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Robert McChesney on the Campbell Conversations


On this week's episode of the Campbell Conversations, Grant Reeher speaks with author Robert McChesney. For decades, McChesney has written about the challenges faced by journalism in the United States and the effects on our political system.

Click text below to view McChesney's paper:

Program Transcript:

Grant Reeher: Welcome to the Campbell Conversations. I'm Grant Reeher. My guest today has spent 40 years studying and writing about the challenges faced by journalism in the United States and the effects on our political system. Robert McChesney is a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He's the author or coauthor of, among other books “Our Media Not Theirs,” “The Death and Life of American Journalism,” and “The Problem of the Media.” With the journalist John Nichols, he's put out a new essay on reviving the local news media. And that essay can be found along with this interview on WRVO’s webpage WRVO.org. Bob, welcome back to the program, it’s been a few years since you've been on it, but good to have you back.

Robert McChesney: Well, thank you. I'm glad to be here.

GR: So let's start with the problem and then we'll get to the solution. So first of all, could you just briefly lay out for our listeners what has happened to local journalism in recent decades?

RM: Local journalism is virtually disappeared in the United States in the past two decades or so, primarily due, but not exclusively to the fact that the business model is completely deteriorated and collapsed because advertising, which provided the lion's share of revenue for local daily newspapers for the last 125 years has basically abandoned local newspapers because it is superior and less expensive alternatives on the internet. And so there's no business model. So newspapers are going out of business. They're downsizing rapidly. We have basically 1/10 the amount spent per capita on daily newspapers today as we did a generation ago, and it's falling sharply. There are large parts of the United States today that are called news deserts, where there are literally areas with no reporters, no newsrooms covering what goes on in their community whatsoever. And if you include in the desert, those places, we only have one newsroom and no more than that, it covers most of the country. We're really down to a point where there's very little journalism. And I don't think this is anything anyone is unfamiliar with. If you raise this issue noticed, oh, you're wrong, it's great where I live, you never hear that. And the reason I mean, I'll tell you, we don't have a lot of time to do a quick story. I lived in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1988. There were two newspapers then, and within six months of just reading the two newspapers, I really felt part of that community. I knew that town was like who the people were, what the issues were. I felt connected to that as my hometown, and within six months I moved back here ten years ago, and there's no journalism to speak of. I only hear about stuff from friends who tell me stuff. I'm not connected at all to the community anymore, and I am trying, imagine someone who's not even trying, who used to be exposed also. Now they're just they're out there in a raft in the middle of the ocean. They have no connection to their community.

GR: Yeah. I want to get into some of the things that you mentioned. There is different aspects of that in a minute or two. But you attributed this to the the drying up of the advertising revenue because the people who would normally would have advertised in a local newspaper have, as you say, better places to go now with that and cheaper places to go. Is that really the root cause or are there other really primary causes along with that, that money flow that you were talking about?

RM: Well, the decline of daily newspapers inthe United States goes back well before that, but it was a slow, gradual descent, largely due to media concentration. The commercial model of newspapers worked really well 120 years ago. There were like ten or 15 daily newspapers in most American cities in the 1880s. But the way capitalism works, the way markets work, especially the way the newspaper market work, it whittled down during the 20th century. We have one newspaper in most cities, and it was impossible to start a competitor. And so the problems begin then really with the system, not more recently. What's happened now, though, is that before you had one newspaper with resources and a lot of money and reporters covering the community. Now you have zero newspapers. And you know, we should talk about what we emphasize daily newspaper so much. People say, well, what's your fixation on them? Daily newspapers actually provide most of the original journalism that’s done in communities. Broadcast journalism, including today go to MSNBC every story Rachel Maddow does is lifting today a print journalist story that she brings on the air. They don't cover anything. Broadcast journalism lifts print stories. There's always truth at the local level where your local TV news or radio news is just someone basically reading the front page of the paper, even at the complete collapse of newspapers, research shows that daily newspapers, their online version of themselves, still do the lion's share of original reporting in every community. So that's why it's so important. When we lose those institutions, we lose the whole game of journalism.

GR: Yeah, I think that's definitely true here in the Syracuse area. And it's certainly been the case that our local newspaper has cut back in dramatic fashion on the number of reporters and the amount of material that that it provides. And the reporters here are just stretched very, very thin. Well, I was curious to know whether COVID has made those effects even worse and more dramatic, or whether maybe it's helped in a little way. Because on the one hand, I imagine that there has been a much greater appetite for local news because of the pandemic. On the other hand, the economic hardships that are hitting everywhere have also hit the media.

RM: I think the general consensus now is that the pandemic has basically, if it's possible, accelerated the process of the decline, the swirling around the drain that's been going on. It seems that lots of job losses, lots of closures since the pandemic started. Now, those would have gone any way happened anyway. But this is the process we’re in. So how much it's accelerated them is really the only debate there. The idea that it's leaving any sort of rejuvenation of local commercial journalism, there is no evidence for that whatsoever. That's a pipe dream for some. If someone makes that claim.

GR: So you've already I think well explained why you think newspapers are so important. But let's just take a step back further and tell us why local journalism is so important to journalism more generally, and the connection between local journalism and the very functioning of our democracy. Because because in your and your paper, you've got some very interesting arguments about that.

RM: Well, local journalism is the heart and soul of journalism in the United States, always has been. And our national journalism has grown out of the local journalism. So, you know, our national journalism basically is the Chicago Tribune or New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, having a head office in New York or an office in London covering the world for their readers in their community. And the Associated Press, the first great news service was created by local newspapers, so they would have access to staff that would service them all over the world and provide their local readers with the equivalent of an international newspaper. So our national media has always been relatively weak, has been based on local media, and it's all our local media has collapsed. All those newsrooms that once existed in Washington, D.C., three or four or five dozen newsrooms in 1960 has been whittled down basically to two or three newsrooms, if that that are much smaller than they used to be. And those and so the national media rests on top of local media. And if we rejuvenate local media, we will rejuvenate national media, it will come along for the ride. But having a national media like we have now on top of nothing leaves us with really what we have is a pathetic, barebones national media. I mean, we're in a situation today, Grant, where the New York Times relationship with the United States is similar to Pravda’s relationship to the Soviet Union. It's like the only game in town for national news. I mean, it's not like there's a lot of choice. There's that, and then there's Qanon conspiracy theories and then basically you run out of gas. Those are the people provide you with an interpretation of the world on a daily basis.

GR: You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher and I'm speaking with news media scholar and critic Robert McChesney. So do you are you aware, Bob, of any studies trying to look very analytically at the effect of local journalism and its health in different areas where where you break out, where public opinion in a in a non desert area like you mentioned Madison, in an area where there is still some kind of local journalism comparing for lack of a better word, the quality of public opinion in those areas with the quality of public opinion in complete local news deserts?

RM: You know, I think there maybe is research along those lines. I think the non desert areas are experiencing such rapid desertification themselves that it's not like you've got much to compare really. Because as I said, Madison's not part of the desert. Well, I feel completely ignorant in Madison compared to what I felt 30 years ago. The real comparison is today to 30 years ago or to 60 years ago. That's where you really see the sharp differences. There's been a lot of research of the decline of involvement in civic life and the increase of corruption at the local level. Because no one's covering politics or what the governments doing closely anymore. There's been a lot of work, just the demise of community. The less people are doing charitable work because they're less connected to their communities. So and I cite a lot of it in the paper, the research and people who summarize the research, it's all negative. There's nothing good about it. It's not like, Yeah, it's great. Now people have more time to watch basketball because they aren't getting bothered with the news or living in their communities. No, there's nothing good about it. It's all negative.

GR: Yeah. You you talked about feeling more connected when you were living in a more news rich environment and and you just mentioned there are studies that have shown a more general decline. I mean, I'm thinking of Robert Putnam's ‘Bowling Alone,” but, you know, the studies that have shown a more general decline and the degree to which we interact with each other are levels of interpersonal trust, levels of volunteering and active ways in which we're actually coming in contact, especially with people that are different from ourselves. And so that really in your paper talks about this, but you really get at and I wonder if you could reflect on this a little bit, the relationship between the more general cultural contribution that local journalism makes aside from, you know, this really important story did not get covered if you don't have a robust local journalism environment or, you know, we don't have the necessary facts that we need to decide as citizens. Tthose are all terribly important. But then there's this other kind of squishier but still really important piece that you that goes missing as well, right?

RM: There is I mean, we see it today in things like knowing what's going on in your community, what activities your neighbors are doing, profiles of people in your community, what they're up to, all these sort of little things. But there's really actually going back to the founders of this country, when they understood the press system, they did not understand it simply as the press was the watchdog, and they write up the facts and then people could do with the facts as they pleased. They saw the press, as Jefferson called it, the best army for the preservation of democracy, because what it would do is it would draw people into public life. It would basically say, it would make arguments. He would encourage people to see themselves as their own governors. They have the power to make the decisions. Here's your weapon, the press that gives you the power you need. And I think that's really relates to the community thing. I mean, it's whether you're an active citizen involved with other people or whether you're a passive, do nothing powerless person. And that's all the difference in the world. Our press system from the very beginning, at its best, the reason why the framers were obsessed with it, wasn't just to report facts about the government that people could take or leave. It was to be the weapon that drew people into public life so they actually could be meaningful participants and solidarity with other people. And that's what we've lost. That's what's gone. And when that's gone, when people lose that ability through local news media and newspapers to do that. Well, then people still want answers. Where are they getting them? Any wacko conspiracy theory that comes along that would be laughed out of the room, you know, in earlier times, local media would have covered it or something or said, this is ridiculous. Now suddenly there's no one covering this say it’s ridiculous. There's only the ridiculous.

GR: And that's the entry point, I think, into your positive argument for the role of the government in trying to make this situation better. We'll get into that in the second half of our conversation. Right now we have to take a short break. You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher and I'm talking with Robert McChesney. He's a scholar of the media, a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and the coauthor of a new essay on reinvigorating local news media called “To Protect and Extend Democracy, Recreate Local News Media.” Bob, I want to get into your positive argument here in a minute, but let me ask one more question about the current situation. You know, there are nonprofit journalism organizations out there already, and some of them are quite good. I mean, we think about perhaps the Center for Public Integrity or ProPublica. As currently constructed, can they fill the void that you see in the media environment?

RM: Well, they're terrific. And I'm on the board of a lot of journalism groups and publications, but they're all starved for money and they're all desperate for money. And so we're trying to find a way to get money in the hands of people who want to do journalism so they can do journalism and not worry about finding some rich person, they got to kiss their butts to get money.

GR: And of course, that also influences perhaps how they report things.

RM: Well, you know, there's always strings attached with every dollar, no matter where it comes from. And that's why the proposal we have all the money comes from the government. It comes from the public. The work is entirely for the people who pay the bills, the public. There's no other sources of funds. There's no hidden connections to any groups. It's all right there out in front of you.

GR: So you you set forward you and your coauthor, John Nichols, set forward this proposal for a local journalism initiative. And as you just mentioned, the government will be the only funder of this. So, right away, I think you're going to get some immediate reaction on the part of some that are going to balk at this idea of direct government sponsorship of the media. They'll raise concerns about propaganda, manipulation. Probably the book “1984” will come up at some point. Why is that reaction misguided here?

RM: Two basic reasons, American history. We've always had a lot of subsidies of our media system from the beginning of the country and in the first hundred years of American history, the newspapers were heavily subsidized by the government. Most Americans are unaware of this. Basically, we have this thing called the post office, it’s in the Constitution. Its entire job was to distribute newspapers virtually for free for 100 years. Most Americans don't know that. It was an enormous undertaking. If you read any book on journalism before the year 1920, it would have huge sections just on the post office. The post office was basically the delivery system of all American newspapers until the Civil War, and most papers after the Civil War. In major cities, the post office delivered seven days a week, three times a day. Newspapers throughout the city. So this is the amount of money, the subsidy that the federal government had just from the post office accounted for basically 2/10 of 1% of GDP in the 19th century. That would be equivalent of $46 billion today. So this is a huge undertaking with all the government playing a huge role in what we learn from the postal subsidy. And there are other subsidies as well. Why? It was a great subsidy, was it? It was content viewpoint, neutral. It didn't pick who got the subs, who got the discount mailing and who and who didn't get it. Everyone got it. Who met the basic baseline criteria of being a newspaper. And that's the sort of subsidy we need, one that does not discriminate in terms of content. Government has no say over who gets the money. You have certain simple criteria. If you meet those criteria, you're eligible. If you don't, you don't. But your politics can be anything from ultra-right to ultra-left or anywhere in between. You could have no politics at all. And so that so that's American history. And the second thing I would say is, if you look at the most democratic countries in the world today, by any criteria, sayThe Economist magazine, has its annual democracy index and it ranks who's the most the number one, the number three, four or five, the most democratic countries. What you see is the top five or ten countries always there, Norway, Germany, Denmark, Canada. They're the countries that spend them, have the government spends the most on journalism and media, public media. The government has the biggest investment. These are the most democratic countries in the world. And I'd say the United States spends very little is down there, it's not even a democracy anymore, according to that. We're now called a flawed democracy compared with countries like Hungary. It's like our comrade down there. And then so we hardly spend anything. Then we say, Well, we must be horrible to live in some place like Denmark. They must have this Orwellian media where the news media just feeds them government propaganda so people think they're happy. No, it's not true at all. There's another group called Reporters Without Borders, which judges how antagonistic is the press system towards people in power? How much hard, critical work has been done inside a country on its own power structure? And this is really the measure of a truly great free press. You want to be high up on that list. That's what guess what countries are at the top of that list. The same countries that invest the most, the governments invest the most in journalism and public media are the ones that have the feistiest press systems. So I think the moral of the story is Americans have always freaked out about government involvement in press for good reason because of George Orwell in 1984. If the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany spends a lot of money in media, yeah, it's purely propaganda. But if a democratic society does it with the rule of law and deliberation in a parliament, there's. It's like spending on education. It can be a beautiful thing. And that's what we need. We need it as a beautiful thing that gets rid of all the stuff that we don't like and has the stuff we do like.

GR: Now you characterize it as an investment in our democracy. If you're just joining us, you're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. And my guest is the media scholar Robert McChesney. The proposal that you set forward does get complicated because there's a lot of questions that have to be answered. Can you just distill it to a minute or two and just lay out how we'll work? The money comes from the government. How is this going to be run and how will it be structured?

RM: Real simple. You have a budget that's based on basically for the sake of discussion, $100 per person is the budget. And so every county will get a budget a hundred dollars times the number of people live in that county, and then that'll be its budget for a year and it'll be fixed. So basically every year you'll have a very similar budget would be based on .15 percent of the GDP from the year before. So it's a steady number that changes with inflation and population growth and so there’s this fixed budget every year and then every three years the county will have an election to pick which nonprofit media qualify to get it. And there are certain criteria to make sure you don't have any fraud or people. The most important thing is that anyone who wants to get this money in the election to win an election, become a recipient of these funds has to be nonprofit. It has to be fully independent. It can't be connected to any other group, nonprofit or anything. It's just straight ahead, just journalism. It has to be based in the county. It has to produce something for free, at least five days a week. So real content initially and it’s budget has to be spent mostly inside that county. And so the idea is you have a pretty large budget per county. Every three years, people in the county get to vote on who they want to get the money and they'll get it for the next three years and everyone gets three votes. And the reason is that we don't want to just have one winner. Hey, this is our news media that covers this is Pravda for our county. What we want is a situation where at multiple newsrooms, like we used to have an American until the 1930s or 1920s, we have, you know, in a large city, a Syracuse, you'd have eight or ten newspapers or newsrooms covering the community. So you get three votes, you get to pick a diet, and then basically you get the votes are counted in each medium, gets whatever percent of the vote it gets. That's its budget. It gets 15% of the funds for that county with the proviso two things you've got to have at least no more than 20%. That's the maximum amount. So the worst-case scenario, you have five newsrooms that will be really well funded, probably a lot more, but you're not going to have two or three. You're going to have a lot of diversity. Any way you slice it. And at the low end, you can't just have three guys get together and pool their vote for each other, pocket the money. You've got to get at least 1% of the vote. So you got to have enough money. So, you know, you've got a paid working staff in your newsroom. A real thing there, not just some guy in his basement.

GR: Well, yeah. On that point then. So these nonprofits have to be existing before the public vote. And I think in your paper, you say six months before they have to be in operation.

RM: To be able to see what they're up to.

GR: See what see what they're doing. So. So where are they? How are they? How are the organizations going to get started? There's going to have to be some kind of upfront commitment that is self-funded through labor. If nothing else, how will that…

RM: Yeah, there's going to have to be I mean, a philanthropy can play a big role here. For example, a philanthropist instead of having to bankroll something forever. Now a philanthropist or foundation could say, heck yeah, we'll see seed money for a year to get your thing going. And then if you take off, you're on your own. Because in this proposal, once you get LJI money, once you get this government money, you can't get money from philanthropy again. You've got, all your money is coming from the government and there are no strings attached. You aren't spending any time trying to raise money anymore. Your job is to produce content for your community and the other point to make that's really important. Everything produced is free and goes in the public domain immediately so they can't sell it after that. People already paid for it. They've got their money upfront, it's put online, it's accessible to everyone, anyone can use it, other people could sell it if they want to, but you can't.

GR: Now, what happens in your system? I'm sure you've thought of this. If the winners of the vote are organizations that are giving us a bunch of stories about puppy dogs or are providing video of people doing really dumb things like that old show called “Jackass,” what if that's the stuff that people choose?

RM: Then we live with it. I mean, you know, I think Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin both answered that question for us 225 years ago, they were the strongest proponents we have of a free press and the need for a press system in American history. I mean, they can't do much more than the two of them, and they both hated the press in their own era at times. Thomas Jefferson said at one time, the person who never read a newspaper would be much smarter than anyone who read all the newspapers at this time because they were so bad. But he never would call for censoring them. He never said we should do anything about it. He was angry about it, but he said that you have to trust the people ultimately if you're a democracy. You don't have a choice of intervening because you think you're smarter than the people. If people want to have “Jackass” they can have “Jackass.” I will say this, though. These are nonprofit things. You can't really get rich doing it as a nonprofit. You're really limited in what your salaries can be. You can't have you can't be a billionaire, become a millionaire. The crowd that makes “Jackass” and that does all this sort of stuff, they're in it for the money. They're in it to get rich. They're probably going to they can't get rich doing this. They have to produce stuff and give it away for free and they can't get it high salaries. You're probably going to get it's not going to appeal to those people. So I don't think I think it seems hypothetically like a problem. I think more likely what will happen is there will be people who have political viewpoints you'd strongly disagree with and who would use that as a fulcrum or as a vehicle to express their viewpoints, whatever they may be. And again, I think you defer to Jefferson and Madison and Franklin. I mean, in a democracy, you live with that. If you know, you know, get out of the kitchen. That's just the way you that's not a bad thing necessarily. You know, some of it can get very obnoxious, but, you know, that's the point of having a good press system. A competitive press system with diversity is to theoretically the truth will rise up. In fact, one of the things we talk about is that for every county there will be a home page on the Internet, what we call a newsstand. So every entry for that county of the latest article will be on the same page. So you'll always get a chance to see really quickly scan what…

GR: What else is there.

RM: …what's being covered not just in one medium.

GR: Well, this is a very intriguing idea, and I think it's worth a closer look. For our listeners who have been as intrigued as me, I'll just remind them that you can find Robert and John Nichols's paper in its full length on WRVO’s website as a PDF. It will be right there along with his interview. We'll have to leave it there now. However, that was Robert McChesney. Bob, I want to thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me.

RM: My pleasure, Graham.

GR: You've been listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media, conversations in the public interest.

Grant Reeher is Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute and a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is also creator, host and program director of “The Campbell Conversations” on WRVO, a weekly regional public affairs program featuring extended in-depth interviews with regional and national writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals.