The Media Crisis of Our Times

by Robert W. McChesney

Project Censored 2003

Way back in the early months of 1999, in what already seems like ancient history, David Halberstam commented that the preceding year, 1998, "has been, I think, the worst year for American journalism since I entered the profession 44 years ago." Halberstam was referring to the trivialization of political journalism exemplified by the Lewinsky scandal, as well as the procession of inconsequential stories ranging from JonBenet Ramsey and Joey Buttafuoco to Tonya Harding and John Wayne Bobbitt, that found ample space in the journalism of the mid- and late 1990s. Throughout those years, Project Censored published annual volumes highlighting the important stories overlooked to make way for this gibberish, stories often concentrating on crucial environmental and public health issues, or unexamined misuse of corporate and governmental power.

Who would have ever thought that just a few years later these would look like the good old days, a veritable Golden Age?

Over the past two years, three stories of extraordinary importance-by everyone's accounts-have faced the U.S. news media. And in each of the three cases, the news media have flubbed the story thoroughly, with disastrous implications for world democratic governance, social justice, and world peace. This isn't like the good old days when we could giggle about the media's obsession with Kato Kaelin or Princess Di. It is sobering, depressing, and enlightening to consider how those stories have been covered.

Let's start with the War on Terrorism. Going to war is arguably the single most important decision any society can make. The track record of the U.S. news media in the twentieth century is that they often went along with fraudulent efforts to get the nation into one war or another by the administration in power, ranging from World War I and World War II to Korea, Vietnam, and the Gulf War. In each case, the administration in power believed that if it told the American people the truth, there would not be sufficient support to launch a war. So they lied. The Pentagon Papers reveal this process in the 1960s in shocking detail. These are considered the dark moments in U.S. journalism history. What is most striking in the U.S. news coverage following the September 11 attacks of 2001 is how it followed this lamentable pattern; the very debate over whether to go to war, or how best to respond, did not even exist. Tough questions were ignored. Why should we believe that a militarized approach will be effective? Moving beyond the 9-11 attacks, why should the United States be entitled to determine- as judge, jury, and executioner-who is a terrorist or a terrorist sympathizer in this global war? What about international law?

Most conspicuous was the complete absence of comment on one of the most striking features of the war campaign, something that any credible journalist would be quick to observe: the events taking place in Russia or China or Pakistan. There are very powerful interests in the United States who greatly benefit politically and economically by the establishment of an unchecked war on terrorism. This consortium of interests can be called, to use President Eisenhower's term, the military-industrial complex. It blossomed during the Cold War when the fear of Soviet imperialism-real or alleged-justified its creation and expansion. A nation with a historically small military now had a permanent war economy, and powerful special interests benefited by its existence.

For journalists to raise issues like these did not presuppose that they opposed government policies, merely that the policies needed to be justified and explained, so the support would be substantive, not ephemeral, the result of deliberation, not manipulation. Such has not been the case. Much of mainstream U.S. journalism has been, to be frank, propagandistic. In this climate it should be no surprise that most Americans support the war, though they knew next to nothing about the region we were fighting in and its history, or the U.S. role in the world.

Now let's be clear about why the coverage has been so deplorable. It is not due directly to concentrated corporate media ownership or meddling CEOs, although the very firms that are now saluting "America's New War" are also going before the Bush Administration asking for ownership deregulation that will make all of them much larger and more profitable. The main reason for this distorted coverage is due to the weaknesses of professional journalism as it has been practiced in the United States. Professional journalism itself arose in the United States in large part as a response to concentrated newspaper markets, so monopoly newspaper owners could offer a credible "nonpartisan" journalism to prevent their business enterprises from being undermined. To avoid the taint of partisanship, and to keep costs lower, professionalism makes official or credentialed sources the basis for news stories. Reporters report what people in power say, and what they debate. This tends to give the news an establishment bias. When a journalist reports what official sources are saying, or debating, she is professional. When she steps outside this range of official debate to provide alternative perspectives or to raise issues those in power prefer not to discuss, she is no longer being professional.

In matters of international politics, "official sources" are almost interchangeable with the term "elites," as foreign policy is mostly a preserve of the wealthy and powerful few, C. Wright Mills' classic power elite. At its worst, in a case like the current war on terrorism, where the elites and official sources are unified on the core issues, the nature of our press coverage is uncomfortably close to that found in authoritarian societies with limited formal press freedom. Have you noticed, for example, that coverage of the anthrax scare dried up almost overnight after it came out that the anthrax almost certainly came from U.S. government laboratories. No conspiracy, the sources simply dried up. There was nothing to be gained politically by pushing the story along.

Many working journalists would recoil at that statement. Their response would be that professional reliance on official sources is justifiable as "democratic" because the official sources are elected or accountable to people who are elected by the citizenry. The problem with this rationale for stenography is that it forgets a critical assumption of free press theory: even leaders determined by election need a rigorous monitoring, the range of which cannot be determined solely by their elected opposition. Otherwise the citizenry has no way out of the status quo, no capacity to criticize the political culture as a whole. If such a watchdog function grows lax, corruption invariably grows, and the electoral system decays. If journalism that goes outside the range of elite opinion is dismissed as unprofessional or partisan, and therefore justifiably ignored, the media merely lock in a corrupt status quo and can offer no way out. If journalists require having official sources on their side to pursue a story, it gives people in power a massive veto power over the exercise of democracy.

This problem becomes acute in a political environment like the United States, where electoral laws and campaign costs have made politics a fiefdom for the superwealthy and those who represent the superwealthy. Over 90 percent of the "hard money" contributions to congressional and presidential campaigns come from the wealthiest one percent of Americans. By relying on official sources, our journalism does not pose a democratic challenge to plutocracy, but rather cements it in. One need only think of the coverage Ralph Nader received, especially in The New York Times, in the 2000 presidential race. Andrei Sakharov's treatment by Pravda in the 1970s could not have been much worse.

There is no better example of this than the Enron scandal, which unfolded in late 2001 and throughout 2002. This was a shocking story because, although evidence of Enron's shady operations had been cropping up since at least the mid-1990s, the rah-rah corporate journalism of our era was falling all over itself praising Enron as the exemplar of the New Economy. Only when the company approached bankruptcy did it rate as a news story. And now that it is clear that the Enron affair is a stunning example of supreme political corruption, the coverage increasingly concentrates upon the business collapse of Enron, and the chicanery of Arthur Andersen, rather than the sleazy way in which it worked, legally as well as illegally, using the political system to make billions of dollars ripping off consumers, taxpayers, and workers. Indeed, what is most striking about the Enron scandal is how much of their dubious activity was fully legal, and similar to what is being engaged in by firms in scores of industries. The corruption of our political-economic system is palpable.

Nevertheless, this will not turn into a political crisis that will end careers and lead to major political reform; the opposition Democrats are in no hurry to push the story to its logical political conclusion, because many of them will be implicated as well. They are implicated not only with Enron, but with all the other firms that engage in similar behavior. So professional journalism is restricted to the range of what those in power pursue, and the balance of the population has no one representing its interests. What about those who simply want the whole truth to come out, and the system changed so this sort of corruption is less likely to ever occur in the future? They are out of luck. This is very bad for liberal democracy. If the press system cannot lead to peaceful and credible reform of corruption, it only means the problems will get worse, much worse, and the costs of an eventual resolution significantly greater.

Moreover, the corporate media have special incentive not to push the Enron story too far. Were discussion of Enron and energy policies to lead to any sustained examination of the way media and telecommunication policies are produced behind closed doors in Washington-arguably the most off-limits story in U.S. journalism in our times-it would find a thick stench that would rival anything Enron has done.

And finally, consider the manner in which the press reported President Bush's "victory" in the 2000 election. It is now clear that the majority of the people in Florida who went to vote for president in November 2000 intended to vote for Al Gore. The semiofficial recount conducted by the major news media in 2001 showed that by every conceivable way the votes might be counted. Al Gore won Florida. But Al Gore isn't president. Why is that? Or to put it another way, why didn't the press coverage assure that the true winner would assume office? After all, if the free press cannot guarantee the integrity of elections, what good is it? The primary reason is due to sourcing: throughout November and early December of 2000, the news media were being told by all Republicans that the Republicans had won the election and Al Gore was trying to steal it. The Democrats, on the other hand, were far less antagonistic and showed much less enthusiasm to fight for what they had won. Hence the news coverage, reflecting what their sources were telling them, tended to reflect the idea that the Republicans had won and the Democrats were grasping for straws. When Greg Palast broke the story in Britain in November 2000 that the Florida Republicans had systematically and illegally excluded tens of thousands of poor Floridians from voting-in itself, certainly enough to cost Gore the state-no U.S. mainstream news medium dared pick it up, even though the story was true. Why? Most likely because journalists would have been out on their own, because the Democrats had elected not to fight on this issue. Once the Supreme Court made its final decision, the media were elated to announce that our national nightmare was over. The media had helped anoint a president. The only losers were the irrelevant and powerless souls who clung to the belief that whoever gets the most votes should win the election, and that the press should tell the whole truth and let the chips fall where they may.

The willingness of the mainstream U.S. news media to suspend criticism of President Bush almost in toto after September 11 should be considered in this light. (Suddenly the moronic child of privilege became another Lincoln, albeit one who preferred lifting weights to reading books.) When the recount report indicating that Gore won Florida was released two months after September 11, what was striking was how almost all the press reported that the results were mixed or that Bush had won. The reason for the press making this judgment was it only looked at the recount in the few counties where Al Gore had requested it; who actually won the actual election in Florida seemed not to interest the press one whit. In a manner of thinking, the press had no choice but to provide this interpretation. If the media conceded that Gore, in fact, had won the race in Florida, it would have made people logically ask, "why didn't the media determine this when it mattered?" Moreover, a concession that the United States had an unelected president would make the laudatory coverage of President Bush after September 11 look increasingly like the sort of paeans to "maximum leaders" expected from the news media in tinhorn dictatorships. As soon as the leaders are not the product of free and fair elections, the professional reliance on official sources-which is wobbly by democratic standards to begin with-collapses.

So we are in the midst of a profound crisis of media, a cornerstone of the entire rotten edifice of our decaying and corrupt political system. But, as the saying goes, the Chinese character for crisis is made up of two other characters, those for danger and for opportunity. The historical dangers of the times are self-evident: we have a government that is barely accountable to the electorate in service to the highest bidder, with most of their activities being unreported or misreported in the press, and this government is leading a long-term war against "evil-doers," to be defined in secret by the government. The cost is high in civil liberties, tax dollars, and lives, but keep those opinions to yourself unless you want to get paid a visit by the federales.

The opportunity arises because the severe limitations of the media system have helped to generate a significant wave of opposition. Demonstrations now take place when the National Association of Broadcasters meet, and at the FCC. Media activism is bubbling over at independent media centers, in local media watch groups, and in campaigns to limit advertising in schools and to get liquor billboards out of working-class and minority neighborhoods. The jig is up for these guys. People are wising up to the game of three-card monte the corporate media and their spoon-fed stooges in Washington have been playing with the American people. The corporate media system is not the natural embodiment of God's will, or that of the Founding Fathers for that matter. Our media system is the direct result of government laws and policies that established it. It is a distinctly political issue, though one the powers-that-be have kept hidden for decades. In the case of radio, television, cable, and satellite TV, this is obvious. The government grants monopoly rights to frequencies and/or franchises and gives them to private firms at no charge. Whoever gets these licenses is almost guaranteed a profit. The government does more than set the terms of the competition; it picks the winners of the competition. The value of this corporate welfare, over the past 70 years, is mind-boggling. It is certainly in the hundreds of billions, if not trillions, of dollars. Nearly all of our huge media giants today are built on the backs of this corporate welfare, though you would never know it to listen to their rhetoric.

Even films, music, traditional print media, and now the Internet depend upon government regulation for their existence. Copyright, for example, which is a government sanctioned and enforced monopoly, is the foundation for most of these industries. Without this clear government intervention into the market to prevent competition, these industries would look radically different. Tax codes that explicitly permit advertising to be written off as a legitimate business expense spur commercialism in media and society. The government is also a major purchaser of media content, and a major advertiser. In short, there is nothing natural about our media industries.

So the issue isn't one of private media versus government regulation, because the private media system is the direct result of aggressive regulation and massive subsidies made by the government. The issue is what sort of regulation the government will provide, and whose interests and what values will those regulations serve? The problem in the United States is that these policies have been and are being made in the public's name, but they are not being made with the public's informed consent.

There are no simple solutions to the problem of media. It will require study and debate and political organizing if we are to get the sort of media system befitting a self-governing people. There will never be perfect solutions either. This much is true. It will be impossible to live in a humane and peaceful world, not to mention a democratic society, when the media system is the province of a handful of massive profit-seeking firms, answerable only to their bottom lines. Democratizing media debates and reforming media systems are not the most important issues in the world today, but they are on any short list of necessary areas for democratic renewal. If the media system remains as is, it puts distinct barriers on the range and nature of political activity.

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