy: Why Ownership Matters (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

During the founding period, when freedom of the press was being discussed, often by Jefferson and Madison, they did not regard the press as an inherently market-driven institution, where the right to make profit was sacrosanct. They were obsessed with subsidizing the distribution of newspapers through the post office and supporting newspapers through printing subsidies as well. An institution this important is not something you roll the dice of the commercial marketplace on and hope you get lucky. They understood the press in a pre-capitalist, if not non-capitalist, sense—and primarily as a political institution. Nor did Madison or Jefferson have a romanticized notion of journalism. Jefferson’s correspondence from his years as president is filled with screeds against the press of his day as an agent of destruction.2020xSee, for example, Eric Burns, Infamous Scribblers: The Founding Fathers and the Rowdy Beginnings of American Journalism (New York: Public Affairs, 2006). That pushed him not to censorship, but to policies to promote a better press.2121xFor some sense of the crucial role of the press in the development of participatory democracy in the United States, see Sean Wilentz, The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln (New York: Norton, 2005).

Moreover, when the Supreme Court has pondered what freedom of the press means under the First Amendment, the Court has not endorsed the neo-liberal model of “maximum profits equal maximum public service.” In some of the most important cases, the opinions suggest that freedom of the press is not an individual right to do as one pleases to make money. To the contrary, freedom of the press is in the Constitution to make self-government possible. The spirit in several of these opinions is that the state has not only the right but the duty to see that a viable press system exists, for if such a media system does not exist the entire constitutional project will fail. If the existing press system is failing, it is imperative that the state create a system that will meet the constitutionally mandated requirements.

At the same time, this is nothing if not a complex matter. The problem of establishing a press system, providing direct and indirect subsidies, yet preventing censorship and state domination, defies simple solution. There may be no ideal solution, only a range of solutions where some are better than others.

Third, the American media system is largely profit-driven, but it is not a free market system. The media and communication systems in the United States have been the recipients of enormous direct and indirect subsidies, arguably as great as or greater than any other industry in our economy. All commercial enterprises benefit by government spending, and hence get indirect subsidies (roads, public health, public schools, etc.), but the subsidies provided to media and communication firms go far beyond that. One need only start with the value of the monopoly licenses that are given for free to commercial radio and television stations, or the value of the spectrum given for free to satellite television and cable television, or the value associated with the monopoly franchises granted to cable television and telephone companies. The best estimate by FCC staffers of the market value of the publicly owned spectrum today—which is given to commercial broadcasters at no charge—is around $500 billion.2222xThis figure is derived by the staff of Commissioner Michael Copps in consultation with various experts and based upon evaluating the amounts raised during recent spectrum auctions. See “Remarks of Commissioner Michael J. Copps,” National Conference on Media Reform, Memphis, Tennessee (12 January 2007). When one considers all the wealth created through the free gift of spectrum to broadcasters since the 1920s, all the empires built upon it, the total transfer is certainly well into the hundreds of billions of dollars.

The question is not whether we will have subsidies and policies, but rather, what the subsidies and policies will be, what institutions they will support, and what values they will encourage and promote. When we talk about media, what most of us are concerned with, ultimately, is the content the media system produces and what effect it has upon our lives. But the content is shaped to a significant extent by the institutional structures of media systems, and the institutional structures are determined by policies and subsidies, which are in turn determined by the policymaking process.

The policymaking process in the United States has grown increasingly undemocratic as media and communication have become ever more lucrative industries. The policies and subsidies are made in the public’s name but without the public’s informed consent. Monopoly broadcast licenses, copyright extensions, and tax subsidies are doled out all the time, but the public has no idea what is going on. Because the news media almost never cover this story in the general news, hardly anyone outside of the industry—until recently—has any idea what is going on. Once the importance of the policymaking process is understood and the corruption of the process is grasped, our understanding of communication changes dramatically. The way forward is through structural change, through policy reform. We have to create a system that makes it rational to produce great journalism, and the clear lesson we have is that the existing marketplace will not do the job. It has failed.

Prospects for Change

The prospect of engaging in policy reform and structural change is a difficult pill to swallow for many journalists and citizens, weaned on the notion that we have a press system entirely independent of the government, and that any government involvement puts us dangerously close to a slippery slope to tyranny. Even recognizing the failures of the marketplace and the cornerstone role of government policies and subsidies in building our press system creates an almost palpable desperation to find an alternative that avoids politics. This is understandable, but it serves only to protect entrenched corporate interests to presuppose that there are two, and only two, alternatives for the American people: either a corporate status quo or Nineteen Eighty-Four. There are innumerable other models for a press system, many arguably superior to what exists, if we only open up our minds, expand our horizons, and look to our own history. A frank recognition of the government role should also make possible a careful consideration of enlightened government policies.

It would be outstanding, for example, if our schools and universities did a better job of educating budding journalists. At the same time, this approach is of limited value. What good is it to educate journalists in public service values if there are few paying jobs for them or if they end up covering celebrity scandals, regurgitating press releases, and providing stenography to power? It would also help if our schools and colleges educated students to appreciate the role and importance of news and how media operate. This is often termed media literacy and would create better content and market demand for that content. Likewise, it would be helpful if student media were expanded at universities and high schools across the nation, rather than being cut back. Research demonstrates the key role student media play in fostering an appreciation for journalism and freedom of the press.2323xThe Knight Foundation produced research along these lines in 2006; see http://firstamendmentfuture. org.

It would also be helpful if entrepreneurs could find ways to use the new communication technologies to find a lucrative market for quality popular journalism. So far this has not happened, and even if it does, the effect of the internet on commercial journalism has been to accentuate the flaws in contemporary journalism as much as to erase them. The clear lesson of American history is that we need to have a sector producing journalism that is walled off from corporate and commercial pressures. It would help matters if philanthropists and foundations began to devote significant portions of their portfolios to increasing the amount and quality of news and public information.

While these approaches may not be especially “structural,” all of them in fact are determined by public policies, by politics, to varying degrees. Journalism education and media literacy require resources, often public resources. Indeed, media literacy probably necessitates a public campaign to win over school boards. Getting viable student media in high schools and colleges is very much a public policy issue, and a crucial one for media reform at that. Making it possible for new entrepreneurs to enter the journalism field is greatly aided by government anti-monopoly regulation, and by tax and credit rules that lower barriers to entry. Government advertising and postal rates can also play a significant role in easing the way for new media players to enter markets. Likewise, it will require policy assistance to make it possible for philanthropies or non-profit organizations to play a larger role. These organizations exist and have their range of operations determined by public policy. In fact, all of these seemingly “inside the system” efforts to rejuvenate journalism depend upon an aroused citizenry and public policy activism, and they are elements of the media reform movement.

We cannot sit by and expect the internet or the marketplace to solve the crisis. In fact, the crisis is so severe, and the stakes are so high, that even if we could win the policy fights for more journalism education, more media literacy, more student media, more local commercial media, and more foundation support, as well as things like digital privacy and ubiquitous and inexpensive super-fast internet access, that would be helpful but insufficient to accomplish the task at hand. There is no single policy to pursue to correct the situation. There are layers of policy solutions, moving from those just mentioned to the more radical.

Also needed are policy solutions that more aggressively shape the news media system and that are legitimate within the range of policy debates in the United States. These include antitrust and communication laws to promote diverse media ownership, as well as using postal subsidies to encourage a broad range of publications. The single most valuable of these may be the tradition of establishing non-profit and non-commercial broadcast media, specifically public and community broadcasting, and public access television channels. In other nations, public and community broadcasters have been a stalwart of quality independent journalism and buffers against commercial degeneration.

It is true that the broadcasting in “public broadcasting” may soon be obsolete, but the public will not. We are now in a period when we have to reimagine the forms and structures of non-profit and non-commercial media, developing a palette of policy options to study, debate, and consider. And the vision must be broad, going far beyond what has been done in the past—and beyond journalism to broader cultural production as well. Moreover, if this work is not done and done successfully, there is every reason to believe that U.S. public broadcasting, specifically public television, will continue to decline, if not disintegrate.2424xA recent study by the Government Accountability Office puts the present and future of public televi- sion in bleak terms barring major policy intervention. See United States Government Accountability Office, Telecommunications: Issues Related to the Structure and Funding of Public Television, GAO-07-150 (Washington, DC: United States Government Accountability Office, January 2007).

There are two areas where public and community broadcasters-cum-media can play a central role: first, in the provision of local journalism. The commercial broadcasting system has degraded, if not abandoned, this aspect of its operations. If our public and community broadcasters had BBC-type funding, which would translate into some $20 billion annually, there could be multiple competing public newsrooms, with different organization structures, in scores of communities. That might provide a competitive spur to the commercial news media to get back in the game, especially if they saw that there was an interest in the material.

Second, one concern generally under-discussed is how the internet allows Americans to construct a personalized media world where they share common experiences with fewer and fewer of their fellow citizens. As Cass Sunstein argues, this “Daily Me” that people construct on the web makes them share far less with each other than in the past, especially with people they might disagree with on matters of politics or culture. This may be a form of “freedom” for the individual, but it exacts what may be a very high social cost. What follows is a “group polarization,” as people grow less informed, and less respectful and more distrustful of people outside their own group. There is a withering of the experiences that provide the bonds that make us understand that we are all in this together. Sunstein concludes that this produces a “real problem for democracy.”2525xCass Sunstein, “How the Rise of the Daily Me Threatens Democracy,” Financial Times (11 January 2008). In addition, this “group polarization” is strongly egged on by the desire or need of marketers to split Americans up into bite-sized demographic groups so that it is easier to sell them things. As Sunstein’s analysis implies, journalism is at the center of what Americans need to share if we are going to have a viable republic. The evidence is in: commercial journalism is comfortable serving the demographic groups that are most profitable for the owners and desirable to advertisers and disregarding less lucrative parts of the population.2626xSee the September/October 2007 edition of Extra!, the publication of FAIR: Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting, for a special issue on how the news media ignore the issues of concern to the poor and working class: http://www.fair.org/index.php?page=21&extra_issue_id=205. It is public broadcasting-cum-media that is best positioned to provide the basis for a common shared journalism to which all Americans can relate.

Even if we win great victories on these types of policy measures, we need to begin to rethink the structures and organizations of news media in a fundamental way. We need to consider policies to encourage local ownership, employee ownership, and/or community ownership of daily newspapers, knowing that newspapers will be largely digital within a generation, and hence indistinguishable from other media forms. What we are talking about is the social production of journalism. We need to seek guidance from the experiences of other nations and from our own history. Self-government is impossible without a vibrant press, and the government has a duty to assure such a free press exists. In short, it is imperative that we conduct research on alternative policies and structures that can generate journalism and quality media content. The process has begun.

If ours were a politicized society, where people were engaged with politics as a matter of fundamental importance, even life and death, things would be different. The cause of depoliticization runs deeper than the news media; our journalism may reinforce depoliticization, but it does not cause it. There is something more profound here. By this logic, changing media alone will not ipso facto produce a highly politically engaged democracy. In fact, media reform in isolation from other reforms, if such a prospect were even plausible, probably could only be partially successful.

There are two sides to the study of the political economy of media. On one side, we examine the firms, owners, labor practices, market structures, policies, occupational codes, and subsidies that in combination provide the context for the production of journalism and media. On the other side, we look at how journalism as a whole, the entire media system, interacts with broad social and economic relations in society. Does the media system tend to challenge or reinforce broader trends within society? It is here that we find the source of depoliticization, and this is a staple insight of political economy and critical theory, drawing from C. Wright Mills, Herbert Marcuse, and C. B. Macpherson, among others.2727xSee, for example, C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite (New York: Oxford University Press, 1956); C. B. Macpherson, The Life and Times of Liberal Democracy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977). In short, in a society with significant social and economic inequality, depoliticization is encouraged by those atop the social structure, especially in democratic societies. Looked at from the perspective of those at the bottom, the further down the social pecking order one goes, depoliticization is a more rational response by a person because it is a frank acknowledgment of how little power an individual actually has. Why waste time learning about a political world over which you have no influence? Media and communication systems are a means to an end, with the end being social justice and human happiness. We need satisfactory journalism and media systems to have a just and sustainable society. We must study media so closely because in a democratic society journalism is the primary means through which the mass of people may effectively equip themselves to effectively participate.

Democracy Requires Journalism

It is often written, and accurately, that democracy requires journalism. It is not an exaggeration that our entire constitutional system is predicated on there being an informed and engaged citizenry, and the press system is charged with the task of making that possible. But the converse is every bit as true and even more important: journalism needs democracy. Journalism is not agnostic about whether a society is fascist, authoritarian, or democratic. Its survival as a credible entity depends upon there being democracy. If a society is formally democratic, with rampant inequality and vast demoralization and depoliticization, journalism will be especially contentious and difficult to conduct, and the news will tend to gravitate toward propaganda. Journalism is committed to ending information inequality and therefore has a stake in seeing the lessening of social inequality. Journalism requires a society committed to openness, the rule of law, and the prospering of justice. Journalism opposes corruption, secrecy, and attacks on civil liberties and therefore has a stake in lessening militarism, as Madison and Lincoln both understood it—that is, as a powerful force that, unchecked, leads inevitably to corruption, inequality, secrecy, attacks on civil liberties, and the end of the republic.

Some of our greatest journalists, from George Seldes, Heywood Broun, and I. F. Stone, to Bill Moyers, Amy Goodman, and Charles Lewis, have understood the importance of democracy for journalism. This did not make them less professional, less concerned with fairness or factual accuracy. This did not make them treat one political party with kid gloves and another party with a guillotine. It gave them a much stronger sense of mission and of what is at stake. They saw and see journalism as representing the interests of all those outside of power, those without a voice, those who desperately need journalism to effectively govern their lives in a contest with those in power who see journalism often as a nuisance, and who are none too excited about the prospect of an informed population.

The battle to reform media and to establish the basis for the journalism a free society requires cannot be fought in isolation. It is necessarily part of closely related political movements to make our electoral system, voting systems, and political campaigns more fair and open. It is part of broader social and political movements for justice to democratize the institutions of our society and draw people into the heart of public life. It is only in the context of people coming together to struggle for social change that depoliticization is vanquished and victory becomes plausible, even inevitable. Media reform is necessary to make such democratic politics possible, and such democratic politics must enjoy a measure of success for media reform to make any genuine advances. Journalism depends upon media reform; media reform and broader movements for social justice rise and fall together.