The only cheery journalism news of the past year was the revolt of Manchester United fans blocking Rupert Murdoch from buying their football club. Otherwise, things are dreary. AOL plans to absorb Time Warner, and the Tribune Company, which owns an undisclosed portion of AOL, swallows the Times Mirror Company. This is the latest chapter in an old story: the disappearance of an independent press, of journalism itself, into the information and entertainment industry. Where are the fans of journalism, and should we be concerned?
The situation of the press is paradoxical. There is more good journalism about, in all media, but such journalism is harder to find because it is surrounded and submerged in the trivial and inconsequential. Much first-class investigative work is going on, but the big stories, the fateful stories, are escaping journalists. Media are more powerful and resourceful than ever, but political participation and attentiveness to the news continues to decline. There are many more skillful, better paid and educated journalists these days, but they have less control over the conditions of their work and are less free than in the past. Journalists are afforded more legal protection than ever, but are simultaneously more pious and reverent to the business and celebrity classes.
Robert McChesney, Research Professor of Communications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, tells this paradoxical story in numbing and disheartening detail in “Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Times,” a splendid book that deserves close reading and thoughtful consideration by anyone who cares about the future of the press and democracy. The title tells it all: The media are richer and more powerful and democracy thinner and more impotent than at any time in memory.
The book extends a long muckraking tradition that stretches back to UptonSinclair’s “The Brass Check” (1920) and George Seldes’s “Lords of the Press” (1938). Its immediate predecessor is Ben Bagdikian’s “The Media Monopoly” (1983). Actually, it is not a successor to the latter for the esteemed Mr. Bagdikian has an equally dispiriting fifth edition of his work coming out this spring. What all these books share is the belief that freedom of the press and the craft of journalism itself, along with democracy and representative government, is endangered by the epidemic of merger and acquisition that is creating a concentrated, thoroughly commercial, increasingly monopolistic media system.
If McChesney and Bagdikian are correct, journalists have to abandon their neutral and agnostic stance, at least on this story. Journalists can be independent or objective about everything else but they cannot be aloof about democracy, for it forms the ground condition of their craft. Without the institutions of democracy, journalists are reduced to propagandists or entertainers. The passion for democracy is the one necessary bond journalists must have with the public and their colleagues in other crafts—law, teaching—who are equally dependent on democratic institutions. No journalism, no democracy; but, equally, no democracy, no journalism. Journalism and democracy are names for the same thing.
I know the response: Journalists need not get involved; journalism is too strong, democracy too entrenched for anything to go seriously wrong in the United States. This is short-sighted. The Founding Fathers were historians enough to know that democracies or republics have a life expectancy of about 200 years before decaying into tyranny. They underscored that democratic institutions are fragile, the moments of their existence fleeting in historical time. The great imperative of journalism is to prevent us from unconsciously lurching back into domination, however benign and friendly its face.
We now seem to take democratic institutions for granted as if they are indestructible. Journalists seem to believe that democratic politics, which alone underwrites their craft, is a self-perpetuating machine that will run of itself, that can withstand any amount of undermining. Nothing is further from the truth.
The dangers that the government poses to journalism and democracy are well rehearsed. McChesney documents in abundant detail an equally strong case against what he calls the “corporate media.” He updates the story to take account of the increasing convergence of the entertainment, journalism and Internet industries. Because the book is the first of the genre written after the breakup of the Soviet Union, it is mercifully free of the Cold War posturing that undermined many earlier efforts to tell this story.
While he devotes considerable attention to the perils and promises that the Internet holds out for journalists, he concludes, correctly I believe, that for all the short-run gains offered by the new technology, it is leading to a new wave of concentration in the press and a more thoroughly commercialized and corporate-dominated press system.
McChesney is particularly acute on the transformation of the meaning of the First Amendment that has silently occurred in recent years. The major Supreme Court cases that have slowly and patiently removed restraints on the press have done so in the name of overriding public purposes: to facilitate debate, to constitute an adversary of entrenched power, to create a transparent society, to air the public’s business, to promote responsive institutions, the press included. This is the core of the political meaning of the press and it is a badge of honor journalists regularly parade. Increasingly, this political right—a collective right to accessible and accountable democratic institutions—is being replaced by the notion that the First Amendment principally confers an enhanced property right to the owners of the media, a right to operate with greater license (and profits) than is possible, say, under the Fifth Amendment.
In our time the First Amendment is ceasing to have the implication of a public trust held by the press in the name of a wider community. It is being converted from a political right to an exclusively economic one and democracy comes to mean solely economic democracy, though even that comes in the degenerate form of greater inequality. Journalists must recognize that the corporate meaning of the First Amendment is inimical to their and the public’s interest. They must align themselves with the public and reduce their slavish dependence on captains of industry and their legal advisors. The question is this: What kind of a First Amendment do citizens and journalists need if they are to undertake the work of democracy? They need something more than a license to make money and to turn the political system into a commercial arena for profligate advertising and consumption of politics.
In an elegiac “farewell to journalism,” McChesney lays out his case against the corporate press. Part of the case is questionable, based on inattentive reading of journalism, inflated by left-wing rhetoric with a whiff of political correctness. However, the major thrust of his argument is correct. The corporate sector is increasingly exempt from any sustained critical examination from the standpoint of democracy. The story of industrial concentration is an investor’s story, appealing to and lionizing the business class as the great engine of democracy itself. Moreover, stories harmful to the interests of that class have largely disappeared or been subordinated into minor episodes: the savings and loan scandal (until politicians chose to reveal it), the defense budget that expands despite the peace dividend, foreign policy, the national security state, and the Multilateral Agreement on Investment.)
Journalism seems dedicated these days to cultivating cynicism about democracy and worship of wealth. When there is a division of interest within the business class, say on tobacco, the story gets covered. When there is consensus within that class, the story is either ignored or subject to a standard of proof beyond what is required for reporting on other sectors. Moreover, the story of the conditions of common work, of the inequalities of wealth and income, and the labor movement have disappeared from the pages of journalism while excessive attention is paid to malfeasance in education, welfare and product liability, areas that drain monies away from the corporate sector.
If during the 1930’s the automobile and steel interests had attempted to buy the press—as they did in parts of Europe—it would have been seen as a threat to freedom and democracy, indeed as the beginnings of fascism. If during the shortages of the 1970’s the oil industry had decided to buy up the press, as they were tempted to do, there would have been an outcry of protest. Today, the entertainment and information industries, increasingly indistinguishable, are buying up the press and the press is transforming itself into an arm of these same industries. Where’s the protest?
Entertainment and information play the role in national and international economies that steel, autos and oil played in earlier decades, but we are beguiled by the words “communications” and “media” into thinking that it constitutes less of a threat. Robert McChesney’s valuable book will perform a public service if it does nothing more than raise us from our self-interested complacency.
James Carey is a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.