Media Matters: Monopolies, Pacifica, NPR & PBS
Interviewed by David Barsamian
Boulder, Colorado, November 10 & 11, 1999
Robert McChesney is Professor of
Communications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is
a leading critic of corporate media. He is the author of Telecommunications,
Mass Media and Democracy. His latest book is Rich Media,
Poor Democracy, published by University of Illinois Press. He was in Boulder,
Colorado to speak at the twentieth anniversary celebration of Left Hand
November 10, 1999
Will Rogers once said, "I only know what I read in the newspapers." If Will were around today and looking at the media scene and opening up the newspapers, how much would he know?
He would probably have a pretty good idea of what life is like for an upper-middle-class or upper-class person living in a suburb in a 10,000-square-foot house with investments and doing e-trade, because thatís the world of our newspapers today, specifically. But all of our journalism and our media increasingly are pitched along the class divide of our society. So that if you take newspapers as a great example, in the 1940s, every major daily newspaper had at least one or two labor reporters or editors. There were over a thousand in the country. Take something like the 1937 sit-down strike in Flint, which established the UAW. In a sane world it would be a national holiday. Itís one of the decisive moments in the twentieth century. It was a front-page story in every newspaper in the country. Even the Chicago Tribune, which despised labor, covered it. At dinner tables around the country people talked about the strike every night.
Today, you know how many full-time labor reporters we have? Three. From a thousand to three. At the same time the number of business reporters has increased so exponentially that I donít even think they call them business reporters any more. Theyíre merged. Like cable TV news today, if you watch the Fox news channel, or CNBC or CNN, business news and news are almost interchangeable now. CNNís flagship news program is called Moneyline. Itís entirely geared towards the markets that advertisers are interested in, which is the upper middle class. Newspapers have written off the bottom thirty or forty percent of the populations in their markets. They donít even sell the papers oftentimes in poor neighborhoods. So what you get is news basically aimed at the needs, prejudices of fairly well-to-do and affluent people. Even then I think they do a fairly poor job of it, but thatís what itís aimed at. For the rest of the population, itís, Youíre not invited.
Another change that Rogers may have noted is how few newspapers there are. New York once had seven major dailies. Now itís down to three. In Houston and lots of other cities around the country there is only one paper.
New York is the exception. There are only a handful of cities with competing dailies with different owners, where they donít have some sort of cartel agreement. Something like 95% of American communities are one-newspaper towns. What these newspaper companies have discovered is that they can make a fortune in these monopolistic communities by low-balling journalism, by stripping down the piece for parts and using lots of syndicated material and fluffing it up. The profits go off the charts. In 1985 Gannett, one of the big chains, bought the Des Moines Register, historically one of the great American newspapers. The Register at that time had a full-time reporter in every county in Iowa, so wherever you lived you could follow state politics. Gannett, which owns a hundred monopoly newspapers around the country, said, What are these jokers doing for the bottom line? and fired them all. They shifted the coverage to focus on the wealthy suburbs of Des Moines and the business community. Their profits shot up. Their costs went down. They run syndicated material, comics and wire service articles. But the citizens of Des Moines, of Iowa, lost out. Thereís no coverage of their state. And given newspaper economics, and media economics at large, itís not a competitive market. No one can start a newspaper and hope to compete. Once youíve got a monopoly in newspapers, youíve got it forever.
What was that famous line attributed to A.J. Liebling? Freedom of the press is ...
... for those who own them. Thatís the truth constitutionally. We talk about the First Amendment, invoking it constantly. Thatís what Liebling was referring to there, the idea that weíre protected from government interference in matters of the press and free speech. Itís a wonderful idea, a wonderful freedom, one of the great things about this countryís history and the struggle to bring that into being. But a funny thing happened along the way with the First Amendment and freedom of the press. When it was passed, the owner and the editor were the same person. There were largely competitive markets. If you didnít like what was being done, you could start your own paper, own it and edit it. That was the way newspapers were for the first hundred years of this countryís history. But we had a big split take place a hundred years ago that separated owners from the editors and reporters who actually do the creative work. Moreover, the ownership is in the corporate form, which is blind shareholders who own stock in media companies and oil wells or gold mines or automobile companies. Whose First Amendment is it then? Our tradition has been to say it stays with the owners, not the editors or reporters. So editors have no First Amendment freedom, just the owners. Itís rarely commented upon, but itís been a real shift in the First Amendment and one with disastrous implications for the caliber of journalism and our whole political culture.
You make an urgent connection between media and democracy. Why?
This is nothing original. This goes back to the Founding Fathers, even before that. If you have a notion of democracy, which is, The many rule. Obviously you canít have a plebiscite on every decision. Thatís not going to happen. But people in representative democracies can make the fundamental value decisions and elect people to implement them. Thatís what we can hope for. To have that be effective and viable, you need some sort of media system thatís going to do two things. First of all, itís going to ruthlessly account for the activities of people in power and people who want to be in power so you know what theyíre actually doing. Secondly, itís going to give a wide range of opinions on the fundamental social and political issues that citizens need to know about. It doesnít mean that each medium has to do that, but the system as a whole has to provide that as an easy alternative for people who want to participate as citizens. Thatís the test of a media system in a democracy. Thatís the test we should apply to it. By that standard, our current media system is a fiasco. Itís a system set up fundamentally to serve the shareholders and a dozen or so massive companies and their major advertisers. It does that quite well. But it works more often than not directly against whatís necessary for a democratic society.
Weíre such a commercially marinated society that our notion of speech to fellow citizens to bring truth through discussion and interaction has been pushed to the margins. Now the whole idea of speech is to make money. So whether somethingís true or false is irrelevant. If they buy youíre product, thatís the truth. If they believe your lie, thatís good enough. You get from them what you want. Completely lost in the dominant culture is the genuine notion of truth, a sense of how it comes as a result of dialogue and interaction and exchange. I think we have to get back to that, and our media system isnít going to get us there. Itís part of the problem. Itís Madison Avenue and Wall Streetís media system.
Thereís been a huge explosion of "trash media." What accounts for it?
The conventional wisdom is that itís demand-driven, that the audience is demanding more stories about JonBenet and O.J. and car crashes and JFK Jr. Thereís a element of truth about that, to the extent that if youíre fed a steady diet of something, eventually youíre going to demand it. Itís a given. But the real motor force behind it isnít demand. Itís supply driven. The reason why this sort of journalism dominates is that itís extremely inexpensive to do. Itís extremely non-controversial to anyone in power. Itís ideal fill space. It will attract an audience. It doesnít take skilled journalists. You can have low-ball, low-budget journalists. Compare it to what real journalism would do. Take the same reporters covering the JonBenet case and have them examine toxic waste dumps in the U.S. Take all that human labor and money into that. The same money would probably cover a lot fewer stories, because it takes a long time to do and it takes six months to break a story. The story might not even pan out. Thatís one of the risks you have. Then if it does pan out youíre going to get some very powerful corporate and governmental interests pissed off at you. Thatís the last thing these corporate media giants want to do. Thatís something they try to avoid like the plague. So you just arenít going to see that. You never have to worry about the JonBenet story pissing off the head of a bank. So I say itís supply driven. Itís very profitable. People consume it and they say, People are really interested in this. The O.J. trial. Even I was interested in whether Kato Kalin was going to get a job after a year of this. You get exposed to enough of it and it becomes a sort of soap opera. But I would have loved to have the opportunity to be exposed to some real journalism that engaged the major issues of the day.
The corporate media managers, the conservative critics of your argument, will say, Look, thatís fine. We are giving the public what it wants. The proof of that is that they can vote with their remote. They can just click off that Seinfeld rerun if they donít want to watch it. No one is force-feeding them.
Thatís one of the big arguments I try to deal with in Rich Media, Poor Democracy, the idea that the system is giving the people what they want. There are a lot of layers to answer that because itís such an important argument. And thereís an element of truth to it. If there wasnít, it wouldnít be a strong argument. No one puts a gun at your head and says you have to watch this or that. You can switch channels. The problem with it is first of all go back to what I just talked about. The relationship of supply and demand isnít one of obedient media giants giving you whatever you bark out your command for. Itís a complex interactive relationship. Let me give you one example of how that works. In the mid-1970s, ten percent of the films exhibited in theaters were foreign films, made outside the U.S. In the mid-1980s it was down to six or seven percent. Today itís one-quarter of one percent. .025%. Itís non-existent, in other words, except for maybe an occasional film. In the traditional give-the-people-what-they-want theory, this would mean that some time in the last twenty years the American people resoundingly smashed their fists on the table and said, Get these foreign films out of our theaters. We hate them. We refuse to go to them. But thatís not what happened at all. It was the direct opposite. Starting in the mid-1970s, you saw the end of the single-screen theater as the main form of distribution. So single-screen theaters were replaced by multiplexes. One multiplex with eight to twelve screens. One camera person operates all twelve screens. One popcorn crew operates all twelve screens. Itís basically impossible to survive with a single-screen theater any more.
All the foreign films were coming into single-screen theaters. So there were two dozen foreign film theaters in Manhattan alone in the 1970s. Today I think thereís one, if that. Cities like Seattle, where I lived, had six. Even in small towns like Yellow Springs, Ohio there were a couple. It was commonplace. But those sorts of theaters couldnít survive. They were replaced by these multiplexes. So then when a French or Japanese filmmaker came to the U.S. and wanted to screen a film, the multiplexes said, You have to be in all 215 multiplexes, and you have to pay a marketing budget equivalent to what a Hollywood studio spends to buy those big ads that you have to run the weekend before you come out. The amount of money was prohibitive for them, several times more than they paid to make the film. Over time they stopped being carried. As a result today, I ask my students, How many of you watch foreign films? Most of them donít even know they exist. They make films in Germany? Really? They arenít going to ask for them in the video store, so thereís no demand for them, but itís not that people donít want them. They donít have a chance to be exposed to them. That illustrates how complex this relationship is. The idea that you have a vote is nonsense.
Take cable TV. You have a choice. What is your choice? The fifty largest commercially viable cable television channels are basically owned part or outright by these eight or nine largest media companies. Time Warner, Disney, News Corporation, CBS, Viacom, TCI, now AT&T, General Electric, NBC, Sony. They basically own all the five or six commercial proven genres that they all ape each other with. Itís not like you have fifty distinct channels. Everybodyís got their business news service. Theyíve got their commercial kids channel which bombards kids with ads around the clock. Youíve got your sports channels, music video channels. Thereís a handful of genres. If you donít like it, what choice is there beyond that if you want to watch TV? You donít really have a whole lot of choice. Youíre going to get one of their channels, and theyíre all imitating each other. Thatís another thing about the market. Itís actually ironic, given all the claims made about it. Itís a very poor mechanism for creativity. Look at popular music. These record companies are constantly desperate to make money. So they want to give people what they want, the five companies that sell 90% of the music now, all but one part of these huge giants we just named. The problem they have is that the commercial impulse isnít always very good for creativity. All the great breakthroughs in rock and roll and popular music in the last forty years have been outside of their web. It happens in the nooks and crevices. Once these corporate guys get hold of it, they try to recreate it. They do marketing surveys, demographics and focus groups. They come up with something thatís lost all the creative spark. Itís pathetic. They just canít do it, and it gets worse and worse, not better and better. Itís built into the process, in fact the commercial marketplace arguably is anti-creative. Real creativity canít be sparked on Wall Street.
Talk about the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which was very strongly pushed by Bill Clinton and Al Gore.
And the entire political establishment. The Republicans are in bed with them.
The logic that was promoted then was that the passage of this act would usher in a new era of diversity. It would foster competition. Weíve had a few years now to look at the record. What does it look like?
Thereís a myth going around that capitalism is based on competition. Have you heard that one? Thatís one they feed us here at the lower levels. The Act ushered in the greatest wave of corporate concentration and the greatest attack on competitive markets arguably in the history of U.S. capitalism. Itís done the exact opposite of what the PR people said would happen. The corporate lobbyists that rammed this law through, paid for it and bought off members of Congress to support it, knew this would happen. They would never have put this through if they thought it would lead to competition. They were ramming it through to make sure it would give them all the tools to prevent there being competition. The outcome actually is exactly what the real people behind it wanted. We started in 1996. Look at telecommunications. We had AT&T, Sprint, MCI, the long-distance companies, GTE, and the seven Baby Bells. We had eleven companies. Now we are down to four after mergers and acquisitions. Look at the media, radio, for example. The deregulation of ownership in radio has been astonishing. Weíve seen over half the stations sold. It used to be you could only own twelve or fourteen stations nationally. Now you can have as many as you want, up to eight in the largest markets. Thereís been an unbelievable consolidation of ownership, with disastrous implications for the content of radio as itís been regimented and homogenized. All the localism and creativity have been stripped out. But the profits are going through the roof, which was exactly what was meant to happen.
Ralph Nader reports that when the legislation was being drafted, the lobbyists for the big telecom corporations were actually in the Congressional committee rooms helping the representatives of the people draft the legislation.
It was a classic case. The lobbyists wrote chunks of it. This really shows how politics works. There were intense fights among these various lobbying groups, the satellite broadcasters, terrestrial broadcasters, cable companies, long-distance companies and local Baby Bells, about who was going to get the biggest slice of the pie, the best terms of the law. But there was one thing they all agreed on, which was, it was their pie. No one else should know about it. They would keep it to themselves. They were fighting each other incessantly for five years. In 1996, three weeks before it passed, all the conventional wisdom was saying it wouldnít get through, that it would take another year or two to pass because there were such big fights. They all buried the hatchet, because they wanted to get it out of Congressís hands. They were afraid the general public might learn about it and weigh in on it, particularly with someone like Ross Perot running for President again. They saw what a monkey wrench he threw into their plans for NAFTA in 1992 and they didnít want to see it again.
Letís talk about the Internet and its initial public subsidy. Its origins were rooted in a Pentagon-funded project called the Advanced Research Projects Agency, Arpanet. At what point does the Internet pass into the private sector? Did I miss that debate?
You might have blinked at that moment. There was no coverage of it whatsoever. The Telecom Act of 1996 was probably the final word on the subject that passed all control over to the private sector. There was zero debate. Itís a classic case of how politics works short of having popular movements that challenge corporate power. The Internet was founded in the 1960s and 1970s not just for the military, but for researchers to communicate through their computers. It made no sense to the private sector. Itís a real testament to socialism, or to public-sector investment. There was no way you could make money off this thing for twenty years. The story goes that in the 1970s the government went to AT&T and said, Will you take this thing over? Itís costing us a lot of money. AT&T looked at it and said, We canít make any money off this. You keep it. Bill Gates had nothing to do with the Internet. He is the most overrated person, as an aside. People think heís so rich he must be a genius. Heís better than us. He has better sex. Heís funnier. Heís handsomer. Heís the Ringo Starr and Jed Clampett of the Information Age. Heís sitting on this monopoly. Anyone with a $100 billion monopoly is going to have people kissing up to him. He had nothing to do with it. He didnít know about it until well after it hit. A decade later he was waking up to it. If you have $100 billion in market power you can act like you own the darn thing.
In the early 1990s, finally commercial interests saw, We could make a lot of money on this thing. It was quietly privatized and the government sacrificed all its policy-making to industry groups, non-profit bodies representing commercial interests, a staggering gift of corporate welfare. One of the great things about give the people what they want argument is that in 1995 the ad industry did a survey of the American people and found something like two-thirds wanted no advertising or commercials on the Internet. They didnít give us what we want that time. They only give you what you want if they can make a lot of money on it. Generally thatís a much different range from what people should want or do want if theyíre give a real choice.
What are the implications of the recent court ruling on Microsoft? The judge commented on the "predatory monopolistic tendencies and actions of Microsoft." Were you surprised by that decision?
A little bit, but not especially. They were guilty as charged. Any honest assessment would do that. At the same time, Iím not breaking out any champagne bottles over it. First of all, what Microsoft did was just classic capitalism. If youíre an investor in Microsoft, you would want them to eliminate competition. Oracle, Sun Microsystems, all of them would do that had they been in that position. They just werenít in that position. Itís just how capitalism works. The real thing that matters is to actually do something meaningful about it to set these markets open. There Iím concerned that the chances of that happening are a lot different. In this case youíve got all the powerful firms in the industry lined up against Microsoft. They were pushing and supporting the government. Now, as they negotiate a solution, weíre going to have all these firms jockeying for the best deal for themselves, and they are all going to agree they want to keep it in private hands. Unless thereís public pressure, which I donít foresee in the short term, the solution is not just going to basically turn the monopoly into a duopoly. I think itís unlikely. So itís good whatís been done, but letís not think thatís the end of it.
I asked Noam Chomsky about the increasing media concentration. His answer departs from the traditional left line. He said, Thereís not much evidence that the media before all these takeovers and mergers happened were producing any better product.
I would disagree in one way. I think Chomskyís generally
right in the sense that to romanticize more competitive markets is wrong.
There were fundamental problems with our media system before. When I talked
to him about this issue, he said, What were they doing before that was
so much better? Heís right at that level. But what has happened with concentrated
ownership is that what autonomy journalists did have, and they didnít use
it very effectively for the most part, has come under sustained attack
by corporate owners and advertisers. The result is a softening of news
stories and a reluctance now to attack major advertisers. That wasnít the
case ten or twenty years ago. You see a real merging, the breakdown of
the separation of editorial and commercial content. As a result, journalists
who used to be the foremost defenders of the commercial media system are
now some of its strongest critics because they can see that the profit
motive and commercialism undermine their ability to do anything remotely
close to public service journalism. Thatís a big change. And that has only
taken place due to concentration.
November 11, 1999
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?
Itís 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. Itís 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 donít think anyone can claim otherwise. In NPRís audience data that they provide when theyíre trying to appeal to underwriters, theyíre bragging about the wealth, education and sophistication of their listeners. What theyíre 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 thatís basically written out of our broadcasting system.
In some of the discussions about public radio and TV, thereís kind of an underlying current that when they werenít as well funded and didnít have as many listeners, the programming was more cutting edge.
Iím 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. Thatís 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 doesnít, covers political perspectives the commercial system generally trivializes, they invariably take heat from Washington. Powerful people in Washington use their power. Itís 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 donít 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 thereís a fundamental issue here thatís 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 couldnít 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 oneís 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? Itís an impossible situation. So theyíre left with what theyíve done, which is very rational. You pitch a product that isnít 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 itís 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 theyíre not public broadcasting in the historic or international sense of the terms. We have really more accurately nonprofit commercial broadcasting.
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.
Thatís a very hotly debated and studied issue now. The evidence isnít 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 didnít 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 wouldnít take away listeners or viewers. Thatís 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, Weíve got public broadcasters to do the nature show and the educational stuff. Weíre just going to give the people what they want and rake in as much money as possible.
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 canít 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. Itís basically on its own for ten years, independent and autonomous. Then it comes back for public hearings. So if thereís some serious controversy in the fourth year, no one in Parliament can say, Weíre going to close the BBC down. They've got autonomy. So thatís 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. Itís ridiculous that we say, OK, we donít want to take government money for community and public broadcasting because that would taint us. The rational thing to say is, If weíre 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 canít 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 thatís 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 arenít just going to be flamed in advertising constantly as you are on the Internet now. I think itís something that we should be shooting for and working for.
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 weíre 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 theyíre 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. Weíre 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.
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?
Thereís a lot of truth in that critique. It is a sandbox for the elite in many ways. Itís a sandbox for the elite at least in Washington and New York and some other cities. Itís probably more likely to be Clinton Democrats than Republicans. So I think Gingrichís concerns at that level were very warranted. The solution, in my view, is not to eliminate public broadcasting. Itís 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 Iíve 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.
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 itís 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 thatís 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. Theyíre pro-business. Theyíre anti-regulation of business for the most part. They're not interested in progressive taxation. Theyíre not in sympathy with the political and economic interests of the bottom fifty percent of this country. Theyíre having a turf war with their fellow members of the upper middle class. Thatís 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. Thatís a legitimate critique. Thatís a scary group of people. When that becomes defined as the left in our society, weíre in trouble, because thatís 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, thatís the left. It isnít a bunch of Ivy League-educated lawyers who want to drink wine and listen to Mozart.
Who are the pundits on these public radio and TV programs like the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, Washington Week in Review, The McLaughlin Group, NPRís 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. Itís 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 theyíve 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. Whatís 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 youíre successful as a producer now in public radio or TV, youíve 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 DíSouza make another pathbreaking discovery on race? Itís normal to you. Thatís the only way you survive. Itís reflected in the fact that public radio and TV basically regurgitate mainstream conventional wisdom.
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. Theyíre extremely important and irrefutable. They show exactly what Iíve just been talking about. FAIR is a wonderful group with an exciting history. It began in 1986. Thereís 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! Theyíve grown over the years. They do great work. FAIRís a real testament to an interest in understanding how our media work. Itís very difficult to do. The forum in which you normally publicize your ideas and your debate is controlled by the people youíre trying to debate about. The agenda-makers control the agenda. So itís hard to discuss corporate media in the media themselves. So when media issues do show up in the commercial and corporate news media, theyíre usually warped and truncated to serve their own interests if theyíre covered at all. And theyíre 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, itís 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. Thereís no debate on it whatsoever. But it shows up in the business pages every day. Itís talked about as an issue of great importance to owners and investors.
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, whoís 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?
Thatís how itís covered. Itís 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. Thatís how this was covered.
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. Theyíve made the most money because theyíve 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. Thatís 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.
When Ben Bagdikian wrote his classic book The Media Monopoly in 1983, he outlined the trend in media mergers and takeovers. Now itís 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 heís 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. Thatís 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 youíre dissatisfied with whatís being produced, you can enter it yourself and produce something people can hear. Thatís 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. Itís particularly striking in journalism, for example. Journalism is the foundation of any notion of representative self-government. Youíve 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. Thatís 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. Thatís 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. Itís bad business to have a lot of reporters and editors. They cost a lot of money. So thereís 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.
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 Iím going to make sure I use Greenpeace and all the alternative sources. When stories come up that affect people, Iím not just going to use the conventional wisdom. Then she came back after the summer sort of sheepish. She didnít come to see me. I thought that was sort of strange because we were on good terms. I finally ran into her and asked, Whatís up? How was the internship? She said, Well, you know, uh ... It didnít 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 didnít 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. Thatís whatís 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 politicianís mouth and be a stenographer. The idea of balance is to get someone from the other side of the aisle to comment. You donít investigate eitherís claims and ask, Is this the most important issue we should be covering? You see a real trivialization of news content. Itís so much easier to cover Linda Tripp, Lorena Bobbit or Joey Buttafuoco. You can put a camera in the courtroom. It doesnít take any intelligence to cover it. Itís very inexpensive. The profits skyrocket. The claim is itís demand-driven, people really want to know this stuff. In fact, itís supply driven. Itís cheap and never controversial. The problem with good journalism is, it invariably gets you in hot water with people in power. Itís going to piss someone off. Thatís 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 theyíll do anything. Theyíll censor themselves. They wonít do anything that could threaten profitability.
Didnít 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 Pattenís 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 didnít like it, and so he yanked it and didnít publish it. Disneyís even worse. They released Martin Scorseseís film Kundun on Tibet. Youíd think Disney would stand tall, and say, Weíre going to stand behind this great filmmaker. Weíre 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. Heís 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 wasnít even on the top ten list for any of them. It was number one for NBC. Guess why? Here youíre 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, thereís nothing we can do about it. You canít start a TV network. No one can start a newspaper. Basically itís their thing, and the more power they have, the more they can commercialize it.
Thereís also a paradox in the newsroom, perhaps reflecting the larger economic order. At the top end youíve 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. Thatís the only reason. Thatís the commercialization of the whole process. Itís 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. Thereís no dirt under anyoneís fingernails. Thereís 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. Thereís 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 whoís doing the best spin job. Nothing on the issues. Nobody knows what they stand for. But itís inane stuff like this that has no content thatís called sophisticated political journalism. Itís entirely bankrupt. Itís commercially driven. So it is a paradox. The new standard youíre supposed to aspire to if youíre a journalist is to be a star on TV. Itís just another form of celebrity.
What would a McChesney broadcasting system look like?
Creating a better media system would be part of broader social changes. You wonít get changes in media unless you have a popular movement thatís going to also challenge institutions in our society. But just for hypothetical cases, what I recommend we should organize around, and what there actually is organizing around, are a few things. Real public radio and TV, a bona fide, non-profit, non-commercial sector. A couple of well-funded channels in every market. Community public access, plus a national system of good resources. That would be one part of it. To the extent we have commercial broadcasting, I would regulate it heavily. Thatís sort of anathema now. Regulation, thatís just terrible. We have regulation now. Itís done by Wall Street and Madison Avenue. Regulation is how you control things. What Iím saying is, if weíre going to give them these public airwaves and let them make a fortune off it, we have the right to set some terms on the deal. Itís our property. Weíre the landlords, so to speak. But we havenít been collecting any rent. The tenants basically have been telling us what to do. Since itís our property, we have a right to say, This is what we need in our society if youíre going to use our property. If not, weíll get someone else to use it.
I can hear the voice of Limbaugh in my inner ear, saying, There goes McChesney again. He wants pointy-headed bureaucrats in Washington telling us what we can listen to and watch.
Listen to what I have in mind, though. Specifically, I donít want any bureaucrat or anyone going in and telling people what to do or not to do on their show. Thatís not the type of regulation I envision. That sort of regulation isnít going to work. Thatís going to flop. Thatís the sort of regulation we have now, with Wall Street and Madison Avenue going into the studio and saying, This is what an entertainment show is and this is what it isnít. I donít like that either. Limbaugh doesnít seem to mind that, though, because when you make $25 million a year the world looks pretty good. But the kind of regulation I have in mind is quite different from that sort of criticism. One, I would ban political advertising as a condition of a broadcast license. Political advertising is part of the process that has basically destroyed electoral democracy in this country. Getting rid of it wonít solve the problem, but it will go a long way towards lessening the cash crisis that has reduced our democracy to a pathetic status. Itís closely related to media reform. The National Association of Broadcasters, the commercial broadcasting organization, is the number one lobby that opposes any campaign finance reform. They will get this gift of tons of money in 2000 for political ads. Itís cash up front. Bottom line, they donít have to produce any of these ads. Itís the easiest money theyíve ever gotten. They donít care if theyíre destroying democracy. When you consider how campaign finance works and the role of these ads in our culture, itís simply obscene that we let these stations use our airwaves to destroy democracy and make a pile of money with these political ads. In the year 2000 election, itís expected the candidates will raise $3.5 billion. Whereís that money going to come from? Eighty percent of the individual campaign contributions come from the wealthiest one quarter of one percent of Americans. Itís an extraordinarily class-based system that is paying for it. Over half that money will go to pay for TV ads. Letís get rid of that money. Those ads are inane. Make that a conditioning of a broadcasting license. If someone doesnít like it, fine, they can give up their license and go on to some other venture. Fair enough. Thatís an option they have. Thereís no bureaucrat there. Thatís just an edict. NBC or Limbaugh can do whatever they want. They just canít run those ads.
Another thing is, no ads to children under twelve. What we do to children in this country is obscene. Thereís no justification for it. There are four full-time cable channels now aimed at kids. The advertisers have demographically and scientifically broken down the day into parts so that 1-3-year-old boys and girls are carpet-bombed with ads virtually from the moment they leave the womb. Itís an appalling situation. Sweden doesnít allow advertising to kids under twelve on television. In fact, itís such a powerful thing there that when one of these commercial networks wanted to bring their commercial network into cable, the National Labor Federation of Sweden called for a boycott. It was such an important issue in Sweden not to let that happen to their children. We need to do that here. No ads for kids under twelve. What we ought to do is, all commercial stations should have twelve hours a week taken away from them and give that time to educators and artists and let them put on kidsí programming that isnít directed by Wall Street and Madison Avenue. Weíve got to do something, and quickly. This is a crisis thatís a time bomb. We donít know culturally what the effect is going to be, but no one thinks itís going to be good down the road to have a generation so immersed in commercialism as this one.
Another thing I would do is to take the ads off news on television as a requirement of a license. As with childrenís programming, I would set aside a couple of hours a day on the channels and have that programming be done by journalists, not controlled by the owners or advertisers. To pay for the journalism and the kidsí shows, Iíd levy a tax on the revenue of the station and put it into a fund to pay for it. This is the way we need to start thinking creatively. Thatís the sort of regulation Iíd recommend. The rest of the time the companies can do whatever they want. It wouldnít really affect them. But it would mean that in journalism and childrenís programming and political elections, the most important things these companies touch upon, we would have a strong public service component directed toward the needs of society and not the needs of investors.
Finally, antitrust. Letís break up these big companies. When we went into Germany and Japan in 1945 we broke their media up. We said concentrated media was anti-democratic and promoted fascism. I think we should take a dose of our own medicine.
You just mentioned Sweden. Letís talk about another Scandinavian country, Norway. Your wife is Norwegian. Whatís the media system like there?
If youíre in America and you donít leave the country, you donít quite understand what a astonishing, world-historic transformation the media have gone through in the rest of the world in the last ten or fifteen years. When I first went to Norway in 1986, they only had one television station that was only on five hours a day with no commercials, public broadcasting. My initial response was, This is horrible. How can people live in this society? This is probably Gulagville. What do you do all day? Well, you talk to people, read a book, go for walks. I actually found that quite delightful. If you go to Norway now, thereís cable or satellite TV everywhere. There are commercial stations. The cable system is thirty or forty channels, half of them in English, almost all owned by the same companies that own our cable channels. Itís become a global system dominated by the U.S.-based companies and a couple of European ones that provide largely synonymous, heavily commercial-laden fare across the world. This is whatís happening in Norway and elsewhere. There are two things worth noting about this. One is how closely itís related to whatís called globalization or the neoliberal project. The project is putting business in command everywhere, denigrating all non-business institutions, labor, government, any nonprofit interests that could stand in the way of business domination. Take the change of television from being largely nonprofit public service stations to being almost entirely multichannel, commercial systems chock full of advertising all run by media giants. The change has been crucial to the creation of global and regional markets to sell the products that the whole system is based upon. So itís been integrally related that way.
Youíre getting the same problems now increasingly in Europe, Latin America and Asia that weíre seeing here. Garbage can journalism, public relations replacing real politics, spinmeisters and political advertising are growing in these other countries, oftentimes countries that historically have had much stronger political traditions than weíve had. Theyíre getting this superficial, best-politics-money-can-buy approach. Itís a real crisis around the world. Itís a crisis of democracy.
What are the points of resistance?
One of the exciting things is that in so many countries, Sweden being one of them, this is generating a political response from the democratic left political parties primarily. Basically thereís been a split in left political parties around the world in the 1990s on the issue of globalism, whether youíre going to be pro-business or oppose these pro-business reforms. Blair in Britain, Schroeder in Germany have gone the route of pro-business. But many have gone the other way. In Sweden, for example, the left alliance broke away from the dominant Social Democrats. This is an alliance of former Communists, feminists, Greens, former Social Democrats and labor who are opposed to neoliberalism. They regard media as such an important issue that itís in the preamble of their platform. They are talking about abolishing advertising and breaking up concentrated media ownership. Concentrated media ownership has grown around the world just like in the U.S. You have the same problem everywhere. Itís even worse in smaller countries because there are fewer companies that own everything. You see it in Sweden. The left party, which makes media the central part of their campaign, got 12% of the national vote. It was their second election. In Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Brazil, Finland and elsewhere, itís becoming an issue. The mainstream parties have to respond. They canít ignore it. Theyíre finding out voters arenít interested in having a media system dominated by two or three companies, where everythingís commercial and public service values are disregarded. Thatís not a winner. I think thatís the lesson we have to learn from. What we have to do in the U.S. is organize on these issues. My experience talking to citizensí groups around this country in the last three or four years is that there is a tremendous amount of interest. People feel powerless because they never hear about these issues. They donít know they can do anything about them. When they understand that our media system exists primarily as the result of government policies that have been done in their name without their input, they get outraged and say, What can we do about it? Thatís the big job in front of us, organizing around these issues. Saul Alinsky had a great line, When youíre going up against organized money, the only way to beat it is to organize people. This is a case where all the money is on one side of the ledger. Thereís no money on the side of media reform. But weíve got the people. They know it, and they do everything they can to keep their issues quiet. They donít want people hearing about the corruption of the giveaway of spectrum. They donít like it. So we need to build a coalition of all the organized groups in the society that already have an interest in this, such as labor, religious groups, educators, librarians, artists, creative people, journalists, all of whom are deeply concerned about the moral bankruptcy of this sort of media system. Get all these groups up to speed on these issues and try to get it on the political agenda. Get the main political parties, the Progressive Caucus of the Democratic Party, the New Party, the Labor Party and the Greens, to make it an issue. Weíve got someone like Ralph Nader, whoís been a heroic figure in the movement for media reform. If he runs for President in 2000, for sure it will be a main issue for him. Heíll put it on the agenda. Heís been leading the fight for the last ten or fifteen years to make it an issue.
Another extraordinary development in the past few years is microradio. This is an extremely inexpensive technology that offers the promise of opening up a whole new sector of community broadcasting for citizens. Microradio is a rare opportunity to provide a democratic layer of broadcasting. Not surprisingly, the commercial broadcasters oppose microradio because they fear competition. There is a crucial struggle going on right now that will determine the future of microradio. FCC Chairman William Kennard has proposed a new set of rules that would give licenses to hundreds of microradio stations. The FCC is scheduled to make a decision soon. Citizens can call the FCC at (202) 418-0260 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
So I think all these things are the beginning of something. Weíve only gone three inches on a two-mile journey, but theyíre the hardest three inches. Ten years ago, if someone had told me weíd come this far, I wouldnít have believed it. So in that sense Iím very optimistic.
The Pacifica radio network has been embroiled in a series of controversies over the last several years. KPFA, Pacificaís first radio station was established in Berkeley in 1949. They have stations in four other major markets. WBAI in New York, WPFW in Washington, D.C., KPFT in Houston and KPFK in Los Angeles. Whatís been going on at Pacifica?
If you look at Pacifica historically, the core problem here, and this is a problem a lot of community stations and nonprofit groups have in general, is, How do you reconcile a management system with the actual way the thing operates and the goals of the institution? At Pacifica, unfortunately, this problem has grown so thereís a canyon between the various sides. Itís become a major crisis. What they have is five stations that have been built up over time through the hard work of volunteers and staff and through a tremendous amount of listener support and community involvement. Yet you have a form of management thatís in the hands of a self-appointed board who basically have little or no experience with community radio themselves who have all the legal cards to do whatever they want. They have more power over those five Pacifica stations than Rupert Murdoch has over his enterprises. They have more power than a capitalist organization because they donít have shareholders to account to. They basically own the whole thing, to do whatever they want. They donít own it in the sense that they can sell it and take the money for themselves. But theyíve got all the power otherwise. So itís a chasm between what should be a management structure that reflects whoís doing the labor, who built it up, what the goals of the organization are, and the sort of tightly-knit, very secretive cabal that runs it, which makes no effort to communicate with anyone about what theyíre doing. Itís a total contradiction. It erupted into a major crisis in the summer of 1999 with the lockout at KPFA Berkeley. The Pacifica board actually paid a small fortune to hire security guards to lock out staff and volunteers and replaced regular programming with old tapes. This is a serious problem at a number of levels, not the least of which is that Pacifica has historically, to this day, been a beacon of journalism and public affairs coverage both in their communities and nationally. They have a network of affiliate stations around the country like KGNU in Boulder, WORT in Madison and WEFT in Urbana-Champaign. It has traditionally been the one broadcast medium in this country that would bring stories of war and peace, of economic policy, precisely those crucial stories where the conventional media almost always march in lock step and then you find out after the fact how much they were wrong. Itís been the dissident voice, the one place you could hear Noam Chomsky explain Kosovo. The concern now is that that vision for Pacifica is just in contradiction with this management system of complete secrecy, of people that have no connection to the stations and no apparent concern for the values of the network. I say "apparent" because theyíre so secretive, youíre just guessing what theyíre thinking. But in a situation like this when things are secretive, thatís simply unacceptable. Weíre talking about community radio institutions. Thereís more secrecy around Pacifica than youíd find at the CIA. Itís probably easier to go into the CIA or the NSA and ask them what theyíre doing undercover in some country than it is to find out what Pacificaís boardís plans are for their stations.
The Pacifica leadership says it wants to build audience. They want to get beyond the choir. They want to expand their listenership so that they can be a viable and prosperous entity in the twenty-first century. Whatís wrong with that?
Thereís nothing wrong with that. Iíve been a big advocate of community stations working to expand their listenership. But what theyíre doing doesnít track with that claim. Thereís a disconnect there, on a number of levels. First of all, if that is your goal, you should be working with your listeners, staff members and volunteers to talk to them and have a discussion about how you want to do that. There are different ways to approach that. You donít just go into a secret meeting and come out with a secret plan, fire everyone and implement a plan. Thatís no way to run a community radio station. Secondly, if you look at the Houston and the Washington stations that they are most sympathetic to, theyíre the two that have stripped out almost all the public affairs and have gone to music and light entertainment programming, taken all the identity that Pacifica historically stands for, and removed it. So it gives cause for concern that their vision of a Pacifica is not going to be the vision that has the dissident voices on the Middle East or on the WTO, thatís going to provide a voice to those sectors of the community that are boxed out of the commercial system. The record instead, from what we can actually see, is that their version of Pacifica is going to be a sort of NPR Lite, with music and almost no or totally lightweight public affairs. The solution here isnít to badmouth or castigate them. The solution is to set up a new structure that is accountable and democratic. I think you can expand audience without sacrificing your politics. Pacifica can learn from stations like KGNU and WORT that have done this successfully in their communities. You can put music and entertainment on that people like. You can also have your politics. Politics arenít turning people off. Thatís not my experience. Whatís turning them off is unprofessionalism, incoherence, factional fighting and programming that has no interest beyond one or two people in the audience. The concern, though, is that the Pacifica board has zeroed in on the tradition of feisty public affairs and journalism as what has to go if they want to please the grant makers, foundation heads and politicos in Washington. That seems to be the only audience they care about.
What might be some strategies for getting beyond the choir to the congregation?
Who do you want to reach? You want to expand your audience. There are a thousand different directions to go. Letís say that there are groups you want to reach that youíre not currently reaching in the community, go into those communities, get programmers, give them training, see what they want to do. Engage in a process of bringing people aboard. Thatís the only way you can really do it that I can think of. The way not to do it is to hire some high-ticket demographic expert from the advertising industry who comes in with reams of charts and statistics, telling you, Play this song and you get this audience. Thatís not community radio. Thatís the whole logic of commercial radio. One-way flow. The whole idea is to grab people and hook them to listen to ads. Community radio is developing an audience and an interaction in a community. You talk to people, bring programmers in. Thatís the way to do it.
Roger Clemens, the baseball pitcher, is known as the Rocket. But thereís a rocket in your background as well.
I was a rock music magazine publisher. That was in Seattle starting in 1979 with the some friends. We started a rock magazine thatís still in business called The Rocket. I think itís the third-largest circulation in the U.S. Itís done very well. It was a lot of fun. It gave me a lot of valuable experience in hands-on organizing a media operation, how you get people to work together and what you can accomplish. What I learned is that if you have people who are really dedicated and work hard, thereís a lot you can do. Thereís no reason to sit around and whine. You can accomplish things. I say that with hesitation, because a lot of time when people say that, their implication is, Therefore you donít need to make social change. Itís all in your court. You can just take care of number one and pull yourself up. You donít have to worry about making social change. Thatís not my point at all. My point is, you can do things, but you can also do things to make social change. Ultimately, the core problems we face in the media and in our society are social problems. They require social solutions. We should be organizing and working together to change institutions.
How did you get political?
My family has often wondered that. Iím sort of an aberration. I come from a middle-class family in suburban Cleveland. None of the friends I grew up with is political. I think it was primarily two things, growing up in the sixties, coming of age during the antiwar movement. It was an era when the coolest people were more critical. It was very different from today. If youíre political today on a college campus, youíre looked at like a Moonie, a kook. But in that generation intellectuals worked and fought hard. They were critical and respected. The dissidents and radicals were very thoughtful people. I said, Iíd better take this seriously. Iíd better find out what theyíre talking about. This looks like something important. A seminal influence on me in the early 1970s was the feeling that there was something going on that Iíve got to know. And also a sense that the sort of world that I lived in was fundamentally a lie. It was saturated with inequality and misery produced by market mania, self-love and greed. There was something fundamentally flawed with that.
Who inspires you?
Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn and Ralph Nader are among those who had principles and stayed with them when there were tremendous benefits for them at any point to say, The world isnít that bad after all. They could have vaulted to fame. But they stuck with their principles. Theyíve educated me and taught me so much. Paul Sweezy of Monthly Review is almost like a personal teacher. Iíve learned so much from him over the years. Ed Herman is one of my teachers, too. Heís been instrumental in my education, not just in media but also in economics. He really understands how markets work in a very sophisticated manner. Ed is a soft-spoken man. Heís not comfortable in the limelight. Heís one of these people who will never quite get his due. Heís been probably the most important media critic of the past twenty-five years. Certainly the work Iíve done has been following in his footsteps. At another level, activists have inspired me. There was a guy in Seattle who died in the 1980s in Nicaragua named Ben Linder who was a real inspiration to me. I was in grad school at the time, teaching undergrads who were largely depoliticized. Here was this young man from Portland who went from the University of Washington, where I was, to Nicaragua as an engineer to help that country build up. He was murdered by the contras. He was such a testament to me. Itís much like the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, fighters in the thirties were for a generation of people who at a moment in history where something crucial was on the line put their lives out there. Heís always been an inspiration to me.
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