Thinking outside the vox (populi)

Robert McChesney takes aim at the way America reports and consumes its news. His upcoming visit to Asheville could prompt locals to do the same.

The author of the award-winning book Rich Media, Poor Democracy will be in town on Thursday, April 4 to present a series of talks focusing on the challenges posed by corporate domination of the media. McChesney’s scholarly insights and barrage of widely published writings have vaulted him to the forefront of the debate about the role of media in a healthy democracy. He currently serves as research professor in the Institute of Communications Research at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign — or, as he says on his Web site (, he’s “your man in Urbana”).

The timing of McChesney’s visit couldn’t be better. Asheville is fast becoming a hotbed of alternative journalism, and public awareness of the half-dozen or so local publications is growing. The Asheville Global Report recently scored an exclusive interview with noted political thinker Noam Chomsky; at the other end of the political spectrum, the Asheville Tribune has dropped its price to free.

In radio, too, Asheville’s media environment is a microcosm of larger, national concerns. Just ask the Lee family. After decades in radio booths in these mountains, they recently saw their station (WZLS-FM) bounced off the air by the Federal Communications Commission, which handed over their assigned frequency to a corporate giant.

Then again, you could ask any member of Free Radio Asheville … assuming you can track them down. As the crew of a pirate radio station, these frequency buccaneers are constantly on the run from FCC agents.

Meanwhile the Mountain Area Information Network, a local nonprofit, is working to promote LPFM — nonprofit, low-powered FM stations that could disseminate noncorporate news and opinions to local listeners — for our area. The technology, supporters say, is viable; the chief obstacle to making LPFM a reality in WNC, they maintain, is the unrelenting opposition it faces in our nation’s capitol. Those same corporate giants are lobbying the very same FCC to block it. (Hmmm, is there a pattern here?)

But both MAIN and LPFM have an ally in McChesney, who is presenting his talks in WNC free of charge to the public (donations to MAIN, which is sponsoring McChesney’s visit, will be welcome, however).

McChesney recently took time out from his busy schedule to answer some questions from Xpress reporter Brian Sarzynski. Here’s one man’s take on recent trends in mass communications; chew on this the next time you catch the 6 o’clock news.

Mountain Xpress: It’s been six months since the events of Sept. 11, and the American public has been bombarded with images and agendas. Folks are now starting to pay attention to the media and ask certain questions. As a media scholar, what kind of report card would you give the American media?

Robert McChesney: I’d give it an “F” — and that’s on a curve. The war coverage has been sort of a brutal wake-up call for a lot of Americans about the news media, because it so closely resembles propaganda in an authoritarian society. One way to envision this is to remember the history of the United States in the past hundred years. Since we’ve become a dominant, then eventually the overwhelmingly dominant, military and economic power in the world, we’ve had, I think, 60 or 70 interventions outside the United States — either bombing or the use of troops or force. And of those, I think six or seven would qualify as major wars: World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Central America proxy wars of the ’80s, the Gulf War. And the track record is very clear: In each and every one of those cases, without exception, the president in office wanted to go to war even though the bulk of the population was not interested in going to war. The president was also convinced that if he told the truth to the American people — and the Congress, for that matter — he would not get support for his war. So each administration has lied through its teeth to try to get people to support the war.

The case of Vietnam was most striking, because there we have both the Pentagon Papers — the Defense Department’s own assessment of how we got into the war, in chilling detail — and also we have the publication of LBJ’s taped Oval Office conversations during the critical years of ’64 and ’65, when the U.S. entered the war. The record is quite clear. LBJ knew that the war was a clunker from the beginning, felt that he had to fight it nonetheless, and would say one thing to himself and his staff honestly and then go out and say the exact opposite to the American people.

We now know that — with the exception of perhaps World War II — all these other cases were wars that we were led into that were really not necessarily in the best interests of the American people, or the best interests of anyone. Countless millions of lives have been destroyed as a result. The sad part of the story is that in almost every one of those cases, the news media went along with the government and parroted propaganda — trumping up pseudo-events like the Gulf of Tonkin to make it seem like there was a need for war. These are the dark moments in U.S. journalism history.

Armed with that background, one would expect that when you have a White House that says, “As a result of the 9/11 attacks, what we need to do is have a permanent, unchecked war on evil-doers all over the world, massive military increases [and] sharp curtailment of civil liberties at home on a permanent basis. And the nature of the war is such that I won’t even be able to tell you who the bad guys are — all I want from you is a blank check, and let me identify the various bad guys, be they in Colombia, or Asia, or Africa or anywhere.” … [It] should be met by journalists in this country with tremendous skepticism, given the historical record. They should demand evidence, and the general rule should be: The more emotional, the more patriotic, the more hyperbolic someone is in pressing the case for permanent world war, the more journalists should be cold-hearted and demand hard evidence to back up the claim. And that hasn’t been the case.

MX: In your opinion, why is this occurring?

RM: Our journalism is essentially parroting elite opinion, and this hasn’t been a conspiracy; it hasn’t been an accident. It has been perfectly logical, because journalists have basically followed the codes of professional journalism that were installed back in the beginning of the 20th century and became fully implemented by the middle of the century.

The primary code of professional journalism is that you report what official sources or credentialed sources say. News is what people in power say, so that means that the best journalism you get in professional journalism is going to be when you have people in power arguing over a point. That gives journalists a lot of wiggle room, because they have sources on each side of the story they can play around.

The worst journalism is in cases like [the current] one, where both Republicans and Democrats and the entire policy establishment are in lock step that this is a good thing. Then, journalists have very little wiggle room. Even if a journalist wants to report something that is critical of the U.S. war effort, they find it hard to do, because they don’t have an official source covering their butt. If a journalist does do a tough story, they’re going to be accused of being unprofessional, because no one in power is talking about it. They’ll say, “Why are you trying to weigh in? This isn’t an issue.”

MX: So has professional journalism gone too far in its reliance on official sources?

RM: Yes, obviously. Professional journalism didn’t just fall from the sky. It emerged due to crucial institutional changes in the news media a hundred years ago — primarily, the concentration of newspaper ownership into chains and into one- and two-newspaper markets. Prior to that, journalism had been effectively a partisan institution, and if you knew the owner of the newspaper, the owner’s politics would be reflected on the front page.

What happened in the progressive era was that the partisanship of American journalism became really bad business. It’s one thing to have partisan journalism when you have [what] St. Louis used to have in the 1880s: 15 daily newspapers representing a range of perspectives. It’s quite another thing when you’re down to one newspaper in a market owned by a really rich person, invariably with reactionary anti-labor politics. They control the newspaper, and it’s stridently partisan and it’s impossible (due to newspaper economics) to start another one. That’s when the system really begins to smell like month-old fish out in the sun. And that’s when you see the rise of professional journalism pushed by the biggest newspaper publishers. They understood that unless they developed some credible product, then they would lose money. …

The dependency on official sources suits the business needs of owners for a reason: It removes the controversy of story selection. If someone calls up the publisher and says, “Why did you cover that story?” the publisher can say, “Hey, look, the governor said it; we had to cover it.”

MX: And I imagine that, along those same lines, there’s also what government doesn’t say.

RM: The problem, of course, is that if everyone in power isn’t talking about something, it makes it very difficult for journalists to pursue that issue because they’ll be accused of being unprofessional. So if a journalist wants any credibility, they’ve got to find someone in power saying what they want to say.

MX: What about the economic forces driving journalism?

RM: In the last 20 years, all of our major news media have been increasingly bought up and snatched up by large conglomerates. You have all the major TV news networks, all the major newspaper chains being bought up and made into huger and huger groups. What’s happening is a company like Viacom buys CBS. It looks at CBS news and says, “Why are we giving these journalists as much freedom as we’ve been giving them? Why don’t we hold them to the same standards as we hold our film studios and our cable-TV stations and our book publishers?” They’re saying, “We’re going to serve our shareholders; we’re not a philanthropy.”

There is a tremendous pressure on journalism to become more commercially viable and commercially rationalized as much as possible. This has become the big news story of the last 15 years of journalism: the attack on professional autonomy and the removal of the notion that journalism is a public service and its conversion to a purely commercial activity — the point of which is to maximize shareholder returns.

MX: I’ve noticed in your writing that you note it’s impossible to have nonpartisan journalism. You’ve mentioned that journalists present news in a decontextualized manner — a nonideological manner — and that this, in turn, promotes a depoliticization.

RM: Yeah, that’s a crucial part of the professional code — to try and strip ideology out of the news in a just-the-facts-ma’am, we-report/you-decide logic. First of all, that’s impossible; you can’t avoid making value judgments. The idea that you can report social events like you’d report a stack of numbers in a math equation is nonsensical. Now, that doesn’t mean that the whole idea is to abandon any hope of being nonpartisan. I don’t think standards of fairness and accuracy are bad at all. But the problem we face in professional journalism [is that] what claims to be neutral in nonpartisan journalism does so by smuggling in very strong ideological biases.

Ironically, the whole notion that you should strip journalism of ideology has the effect of stripping life from politics. The result is that in the stories that get the most coverage, people understand the issues the least because the journalism has been so stripped of context. The Middle East is a great example. It gets a ton of coverage, yet most Americans are absolutely clueless about what is going on there. We’re just getting a lot of discombobulated facts thrown at us.

MX: Similarly, I think that the average American couldn’t tell you the differences between the NASDAQ, the Nikkei and the Dow-Jones, yet even local news stations, nightly, broadcast these numbers. But we don’t see a nightly recap of the number of hunger-related deaths in the world.

RM: This is another phenomena that has grown in the past 20 years. The business impetus has come into play for two reasons: The political right in this country in the 1970s was freaking out. They’d looked at college campuses and saw a whole generation of upper-middle-class kids who seemed to be hostile to business and sympathetic to poor people and feminism and environmentalism. This was very disconcerting for them because in most countries, the upper-middle-class children are the most fervent supporters of the status quo. The right wing in our country decided that the reason for this was that our education system was fostering too many kooky radicals and our media system was insufficiently deferential to right-wing values.

So all sorts of money, in fact almost all the money from right-wing philanthropies, has gone into ideological warfare [since] the mid-’70s. Much of that has gone into training business-related journalists and pro-business education. Most journalism schools have a business-writer-in-residence that’s funded by these groups. That one thing has pushed and upgraded the role of business in our media system. Now, we assume that this is a great, wonderful, motherhood/apple-pie/Henry Ford thing. …

Look at the advertising. It’s increasingly pitched to the top 40 percent of the population. What that means is that the affairs of poor people or the working class are only newsworthy to the extent that they affect the affairs of the middle and upper classes. They’re just reported on as objects rather than [as] subjects. There is a strong class bias, a strong class pitch towards the interests and values of the upper class. This is a crisis in journalism.

Coming events

Robert McChesney will give the following talks on April 4:

• “Rich Media, Poor Democracy” 11 a.m. in the Laurel Forum in UNC-A’s Karpen Hall.

• “How Media are Influenced by their Corporate Owners,” 1 p.m. in Warren Wilson College’s Canon Lounge.

• “Media Activism: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow,” 5 p.m. at Malaprop’s Bookstore (55 Haywood St. in Asheville).

• “The Struggle for a Democratic Media,” 7 p.m. in the Jubilee! Community Center (37 Wall St., Asheville).

All talks are free and open to the public, but donations to MAIN are encouraged.

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