The media, the left and power: An interview with Robert McChesney

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Robert McChesney, eminent historian and political-economist of the media, founder of the Free Press, leading U.S. and international media activist, and author of The Political Economy of the Media: Enduring Issues, Emerging Dilemmas (Monthly Review Press, 2008) and Communication Revolution: Critical Junctures and the Future of the Media (The New Press, 2008), spoke with Tanner Mirrlees of the Socialist Project about contemporary media capitalism and 21st century media democracy struggles to understand and change it.

Tanner Mirrlees: Why do you think it is important for progressives to understand the media and participate in media democracy struggles?

Robert McChesney: The media is one of the key areas in society where power is exercised, reinforced and contested. It is hard to imagine a successful left political project that does not have a media platform. The media was not a major political issue for earlier generations of the left. In the 19th century, a very different media system was in place. Nineteenth century socialists wouldn’t be talking much about the need to criticize the New York Herald Tribune because they weren’t organizing people who read the New York Herald Tribune. It was much easier and more common for the left to have its own media. The workers had worker papers. They weren’t consuming mass produced commercial media products. But this started changing in the first half of the 20th century.

Capital accumulation colonized much more of popular culture and communications. Capitalism became the dominant mode of producing and distributing information in society. The media has since become central to politics; it is a central concern for anyone that wants to understand politics and intervene politically. The challenge for us is to understand, use and struggle to change the existing media.

TM: The corporate media play a dominant role in political struggles. Despite the power of the mainstream media, the left still has its own media network. However, I worry that much left media tends to be read almost exclusively by people that have already participated in or have a historical understanding of socialist struggles. How can we move from the level of building and maintaining our own left media to engaging in a broader media struggle?


RM: In my experience and in the experience of others who study the media, we wrote articles and books that outlined the many problems of the corporate media. We critiqued the media. We gave many speeches. We came to a point where audiences asked: “What do we do about it?” “What should we do about the problem of the media?” There was a traditional left response available at the time: “We understand that the media is not separate from, but an integral part of how capitalist power is upheld in society; when we make the revolution or the revolution just happens, the problem of the media will be resolved then.”

This was an unsophisticated answer. Of course, very few people on the left were that simplistic. Many understood that the battle over the media, just like the battle over the workplace, was a key part of engaging with and contesting power. Educating people about the media and fighting to make changes in the short-term, not just in the long term, became of utmost importance. Instead of waiting for the revolution to happen, we learned that unless you make significant changes in the media, it will be vastly more difficult to have a revolution. While the media is not the single most important issue in the world, it is one of the core issues that any successful left project needs to integrate into its strategic program.

The news crisis and the struggle for the future of journalism


TM: A piece entitled “The Death and Life of Great American Newspapers” written by you and John Nichols was recently published in The Nation (April 6, 2009). You describe in great detail the disintegration of U.S. news organizations and reveal how contemporary journalism is in crisis. Is the current crisis in journalism -- the closure and downsizing of newspaper operations -- related to new media technologies and the emergence of the Internet as a dominant source of information? Is there a relationship between the crisis of mainstream newspapers and the explosion of online alternative information sources?

RM: The Internet is one of the factors that brought news journalism to its knees. But it is not the only factor. Likewise, the world economic crisis is a very important factor, but not the only one. The Internet and the economic crisis are better understood as aggravating and accelerating a crisis with much deeper historical roots.

Journalism was in trouble decades before the worldwide web was invented and long before the worldwide economic crisis reached its current stage. The crisis began before news advertising revenue was lost to craigslist. The real problem is the corporate consolidation and monopoly control over journalism, which began in the late 1960s and unfolded throughout the 70s. In highly profitable monopolistic news entities (newspaper firms and network broadcasters), media owners, seeking to make more money, began to cut newsroom staff and commercialize news values. By the 1980s there was already a huge crisis in U.S. news journalism. Journalists became despondent about the commercial pressures shaping their work. The Internet and the world economic crisis have only intensified this deeper crisis in journalism.

But there is another aspect too. Some might say that I am just harking back to the good old days before corporations consolidated control over journalism, that I am nostalgic for 1960s journalism and advocating a return to it. I am not. Even in the 1960s, American professional journalism was highly flawed.

About one hundred years ago, the idea of “professional journalism” emerged as a direct response to the monopolization of newspapers. The idea of professional journalism was represented as form of self-regulation by monopolistic media owners. This was established to prevent public scrutiny of the inordinate control over journalism by media owners. The idea of professional journalism says: ‘You don’t need to worry about who owns and controls the media because the individual journalists are empowered professionals; journalists ultimately determine the quality and content of the news.’ Furthermore, professional journalism in the U.S. has always been comfortable with corporate ownership, the dependency on advertising and the status quo.

The idea of professional journalism has been a very conservative force. It gives working journalists the illusion that they are being fair, balanced and neutral when reporting. In fact, the code of professionalism they abide by has built into it certain values that push them, almost unconsciously, in certain directions. This was as true in the 1960s as it is today. But the situation has become worse today because newsrooms have been gutted. There are fewer and fewer professional journalists trying to cover more and more new stories.

TM: What is to be done about the corporate control of the media and the current crisis facing journalism?

RM: We are at a very early stage in the process. In the U.S, there is a sort of religious attachment to the idea of “free-press,” which is taken to mean the state has absolutely no role to play. In fact, the existence of the American free press was predicated on enormous public subsidies. For the U.S. media's first three generations, government postal subsidies, printing subsidies, and monopoly licenses were used to build the media. Just getting this basic fact into the public discussion, revealing the truth about the history of the U.S. media, is an important starting point. Much of the left has been incapable of dealing with the crisis because it has accepted the argument that journalism is a function of private interests; if private interests can’t generate journalism, then you just don’t have it. That is the mainstream argument as well.

Both arguments are wrong. We have to appreciate that the U.S. media system is based on subsidies, monopoly power and the government playing a large role. Government policy, however, has been made to serve corporate interests. Subsidies have gone mostly to corporations to serve monopolistic interests. Until people understand the relationship between the state and the media, it will seem like there is no political solution to the current problem. Everyone will write their own personal obituary for journalism because the media owners have decided they can’t make money selling newspapers. But we can do something about it. We can seize the policy-making process to democratize and develop a vibrant journalism. We need quality journalism if we want to govern our own lives.

The last thing we want to do, however, is rebuild the old media system. We are moving ahead toward a new kind of journalism. We are struggling for a journalism that incorporates the new media technologies so as to greatly democratize, open up, and make more accountable, the public information system. We want to democratize the media system so that people without property can play a much larger role in the media and in political life.

The result of such democratization will, in my view, be a marked shift to the political left. I might be wrong. Maybe the great majority of the people will decide they want 1 or 2 per cent of the population to own everything. But in a fair debate, I don’t think that would happen.

TM: Me neither. But the proposal for new democratic media policies is attacked by neo-liberal pundits, who often argue: ‘If you allow the state to save journalism, you will have totalitarianism!,’ ‘State interventionism in the media is undemocratic!’, ‘Press freedom will be threatened.’ What is your response to these kinds of statements, echoed by the mainstream media?

RM: If you look at the actual history of the relationship between the U.S. state and the U.S. media, you are faced with the question: Was Thomas Jefferson the first Stalin? Was James Madison a Hitler? No, the “founding fathers” self-consciously established enlightened media subsidies to develop the media system, not to censor freedom of speech. These guys’ subsidies were content neutral. Postal subsidies were implemented to make mailing a newspaper virtually free. This applied to every newspaper, regardless of the political content. This is the kind of subsidy we are talking about. We are not intent on giving some elite in government the power to go into a newsroom and tell the publisher what to do and what not to do.

That being said, we are challenging the belief that all journalism in society should be a private enterprise. Many say that corporate journalism, based on profit maximization, best serves a free and democratic society. The position is incorrect. The connection of capitalism to journalism, which has always been fraught with problems, has always been unstable. The relationship between capitalism, journalism, and democracy has never been a sure thing. In the U.S, the notion that capitalism is the natural steward of journalism and should be left alone to provide for a free and self-governing society refers to a period that began during the 19th century. This period ended when owners realized they could make a lot of money by turning journalism into big business.

Corporations are not in a position to generate and pay for quality journalism. The news is not a commercial product. It is a public good, necessary for a self-governing society. Once we accept this, we can talk about the kind of media policies and subsidies we want. What are the best ones? How should they be implemented? We are now trying to answer those questions and organize around them. If we don’t do anything, if we just sit back and hope that some new technology will magically solve the problems, or that George Soros or some billionaire philanthropist will just bankroll everything, we are dreaming. The future of journalism is an issue of the highest magnitude.

The struggle against hyper-commercialism and digital surveillance


RM: The final issue that we have to deal with (and everywhere in the world has to deal with) is what I call hyper-commercialism. This is the conversion of every space and moment of time in our lives to selling something, promoting something, branding something. This is a huge problem in the U.S. As I travel abroad, I see hyper-commercialism all over the world. As the Internet is increasingly hyper-commercialized, we open our entire lives to 24/7 injections of advertising messages.

We need to organize against hyper-commercialism. This is an easy-sell for the left. We understand that advertising is not something done by all people equally, but rather, done by a very small group of people working on behalf of multinational corporations. Advertising is commercial propaganda; or, as the great critic James Rorty put it in the 1930s: “advertising is our master’s voice.” Advertising is the voice of capital. We need to do whatever we can to limit capitalist propaganda, regulate it, minimize it and perhaps even eliminate it. The fight against hyper-commercialism becomes especially pronounced in the era of digital communications.

TM: How so?

RM: Corporate surveillance is widespread throughout the media networks in society. Software has developed to the point where corporations can now take the personal information we input into the Internet and from what we watch on TV and personalize ads to us. They monitor us and then insert personalized ads into the online webpages we visit and the content of the TV programs we watch. Extraordinary digital wiretapping practices are emerging.

TM: Yes, but this creeping Internet surveillance is promoted by the corporations doing it as beneficial to consumers, even benevolent. Its proponents say that it makes for a more efficient and interactive relationship between producers and consumers, that it is ‘democratizing the marketplace.’ ‘Now that companies know our individual tastes and preferences, they can customize ads on our behalf and make our consumption of goods more convenient!’ What is your critical response to this mainstream justification for surveillance?

RM: The media corporations are lining up world-class public relations bullshit. But the public relations bullshit obscures how new media surveillance practices lead to the elimination of personal privacy. You will have no privacy whatsoever if this continues to move ahead, unchallenged. This is an outrage. It is George Orwell’s 1984 Big Brother on steroids. Corporations would like to know literally every website you go to, every icon click you make, what TV shows you watch, what commercials you skip. They want to collect, package, and sell this information, and then use it against you to try to make you spend more money. They can dress this up however they want.

We need to organize to fight this and I am looking forward to it. And I think we will win this fight. But this doesn’t stop the fact that everywhere you go in our culture it is still hyper-commercialized. There is a fundamental crisis when you are in a world that is entirely commercial, in terms of the integrity of speech and thought. We are at the tipping point and we need to struggle directly against it.

TM: The world economic crisis presents us with an opportunity to do so.

RM: We are at a critical juncture in the history of communication. The world economic crisis is accentuating that critical juncture because it impacts all of society. The capitalist economy dominated by corporations has failed. The entire world is struggling to come up with something that is sustainable and humane and allows for human happiness and democracy.

Issues, proposals, and solutions to the problems of the media and the world that would have seemed outrageous just a few years ago, may seem common-sense in five or ten years. This is the type of critical juncture we are in. These critical junctures only come along once or twice a century and we are in one now. But I don’t want to romanticize the present. If we don’t do it right, the alternative is going to be a nightmare. We have our work cut out for us here.

TM: We have our work cut out for us in Canada too. Canada’s media monopoly is in crisis; the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation is repeatedly attacked by the neoconservative Harper administration; Canada’s New Right is waging an American-style culture war against the left. How might we move from the level of particular national struggles for media democracy toward a broader coordinated struggle for global media democracy?

RM: I don’t have a specific proposal, but what I can say with certainty is that every country is dealing basically with the same fundamental issues, but as they are shaped by specific local conditions. The response to my work on the U.S. media has been as strong from people living in countries all over the world as it has been from people in the U.S. The media is a fundamental issue of our time and that is why we struggle around and through it. It is about human beings everywhere developing the capacities to control their own destinies.


Tanner Mirrlees is the cultural editor of Relay where a longer version of this interview first appeared (#26). It is republished here with permission.

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