Robert McChesney

Rich Media, Poor Democracy, Part II

VTR Date: November 3, 1999

Guest: McChesney, Robert


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Robert W. McChesney
Title: Rich Media, Poor Democracy, Part II
VTR: 11/3/99

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And this is the second of two programs with radical media scholar Robert W. McChesney, Research Associate Professor at the University of Illinois.

Our focus, of course, is on my guest’s new book titled, Rich Media, Poor Democracy, an intellectual equation I would like to elaborate upon still further today, perhaps by first parsing my guest’s sub-title: “Communication Politics in Dubious Times”. That’s the question I want to ask you, what do you mean by that?

McCHESNEY: Well, “communication politics” refers to sort of debates over how media are owned and operated and subsidized and run. And I think the really interesting part is the last part, “dubious times”. What do I mean by ‘dubious times”? And originally I was going to sub-title it like “turbulent times”, but that’s bogus, that’s a throwaway title, doesn’t mean anything. Dubious is really meant to capture the fact that we really live in an increasingly de-politicized climate. I mean I think it’s been a pattern, a long time pattern in American history, but it’s accelerated recently. And it’s a system in which people increasingly are divorced from political decisions and decision making. We’re a democracy without citizens. I mean the decision making is just stripped away from the general population. And the media’s a crucial part of that. Which, of course, is an argument in the book. It sustains that. It’s not the only cause, but it sustains that. But the “dubious times” are also that we have a number of myths and half-truths that protect entrenched power from democratic scrutiny, including the media and the corporate media. And the idea that they give the people what they want, what we talked about in the first show, unambiguously, so they aren’t to be blamed … the idea that the First Amendment was passed to protect the property, investments and investors in these nine or ten companies from any sort of public scrutiny or obligation. The idea that these new technologies … like the Internet … will set us free so we don’t need to worry about corporate media or commercialism. You know these lies or half-truths or myths combined sort of make it very difficult for us to see through the … what’s going on to really act as citizens on the important matters before us.

HEFFNER: But you say “depoliticalization” …

McCHESNEY: Yeah. Depolitization …

HEFFNER: “Politization”, thank you … what do you mean by that?
McCHESNEY: The people …

HEFFNER: You don’t vote?

McCHESNEY: Well, that’s a manifestation of it. By no means the only one. I mean we could look at our voter turn-out and it is extremely low, by most any other country’s standards. I think in the 1998 Congressional races the percentage of the eligible adults in the United States who voted was 35% or 36%. I might be off, but not by more than a point or two. And that’s well below what it was 20 years ago or thirty years ago. And even four years ago. I mean it’s really sort of a stunning descent in that vote. Even four years ago, during the so-called Republican Revolution of ‘94, I think it was 38% or 39%, and that’s a pretty huge drop for a four year period. So that’s one measure of it. But that’s not the only one. I think that a lot of sociologists who look at political culture, have actually just gone out and talked to people, or measure this … I mean, basically it’s most Americans don’t really care about politics. I mean in a traditional sense. It’s talked a lot. There’s not a high degree of knowledge. And I don’t mean that in the sense that they don’t … wouldn’t care … or don’t care in certain ways. But in sort of traditional manifestations … if you go out and ask someone what a Bill in Congress or something … the interest is fairly low. And I think it’s rational. I think … I mean I think it’s an extremely rational response to how power operates in the society. Most of the important decisions in our society are made either by the corporate sector with no public involvement wanted or solicited, or they’re made behind closed doors in Washington, the province of special interest. And in that context it would be irrational if you weren’t one of those players, either corporate or special interests, to get too interested in politics … because it would be frustrating to know what’s going on and not be able to do anything about it.

HEFFNER: But then you know, that’s why I asked you the question as to how realistic are you when you put before us a picture of a … an aroused democratic society striking down, if they have the opportunity to … as kind of a “I’m all right, Jack, the devil take the hindmost” society that keeps them out. You describe people who are less and less involved, who go to the polls, but don’t. What makes you think that they’re going to embrace what I’ll call the radical ideas you set forth?

McCHESNEY: Obviously, I’m in no position to say they will, but I’d like to have an opportunity to have that debate take place, and I’ll take my chances. Right now there’s not much of a debate going on over anything. I mean people that don’t vote … look at the range of debate in the Presidential race coming up in 2000. When you have the Left Wing as held up by Bill Bradley, who last week, The New York Times ran a front page story saying he receives massive amounts of corporate money and he’s the Left Winger in the race. You know the range is from A to B. Instead of A to C. So it’s understandable why people wouldn’t vote. What I want to do is expand the range of debate from A to Z and then let’s see what happens. Let’s put everything on the table. Let’s sort of break the straight jacket of a political culture which basically is hostile to genuine politics. And make political life resonate again with some meaning. And that’s part of the function … this is a process. It’s not like you push a button and everything gets better. It may never get to the end I’d like or that you would like, it’s a 50 … 100,000 year process, who knows. But we can get better. And things work if you open up the media system a little bit … ideas get out, then other things can change and they go back and forth. Then you have a broader culture for ideas. Then it might be in the commercial interests of current companies to do stuff they wouldn’t do now because there’s more of a market for it.

HEFFNER: Well, you say that one of the myths that stands in the way of the possibility of that choice is the myth of the First Amendment.

McCHESNEY: MmmmHmmm.

HEFFNER: Elaborate upon that.

McCHESNEY: Well, this is a chapter in the book and it’s one I’m especially proud of because the First Amendment is held up currently in the United States as sort of trade legislation to protect investments in huge companies that have interests in media and advertising, so the government can’t interfere with them. And I think that’s a recent development. It really … it’s in the last fifty years that this sort of process has developed. And really in the last twenty or thirty years. And what it reflects basically is the complete dominance of our society by corporations and commercial values, and the elimination of non-commercial values, so that it’s sort of naturally assumed this very pro-commercial stance. And what happened, ironically, is you’ve had the expansion of the First Amendment … meaning the expansion of the First Amendment to cover advertising. Which was … the first time it came before the Supreme Court in 1942 was shot down nine to nothing. The Justices said, “this has nothing to do with the First Amendment, protecting advertising”. But now under a series of recent decisions, it’s increasingly gotten more and more protection. And when you expand the First Amendment to advertising, what you’re really doing is you’re shrinking the range of political debate because you’re taking advertising off limits. You’re saying the public can no longer regulate it, it’s protected by the First Amendment. So the corporate expansion of the First Amendment is really the legal shrinking of the range of legitimate political debate. When you expand the First Amendment so that commercial broadcasters do whatever they want on the air, basically they’ve privatized the airways. They get them. You’re shrinking the range of what the public can do to address broadcasting. I mean that’s why the states are very high on this issue. What’s happening to the First Amendment is getting so much attention from the corporate community and why it’s crucial that we resist the sort of knee-jerk sort of Phillip Morris interpretation, that the First Amendment’s sole function is to protect private investors doing what they want with these companies, regardless of the consequences.

HEFFNER: Yes, but the Aesopian language … nobody’s saying it’s its sole purpose. I think …

McCHESNEY: No, well, actually, I’d quite disagree. If you look at the language of Floyd Abrams. The language of the ACLU on these issues. Nat Hentoff, who I quote in the book … I mean it is …


McCHESNEY: … they use extremely colorful language … Nat Hentoff says, and I quote him in the Introduction to the book, from an article written in January of 1999, that those who want to regulate advertising in commercial broadcastings … people like myself … are brothers and sisters under the skin with book-burners and Klansman.

HEFFNER: Yes, but what you’re saying, and I don’t know why you have to go further than what it is you’re saying now. Yes, Nat says that and it’s true that the ACLU has accepted the notion that we’re not protecting ideas, we’re protecting dollars, because the things are equated …

McCHESNEY: In the society of new ideas, all that’s left is dollars.

HEFFNER: Okay. But that isn’t all that they’re saying, that isn’t the only purpose of the First Amendment. The trouble is they’ve poisoned the interpretation of the First Amendment, the proper … as a historian, I think I know …


HEFFNER: … that the Founders, as you know, would be turning over in their graves with this, with this notion. How have we come to accept this?

McCHESNEY: Well, fortunately, at the legal level, it hasn’t been accepted yet. I mean it’s not a fait accompli at the Supreme Court level, there are a lot of cases that will be working their way through the courts. Advertising still is not fully protected by the First Amendment. Food labeling still is not fully protected by the First Amendment, I mean you can put whatever you want on a label, and you can even lie and basically get away with it. Commercial broadcasting still the public has rights, we do own the airways, those haven’t been taken away from us yet, but there are cases coming through. They’re pushing the boundaries ever more in that direction.

HEFFNER: What’s your bet about those cases?

McCHESNEY: How will they turn out?


McCHESNEY: I really don’t know. A lot will depend who’s in the court, that’s how these things work. But two things … the individuals in the court and also the political climate of the times has a lot to do with how these cases ultimately get turned out. I mean we live in times that have been decisively pro-corporate, pro-commercial in the politics of this country for, for a couple decades. That’s been the turn. And the court has internalized those values increasingly. So the alternative in non-commercial worlds seems increasingly foreign, increasingly quaint, sort of an envisioning the First Amendment as having some … that wouldn’t be commercially enveloped is much harder and harder as every decade goes by. I think the solution though, as I argue in the chapter, is … what we need to just make a real commitment to increasing non-commercial voices, like we talked about in the last program, aggressively trying to change the logic in the media system, that would go a long way toward addressing these problems. And use what First Amendment rights we currently do have, which fortunately, still are around.

HEFFNER: You said before that one of the major issues here has been the secrecy that has enveloped the distribution of the spoils in the media …

McCHESNEY: Absolutely.

HEFFNER: … essentially. How to prevent that?

McCHESNEY: Well, that’s tough. In 1996, for example, the US Congress passed and President Clinton signed what’s called the Telecommunications Act. Which was a law … the law it replaced had been in place for 62 years and it also replaced the consent decree that broke up AT&T in the early 1980s, so it was a decisive piece of legislation. One of the handful of the most important pieces of legislation probably of this generation. It in all likelihood will be the last formal statement, Congress on our behalf, has made on what it regards as the public and the important values for radio, television, the Internet, telephones, the entire digital and electronic communications for generations. So it was a crucial piece of legislation. In that piece of legislation it was a law that after five years of intensive lobbying, the law was basically a war between these mass of lobbyists … the phone companies, the broadcasters, the cable companies … it was the Hall of Fame of superstar lobbyists … paying a fortune … wrangling to see who could get the biggest cut of the pie. The one thing that wasn’t debated, though, was who should own the pie. They knew they should own it, the debate was who got the biggest slice. And accordingly, there was almost no press coverage of this whatsoever. If you were to read a newspaper, watch evening news, read Time or Newsweek …

HEFFNER: Wait … let me stop you.


HEFFNER: You say “accordingly”.


HEFFNER: You mean that? You mean that there was a kind of internal media censorship …

McCHESNEY: Yeah. It didn’t take any explicit censorship. But these are precisely the sorts of issues … there was agreement in the corporate community, and there was no vocal alternative voice saying otherwise … then it would just be taken for granted … it will not be questioned by journalists. Journalists wouldn’t go to their editors, “I want to write a story on why all these corporations think they should run the media sector”. The editor said, “why are you injecting your opinion there? You can only do that ????? who should have a better deal … the phone companies or the long distance companies?”. Then that’s a legitimate story. So … just … when they’re in unison, on point, it’s very difficult for any journalist to try to make that issue not seem like their weighing their own politics in on it. And that’s where the bias is … the conservative bias is … the professional journalism … that powerful sources have taken advantage of since the birth of the public relations industry … in the beginning of this century. But what happened is there was no press coverage of this. If you were a normal citizen who might be interested, you would have had no way of knowing about it. It was covered one place extensively though. Very extensively. In the business press and the trade press, where it’s covered as an issue of importance to investors. That’s what it was all about. Investors, managers, who could make the most money. The fact that this is going to be handed over to the corporate sector without any strings attached, was a given to all of them … just who’s going to get the best cut? Now the importance of this simply is that … this was a massive gift. I mean there are two areas worth talking about because they affect us directly. Included in that Bill, snuck into it was a clause with no Congressional debate, no legislative hearings at the Committee level requiring the FCC, the Federal Communications Commission, to give new spectrum to all the existing broadcasters who do digital TV. Basically saying, “you guys have done such a great job for the last sixty years with commercial TV, without any Hearings, any debate, any discussion, we giving you spectrum so you can run the next sixty years, and you have inside track on the Internet as it develops the new commercial media.

HEFFNER: But, you know, you say …

McCHESNEY: That’s criminal.

HEFFNER: You say this …

McCHESNEY: That’s criminal

HEFFNER: … as though there had been no opposition. You … in your book you point out that Bob Dole had initially …


HEFFNER: … said “We’re not going to give them that”.
McCHESNEY: Well, that’s right. What happened was that just got snuck through … in 1986, Bob Dole, then the Senate Minority Leader, was outraged with this. And there’s a lot of different interpretations why Bob Dole got upset about this … we don’t have to go into those. But he backed down. Basically Newt Gingrich and some corporate leaders pulled him aside and said, “We gotta get this Bill through, Bob”. And he said, “Okay, I’ll let it go through”. He backed down and then he got one deal … he said, “before you give away these digital licenses in the Fall, I want the Senate to have full hearings, the public to have full hearings on this issue, so we can actually weigh in on what we want the obligations to be, if we’re going to give his hundred billion dollar gift.

HEFFNER: Didn’t happen.

McCHESNEY: Well, what happened was he resigned to run full time for President. He replacement, Trent Lott, coincidentally, former college classmate of the President of the NAB, which is National Association of Broadcasters, and I think he first act as Senate Majority Leader … wrote a letter to the FCC, said “we don’t want those hearings. We don’t want those hearings. Give those digital licenses right away to the commercial broadcasters … we want them to get it without any hearings”. And in that letter he signed away 100 billion dollars of public property and signed away the public right to have any control in setting the terms of that gift. It was an act of corruption that’s almost unparalleled in our history.

HEFFNER: You know, I realize in talking together now … the first program, this one … having read the book … we talked about the fact that we’re both friends of Herb Schiller. I remember when Herb was on this program and talking about America’s new imperialism, it’s communications imperialism, that you both in terms of a purposeful mess that the media … what about the reporters who should have been doing something, and the editors who should have been printing this, and that they didn’t because they weren’t allowed to in a very real sense. Don’t you think they didn’t because they didn’t understand it. Because this is too complicated an issue. And that they never explained it because they didn’t understand it themselves?

McCHESNEY: Well, I think perhaps it was presented in a very technical language. Even at the time, if you were following it in the trade press, you could seen any self-respecting political reporter would see the politics on this one. And Bob Dole snipped it out and then he had a lot of other things on his mind besides digital TV. I mean, including what we later learned with Viagra … son he had a lot of things to worry about, right. And he managed to figure this one out pretty quickly … that it was a gift of $100 billion dollars of public property. If he could figure it out, I think any self-respecting political reporter could sniff that one out. In fact, William Safire wrote columns about. Ironically, people in the political Right picked up on this, John McCain at that time, before he wanted to run for President and now is sort of swallowing up money from corporate media PACS because that’s what you have to do if you want to be President in this country. But … no … so I think … I think that’s a cop out for any journalist to say that. The story was … it was right there.

HEFFNER: You know, given what you say … again, I don’t want to but I find this … I have this feeling there’s a contradiction there that on the one hand you’re saying, “We, the people … we can prevail over this conspiracy”. On the other hand you’re describing a picture that makes it very unlikely that “we, the people” will prevail.

McCHESNEY: Well, you know, I’m optimistic for a couple of reasons. First of all when you see the extent that the companies in this case or some of the other clauses in the telecommunications … like the one that really allowed radio to be totally converted in the last three years to the province of two or three companies … completely outrageous implications for the quality of listeners in this country. And when you see how much trouble these companies go to to keep this stuff quiet, to make sure … not even get legislative hearings … not to mention press coverage … I mean how assiduously they work to make these things behind closed doors. There’s a reason for that because when people hear about this they have the same response the Bob Dole had. And when I’m out and I get away from college campuses and I get outside the Beltway and I get outside of Manhattan, where I live … you have the Kiwanis Clubs, church groups, labor unions … you talk about just what we talked about … people don’t go “oh, well, you can’t change anything”. Some do. Most of them say, “that’s outrageous”. I look at the polling data that’s been done recently … shows that, too, when people hear these issues they have a chance to sink their teeth into them … they say “this is outrageous” and rather than throw their hands up and say, ‘there’s nothing we can do about it”, they say, “we’ve got to do something about it … this is far too important just to pretend it doesn’t exist”.

HEFFNER: Let’s go back for a moment to this question of the First Amendment. You think that this is a myth that you … entitle your chapter “The New Theology of the First Amendment, Class Privilege Over Democracy”. Theologies are very hard to break down and I wonder what gives you the sense …

McCHESNEY: Well, I don’t know if I’ll break it down, but I think you have to call it what it is, which is … it’s a belief, not based on empirical evidence. In fact, you know, the defense of the First Amendment … for example, in one of the defenses … the related issue I talk about there because it’s closely related … is the ability to give as much money as you want to political campaigns …


McCHESNEY: … without any restrictions because they’re closely related. Media reform and campaign finance. Since the opponents of campaign finance reform are the media companies because they make all the money off of it … broadcasters. But, you know, it’s … empirically it’s impossible to argue with the notion that having a system where anyone can give as much money as they want to candidates is anti-democratic. I mean … listen to this, 80% of the individual campaign contributions in the United States … 80% come from the wealthiest one-quarter of 1% of Americans. I mean consider the implications of that statement. All you need to know about how anti-democratic our electoral system is and why people don’t vote and how lame it is and why the range of debate is from GE to GM … all you need to know is told by that one statement. But … so you can’t defend empirically that unlimited campaign contributions is good for democracy. But so it’s defended theologically … it’s defended as a matter of principle, not as a matter empirical truth. And that’s what it is … it’s a theology. It’s just like … well, any effort to inhibit the wealthiest person from buying an election, will inhibit the ability of a poor person to buy an election. And so, since everyone should have the right to buy an election, they … we just have to basically let that go.

HEFFNER: Isn’t it wonderful that you and I can contribute as much money as possible to a candidate, and so can …

McCHESNEY: … the rich electoral delegates and Steve Forbes … yeah … it’s just an absurdity. But it requires theology at that point, it’s a leap of faith.

HEFFNER: In your … in your book … and you mention it before … you mention the phrase … the hated phrase “public relations”, in your book you refer to Edward L. Bernaise and his first efforts. You feel very strongly about the negative role that P.R. has played in our lives.

McCHESNEY: It plays a very mandatory role in our society. I mean it emerges at a crucial time in our history. I mean … not distinguished entirely from advertising … but the beginning of the twentieth century, this industry comes about. There are two key phenomena that take place at that time. First of all, it’s the rise of professional journalism. Professional journalism was something that came about basically by big newspaper publishers had a problem. By the early part of the century there were mostly one and two newspaper towns where previously … two or three generations … two generations earlier there had been competitive markets, with ten, 15, 20 newspapers. And they were highly partisan newspapers, even though they were commercial … well, throughout the nineteenth century. By the early twentieth century if you only have one newspaper in town, if it’s highly partisan, it’s a whole different thing than if you’ve got ten to pick from with different viewpoints. And it was really bad for business. Advertisers didn’t like it because you were turning off a lot of the audience if you had strong politics, and also it doesn’t make the products very credible if the readers think, “well, the stories are slanted”. So professional journalism … the idea of neutral journalism came along … as an effort to sort of sanitize the news product for these investors and basically to say, “here’s a neutral product that’s run by editors and reports, not by owners and advertisers … you can trust it”. You can also trust the ads we run. And P.R. came along because one of the core tenets of professional journalism is the use of official sources to justify covering a story. If an official source says it, it’s a story. And also it’s a way official sources then subsidize the news process by providing all this material for journalists. And it makes the job a lot easier and a lot less controversial, which is what publishers want to avoid the controversy … of defending slanted stories. Well, the P.R. industry comes along and says, “hey, there’s something we can work with… we’ll provide all these official sources, we’ll provide sophisticated material to influence the news, taking advantage of these new practices”. So that’s one of the key things it does. And then in a more broad sense what P.R. does … there’s an Australian theorist of public relations, Alex Kerry, I don’t know if you’re familiar with him …

HEFFNER: No, but I read his quotes.

McCHESNEY: Yeah, I mean Kerry had an argument which is the three great developments of the twentieth century are the rise of universal adult suffrage, which granted in the U.S. didn’t really finally take place until the last sixties … all together. But in the Northern states by the second or third decade of the century was largely the case. The rise of corporations to dominate our political economy and that was the great merger movement at the turn of the century a hundred years ago, pretty much set that in place. And third, the rise of public relations to protect corporate power from the universal suffrage, to take the risk out of democracy, to constantly inculcate the realm of ideas of propaganda favorable to business and hostile to challenges to business like labor unions or government regulation.

HEFFNER: To take the risk out of democracy … and you feel we can put that risk back.

McCHESNEY: We have to or otherwise it’s not democracy. I mean that’s the whole struggle we have to engage in. And there still is a lot of freedom in this country, we still have … I mean … otherwise we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

HEFFNER: Yes, but, but why do you combine those things … democracy … freedom. Those things historically have not necessarily gone together.


HEFFNER: … in fact, freedom has been frequently threatened by democracy.

McCHESNEY: In what sense?

HEFFNER: By the rule of the people.

McCHESNEY: Like when?

HEFFNER: Like when?


HEFFNER: In terms of … shall we go back to the French Revolution, as the best possible example? Or the Russian Revolution?

McCHESNEY: Oh, sure … well, but was that a democracy? I mean did you have formal elections? I mean, did you have … you know, rule of law. That, that might be getting us off track. But I mean … okay … there …

HEFFNER: We’re not talking about the rule of law … you’re talking about the will of the people.

McCHESNEY: Yeah. Okay … there are two different things. There’s liberal rights and then there’s democracy … the will of the many. And they aren’t identical. They’re closely related … I’d argue and I think it’s … you can’t have the two. You can have one without the other. It’s hard to mention having liberal rights, without having a democracy … ultimately … If the liberal rights are going to mean something for the entirety of the population. Unless you’re looking at liberal rights and freedom strictly in commercial terms. Which is how they’ve been defined today, and they’ve been sort of transposed from meaning rights of human development to expand your mind, your intellect and your soul without expanding your bank account.

HEFFNER: Liberal isn’t a very good … very much of a good word in your book, is it?

McCHESNEY: Ah, well not in the sense as it’s used today. It’s this new version that’s called neo-liberalism which has no interest in the soul or the human development. But its strictly sort of protecting the powers of those who want to make money from any sort of control … powers of the wealthy few to do whatever they please.

HEFFNER: You know, as a Liberal I don’t accept that, that definition, but then that gives me the last word because our time is up. But Rich Media, Poor Democracy I think is a quite extraordinary book. Robert McChesney thank you for coming again today to discuss it.

McCHESNEY: My pleasure.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send four dollars in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, New York 10150

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.