Journalism in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq was "arguably the worst in American history," professor and media activist Robert McChesney told an enthusiastic crowd of several hundred in Berkeley Wednesday night.
How so? The evidence is fresh, he said. On the most important public decision of the year, the news media failed to ask the tough questions necessary to reveal that the government was lying when it went to war in Iraq. Last year Jayson Blair was shunned by the media after he fabricated minor aspects of relatively unimportant stories. At the same time another New York Times reporter, Judith Miller, was praised, Prof. McChesney said -- even though she uncritically reported fabrications of Iraqi defectors echoing the Pentagon's claims about banned weapons.
"We've seen a significant collapse of the ability of journalists to protect the public interest in the last 20 years," the University of Illinois communications professor concluded.
Sound a little harsh? Actually, Mr. McChesney was just warming up. His point was not to bring down journalists, but to point out the structural problems that increasingly pervade the mass media -- problems that prevent professional journalists from going too far in questioning the politics of their corporate employers.
America's media system is not what it appears to be, Mr. McChesney argues in his new book, The Problem of the Media: U.S. Communication Politics in the 21st Century. It is based on a market system that has concentrated 70% of all media in the hands of just eight mega-corporations motivated by profits, not the public good. Little can be done to reform problems of "the media" or the shortcomings of journalism, he argued, without looking at that structure.
Mr. McChesney, often hailed as a successor to the Berkeley-based journalist, educator and media critic Ben Bagdikian, is one of the nation's leading media reformers. He started an activist group, Free Press (www.mediareform.net), aimed at spurring grassroots activism to demand change in media regulation. The group organized a major conference last fall in Madison, Wis., and has been lobbying Congress to overturn last summer's ruling by the Federal Communications Commission that granted media conglomerates the right to acquire additional broadcast properties.
What's at stake, Mr. McChesney argued, is nothing less than democracy itself. A free press was enshrined in the Constitution not for the benefit of media owners, but for citizens. The point of freedom of speech is to aid a functioning electoral system by encouraging a diversity of viewpoints. With the rise of corporate domination, the democratic functions of free expression, including journalism, suffer.
One consequence: apathy at the polls. Voter participation typically below 50% can be blamed in part on a passive journalistic culture that does not challenge establishment politicians in an era when television stations earn upwards of 12% of their revenues from political campaign ads, he said. The news media on the whole have chosen to ignore the problems inherent in campaign funding. As a result the press no longer acts as a check on corruption. "What we're seeing is the utter collapse of self-government in the United States," he said. Public apathy leads to less and less coverage of electoral politics, which in turn feeds apathy.
One solution is to change the rules of the game by reducing the control of monopolistic corporations over the images and ideas Americans consume as news. Corporate domination imposes a "hyper-commercialized" media landscape that will engage in any vulgarity to attract attention, Mr. McChesney charged. That landscape is the result of government policies. Concentration of ownership must be restricted, he said, to support democratic change. "I'm absolutely certain we're going to win this media-ownership issue," in Congress, he added.
The talk at the University of California, Berkeley's Wheeler Hall, was in part a stop on Mr. McChesney's book tour. It was also a fund-raiser for Media Alliance, a San Francisco organization that trains media workers and advocates for reform. Media Alliance was also instrumental in organizing a hearing in April 2003 at San Francisco City Hall at which more than 600 people opined on the proposed FCC changes.
Another sponsor of the event was the Action Coalition for Media Education, which is hosting a national conference July 1 to 4 at the University of San Francisco titled "Declarations of Media Independence."
Jerry Mander, an environmentalist and former ad executive who is the president of the International Forum on Globalization, added to Mr. McChesney's talk by warning of the deleterious effects of advertising, which creates a "global monoculture" and facilitates maximum profits for transnational companies. International rules under the World Trade Organization and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade also directly threaten public broadcasters by recasting public support for educational media as illegal "trade subsidies."
The author of Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, Mr. Mander pointed to recent studies that showed the average American sees 28,000 commercials a year -- indelibly imprinting images even in the minds of the most intelligent and discerning viewer.
That "brainwashing" translates easily to politics: Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger launched a campaign for $15 billion in state bonds in March at a time when the public overwhelmingly opposed it. Two weeks and $8 million of TV ads later, Mr. Mander said, the reform won in a landslide. That's the result of a broadcast news media that uncritically allows the politicians with the most money to set the tone of the debate without journalistic critique. "Logic can never overpower image," Mr. Mander said.
"In the absence of opposing viewpoints," he said, "the public will believe what it sees."