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Facing Our 'Crisis of Journalism'

By Christopher Renner
Opinion | February 20, 2010

MANHATTAN, Kan. - In 2005, I attended the National Conference for Media Reform in St. Louis sponsored by Free Press. While I had always been an "activist," this conference change my outlook on US culture and society like nothing else I have even been involved in. In particular, Bill Moyers's speech (you can watch it here) articulated much of the frustration I had and have with the direction our nation has taken since the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.

For seventeen years following the "Reagan revolution," I lived in Italy and became accustomed to a national press that truly informed along with television and radio that provided a broad diversity of music, content, and opinions with minimum commercial interruptions.

When it came to newspapers, if I wanted to read what the capitalists thought on a topic I read Il Sole 24 Ore; if I wanted to know what the Communist and Socialist Left thought I read L'Unit√° or Il Manifesto. If I wanted to read what the center thought, I read La Repubblica. If I wanted the Christian Democrat point of view, I could read Avvenire. And if I wanted to know what the fascists thought, I could read Il Popolo d'Italia. In addition to these national papers, there was a profusion of local and regional newspapers. All of which received some sort of government support to help balance their budgets.

In America, we don't have such choices. Most communities today are lucky to have one paper, let alone several from diverse points of view. However, a century ago we did have such a reality in that newspapers expressed a broad array of political opinions: anarchist, socialists, populist, and capitalist. But as the 20th Century progressed, the diversity of voices became less and less as newspapers were seen not as a means to challenge power, inform the public debate, and preserve our democracy, but as a means to make money.

Today we have a "crisis of journalism" as the for-profit model based on advertising stumbles and falls head first off the "maximization-of-profits" cliff. Numerous papers have closed, thousands of journalists have been fired or laid off, and corporate interest point the finger of blame at the Internet with the hope of being able to turn it into what newspapers had been - a means to accrue profits - threatening the core principles of openness and the free exchange of ideas on which the Internet was built.

But is journalism about making money?

The founders of our national experiment in democracy didn't think so. They saw a free press as essential, if the experiment in democracy they were beginning was to succeed. By providing the press with the civil liberties granted in the First Amendment, they sought to ensure that our democracy would have the tools needed to stand against the powerful and defend those who were vulnerable. They also provided substitutes in the form of generous discounts on postage, copyright protections, the allocation of airwaves for broadcast news, and tax exemptions.

But what we have seen over the course of the past half-century, and in particular in the wake of the 1996 Telecommunications Act for broadcast journalism, is journalism that does not inform, that does not challenge power, that does not protect the vulnerable. A key foundation stone of our democratic state has been reduced to a pebble. Coupled with the corporate take over of the election system in Citizens United, our democracy is facing dire consequences. A free people can govern themselves only when they have access to independent information about the issues of the day and the excesses of the powerful.

In a recent article in The Nation, Robert McChensey and John Nichols state:

The founders of the American experiment were even by their own measures imperfect democrats. But they understood something about sustaining democracy that their successors seem to have forgotten. Everyone agrees that a free society requires a free press. But a free press without the resources to compensate those who gather and analyze information, and to distribute that information widely and in an easily accessible form, is like a seed without water or sunlight. It was with this understanding that Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton and their contemporaries instituted elaborate systems of postal and printing subsidies to assure that freedom of the press would never be an empty promise; to that end they guaranteed what Madison described as "a circulation of newspapers through the entire body of the people...[that] is favorable to liberty."

Corporate media tows the line of corporate interests and the inside-the-Washington-beltway mentality of which we have all grown so tired. It never delves into the corrupt system of campaign finance, influence peddling in Washington or Topeka, and corporate malfeasance that got us to where we are today. Corporate media lied to us about the reason we went to war in Iraq, lied to us about the economy, and continues to lie to us about such critical issues for human survival as global warming, overpopulation, and environmental degradation.

Today, more people with public relations degrees work for newspapers than do journalists. Their goal is not to inform, but to maximize profits by getting you to buy the latest piece of plastic crap to come onto the market. As a result, we are bombarded each day with corporate media lies about a whole array of products, issues, and realities in order that the short-term profit margins are met for the corporate elites. The long-term impact on our democracy, planet and future is of little importance.

From the beginning of the economic crisis much hand wringing and teeth gnashing have gone into responding to the "crisis of journalism." Academics have written articles - Downie and Schudson's The Reconstruction of American Journalism is particularly insightful; corporate media has done everything in its power to protect its bottom line - making profits; and, think tanks from the Cato Institute to Free Press have all proposed "solutions," but few real proposals to fix the "crisis" have been put forth. Two new books are noteworthy in that they offer us a vision of what journalism can be and real solutions to the crisis it is facing.

Amy Goodman, who Noam Chomsky cites for having "taken investigative journalism to new heights of exciting, informative, and probing analysis," has recently published Breaking the Sound Barrier - a collection of her weekly syndicated columns for King Features from 2006 through the summer of 2009.

With a foreword by Bill Moyers, Goodman takes on the corporate media's lies, 9-second sound-bites, and deafening silence on issues of real importance. "It is," she says, "the responsibility of journalists to go where the silence is, to seek out news and people who are ignored, to accurately and clearly report on the issues -- issues that the corporate, for-profit media often distort, if they cover them at all."

For the content of her book, Goodman left out the talking head "experts" who fill hours of time on our televisions and radios and who in her opinion "know so little about so much, explain the world to us, and get it so wrong."

Instead she found real experts: an array of characters from courageous soldiers who have said "No" to Washington's wars, to community organizers in New Orleans, to the victims of torture and police violence. They provide us with a glimpse of what journalism ought to be and in the process give us an extraordinary opportunity to hear ordinary people standing up and speaking out. Not something we usually hear from the prepackaged, made-for-profit media.

As Bill Moyers says in the foreword: "You can learn more of the truth about Washington and the world from one week of Amy Goodman's 'Democracy Now' than from a month of Sunday morning talk shows. Make that a year of Sunday talk shows. That's because Amy, as you will discover on every page of this book, knows the critical question for journalists is how close they are to the truth, not how close they are to power."

If Amy Goodman tells us what journalism should be like, Robert McChensey, professor of communication at University of Illinois, and John Nichols, journalist and a pioneering political blogger, in their new book, The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution That Will Begin the World Again, tell us how to get there.

They set out new possibilities for journalism in the 21st Century. Some of their ideas are new and novel which corporate interests will surely attack - because they call for reducing corporate interests in the journalism, increasing government support for newspapers and developing a national public media system on par with the BBC.

Central to their argument is that journalism is a public good, and not all public goods -- such as lending libraries, parks, food safety inspections, and highways -- are commercially viable. Many of their ideas have come about through the conversations that took place at the four National Conferences for Media Reform, through their work at Free Press and their research.

The bulk of their discussion about solutions comes in Chapter Four were they focus on drastically revising the financial models for news-gathering organizations. These ideas deserve serious discussion and consideration not only at the national level, but also at the state and local level.

McChensey and Nichols have been promoting their book on many independent news programs like Democracy Now! and CoutnerSpin. They were recently on NOW on PBS. To watch the video of their interview on NOW, click here.

McChensey and Nichols do a good job of laying out how to change the financial structure so that journalism can return to its muckraking past. But the real challenge is taking their suggestions and applying them. That will take effort from all of us to change our state and country for the better.

1 Comment

You yourself are such a great role model for us all. Your radio broadcast is such an important leader in the journalism revolution in Kansas! (Anybody not familiar with his radio programming should check out his bio page for the links - http://www.kansasfreepress.com/authorbio/crenner/index.html - you can listen to his radio on the web from wherever you live!)

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