Book Review: The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution That Will Begin the World Again by Robert McChesney and John Nichols

A crisis in journalism is a crisis in democracy and Americans must face the cold, hard truth that journalism as a public good is no longer commercially viable. Great American dailies such as The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times, The Rocky Mountain News and others have either folded or declared bankruptcy in recent months. The New York Times advertising revenues plunged 45% between 2006 and 2009. Journalists and policymakers around the world are watching what happens in the U.S., as a nation that has exported both the ideal of a free press and the pathologies of a corporate mass media system to countless other countries

The systemic deterioration of journalism has for many years, been observed and chronicled from the margins by members of the media themselves as well as scholars and activists. Robert McChesney and John Nichols are among those who concede that the Internet is the unquestioned future of journalism, but stress that most Internet content and blogs originate from news gathered by old media. Science journalism, especially, has been eroded. It requires more extensive training and ability to translate complex concepts into popular prose and easily understood imagery. But it doesn’t generate much revenue. Yet it is of utmost importance for widespread public understanding of environmental issues, climate change, technology, energy sources and health issues.

A deep seated and long term crisis has been created by media owners, they argue, who have made the commercial and entertainment values of the market dramatically higher priorities than the civic and democratic values essential to good journalism and, in turn, a good society. This erosion of standards has led to a rise in stories about sex scandals and celebrities. They make good commercial sense, are inexpensive to cover and attract audiences, giving the illusion of controversy. This has resulted in a simmering tension between journalism and commerce that is reaching a head. But what is replacing good journalism is not a void. Instead, it is sophisticated propaganda where people are being told what they need to know to consume products and support spurious wars but little of what they need to know to be voters and responsible citizens. Although the American population has more than doubled since 1950 fewer people now read newspapers. Norway, ironically, which is the most wired country in the world, also has the highest readership so the Internet cannot be used as an excuse.

The original sin of American news papering was going to Wall Street in the first place in the latter part of the 19th century. Big changes occurred in the 1970s and 80s when the range of new ideas shrank as corporate chains accelerated the trend to gobble up newspapers. Fast forward and we have the present scenario. While corporate newspaper CEOs are gutting newsrooms and dumbing down the papers they own, they continue to fatten their own personal bank accounts. Meanwhile, plenty of money continues to be available for political campaign contributions and lobbying for favorable polices. General Electric, for example, has spent over$187 million on lobbying in the past decade. The result has been that political elites avoid debate of the issues and march in virtual lockstep with each other. This has opened the door for an enormous public relations industry, often staffed by former journalists. A major development in the past decade has been video news releases which run as if they are legitimate journalism on local TV news broadcasts.

Yet, flawed though it is, the present newspaper system of journalism is all we have at the moment. In the end, McChesney and Nichols argue, it is public policy only that will determine what kind of journalism survives. The main problem is a general failure on the part of the public at large, to appreciate professional journalism as a public good. Advertising revenue, the model that financed journalism for the last century, is not transferring to the Internet in a way that was first anticipated. About one third as much money is spent online as compared to a print advertisement. This is not lucrative enough to sustain quality journalism with paid professionals.

While some good blogging is developing which is helping to put under reported stories into mainstream news, and citizen journalism is seen as a welcome trend, these developments in themselves cannot support investigative journalism with all the related expenses such as essential fact checking practices. Magazines such as The Nation, and other independents still tend to have correspondents whose paychecks are attached to old media operations. A close examination of web based journalism ventures tends to uncover small operations that show little or no indication of becoming self-sustaining. Most are one person operations with volunteer help. Essentially, this puts the emerging “blogosphere” in the category of a digital sweatshop. The authors believe, however, that it is important for non-profits to produce online journalism in areas where they are knowledgeable but caution against overlooking limitations in a digitalized society where attention spans are diminishing and over 40 percent of the population do not have broadband connection. The bottom line is that to maintain an informed citizenry, print news is essential.

Key questions posed are the following: What happens when Wall St and Madison Ave. have determined that there is insufficient profit in journalism to warrant investment? Does the Constitution mandate that journalism therefore must cease to exist? Is the Constitution to be defined as a suicide pact? Clearly, the laissez-faire model has become irrelevant. Commerce is now in conflict with journalism and the latter is losing. Better alternatives include foundations such as the one set up to sustain The Guardian in England or publically subsidized journalism schools such as the one that sustains the St. Petersburg News in Florida. National Public Radio in the U.S., which relies on public donations, is increasingly filling the news void for commercial journalism and The Public Broadcasting System remains a model for television news in the future. This is happening while the old corporate media are choking on their own excesses.

The authors explode the myth that has sprung up in the last century and a half about government involvement in journalism being evil. The notion that only the corporate sector is the true guardian against censorship has developed into a handy argument for media moguls to avoid public interest obligations in exchange for their lavish privileges. Journalism ought to be regarded as a public good like health care, national parks and defense. There is an indisputably strong link between public education and a free press. The downgrading of journalism leads to an ignorant citizenry, corruption and misery. Symptoms of these flaws are accumulating within government. Good journalism must be seen as an integral part of public infrastructure. Reform of journalism, however, will only take place when news organizations are disengaged from the global entertainment industries. The growing seamlessness of “infotainment” merely fuels the problem.

Americans, it is emphasized, are rapidly running out of alternatives to public financing for their news. A major obstacle is the dogma that surrounds freedom of the press. The notion of its “immaculate conception” is historically inaccurate. It is common, say the authors, for historians of journalism to avoid attempts to reconcile the fact that the same enlightened sages who crafted the First Amendment also created a partisan press system, subsidized by political parties and government contracts which included postal giveaways. It was never intended in the early Republic that the press should be left to the mercies of the market. Jefferson and Madison were among the loudest advocates of a heavily subsidized press and eloquent opponents of government censorship of the press. This was how and why the postal service emerged at government expense.

McChesney and Nichols trace the evolution of the American Constitution with the Fourth Estate a key component. Only in the latter part of the 19th century, as capitalism gained traction, with the rise of advertising as a function of its development, was the “free” press separated from government and increasingly reliant on commerce. Gradually, freedom of the press applied only to those who owned one. A protection, that is, for publishers, themselves, who increasingly claimed to be the “legitimate” guardians of the First Amendment. Alternative voices were pushed to the margins. Industry assurances that provision would be made for the practice of “professional journalism” gradually evolved into a euphemism for “self-regulation”. The public service mission of news provision would be at the discretion of increasingly monopolistic owners. The cold war helped to reinforce the sanctity of private ownership with any criticism of it equated with communism.

Similar developments have erupted in broadcasting. With passage of the Communications Act in 1934, the public was given ownership of the airwaves with the media moguls and their employees controlling the microphones. By 1990s public service obligations were effectively non-existent. Now, media and communications industries are profit driven but not free markets All are recipients of huge direct and indirect subsidies, tax breaks, exemptions, special postal rates and other privileges as demonstrated in the development of the Internet. Few people understand this. An additional problem is that the U.S. Supreme Court insists on laissez faire interpretation of First Amendment in relation to the Free Press. But some legal scholars argue , that a close examination of case law demonstrates that the Court always tends to side more with Jefferson and Madison than Wall Street and Madison Avenue. History suggests otherwise. Cases can be cited where, in recent decades, even pornography and violent entertainment have been defined by the Courts as “free speech”.

This book is a wake-up call. It is a provocative challenge to the corporate stranglehold on what we see, hear and read and an invitation to rediscover our democratic rights and freedoms. Although the path forward remains murky, McChesney and Nichols have made a significant contribution by defining the growing threat to democracy that profit driven news making poses.

Book Details

The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution That Will Begin the World Again by Robert McChesney and John Nichols (2010) Nation Books. lSBN 978-1-56858-605-2 ($26.95 U.S. $33.95 Cdn.)

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Rose Anne Dyson, Ed.D.
Chair: C-CAVE and the Media Working Group - Science for Peace (University of Toronto)
Editor- The Learning Edge
Author of MIND ABUSE: Media Violence In An Information Age
Co-author of MEDIA, SEX, VIOLENCE and DRUGS in the GLOBAL VILLAGE and Terrorism, Globalization & Mass Communication