Friday, February 05, 2010



By Kevin Anthony Stoda

The following important interview was with John Nichols and Robert McChesney and it took place on Thursday on Democracy Now was undertaken by DN’s Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez. Nichols and McChesney were on the program to promote their new book, The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution that Will Begin the World Again. (Click on the link below.)

Interestingly, although the title of the book, The Death and Life of American Journalism, talks a lot about our media world today in 2010 and ask extremely important questions about American media in the future. Some of the juiciest points of Nichols and McChesney’s in the DN interview, reflect their thorough research on the earliest role of the founding fathers to the role of a free press and what the federal and local government’s responsibilities were in keeping a vibrant free press in America.

First of all, McChesney and Nichols point out that for well over the first 120 years of American history, the federal government underwrote the country’s entire free and independent press system by providing Americans with the best and cheapest postal system on the planet. John Nichols stated, “Well, I think the most important thing that we bring out in the book, perhaps the vital message, is that there is a hidden history of the First Amendment, a history that was really stolen from us as we entered into a commercial age in the last century, century and a half. At the founding of the republic, there was a deep understanding on the part of the founders that if you promise people freedom of the press, that was a wonderful notion, a great concept, but it was an empty promise, meaningless, if there wasn’t a press. You know, you say, “Well, we’re not going to censor you.” Well, if there’s nothing to censor, it doesn’t matter. And so, the founders understood, and well into the nineteenth century there was an understanding, that you never censored, you set up a landscape where independent journalism could be practiced and could come in all sorts of forms. Since then, some of that understanding has remained, with creation of some of the technologies you discussed. But the theft of that definition of freedom of the press, that it really is uncensored, but also easily developed, and that when it’s needed it comes into play, that’s been stolen. And in the book, we talk a lot about who really drove the development of an understanding of a press subsidy system. It wasn’t Jefferson and Madison. They favored it. They thought it was a kind of a necessary evil, you’ve got to have it. The people who drove it were the abolitionists, the people on the outside, saying the original sin of the American experiment must be addressed, and they said, you know, we’ve got to have the resources to create independent, dissenting, small-town weeklies, and they did.”
Amy Goodman, interrupted and asked McChesney and Nichols to explain specifically which abolitionists in American History they were referring to.

Nichols continued, “People who died, literally, struggling to create independent weeklies. African—freed slaves and runaway slaves, as well. “

added, “And Garrison.” That is William Lloyd Garrison, author of THE LIBERATOR.

Nichols nodded, “Garrison himself. People who were killed at their presses. The fact of the matter is, at the founding of the country, we had a baseline press subsidy system, but it wasn’t sufficient to really sustain it. And so, for decade after decade, there were congressional debates over how to extend it and whether to really take off the postal subsidies for the smallest papers, which circulated, you know, at a local level. It was the abolitionists who fought for it, people like Garrison and others. But the fascinating thing is, when you start to rip open this history, go to the truth, you find that Uncle Tom’s Cabin has scenes where post offices are being attacked by Southern slavers who don’t want the abolitionist press to be delivered. I mean, this is such rich, good history. “

Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the classic, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was published first in the antislavery journal called the National Era—it would thus have been distributed by America’s well-financed and efficient postal system.

Nichols continued, “And what we understand, what we come to realize, is that we can create a system in this country today that allows the new abolitionist movements, the new dissenting movements, to have a voice. It won’t be a dominant voice. It won’t be as much as we’d like. But they can be in play. But if we don’t act now, we, the people, as citizens, we’re going to end up in a situation where the vast majority of our news and information is packaged by power, by elites, but the same people who didn’t want the abolitionists to have a voice 200 years ago.”

Juan Gonzalez interjected, “Bob McChesney, I’d like to ask you, we got reports today, in today’s paper, CBS News is laying off another 100 people. ABC News is expecting a new round of layoffs. There are those who argue, well, the internet is providing now the kind of platform in news and information that the old media—radio, TV and newspapers—are no longer able to do so and that the internet will eventually supplant this, this is only a transition period. You argue in your book somewhat differently about the nature of newsrooms and their value vis-à-vis what’s appearing on the internet.”

“Yeah, it’s a really important point, Juan, because, you know, everything is going digital. This program is largely received, or will be, digitally at some point in the very near future, not just on television and radio systems. And it’s not a technological argument we’re making about one technology supplanting another. We understand the digital times we’re in. The argument that’s crucial is whether the internet is going to provide the basis for substantive journalism to replace what’s disintegrating before us. And we go through this very carefully in the book”, McChesney replied. “And I think it’s obvious that if we want to look at actual resources, so people who get paid money to cover beats, who are accountable for them, who are competing with other journalists, who have proofreaders and copy editors and fact checkers and institutions to support them in their work, they’re just not happening online. The resources there barely exist. There are only a handful of journalists who can make a living doing journalism online. And what you have there, too, is if you’re seeking out advertising support, it puts journalism in a very compromised position, because there’s such a competition for the scarce ad dollars. It really undermines the integrity of news that is essential for a credible free news system.”

At this point, Gonzalez shared an anecdote, which reveals how historically both radio and TV news programs have dependent on good, responsible free media to help them organize their own new programs for American citizens. This is very important because there are certainly other countries around the world and charge or tax both listeneners and advertisers for using national airwaves—i.e. the majority of European states have such taxes. [America has essential given away its airways since the 1930s for “peanuts”, e.g. nominal leasing fees.]

Gonzalez shared, “Well, and even within the old media, newspapers are still the, as I say, the fountainhead of news. I remember once in 1985, I was at Philadelphia Daily News and Inquirer. We were on strike, and we were on strike for five weeks. And all my friends in TV came to me and said, “When are you guys going to go back to work? Because without you, we don’t know what to report.” This is the TV news [today and historically].

Nichols agreed, “Hey, Juan, let me tell you how real that still is, and this is the scary part. There’s a new Pew Center study out. They actually studied Baltimore. They looked at where all the original newspapers came from. They looked at all the independent media, all the online, everything. They found that 96 percent, almost 96 percent—there’s a little debate about the precise figure, but well over 90—came from old media, largely from the daily newspaper, the Baltimore Sun. But here’s the scary part: the footnote. The Baltimore Sun is producing 73 percent fewer original news stories today than twenty years ago. So new media is commenting on old media, but it’s not filling the void of news. Old media is giving us a lot less.”

“And so, you say, well, OK, come on, Pew Center folks, tell us, where is the news coming from? Who is generating it, if it’s not—well, it’s in there. Eighty-six percent of the stories came in the form of public relations, either from government or from corporations; only 14 percent produced by a reporter who went out and tried to speak truth to power. This is a scary zone we’re entering.” Nichols concluded.

Earlier, Gonzalez had noted, “Well, 2009 was one of the bleakest years in memory for the news industry. One count found that 142 daily and weekly newspapers closed down, nearly triple the number in 2008. Colorado’s oldest newspaper, the Rocky Mountain News, shut its doors last February. The nation’s oldest gay and lesbian newspaper, the Washington Blade, abruptly closed in November. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer scaled down to a web-only publication. The Christian Science Monitor became a weekly publication. Many other news organizations slashed the size of their newsrooms. An estimated 90,000 workers lost their jobs last year in the newspaper, magazine and book publishing industry.”

McChesney had later noted, “The business model that has supported journalism for the last 125 years in this country is disintegrating. There will be some advertising, but much less. There will be some circulation revenues, but much less. And if we’re going to have journalism in this country, it’s going to require that there be public subsidies to create an independent, uncensored, nonprofit, non-commercial news media sector. And we argue in the book, as you said, that we actually have a very rich tradition of this. The first hundred years of American history, the founders did not assume the market would give us journalism. There was no such assumption at all. They understood it was the first duty of a democratic state to see that a vibrant, independent, uncensored Fourth Estate exist.”

What I couldn’t tell from this whole educational (historically educational because of the details on the first six or seven generations of American history) report on media in America was why these journalists and media experts are still upbeat about their being a coming media revolt or revolution in the future, i.e. with federal government support (including financial support) for free speech and free media.

The only good news for me as a listener was to hear that the Obama administration is currently clearly in favor of continuing Net Neutrality, in order to keep big media from controlling the web unfairly as has occurred in small and large radio, newspaper, and TV markets in the last 4 or 5 decades.



Blogger Kevin Anthony Stoda said...

This week on CounterSpin: a special look at the state of the media in America. Every week on CounterSpin we talk mostly about what the media are getting wrong. But the big story inside the media business is the collapse of the business itself. What are the implications for citizens? What can we do about it? And how concerned should we be about the failures of corporate owners that have done so little to promote good journalism in the first place? We'll talk about all that and more with our guests Robert McChesney and John Nichols, co-authors of the new book ''The Death and Life of American Journalism: the Media Revolution That Will Begin the World Again.'

10:10 PM  
Blogger Kevin Anthony Stoda said...

The founders of the American experiment were even by their own measures imperfect democrats. But they understood something about sustaining democracy that their successors seem to have forgotten. Everyone agrees that a free society requires a free press. But a free press without the resources to compensate those who gather and analyze information, and to distribute that information widely and in an easily accessible form, is like a seed without water or sunlight. It was with this understanding that Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton and their contemporaries instituted elaborate systems of postal and printing subsidies to assure that freedom of the press would never be an empty promise; to that end they guaranteed what Madison described as "a circulation of newspapers through the entire body of the people...[that] is favorable to liberty."

10:12 PM  

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