| home   authors | new | colophon | newsfeed | print |  
volume 3
may 2000

Media matters: 2. Public broadcasting


  An interview with Robert McChesney
by David Barsamian
  Robert McChesney's recent book "Rich media, poor democracy. Communication politics in dubious times." Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999, 427 pages.

"The problem with good journalism is, it invariably gets you in hot water with people in power," argues Robert McChesney, professor of Communications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, in the second part of his interview by David Barsamian of Alternative Radio. "It's so much easier to cover Linda Tripp, Lorena Bobbit or Joey Buttafuoco. You can put a camera in the courtroom. It doesn't take any intelligence to cover it. It's very inexpensive. The profits skyrocket." And, that's why we all see a real trivialization of news content.

  Boulder, Colorado, November 11, 1999
1 The founding document for public broadcasting in the U.S. is the 1967 Carnegie Commission Report. Among other things, it said that public broadcasting programming "should serve as a forum for controversy and debate," be diverse and "provide a voice for groups that may otherwise be unheard." In the about thirty years now of PBS, the TV service, as well as National Public Radio, how closely aligned has the programming been to those founding principles?
  It's done almost nowhere near those principles. In fact, if one were to look at NPR or PBS today and say, and I think historically this is probably true, "What groups in society is it trying to give voice to?" it would not be the dispossessed, the marginalized, those outside the power structure. It's giving voice to the business community, the entrepreneurs, the upper middle class, the intelligentsia. It goes completely against the principles enunciated in the Carnegie Report. I don't think anyone can claim otherwise. In NPR's audience data that they provide when they're trying to appeal to underwriters, they're bragging about the wealth, education and sophistication of their listeners. What they're going after is cherry-picking the most lucrative market of upper-class and upper-middle-class individuals. The last thing they seem to want to do is give voice to the thirty or forty percent of our population that's basically written out of our broadcasting system.
2 In some of the discussions about public radio and TV, there's kind of an underlying current that when they weren't as well funded and didn't have as many listeners, the programming was more cutting edge.
  I'm not an expert on that. But my sense is that in TV, for example, prior to the 1967 Public Broadcasting Act, National Educational Television, an early version of PBS, actually did some cutting-edge antiwar and civil rights stuff. They got tremendous political heat because of it. That's always been the case. When good stuff does get through that goes outside the boundaries of the establishment commercial system, that takes chances, that gives voice to people the commercial system doesn't, covers political perspectives the commercial system generally trivializes, they invariably take heat from Washington. Powerful people in Washington use their power. It's sort of the worst of both worlds for public broadcasting. On one hand, they have to turn to corporations and the wealthy to support them because they don't get enough government support. On the other hand, they get enough government support that whenever someone takes chances they get reamed by political forces. They get it on both sides. The result is the very lame and tepid programming that you get. But there's a fundamental issue here that's even more important in public broadcasting and that is to understand the dilemma historically.
  Public broadcasting in most places in the world, Canada, India, Britain, Scandinavia, Germany, has generally been seen and crafted as being a nonprofit, noncommercial service for the entire population, with entertainment, educational and political programming covering the whole spectrum. In the U.S. that was never the case. The reason was that the commercial broadcasters in the 1920s and 1930s were able to simply swipe the airwave space without any public recognition or understanding. Then when public broadcasting came along, its job was simply to do the programming that the commercial stations couldn't make any money on. That was its mandate. Trying to do stuff that was popular, they would catch holy hell on Capitol Hill for competing with the private sector. So they were second-tier immediately, which put them in a very difficult position historically, to this present day. Then they go to Washington and say: "Give us funding," and Washington says: "Why should we fund you? No one's listening to you." But if they try to do popular shows, the commercial broadcasters scream bloody murder. Why are you subsidizing a competitor to us? It's an impossible situation. So they're left with what they've done, which is very rational. You pitch a product that isn't being done on the commercial networks, you aim it to the upper middle class who give you money during pledge drives. That also serves as political leverage. So when they call up Capitol Hill, the Senators and Representatives will answer those phone calls. If they get calls from lawyers and doctors and business executives who say: "I like this nature show, I like Louis Rukeyser," they say: "Maybe I shouldn't zero it out." So it's a very smart business survival strategy for public broadcasting, both NPR and PBS, in this country to make themselves into solvent organizations. But it also means that they're not public broadcasting in the historic or international sense of the terms. We have really more accurately nonprofit commercial broadcasting.
3 At the time when public broadcasting was being launched in the U.S. in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the commercial broadcasters actually welcomed it because it would take the burden off of their doing so-called public service programming.
  That's a very hotly debated and studied issue now. The evidence isn't really strong. It makes perfect sense, though. What we do know is that private commercial broadcasters opposed public broadcasting in the 1920s and 1930s. They crushed it because they didn't want any viable noncommercial alternative to what they were putting on. They wanted to force people to have to listen to the ads. But by the 1960s, I think they were willing to have a public system as long as it was a toothless one that wouldn't take away listeners or viewers. That's what they got for the most part. The way they managed that is to have a system that has no viable funding sources. The funding is always very nebulous for public broadcasting, which means they can never do anything except be there. It does provide them a safety valve. The commercial broadcasters say: "We've got public broadcasters to do the nature show and the educational stuff. We're just going to give the people what they want and rake in as much money as possible."
4 Some purists, let me call them, in public radio and TV want to jettison any government subsidies for the very reasons that you just alluded to. They feel that the system would be stronger, independent and not have to answer to Congress. What do you think about that point of view?
  I think there are very legitimate concerns about setting up the system so that you can't have political censorship. But there are ways to do that without abandoning the public subsidy. We have to study how other countries have done it and see what the best way is to maintain a public subsidy but not permit constant interference by political sources. The BBC has a better way. Every ten years they have big public hearings on the BBC, set up its budget and set it off for ten years. It's basically on its own for ten years, independent and autonomous. Then it comes back for public hearings. So if there's some serious controversy in the fourth year, no one in Parliament can say: "We're going to close the BBC down." They've got autonomy. So that's the sort of system we ideally need. But the question about resources, I disagree completely with the purist view.
  Our media system, which is not well understood, is basically largely subsidized by the public. The gift of spectrum, the airwaves, to broadcasters is a huge amount of corporate welfare. We give tax breaks, deregulation breaks to these big companies to make them profitable. Our government actively works as their ambassador around the world to open up markets and make them profitable across the planet. It's ridiculous that we say: "OK, we don't want to take government money for community and public broadcasting because that would taint us." The rational thing to say is: "If we're going to be subsidizing public broadcasting, and I think we should because it plays an important part in a free and good society, then we want to create a system where there are fewer strings attached and money can't be used by political interests." That should be our goal. In my view what we need to have is a public radio and television system that's funded per capita equal to that of any country in the world, Britain, Japan, Germany. If we had that, the amount of money would be between $5 and $10 billion a year. That would mean we could have local public access stations in every community. We could have a national system with a budget to do great programming, journalism, entertainment shows. We could have great stations across the country, a wonderful nonprofit noncommercial presence. They could all have websites, a viable nonprofit noncommercial sector of the web so you aren't just going to be flamed in advertising constantly as you are on the Internet now. I think it's something that we should be shooting for and working for.
5 The initial proposals to set up public broadcasting in the U.S. embodied in that Carnegie Commission report were to provide in fact what you just described, a heat shield for funding. There would be forward funding for about five years. However, there was an enormous political battle around that. Wilbur Mills was the chair of the House Ways and Means Committee at the time. He wanted to keep public broadcasting on a tight leash. So that heat shield never happened, and that has left the system vulnerable to these political influences.
  We need a system that gives the heat shield but we also need to keep it accountable. At the same time we need a mission today that says public broadcasting should serve the entire population, which means programming in cities of diverse ethnic communities should be serving those communities, not simply serving people who want to watch Wall Street Week and zebras and giraffes. We need the commitment to serve the entire population. I think that commitment is more important today than every before, because what we're seeing in our entire media culture is that the population is being fragmented into more and more segments determined by Madison Avenue advertisers who want to sell products. They're breaking us up into various groups. Increasingly they're putting walls between all of us and telling us how free we are now because we can just hang out in our own demographic group and see ads for the products we buy. We're losing something very important. Community broadcasting can provide the basis to see how other people in the community live, learn about them, share experiences and enrich a pluralistic society.
6 There is an attempt beginning in 1994 to zero out funding for public broadcasting. There was criticism such as Newt Gingrich calling PBS a "sandbox for the elite." What accounted for first of all the ferocity of the attack at that particular moment and the ability of the people who defended the system to essentially maintain the status quo?
  There's a lot of truth in that critique. It is a sandbox for the elite in many ways. It's a sandbox for the elite at least in Washington and New York and some other cities. It's probably more likely to be Clinton Democrats than Republicans. So I think Gingrich's concerns at that level were very warranted. The solution, in my view, is not to eliminate public broadcasting. It's to get real public broadcasting and not let it be a plaything for these elites. I quite agree with that. The reason Republicans backed down is what I've talked about before. I think they got significant political opposition from a lot of their own voters and constituents because one thing that NPR and PBS had done was build up support among the upper middle class, the people who actually vote. If PBS and NPR were supported primarily by the bottom thirty or twenty percent of the population, they would have been closed down a long time ago.
7 One popular notion is that NPR, to a greater extent than PBS, is somehow liberal. Is there any evidence for that?
  In the narrow confines of American mainstream politics, traditionally the sort of people who work at NPR would be considered liberals. The way we define liberal is crucial, because the whole thing is loaded as to how you define these terms. A liberal or conservative is often defined on the basis of social issues. Take flag burning. Should you have a constitutional amendment against it? Do you think there should be mandatory school prayer? Should there be drug testing? What do you think of affirmative action? These sorts of issues are a litmus test of whether one is a liberal or conservative. By the measure of social issues, I would say probably it's fair that a significant chunk of the NPR employees and on-air staff are probably in favor of not having mandatory state prayer. They're probably in favor of gay rights and lesbian rights, or more open-minded about it. But I think that's not the best measure to understand the core politics.
  The crucial politics of government, affairs of state, resource allocations, making wars, military budgets, environmental issues, the research shows that the so-called liberals at NPR oftentimes have almost identical politics to conservatives. They're pro-business. They're anti-regulation of business for the most part. They're not interested in progressive taxation. They're not in sympathy with the political and economic interests of the bottom fifty percent of this country. They're having a turf war with their fellow members of the upper middle class. That's the whole strength of the right-wing critique. When you isolate the left as being the upper middle class that wants to go to Harvard and Yale and then lord it over everyone else, that resonates with a lot of people. That's a legitimate critique. That's a scary group of people. When that becomes defined as the left in our society, we're in trouble, because that's not the left. That has nothing to do with the historic notion of left. The left is about people who are trying to democratize our society, egalitarian movements, to empower people across the entire population. The abolitionist movement, the feminist movement, the labor movement, socialists, that's the left. It isn't a bunch of Ivy League-educated lawyers who want to drink wine and listen to Mozart.
8 Who are the pundits on these public radio and TV programs like the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, Washington Week in Review, The McLaughlin Group, NPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered?
  The research shows increasingly that the pundits you get on the public radio and TV news and discussion shows are first of all almost indistinguishable from those on the commercial shows, Crossfire, Nightline. It's the same crowd, which is primarily mainstream inside-the-Beltway, corporate, white male types who completely dominate. The moment you get someone who veers even slightly to the left of sort of a Clinton Democrat, they immediately have to be balanced. You never have to balance the Clinton Democrat or anyone to the right. They can have their own show. You get just to the left of that and suddenly you have to have balance. Or load up three or four of them. The Charlie Rose Show had their token half of a show with Nader, Jim Hightower, and Ronnie Dugger. The three of them were crammed into a half hour. That was a bone they throw. But on the next show they bring in some billionaire capitalist like Disney CEO Michael Eisner for a full hour and they lob softballs at him. This is common in public broadcasting, just like in the commercial media, with the exception, I think the research shows, ironically, that the public system is almost more pro-corporate, less willing to take chances because they've got that political fear that if they actually give Ralph Nader a whole hour, the next day Jesse Helms is going to be calling for hearings to close them down.
  What's happened in public radio and TV is that I think the people who work there no longer even resist the process. They've internalized the values. If you're successful as a producer now in public radio or TV, you've adopted the Beltway mainstream perspective as the natural way to look at the world and you think: "Why would we have some goofball like Noam Chomsky on when we can have Dinesh D'Souza make another pathbreaking discovery on race?" It's normal to you. That's the only way you survive. It's reflected in the fact that public radio and TV basically regurgitate mainstream conventional wisdom.
9 Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, the New York-based media watch group, has done several surveys on who gets on the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, Nightline and other programs.
  Those studies are well done. They're extremely important and irrefutable. They show exactly what I've just been talking about. FAIR is a wonderful group with an exciting history. It began in 1986. There's was a made-for-TV movie, America, about the Russian takeover of the U.N. The U.N. took over the U.S. and the Russians were behind it, or something like that. Jeff Cohen and some other people were appalled by this blatant propaganda for militarism. What they did was started FAIR with a couple of people working out of a scraggly office putting out a superb bimonthly publication called Extra! They've grown over the years. They do great work. FAIR's a real testament to an interest in understanding how our media work. It's very difficult to do. The forum in which you normally publicize your ideas and your debate is controlled by the people you're trying to debate about. The agenda-makers control the agenda. So it's hard to discuss corporate media in the media themselves. So when media issues do show up in the commercial and corporate news media, they're usually warped and truncated to serve their own interests if they're covered at all. And they're rarely covered. So that when a merger deal comes along, or when a bill like the Telecommunications Act of 1996, basically an enormous gift to the corporate media of deregulation, it's covered briefly on the front page on one day, with a few perfunctory comments by members of Congress talking about what a great law it is, and then it drops from view. There's no debate on it whatsoever. But it shows up in the business pages every day. It's talked about as an issue of great importance to owners and investors.
10 When Viacom announced its deal to take over CBS in the fall of 1999, Bob Edwards, the venerable host of Morning Edition, interviewed Ken Auletta of the New Yorker magazine, who's their media writer. The thrust of the interview was about, How would Viacom CEO Sumner Redstone get along with CBS head Mel Karmazin? Would there be ego clashes?
  That's how it's covered. It's a classic case, a problem across our journalism, which is to take social issues and personalize them into pissing matches between Bill Clinton and Trent Lott. That's how this was covered.
11 I was waiting for Edwards to ask the question: "What impact is this going to have on the content and quality of programming?"
  This is the perfect opportunity for a good journalist to do that, for the simple reason that Sumner Redstone and Mel Karmazin have both singularly been the most brilliant capitalists in the media in the last decade. They've made the most money because they've understood first and most effectively how you convert the entire day into an infomercial to maximize profit. They've degraded and degenerated any notion of editorial or creative autonomy in our media system, unlike all others, even Rupert Murdoch lags behind them. Take Mel Karmazin, who built his name and his fortune in radio, giving us Howard Stern and low production quality. He understood if you could take blocs of stations and get nationally syndicated programming and work with advertisers to play only the songs advertisers want to hear, you could make a lot more money than the old-style radio. Sumner Redstone knew that if you took MTV and Nickelodeon and carpet-bomb people with advertising, let advertisers work on your productions, actually influence what the shows were, you could get a lot more advertising and make a lot more money. That's their genius, in polluting our cultural environment, destroying it and making a fortune on it. So this is a great opportunity to talk about precisely what sort of media system you have that elevates people like this to heroic status, makes that behavior irrational by doing such a wonderful job serving Madison Avenue and Wall Street but destroying the integrity of our media culture otherwise.
12 When Ben Bagdikian wrote his classic book "The Media Monopoly" in 1983, he outlined the trend in media mergers and takeovers. Now it's much worse.
  When Bagdikian wrote the first edition of his book, there were roughly fifty companies that dominated ownership of the entirety of the U.S. mass media. Now he's working on the sixth edition. But in his last edition, which came out in 1997, he got it down to nine or ten companies that own almost everything, with another ten or twelve that round out the system. That's what my research shows as well. You can approach that on a lot of different levels. First of all, just purely by liberal democratic theory, the notion of an open marketplace is predicated on the ease of being a producer, not just a receiver. If you're dissatisfied with what's being produced, you can enter it yourself and produce something people can hear. That's completely off limits, verboten, impossible. So just at that level, regardless of what the content is that those twenty-four companies are producing, you have a fundamental crisis or conflict with the tightly-knit, semi-monopolistic market and what the theory of democracy would call for. But then when you actually look at the content, the problem increases exponentially. These firms quite rationally in the pursuit of profit do things that are inimical to democracy. Their goal is to maximize shareholder return in the short term and the long term and to protect their political and economic power in the short and long term and use whatever leverage they can to do that.
  You see the problem across the board in a whole number of areas. It's particularly striking in journalism, for example. Journalism is the foundation of any notion of representative self-government. You've got to have a system that ruthlessly accounts for people in power and people who want to be in power, keeps tabs on them, that watchdog function. That's not enough. You also need a media system that provides a range of detailed and informed opinions on the fundamental social and political issues of the day. With that sort of media system, citizens, given the tools, could interact, engage and participate and run their own life, rule of the people, and maybe not make all the decisions, but in a position to pick between political parties and candidates who enforce the basic values that they believe in on core issues. That's the goal, or it should be. This media system does neither of those. Doing either of those things has proven to be bad for business. Good journalism is bad for business. Bad journalism is often very, very good for business.
  Take for example one of the things. It's bad business to have a lot of reporters and editors. They cost a lot of money. So there's strong pressure, especially in this new age of corporate media where journalism is just a small section of all the operations of a company, to low-ball the number of reporters and editors, get the cheapest people possible, pay the lowest possible salaries. So the quality of your average reporter goes down. You have fewer of them. But they have to fill the same amount of news hole, either in radio or TV, which means the balance of power shifts from the working journalists who are under deadline pressure to fill stories to the PR industry, which is constantly there to give them material to fill up the news hole on behalf of their corporate clients.
13 John Stauber of PR Watch in Madison has documented the number of public relations firms that write stories and produce videos, that then appear in the media.
  I like to tell the story of one of our top students in Madison. She was the editor of the student paper. She got the leading internship in Washington, D.C. that we had at the university. She took my class and said: "When I get to Washington I'm going to make sure I use Greenpeace and all the alternative sources. When stories come up that affect people, I'm not just going to use the conventional wisdom." Then she came back after the summer sort of sheepish. She didn't come to see me. I thought that was sort of strange because we were on good terms. I finally ran into her and asked, What's up? How was the internship? She said: "Well, you know, uh ... It didn't really turn out like I thought it would. The first day or two I was trying to call up all these groups to get these alternative views on stories I was covering. But I was under deadline pressure. I had all these stories to cover. They gave me the Rolodex. After a couple of weeks, I didn't even think about it any more because the pressure was so great. I had no time to dig into the stories that I was being given. I just had to report them." That's what's going on writ large across our media system. And along with that, the real investigative stories on the people in power and on important issues are bad business. They cost a lot of money. They take time to research. Much cheaper and much better business is to simply put a microphone in front of a politician's mouth and be a stenographer.
  The idea of balance is to get someone from the other side of the aisle to comment. You don't investigate either's claims and ask: "Is this the most important issue we should be covering?" You see a real trivialization of news content. It's so much easier to cover Linda Tripp, Lorena Bobbit or Joey Buttafuoco. You can put a camera in the courtroom. It doesn't take any intelligence to cover it. It's very inexpensive. The profits skyrocket. The claim is it's demand-driven, people really want to know this stuff. In fact, it's supply driven. It's cheap and never controversial. The problem with good journalism is, it invariably gets you in hot water with people in power. It's going to piss someone off. That's anathema to the corporate media. The classic example today to see this process at work is to watch how Time Warner, Disney, News Corporation and now Viacom are rolling over to suck up to the Chinese leadership. They want that Chinese market so bad that they'll do anything. They'll censor themselves. They won't do anything that could threaten profitability.
14 Didn't Rupert Murdoch take the BBC off the air in Asia for fear of offending the Chinese?
  His Asian company, Star Satellite, took the BBC off. His publishing house, HarperCollins, had a contract to publish Chris Patten's memoirs. He was the last Governor General of Hong Kong. He was critical of the Chinese record on human rights. The Chinese told Rupert they didn't like it, and so he yanked it and didn't publish it. Disney's even worse. They released Martin Scorsese's film Kundun on Tibet. You'd think Disney would stand tall, and say: "We're going to stand behind this great filmmaker. We're really proud of this important film." Michael Eisner in an interview was horrified by Kundun. China canceled all Disney projects when they heard about the film. When it was finally released in the U.S., interestingly enough, the name of Disney could barely be seen on the poster. Sony is in huge type because it did the distribution. Then Disney hired Henry Kissinger to go to China to soothe relations with the Chinese leadership. This is where you really see the compromises and corruption of our media system.
  One other example. Arthur Kent is a reporter who gained a lot of fame in the Gulf War for his coverage for NBC. He's since left NBC and has written a damning exposé of how General Electric, the owner of NBC, constantly interfered with the news process. In 1996, for example, you know what the number one story covered on NBC was on their nightly news for the whole year? It was the Summer Olympics in Atlanta. If you look at ABC, CBS or CNN, it wasn't even on the top ten list for any of them. It was number one for NBC. Guess why? Here you're allowed to be cynical. They were broadcasting the Summer Olympics. So they used the evening news to do stories about it every night to pump up the audience to watch their nightly broadcast. That sort of commercialization and corruption of journalism is at the hand of the corporate concentrated system. And since it is concentrated, there's nothing we can do about it. You can't start a TV network. No one can start a newspaper. Basically it's their thing, and the more power they have, the more they can commercialize it.
15 There's also a paradox in the newsroom, perhaps reflecting the larger economic order. At the top end you've got million-dollar celebrities like Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings and Diane Sawyer. At the lower end, you have the situation you just described, where people are underpaid and overworked.
  That is the paradox. Basically, at the top end, the whole market for them is not as journalists but as celebrities and entertainers. The reason why Dan Rather gets paid $7 million per year is because he brings in advertising. That's the only reason. That's the commercialization of the whole process. It's not because he breaks great stories. In fact, one of the ironies, and James Fallows described this a few years ago in his book Breaking the News, is that the celebrity journalists, making the big incomes, almost do no journalism. What they basically do at most is sort of pointless prediction and pontification. You see it on shows like Hardball, Geraldo and Crossfire. They yell and scream and make predictions, but no one actually does journalism. There's no dirt under anyone's fingernails. There's no investigation. In fact, the sort of journalism that you see in our commercial media and television is a caliber of journalism I thought would have been compatible with Stalinist society. There's no digging into people in power. Chris Matthews on Hardball recently has had several shows where he and his guests basically sit around and argue about whether Giuliani or Hillary will get more votes and who's doing the best spin job. Nothing on the issues. Nobody knows what they stand for. But it's inane stuff like this that has no content that's called sophisticated political journalism. It's entirely bankrupt. It's commercially driven. So it is a paradox. The new standard you're supposed to aspire to if you're a journalist is to be a star on TV. It's just another form of celebrity.
  1999 / 2000 © Alternative Radio / Soundscapes