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The Problem of the Media: An Interview with Robert McChesney

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Robert McChesney is a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and author or editor of several books, including the award-winning Telecommunications, Mass Media, and Democracy: The Battle for the Control of US Broadcasting, 1928-1935; Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Times; and, with John Nichols, Our Media, Not Theirs: The Democratic Struggle Against Corporate Media. His work concentrates on the history and political economy of communication, emphasizing the role media play in democratic and capitalist societies. McChesney's most recent book, The Problem of Media, was published in February, 2004, by Monthly Review Press and examines current US media policy and details how citizens can play a more active role in shaping that policy. McChesney also co-founded Free Press, which sponsored the first National Conference on Media Reform in Madison, Wisconsin, last fall, where 1,500 citizens, journalists, and activists convened to develop strategies to democratize the US media system.

I spoke to Bob McChesney from his office in Urbana, Illinois on June 11.
- BKM

Brian K. Mahoney: In your recent book, The Problem of Media, you briefly survey the history of how media policy has been formulated in the US, a process that has almost exclusively been a closed door affair between business elites attempting to maximize profits, rather than an informed public discussion about what the media needs of a democratic society are. How did we get to this point where the policy-making is so corrupt?

Robert McChesney: It happened gradually and was closely connected to the rise of very powerful media corporations and powerful media lobbies. We've had policy-making for media since the very beginning of the republic. The most important debates in this country were the constitutional debates, followed by the debates in the first few congresses cocerned with how to set up a media system and create the foundation for a free press. There were public debates on these issues for generations.

The most striking public subsidy for media that was debated and crafted was the postal subsidy. For the first hundred years of its existence, the Post Office was primarily the distribution means for the nation's press system - its magazines and newspapers. In the 1830s, over 90 percent of the traffic of the post office was that of newspapers. One of the crucial debates in the very first Congress of 1792, was what the government should charge [for postage]. There were those who thought it should be heavily subsidized and those who thought that all newspapers should always be sent for free in total subsidy, to encourage a broad plethora of newspapers that couldn't survive if left exclusively to market forces. This was debated in terms of the importance for democracy of having this massive public subsidy. It was the largest subsidy the government had in the early republic. We've always had these debates, but over time, as commercial interests have grown larger and more powerful in media, the debates have simply gotten more and more removed from the public and have less to do with actual democracy and self government, and more to do with enhancing the commercial fortunes of these very powerful companies and their lobbies. By the 20th century, we've seen corruption of the policy-making process crystallize. The way I like to describe how media policy-making takes place in the United States today is to liken it to a wonderful film from 1974 called The Godfather II.

BKM: In your book you reference the scene on the patio in Havana from that movie.

RM: Basically, American gangsters are carving up a cake...dividing Cuba up between them. Michael Corleone is there. Hyman Roth is giving a slice of his birthday cake to each of the gangsters, saying, "Alright. Louie from Chicago, you run the Copacabana. Frank, you're from Detroit, you handle the prostitutes." While Hyman Roth is dividing up the island among them, he says, "Isn't it great to be in a country with a government that respects private enterprise?" And that's really how media policy-making gets done in this country. Extraordinarily powerful lobbies behind closed doors are fighting it out to divide up this cake. And while they're fighting each other for the biggest slice of the cake, the one thing they all agree upon is, it's their cake and no one else gets a slice. That's what the American people are basically told: This is the way the Founders wanted it. This is the way democracy and the First Amendment demand it.

BKM: Why shouldn't market forces be allowed to determine the media landscape?

RM: Well, maybe they should be allowed to. But the point is, [market forces] don't do it naturally, market forces have to be determined by policy. It has to be a public decision. Even a capitalist economy doesn't happen naturally. It's a decision of a free people to opt for a market economy. If you nail in the fact that you have to have a capitalist media system and people have no control over it, then you don't have a democracy. You've got something else. You can have a commercial media system and a market driven system - a system where the market plays a dominant role. Fair enough. But it should be the result of an informed public debate.

Isn't it ironic that saying something so fundamental sounds so radical nowadays?

BKM: Yes. It is. In your book, you mention that there are eight myths surrounding the media in the US [see sidebar, p. 20]. One is the perceived left-wing bias of the news media. You argue that no bias exists. If this is so, then how can conservative media critics make careers as watchdogs of liberal media bias?

RM: I argue that their argument doesn't hold up. That doesn't mean there aren't grounds for their argument, that there's not elements of evidence that might support the argument, but I argue that when you consider all the evidence the argument doesn't hold up at all.

BKM: Can you give a couple examples of why it doesn't hold up?

RM: The argument that the news media have a liberal bias is premised on the idea that journalists have all the power. That they are the ones who control the news product and once they enter a newsroom, owners and advertisers have nothing to do with what shows up in the news. Second, it is assumed that journalists are liberal or progressive. And third, it is assumed that journalists use their power over the news to actively and aggressively promote their liberal politics. If you break down those various claims, they don't hold up. First of all, journalists don't have all the power in the newsroom. That's a preposterous claim. Even conservatives in academia instantly throw this argument out because it simply isn't credible - any more than a working journalist in the Soviet Union had all the power over the newsroom.

The real examination of journalism looks at how commercial pressures are embedded into the professional code - to make it rational that doing a story about Britney Spears' breast implants is a legitimate news story, but doing a story on the CIA or a story on government is not. That's a sophisticated news criticism. So this idea that journalists have all this blanket power doesn't hold up. The one piece of evidence that conservatives can actually hang their hat on - the only thing they've got - is that some surveys show a significant percentage of journalists tend to vote Democratic rather than Republican.

From that [critics] extrapolate the claims that [journalists] have all the power and use this power to create liberal, left-wing, anti-business, pro-socialist content in the news. This is a dubious bit of evidence.

Other survey data show that top editors, as well as publishers of newspapers, vote overwhelmingly Republican. But this information is rarely talked about. It's ironic that [according to the conservative view] the people at the bottom of the pecking order in the newsroom, their political views are most important. The person who actually hires and fires and makes the ultimate decisions about what goes into the paper - their political views are unimportant.

This sort of evidence is being marshaled. However, this argument forgets one of the crucial parts of the professional code of journalism, which is it is anathema for journalists to be partisan. Journalists do their darndest to avoid being explicitly partisan, and most journalists, even of the most liberal political persuasion, pride themselves on being centrist in their writing and not writing [articles] that push their political point of view. If anything, there's a strong effort to bend the stick the other way. The great Robert Perry has said, and Jeff Cohen has said, from their experience in newsrooms, the great bias of journalists in America today is the bias that they don't want to look like they're liberals. It is a career killer now to be seen as a partisan journalist. But there's no evidence to support the case that journalists are using power to inculcate left-wing politics.

And finally, detailed analysis of journalists shows that if you really look at the basis of liberalism that is used by right-wing critics to brand journalists as liberals, invariably the data used is what are called "social issues" - positions that question civil liberties, affirmative action, a woman's right to choose. These are the defining issues that make one a liberal or a conservative. Therefore liberals are more likely to be in favor of affirmative action, or a woman's right to choose, or civil liberties than a conservative. But when you actually define liberal and conservative, left and right on a different set of issues, a more traditional, classical sociological set of issues - on economic inequality, social justice, on trade issues - research has shown that the top leading political journalists tend to be much more conservative than the American population. They tend to be much more pro-business and anti-government regulation. Once you start defining left and right in terms of economic inequality and class, [the conservative] argument crumbles. Because [it is] predicated on left and right being based on social issues and attitudes of consumption, not on class relations.

BKM: You present a harsh critique of contemporary US journalism in The Problem of the Media. The recent poor mainstream news coverage regarding the road to the Iraq war, the war itself, and the ongoing coverage of the occupation seem to illustrate the logic of that critique. You say there are three basic duties of journalism: 1) to act as a rigorous watchdog of the powerful and those who wish to be powerful, 2) to ferry out the truth and 3) to present a wide range of informed positions on key issues. Even the New York Times recently printed a mea culpa in its pages claiming it gave too much credence to dubious official sources before the war. What are some of the reasons for the current dreadful state of US journalism?

RM: The problems are complex. On one hand, some of the problems that account for the terrible coverage in Iraq are due to the limitations of the professional code of journalism as it has developed in the US. Professionalism, the idea of neutral, non-partisan journalism is a fairly new idea. Many Americans have the erroneous opinion that the notion of professional, independent, non-partisan, non-ideological journalism was something that the founding fathers were proponents of, that they believed in objectivity, and that's what real journalism for democracy is. That's nonsensical. Journalism in the first 125 years of the republic was stridently partisan and there was no notion of journalism being anything but partisan. The whole idea was to contribute to political debates and to draw people into life and to convince people of your arguments. It's only in the early 20th century that we see the rise of this notion of "professional" journalism. And it's a response primarily to the monopolization of newspaper content, the rise of advertising as the primary means of support and the rise of the profit motive and commercial values to sort of undermine the integrity of journalism. And all those things together conspired or influenced the rise of this professional journalism.

The point [is], if you only had one newspaper in your town, as many cities did by the early 20th century, you would not have to worry about there being only one voice that would be partisan and use the power over the community in a partisan manner. Because the journalism would be neutral and professional. The idea was to take the owner and the editor, which had been one position for a hundred years, and split it in half. They'd have no control over each other. You'd have what's called a "Chinese wall" of separation of church and state - on one side the owners and advertisers are making the money, and on the other side journalists, editors, reporters, are doing the editorial work. And if you read a newspaper, you'd have no idea if it was owned by a Republican, a Democrat, or even a Socialist. Trained professionals were doing the content.

This all sounds well and good, but unfortunately it's not that easy. How you determine what's going to be covered by neutral, non-partisan professional journalism, objective journalism, is still a pretty complex and pretty unavoidable value-laden enterprise. When something goes on the front page, and something gets buried on page 17, and something else doesn't get covered - a value judgment comes into play. There's nothing that can be entirely scientific or neutral about it. There was a massive fight in our news media over what professional journalism should be. The fight really played itself out in the 1930s. The union for journalists argued that professional journalism should mean that journalism is not connected to a party, but rigorously critical of people in power and represent the interests of the downtrodden. They argued that that should be the motivation that guides the journalist - tell the truth, let the chips fall where they may, don't be beholden to any powerful interest, and have an antagonistic and critical and skeptical attitude towards anyone in power. I won't keep you in suspense. This type of critical journalism really did not win.

BKM: Not many reporters appear to be practicing critical journalism today.

RM: It's still practiced by Bill Moyers and Seymour Hersh, and before them I.F. Stone, but the people who practice it tend to be notable, because they're so unusual for the overall trajectory of journalism. Instead, what's considered professional journalism today, is basically stenography to people in power. Basically taking what people in power say and reporting on it, largely uncritically, to the extent that you only get a debate only when there are other people in power who are debating between themselves. So, if the Senate Democratic leadership is harshly critical of the White House on a position, you might get a debate on that. But if they're in agreement on a subject, it will present it as received wisdom in our news media, and any criticism of it will be dismissed.

Professional journalism makes perfect economic sense for corporate media. It's very inexpensive to do: you simply plant reporters where official sources congregate and report what they say. And it also means that journalists become dependent on official sources. They need to have good relations with them to get stories, so they're somewhat compromised. And most important is the notion of professional journalism, which is basically we report, you decide, we tell you what people in power say and you figure out whether or not they're lying. That sort of journalism makes it almost impossible to do real journalism. Because if a journalist is to challenge what people in power are saying, they're accused of being ideological and unprofessional. And that's the worst thing you can be accused of. So let's say in the build-up to the war, a prominent journalist or the newspaper editor went out of their way to say over and over that George W. Bush is flat-out lying on all these issues - without having strong support from anyone in the community. There's the Democratic party where you have Dick Gephardt, Tom Daschle, and all these people bending over backwards to support the president. The journalist or editor is accused of being unprofessional: "Why are you trying to wave your own opinions here? You're not being a professional journalist. If you don't like it, you should run for office."

Professionalism has a strong disciplinary effect on journalists to keep them from asking the tough questions that people in power don't want asked. That's one of the core factors that explains the utterly dreadful stenography aspects of much of our news media that were manifest in the war with Iraq and tend to be worse in issues of foreign policy where there's much more of an elite consensus about the US right to invade other countries and appoint governments when it sees fit.

But it's not solely the professional code that evolved under commercial auspices. Part of the problem we face too in that terrible coverage is that in the last 20 years we've seen a tremendous consolidation of ownership in our news media and our media more broadly. The amount of foreign correspondence in our news media has plummeted, so there's much less original coverage coming from these countries, which means the journalists covering stories outside the United States are evermore dependent on US sources - the State Department, the Pentagon - to tell them what's going on. They don't have someone on the ground in these countries who really knows what's going on. So it's much easier for a fictitious view of Iraq and the Middle East to be spread by the Bush administration in this country than it was in other countries that still have a fleet of reporters working the ground in the Middle East. And we can never forget the fact that institutionally, our news media and our media in general now are run by massive corporations with very close links to this government. And so there's sort of a marriage of convenience between these powerful institutions.

BKM: You also claim that it's a myth that commercial media gives consumers what they want. But don't commercial media outlets attempt to create the best programming possible given consumer tastes, thus insuring greatest profitability?

RM: [Laughing out loud] "Best programming possible." The argument is that commercial media companies, no matter how heavily commercial the system is - ads everywhere, product placement; no matter how much concentration so there's very little competition between the players; no matter how deeply flawed the system is (and this argument by the way doesn't apply to journalism; no one claims it should run by market principles - this applies to the entertainment side of the equation); no matter all these problems, it's still the best possible system because competitive pressures force companies to satisfy public interests. And that doesn't necessarily mean the best programming. Most of the people that make this argument will acknowledge that most of the content of media sucks. They'll just say, "Well it doesn't suck 'cause the companies are bad, it sucks 'cause the morons out there are demanding it." It has nothing to do with best possible content.

BKM: OK. But then how do you account for the argument that media producers just give consumers what they want?

RM: The "giving people what they want" argument simply is the problem with our media system. If there is a problem, it comes from the demand side, not the supply side. The suppliers are more than willing to give the morons out there whatever they want, and if the morons want to watch reality shows, that's what they're going to get. If the morons want "Masterpiece Theatre," you can darn well bet that the companies will find it in their interest to give them "Masterpiece Theatre." That's the importance of this argument.

BKM: It seems that the morons are dying for more reality shows.

RM: That's right. So, the argument goes: "Don't blame the system, the system works perfectly. Blame the morons! Blame the idiots who read your newspaper, and who watch reality shows if any of them do. It's their own fault. If they don't like it they should be watching 'Masterpiece Theatre' and ballet and giraffe shows on PBS. Then we'll get a whole range of cable channels giving us ballet and giraffe shows, just like you get on PBS." That's the logic of the argument. And gosh, isn't that compelling? Doesn't that fit perfectly within the world view of our culture, which is blame the victim? Take the person with the least amount of power in a situation and say, "It's your fault that you're fucked." I mean that's the perfect logic. And it's all especially strong because there's a strong element of truth to it. No movie studio makes movies they don't think anyone's going to want to see. No television station or network puts shows on primetime that they don't think anyone's going to want to watch. No one records a DVD or records a CD and puts it out to market if they don't think someone's going to want to buy it. And if a company puts out shows no one's going to want to watch, their competitors are going to put out shows people will want to watch. And either they're going to have to get with the program or they're going to go out of business.

But the problem with this argument is that it's really simplistic and a vulgar way to explain a very complex relationship. You can't really talk about changing our media system unless you critique it. And not to cop out here but I can't give a comprehensive answer. But I can say a few things. There are a couple of real flaws in this argument. One is that it is predicated on the idea that demand creates supply. So, say people are born with a full slate of preferences, at birth. What sort of music do you like?

BKM: I like rock music.

RM: OK, what sort of movies do you like?

BKM: I like drama.

RM: OK, well, I doubt it. You like rock music and drama. Theoretically. Clearly hypothetical. And so, at birth, as this theory goes, you have those tastes fully evolved in you. When you were born, you liked rock music and drama, and then you were going to throw out your demands to the obedient media giants who are going to compete to try to meet your demands, and they respond to what you say. Well that's absurd. It's not just that demand does not creates supply - supply creates demand. You develop a taste for something because you're exposed to it. It's a complex, long-term relationship. And if you understand it that way, then what happens is these companies give you what they can make the most money doing, and when you consume it and develop a taste for it, they tell you they're giving you what you want. My 10-year-old daughter has a taste for reality shows. She wasn't born with it. But if you're exposed to enough reality shows, you develop a taste for them. And enlightened media policy allows for the fact that you've got to cultivate taste. And I think that that's what we need to strive to do. We've got to allow new things to blossom, not simply let commercial interests pummel us with what makes the most money that's the least expense to produce, that generates a quick audience as cheaply as possible.

Look at US film consumption in the last 40 years. How old are you, Brian?

BKM: I am 33.

RM: So you're a young guy.

BKM: Indeed.

RM: I'm 51. When I went to college 30-some years ago, by the mid-1970s say, over 10 percent of the movies shown in American movie theaters were foreign-language films. Over 10 percent. I lived in Seattle, Washington, and we had 10, 12, 15 theaters that showed foreign-language films.

BKM: Wow.

RM: Manhattan had 25 theaters that showed nothing but foreign language films in 1975. Twenty-five theaters. That was standard in this country. And college kids in the 1970s, probably half the films we went to were foreign-language films. We knew French actors, Norwegian directors, German actresses, as well as we did Hollywood figures. By the late 1980s, foreign-language films went down to three percent or so of screen time. Nowadays, if you discount Aramaic, it's down to maybe one-half of one percent of screen time. What that would suggest is that sometime starting in the mid-1970s, American people stood up, en masse, smashed their fists on the table, and said, "Get those foreign-language films out of our theaters! We don't want them! Get those foreign films outta here!" That's the only way you could explain it. Right?

BKM: Based on the demand-driven consumption theory, yes.

RM: But that isn't what happened. What happened was in fact supply-driven, not demand-driven. With the rise of the multiplex theater in the late seventies, you had seven or ten screens operating with one projectionist, one ticket-taker, one popcorn-maker, and it basically drove the single-screen theaters out of business in a very short period of time. And then, when foreign film producers came to the United States, they had to go through a whole new network of distribution. They tended to end up talking to some big chain company that owned a bunch of megaplexes and found out that if they wanted to get their French or German film aired in the United States, they had to work out a deal with some megaplex to get on a hundred screens. And to get screen space they had to pay for a huge television advertising campaign three days before the film premiered to generate enough ticket sales to justify giving up the screen space. Some foreign filmmakers continued to do that, but over time increasingly they dropped out because the costs were too high, and by the 1990s, the market had dried up for foreign-language films as well.

I had students in my class at the University of Wisconsin in 1990 and one said to me innocently - we were talking about films and the film industry - "You mean they make movies in France?" There's no notion that films are even made outside the United States, so this guy would never think of going to a foreign film. He has no demand for it because he's never been exposed to it. When he goes into a video store he probably whips right by the foreign-language section to the extent that they even have a foreign-language section anymore in video stores -

BKM: You don't actually pass the foreign-language section in the video store - it's buried in the back of the store next to the adult section.

RM: The point is, in this case, supply created demand. Demand didn't create supply. So it's a very complex relationship. And one other point on this, and this is crucial too. Even to the extent our personal tastes are important in media, what we consume should not be the sole determinant of what a media system should be. There are lots of things on the air I don't watch, but I think they should be there. I'm in favor of having a broad, diverse media system, broader than my own taste, and I don't think my own taste should be a determinant of what goes up there. I think there should be a space in our media culture for stuff that doesn't have an automatic market - so you can develop a taste for it. Where new ideas can prosper that wouldn't survive if they had to meet market tests the first time out of the chute. And when we think about media policy, it is really critical that we have that sort of vision and opening for new ideas, new genres, and new talents.

BKM: In your book you mention some ideas for a more democratic media system. You write: "Such a system would necessitate a large, well-funded, structurally pluralistic and diverse, nonprofit and non-commercial media sector, as well as a more competitive and decentralized commercial sector." Can you briefly sketch what such a system would look like?

RM: The starting point is really a non-denominational, non-partisan position. The first thing - media ownership, antitrust, anything dealing with copyright - all these core government policies that construct our media system have to be subjected to informed public participation. If the vast majority of the people after informed debate say, "We really like the idea of one company owning all the radio stations in the country and having robot disc jockeys and being bombarded with 20 minutes of ads an hour - we think that's a great idea." I'll live with it. I won't like it, but I'll live with it. Understand that the premise of [the media reform] movement was to democratize the policy-making process. Once we have that debate there are really two core components. First, to the extent we have a commercial media system, we should strive to have policies to make it as competitive as possible. This means having more voices rather than fewer, and as much local and decentralized ownership as possible. It means having local owners for local media is better than having distant conglomerate owners for local media and having concentrated ownership. Now, this is a complex issue. There are some types of media that may never allow themselves to be locally owned and have tremendous competition, like film studios, where the capital requirements are so high. We have to understand that and factor that in.

Radio, for example. There is no economic justification for the degree of concentration our rules currently permit, where one company, Clear Channel, is entitled to own well over a thousand radio stations around the country - to the point where the person who owns the company couldn't name three quarters of the stations that he owns. It was pure corrupt politics in Congress that allowed the ownership rules to be relaxed so that one company could own so many stations. Because of that, the value of radio stations has shot way up cause they're worth much more as part of these massive empires than when they were stand-alone. But the actual cost of production of radio is so low, there's no reason why you couldn't have individual radio station owners for every single station in the country. And you could have local owners for all of them. An enlightened policy would lead to that in radio and would never allow this [level of ownership] concentration. So those are the crucial values I think we want in our media at the ownership level.

We also need to be very concerned about conglomeration. There is no justification, from the public's perspective, of the sort of conglomeration which is now routine for the largest media companies of film studios, magazine companies, book publishing, newspapers, radio divisions, television divisions, networks, the whole works. These companies might make a lot of money because they own these huge empires, but there's no clear evidence that it's necessary economically, or that the economic benefits ever go to the general public. They go to the owners. It gives them more monopoly power. At the same time, even more competitive, locally owned commercial media markets still have deep flaws - what economists call "externality". They're far too dependent on advertising and commercialism for influencing the nature and content of their operations.

BKM: Can you explain the concept of externality?

RM: Externality refers to economics - pollution is the classic externality. A company manufactures a product and pollutes the air. The person consumes the product and buys it as a purchaser of the product. Well, the cost of polluting the air isn't factored into the cost of the car, so neither the producer nor the consumer bears the cost of the pollution. It just goes up into the air and society has to pay for that cost. But it's irrelevant to the people, the producer and consumer of that product, because they don't have to factor the cost of air pollution into their transactions. It's external to the market relationship therefore it's called an "externality".

Society deals with externality by installing tax policies that require the manufacturer and the consumer to bear that cost. They have to pay so that you can pay for the clean-up of the air, or else society as a whole has to come up with policies to deal with that cost. The market itself can't solve it. That is why it's called an externality. It has to be a public policy decision.

In media we have massive externalities too. Two are central. One is journalism. Under purely commercial auspices, journalism is driven by what makes the most money. And that tends to be a product which too often is lousy journalism. That's what we have in this society today - commercially run journalism. And there's a huge external cost. There might be a lot of people in our society who don't consume the news media, but they still pay a price for lousy news because we have an uninformed public that doesn't know what the hell is going on. We end up in wars, we end up polluting and destroying the environment. We pay a huge social price for having lousy journalism. But it's purely external to the way these big companies work, because they make so much money. They're not going to change. People in the market for news are apparently satisfied with what they're getting, so the market's working just fine.

But as a free society, we can't afford to have bankrupt journalism. It is killing us. We have to have viable journalism. We have to come up with a mechanism to generate local journalism, for example. Generate content about candidates running for office - hard-hitting analysis of governments that are trying to take us into war so we know what the truth is. The market won't necessarily give us that.

The second crucial externality is hyper-commercialism. It manifests itself most significantly with regard to children, but really applies to all of us. Consider what we're doing to children in our society. Commercializing childhood is the dominant growth industry of our commercial corporate media system. Each of the four largest media companies has a twenty-four-hour, seven-day-a-week cable channel, bombarding kids with advertising. A cable kids' channel.

Ad agencies now have broken down the child market to one-year-olds, two-and-a-half-year-olds, two-and-a-half- to-four-year-olds, four-to-five-and-a-half-year-olds, boys and girls. They're doing sophisticated research because companies increasingly understand that they've got to get into kids' brains as early as possible. The first one in there to brand their product is going to be the one that's going to win the war for market share down the road. We've got a situation now where the average American kid going into kindergarten knows 200 corporate logos, jingles, or brand names. Two hundred! That's a pretty impressive education we're giving our kids before they get into kindergarten.

This is the classic externality. The companies that are doing this - Nickelodeon, owned by Viacom, the Disney Channel, Cartoon Network run by Time Warner - are raking in money. They're making hand-over-fist profits on children. The children who are consuming the shows are enjoying the shows, and the very sophisticated advertising aimed at them. The advertisers are happy but there's a massive externality for our society: What are we doing to this generation of children? And all the evidence we see from social scientists, scientists, psychologists, teachers, and pediatricians is that this massive influx of commercialism - this commercial bombarding of children, it's going to have terrible effects on children on a whole range of issues - psychological, developmental, public health. But those are all externalities. The people in this business can't think about it. The kids watching the show and the ads at age four aren't thinking about that either, so it's something that has to be taken care of by society, outside the marketplace. Those factors alone highlight the reason why we need a very strong, viable, nonprofit and non-commercial media. We need to have a truly great media system.

BKM: We seem to be at a point now with regard to corporate dominance and corporate consolidation of the media industry that there seems to be no alternative. Is there a way to get the corporate genie back in the bottle?

RM: Two years ago it seemed that we could never change things. Everyone said, "It's hopeless pal, you don't know what you're talking about. This lobby is super powerful, most people are perfectly happy with what they're getting. And to top it off, the corporate media are in the ideal position to control any criticism there because they control the news. So how are people even going to learn about this?"

And I couldn't really argue with them too much.

BKM: What changed?

RM: Well, what happened in the last year and a half has been nothing short of a watershed. In the fall of 2002 the Federal Communications Commission announced it was going to review a handful of its remaining media ownership regulations. It looked like a slam dunk, that they would be able to relax these crucial rules for radio and TV stations [stipulating] how many stations they can own, how many other types of media they're allowed to own, and whether they can own newspapers in the same community - what's called "cross ownership."

The rules are the only form of regulations that ever worked. The theory was: the government is giving monopoly licenses away to radio and TV broadcasters, so it has an obligation not to let one or two companies gobble up all this public property. It is in the public's interest to have a multitude of voices and no central domination over media. But the big media companies hate ownership limitations because they want to get bigger and bigger, have less competition, so they can do more advertising and lower their costs: less competition, higher profits. They've been fighting like the dickens to get these rules relaxed, quietly behind closed doors on that proverbial Havana patio. With the administration of George W. Bush, they felt like they won the trifecta.

Bush is totally in bed with the big media corporations. And all three members of the FCC were Republicans. All [the big media corporations needed] were three votes to get rid of the rules - and all three members were basically totally gung ho about "deregulation" - letting corporate media get bigger. But deregulation is a misnomer - there's still as many government regulations as before. It is just regulation purely to serve corporate interests.

It looked as if we were going to lose. They had a three-to-two vote even before any evidence was taken. But a lot of wild things happened. For starters, the two democrats in the FCC, Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein, proved to be two extraordinary public servants. Most people who serve on the FCC go on to work for industry once they leave and make huge incomes, working for the industries they were once theoretically regulating. Copps and Adelstein said, "It's outrageous that we at the Federal Communications Commission might change these crucial media ownership roles that would've conceivably allowed one company to own and dominate almost all the media in a single community. We cannot do this without getting input from people in this country because they're going to have to live with these changes." They held 12 public hearings around the country and thousands of people came out and gave testimony. They talked about what they wanted from their media - even though there was no press coverage.

It was a revolutionary development. One which had never taken place in American history before. It was absolutely astonishing. And what [Cops and Edelstein] heard everywhere they went, from everyone across the political spectrum is that people did not like the idea of concentrated media ownership. People wanted more diverse media and less media concentration, not more. It emboldened them to lead this fight at the FCC. And it also emboldened millions of Americans to get involved from across the political spectrum - from the NRA to MoveOn.org, to make this a number one organizing issue for during 2003. Nearly three million people contacted either Congress or the FCC to register their opposition to relaxing the media ownership roles. Now we're getting close to the point where media policy is going to become a standard issue in our politics, much like environmental policy was made a standard issue by the environmental movement in the early seventies. The more we get the policy-making process off of that Havana patio and out of the hands of [corporations] and into the hands of the people of this country, only good things can happen. Because then we're going to get policies that will even more likely reflect the public interest.

BKM: How can people become more involved in playing an active role in shaping media policy?

RM: Well, I think the best answer is to go to the group that I helped start with John Nichols, the journalist who writes for the Nation, called Free Press. We started this group Free Press to basically try to draw together all the disparate elements working on media reform and bring them together.

When we started Free Press in December of 2002 we had one staffer, Josh Silver, and he was a volunteer. We always thought it would be a five- or ten-year period to ramp up this to lead the popularized media debates and change our media system. But thanks to the media ownership fight to serve as a catalyst, today we have 12 full-time organizers working on this issue. We're booming. And all our people are working 24/7. It's a movement. It's really extraordinary what's going on. We're fighting a whole range of issues including media ownership. We're organizing around the country. I urge people to go to the Web site - www.freepress.net. We have readily accessible background information on all the issues - local, national, and global, information on all the groups working on media issues in your state and community, how to contact them. We'd love to have people join our e-activist list and get involved with our group.

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