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Bailing Out Big Brother

Media criticism goes from rebelling against media oligarchs to handing them a lifeline.

Matt Welch
March 22, 2010

The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution That Will Begin the World Again, by Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols, Nation Books, $26.95

At the dawn of the new millennium, when the then-successful Internet access company AOL bought out the old-media conglomerate Time Warner, the media historian Robert W. McChesney called it “a violation of any known theory of a free press in a democratic society,” predicting in The American Prospect that the deal would lead to “another round of mergers that should leave the entire realm of communication under the thumbs of a small handful of companies.” The one certainty, McChesney said, “is that the eventual course of the Internet—the central nervous system of our era—will be determined by where the most money can be made, regardless of the social and political implications.”

McChesney was not just wrong about all of the above. He was spectacularly wrong. The threatened wave of massive mergers never materialized. AOL Time Warner lost a then-record $99 billion in 2002, dropped the “AOL” from its name in 2003, and spun off the Internet company altogether in 2009. Instead of heralding a new age, the merger is now seen as marking the last big burst of irrational exuberance from a long-gone era. And the “eventual course of the Internet” has been determined not by a handful of mustache-twirling profiteers but by millions of frequently anonymous individuals, some seeking profit but most using the simplest of online tools for the sheer bloody hell of it. The social and political implications of bottom-up media have undermined the very media oligarchs McChesney so feared.

This was more than just an outlier prediction that didn’t pan out. Most media critics—the people who, year after year, clog the shelves of Barnes & Noble with depressive tomes such as Losing the News, The Vanishing Newspaper, and The News About the News—missed the mark by equally wide margins. Tom Rosenstiel, one of the deans of American media criticism, warned darkly of “the end of an independent press.” On his left, Norman Solomon spoke of “new totalitarianisms.” New Left media entrepreneur Robert Scheer (an old friend of mine) referred to AOL Time Warner as “Big Brother” and lamented that it was time to “forget the Internet as a wild zone of libertarian freedom.” Do you feel more or less free online today, punks?

The 2000s, which stand as arguably the single most disruptive and creative decade for media since the dawn of the William Randolph Hearst/Joseph Pulitzer press baron era, forced what might be called the Media Monopoly wing of journalism criticism—which holds, as argued by the influential 1983 Ben Bagdikian book of the same name, that a dwindling handful of megacompanies own and control the means of journalism production—to change its tune. In a few short years people like McChesney went from bemoaning the democracy-threatening concentration of power at the largest media institutions to lamenting the democracy-threatening job losses at the same companies. The Internet, once considered a dangerously unregulated free-for-all (having been, as McChesney wrote in 2000, “privatized and turned over to Corporate America” with the public getting “nothing in return except a tidal wave of corporate PR bulls**t”) is now seen as the last best hope for media reform.

This shape shifting would be little more than an intellectual curiosity if it weren’t for one pressing fact: The media criticism establishment, McChesney most of all, is pushing hard for an unprecedented federal government intrusion into the free press. And its alarming proposals are gaining a sympathetic audience on Capitol Hill.

In March 2009, McChesney and John Nichols, the Washington correspondent for The Nation, penned a widely circulated story for the progressive weekly calling for a journalism “stimulus” costing $60 billion over the next three years. Provisions included a $200 tax credit for newspaper subscriptions, the elimination of postage rates for magazines receiving less than 20 percent of their revenue from advertising, and taxpayer support for “a well-funded student newspaper and a low-power FM radio station” at “every middle school, high school and college.”

In 2005 the same duo had published a book whose subtitle complained that the American media “destroy democracy.” Now they pitched their plan to save the media as a way to “sustain” the country’s “democratic infrastructure.” Apparently a lot can change in just four years. “Only government,” McChesney and Nichols concluded in the Nation piece, “can implement policies and subsidies to provide an institutional framework for quality journalism.”

McChesney and Nichols have expanded their argument to book length in The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution That Will Begin the World Again. As the title implies, the authors see the current crisis—during which several major media companies have declared bankruptcy and shuttered century-old newspapers—as a cleared site on which central planners can construct the kind of journalism McChesney and Nichols pined for when savaging the corporate media. “Journalism,” they claim, “is a public good that is no longer commercially viable. If we want journalism, it will require public subsidies and enlightened policies.”

Although McChesney and Nichols hold down the left wing of the media criticism establishment, their call for government meddling has been echoed throughout the field’s mainstream, including journalists you wouldn’t normally expect to seek increased federal interference in their business. Leonard Downie Jr., the longtime and now-retired executive editor of The Washington Post, co-wrote a big white paper for the Columbia Journalism School in September 2009 on “The Reconstruction of American Journalism,” calling for, among other things, a national “Fund for Local News” to be administered by the Federal Communications Commission. “American society,” Downie and co-author Michael Schudson declared, “must now take some collective responsibility for supporting news reporting—as society has, at much greater expense, for public education, health care, scientific advancement and cultural preservation, through varying combinations of philanthropy, subsidy and government policy.”

These sentiments would have been considered shocking when Downie’s paper was butting heads with Richard Nixon in the early 1970s. They now are commonplace not just within the self-conscious mediasphere, at places like the Columbia Journalism Review and the Poynter Institute, but among the people who run the federal government.

“Not nearly enough is being done to find ways to preserve these institutions that are so critical to our democracy,” Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) said in September 2009, during one of several hearings on Capitol Hill last year on how to reverse the flagging fortunes of Big Media. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who chaired a Senate gabfest on the subject, semi-coherently expressed his sense of urgency: “The increase in media conglomerates has resulted in an increase in agenda-driven reporting and over time, if those of us who value a diversity of opinion and ideas, and are unafraid to be confronted with pointed commentary and analysis, do not act, it is a situation which will only get worse.” In March 2009, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) introduced a Newspaper Revitalization Act that would give papers targeted tax breaks and allow them to restructure as 501(c)(3) nonprofits as long as they stop endorsing political candidates and agree to limit the amount of advertising they run. 

That same month, Attorney General Eric Holder singled out newspapers for possible preferential treatment under the law. “I think it’s important for this nation to maintain a healthy newspaper industry,” Hoder said. “So to the extent that we have to look at our enforcement policies and conform them to the realities that that industry faces, that’s something that I’m going to be willing to do.” Even President Barack Obama got into the act, telling the Toledo Blade in September: “What I hope is that people start understanding if you’re getting your newspaper over the Internet, that’s not free and there’s got to be a way to find a business model that supports that.…It’s something that I think is absolutely critical to the health of our democracy.”

Though a big new federal journalism stimulus is highly unlikely, reeling newspapers during this bailout season have already benefited from official favors, from government-brokered meetings with potential buyers to grant money normally earmarked for job retraining. With new calls for assistance springing up every month, it’s a matter of time before some of the most well-connected and influential companies in the country start getting legislative results.

McChesney and Nichols’ contribution to the discussion is largely to soften the intellectual ground for what the authors know is controversial even among the most left-wing journalists: giving the government a greater role in the care and feeding of its watchdog. “In the dominant view, there is no role for the government in the news media except to stay out of the way,” they write. “We need to send this dogmatic understanding of a free press to the same graveyard that will receive the corporate news system. Let’s be clear about this: the bedrock principle that government must not censor or interfere with the content of journalistic operations of news media is non-negotiable.”

The authors would be more convincing on the latter point if their book didn’t start off with an approving quote from Obama, endorsing the questionable (though rarely questioned) notion that newspapers are the cornerstone of democracy. More substantively, McChesney has been one of the leading figures pushing for campaign finance laws of the type the U.S. Supreme Court overturned in January in Citizens United v. FEC. If you’re trying to reassure people that government censorship is a non-starter, it surely doesn’t help when in the next breath you advocate amending the Constitution so the government can once again censor Hillary: The Movie.

Unfortunately for anyone enthusiastic about both a strong federal government and freedom of the press, there is and always will be a fundamental tension between the two. Like Barack Obama taking over General Motors, McChesney and Nichols say they don’t want the government to own newspapers. It’s just that in cities where the one dominant daily is falling, the government should “establish an office to oversee and coordinate the rapid transition…into post-corporate newspapers.” If the government buys the newspaper outright, it will hold onto the thing “for one year maximum—with strict controls on the official role to guard against censorship and abuses of the public trust.” It’s fun to play pretend legislation, but the history of lawmaking is littered with unkept promises and unintended consequences.

To allay such concerns, the authors highlight historical government support for publishing in the U.S. and breezily assert that European journalists don’t have any problems being independent despite all the subsidies they get. Even if the latter were true—and it’s not—both arguments are about as convincing as McChesney’s 2000 lament that the Internet was “a direct testament to socialism” until it got “commercialized” in “an extraordinary case of corruption.” Sure, it’s interesting that the government created and helped maintain the Internet until the World Wide Web took off in the early ’90s. But the fact that commercialization and just plain decentralized play expanded the system into the globe-altering phenomenon it is today does not recommend a return to the boring and controlled old days. Nor does the comparative plentitude of thin and unprofitable newspaper titles in subsidized Western Europe mask the fact that corporate-owned American papers have for six decades been the envy of the world in terms of size, quality, and compensation. That the system is changing now, particularly at the top end, is occasionally traumatic for participants, but it’s no reason to abandon the American separation of media and state.

There is a pattern here, and it doesn’t manifest only in journalism. Anti-corporate crusaders have long decried the power and behavior of Detroit’s Big Three automakers. Yet by 2008 many longtime Detroit critics were clamoring for the Big Three to be bailed out, in order to save jobs and build the electric cars of their dreams. That’s what McChesney and Nichols want to do with media, producing in the wake of the allegedly imminent corporate die-out a journalism that does a better job covering labor, poverty, statehouse politics, and the run-up to the next war. It’s fitting that they would require the federal government to effect these changes, because without the use of force it’s unlikely that the largest media institutions would produce such an item-by-item reproduction of progressives’ journalistic wish-list.

The modern era of media criticism was kicked off in 1947, when a collection of the best and brightest summoned by Time Publisher Henry Luce and University of Chicago President Robert Hutchins concluded that the news media have a core role in the functioning of a society, and that they should therefore carry out their work with the utmost social responsibility. It was the act of an establishment trying to codify a set of lofty norms that—coincidentally or not—would dovetail uncannily well with the rapid consolidation of the news industry. Five-paper towns were becoming one-paper towns, and the survivors were finding that their local monopoly was both more profitable and less resented when producing high-quality, fair-minded, civic-oriented news.

Establishments, of course, attract company men while repelling the type of rabble rousers who don’t fit in with professionalized conformity. So beginning with the launch of The Village Voice in the 1950s, an “alternative” journalism sprang up, taking as foundational the idea that straight journalism was too stuffy to see the real news in front of its face. Both sides of the divide freely borrowed ideas and style from each other in the 1960s and ’70s, particularly within the New Journalism movement, and by the time Bagdikian’s The Media Monopoly came out you had, roughly speaking, two large groups of media thinkers: those who bemoaned corporate media from within and those who criticized it from without.

Then something funny happened. The media stopped consolidating. The end of the Fairness Doctrine, which had mandated equal time for opposing political views, begat a boom in AM talk radio. Desktop publishing begat a huge newsletter industry and other niche publishing projects. Cable television greatly expanded the kinds of news available, and the Internet ripped the lid off everything but McChesney and Nichols’ imagination. (“The Web has yet to emerge as a distinct journalistic force,” they insist.) Critics had become so accustomed to railing against media consolidation and the corporate owners who insisted on maximizing profits that they failed to appreciate that their vocabulary of citizens “drowned out” by oligarchs had long since become untethered to reality. 

The best that can be said for The Death and Life of American Journalism is that, without explicitly acknowledging their past hyperbole, the authors at least see a future that doesn’t involve outright slavery. The worst is that they want the government to use force to make their dreams come true. 

Matt Welch (matt.welch@reason.com) is the editor in chief of reason. This column first appeared at Reason.com.


Matt Welch is Editor in Chief, Reason


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