By DeeDee Halleck
John Nichols and Robert McChesney have written a widely posted Nation article searching for answers to the current emergencies in the newspaper business. (“The Death and Life of Great American Newspapers”) They recognize the crisis as an opportunity to rethink public media in general and their suggestions for remedy are at least a provocative starter for the needed reassessment and creative activism. They suggest the government pump in $60 billion over the next three years, a pricetag that is similar to, though less than, the handouts to AIG and the US banks.
However, it’s hard to believe that anyone could seriously want to salvage the “print-fitted” U.S. corporate news. In their article, the media reformers are trying to prop up the bankrupt “fourth estate” with proposals for salvation, requesting that Congress help the media corporations– well, at least the ones that own newspapers–by subsidizing delivery by the U.S. Post Office and even free delivery for some periodicals. They would also bequeath to readers limited tax exemptions for newspaper purchase. How this would work is a bit fuzzy and their definition of journalism is more Washington Post and New York Times than the Indypendent, the NYC based Indymedia weekly, let alone community radio and public access TV. Missing in the article is any discussion of the popular tabloids. I doubt if Nichols and McChesney consider the NY Post or even the New York Daily News as capital “J” Journalism. It may have been a long time since either Nichols nor McChesney rode a subway, so perhaps they don’t have a clue as to what the masses read. The authors must read the NY Times with their croissants.
The papers they would subsidize are replete with advertising. Why should U.S. taxpayers subsidize the delivery of ANY ads? Their proposal does put a tepid limit on subsidies to “ad-supported” news –only ones which have 50% or less ads. We are already paying for ads in the cost of promoted goods. The postal service is burdened with the weight of the ads sent as catalogues and all the other junk mail that has flourished with “bulk” rate subsidies. Junk mail is just that– the “bulk” of postal business today.
I’m surprised that these media reformers have undertaken such a rush to resuscitate their own often blasted past targets. They agonize that without newspapers, “Politicians and administrators will work increasingly without independent scrutiny and without public accountability.” They admit that the U.S. press has sadly missed that sort of independent scrutiny for decades, but there is a lingering belief that journalism (with a capital J!) is usually “on the case.” How does New York Times’ war-monger Judith Miller fits into that ideal? Certainly it wasn’t just “bad apple” Miller who lead the war chorus. The Times wasn’t “reporting” about Iraq prior to the invasion, but actively orchestrating the battle cries–as they were soon to follow with their treatment of the Iran “threat”.
Where are the Nichols and McChesney of their New Press 2005 book, Tragedy and Farce: how the American media sell wars, spin elections, and destroy democracy? One longs for a systemic critique, not a band-aid and a pat. They have good impulses, but they are compromised and essentially brought down by their allegiance to established professional hierarchies and by their inability to acknowledge (even their own!) critique of corporate media. There is no recognition of the on-going process of “manufacturing consent”, so brilliantly laid out by Herman and Chomsky. Instead there is almost an apology– similar to the Times’ own mea culpa vis a vis Judith Miller. Nichols and McChesney say: “The news media blew the coverage of the Iraq invasion”. “They missed the past decade of corporate scandals.” (My emphases) It’s as though these are just some mistakes–aberrations that could be rectified by some additional resources and a few more good reporters. They call for the system to create “far superior” journalism. There is an abiding faith in the system itself.
The Nation article proposes that there be subsidies for journalism education. Why feather the nests of the mainstream journalism schools? An interesting survey would be to find out how many of the winners of, for example, the Polk Journalism Awards, have actually attended those stodgy bureaucrat factories. The heroic journalists who come to mind didn’t hatch in those halls. Amy Goodman studied anthropology. Seymour Hersh and Studs Turkel went to law school. Naomi Klein attended the London School of Economics. Robert Fisk was a literature major. Even deceased mainstream ABC anchor Peter Jennings didn’t attend journalism school. He never even finished a BA, saying he “lasted about 10 minutes” in college. Polk award winner Jeremy Scahill cut his teeth at the Catholic Worker. Scahill once said that journalism schools produce only lemmings. His solution is to declare journalism a trade and insure that young people learn out in the field, apprenticing as he did with Amy Goodman. He claims to have learned more from his work cataloging Amy’s piles of news clippings than he would in any college classroom.
The U.S. junior high schools and high schools don’t need journalism classes, but courses that encourage young people to take an interest in history, economics, political science and yes, literature. In terms of the media, U.S. schools need CRITICAL media education, so that students learn to critique not only the New York Post, but The Nation and Hulu and the twittering prose of Face Book. Scandinavia has a long tradition of requiring media analysis even in primary schools. “Tell me kids, why is Teletubbies sponsored by Kelloggs?” Our high school students, many of whom are members of My Space, need to be taught to understand how data mining works. Those cute Face Book questionnaires and attitude surveys are conceived by marketers who are building profiles, for their next round of “push” ads.
Public, Educational and Government Access
McChesney and Nichols suggest that there be government support for school newspapers and low power radio. Great. There are high schools where radio and internet reporting is happening right now. Students and community organizations have had access to technical and training support for coverage of local (and national) issues in the often dismissed world of PEG channels. PEG (Public, Government and Educational) access in many communities are required by local governments as a payment for use of the local “right of way.” This has resulted in media centers in several thousand municipalities where communities can have access to cameras, computers and channels, all maintained by the cable operator. PEG has done admirable work in a providing opportunities for gaining technical proficiency, moreover, in providing an authentic “public sphere” for creating and exchanging information and opinion. The impressive PEG infrastructure is currently threatened by the heavily funded lobbying of ATT and Verizon. These corporations are seeking to get state legislatures to enact laws which gut the local regulations that require cable corporations to provide access. McChesney and Nichols’ Free Press has not foregrounded this battle, preferring to highlight the sexier struggle for “net neutrality”. However, recently after a bit of prodding, Free Press helped by urging their list serve members to make FCC comments in support of PEG. This is part of an inquiry by the FCC into how cable corporations have been “slamming” access channels by moving them into hard to find digital “closets” not easily accessible to channel switching remotes. .
The struggle for an open internet can’t be limited to “neutrality”. Sure, the preferential use of speed and access by internet providers should not be allowed, but as technology enables telecommunication companies to pursue video distribution, we are moving closer to the convergence of these technologies, as any owner of an I-phone can attest. That means that the battles for PEG and the net all have the same protagonists, and all of these companies should be required to provide space and resources for the public. Enacting regulations which require support for public communication across all platforms should be part and parcel of the internet governance fight. Our airwaves and our “rights of way” enable these technologies and there has to be a public “pay back.” Timber cutting and resource mining in national forests must compensate the public. Why not “rent” for our sky?
Nichols and McChesney speak of the need to protect public media from government interference, but PEG activists and administrators have developed concrete examples of how public media can be shielded from government and corporate interference. Many of the cable franchises now in place are far more effective than the “safeguards” at PBS, CPB and NPR. In terms of media regulation, PEG is a pretty good model, although in many cities and towns PEG is underfunded and neglected. However, in those cities where PEG has flourished with comprehensive contracts with the cable corporations, such as Tucson, Cambridge, Burlington, Portland and many, many more, public communication via access channels provides many of the things right now that Nichols and McChesney want “public broadcasting” to do in the future.
The Nation article has confusing proscriptions for a future “public media”. McChesney and Nichols state: “Only government can implement policies and subsidies to provide an institutional framework for quality journalism. We understand that this is a controversial position.” But then they go on to say they don’t endorse “government support”. They then argue for expanding funding for public broadcasting, and argue that in their proposed future, “no state or region would be without quality local, state, and national or international journalism.” They do not outline how the programming would be protected from government (and corporate) interference, nor do they define what “quality” is, any more than they delineate the “vibrant democracy” that they say was the goal of Jefferson and Madison. That the views of women and non-landholders weren’t part of that “vibrant” consensus in our early Republic is not mentioned in McChesney and Nichols’ enthusiastic statements about the press.
That quest for “quality” is one of the ruses which mainstream journalism, from the NYTimes to public broadcasting, has used to maintain their status quo. The position is succinctly put in the quote by James Carey in the McChesney/Nichols article. Carey asks for “journalists to be restored to their proper [sic!] role as orchestrators of the conversation of a democratic culture.” Is “orchestration” what we need for a “vibrant democracy”? A different critic, Communication Professor Herbert Schiller, in the first Paper Tiger TV program (critiquing The New York Times in 1981) saw that role as being “the steering mechanism of the ruling class.”
Nichols and McChesney are right that this is an opportune time to re-think the structures of U.S. media, and public broadcasting is a good place to start, but there are other more general problems than the need for multi-year consistent funding. Pouring money into the “public broadcasting” that now exists will only strengthen the elitism that has evolved from these convoluted, bureaucratic structures. The whole structure of PBS and CPB is designed to squelch any “vibrant democracy.” While Nichols and McChesney warn about government involvement, they don’t mention the gorilla in the room– transnational agribusiness and the oil and insurance corporations. The subservient accommodation by PBS to corporate interests was recently clarified in the treatment given a Front Line program on health care which was initiated by Washinton Post reporter T.R. Reid, entitled “Health Care Around America”. Although originally designed to critique profit-oriented health care insurance, PBS officials demanded major changes and any reference to profit oriented insurance being a “problem” was deleted. The script was changed to actually promote the insurance companies, much to the dismay of Mr. Reid, who tried, unsuccessfully, to have his name and his interviews taken off the show. The whole thrust of the program became diametrically contrary to the original intention of the correspondent. This is just par for the PBS course. Corporate funding (though only a fraction of the whole budget) is the power component not only for specific program selection, but for the operation of the whole system, and when the views expressed are in opposition to the corporate mind-set, those views are censored, not the corporation.
The boards of directors of the public television channels across the country are self-perpetuating elite representatives of corporate and mainstream interests. For a brief time in the 1970s there was a movement to have elected boards.
Rather than change the make-up of the powerful who run these channels, the response to local and national activism was to set up “advisory boards” of “community” members. Most of those advisory boards have long since disbanded, realizing early on that they functioned only as public relations props and that they had no real clout to effect programming direction or station management. A new reassessment would have to take on the democratic restructuring of public television. Serious democratizing of the public broadcasting system must be a prerequisite for receiving any funding from Congress, or from any sort of fee based mechanism such as that which is the basis of the BBC.
Reconfiguring the funding in ways that are independent of party politics and corporate PR could help to make our public media true expressions of the lively issues and arts that exist in our country. Funding for public media can have strong prerequisites– ones that foster independence, creativity and promote collaborations. The example of ITVS– the Independent Television Service, founded by the lobbying efforts of independent producers in the 70s and 80s, has pioneered various ways (with a small budget) to support serious creative programming on public television. Democracy Now! is an example of new journalism that uses a hybrid mix of everything including camcorder/internet activists and cell phones to provide a daily program of hard hitting investigation and commentary by historians, lawyers, politicians, artists and those directly effected by wars and injustice. On no other outlet do we hear so often from the victims of global warring (and global warming). Because of the burgeoning “do it yourself” media sphere, there is great potential for cooperation between the many sectors of public expression: public television, public access, community radio, ipods, community projections and the internet. Each of these entities has infrastructure that can expand and develop with creative interchange that is open to sharing.
‘The division between “professionals” and “amateurs” is exploited by such programs as the popular American Idol, in which a few talented “amateurs” vie for a “starring role.” But the whole notion of “professional” media is constantly challenged by the millions of YouTube posters, eye-witness news gatherers, hip-hop DJs and the whole world of bloggers. The explosion of popular video and audio creation, combined with supportive infrastructure for distribution and exchange of this material can herald an era of public art and dialogue not seen since the WPA.
Communities of Location and Interest
Just as local food has become a rallying cry, local information, as Nichols and McChesney note, is what we want. Local media was consistently the overwhelming demand at the many community hearings that the FCC conducted over the past few years. In part, this was a tremendous reaction to the deregulation of radio and the swift consolidation of hundreds of broadcasting outlets. Let’s hope that era of Clear Channel gobbling up local radio stations is over. The need for “local” is great in both the commercial and public arena in both television and radio. One has to look far and wide to find a public TV station (or even an NPR station) that does any local news. In the Northeast, WAMC FM out of Albany, NY has gobbled up local frequencies and is heard from Vermont to Connecticut, from Plattsburgh to Utica, from Pennsylvania to New Hampshire. Instead of local information this “mega channel” provides a hodge podge of “regional” programs squeezed in between the franchised NPR programs and their endless pitching for money.
I can recall when local radio would broadcast the menu for school lunches. Reviving that practice might improve the diet for a generation of youngsters. Parents might be scandalized if they could listen to the listing of catsup and potato chip meals that dominate school cafeterias. Local farmers can provide schools and colleges with fruits and veggies that are healthy and don’t require carbon-spewing cross-country/world shipping. In a similar mode, local independent producers, youth, professors, musicians, elders, activists and immigrants can provide information, history, entertainment and art that is relevant and “home grown.” At the same time we can exchange with international colleagues and friends. When information can travel freely (and neutrally!), community can be defined by interest and passion, and not limited by geography.