For nearly two decades, Robert McChesney has been a modern Paul Revere raising an alarm about the growing domination of the media by giant firms and special interests. There are many sharp academic critics of our corporate media system, but McChesney stands out because of his straightforward writing style and populist commitment to democracy and social change.
What does it mean for democracy, McChesney asks, when a small elite determines the information the rest of us receive about the world? Though every new technology – from radio to television to the Internet – has held out the promise of increased democratization, in the end it’s those in control of the medium who have determined what stories get told. In other words: freedom of the press belongs to the person who owns one.
Before earning his Ph.D. in communications from the University of Washington, McChesney worked as a sportswriter, published a weekly newspaper, and cofounded the Seattle rock magazine the Rocket. He now teaches at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he is a professor in the Institute of Communications Research. His work is primarily concerned with what he calls “the contradiction between a for-profit, highly concentrated, advertising-saturated, corporate media system and the communications requirements of a democratic society.”
McChesney is the author or editor of seven books. His recent tour de force Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Times (University of Illinois Press) has earned accolades from, among others, Ralph Nader, Barbara Ehrenreich, and Bill Moyers, who said, “If Thomas Paine were around, he would have written this book.” McChesney’s other books include Corporate Media and the Threat to Democracy (Seven Stories Press); Global Media: The Missionaries of Corporate Capitalism (Cassell Academic), with Edward S. Herman; and, most recently, Free the Media: Unleash the Democracy (Seven Stories Press), with John Nichols. McChesney is also co-editor of the Monthly Review, an independent socialist magazine founded in 1949.
I first met Robert McChesney through John Stauber, critic of the public-relations industry and editor of the journal PR Watch, who invited me to a party at McChesney’s home in Madison, Wisconsin. A longtime fan of McChesney’s work, I eagerly accepted.
Radicals of every stripe were in attendance. Walking from room to room, I overheard conversations about everything from the role of the media in maintaining current social structures to a really good recipe for banana bread. When I met McChesney, I discovered him to be a big man, warm and self-effacing. I also got to talk to his wife, Inger Stole, an intelligent woman with a strong Norwegian accent.
At the end of the evening, I mentioned to McChesney that I would like to interview him someday. His response was easy and accommodating, and we quickly set a date. I later returned to Madison, and we talked through the hot afternoon in his living room, moving upstairs when one of his daughters needed the space to do her homework.
Jensen: We hear over and over that the United States has the freest press in the world.
McChesney: Yes, we’re told that a private, commercial press system is innately American and democratic, and that, in fact, it’s the only true free-press system. We internalize this notion early on. It’s not a debatable point in our society. The problem, however, is that the type of media system we have today bears almost no resemblance to the type glorified in that mythology, where anyone who wants to can start a newspaper; where if you’ve got something to say, you can stand up and say it, and you can’t be censored. It’s true, you can stand on a street corner and state your opinion more or less without fear, but it’s also true that, unless you’re a billionaire, you won’t be able to reach any sort of mass audience, because that’s what kind of money it takes to run a major media outlet, like a television network or a film studio.
The way the media giants – the handful of companies that own and operate our media system – present the case to us, you’d think our current media monopoly is divinely ordained, as if Moses handed a tablet to Thomas Jefferson, who handed it to Abe Lincoln, who handed it to Rupert Murdoch. But the media system we have today is purely a twentieth-century phenomenon, quite unlike the one that existed in the first hundred-plus years of the republic. And, in most respects, it’s diametrically opposed to the type of media system we had at the time the First Amendment to the Constitution was adopted in 1791.
For the first couple of American generations, our media were largely partisan, closely linked to the political process, not especially profitable, and mostly noncommercial. Newspapers in those days were always connected to political parties and factions. You needed your own newspaper in order to be a political force. The whole reason you published one was to convince people to share your political ideas – a completely different purpose from the commercial logic that rules today’s media.
Thomas Jefferson and like-minded individuals included freedom of the press in the First Amendment because they knew that if the party in power were able to outlaw dissident newspapers, it could essentially abolish any dissent whatsoever. And, just as Jefferson had foreseen, in the late 1790s, President John Adams and the significantly antidemocratic Federalists who supported him tried to purge many of the radical newspaper editors in the country by means of the Alien and Sedition Acts. So the First Amendment wasn’t something the Founders dreamed up in order to protect Philip Morris investors two hundred years later. They had a very real, immediate political cause: the survival of democracy.
Another difference between the press at the time of the nation’s founding and the press today is that, prior to the twentieth century, the person who owned the newspaper or magazine was always the editor. And the owner-editors usually didn’t start the paper to make money, but to spread ideas. The business aspect was just to put food on the table and to allow the press to continue. Our mythology of the “bulldog press” is built on this notion of crusading owner-editors who print the news as they see it, special interests be damned. But by the twentieth century, that standard of owner-editor had pretty much disappeared, and the real power had passed over to the shareholders and corporate managers. These people have the First Amendment rights to hire and fire editors and do as they please, but they have no more interest in politics or democracy than people in the shoe business. They’re just out to make money. So in today’s media, the power is purely in the hands of commercial interests. Reporters and editors have no power except that which they’re granted by the owners.
Jensen: It seems to me that investors and managers in the newspaper business – or the shoe business, or any other business – have a distinct interest in politics insofar as it affects their bottom line.
McChesney: What I mean is that the owners of the media today don’t have an intrinsic political affiliation. If you started a newspaper in 1803, you were a Federalist or a Democrat or had some other partisan political agenda driving you. The idea of making huge profits from a newspaper would have been unlikely. But today the primary goal is to make as much money as possible.
Jensen: Yet, around the start of the twentieth century, historian and writer Henry Adams said: “The press is the hired agent of a monied system, set up for no other reason than to tell lies where the interests are concerned.”
McChesney: Exactly. By then, the purpose of the news-paper had already changed. The years between the Civil War and World War i saw the transition from political to com-mercial newspapers, which was part of a larger transition toward commercialization of the culture. Around the 1880s, people began to see that you could make real money running a newspaper.
But despite increasing commercialization, the press in the late nineteenth century was still largely a competitive arena. In 1870, in any major city in the U.S., you’d have a number of newspapers to choose from, representing a wide range of political opinions. And if you didn’t like any of them, you could always start your own; it didn’t cost that much.
But over time – especially as advertising became an important source of revenue – the number of newspapers began to diminish, and it became more difficult to start one. By the turn of the century, most smaller American cities had become one-newspaper towns. Even the larger cities had only three or four dailies. The very largest cities, like New York, still had eight or nine dailies until the 1940s and 1950s, when the number was cut down to three, where it remains today.
So what happens to journalism if you’ve got only one newspaper in town, and that newspaper gets most of its money from advertisers? For one thing, the newspaper can’t be highly partisan, because it would antagonize a significant percentage of its readership, and that would be bad for business. Advertisers, of course, want as large a market share as possible, so owners must try to sell as many copies as possible. Also, as papers got bigger, the owners got wealthier, and it became less likely that their opinions would go against the interests of the rich.
This is the spawning ground for the modern notion of professional, “objective” journalism. In order to maximize market share, newspapers had to avoid pissing people off, so they created the essentially fictional idea that their editorial content wasn’t controlled by the owners and advertisers but by journalists with professional standards of neutrality. The idea was to make capitalist, advertising-supported media seem – at least superficially – to be an objective source of news. But that’s a myth based on the notion that journalists can act independently of owners and advertisers.
The reality is that reporters knew from the start not to trash advertisers and always to take care of the owners’ interests. But, more important, the values of commercialism were smuggled in and internalized, and they have increasingly permeated professional journalism ever since. For example, why are crime stories always considered news, even when there’s no specific public issue raised by them? The primary reason is that crime sells newspapers. Because such scare stories are commercially viable, they have become, almost by default, good journalism. But there is nothing inherent in stories about crime and violence that makes them newsworthy outside of the communities where the crimes occur.
Another problem is that professional journalism relies heavily on official sources. Reporters have to talk to the White House press secretary, the cop on the beat, the army general. What those people say is news. Their perspectives are automatically legitimate. But if you talk to prisoners, strikers, the homeless, or protesters, you have to paint their perspectives as unreliable, or else you’ve become an advocate and are no longer a “neutral” professional journalist. This reliance on official sources gives the news an inherently conservative cast and gives those in power tremendous influence over defining what is or isn’t news. This is precisely the opposite of what a functioning democracy needs, which is a ruthless accounting of the powers that be.
Jensen: I can’t tell you how many environmental reporters I’ve seen get canned or sent to cover “community activities” because they’ve become “too close to the issues.”
McChesney: You’ll notice that doesn’t happen on the business beat. There, getting close to your subject is simply “cultivating your sources.”
The state of journalism today is woeful, and exactly what you’d expect in a media system owned by a handful of huge firms controlled by some of the wealthiest individuals in the world. They make billions providing a product that serves the needs of the two hundred largest advertisers – essentially, the largest corporations in the world. And whom do these advertisers want to reach? The richest segment of the population. So the news media are pitched almost exclusively to this demographic group. Thus, it’s considered normal for a paper to print eight pages of business news and zero on labor. Imagine what an anomaly it would be if you had a newspaper that contained eight pages on labor issues and none on business and gave lots of sympathetic coverage to strikes and rallies. People would say, “What the hell’s going on here? Who’s running this newspaper?”
Yet, as recently as the 1940s, it was standard for every midsize or larger U.S. daily to have a full-time labor-beat reporter. In a city like Detroit or Chicago or Milwaukee, there would be several. It’s been estimated that there were more than a thousand full-time labor reporters and editors at daily newspapers in the forties. So labor issues were covered. When a strike took place, a reporter would talk to union members and find out what they were thinking and doing. The 1937 sit-down strike in Flint, Michigan, which led to the creation of the United Auto Workers union, was front-page news in every paper in the country. Even the Chicago Tribune, which was semifascist under Colonel McCormick, covered the Flint strike on its front page; it trashed the strikers, but at least its readers knew there was a strike going on.
Do you know how many full-time labor-beat reporters there are in U.S. daily newspapers today? Four, at most. The position has been all but eliminated. Even in Detroit – the center of the American labor movement in the twentieth century – the last full-time labor-beat reporter was laid off shortly after owners broke the union at the city’s two newspapers. In the same year, those papers added fifteen new reporters to cover mall expansions and other “crucial” stories in the suburbs.
This means we have no coverage of labor news in our press, except in those rare cases where the papers absolutely can’t avoid paying attention. So if you’re a working-class person who’s interested in working-class issues – which describes the bulk of the population – our media’s news coverage is irrelevant to you. Proof of this came in 1989, when the largest sit-down strike in fifty years took place. Do you know where?
Jensen: I’ve got no clue.
McChesney: How would you? It wasn’t covered. It was a mineworkers’ strike in Pittstown, Virginia. And the strikers won, too. But average Americans probably know less about it than they do about Greek philosophy – and certainly less than they do about the Dow Jones index. The only significant national coverage of the Pittstown strike came when some striking Soviet coal miners traveled from Siberia to show solidarity with their brothers and sisters in western Virginia. Finally, the New York Times decided to cover that.
Jensen: What little coverage I have seen of strikes is universally negative.
McChesney: That’s because strikers are a thorn in the side of society’s rightful rulers: the investing class. Our media system is a firm believer in the idea that big business should run society and everyone else should do what’s best for big business.
Jensen: To what degree do you think most journalists and journalism professors are aware that they’re servants to power?
McChesney: Part of the function of professional standards in journalism (and I suspect it works similarly in other professions) is to make journalists oblivious to the sort of compromises they must constantly make. The point is to make journalists think they’re just being responsible and following ethical codes. And journalists have bought into this ideology to such a degree that, especially in the last thirty years, they have been fiercely resistant to any criticism of our media system.
In the last five years, however, I’ve noticed a major shift in this regard. I used to be a freelance journalist, reporter, and magazine publisher, until I went back to graduate school in 1983. I still periodically see my journalist friends, and I give them my radical critique of the news media and how they serve the interests of the rich and powerful. Throughout the 1980s, my friends would respond: “Bob, you don’t know what you’re talking about anymore. It’s not as bad as all that. You’ve completely lost touch.” Now, when I offer the same critique, my friends say, “Bob, you don’t know what you’re talking about. You’re completely out of touch. It’s much worse than you think.”
There’s been a demoralizing crisis of confidence among thoughtful journalists. You can see it in all the books by ex-journalists lamenting the collapse of their profession under commercial and corporate pressure. The upside of this is that it’s made people listen to criticism of our media system.
Jensen: But do you actually think some editors and reporters consciously ignore stories and lie to serve the ruling class?
McChesney: I would compare how our system works to the old Soviet press before glasnost. If you’d gone into a newsroom of Pravda in 1975, you wouldn’t have seen kgb guards with guns aimed at the editors’ heads, forcing them to stick to the party line. By the time those journalists got to the top of their profession – the equivalent of working for the New York Times or the Washington Post – they’d already internalized the values of their society, meaning they believed that what was good for the Communist Party was good for their society. If a story came along that challenged that presumption, they’d instantly dismiss it. No one had to instruct them to do that, because any journalists who had a problem with the Soviet system had been weeded out long before then. If you published an article or two that was critical of the Communist Party, you were likely sent to sell classified ads in Uzbekistan.
And the same thing happens in our media system. By the time you get to the New York Times newsroom, you’ve internalized the values of the ruling class. So when a war comes along in, say, Kosovo, you don’t ask such rational questions as “What gives the U.S. the right to invade any country it wants, for any reason it chooses?” or “Why do no other countries have this right?” Instead, you simply assume that the U.S. can do whatever it wants.
Now if, say, Iraq had invaded Yugoslavia, you would have been highly critical of Iraq. And if Iraq had responded, “Well, we’ve got our own military alliance, just like your nato. It’s called iraqo, and the invasion is justified because iraqo voted to do it,” our reporters and editors would have laughed and called it a fraud. Yet when Clinton does the same thing, it’s perfectly reasonable.
Jensen: Whenever I write for big, commercial magazines, I become discouraged. They go through what I’ve written and extract the teeth, then go through again to make sure they didn’t miss any the first time around. The final result says nothing, offends no one, and has neither substance nor style.
McChesney: That’s exactly how the process works. Let’s say a journalist at the New York Times who isn’t completely brainwashed gets the crazy idea that she’ll study the relationship between the cia and illegal drugs. Her editors won’t come right out and say, “That’s nonsense.” Rather, they’ll say, “ok, Sally, work on that for a while.” But then she’ll find she’s not getting any support, and that the piece is being harshly edited. Still, she’ll put all her time, energy, and heart into this piece and call in all her favors with sources, editors, and other writers in the hopes that she can uncover this important story. She’ll go way out on a limb personally, emotionally, professionally, politically. And then the story won’t run. Or if it does run, the newspaper won’t stand behind her, the way the San Jose Mercury News didn’t stand behind Gary Webb after he reported just such a story. After that, Sally will have to win back favor by doing puff pieces about how great our system is, how stupid protesters are, how greedy strikers are. Over time, she’s likely to say, “Why should I beat my head against the wall doing hard work that gets me nowhere, when everyone kisses my behind for quoting politicians and reciting government policies?”
Jensen: A line I hear all the time to defend corporate journalism or sensationalistic stories is “We’re just giving people what they want.”
McChesney: That’s a flawed argument on a number of levels. First, journalists who say they’re “giving people what they want” are essentially acknowledging that they’re no longer journalists, even by their own standards. The ostensible principle behind journalism is that you give people what they need, not what they want. They need information to help them understand the world and public life. Giving people what they want is the job of the entertainment industry.
Second, it’s not even true that they’re giving us what we want. Yes, if you’re constantly exposed to something, it’s easy to develop a taste for it. After a year and a half of the O.J. Simpson trial, I was sort of interested in what Kato Kaelin was doing, but that doesn’t mean it was what I wanted. I would bet that if people were exposed on a regular basis to really good, hard-hitting journalism, they’d develop a taste for it, too.
The real reason we get so much coverage of O.J. Simpson, Joey Buttafuoco, and JonBen‚t Ramsey is that they’re extremely inexpensive stories to cover and require no journalistic skill, so media corporations save a ton of money. Also, these stories never cause trouble with anyone in power, which means the newspapers don’t have to worry about losing sources or being sued.
Here’s a classic example of journalism by the bottom line: Iowa used to have one of the great American newspapers, the Des Moines Register. One reason it was such a great paper is that it had a full-time reporter in each of the state’s ninety or so counties. Then, in the mid-1980s, the Register was purchased by the media giant Gannett. The first thing Gannett did to fatten up the bottom line was fire almost all those county reporters. Next, the new owners looked at the Washington, D.C., bureau, where the Register had a staff of knowledgeable reporters covering agricultural policies full time. The bureau wasn’t bringing in any advertising dollars, however, so they fired just about everyone.
Was Gannett giving the people what they wanted? No, but it’s easy for them to make that claim, because after fifteen years without coverage of Iowa counties, if you did a survey of twenty-five-year-old Iowans today, they almost certainly wouldn’t say, “I want good coverage of local issues around the state,” because they don’t even know that’s an option.
Media giants don’t give people what they want; they give people what’s most profitable to produce. Then, because you consume it, they claim that it’s what you wanted in the first place. It’s an insult to democracy.
Jensen: When the Soviet Union collapsed, I kept reading in newspapers that Russia was moving “from communism to democracy.” It seemed to me that journalists were routinely substituting the word democracy for capitalism.
McChesney: To use those two words interchangeably is an ideologically loaded construct, because equating them makes it impossible to discuss the antidemocratic implications of our capitalist society. And if you can’t discuss those implications, you can’t proceed to the next logical step: taking action to preserve democracy.
Jensen: Can capitalism and democracy coexist?
McChesney: Obviously, societies can be both capitalist and democratic, but there will always be a tremendous tension between the two and limits on one or the other, or both. The greater the power of capitalist forces, the weaker the democratic values.
To have a viable, working democracy, you need three things. First, people have to be informed on the issues. This means they must be given a range of high-quality information and opinions, along with a ruthless accounting of the powers that be – and the powers that want to be. These are the tools that allow people to engage in debate, make informed decisions, and govern themselves. If you don’t have access to those tools – that is, if your media system doesn’t make them readily available – your ability to have a genuine, functioning democracy is reduced.
Second, you need to have some measure of political equality. You’ve got to believe, no matter how poor you are, that you have as much decision-making power in this society as everyone else – even Bill Gates. If you don’t believe that, then you don’t live in a democracy.
The third thing necessary for democracy to work – really, for any society to work – is a belief that your happiness, your fate, your lot in the world is dependent on your neighbors’. You can’t believe that you can have a great life while everyone around you is unhappy or dying. You’ve got to have faith in community, or else the whole social fabric unravels. Democracy is predicated on such communal beliefs, while capitalism promotes economic inequality and the individual fight for survival. Its motto is “Take care of number one. You’re competing with everyone else for scarce resources, and if you turn your back, they’ll screw you, so you’d better screw them first.” Everyone knows this is what capitalism is about, but journalists can’t admit it, because that wouldn’t be in the interests of their employers.
Jensen: I’ve heard about studies suggesting that the more you watch television news, the less you know. How does that work?
McChesney: Danny Schechter wrote a book called The More You Watch, the Less You Know (Seven Stories Press). The book’s title refers to a number of surveys showing that the people who consume the most commercial-tv news know the least about the subjects covered in those newscasts. The most famous study was done during the Gulf War, in 1991. Three University of Massachusetts social scientists found that people who watched the most cnn coverage of the war knew the least about who the participants were, what the different political positions were, and so on. Also – and this is very frightening – they were the most likely to support U.S. government policy.
One reason these findings are troubling is that they match the plan laid out by Joseph Goebbels in Nazi Germany during the 1930s. His goal for the Nazi media was that the more people consumed of it, the less they would understand the issues, and the more they would support Nazi policies. So our so-called free press produces the same type of results that Goebbels – a man with profound contempt for both democracy and public discourse – was trying to produce in Germany.
Another of Goebbels’s theories was that, rather than inundate the media with heavy-handed political messages, it was better to give people lots of light entertainment, which he felt made much more effective propaganda. And in our own media today, there is little serious drama to be found. A good mystery is about as close as you can get.
There’s more. Another of Goebbels’s instructions for the German media was that they should give the illusion of diversity, but that every single program should contain the same underlying message. That’s an accurate description of our cable television and magazine racks today: seemingly diverse, until you look below the surface.
In effect, our propaganda system is much better than anything Goebbels dreamed up, because it has the illusion of freedom. If you disagreed with the government in Nazi Germany, you got locked up and maybe even executed, so it was apparent that you were living in a repressive society. Here in the U.S., you can blow off steam with a rant on some community radio station or by writing for some fanzine that eight people read, and then you’re supposed to shut up and be happy because it proves we have a “free” press. But the dominant system remains highly repressive and undemocratic.
In many respects, we have the greatest propaganda system in human history, much superior to the Soviet or Nazi systems, because our system delivers the message that, if you don’t like it, it’s your own fault. That’s the primary message in our society: If you’re not a success, it’s your fault. If you’re in prison, it’s your fault. If you’re not happy, it’s your fault. It’s never the fault of our flawed system. The preservers of the status quo do not want that idea to enter our minds.
Jensen: Let’s get back to “the more you watch, the less you know.” I still don’t understand how that works.
McChesney: Basically, it means that the coverage is so skewed toward the official version that you never learn anything of critical importance. So the more you consume – the more you’re spoon-fed the party line – the less you’re able to engage the difficult questions.
Take Kosovo, for example: If you watch a lot of mainstream news, instead of being able to provide a rudimentary explanation of why the different factions acted the way they did, you’re more likely to know only that “They’re bad guys. They broke the law, so now we have to punish them.” The basic lesson we learn over and over from tv newscasts is that we’re the good guys who must deal with all the bad people around the world – people our leaders fortunately identify for us before taking them out.
Jensen: All of this goes hand in hand with the near-total silence in the press concerning our appalling military spending.
McChesney: Even when reporters still had some autonomy from owners and advertisers, certain issues were completely off-limits. And those tended to be issues of critical importance to the ruling class, the one-half of 1 percent who own much of the stock. If the members of the ruling class are in agreement on an issue, debate on it is off-limits for the rest of us. Only if they disagree – or, more often, if an issue is irrelevant to their control of society – is it fair game for journalists and the public. So whether the U.S. has an innate right to invade other countries is off-limits, because maintaining that “right” is crucial to protecting our business interests overseas. It’s not in the popular interest, but it’s imperative to big business that the U.S. have the ability to overthrow any government it chooses. Even those members of the ruling class who have been opposed to various wars – and there are some – never oppose our innate right to invade whenever we want; they oppose only specific military actions.
The elite is divided on some issues, and those are the ones we get to talk about. And then there are the issues that are irrelevant to the elite’s control of society: abortion, gay rights, and so on. This doesn’t mean these aren’t important issues – just that they aren’t important to the ruling class.
Now, you were asking about military spending. That’s the one form of government spending that offends no one at the top. Any other form of government spending is subject to at least some skewed form of debate: “Do we really need to spend all that money on healthcare and education? And surely we shouldn’t be spending all that money on poor people.” But military spending is basically massive corporate welfare for the industrial sector. Many people in that top one-half of 1 percent benefit from it directly by owning stock in Lockheed Martin, Boeing, or some other military contractor. The rest would rather see the money go to the military than elsewhere. If it went toward mass transportation, for example, it would hurt the car companies and the oil companies. The products of military spending don’t compete with any other products in the market. What’s more, if the planes and bombs are used, it will likely be to toss out a government that’s unfriendly to U.S. business interests. And even if there’s a major war, none of the richest kids will have to fight, because in this country, rich people are, for all intents and purposes, excused from military service.
Jensen: There’s a quote dating from the Civil War that sums this up perfectly. Judge Thomas Mellon, an extremely wealthy man, wrote to his son, who was feeling guilty for buying his way out of the army: “In time you will understand and believe that a man may be a patriot without risking his own life or sacrificing his health. There are plenty of other lives less valuable.”
McChesney: Some extraordinary studies have been done documenting the degree to which the poor alone fought the Vietnam War. If you look at the graduating classes of all the Ivy League universities and other elite private universities during the Vietnam War era – from 1960 to 1975 – you find that out of that couple of hundred thousand people, something like five or ten were killed in Vietnam. But in South Boston, an Irish working-class neighborhood, there were maybe a hundred kids within a twenty-square-block area who died. That’s another subject we can’t talk about in the media: that poor kids fought that war. And black kids. And, of course, Vietnamese kids. But upper-middle-class white kids by and large didn’t fight.
One reason Bill Clinton didn’t get trashed for avoiding the draft is because he was just doing the same thing almost every other middle-class kid did. If you had money, there were ways to get out of serving. I’m sure you’ve heard that Al Gore served in Vietnam, but that was only because his father was running for reelection in Tennessee and was being called a liberal. Gore went to prove his dad was a patriot, but of course he got a cushy desk job. His life was never in danger. You know the song “Fortunate Son,” by Creedence Clearwater Revival? Remember the line “I ain’t no senator’s son”? They were protesting the fact that Gore was over there serving cocktails to officers while poor kids were dying.
This may seem to be off the subject of the media, but it’s crucial, because the idea of a “classless” society is the single biggest lie of our time. We’re not allowed to talk about the fact that we live in a class-based society.
Jensen: We’ve been discussing newspapers so far, but the conglomerates that control the media extend far beyond print media.
McChesney: In all the companies that dominate the news media, journalism is rarely more than half of their activities, and often – as in the case of the News Corporation, Disney, or Time Warner – news represents less than 10 percent of their activities and revenues.
If you look back at the U.S. media industry in the 1940s and 1950s, you’ll see seven major media sectors: newspapers, radio, movies, books, magazines, music, and the brand-new medium of television. Each of those sectors was dominated by anywhere from a handful to a couple of dozen companies. With newspapers, it was maybe twenty-five large companies. And these sectors tended to be distinct. In other words, big newspaper companies didn’t also own film studios or tv networks.
Two things have happened in the last fifty years. First, there has been a tremendous consolidation within each sector, so instead of twenty-five or thirty newspaper chains, we’ve now got five or six huge newspaper companies. And instead of fifteen or twenty big music companies, today only four companies sell 87 percent of the music in the U.S.
More significant, however, has been the rise of the media conglomerate, a media company that owns businesses in not just one sector, but several. If you look at the holdings of the three largest media companies in the U.S. today – Time Warner, Disney, and Viacom – you find that each is among the biggest players in six or seven different media sectors.
Time Warner, for example, is the second-largest cable-tv provider and owns by far the most channels, including cnn, tnt, tbs, Court tv, hbo, and Cinemax. It has two big film studios – Warner Brothers and New Line – and is the largest magazine publisher in the U.S., producing Time, People, Sports Illustrated, Fortune, and many others. Warner is also a big book publisher and one of the three or four largest music companies. Let’s not forget 150 retail stores and several amusement parks.
Jensen: Why is this consolidation taking place now?
McChesney: If you believe another myth of our media system, domination by giant corporations is inevitable, some sort of natural selection. Of course, that’s nonsense. The reason this overwhelming consolidation is taking place now is that our antitrust regulations have been gutted. Until fairly recently, regulations prevented linkage of broadcast companies with newspapers and other types of media. Moreover, there were strict regulations that prevented those who owned tv stations and networks from producing the shows that appeared on them. All those regulations have now been tossed out or weakened, making these media giants possible. And the profit from these interlinked parts is much greater than from the sum of each part working separately, because they all work together instead of competing with each other.
For example, in 1994, Disney made a children’s movie called The Lion King. Since I have a young daughter, I saw it more than a dozen times. It grossed about $700 million at the box office worldwide. Disney got to keep about half of that, while theater owners got the other half. That’s $350 million in revenues. But look at all the other things Disney can do with The Lion King besides theatrical distribution. They can put it on their Disney Channel, and on abc, too. They can make Lion King spinoffs and sequels. They’ve produced all sorts of Lion King merchandise to sell in their 660 Disney stores around the world, not to mention other retail outlets. They can make amusement-park rides, cd-roms, books, and soundtracks from the movie. The possibilities are endless. By the time it’s all counted, Disney has made probably more than a billion dollars in profit on The Lion King. In fact, Disney can make a movie that flops at the box office and still make a profit. This means that if you’re trying to enter the animated-film business, you’d better have the same merchandising arsenal, or you won’t be able to compete.
The possibility of in-house promotion actually makes the market even more slanted toward the big conglomerates. When Viacom-owned Paramount Pictures made a movie from the children’s show Rugrats, it could advertise the movie incessantly on Nickelodeon, mtv, and all the other media outlets Viacom owns, whereas an independent filmmaker who made the same movie would have had to pay a fortune for that advertising. So Viacom spent $10 million on that movie and cleared something like $80 or $90 million just in box-office revenues; and that’s before they even started counting all the other profits.
Jensen: I think it’s pretty clear what’s wrong with having just a half dozen companies deliver almost all the news, but what’s wrong with having a half dozen companies make all the movies? Aren’t movies just entertainment?
McChesney: First of all, these few companies have tremendous control over what movies can be made. The movies that get produced are the ones that will make the most money and don’t rock the ideological boat. Hollywood history is replete with stories of talented people who’ve fought hard and gotten good movies made, but for every good movie that’s released, dozens more are cranked out purely to make a profit.
Second, and probably more important, is that the films themselves have in some ways become almost incidental to the industry. Many films are now just part of a broader marketing scheme to sell “brands.” A good example is the movie Space Jam, which came out several years ago, starring Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny. Basically, Time Warner didn’t even care whether anyone went to see the movie in the theater, because they’d already figured out how to make millions from selling cups, mugs, t-shirts, sweat pants, and other merchandise with images of Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny affixed to it. They’ve turned our entire media system into a commercial. Any notion of integrity, of separating the creative product from the commercial, is collapsing under the weight of these money-hungry giants.
These days, the only way a piece with a powerful political message can get made is if a big star is willing to use all of her or his influence to force it through. This takes enormous determination and sacrifice, and afterward the star will have to go back and do more insipid moneymakers to build up her or his stock again. Take Bulworth, a great movie with a great message. If it hadn’t been for Warren Beatty, the script wouldn’t have gotten past the intern at the front door. And now, because that movie didn’t make as much money as the studio wanted, Beatty will probably have a harder time making another political movie. As with journalists, it doesn’t take long for an actor or director with a strong egalitarian vision to get beaten down.
Jensen: But even with all the rewards out there for going with the flow, there are still a lot of people who are fighting against it.
McChesney: That’s right. We don’t have to accept this system as a given. It exists simply because our laws created it – with no public participation in the process – and we have a right and a duty to change those laws, to go back and create a media system that serves democracy. Why should we allow Wall Street and Madison Avenue to turn us upside down, shake the money out of our pants, and then drop us and move on to the next target audience?
Even in today’s depoliticized society, there’s an increasing interest in these issues. Fifteen years ago, I’d say these things, and people would look at me as if I were anti-American, but nowadays people understand that the situation has gotten out of hand. We’re talking about the commercial carpet-bombing of our brains in a way that was unthinkable twenty-five or thirty years ago. Our society talks about how much it loves kids, yet we subject our children to twenty-four-hour cable channels that bombard them with advertisements. The average American kid today sees maybe thirty thousand commercials a year. And now these Madison Avenue hotshots are marketing to two-year-olds. They’ve got scientific plans on how to get into preschoolers’ heads. We have no idea what this will do to the next generation, but the hotshots don’t care. They’re just out to make money.
Some exciting organizing has already begun to battle this. Communities around the country are pressuring their local tv news shows to stop depending on violence and racist crime reporting and actually practice journalism that will help their communities. Some working-class and minority neighborhoods are fighting to get billboards taken down. It’s startling for a middle-class person to go into a poor neighborhood and see the booze and cigarette ads everywhere.
On the national level, there are movements to establish nonprofit, noncommercial public broadcasting with enough money to develop great programming without corporate support. Another important effort is to try to require commercial broadcasters to perform real public service in exchange for their licenses. Probably the largest sector of corporate welfare – arguably even greater than the military budget – has been the government’s gift of the public airwaves to corporations. They don’t pay a penny for the broadcast rights that have allowed them to build these massive companies. Why not make it a condition of having a broadcast license that they accept no political advertising during electoral campaigns? Expensive television ads have turned our electoral politics into a sick joke. Getting rid of them would eliminate more than half the money spent on campaigns and make it easier for someone who’s neither a billionaire nor beholden to billionaires to get involved in politics. And why not make it illegal for broadcasters to advertise to kids under twelve? That’s already the case in Sweden, and may soon be throughout Europe.
Finally, we need viable antitrust regulations in this country. We have to work to break up these huge media giants. We can’t allow this much cultural power to rest with such a small number of institutions.
The first step is to say, “We don’t have to accept this. We can change it.” We should refuse to be defined as consumers. We are citizens, active participants in our own communities. The biggest fear the media giants have is that the public will find out what’s going on and get involved. That’s why they bend over backward to sneak laws through in Washington with no public discussion. And when news accidentally does get out, they put their top PR people on it to drown out any reasoned debate and discussion. They’re afraid that, once the public really understands how our media system works, we will demand change. They don’t want us involved in politics, so they do everything in their power to keep us on the couch in front of the tv. But they can’t hide forever the fact that the power really is ours, if we choose to use it.
Originally published in the September 2000 issue of The SunFiled in Interviews by Derrick Jensen