Not What They Had in Mind
Review of "The Problem of the Media" by Robert McChesney
A persistent critic says today's press isn't what the founding fathers envisioned.
Book review by Carl Sessions Stepp
Carl Sessions Stepp (email@example.com) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.
After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.
In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.
True or false: The United States enjoys a press that developed relatively independent of government, is guided by public tastes and needs, and fulfills a crucial role envisioned by our founders.
False, false and false, argues the tireless press critic Robert McChesney, in the latest in a series of works lobbying for reform. The American press, he says, has historically depended far more on government policies than it likes to acknowledge. Commercial imperatives have long surpassed public demand as its driving force. And its role today is a far cry from that imagined by Jefferson and Madison.
These are debatable assertions and not especially new, but McChesney unites them into a coherent and timely analysis. Unfortunately, the book's title tips us to its weakness: a focus on the problem without a detailed plan for change. But McChesney is a strong analyst whose efforts deserve attention.
The founders, he believes, did not see the First Amendment as "strictly the right of private individuals to do as they please in the realm of the media--regardless of the social implications." Their goal, instead, was a "democratic journalism" that monitored society, kept watch on the powerful and took civic life seriously.
But he sees the press straying from these duties, and he blames "the effects of media concentration, conglomeration, and commercialism."
Perhaps McChesney's most persuasive point is that this evolution toward commercial rather than democratic journalism wasn't a natural consequence of passive government and independent markets. From the beginning, he shows, government policies molded the journalism business. Government printing contracts and preferential postal rates subsidized the early industry. Later, copyright protection and monopoly broadcast licenses pumped "hundreds of billions of dollars" into the market.
While content was seldom regulated, the growth of the media followed the path laid by government money and influence. At first, says McChesney, the path was democratic--cheaper postal rates, for instance, helped prevent parties in power from squelching rival voices.
Over time, these policies and subsidies encouraged concentration, especially in broadcasting. As the media became more powerful, they lobbied more successfully for a commercial rather than democratic interpretation of the free press clause. Perhaps most effectively, publishers and broadcasters used the First Amendment "as a bludgeon to prevent adoption of government policies that might interfere with their commercial prerogatives."
As a further example, McChesney cites the trend toward deregulation and the "corruption in media policy making" that gave existing licenseholders, rather than the public in general, the rights to the invaluable digital broadcasting spectrum.
Now, he says, we have reached "the age of hyper-commercialism," where media worry more about satisfying advertisers and shareholders than serving society. "Rational capitalists will produce the journalism that generates the greatest profit, that is, what costs the least to produce and generates the greatest market."
What's his solution? McChesney's approach, while general, is two-fold. First, he calls for dramatic expansion of noncommercial media, aided where possible by government: media run by schools and religious institutions; expanded and subsidized public access channels; a newly "supercharged public broadcasting" system; and the enlistment of new technology, such as digital channels, in the public interest.
But McChesney has also become an "active citizen," helping to form a group called Free Press (www.mediareform.com) that is busily promoting change. His last chapter celebrates what he sees (a tad effusively, in my view) as an early triumph: last year's rebellion by politicians and many ordinary citizens at the FCC's efforts to further relax media ownership rules.
"Nothing will ever be the same again," he concludes sunnily. Maybe not. But given the monster clout of the forces he has described earlier, he and his allies will need a masterful plan to prevail.
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