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The Problem of the Media: An Interview with Robert McChesney

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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.

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