DeeDee Halleck on Fri, 17 Apr 2009 22:33:17 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> DeeDee Halleck: Thinking Outside the (Newspaper) Box

Bailouts for the Media Moguls?
Comments on the Nichols/McChesney March Nation Article

Thinking Outside the (Newspaper) Box

DeeDee Halleck, April 4, 2009

John Nichols and Robert McChesney have written a widely posted Nation  
article searching for answers to the current emergencies in the  
newspaper business. ("The Death and Life of Great American  
Newspapers")  They recognize the crisis as an opportunity to rethink  
public media in general and their suggestions for remedy are at least  
a provocative starter for the needed reassessment and creative  
activism.  They suggest the government pump in $60 billion over the  
next three years, a pricetag that is similar to, though less, than the  
handouts to AIG and the US banks.

However, it's hard to believe that anyone could seriously want to  
salvage the "print-fitted" U.S. corporate news.  In their article, the  
media reformers are trying to prop up the bankrupt "fourth estate"  
with proposals for salvation, requesting that Congress help the media  
corporations-- well, at least the ones that own newspapers--by  
subsidizing delivery by the U.S. Post Office and even free delivery  
for some periodicals. They would also bequeath to readers limited tax  
exemptions for newspaper purchase.  How this would work is a bit fuzzy  
and their definition of journalism is more Washington Post and New  
York Times than the Indypendent, the NYC based Indymedia weekly, let  
alone community radio and public access TV.  Missing in the article is  
any discussion of the popular tabloids. I doubt if Nichols and  
McChesney consider the NY Post or even the New York Daily News as  
capital "J" Journalism. It may have been a long time since either  
Nichols nor McChesney rode a subway, so perhaps they don't have a clue  
as to what the masses read. The authors must read the NY Times with  
their croissants.


The papers they would subsidize are replete with advertising.  Why  
should U.S. taxpayers subsidize the delivery of ANY ads?  Their  
proposal does put a tepid limit on subsidies to "ad-supported" news -- 
only ones which have 50% or less ads.  We are already paying for ads  
in the cost of promoted goods.  The postal service is burdened with  
the weight of the ads sent as catalogues and all the other junk mail  
that has flourished with "bulk" rate subsidies.  Junk mail is just  
that-- the "bulk" of postal business today.

I'm surprised that these media reformers have undertaken such a rush  
to resuscitate their own often blasted past targets.  They agonize  
that without newspapers, "Politicians and administrators will work  
increasingly without independent scrutiny and without public  
accountability." They admit that the U.S. press has sadly missed that  
sort of independent scrutiny for decades, but there is a lingering  
belief that journalism (with a capital J!) is usually "on the case."   
How does New York Times' war-monger Judith Miller fits into that  
ideal?  Certainly it wasn't just "bad apple" Miller who lead the war  
chorus.  The Times wasn't  "reporting" about Iraq prior to the  
invasion, but actively orchestrating the battle cries--as they were  
soon to follow with their treatment of the Iran "threat".

Where are the Nichols and McChesney of their New Press 2005 book,  
Tragedy and Farce: how the American media sell wars, spin elections,  
and destroy democracy? One longs for a systemic critique, not a band- 
aid and a pat.  They have good impulses, but they are compromised and  
essentially brought down by their allegiance to established  
professional hierarchies and by their inability to acknowledge (even  
their own!) critique of corporate media.  There is no recognition of  
the on-going process of  "manufacturing consent", so brilliantly laid  
out by Herman and Chomsky.  Instead there is almost an apology--  
similar to the Times' own mea culpa vis a vis Judith Miller.  Nichols  
and McChesney say: "The news media blew the coverage of the Iraq  
invasion".  "They missed the past decade of corporate scandals."  (My  
emphases)  It's as though these are just some mistakes--aberrations  
that could be rectified by some additional resources and a few more  
good reporters.  They call for the system to create "far superior"  
journalism.  There is an abiding faith in the system itself.

Journalism Education

The Nation article proposes that there be subsidies for journalism  
education.  Why feather the nests of the mainstream journalism  
schools? An interesting survey would be to find out how many of the  
winners of, for example, the Polk Journalism Awards, have actually  
attended those stodgy bureaucrat factories. The heroic journalists who  
come to mind didn't hatch in those halls. Amy Goodman studied  
anthropology.  Seymour Hersh and Studs Turkel went to law school.   
Naomi Klein attended the London School of Economics. Robert Fisk was a  
literature major.   Even deceased mainstream ABC anchor Peter Jennings  
didn't attend journalism school.  He never even finished a BA, saying  
he "lasted about 10 minutes" in college.  Polk award winner Jeremy  
Scahill cut his teeth at the Catholic Worker.  Scahill once said that  
journalism schools produce only lemmings.  His solution is to declare  
journalism a trade and insure that young people learn out in the  
field, apprenticing as he did with Amy Goodman.  He claims to have  
learned more from his work cataloging Amy's piles of news clippings  
than he would in any college classroom.

The U.S. junior high schools and high schools don't need journalism  
classes, but courses that encourage young people to take an interest  
in history, economics, political science and yes, literature. In terms  
of the media, U.S. schools need CRITICAL media education, so that  
students learn to critique not only the New York Post, but The Nation  
and Hulu and the twittering prose of Face Book. Scandinavia has a long  
tradition of requiring media analysis even in primary schools. "Tell  
me kids, why is Teletubbies sponsored by Kelloggs?"  Our high school  
students, many of whom are members of My Space, need to be taught to  
understand how data mining works.  Those cute Face Book questionnaires  
and attitude surveys are conceived by marketers who are building  
profiles, for their next round of  "push" ads.

Public, Educational and Government Access

McChesney and Nichols suggest that there be government support for  
school newspapers and low power radio. Great.  There are high schools  
where radio and internet reporting is happening right now. Students  
and community organizations have had access to technical and training  
support for coverage of local (and national) issues in the often  
dismissed world of PEG channels.  PEG (Public, Government and  
Educational) access in many communities are required by local  
governments as a payment for use of the local "right of way." This has  
resulted in media centers in several thousand municipalities where  
communities can have access to cameras, computers and channels, all  
maintained by the cable operator.  PEG has done admirable work in a  
providing opportunities for gaining technical proficiency, moreover,  
in providing an authentic "public sphere" for creating and exchanging  
information and opinion.  The impressive PEG infrastructure is  
currently threatened by the heavily funded lobbying of ATT and  
Verizon.  These corporations are seeking to get state legislatures to  
enact laws which gut the local regulations that require cable  
corporations to provide access.  McChesney and Nichols' Free Press has  
not foregrounded this battle, preferring to highlight the sexier  
struggle for "net neutrality". However, recently after a bit of  
prodding, Free Press helped by urging their list serve members to make  
FCC comments in support of PEG.  This is part of an inquiry by the FCC  
into how cable corporations have been "slamming" access channels by  
moving them into hard to find digital "closets" not easily accessible  
to channel switching remotes. .

The struggle for an open internet can?t be limited to "neutrality".   
Sure, the preferential use of speed and access by internet providers  
should not be allowed, but as technology enables telecommunication  
companies to pursue video distribution,  we are moving closer to the  
convergence of these technologies, as any owner of an I-phone can  
attest.  That means that the battles for PEG and the net all have the  
same protagonists, and all of these companies should be required to  
provide space and resources for the public.  Enacting regulations  
which require support for public communication across all platforms  
should be part and parcel of the internet governance fight.   Our  
airwaves and our "rights of way" enable these technologies and there  
has to be a public "pay back." Timber cutting and resource mining in  
national forests must compensate the public.  Why not "rent" for our  

Nichols and McChesney speak of the need to protect public media from  
government  interference, but PEG activists and administrators have  
developed concrete examples of how public media can be shielded from  
government and corporate interference.  Many of the cable franchises  
now in place are far more effective than the "safeguards" at PBS, CPB  
and NPR.  In terms of media regulation, PEG is a pretty good model,  
although in many cities and towns PEG is underfunded and neglected.  
However, in those cities where PEG has flourished with comprehensive  
contracts with the cable corporations, such as Tucson, Cambridge,  
Burlington, Portland and many, many more, public communication via  
access channels provides many of the things right now that Nichols and  
McChesney want "public broadcasting" to do in the future.


The Nation article has confusing proscriptions for a future "public  
media". McChesney and Nichols state: "Only government can implement  
policies and subsidies to provide an institutional framework for  
quality journalism. We understand that this is a controversial  
position."  But then they go on to say they don't endorse "government  
support".  They then argue for expanding funding for public  
broadcasting, and argue that in their proposed future, "no state or  
region would be without quality local, state, and national or  
international journalism."  They do not outline how the programming  
would be protected from government (and corporate) interference, nor  
do they define what "quality" is, any more than they delineate the  
"vibrant democracy" that they say was the goal of Jefferson and  
Madison.  That the views of women and non-landholders weren't part of  
that "vibrant" consensus in our early Republic is not mentioned in  
McChesney and Nichols' enthusiastic statements about the press.

That quest for "quality" is one of the ruses which mainstream  
journalism, from the NYTimes to public broadcasting, has used to  
maintain their status quo.  The position is succinctly put in the  
quote by James Carey in the McChesney/Nichols article.  Carey asks for  
"journalists to be restored to their proper [sic!] role as  
orchestrators of the conversation of a democratic culture." Is  
"orchestration" what we need for a "vibrant democracy"?  A different  
critic, Communication Professor Herbert Schiller, in the first Paper  
Tiger TV program (critiquing The New York Times in 1981) saw that role  
as being  "the steering mechanism of the ruling class."

Public Broadcasting

Nichols and McChesney are right that this is an opportune time to re- 
think the structures of U.S. media, and public broadcasting is a good  
place to start, but there are other more general problems than the  
need for multi-year consistent funding.  Pouring money into the  
"public broadcasting" that now exists will only strengthen the elitism  
that has evolved from these convoluted, bureaucratic structures. The  
whole structure of PBS and CPB is designed to squelch any "vibrant  
democracy."  While Nichols and McChesney warn about government  
involvement, they don't mention the gorilla in the room--  
transnational agribusiness and the oil and insurance corporations.   
The subservient accommodation by PBS to corporate interests was  
recently clarified in the treatment given a Front Line program on  
health care which was initiated by Washinton Post reporter T.R. Reid,  
entitled "Health Care Around America".   Although originally designed  
to critique profit-oriented health care insurance, PBS officials  
demanded major changes and any reference to profit oriented insurance  
being a "problem" was deleted.  The script was changed to actually  
promote the insurance companies, much to the dismay of Mr. Reid, who  
tried, unsuccessfully, to have his name and his interviews taken off  
the show.  The whole thrust of the program became diametrically  
contrary to the original intention of the correspondent.  This is just  
par for the PBS course.  Corporate funding (though only a fraction of  
the whole budget) is the power component  not only for specific  
program selection, but for the operation of the whole system, and when  
the views expressed are in opposition to the corporate mind-set, those  
views are censored, not the corporation.

The boards of directors of the public television channels across the  
country are self-perpetuating elite representatives of corporate and  
mainstream interests.  For a brief time in the 1970s there was a  
movement to have elected boards.

Rather than change the make-up of the powerful who run these channels,  
the response to local and national activism was to set up "advisory  
boards" of "community" members.  Most of those advisory boards have  
long since disbanded, realizing early on that they functioned only as  
public relations props and that they had no real clout to effect  
programming direction or station management.  A new reassessment would  
have to take on the democratic restructuring of public television.    
Serious democratizing of the public broadcasting system must be a  
prerequisite for receiving any funding from Congress, or from any sort  
of fee based mechanism such as that which is the basis of the BBC.

Reconfiguring the funding in ways that are independent of party  
politics and corporate PR could help to make our public media true  
expressions of the lively issues and arts that exist in our country.   
Funding for public media can have strong prerequisites-- ones that  
foster independence, creativity and promote collaborations.  The  
example of ITVS-- the Independent Television Service, founded by the  
lobbying efforts of independent producers in the 70s and 80s, has  
pioneered various ways (with a small budget) to support serious  
creative programming on public television.  Democracy Now! is an  
example of new journalism that uses a hybrid mix of everything  
including camcorder/internet activists and cell phones to provide a  
daily program of hard hitting investigation and commentary by  
historians, lawyers, politicians, artists and those directly effected  
by wars and injustice.  On no other outlet do we hear so often from  
the victims of global warring (and global warming).  Because of the  
burgeoning "do it yourself" media sphere, there is great potential for  
cooperation between the many sectors of public expression: public  
television, public access, community radio, ipods, community  
projections and the internet.  Each of these entities has  
infrastructure that can expand and develop with creative interchange  
that is open to sharing.

'The division between "professionals" and "amateurs" is exploited by  
such programs as the popular American Idol, in which a few talented  
"amateurs" vie for a "starring role."  But the whole notion of  
"professional" media is constantly challenged by the millions of   
YouTube posters, eye-witness news gatherers, hip-hop DJs and the whole  
world of bloggers.  The explosion of popular video and audio creation,  
combined with supportive infrastructure for distribution and exchange  
of this material can herald an era of public art and dialogue not seen  
since the WPA.

Communities of Location and Interest

Just as local food has become a rallying cry, local information, as  
Nichols and McChesney note, is what we want.  Local media was  
consistently the overwhelming demand at the many community hearings  
that the FCC conducted over the past few years.  In part, this was a  
tremendous reaction to the deregulation of radio and the swift  
consolidation of hundreds of broadcasting outlets.  Let's hope that  
era of Clear Channel gobbling up local radio stations is over.  The  
need for "local" is great in both the commercial and public arena in  
both television and radio.  One has to look far and wide to find a  
public TV station (or even an NPR station) that does any local news.   
In the Northeast, WAMC FM out of Albany, NY has gobbled up local  
frequencies and is heard from Vermont to Connecticut, from Plattsburgh  
to Utica, from Pennsylvania to New Hampshire.   Instead of local  
information this "mega channel" provides a hodge podge of "regional"  
programs squeezed in between the franchised NPR programs and their  
endless pitching for money.

I can recall when local radio would broadcast the menu for school  
lunches.  Reviving that practice might improve the diet for a  
generation of youngsters.  Parents might be scandalized in they could  
listen to the listing of catsup and potato chip meals that dominate  
school cafeterias.  Local farmers can provide schools and colleges  
with fruits and veggies that are healthy and don't require carbon- 
spewing cross-country/world shipping.  In a similar mode, local  
independent producers, youth, professors, musicians, elders, activists  
and immigrants can provide information, history, entertainment and art  
that is relevant and "home grown."   At the same time we can exchange  
with international colleagues and friends.  When information can  
travel freely (and neutrally!), community can be defined by interest  
and passion, and not limited by geography.


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