The Problem of the Media: An Interview with Robert McChesney | General News & Politics | Hudson Valley | Hudson Valley; Chronogram

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The Problem of the Media: An Interview with Robert McChesney

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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.

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