Book Review: The Death and Life of American Journalism

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The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution That Will Begin the World Again. By Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols — Nation Books

What would Thomas Jefferson do?

That might seem an odd question for 21st-century analysts and activists to be posing. But the answer to that question in regards to journalism — that the key Founding Father of US democracy, and maybe some of his fellow FFs, would demand a public subsidy to support the press in its present hour of need — is really the guts of the case being in this book by two of America’s left-liberal media critics.

It’s not that McChesney (an academic) and Nichols (a reporter, editor and blogger) neglect the current state of journalism and the swirl of ideas about how to rescue it. It’s just that when they come to press home their case for state support, the key persuasive weapon in their arsenal is the fact that, 200-plus years ago, the leading lights of the American version of the Enlightenment believed newspapers were too important to be left to the vagaries of the marketplace, and legislated accordingly.

The typical American reader, in the midst of a political culture in which the 1773 Boston Tea Party gives its name to a populist movement, is presumably not about to say “Who gives a flying hoot what Thomas Jefferson would do?” But this emphasis does rather diminish the book’s international appeal, despite the apparently unironic use of the word “world” in the book’s hyper-utopian subtitle, an unbelievably awkward paraphrase of Tom Paine.

Still, the fundamental premises of the book apply right across the Western world, including Ireland. (Let’s leave aside China and India, those nations beloved of the World Association of Newspapers because, with their rapid growth of huge news-consuming middle-classes over the last two decades, they provide a statistical basis for misplaced optimism about the future of the printed press.) Those premises, in a nutshell: that commercial journalism is properly banjaxed, and was well on the way to that state even before this interweb yoke, then the global financial crisis, fast-forwarded the decline; and that the internet has the capacity to ensure that socially and political useful exchanges of information — let’s call those information flows, say, ‘journalism’ — can survive and thrive in a way that serves democracy. Thus the ‘Death’ and ‘Life’ of the book’s title.

The second premise has been knocking around loudly for a while. The first premise, that journalism as we’ve known it is doomed, not just technologically but financially, has struck the industry and those who study it like a blow to the head over the last three years. Some of us are still staggering around, dazed and disbelieving. I had the amusing experience last year of attending two British-based ‘crisis’ conferences, both part-academic, part-practitioner, in the space of a few months: at the first one, ‘banjaxed’ was a given; by the time the next one rolled around, however, Rupert Murdoch had announced his web ‘paywall’ strategy for the Times and Sunday Times, and lo and behold, folks who normally wouldn’t believe Murdoch if he said his papers used black ink were singing hallelujah, prepared to believe that the paying public was going to rescue journalism after all.

As more months passed we realised Rupert doesn’t know any more than the rest of us, that payment-for-content may only really work for a small stratum of business publications whose readers can get their subscription expenses past their employers’ accounts department, and the optimism faded again. This year’s version of the Murdoch hope-injection has been the iPad — hey, people have got used to paying for apps, so we’ve maybe transcended the internet’s whole ‘gotta be free’ ethos and the iTunes store will fund journalism after all. Won’t it?

Perhaps the funniest aspect of the journalism crisis — more ‘funny peculiar’ than ‘funny ha-ha’ — is the fact that so much of the general public doesn’t even know it is happening. When I tell them, it doesn’t tend to elicit expressions of horror at the disastrous consequences if, say, we were to lose the Indo, or even the Irish Times. (These are far from remote possibilities.) For very good reasons, people don’t think they’re getting much out of journalism.

So it’s a big ask to believe that the McChesney-Nichols suggestion that the state should fund journalism on a massive scale to ensure it continues to serve society — and, ya know, starts doing a better job of it — is going to have much traction with the people who would have to pay the taxes to make it happen. Their price tag, for “postal subsidies; journalist tax credits; News AmeriCorps [don’t ask]; student media; public media; and especially Citizenship News Vouchers” — this last involves giving 200 bucks to every American that has to be donated to the journalism non-profit(s) of his/her choice — could be $35 billion a year. That’s per-capita peanuts compared to what we’re paying, say, Anglo Irish Bank, but don’t you just get the feeling that some taxpayers, here as well as in America, would baulk?

The authors make a nod at suggesting that this sort of subsidy already occurs in other countries, not just in terms of the ‘public service broadcasting’ tradition from which the US is generally absent — it largely privatised the public asset of its airwaves as soon as it could possibly do so — but also by direct support for newspapers. Such subsidising need not, it is clear, result in organs of government propaganda. The liberal-left’s traditional and superficial admiration for how wonderfully the Scandinavians do this stuff is duly present and accounted for, but the authors have the sense to treat that as parenthetical for their American readers. No, apparently if you’re going to convince Americans politically, evidence from Philadelphia c.1801 is much more relevant than anything from Copenhagen c.2010.

In fairness, the evidence is clear. The United States did not adopt a free-market approach to its journalism in the early days of its republic. In particular, there was positive discrimination in the pricing structure of the postal service (nationalised under the US constitution) to ensure that newspapers (and books) travelled to readers very, very cheaply, and until relatively recently there was a lovely facility in the postal code whereby publications could be mailed to the offices of other publications entirely for free. This last point was pretty crucial, since in the days before the telegraph became widespread (that is, up to about 1850) the main means by which a newspaper’s writers learned of news from outside their own bailiwick was by reading other newspapers, then shamelessly re-typesetting the copy for their own presses. Voila — an instant network of correspondents! There were other, quite deliberate state subsidies spread around the press, mostly in terms of government notices and other advertising.

The result was that in the early 19th century the US had a far more popular, diverse and freewheeling press than Europe, as visitors, including famously Alexis de Tocqueville in the seminal Democracy in America (1835-40), were wont to observe. Americans have a tendency to romanticise the first half-century of their independence, but there is little doubt that when it comes to the press they have something to celebrate. The journalist Matthew Engel, in Tickle the Public (1996), his pop-history of the British press, suggests that US and British daily papers changed very differently over the 19th and 20th centuries: the British from stodgy, dull establishment organs to a fun and partisan popular press, and the Americans in exactly the opposite direction. You don’t have to be a fan of the Sun to recognise some truth in the generalisation. Engel did not recognise, however, because he presumably did not know, that America’s dull high-moral-ground journalism was a product of the marketplace, and its fun-loving scandalmongers of old were vitally subsidised by federal, state, county and city governments.

McChesney and Nichols are not breaking new ground historically. Discomfiting though some of this history may be to the US’s market ideologues, it has been unavoidable since Paul Starr laid it out so thoroughly in The Creation of the Media (2004). The key means by which the authors of Death and Life connect it to present-day developments and their hopes for the future is through the idea of partisanship. They argue that the early-American political system was likely to spread pretty evenly the government gravy for journalism, that a competitive political system gave rise to an equally competitive press system, full of journalists who had to be careful to get facts straight to keep readers’ trust, but also laced them with passionate partisan opinions to keep readers engaged, as well as to curry political favour. They offer the rather crowd-pleasing example of Walt Whitman, who was the campaigning editor of the “rigidly Democratic” Brooklyn Eagle before he was moved by his exposure to the anti-slavery movement to take over a new publication, The Freeman.

It’s true that the partisanship of those times makes a nice analogy with the present day, when — as you may have noticed — a great deal of the ‘journalism’ on the web comes rather heavily opinionated. And it’s nice to think that the Walt Whitman of our day is somewhere out there blogging and tweeting. But I’m unconvinced that it works as much more than an analogy. The key point (and I never cease to be amazed at the capacity of liberals to overlook this) is the nature of the state. Today’s Tea Party types may see Obama as a socialist, but (1) they’re wrong and (2) it wouldn’t matter if they were right, because the state cannot be turned around to serve the majority of its people by the actions of one man. And it’s not just America: the neoliberal states of Europe, including Ireland, have been deliberately moving further and further away from a public-service model for the media, the latest slick move here being the absorption of RTE into the same regulatory framework that oversees, and supports, commercial broadcasters.

The early US state was not, of course, a socialist one. Many of its founders did see it, however, as revolutionary, and an active public sphere was viewed as crucial to its legitimation. Even with that, however, by the late 1790s it was cracking down viciously on dissent, including that of newspaper editors. The US’s subsequent nurturing of the press is arguably contingent on the election of Jefferson in 1800, not only because of his own revolutionary virtues but because a competitive system where power could be shown to pass between factions and parties required a press to sustain it. In 2010, when so much of the the media has been reduced to reprinting corporate and political press releases, and the politicians and technocrats reckon they can tweet right over the heads of the hack pack to get their messages out, there is no reason to suspect any modern state of either an ideological or practical commitment to the vigorous exchange of information and ideas, facilitated by full-time professional journalists. Full-time professional PR-operators, sure, but not journalists. They — we — have been rendered, and have rendered ourselves, useless.

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