If American democracy is to survive, it will need a vibrant free press that is subsidized by the government, according to a journalist and a media scholar who spoke at Fordham.
Robert W. McChesney, Ph.D., and John Nichols argued in a presentation on Feb. 5 that the current media model, in which advertising and newsgathering are coupled, is irrevocably broken.
Every month for the past two years, 1,000 newspaper journalists have been laid off, Nichols said at Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus. Last year, 140 newspapers ceased publication.
As such, the ratio of public relations professionals to journalists has jumped from 1.2-to-1 in 1980 to 4-to-1 today.
“Journalism is literally being rolled over by propaganda,” said Nichols, who is a contributing writer for The Progressive and the associate editor of Capital Times, the daily newspaper in Madison, Wis.
Eighty six percent of all news stories that were printed or aired by Baltimore media in 2008 originated from what Nichols called “higher authorities,” such as public relations firms or corporate press releases. That study, which was conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, shows that traditional journalism has been reduced to “stenography,” Nichols said.
“With four P.R. agents to every one journalist, and 86 percent of stories coming from power and 14 percent coming from the people, the future is not ‘Big Brother is watching you,’ the future is, ‘You will be watching Big Brother,’” he said.
Meanwhile, debate over the future of journalism is being fueled by old media “fantasists” who say that advertising will return, and new media “fabulists” who say online outlets will take over when traditional media go bankrupt, he said.
McChesney and Nichols, the authors of The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution that Will Begin the World Again (Nation Book, 2010), offered fresh ideas for revamping the traditional media landscape.
McChesney, the Gutgsell Endowed Professor of Communication at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, laid out a plan for transforming journalism from a business venture into a public trust, on par with schools and police.
To First Amendment purists who fear that government subsidies inevitably lead to censorship, McChesney noted that the federal government once subsidized newspapers through heavily discounted mail rates. That practice, which was in place from colonial times, stopped only after the Civil War.
Some of the concrete ideas he put forth include extending the AmeriCorps service program to students who want to be journalists, as well as increasing funding to grassroots radio and television stations expressly to hire journalists to cover their communities.
“We have communities in which there are no journalists covering statehouses and town houses,” McChesney said. “Delaware does not have a full-time journalist covering the state government. It’s simply gone.”
Whether Americans will accept such a system—like in Germany, where taxes are levied against individual televisions in people’s homes—is a fair question, McChesney said. He came back again to the idea of “bottom-up” journalism that aspires to keep a check on those in power.
“If you approach people and ask, ‘Do you want to have your taxes raised to give more money to the same commercial interests that ran journalism into the ground?’ they’re going to say, ‘Of course not; that’s stupid,’” he said.
“But if you ask people, ‘Are you willing to pay to have a credible source of information so that you can have people in power monitored and you can know what’s going on in your community and help you be an effective citizen?’ I guarantee the answer will be yes.”
The talk was sponsored by the Donald McGannon Communication Research Center and the Bernard L. Schwartz Center for Media, Public Policy and Education at Fordham.