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
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
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
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
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