Our Unfree Press: 100 Years of Radical Media Criticism

Freeing Our Press
Sep. 6, 2004
A review of “Our Unfree Press: 100 Years of Radical Media Criticism,” edited and with an introduction by Robert W. McChesney and Ben Scott, published in 2004 by The New Press, 435 pages.

This book collects some stunning examples of U.S. media criticism from 1906 through 2003. The introduction is in many ways a wonderful work of analysis. The primary purpose it lays out for the book is establishing that radical criticism of for-profit media is not new or rare in this country, that, as in other countries, it has been around as long as mass media have. The book accomplishes this purpose admirably, providing key samples of what is clearly a long and rich tradition.

There is a rapidly growing media reform movement in the United States at present, one to which the authors of this book have contributed through their work for an organization called Free Press. Many could be forgiven for imagining that popular revolt over concentration and abuse of media power is something new, or at least that it is growing because the concentration and abuse have become uniquely extreme.

The review of history presented in this book suggests otherwise. While providing useful insights for the contemporary media analyst and opportunities for the drawing of lessons out of past failures and successes, this collection also provides a great deal of frustration. Here are all the familiar problems, in one form or another, stretching back for a century. Here are all the familiar solutions — and even more radical solutions that we dare not dream of today. And here is an endless string of failures. This book is well worth reading, but requires a certain fortitude.

When Franklin Roosevelt ran for reelection following his first term, U.S. newspapers favored Alf Landon. But Roosevelt used the radio to speak around the newspaper editors, and he won decisively. (Will the internet ever perform a similar function?) More than one media critic cited this election as an indictment of the press’s failure to follow public opinion. Indeed. But a reader today is more likely to see in this episode evidence of a glorious era in which the public was able to ignore the commands of the press.

At least one media critic excerpted in this book expressed concern in 1937 that FDR had won merely because he was a better speaker on the radio, thus revealing the danger that “a demagogue with dictatorial aspirations” might win some future election unless the newspapers gained the confidence of the public. The assumption here seemed to be that newspapers could provide more substantive content than any candidate could provide through what were not yet called sound bites.

Today U.S. newspapers avoid substantive content like the plague and devote much of their coverage to analysis of who delivers the better sound bites. An argument could be made that the broadcast media have succeeded so far in eliminating substance from politics that the newspapers now follow along.

However, FDR’s fireside chats were not sound bites, but treatises, by today’s standards. It is not at all clear that he won for superficial reasons. And the chief route by which substance squeezes its way through the media today is not in print but on C-Span, the cable network that employs camera crews mercifully devoid of commentators to transmit speeches and forums to viewers simply as the occur (though of course C-Span chooses which speeches to air and which not to).

The fundamental difference between the election of 1936 and those of the late 20th century and early 21st century is not the form or conduct of the media, but the presence of a candidate like Roosevelt as the nominee of one of the two dominant parties. Today’s media would never allow a candidate who threatened corporate power to gain such a nomination. Ralph Nader is effectively marginalized each time he runs. Dennis Kucinich and Al Sharpton were shut out by the media in last year’s Democratic primaries. We learned more about their hair styles, their diets, their childhoods, than anything important – other than the “fact” that they were “fringe” and “vanity” candidates who didn’t actually intend to win. The media promoted Howard Dean (which helped to exclude Kucinich and Sharpton) and then turned on him so hard that his head is probably still spinning. Who wouldn’t trade this system for one that permitted the nomination of an FDR, regardless of how the media then treated the nominee?

(either part can be reproduced separately)

The lines of thought stimulated by this book are numerous. The review provided of attitudes toward new forms of media as they came along, for example, suggests possible futures for the internet as a news source. But more than anything else, this book suggests the need to create something other than for-profit media.

Needless to say, there have long been proposals on the table to significantly control corporate media outlets and to promote competition and diversity. These include limiting the allowable size of media operations and their domination of various media in particular geographic areas. These also include the encouragement and creation of public and community media outlets, and the requiring of corporate media outlets to provide space for public affairs. But other possibilities come to mind.

The other end of the spectrum from our current system’s provision of the world according to Rupert Murdoch would be truly public media outlets shaped by public referendum with top editors running for reelection at the local, state, and national levels every two years. The trick here would be to create diversity and independence from other government bodies. It would be wonderful to be able to vote out Dan Rather, but it would be very easy to formalize the quasi-state media we now have and end up with something like Berlusconi’s Italy in which the media simply promote the current government with even fewer exceptions than in the United States at present. Already PBS, NPR, and C-Span in their own ways slant their coverage to support Republicans and conservative Democrats. A number of studies by FAIR back up this claim. And what would we do with Murdoch? Would we require that he close operations?

The surer route to democratic media might be to actually create an approximation of the free marketplace of competing ideas that has long been the defining myth of defenders of the media’s conduct. The media’s corporate slant seems to have really taken hold when newspapers became dependent on advertising rather than subscriptions for the bulk of their revenue. Prior to that initial period of growth and consolidation, complaints focused more on papers’ open and obvious bias for one viewpoint or another and their willingness to sell space for articles, not ads.

When advertising became the main support for media, papers became not only larger but more “professional” and “objective.” Rather than serving one interest, they served the general corporate interest of advertisers — the viewpoint that came to be known as objective, fair, and balanced. While this sounded admirable and corrected earlier corruption that should never be brought back, it effectively silenced views opposed to those of large corporations, views that remain largely silenced today. Perhaps the only time those views were heard by significant numbers was when – in the middle of the last century – the labor media had become a major force.

What if all media outlets were required to earn at least two-thirds of their revenue from individual subscriptions? That percentage could be lowered (even to zero for free media) to the extent that outlets chose to make space available for unfiltered public content ranging from town meetings to the speeches of candidates (assuming equal time for each candidate in a race). In fact, some amount of public content could be required of all media outlets. This requirement could be phased in over time, both for existing media outlets and for those newly created, and there could even be exceptions for the smallest productions – newsletters and blogs read primarily by their authors’ mothers. But the requirement would need to apply to individual outlets, not giant media conglomerates taken as a whole. The results, I think, would be dramatic and not without all sorts of problems.

This shift away from advertising and toward subscription funding would be a long-term goal which, even if accomplished, would still need to be accompanied by the breaking up of oversized anti-competitive media empires and the provision of start-up funds for new small media ventures. And this reworking of the media would not, of course, solve all of the major problems with our political system. But it would be a start. This would be an attack not on “free speech” (the phrase used most often to defend media monopolization) but on advertising. There is no right to advertise anywhere in the Constitution. And this proposal might just lower the prices for advertisers, hardly a call to arms for them.

Ideally this move away from advertisements as the source of funding for our news would accompany what I see as a nascent move away from the ideals of “objectivity” and “balance.” Most readers, listeners, and viewers no longer give any credence to the idea that reporters have no points of view. While the public cannot always see through the media’s distortions and omissions, most people know they are there. Polls find respect for journalists about as low as that for CEOs – and why not? The ads of one pay the salaries of the other.

I, for one, wouldn’t object to a return to openly partisan journalism. If all media outlets openly backed political ideologies and parties, they couldn’t all secretly support compassionate corporatism. If most newspapers carried the word “Republican” at the top of the front page, the myth of a liberal media would die out as fast as many of those newspapers. And if we work hard to develop new media outlets, we might even wind up with a level playing field for liberal media that actually exist.

There remains the question of where the labor media fit in such a future. Currently most labor newspapers and magazines are produced by individual unions under a system that is more extreme than that proposed and rejected above for publicly electing editors and shaping content. Were labor editors to be elected rather then hired or appointed, that would be a step AWAY from one-party media. Such a step might lead to more informative papers more responsive to readers’ concerns. It would have to, because funding union publications through subscriptions would mean that subscriptions were optional and could be canceled. They could also be expanded to include non-union members.

Required public content in labor papers would include the statements of candidates for union offices, including that of the person whom Eugene Debs called the most important in a local union: the editor.