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08.05.05
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DAVID BRANCACCIO: NOW on PBS...

Media reformer Robert McChesney says the last time he went on our humble program, it sparked a revolution.

ROBERT McCHESNEY: Since then in the last two plus years, we've seen the media reform movement explode in this country. Literally millions of Americans have signed up.

BRANCACCIO: It's about citizens doing something that could change the toxic stew of celebrity infotainment that assaults us all. We've got McChesney back on NOW with the latest, so don't you think you ought to watch to see the fireworks?

BRANCACCIO: Hey there. Journalism is under attack - no headline there. The left and right have taken aim. Scandals have eroded public trust and then there's the parallel universe of blogs and podcasts.

So what is the root problem with our media? And how does that affect your access to the truth? Meet not-so-mild-mannered professor and media reformer, Robert McChesney. They laughed when he vowed to stop the FCC from letting companies buy more newspapers and TV and radio stations. What's at stake is no less than our democracy and they're not laughing now.

Robert McChesney, welcome back.

ROBERT MCCHESNEY: My pleasure.

BRANCACCIO: So, what is the story about the last time you were on our humble program Now?

ROBERT MCCHESNEY: Well, John Nichols and I appeared on Now in February, 2003-- with Bill Moyers, and we spoke about the book we'd just written called OUR MEDIA, NOT THEIRS, about the problems of journalism in our society and the need there was to have a public movement to challenge the policies that allowed our media system to get through a lot of hand.

BRANCACCIO: It sounds like an esoteric conversation--

ROBERT MCCHESNEY: Yeah.

BRANCACCIO: --of interest only to media professionals.

ROBERT MCCHESNEY: Yeah. And, it also sounded like we were theoretical physicists saying, "We got this problem. We need to solve it. This is ought to be done." And, it was a theoretical discussion in a way, but the theory got to practice really quickly. It was someone built the bomb with the plan, because since then in the last two plus years, we've seen the media reform movement explode in this country.

Literally millions of Americans have signed up, have joined up, have gotten involved, letting members of Congress know that they don't like the corrupt way the policies have been made for media ownership behind closed doors. They really want a viable free press system in this country, and it's become a political issue in a way that no one, including myself, thought could be possible.

BRANCACCIO: But people worried about the sense that fewer and fewer bigger companies were filtering what we see as citizens?

ROBERT MCCHESNEY: People had a lot of concerns about journalism and media in this country for a long time. But, I think they felt powerless for the most part.

That-- you know, that the media system was like the Rocky Mountain Range. There wasn't really anything you could do about it. You were stuck with it. And, I think what started then, and it's continuing now, is people understand their media system isn't natural. It's not a free market system. It wasn't set up by the founding fathers. It's a result of policies often times made corruptly behind closed doors in Washington.

And, once people realized that, then they didn't have to accept the lousy journalism, or the lack of journalism increasingly in this country. They didn't have to accept commercial carpet bombing of their children. It's like a light switch went on. They said, "Well, how can we stop this?" You know, we have a right and a duty as citizens in a free society to create a free press. We don't have to take what these guys are giving us.

BRANCACCIO: Among the many things that interests me about your movement is that it's not necessarily a lefty thing, that actually you've pulled together a pretty broad based coalition of people concerned about this.

ROBERT MCCHESNEY: It's not a left wing issue to think you should have local media. That's an American issue. It's not a left wing issue to think you should have journalism that interrogates what people in power tell you. That's not a left wing idea. That's an American idea. That's a democratic idea.

What we've found is the farther you get away from Wall Street, and the farther you get away from the Belt Line, and you get away from the punditocrasy, the more these issues resonate with all Americans. And, they see them on their own terms.

They say, "We like the idea of having people in North Carolina own the local media in North Carolina. We want to have our candidates covered. We don't want us to be pummeled with nonsensical news stories."

I mean, one of the great crises in America today that isn't talked about, coincidentally enough in the media, is that we've seen a real collapse in local journalism. If you go into town after town in this country, there just is hardly anyone covering these communities anymore. There are very few journalists left. There are fewer newsrooms. As companies own more and more, they have one newsroom serve an entire community. And, there's less competition, so they aren't pushing to dig up stories.

BRANCACCIO: There's a great Robert McChesney phrase you got here, and you said before, there's a notion of when people say, deregulation of the media, or regulation of the broadcast media, this is the wrong kind of discussion. What you ask us to query is, No, it's always regulation. But, it's regulation in favor of whom. That the question you ask?

ROBERT MCCHESNEY: Exactly right. This idea of deregulation-- I mean, who's not in favor of deregulation? I don't wanna be regulated. It sounds great. It's a gushy word. It gives you a warm feeling. But, it's very misleading. There is no such thing as deregulation in media.

For example, radio and TV are all monopoly licenses given out by the government to private firms, or to public broadcasters. They have monopoly access to frequencies. Now, in the case of radio they say they deregulated it when they allowed companies to own more and more of these monopoly licenses.

That's not deregulated it. That's just regulating it on behalf of the big radio companies, the big media companies. If you go out and try to broadcast on one of these monopoly licenses that Clear Channel has, you'd get thrown in jail. That's regulation. That's not a deregulated place where anyone can broadcast on the airwaves. So, we don't have deregulation. We never will have deregulation. Policies are fundamental to a media system.

Even if you wanted a free market system-- even if you woke up with a copy of Milton Freedman taped to your chest and said, "I want a free market system," it would take extensive government policies to create a free market system.

BRANCACCIO: As people hear you talking, they're gonna be saying a refrain, I guarantee it. When you talk about, well, too many big companies, not enough diversity, or points of view, or music, they'll say, "The internet, Bob. The internet solves all of this stuff." Even on radio stations now, people are — individuals are becoming radio stations through pod casting. To what extent is the worry about the old kind of media yesterday's news?

ROBERT MCCHESNEY: Well, to some extent it is. The internet is revolutionizing our media system. And, I think it's not just the internet— the broader digital revolution, the cell phones and the works is revolutionizing our media system. But, the idea that this sort of allows us then to forget about media policy, or these issues altogether and to sort of sit back with our computer and be in heaven is nonsense.

For starters, the internet is the result of policies and government subsidies. It was created by the public sector. The private sector never would've developed it. And, it spread. It was policy driven. And, if we think that we can ignore policies and let the big companies, the phone companies and the cable companies sort of determine the future of the internet, and it's gonna still be something we really admire-- I think we're-- we're making a huge mistake.

They have a self interest in shaping the internet they can make a lot of money off of. That might not be our internet. But, there's even a more fundamental question about the internet. Just having a Web site and a blog isn't enough. That doesn't produce great media.

You know, if I work in a coal mine all day, then I come home and make dinner, feed my kids, do the laundry and sit down at 11:00 P.M. at night before I go to sleep to type up my blog, my opinions of what's going on--

BRANCACCIO: Which is kinda cool, but it's not--

ROBERT MCCHESNEY: Which is cool, but then I type my opinions of what's going on in Iran today, it's probably gonna be garbage, because I have no idea. So-- to do good journalism, to do good media takes resources. It takes people with talent who have the resources to do it.

That doesn't happen magically with the internet. There's no evidence that's gonna be a magic wand that creates journalists. That's a social and political problem we have to solve. The internet won't solve it for us.

BRANCACCIO: Also, if there is a social problem to solve, I don't know, name a social problem that needs solving. It serves the status quo if all of us are off reading our own little websites and not focused on the same problem at the same time.

ROBERT MCCHESNEY: Well, I think this is what happens with the decline of meaningful journalism, 'cause journalism — and more broadly I think — an entertainment culture should provide a certain amount of glue to get everyone's focus on crucial issues that everyone in society faces. And, when journalism collapses, as it's collapsed in our society today, the logical thing is people go off in their own way.

I'm interested in this celebrity and whether they got a face lift. I'm interested in the Celtics. I'm interested in you know, music, and you do your own thing. And, the common ground is lost. But, the problems, as you said, that we have to face as a society, political, social, environmental aren't going away. They're just gonna be getting worse. That just makes the crisis that much more severe.

BRANCACCIO: Lets talk about the collapse of journalism. Now, in this very divided country we can all agree on one thing it turns out. I've seen this data, and you have some of it, too. We all think our local TV newscast sucks. And we all think that our town is the worst in the country.

ROBERT MCCHESNEY: Yeah.

BRANCACCIO: And, I know it's important, because a lot of us get our news from local TV news. That said, news media has a lot of other big problems with it.

ROBERT MCCHESNEY: Yeah. I think journalism that does real investigative work, that goes out and examines how power works in the society and how it affects everyone in the community, that costs a lot of money to do. That's very expensive.

BRANCACCIO: You're telling me?

ROBERT MCCHESNEY: Yeah. You know that better than anyone. Anyone involved in the journalism side understands this immediately. And, the worst part of it from a owner's perspective is if it's good journalism, it's probably gonna piss off someone in power. That's not good for business either.

So, there's a strong commercial political pressure by media owners to do the easy stuff, the celebrity stories, the scandals, that give the illusion of controversy, but they're politically trivial. And, they're very inexpensive to cover. You just send a reporter to Aruba to interview people about Natalie Holloway. That's a lot easier than going and covering the toxic dump, or who some developer paid off a politician to build something outside of town and change the tax basis in the community. These are the issues we need journalism for. They're going by the wayside. They're just not being done in this country.

BRANCACCIO: So, what aren't we covering? I mean, when you actually do the content analysis, what are you talking about?

ROBERT MCCHESNEY: Well, I think at the local level, just about everything. But, I think the real problems we see in our media, I mean-- I think they're exemplified by the Iraq War, and I think this Iraq War and the terrible coverage of the build up and occupation of Iraq, has fueled a lot of the media reform movement in the United States.

BRANCACCIO: You're talking about accepting the administration's rationale for going to war uncritically?

ROBERT MCCHESNEY: Exactly. And, I think it's not a coincidence. In fact, the evidence is clear that at the precise time we were on this show, John and I in 2003-- in the spring of 2003, just before the invasion of Iraq-- that the Bush Administration was making, you know, large claims about weapons of mass destruction, about connection of Saddam Hussein to Al Qaeda, to 9/11.

Claims, which a lot of critics at that time said there's no evidence for. There were serious reasons to question that, and media outside the United States were questioning it-- credible media. Our news media were doing a dreadful job covering it. They were basically parroting for all intents and purposes what the Bush Administration was saying, for a variety of reasons. There's not a simple factor. But, that's the actual record. And, what's happened in the spring of 2003 was that millions of Americans, who said, why are we going to war? Why aren't we challenging these claims. I'm-- -- you know, I know they don't add up. Millions of Americans found out that the same companies, Sinclair Broadcasting, Fox News under Murdock, Clear Channel Radio, they were the most aggressive in pushing the administration's line for the cause to go to war, were the same companies that were trying to relax the media ownership rules so they could buy up more media.

This is what it took to create an explosion. People said, "This is outrageous." Here are these companies are-- they're promoting Bush's war are then gonna go after they promoted the war uncritically-- war we now know based on lies-- are going to Bush Administration saying, "Now, do us a favor and let us own more media." And, the Bush Administration's says, "Yeah. That sounds like a really good idea to us." The corruption was overwhelming, and it triggered this movement that literally by the end of 2003 had three million Americans contacting either the FCC or Congress to protest media concentration.

BRANCACCIO: But wait. Maybe journalism is waking up from its languor. There was a White House press conference in which the reporters were asking tough questions about White House advisor Karl Rove and his connection to the 'outing' of the CIA Agent. It looked like the good old days of journalism there.

ROBERT MCCHESNEY: Yeah. I wouldn't get too excited about that before-- because if you think about it. That whole 'Plame-gate' story is about the administration's effort to sort of doctor the war facts so they could push this country to war. And-- if you look back at how the press covered Colin Powell's UN speech, right before the war, how they covered President Bush's final press conference right before the invasion. Two of the lowest moments in the history of journalism in this country where, basically, these were both given sterling reviews with no critical analysis.

Six months after Colin Powell's speech to the UN, it was finally fact-checked which turned up this enormous numbers of discrepancies and half-truths that no-- none of our commercial news media picked up. Are they gonna start doing that now?

Well, the evidence isn't going to be 'Plame-Gate' where you've got a partisan, political concerns. You've got official sources from the Democratic Party pushing this issue, as a way to get at the Republicans. The real test of this is going to be whether they're gonna pick up the ball on going to war. The broader issue involved in Plame-Gate.

And that's gonna be something like 'The Downing Street Memo.' The memo, that the hard evidence, now, the 'smoking gun' from British intelligence that basically says; The Bush administration was cooking the books to get a war with Iraq, prior to the war. This is coming up right now. Now if our journalism goes after that and says; Well, let's get to the bottom of this, then I think we say; yeah, we've got a new era.

But if our journalism continues as it has for this summer, ignoring this issue and saying; Oh, that's old news. We don't have to cover it. We didn't cover it before, but that doesn't matter. Then I think we can see that we really are not turning the corner to a better day.

BRANCACCIO: Now journalists bear all this responsibility for the state of affairs. But I gotta ask you something; how much can reporters really do when it comes to keeping a crucial issue of public policy out there. I mean--

ROBERT MCCHESNEY: No, that's right--

BRANCACCIO: --politicians have to rise to the occasion too here.

ROBERT MCCHESNEY: Politicians have to rise to the occasion. We need official sources to give cover for journalists.

BRANCACCIO: Give cover. In other words--

ROBERT MCCHESNEY: So they won't be accused of being ideological by raising the 'Downing Street Memo.' The politicians have. John Conyers, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee is leading the fight to make the 'Downing Street Memo' an issue. So it's not like it's not there for courageous journalists. It's not like it's just some City Councilman from Berkeley, California, whose raising this issue.

BRANCACCIO: Right. But if you look at the last five years, you don't tend to see the politicians giving cover to investigative journalism.

ROBERT MCCHESNEY: You're right. And it's-- the heads of the Democratic party, the head of the Republican party both not giving cover. But again, this gets us back to what a free press is supposed to be. That doesn't justify it, that explains it. Our founders did not want a press system that simply said what people in power were-- are debating.

They wanted to set up a press system that would challenges people in power. You couldn't have self-government, unless you had a press that stood outside those in power. And assumed everything they tell you had to be subject to examination. Took nothing for granted. That's the problem we have. And we say; Well, we'll let people in power debate it, and we'll report it and you decide. That's not journalism. That's stenography.

BRANCACCIO: Well, I can tell you, with experience, that it's a lot easier to do a story where you just quote a couple of officials and say, "Well, they said this." And, you can take yourself as the investigative journalist out of it. No one's gonna criticize you. They'll criticize the people making the statement. But, that's not really aggressive journalism.

ROBERT MCCHESNEY: No. In fact, that's the paradox of professional journalism. And, this really goes outside of current ownership debates. This is a longstanding problem of journalism in the United States, which is that for about 100 years now we've had the notion of independent professional journalism that would be non-partisan. And one of the ways it evolved was to take the stench of controversy away from story selection and coverage. Stories that were presented by people in power, but are called "official sources," are taken very credibly. But, if they're not dignified by official sources, they're regarded as being partisan, or ideological. So, you as a journalist, or any journalist-- who just reports what people in power says, and stays within the debate of the leaders of the Republican and Democratic Party nationally on an issue, will be a professional journalist and considered neutral.

Now, if they're lying through their teeth, you basic-- you still gotta stay there. If you step outside that range of debate and say, "Hey, these guys are lying through their teeth," you'll say, "Hey, this person's not being professional. They're not being objective. They've got an ideological axe to grind." You know, that's the worst thing a journalist wants to hear. So, professional--

BRANCACCIO: Well by the way, something this program has heard--

ROBERT MCCHESNEY: Yeah.

BRANCACCIO: That we are liberal advocacy journalists because from time to time we've tried to show by building a case using facts that somebody is not telling the truth.

ROBERT MCCHESNEY: Of course. That's what journalism should do. Journalism should not just report two sides that are spinning you and they say, "We report you decide." We don't need-- that doesn't-- that's not journalism. Journalism is hearing what they're saying and then investigating to see who's telling the truth. That's the value added genuine journalism does in a free society.

And, people in power don't like genuine journalism. They never have. Thomas Jefferson, he was the first one to criticize journalism when it went after him. But, he understood in principle you couldn't have a free society without it. It's simply impossible. It was as-- it's as true today as it was in 1791.

BRANCACCIO: You know, in your book you're not all that optimistic about public television in particular. You think-- maybe ultimately we could fizzle out. I mean, don't we play an important role somehow in addressing serious issues on some of our shows?

ROBERT MCCHESNEY: Well, for starters we need public television. We need public radio. We need non-profit, non-commercial media. Even the best possible commercial system we could have with competitive markets-- with vibrant-- sectors, would have limitations. They'd be advertising driven. They'd have weak spots. They'd have what economists call "externalities," things they simply don't do well. There's a fundamental role for a healthy, vibrant, non-profit, non-commercial media sector in a free society. About that there-- I don't think there's any question.

The problem we have with public broadcasting specifically in the United States is it has evolved here in a way different from a lot of countries under political terms that have made it very difficult for public broadcasting to serve-- to be as strong and as viable as it could be. Political pressures, lack of funding.

BRANCACCIO: Well, I like the part of where viewers send the money in, because that gives viewers a stake in some--

ROBERT MCCHESNEY: I like that, too, but there's a problem with that. And, this really goes to the heart of U.S. public broadcasting. The founders of modern public broadcasting understood we couldn't have a BBC in this country, or a Canadian Broadcasting. They understood we couldn't have a mass service the entire range of programming-- the whole population. The commercial networks would never allow that. They've worked-- they wanted to keep their audiences.

They said, what we ought to do then, though, is do the edgy stuff, the journalism, the local coverage. Serve-- that the big commercial guys don't want to do. Do the entertainment programming that's a little avant-garde that through don't want to touch. Let's serve communities, young people, immigrants-- minority communities that the big commercial guys aren't really interested in serving.

Lets take chances. That was actually the principle public broadcasting was founded on in this country. I think public broadcasting, given the constraints it's been placed under, has done an extraordinary job. But, the constraints are immense.

And, I think what- has happened increasingly is that commercial broadcasting has basically zeroed out journalism everywhere we turn. I mean, book store shelves now are filled with prominent former broadcast journalists writing about how basically you can't do journalism any longer at the commercial networks. It's all but dead except for a handful of instances. The commercial pressure is so great. That what little journalism remains sticks out like a sore thumb now, because there isn't that much investigative journalism.

BRANCACCIO: And, people in power still seem to hate it.

ROBERT MCCHESNEY: They always will. That's a sign of good journalism. That's why you need healthy institutions to protect it. Once people in power like journalism, you know you don't have journalism any longer. That's like an iron law of journalism. You know, if you're the head of a news network and the Vice President says, "You're the greatest thing going on," you're doing something wrong.

BRANCACCIO: And, regardless of whether or not it's a Republican or a Democrat saying it?

ROBERT MCCHESNEY: Yeah. Regardless. Of course-- of course. Good journalism should always be getting under the skin of people in power.

BRANCACCIO: Now, if I were an unbalanced interviewer I wouldn't ask the following question. But, I'm gonna ask this question, if in America we respect the market, shouldn't the market demand good journalism if it's so darn important to citizens? They would rise up say, "We really want these serious stories about important public policies." And, if they don't, why is it anybody's problem that-- we're not providing it?

ROBERT MCCHESNEY: Because, markets don't express all our needs and desires at all effectively. I'll give you an example. I have a promise for you David. I'm never going to go to a National Park in my life. Anytime I get a vacation, I'd rather go to Cleveland, watch a football game and drink beer. That's my idea of fun with my buddies. But, if a co-- the consumer, Rush Limbaugh would look what I ju-- at what I said, and say, well, Bob McChesney clearly wants to get rid of all the National Parks. He doesn't go there. He doesn't care about them. But, as a citizen, I'm willing to pay more taxes to expand the National Park System, because I understand the world's about more than me.

It's about more than my immediate needs. And, it's the same way with media. It's the same with journalism. Even if I'm watching a Jerry Springer Show that doesn't mean I don't think there should be good journalism. I understand the world's bigger than my immediate interest and what I do.

And, markets can't communicate citizen values. They're very good at communicating what I want to do with my money right now, right here. But, that's not all we are. There's a lot more to human beings than that.

BRANCACCIO: Robert McChesney, whose President of the advocacy organization, Free Press, University of Illinois professor. And his latest book, THE PROBLEM OF THE MEDIA; US COMMUNICATION POLITICS IN THE 21ST CENTURY. Thank you, very much.

ROBERT MCCHESNEY: My pleasure.

BRANCACCIO: For more on our own media falling down on the job, check out our Web site at pbs.org.

And next week on NOW? - How a culture of greed led to fraud of Shakespearean proportions and a parade of rich and powerful executives going to trial. We'll look at what really happened at Enron.

And what made the cutthroat traders at Enron rejoice when a forest fire threatened a major electrical line in California?

ENRON TRADERS: "Burn baby Burn. That's a beautiful thing."

BRANCACCIO: It's all part of a surprising new documentary called ENRON: THE SMARTEST GUYS IN THE ROOM.

And that's it for NOW. FROM New York City, I'm David Brancaccio. We'll see you next week.

Connect to NOW, online at pbs.org

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