Special: Interview: Robert McChesney: ‘On Private Power, Public Broadcasting, and how Corporate Media Subverts Democracy’

An outspoken critic of corporate media, Robert McChesney is also a professor of communications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His very active presence challenges the caricature of the professor as tenured cloud dweller, aloof from the mundane world the rest of us live in, by vigorously setting about to help lead awareness and redirected commitment toward democracy in a world where political and corporate power are becoming synonymous and mass opinion is increasingly stage-managed by multinational media conglomerates. He’s an academic rarity: a media critic who has actually done a tour of duty in the workaday world of journalism.

An outspoken critic of corporate media, Robert McChesney is also a professor of communications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His very active presence challenges the caricature of the professor as tenured cloud dweller, aloof from the mundane world the rest of us live in, by vigorously setting about to help lead awareness and redirected commitment toward democracy in a world where political and corporate power are becoming synonymous and mass opinion is increasingly stage-managed by multinational media conglomerates. He’s an academic rarity: a media critic who has actually done a tour of duty in the workaday world of journalism.

In 1979, McChesney co-founded The Rocket, a Seattle-based rock magazine that is still going strong (McChesney claims it has the third-largest circulation in its field in the United States). “It was a lot of fun,” he told radio interviewer David Barsamian.

“It gave me a lot of valuable experience in organizing a media operation, how you get people to work together and what you can accomplish. What I learned is that if you have people who are really dedicated and work hard, there’s a lot you can do. There’s no reason to sit around and whine. You can accomplish things. I say that with hesitation, because a lot of times when people say that, their implication is, ‘Therefore, you don’t need to make social change. … You can just take care of number one and pull yourself up.’ That’s not my point at all. My point is, you can do things, but you can also do things to make social change. Ultimately, the core problems we face in the media and in our society are social problems. They require social solutions. We should be organizing and working together to change institutions.”

In a sense, he’s doing just that in works of intellectual activism such as “Telecommunications, Mass Media and Democracy” and “Rich Media, Poor Democracy” (just out from University of Illinois Press) — powerful calls to action that are as rigorously researched as they are politically passionate.

In November, 1999, McChesney was in Boulder, Colorado, to speak at the 20th anniversary celebration of the bookstore Left Hand Books where veteran broadcaster David Barsamian interviewed him for his weekly public radio program, “Alternative Radio.”

BARSAMIAN: You make an urgent connection between media and democracy. Why?

MCCHESNEY: This is nothing original. This goes back to the Founding Fathers, even before that. If you have a notion of democracy, which is, the many rule, obviously you can’t have a plebiscite on every decision. That’s not going to happen. But people in representative democracies can make the fundamental value decisions and elect people to implement them. That’s what we can hope for.

To have that be effective and viable, you need some sort of media system that’s going to do two things. First of all, it’s going to ruthlessly account for the activities of people in power and people who want to be in power so you know what they’re actually doing. Secondly, it’s going to give a wide range of opinions on the fundamental social and political issues that citizens need to know about. It doesn’t mean that each medium has to do that, but the system as a whole has to provide that as an easy alternative for people who want to participate as citizens.

That’s the test of a media system in a democracy. That’s the test we should apply to it. By that standard, our current media system is a fiasco. It’s a system set up fundamentally to serve the shareholders and a dozen or so massive companies and their major advertisers. It does that quite well. But it works more often than not directly against what’s necessary for a democratic society.

We’re such a commercially marinated society that our notion of speech to fellow citizens to bring truth through discussion and interaction has been pushed to the margins. Now the whole idea of speech is to make money. So whether something’s true or false is irrelevant. If they buy your product, that’s the truth. If they believe your lie, that’s good enough. You get from them what you want. Completely lost in the dominant culture is the genuine notion of truth, a sense of how it comes as a result of dialogue and interaction and exchange. I think we have to get back to that, and our media system isn’t going to get us there. It’s part of the problem. It’s Madison Avenue and Wall Street’s media system.

The founding document for public broadcasting in the United States is the 1967 Carnegie Commission Report. Among other things, it said that public broadcasting programming “should serve as a forum for controversy and debate,” be diverse and “provide a voice for groups that may otherwise be unheard.” In roughly 30 years of TV service — PBS (Public Broadcasting Service), as well as National Public Radio — how closely aligned has the programming been to those founding principles?

It’s gone almost nowhere near those principles. In fact, if one were to look at NPR or PBS today and say, What groups in society is it trying to give voice to?, it would not be the dispossessed, the marginalized, those outside the power structure. It’s giving voice to the business community, the entrepreneurs, the upper middle class, the intelligentsia. It goes completely against the principles enunciated in the Carnegie report. I don’t think anyone can claim otherwise. In NPR’s audience data that they provide when they’re trying to appeal to underwriters, they’re bragging about the wealth, education and sophistication of their listeners. What they’re going after is cherry-picking the most lucrative market of upper-class and upper-middle-class individuals. The last thing they seem to want to do is give voice to the 30 or 40 percent of our population that’s basically written out of our broadcasting system.

In some of the discussions about public radio and TV, there’s an underlying current that when they weren’t as well funded and didn’t have as many listeners, the programming was more cutting edge.

I’m not an expert on that. But my sense is that in TV, for example, prior to the 1967 Public Broadcasting Act, National Educational Television, an early version of PBS, actually did some cutting-edge antiwar and civil rights stuff. They got tremendous political heat because of it. That’s always been the case. When good stuff does get through that goes outside the boundaries of the establishment commercial system, that takes chances, that gives voice to people the commercial system doesn’t, covers political perspectives the commercial system generally trivializes, they invariably take heat from Washington. Powerful people in Washington use their power. It’s the worst of both worlds for public broadcasting. On one hand, they have to turn to corporations and the wealthy to support them because they don’t get enough government support. On the other hand, they get enough government support that whenever someone takes chances they get reamed by political forces. They get it on both sides. The result is the very lame and tepid programming that you get.

But there’s a fundamental issue here that’s even more important in public broadcasting, and that is to understand the dilemma historically. Public broadcasting in most places in the world — Canada, India, Britain, Scandinavia, Germany — has generally been seen and crafted as being a nonprofit, noncommercial service for the entire population, with entertainment, educational and political programming covering the whole spectrum. In the United States, that was never the case. The reason was that the commercial broadcasters in the 1920s and 1930s were able to simply swipe the airwave space without any public recognition or understanding. Then, when public broadcasting came along, its job was simply to do the programming that the commercial stations couldn’t make any money on. That was its mandate.

Some purists in public radio and TV want to jettison any government subsidies for the very reasons that you just alluded to. They feel that the system would be stronger, independent and not have to answer to Congress. What do you think about that point of view?

I think there are very legitimate concerns about setting up the system so that you can’t have political censorship. But there are ways to do that without abandoning the public subsidy. We have to study how other countries have done it and see what the best way is to maintain a public subsidy but not permit constant interference by political sources.

The initial proposals to set up public broadcasting in the United States embodied in that Carnegie Commission report were to provide in fact what you just described: a heat shield for funding. There would be forward funding for about five years. However, there was an enormous political battle around that. Wilbur Mills was the chair of the House Ways and Means Committee at the time. He wanted to keep public broadcasting on a tight leash. So that heat shield never happened, and that has left the system vulnerable to these political influences.

We need a system that gives the heat shield, but we also need to keep it accountable. At the same time, we need a mission today that says public broadcasting should serve the entire population, which means programming in cities of diverse ethnic communities should be serving those communities, not simply serving people who want to watch “Wall Street Week” and zebras and giraffes. We need the commitment to serve the entire population. I think that commitment is more important today than ever before, because what we’re seeing in our entire media culture is that the population is being fragmented into more and more segments determined by Madison Avenue advertisers who want to sell products. They’re breaking us up into various groups. Increasingly they’re putting walls between all of us and telling us how free we are now because we can just hang out in our own demographic group and see ads for the products we buy. We’re losing something very important. Community broadcasting can provide the basis to see how other people in the community live, learn about them, share experiences and enrich a pluralistic society.

There is an attempt [in the United States] beginning in 1994 to zero out funding for public broadcasting. There was criticism, such as Newt Gingrich calling PBS a “sandbox for the elite.” What accounted for the ferocity of the attack at that particular moment and the ability of the people who defended the system to essentially maintain the status quo?

There’s a lot of truth in that critique. It is a sandbox for the elite in many ways. It’s a sandbox for the elite at least in Washington and New York and some other cities. It’s probably more likely to be Clinton Democrats than Republicans. So I think Gingrich’s concerns at that level were very warranted. The solution, in my view, is not to eliminate public broadcasting. It’s to get real public broadcasting and not let it be a plaything for these elites. I quite agree with that. The reason Republicans backed down is what I’ve talked about before. I think they got significant political opposition from a lot of their own voters and constituents, because one thing that NPR and PBS had done was build up support among the upper middle class, the people who actually vote. If PBS and NPR were supported primarily by the bottom 30 or 20 percent of the population, they would have been closed down a long time ago.

Who are the pundits on these public radio and TV programs like the “NewsHour with Jim Lehrer,” “Washington Week in Review,” “The McLaughlin Group,” NPR’s “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered”?

The research shows increasingly that the pundits you get on the public radio and TV news and discussion shows are first of all almost indistinguishable from those on the commercial shows “Crossfire” [and] “Nightline.” It’s the same crowd, which is primarily mainstream inside-the-Beltway, corporate, white-male types who completely dominate. The moment you get someone who veers even slightly to the left of sort of a Clinton Democrat, they immediately have to be balanced. You never have to balance the Clinton Democrat or anyone to the right. They can have their own show. You get just to the left of that, and suddenly you have to have balance. Or load up three or four of them. The “Charlie Rose” show had their token half of a show with Nader, Jim Hightower and Ronnie Dugger. The three of them were crammed into a half-hour. That was a bone they throw. But on the next show they bring in some billionaire capitalist like Disney CEO Michael Eisner for a full hour and they lob softballs at him. This is common in public broadcasting, just like in the commercial media. The research shows, ironically, that the public system is almost more pro-corporate, less willing to take chances, because they’ve got that political fear that if they actually give Ralph Nader a whole hour, the next day Jesse Helms is going to be calling for hearings to close them down. What’s happened in public radio and TV is that I think the people who work there no longer even resist the process. They’ve internalized the values.

Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, the New York-based media-watch group, has done several surveys on who gets on “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer,” “Nightline” and other programs.

Those studies are well done. They’re extremely important and irrefutable. They show exactly what I’ve just been talking about. FAIR is a wonderful group with an exciting history. It began in 1986 or 1987. There was a made-for-TV movie, “Amerika,” about the Russian takeover of the U.N. The U.N. took over the United States, and the Russians were behind it, or something like that. Jeff Cohen and some other people were appalled by this blatant propaganda for militarism. What they did was to start FAIR with a couple of people working out of a scraggly office, putting out a superb bimonthly publication called Extra! They’ve grown over the years. They do great work. FAIR’s a real testament to an interest in understanding how our media work. It’s very difficult to do. The forum in which you normally publicize your ideas and your debate is controlled by the people you’re trying to debate about. The agenda-makers control the agenda. So it’s hard to discuss corporate media in the media themselves. So when media issues do show up in the commercial and corporate news media, they’re usually warped and truncated to serve their own interests, if they’re covered at all. And they’re rarely covered. So that when a merger deal comes along, or when a bill like the Telecommunications Act of 1996, basically an enormous gift to the corporate media of deregulation, it’s covered briefly on the front page on one day, with a few perfunctory comments by members of Congress talking about what a great law it is, and then it drops from view. There’s no debate on it whatsoever. But it shows up in the business pages every day. It’s talked about as an issue of great importance to owners and investors.

What would a McChesney broadcasting system look like?

Creating a better media system would be part of broader social changes. You won’t get changes in media unless you have a popular movement that’s going to also challenge institutions in our society. But just for hypothetical cases, what I recommend we should organize around, and what there actually is organizing around, are a few things. Real public radio and TV: a bona fide, non-profit, non-commercial sector. A couple of well-funded channels in every market. Community public access, plus a national system of good resources. That would be one part of it. To the extent we have commercial broadcasting, I would regulate it heavily. That’s sort of anathema now. Regulation? That’s just terrible! We have regulation now. It’s done by Wall Street and Madison Avenue. Regulation is how you control things. What I’m saying is, if we’re going to give them these public airwaves and let them make a fortune off it, we have the right to set some terms on the deal. It’s our property. We’re the landlords, so to speak. But we haven’t been collecting any rent. The tenants basically have been telling us what to do. Since it’s our property, we have a right to say, “This is what we need in our society if you’re going to use our property. If not, we’ll get someone else to use it.”

What are the points of resistance?

One of the exciting things is that in so many countries, Sweden being one of them, this is generating a political response from the democratic left political parties, primarily. Basically, there’s been a split in left political parties around the world in the 1990s on the issue of globalism, whether you’re going to be pro-business or oppose these pro-business reforms. Blair in Britain, Schroeder in Germany have gone the route of pro-business. But many have gone the other way. In Sweden, for example, the left alliance broke away from the dominant Social Democrats. This is an alliance of former Communists, feminists, Greens, former Social Democrats and labor who are opposed to neoliberalism. They regard media as such an important issue that it’s in the preamble of their platform. They are talking about abolishing advertising and breaking up concentrated media ownership. Concentrated media ownership has grown around the world just like in the United States. You have the same problem everywhere. It’s even worse in smaller countries because there are fewer companies that own everything. You see it in Sweden. The left party, which makes media the central part of their campaign, got 12% of the national vote. It was their second election. In Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Brazil, Finland and elsewhere, it’s becoming an issue. The mainstream parties have to respond. They can’t ignore it. They’re finding out voters aren’t interested in having a media system dominated by two or three companies, where everything’s commercial, and public service values are disregarded. That’s not a winner.

I think that’s the lesson we have to learn from. What we have to do in the United States is organize on these issues. My experience talking to citizens’ groups around this country in the last three or four years is that there is a tremendous amount of interest. People feel powerless because they never hear about these issues. They don’t know they can do anything about them. When they understand that our media system exists primarily as the result of government policies that have been done in their name without their input, they get outraged and say, What can we do about it? That’s the big job in front of us, organizing around these issues. Saul Alinsky had a great line: When you’re going up against organized money, the only way to beat it is to organize people. This is a case where all the money is on one side of the ledger. There’s no money on the side of media reform. But we’ve got the people. They know it, and they do everything they can to keep their issues quiet. They don’t want people hearing about the corruption of the giveaway of [much of the publicly owned broadcast] spectrum. They don’t like it.

So we need to build a coalition of all the organized groups in the society that already have an interest in this, such as labor, religious groups, educators, librarians, artists, creative people, journalists, all of whom are deeply concerned about the moral bankruptcy of this sort of media system. Get all these groups up to speed on these issues and try to get it on the political agenda. Get the main political parties, the Progressive Caucus of the Democratic Party, the New Party, the Labor Party and the Greens, to make it an issue. We’ve got someone like Ralph Nader, who’s been a heroic figure in the movement for media reform. If he runs for President in 2000, for sure it will be a main issue for him. He’ll put it on the agenda. He’s been leading the fight for the last 10 or 15 years to make it an issue.

Another extraordinary development in the past few years is microradio [the noncommercial, low-power FM radio movement dedicated to serving local communities, encouraging diversity on the airwaves and countering the stultifying corporate monoculture of mainstream radio with brash, grassroots voices. — Ed.]. This is an extremely inexpensive technology that offers the promise of opening up a whole new sector of community broadcasting for citizens. Microradio is a rare opportunity to provide a democratic layer of broadcasting. Not surprisingly, the commercial broadcasters oppose microradio because they fear competition.

I think all these things are the beginning of something. We’ve only gone three inches on a two-mile journey, but they’re the hardest three inches. Ten years ago, if someone had told me we’d come this far, I wouldn’t have believed it. So in that sense I’m very optimistic.

David Barsamian is the author of “Stenographers to Power: Media and Propaganda” and the host of “Alternative Radio,” an hour-long weekly program carried by public radio stations across the United States. Based in Boulder, Colorado, “Alternative Radio” regularly spotlights media-related issues and often features eminent media critics such as Noam Chomsky, Barbara Ehrenreich and Ben Bagdikian. Many of Barsamian’s interviews have been published as short, speed-read paperbacks by the independent publisher, Odonian Press.

This interview was edited for reasons of space and content; the version originally broadcast on “Alternative Radio” was substantially longer. To obtain a full-length transcript or cassette copy of this or other programs, contact: David Barsamian, Alternative Radio, P.O. Box 551, Boulder, CO 80306, (800) 444-1977, www.alternativeradio.org. The material excerpted here appears by permission of David Barsamian and Alternative Radio, ©1999 Alternative Radio.

Author: David Barsamian

News Service: MediaChannel.org

URL: http://www.mediachannel.org/views/interviews/mcchesney.shtml

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