The death of journalism?

August 29, 2013

Robert McChesney is a professor of media studies and a renowned scholar about the history and political economy of mass communication. He's the author of number books, most recently Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism Is Turning the Internet Against Democracy and, with John Nichols, Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America. He talked with Eric Ruder about the implications of the collapse of journalism.

THE MEDIA is buzzing about the purchase of the Washington Post by Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of Why? What's the importance of this development?

THE CONTEXT for the Bezos purchase is that commercial journalism as we've known it in the United States for more than a century is dying. It's in its spiral death throes right now. Capitalists can't make money publishing journalism, and it's a perfectly rational determination for a capitalist to make.

We've had the illusion that popular journalism serving a mass audience could be a successful financial undertaking for the last century, largely because advertising has provided the great bulk of the revenues, anywhere from 50 percent to 100 percent. For newspapers, advertising has provided 70 to 80 percent of the revenues. Advertisers have had no particular interest in journalism per se; they only needed to support news media to accomplish commercial aims.

And now we're in a universe in which advertising dollars increasingly go to digital formats. In other words, advertisers no longer have to purchase space from a content provider to reach their target audience. On the Internet, it's called smart advertising. It used to be that if an advertiser wanted to reach 25 million women ages 29 to 34 who might be in the market for an automobile, the advertiser would have to find television shows or newspapers or magazines that those women go to, and then some of the money for that ad goes to subsidize the content on that site or that medium.

The empty newsroom
The empty newsroom (Lauren Michell Rabaino)

Today, an advertiser simply buys those women through a network run by Google or Microsoft or AOL or Yahoo, and they will deliver those women, whatever website they're on. We've all experienced this--if you're on a basketball website and you see an ad for a book you're interested in that has nothing to do with basketball, you might wonder, "Why were they advertising that book on that website?" Well, they weren't advertising to anyone but you--they know everywhere we go online, and they're just going to find you and serve you the ad.

This has a lot of political implications, which are very interesting and somewhat frightening, but for journalism, because there's no "bonus" money that goes to subsidize standard journalism, the corporate investors are jumping ship. That's why newspapers are closing and not re-opening. Everyone talks about newspapers like it's old media versus new media. "Oh, it's just those old ink newspapers that are going down, the Internet's replacing them." Bullshit! No one's making money doing journalism.

There are no new newsrooms springing up online that are paying reporters money and that have editors and a staff. And this is the great crisis for our time for journalism--it's a structural, political and economic crisis. The market can't provide journalism, like many public goods, in sufficient quality or quantity, and this is the context for understanding the Koch brothers, Bezos, and all the other billionaires buying up traditional print media outlets.

Newspapers will still make some money because they're monopolies in their markets that can make some legacy money, because it's the only newsroom in town and no one else is covering anything. But the amount of money they're making is declining, and the product they're putting out is getting flimsier and flimsier as they do layoffs as a result of declining revenues.

Secondly, but more importantly, the news media still have spectacular political influence. And that's what Jeff Bezos and the Koch brothers are buying. Jeff Bezos did not purchase the Washington Post because he thinks it's a really smart investment, as if he had an array of investment opportunities and he said, "That's the winner!" And he didn't buy it because he thought it would fit nicely into the Amazon empire. If he did think that, he would have had Amazon buy it and inserted it directly into Amazon's operations.

No, this was a vanity purchase out of his spare change drawer. He plunked down a couple hundred million dollars, and now he owns it outright himself. What the Washington Post gives him is tremendous power to shape and influence what people in Washington talk about, and what they don't talk about. And just the threat of that, even without having to exercise it, will give him tremendous influence. Just knowing that he owns the Post will get a lot of people to instantly pay him a certain amount of respect that he would be less likely to get otherwise. So that's the big value.

And it makes perfect sense when you consider that $250 million is not that much money for Jeff Bezos, and yet he gets to have the second or third most important newspaper in the United States, the most important newspaper in Washington, and one of the 10 most important newspapers in the world.

It's a smart play. If I were advising the Koch brothers, I'd say, "Buy!" Instead of spending hundreds of millions of dollars on these idiotic television ads, just buy up some newspapers. They have every bit as much effect, maybe more.

But it leaves us as a society in an absurd position. So, if you're in Chicago, you've got to be rooting that the benevolent billionaire buys your monopoly newspaper instead of the right-wing, lunatic billionaire. But the idea that someday billionaires are going to have monopoly control over debate in our society is preposterous. And that's the situation we're in.

SOME PEOPLE suggest that the flattening out of journalism has also democratized the medium--and that's why there's a crackdown on sites like WikiLeaks and why Sen. Dianne Feinstein has been talking about narrowly defining who is a journalist and who is not. How does this related to the new media empires being bought by Bezos and the Koch brothers?

THERE HAS been a decline in journalism--a decline in the resources going to it and a decline in the institutions doing journalism. In the Internet age, this has given rise to what we might call "citizen journalists," which is a euphemism for unpaid journalists--someone who is basically a volunteer, blogging in their free time, covering what they want to cover, not covering what they don't want to cover. And really not held to any standard by anyone because they're doing it on their free time. If you don't like it, don't read it.

This creates a dilemma--the traditional criteria for journalists are deteriorating, but is everyone then a journalist? Is it a distinct enterprise? It's something that's very difficult to wrestle with, and I think that trying to narrow it down is the wrong way to go. I think it's preposterous. But at the same time, to the extent that we've had special privileges for journalists in terms of access to information and powerful people, if everyone's a journalist, the system doesn't really work well either. So it's an unresolvable problem.

I think the really interesting question here is that the foundation of the crisis today with government spying--much of what Snowden revealed and what WikiLeaks revealed too, if people paid attention--was that the National Security Agency, the CIA, the FBI, the military, have this tremendous capacity to know everything about us. They basically have access to everything, and they collect everything.

We are supposed to "trust them" that they won't abuse that, even though all historical evidence suggests that's preposterous, that you simply shouldn't trust unaccountable police power--ever, anywhere, in any country, at any time. It's one of the first rules of law that that sort of power should not be trusted. And what's striking about it is that this was done by the various national security agencies--to collect all this data, to exercise these powers--and yet they basically had no debate about it in Washington.

The heads of both political parties are completely signed on, so it's not really an issue--unless a Snowden comes along. And our news media has been asleep for a decade on this for the most part. Apart from a couple of wonderful exceptions, such as the Washington Post series by Dana Priest and William Arkin a few years ago, no traditional news media has shown any interest in these issues, unless they've been forced to at gunpoint, and then they usually spoon feed us what elites tell us, Bob Schieffer- or Charlie Rose-style.

But the real story here, and what I get at in my book Digital Disconnect, is that there's a very cozy relationship between the national security agencies and the corporate digital monopolies that now own, rule and govern the Internet. The great promise 20 years ago was that the Internet was going to break down corporate monopolies and oligopolies and give consumers, small businesses and private individuals all sorts of ways to get all this information, and then the big corporations couldn't beat you over the head with their high prices and their crappy products.

You still hear such rhetoric occasionally today from people who aren't paying any attention--farewell dinosaur Corporate America, farewell monopolies, here comes competition, the golden age of markets, even a golden age of anti-markets. It was going to empower people to do whatever the hell they wanted under the great democratizing influence of the Internet.

But one of the great ironies about our times is that the Internet has proven to be the greatest generator of corporate monopoly in the history of any economic system, not just modern capitalism. Everywhere you go online, there are a handful of companies that have what economists would consider monopolies--that is, at least half the market share, usually more. These corporations are impregnable. They can determine the price of the product, and they can control how many competitors they have.

It's usually not worth it to try to have 100 percent of a market--70 or 80 percent is sufficient, and this lets some people in around the edges. Even John D. Rockefeller, at the height of the Standard Oil monopoly, didn't have 100 percent of the oil market. In fact, he had less market share than Google or Apple or Amazon has today.

And everywhere online, what we've seen is a handful of enormous companies have developed these monopolies, and they are now dominating capitalism. We know many of their names--Google, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook, Yahoo--and some we know less--like Qualcom or Intel or Oracle. Then you have to throw in the cartel that dominates Internet access--Comcast, Verizon and AT&T--but these 12 companies or so, which are all basic monopolies by the Rockefeller standard, all rate among the 30 largest companies in America in terms of market value.

They're all worth well over $100 billion, and they're monopolies. That's where the money is going from the Internet. They're using their monopoly profits to create huge empires, and they're all competing with each other to set up modern-day equivalents of company towns online. They're making enormous amounts of money, and they're the only players in the game. In Digital Disconnect, I cover in detail the network economics that account for this and the immense amount of politics behind the scenes that allows monopolies to exist and that allows the government to let this take place.

And here's the relevance to the NSA: where does Google or Facebook make its money (and to a lesser extent Apple and Amazon)? There's a great saying about the Internet: if you get something for free on the Internet, you're not the customer; you're the product. As we conduct this interview via Skype, for example, we're not the customer, we're the product.

Microsoft owns Skype. And because of that, they know everything about us. That's the deal. We get to make this call, but Microsoft learns everything that they want to know about Eric Ruder and Bob McChesney. They're planting cookies on our computers. That's the trade-off. So what happens is that profits for Google and Microsoft and Apple and Amazon and Facebook come from vacuuming up immense amounts of data about us, and then selling us to advertisers for those smart ads for companies. Then, when a company wants to buy an ad, they'll know how to place ads on websites that we visit so they can reach us on whatever site we go to. That's the business model.

You can see right away then that there's a spectacular marriage of convenience for the national security agencies that also want to know everything about us, just as these companies want to know everything about us. And that's the great military-digital complex that's the backstory to the Snowden revelations and to WikiLeaks. These companies and the National Security Agency and the police authorities and the U.S. government have an extraordinarily collegial and mutually beneficial relationship, and it is one of the defining political stories of our time, and a story that's not getting much attention.

So recall when the WikiLeaks revelations broke a few years ago and Assange had to split the country? Amazon has an enormous cloud where people store their digital data, and many businesses use the cloud too. WikiLeaks used the Amazon cloud to conduct their business, and they paid for this service, just like everyone else. But Amazon, without even being told to, threw WikiLeaks off its cloud, didn't let it do its business or raise its money there, even though WikiLeaks was not charged with any crime.

Some politicians had complained about WikiLeaks, like Senators Joe Lieberman and John McCain. And that was all it took for Amazon to kick WikiLeaks off--and no other major cloud would let it on. They basically put Wikileaks out of business. These monopoly companies had the ability to end WikiLeaks as a viable undertaking. And they did it voluntarily.

Some people try to present it like, "Poor Amazon, the government pressured them." Well, I have a friend who worked in the State Department at that time and was in the room and part of the discussions when they were debating the WikiLeaks revelations. At that moment, the State Department was the main victim of these cables. And the people in that room were--yet they were surprised that Amazon did this. They said, "We never even asked them! They did it all on their own!"

Amazon didn't have to be told--they're partners, they're joined at the hip. So Amazon's Jeff Bezos is the guy who now is going to run the Washington Post. This is the guy who is going to protect editorial autonomy and integrity at the Washington Post? I think that gives us a sense of how Jeff Bezos views the world. If he tosses WikiLeaks off the cloud, off his servers, just because his friends at the government who he does business with don't like them, what are the chances he's going to be pursuing that story aggressively at the Washington Post, or even treating it respectfully?

And last year, Amazon got a $600 million contract with the CIA to put CIA material on the cloud. Well, gee whiz, isn't life sweet? And again, not to defend Jeff Bezos, it's not that he's a bad guy, but structurally this is what you would expect. We've got a system structurally where you would have this sort of relationship.

THIS MODEL of "professional journalism" that we're witnessing the death throes of was the product of a crisis of the previous model, what could perhaps be called the era of "robber-baron journalism." Can you talk about what caused that crisis?

HERE'S A highly condensed history. In the 19th century, the U.S. had the most vibrant print media in the world in the 19th century--relatively speaking, a huge abolitionist press, a suffragist press, a labor press. And in major cities, there might five, 10, 20 daily newspapers. Advertising wasn't a major source of support. If advertising is the foundation of journalism today, how did we have all that back then? What was the economics that could support this elaborate news media? According to historical research by myself and other scholars, American journalism prior to the 1880s and 1890s was supported to no small extent through government subsidies--in the form of massive printing and postal subsidies.

Without postal subsidies, which made the delivery of newspapers even within cities virtually free, there would have been no abolitionist press because it couldn't have possibly survived. These very democratic and extraordinary subsidies made it easier for people to produce newspapers and encouraged a diversity of viewpoints. At the same time, the journalism of the late 19th century was highly partisan. If you picked up a newspaper, daily or otherwise, you knew its point of view immediately. You didn't have to wait until the editorial page.

If it was a Republican newspaper in 1892 during the presidential election, it might not even mention the Democrats at all, anywhere in the paper. That wasn't uncommon, and vice versa. The partisan system, in which the newspaper publisher is the editor and the politics drives it as much as the commerce, has its problems, but it works pretty well when you've got a range of viewpoints. The problems are when you only have one viewpoint, like in a Communist country or in a Nazi or authoritarian country, where only one party is allowed to communicate.

But if you've got a spectrum of opinions, and it's possible to start new newspapers easily if there's an absence somewhere in this spectrum, that's not a bad way to run a press system in a free society. I'm generalizing here, but that largely was our system in the 19th century.

At the end of the 19th century, publishing newspapers started to become very profitable. Advertising began to emerge, and news publication became highly concentrated, meaning that instead of having 10 or 20 daily newspapers in a city like Philadelphia or Chicago, or 30 in New York, the numbers dwindled. In smaller cities like Des Moines, Iowa, Louisville, Ky., Madison, Wis., Rockford, Ill., it sometimes fell to just two or three and eventually to one.

But having stridently partisan journalism in a monopolistic environment doesn't work. It stinks like month-old fish out on the counter because then the person who has the monopoly has all this political power. And there's really no threat of competition from someone starting a new paper because the market works against newcomers. And that in a nutshell is the crisis of the first few decades of the 20th century, what's called the Progressive Era.

In these highly concentrated newspaper markets, the great press lords used their ownership over news media to push their own politics--generally quite conservative and always anti-labor, with very few exceptions. This is the scandal of journalism. It's not just the politics; it was also the fact that there were tremendous incentives to go towards scandalous coverage and to sell coverage to make money--in other words, the pursuit of profit undermined the integrity of news as did the political agenda of owners.

Those are two blades of the sword that created a situation by 1910 or 1915 where American journalism was in the deepest crisis that it experienced in terms of credibility. Even some commercial press owners start thinking that perhaps we should municipalize the ownership of newspapers to make them public institutions, because they're so corrupt. Even the press barons benefiting from this arrangement understood that.

In the 1912 presidential election, three of the four presidential candidates--Democrat Woodrow Wilson, Bull Moose candidate Teddy Roosevelt and Socialist candidate Eugene Debs--made the corruption and the venality of the newspapers one of the themes of their campaigns. Only incumbent president William Howard Taft didn't.

It was widely understood that the press system was rotten and stinking. This is when Walter Lippman wrote his critique of that era's press. In many respects, it was something that Noam Chomsky could have written even though Lippman was talked about as a flunky of people in power. So this is the crisis.

The solution that came out of that--starting in the early 1920s and extending into the 40s--was self-regulation by monopoly media owners to establish something called "professional journalism." This is the revolutionary idea to separate the owner from the editor, which previously was usually one person, and to place what they call a Chinese wall between them. On one side, there would be the owners and advertisers, the commercial interests in charge of the business and making money, and on the other side of the Chinese wall were the editors and the reporters.

The editors and journalists would use the professional news judgment learned at schools of journalism, which had never existed before. This would create trust that what was in the newspaper didn't simply reflect the biases and politics of the owners and advertisers. They would therefore be held to standards in the public interest.

In this new era of professional journalism, you wouldn't have to worry about there being only one or two newspapers in your town because you'd be getting professional content. You could trust the journalism even though the owner was a right-wing scumbag or someone you disagreed with.

It took a few decades to firmly establish, and an important part of American history that's forgotten is that the working journalists of that era who started the great union, the Newspaper Guild, in the 1930s fought hard for a vision of professional journalism that they wanted but that is quite different from the one we ended up with. Their vision was that all journalism should see itself as representing everyone outside of power against everyone in power, that they should treat everyone in power by the same critical yardstick, that it should be non-partisan in that sense.

This is the type of journalism that a few people still practice today. Amy Goodman practices it, Jeremy Scahill, Glenn Greenwald. Earlier, there was I.F. Stone, who was one of the leaders of the Guild who pushed for this--basically that you tell the truth and let the chips fall where they may.

This type of journalism obviously wasn't popular with newspaper owners. They weren't going to piss off all their cronies, and of course they didn't really want a close examination of the relationship of business to government. They preferred the type of professional journalism that we've got, which some people consider "objective journalism," which means that on political questions, you report debates among elites accurately. So if there's a vibrant, strong debate among elites, you accurately report it, and that's good professional journalism. If the elites are in agreement about something, though, there's nothing that can really be considered a legitimate debate, and so there's no coverage of it.

In America, that hurts us because our elites tend to be at the commanding heights of both the Republican and Democratic Parties, and they tend to be in agreement on certain core issues, as they are for example around NSA spying. And in corrupt times like ours, where the corporate community increasingly owns both parties outright, especially at the commanding heights of the parties, it puts further handcuffs on the range of what's considered legitimate debate.

So our professional journalism has real problems built right into the way it is practiced. Most striking is the coverage of foreign policy and militarism. Since the heads of both political parties think that the U.S. alone has a "007" right to be in any country it wants at any time, and no other country can do so unless we deputize a country, like Israel, that's never a debated issue in our news media.

It's taken as given that the U.S. has a right to invade this country or that country. Sometimes after the fact, sometimes before the fact, they'll cook up some excuse to rationalize an invasion, but it's never really taken seriously as a debate issue. That's a product of the type of professional journalism we have, which basically sees its job as accurately reporting what elites consider fair game to debate.

If a journalist were to challenge the right of the United States to invade another country, they would be considered "unprofessional," "ideological," or even weighing in with "their own opinion." The idea that a journalist's job is to report "accurately," to be "objective" and "fair" is how the industry disciplines journalists not to ask those questions.

Professional journalism probably hit its high-water mark in the 1960s and 70s. The measure of professional journalism in this respect would be how much the journalism can escape from servicing corporate power, and journalism enjoyed some autonomy in that period largely as a result of the popular movements of that time that created political space. But since then, there's been retrenchment. A lot of the right-wing assault on the so-called "liberal" media has been all about lessening whatever autonomy there was, to scare the death out of journalists so they will be more careful not to piss off big business and the Pentagon. And it has been successful.

So in addition to the draining off of resources for journalism, the other great crisis of journalism has been the commercialization and domestication of the content of journalism, or what you could even call the intimidation of journalism.

WHAT DOES this history tell us about what needs to be done as the era of professional journalism confronts its own mortality?

THE PRESS barons from 100 years ago were making enormous fortunes--some of the richest people in the world today are from that era. Today it's done differently. That's not where they're making their money. They're making their money on Amazon or in Koch Industries. They're buying the newspapers simply to push policies that will help their economic interests in their main industries. So it's a very different zone, and I think it's a worse zone in many respects.

The great existential problem we face as a society for journalism is to somehow come up with the resources to support independent, competing journalism that can actually draw us into public life so we know what the heck is going on and we can participate. The framers of this country--and I've written some pretty critical stuff about them, and they deserve the criticism they get on a number of fronts--got this to their immense credit. Jefferson and Madison, Tom Paine, Ben Franklin, and even Washington and Adams and Hamilton got this.

They understood that self-government wouldn't work unless there was a credible press system. And no one had any illusions that the "market," or the profit motive, would generate a press system that would do it. To paraphrase Jefferson, rich people always get the information they need to run the society, but if we want the mass of people to have the information they need to participate, we have to have subsidies to create a free press. We have to basically bankroll it. That's why we got the postal and printing subsidies.

I think that vision is what we need today. We've got to be talking, and soon, about what sort of spending can we do as a society to create competitive, independent, nonprofit, non-commercial media, uncensored, with the resources to actually cover the NSA, with the resources to actually get in and see Chicago's City Hall, what the relationship is between the developers and companies and banks and decisions made there, because that can't be done by some dude in his pajamas, volunteering his time as a blogger.

That's hard. You need competing newsrooms that are accountable, and if someone screws up a story, they pay a price for it. That's a public policy issue of the highest magnitude. In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a better era, when defining "freedom of the press" in one of its decisions said that the whole constitutional system of the United States is predicated on their being a free press. The first duty of a free people is to guarantee you have a press system. Without it, nothing survives. And I think we're living through that right now.

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