Robert McChesney on money, politics and the press in the US

The second day of the Future of Journalism conference was opened with a keynote by Robert W. McChesney is the Gutgsell Endowed Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Picking up from Emily Bell’s Thursday keynote, McChesney agreed there were some great experiments being done in the US, but he said he didn’t believe that was going to be enough.

He insisted there was a need for great, independent, critical journalism. While there was no lack of talent, there was a lack of institutions and resources to support journalism

Talking about the poor prospects for journalism graduates, McChesney said there was nothing on the horizon that things were going to get any better. In fact, in 10 years, we might look back on this as a golden age, he added.

Even when journalism was at its best, American journalism had tremendous flaws and these flaws have got worse, he said. It was not enough to romanticise the past.

Elites and the poor

McChesney went over the development of professional journalism as a way of separating the business side from the journalism.

But he said professional journalists came to rely upon people in power to set up the range of legitimate debate, for example around US foreign policy where alternative voices are not heard.

“Our journalism at times like that tends to be propaganda,” he argued.  He recalled how Walter Lippmann argued we needed professional journalists to protect us from lying elites.

McChesny quoted American founding father James Madison who feared that a powerful country could turn into a militaristic society. The reason we need a free press is to protect democracy and prevent a country from slipping into militarism.

Business journalism came under fire, with McChesney arguing it was doing a terrible job of reporting on the sector. For example, business journalists had missed entirely the great economic scandals and bubbles of the past few years.

It was, said McChesney, as if sports reporters had completely missed the World Cup.

He also pointed out how the growth of inequality in the US was largely unreported in the media. “It is barely a news story.”

McChesney argued how the voices of the poor were not being heard.

He cited statistics showing that 85% of the high earners vote in presidential elections, compared to about 20% of the poorest. This is because politicans do not listen to middle and low income groups, and instead represent high earners, he argued.

It was not journalism’s fault, but it was journalism’s role to challenge this and to bring everyone into public life, said McChesney.

In his view, the main issue with professional journalism is how it has developed into a system that lets people in power set the terms of the debate, report that accurately and call it journalism.

Call for public funding

His second main point was about the need for public money to support. Even if all the journalism start-ups succeeded, they would just be “a piss in the ocean.”

The divide here is whether we see journalism as a public good or as a business. If we see it as a business, it is game over, said McChesney.

In his view, journalism is a public good but the market cannot provide it in sufficient quantities or quality. He argued that advertising gave the impression that journalism could be financially viable. But advertisers are not tied to journalism and will go to where they can maximise their impact.

“Journalism is a public good and a public good needs public funding.”

McChesney ridiculed arguments in the US against public funding of journalism and instead pointed to the experience in other countries, which rate highly on democracy indices.

He also pointed out that the freest press systems are also those who enjoyed the mosty public subsidy.

“I haven’t seen anyone hauled out of their house ‘coz they have public subsidies,” he joked.

McChesny also pointed to studies that indicate that increased subsidies of the press can lead to more adversarial coverage of the government.

He suggested a “Write for America” program, that would pay for young people to go and do journalism in communities for a year.

McChesney pointed out how there were precedents for public money for the media. In its first 100 years, the US had ” colossal” press and postal subsidies. The idea was to encourage as much media as possible.

Public subsidy of the media is a “proven path,” he said.

‘We need journalism now’

For McChesney, the crisis in journalism is part of a crisis in the US that is economic, ecological and democratic.

McChesney labeled the political system in the US as a “dollarcracy,” where money dominates. The corporate crowd is very pleased with a journalism-free environment.

Instead, we’re in the era of the “digital sweatshop” for those labouring for outlets like Yahoo and the Huffinghton Post, he argued.

‘We’re always going to have plenty of news, we’re just not going to have plenty of journalism.”

The news is going to be largely spin and fluff, he said, noting that there were currently four PR people to every one journalist in the US.

Doing nothing is not an option, he insisted. “We need journalism now and we need to figure out the answers now.”