Article 25

Occupy the Newsroom

In Uncategorized on 03/30/2012 at 4:30 pm

Robert McChesney

A white reformer meets a black skeptic

By Gregory Flannery

American society respects the news media about as much as it respects Congress ­– not much.

Can you imagine throngs of people demonstrating in support of serious journalism, with the result that the federal government subsidized the profession to the tune of $35 billion a year? Robert McChesney does.

A professor at the University of Illinois and the author of 18 books and an advocate of media reform, McChesney spoke last month at Miami University. Painting a bleak picture of the state of civil liberties in the United States, he called for urgent action.

Failure by the press

As keynote speaker Feb. 16 at the Robert E. Strippel Memorial Continuing Dialogue on Justice and Human Rights, McChesney listed income disparity and the highest incarceration rate in the world as signs that the United States has strayed from the vision of the nation’s founders.

The most endangered civil liberty is the right to protest, he said.

“There’s something that was true in 1789 that’s true in 2012: There’s nothing scarier than seeing people gathering outside, peacefully assembling for the redress of grievances,” McChesney said. “They’d much rather people be looking at Internet pornography.

“Of the five freedoms in the First Amendment, the right to assemble is most under attack. That right is under attack right now in a way that it has not been under attack in a generation.”

The institution of so-called “free speech zones,” in which protesters are isolated – and kept at a distance ­– during presidential visits are one example. McChesney also cited Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plans to take a hard line with protests during the upcoming G8 and NATO summits.

Where did the crackdown on public dissent originate? McChesney harked back to a warning by James Madison, chief author of the U.S. Constitution.

“Madison said no country can remain simultaneously at war and remain free,” he said. “Militarism and war are the biggest threats to democracy. When you have militarism and empire, you inevitably have corruption, you have secrecy. … We’re right at the point where, like in 1984, no one knew why they were at war with Eurasia. We have militarism, with all the problems associated with it: loss of freedom, secrecy, corruption.”

The militarism that that guides U.S. policy is in large part a reflection of the failure of American journalism, according to McChesney.

“Why has our press system failed?” he said. “Why did it not demand evidence in 2003 before we invaded Iraq? Where is the journalism today, as we’re being ginned up today for war with Iran?”

That journalism is in decline is abundantly clear, McChesney said.

“The number of working journalists has plummeted.,” he said. “By one count, we’ve lost 47,000 journalist jobs since 2002. Why is that? The conventional wisdom is it’s the Internet’s fault. The problem is that declining revenues in journalism started long before the World Wide Web. … This is the worst labor market for a young journalist ever in our history. We can’t afford to lose a generation of people in journalism. This is not an option for a free society.”

The result is less reporting. In Baltimore, he said, a study found a 33 percent decrease in originally produced news stories since 2000, with most of the “original” reporting initiated by public-relations firms.

“In 1960, for every working editor and reporter in this country, there was one public-relations official,” McChesney said. “Today it’s four public-relations officials for every working journalist.”

Freedom House recently ranked the United states 24th in the world in terms of freedom of the press. Reporters Without Borders ranked the country 47th.

“We’re in the ex-urbs of the free press,” McChesney said.

The countries ranked highest for freedom of the press are Norway, Germany, Holland and other Western European nations that subsidize journalism.

“What we need to do is return to massive public subsidies,” McChesney said.

To those who argue that government funds inevitably bring government control, he said that hasn’t happened in Western Europe. He again deferred to the nation’s early leaders. Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and the other founders supported postal subsidies for all newspapers, he said, without regard to their political slant.

“The post office was the circulation arm of the newspaper industry,” McChesney said. “If the United States today spent the same amount supporting journalism that it did in 1840, we’d have to spend $35 billion.”

The way to get that kind of support for robust, independent journalism?

“Ultimately, what will give us quality journalism is the same thing that gave this country its birth,” McChesney said. “It will be hundreds of thousands of us people gathering outside the halls of power and demanding a free press.”

Liberals of certain means’

McChesney’s appeal to the values of Jefferson et al. – many of whom were slaveholders – was unappealing to Jared Ball.

“You cannot own human beings and have anything of value to say to the world,” he said.

Ball is the editor of Black and a professor of communications at Morgan State University.

The second day of the Strippel Symposium opened with a dialogue between Ball and McChesney.

Rejecting McChesney’s assertion that the right to protest is suddenly under attack, Ball said that right has only existed for white people.

“It’s only new to whites and liberals of certain means,” he said. “They have belatedly gotten into the fray and tangled with the state that we have tangled with for years. There has never been a right to assemble for the world’s majority, and that includes those colonized in the United States.”

“This is not a democracy. What they were setting up was not a three-pronged system to protect against monarchy but a three-pronged system to protect against fundamental change. When Bob talks about how we have moved away from what makes this country so special – the rule of law – it refers to Western white men. What we call the rule of law has to be re-examined and critiqued from the standpoint of what it means for the world majority.”

McChesney then referred to Thomas Paine, who advocated the abolition of slavery and universal suffrage. Benjamin Franklin, he said, called for limits on the amount of property a person could own.

But Ball’s criticism wasn’t limited to the early days of the republic. Pointing to Media Matters, a weekly radio program hosted by McChesney, Ball said that 88 percent of the show’s programs had no black guests.

“We live at a time when you have more black faces in the media than ever before,” he said. “Very few of these programs are serious discussions of the actual conditions or suffering of black, brown and native people.

“The white left doesn’t do enough to investigate these realities and expose them to their audiences. You get far more coverage of Palestinians and people in Latin America than you do black people here in the United States. One of the reasons I wanted to be here was to encourage the white left or liberal community to engage in the discussion of these issues.”


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