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The Problem of the Media: An Interview with Robert McChesney

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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.

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