The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution That Will Begin the World Again, by Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols, Nation Books, $26.95
At the dawn of the new millennium, when the then-successful Internet access company AOL bought out the old-media conglomerate Time Warner, the media historian Robert W. McChesney called it “a violation of any known theory of a free press in a democratic society,” predicting in The American Prospect that the deal would lead to “another round of mergers that should leave the entire realm of communication under the thumbs of a small handful of companies.” The one certainty, McChesney said, “is that the eventual course of the Internet—the central nervous system of our era—will be determined by where the most money can be made, regardless of the social and political implications.”
McChesney was not just wrong about all of the above. He was spectacularly wrong. The threatened wave of massive mergers never materialized. AOL Time Warner lost a then-record $99 billion in 2002, dropped the “AOL” from its name in 2003, and spun off the Internet company altogether in 2009. Instead of heralding a new age, the merger is now seen as marking the last big burst of irrational exuberance from a long-gone era. And the “eventual course of the Internet” has been determined not by a handful of mustache-twirling profiteers but by millions of frequently anonymous individuals, some seeking profit but most using the simplest of online tools for the sheer bloody hell of it. The social and political implications of bottom-up media have undermined the very media oligarchs McChesney so feared.
This was more than just an outlier prediction that didn’t pan out. Most media critics—the people who, year after year, clog the shelves of Barnes & Noble with depressive tomes such as Losing the News, The Vanishing Newspaper, and The News About the News—missed the mark by equally wide margins. Tom Rosenstiel, one of the deans of American media criticism, warned darkly of “the end of an independent press.” On his left, Norman Solomon spoke of “new totalitarianisms.” New Left media entrepreneur Robert Scheer (an old friend of mine) referred to AOL Time Warner as “Big Brother” and lamented that it was time to “forget the Internet as a wild zone of libertarian freedom.” Do you feel more or less free online today, punks?
The 2000s, which stand as arguably the single most disruptive and creative decade for media since the dawn of the William Randolph Hearst/Joseph Pulitzer press baron era, forced what might be called the Media Monopoly wing of journalism criticism—which holds, as argued by the influential 1983 Ben Bagdikian book of the same name, that a dwindling handful of megacompanies own and control the means of journalism production—to change its tune. In a few short years people like McChesney went from bemoaning the democracy-threatening concentration of power at the largest media institutions to lamenting the democracy-threatening job losses at the same companies. The Internet, once considered a dangerously unregulated free-for-all (having been, as McChesney wrote in 2000, “privatized and turned over to Corporate America” with the public getting “nothing in return except a tidal wave of corporate PR bulls**t”) is now seen as the last best hope for media reform.
This shape shifting would be little more than an intellectual curiosity if it weren’t for one pressing fact: The media criticism establishment, McChesney most of all, is pushing hard for an unprecedented federal government intrusion into the free press. And its alarming proposals are gaining a sympathetic audience on Capitol Hill.
In March 2009, McChesney and John Nichols, the Washington correspondent for The Nation, penned a widely circulated story for the progressive weekly calling for a journalism “stimulus” costing $60 billion over the next three years. Provisions included a $200 tax credit for newspaper subscriptions, the elimination of postage rates for magazines receiving less than 20 percent of their revenue from advertising, and taxpayer support for “a well-funded student newspaper and a low-power FM radio station” at “every middle school, high school and college.”
In 2005 the same duo had published a book whose subtitle complained that the American media “destroy democracy.” Now they pitched their plan to save the media as a way to “sustain” the country’s “democratic infrastructure.” Apparently a lot can change in just four years. “Only government,” McChesney and Nichols concluded in the Nation piece, “can implement policies and subsidies to provide an institutional framework for quality journalism.”
McChesney and Nichols have expanded their argument to book length in The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution That Will Begin the World Again. As the title implies, the authors see the current crisis—during which several major media companies have declared bankruptcy and shuttered century-old newspapers—as a cleared site on which central planners can construct the kind of journalism McChesney and Nichols pined for when savaging the corporate media. “Journalism,” they claim, “is a public good that is no longer commercially viable. If we want journalism, it will require public subsidies and enlightened policies.”
Although McChesney and Nichols hold down the left wing of the media criticism establishment, their call for government meddling has been echoed throughout the field’s mainstream, including journalists you wouldn’t normally expect to seek increased federal interference in their business. Leonard Downie Jr., the longtime and now-retired executive editor of The Washington Post, co-wrote a big white paper for the Columbia Journalism School in September 2009 on “The Reconstruction of American Journalism,” calling for, among other things, a national “Fund for Local News” to be administered by the Federal Communications Commission. “American society,” Downie and co-author Michael Schudson declared, “must now take some collective responsibility for supporting news reporting—as society has, at much greater expense, for public education, health care, scientific advancement and cultural preservation, through varying combinations of philanthropy, subsidy and government policy.”
These sentiments would have been considered shocking when Downie’s paper was butting heads with Richard Nixon in the early 1970s. They now are commonplace not just within the self-conscious mediasphere, at places like the Columbia Journalism Review and the Poynter Institute, but among the people who run the federal government.
“Not nearly enough is being done to find ways to preserve these institutions that are so critical to our democracy,” Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) said in September 2009, during one of several hearings on Capitol Hill last year on how to reverse the flagging fortunes of Big Media. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who chaired a Senate gabfest on the subject, semi-coherently expressed his sense of urgency: “The increase in media conglomerates has resulted in an increase in agenda-driven reporting and over time, if those of us who value a diversity of opinion and ideas, and are unafraid to be confronted with pointed commentary and analysis, do not act, it is a situation which will only get worse.” In March 2009, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) introduced a Newspaper Revitalization Act that would give papers targeted tax breaks and allow them to restructure as 501(c)(3) nonprofits as long as they stop endorsing political candidates and agree to limit the amount of advertising they run.
That same month, Attorney General Eric Holder singled out newspapers for possible preferential treatment under the law. “I think it’s important for this nation to maintain a healthy newspaper industry,” Hoder said. “So to the extent that we have to look at our enforcement policies and conform them to the realities that that industry faces, that’s something that I’m going to be willing to do.” Even President Barack Obama got into the act, telling the Toledo Blade in September: “What I hope is that people start understanding if you’re getting your newspaper over the Internet, that’s not free and there’s got to be a way to find a business model that supports that.…It’s something that I think is absolutely critical to the health of our democracy.”
Though a big new federal journalism stimulus is highly unlikely, reeling newspapers during this bailout season have already benefited from official favors, from government-brokered meetings with potential buyers to grant money normally earmarked for job retraining. With new calls for assistance springing up every month, it’s a matter of time before some of the most well-connected and influential companies in the country start getting legislative results.
McChesney and Nichols’ contribution to the discussion is largely to soften the intellectual ground for what the authors know is controversial even among the most left-wing journalists: giving the government a greater role in the care and feeding of its watchdog. “In the dominant view, there is no role for the government in the news media except to stay out of the way,” they write. “We need to send this dogmatic understanding of a free press to the same graveyard that will receive the corporate news system. Let’s be clear about this: the bedrock principle that government must not censor or interfere with the content of journalistic operations of news media is non-negotiable.”