The Death and Life of American Journalism

The Media Revolution That Will Begin the World Again


By Robert W McChesney

By John Nichols

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Daily newspapers are closing across America. Washington bureaus are shuttering; whole areas of the federal government are now operating with no press coverage. International bureaus are going, going, gone.

Journalism, the counterbalance to corporate and political power, the lifeblood of American democracy, is not just threatened. It is in meltdown.

In The Death and Life of American Journalism, Robert W. McChesney, an academic, and John Nichols, a journalist, who together founded the nation’s leading media reform network, Free Press, investigate the crisis. They propose a bold strategy for saving journalism and saving democracy, one that looks back to how the Founding Fathers ensured free press protection with the First Amendment and provided subsidies to the burgeoning print press of the young nation.


It’s the Media, Stupid (2000)
Our Media, Not Theirs (2002)
Tragedy & Farce: How the American Media Sell Wars,
Spin Elections, and Destroy Democracy (2005)

For Bill Moyers and David Austin

Barack Obama put this book in context in September 2009 when, in response to a question about the decline of American newspapers and the tenuous state of journalism, the President of the United States said: “I am concerned that if the direction of the news is all blogosphere, all opinions, with no serious fact-checking, no serious attempts to put stories in context, that what you will end up getting is people shouting at each other across the void but not a lot of mutual understanding.”1
The president is no alarmist. Nor are the many members of Congress, commentators and citizens, from across the political and ideological spectrum, who have of late engaged in hand wringing and wailing about the collapse of newspapers and the decline of journalism. The crisis is real and, as the fresh research and analysis in this book confirms, it is of the highest magnitude. How Americans respond to it is no academic matter. The outcome of every debate of consequence, from those involving education, health care, social justice, climate change and the economy to questions of war and peace will be determined by how the challenge of rejuvenating the news is resolved.
Obama’s recognition that a crisis for journalism is also a crisis for democracy distinguishes him from recent presidents and their supporters, who have tended to complain about what they regarded as the unfair nature of press coverage. But the current president’s recognition of the connection between vibrant journalism and vibrant democracy is not unprecedented. The founding presidents, Washington, Jefferson and Madison in particular, understood the linkage as essential, and they endeavored to assure that the new American republic would have the most diverse, contentious and easily accessed media the world had known.
While Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and the George Bushes pursued more favorable coverage, they assumed, as generations of Americans had assumed before them, that there would be journalism. Now, for the first time in modern American history, it is entirely plausible that we will not have even minimally sufficient resources dedicated to reporting and editing the news and distributing the information and informed analysis that citizens require. Journalistic attention to all levels of governance has declined to a fraction of what was understood as necessary just a generation ago. And, unless there are interventions to alter clear patterns of decay, matters will only get worse. Already much of governmental activity is conducted in the dark. Investigative journalism is on the endangered species list.
A world without journalism is not a world without political information. Instead it is a world where what passes for news is largely spin and self-interested propaganda—some astonishingly sophisticated and some bellicose, but the lion’s share of dubious value. It is an environment that spawns cynicism, ignorance, demoralization, and apathy. The only “winners” are those that benefit from a quiescent and malleable people who will “be governed,” rather than govern themselves.
The troubling evidence of a debauched and deteriorating journalism is all around us at present. This is about a lot more than misspelled words, misnamed sources or missed school board meetings. To some extent we see the consequences of what happens when journalism deteriorates and disappears in taken-for-granted corruption, endless foreign wars, crumbling infrastructure and social services, and vast increases in inequality. These pathologies are metastasizing, rapidly, and the end result of this evolution could well be disastrous.
That’s a frightening prospect and, any way you slice it, these are frightening times. We are entering uncharted waters, as not just our media system but the underpinnings of our republic experience restructurings so fundamental and so sweeping that we can say with certainty that the future will bear little resemblance to the past. We can also say that what will be will not necessarily be better. It depends upon what we as citizens do, and in this time of crisis it is imperative that our options extend far beyond the limits of old media and outdated thinking.
This book reflects our concern about changes that are occurring. But we offer little in the way of nostalgia. In fact, it is the opposite. It is a cry for action to shape inevitable change in a manner that assures that America will have the journalistic institutions, practices and resources necessary to maintain what can credibly be described as a self-governing society. We do not know the precise character or content of the news media that will develop; but we do know that without bona fide structures for gathering and disseminating news and analysis, the American experiment in democracy and republican governance will be imperiled.
That peril was understood by the founders. They wrote a constitution that, as the Supreme Court has repeatedly confirmed, is predicated upon the assumption of an informed and participating citizenry. If no news media exist to make that a realistic outcome, the foundations of the republic will decay and ultimately crumble.
We are not the first to write about this crisis; we honor and embrace the lessons learned from those who have come before us. But this book is different from most if not all books about the collapse of journalism. What we offer here is a deeper and more historical analysis of the crisis, one that goes beyond blaming the Internet and the Great Recession for the collapse of traditional news media business models. New technologies and a scorching economic crisis clearly shape our moment, but this is a crisis decades, not years, in the making. The issues that are now so much in play have roots in a deep-seated and longstanding tension between commercialism and the public good that is journalism.
The approach we have taken with this book allows us to respect what is being lost—whole newsrooms, competing voices, institutional memory, news outlets that take seriously their responsibility to cover the powerful and that have the authority to do so—without getting overly romantic about Woodward, Bernstein and tattered copies of the Washington Post, circa 1973.
We have no great faith in the past. Nor do we share the faith of those who hope that new technologies, billionaire philanthropists or untried and often impractical new business models will solve the problem and magically generate the quality and quantity of news a self-governing society requires. We review these options closely, and wish them well, but find slim evidence supporting hope for a panacea.
Americans who want journalism and democracy have to get beyond nostalgia for what was and utopian fantasies about what might be. This book makes common cause with those who are ready to toss off rose-colored glasses and start looking at the past and the future of journalism in a more fundamental and critical manner. That examination leads quickly to the recognition that the existing policy toolkit—which pretty much begins and ends with calculations of ways to make the news profitable—is all but worthless. Journalism must be understood as a public good. It is something of value to society that the market might once have produced, with strengths and limitations. But the circumstances that made possible that production no longer exist and the market is ceasing to nurture or sustain substantial journalism. That does not mean that the United States can no longer have journalism, or even significant amounts of commercial journalism. But if Americans want sufficient journalism to make our constitutional system work, it means we need a massive public intervention to produce a public good.
We know that this argument contradicts the widely accepted contemporary understanding of the First Amendment and the American free press tradition. In the dominant view, there is no role for the government in the news media except to stay out of the way. The less government, the better, and no government involvement at all is supposedly what the Founders intended. This understanding of the First Amendment was elevated during the period when this country’s free press tradition evolved to accommodate the corporate commercial news media system that dominated communications for much of the 20th century, the very system that is now dying. We need to send this dogmatic understanding of a free press to the same grave-yard that will receive the corporate news media system.
Let’s be clear about this: the bedrock principle that government must not censor or interfere with the content or journalistic operations of news media is non-negotiable. Though the commercial system has placed a high value on this principle, it is neither a corporate nor a commercial construct. Rather, it is a core value of journalists and small “d” democrats.
It is not, however, the only core value. Opposition to government censorship of journalism is one significant component of the American free press tradition, but it is not the entirety of that great tradition. While the First Amendment prohibits state censorship, it does not in any sense prohibit—or even discourage—the public from using their government to subsidize and spawn independent media. The Supreme Court has confirmed this reading of the constitution again and again. And for good reason. This is in both history and in theory the other foundational component of the American free press tradition.
During the commercial era this central aspect of our free press tradition was easily forgotten, because commercial interests found it to their advantage to provide the resources to subsidize news media. Now the commercial era is collapsing, creating a crisis where no one seems to know what Americans should do to renew and sustain journalism. This book cuts through the confusion and suggests that the solution can be found by returning to our democratic roots.
We demonstrate in this book that the entire press system of the United States was built on a foundation of massive federal postal and printing subsidies that were provided to newspapers during the many decades that forged the American experiment. The first generations of Americans understood that it was entirely unrealistic to expect the profit-motive to provide for anywhere near the level of journalism necessary for an informed citizenry, and by extension self-government, to survive. The very idea was unthinkable. The subsidies that these adherents of the enlightenment developed were themselves enlightened; their purpose was not to enrich publishers but to broaden the marketplace of ideas and to provide a journalistic check and balance on those who might threaten fragile freedoms. It is not too much to say that without these huge subsidies to journalists our nation would not have evolved as it did; indeed, it might not have evolved at all. So it is that tradition, the tradition of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, that we to turn to as we address a 21st-century crisis.
Ours is not a nostalgic exercise, however. This book proposes specific new methods for using public subsidies to generate a high-quality, uncensored, competitive and independent news media. These methods are founded on an understanding of and respect for the new technologies that make possible a journalism that is more adventurous, more exciting, more participatory and more valuable to society and democracy than any American has ever known. We recognize that the point of enlightened policies is to establish subsidies that support news media independent of government control or influence. This is a difficult task that often times gets policymakers into a gray area of indirect effects; but the complexity of the task should not, indeed cannot, be equated with impossibility. The current practice of other democracies and our own history provide successful examples of enlightened subsidies. Our public universities, where one of us draws a paycheck, demonstrated long ago that public money could subsidize institutions while protecting academic freedom from politicians’ interference. (Thank goodness that is the case, or much of the research contained in this book would have been thwarted.)
We do not advance specific ideas with the purpose of providing the final word on the matter of renewing American journalism, but rather to begin to make tangible the imagining of what a truly democratic news media system could look like in the 21st century. We seek to kindle and encourage bold thinking and we understand that the ideas of others may deliver us not just from the current crisis but to a finer journalism and a finer democracy. We are not rigid in our thinking, except on the fundamental point that it is necessary to rip off the shackles that have made it so difficult to think of American journalism as anything but the private preserve of Wall Street and Madison Avenue.
We are optimists by nature. But our optimism is not of the pie-in-the-sky variety, honed exclusively in a seminar room or on a barstool. It is based on the hard political work we have done over the past decade working on media policy issues in Washington and across the nation, particularly in conjunction with Free Press, the media reform group we cofounded with Josh Silver in 2002. We have worked with politicians from both major parties and all political philosophies on successful campaigns to stop media consolidation and government secrecy and to promote an open uncensored Internet and viable independent public media. We have learned, as Saul Alinsky put it, that organized people can defeat organized money, and that Americans from all walks of life, when given an opportunity, care deeply about this issue. They get it.
We are convinced that the approach we outline in this book will gain support as the conventional wisdom continues to disintegrate under the searing light of reality. As 2009 drew to a close, for example, the Knight Foundation as well as the Columbia School of Journalism—in a paper it commissioned Leonard Downie Jr. and Michael Schudson to prepare—released extensive and thoughtful research reports on the crisis of journalism. These valuable studies acknowledged the severity of the crisis and the limitations of the conventional response.2 They both offered up reforms that complement the direction we advocate herein, in a manner that might have raised the eyebrows of their august institutions only a few years ago.
As encouraging as these reports are, it will take more than our leading universities and prestigious foundations to win the battle for journalism. Genuine reform will only occur if Americans understand that they can demand, and indeed create, a journalism and democracy worthy of this country’s promise. We hope this book will serve as their manifesto.
For more than a decade, we have been researching and writing together. This book draws from that work. But it really began with a cover story we wrote for The Nation magazine early in 2009. The reaction to that article was so overwhelming that we determined to write a book that would expand on the information and ideas contained in the article. Unfortunately, time was not on our side. The crisis was evolving far more rapidly than were ideas for responding to it. So we established a timeline for completing this book that was unreasonable in its brevity and overwhelming in the demands that we had to place our on colleagues, compatriots, friends and families. To write an adequate book in such a time span we required the assistance and feedback of scholars, journalists, elected officials and activists from across the United States and around the world.
The following people gave us research assistance, provoked insights on key points, and in some cases actually read and commented upon chapters of the book. Their contributions to this book are beyond measure, as is our regard for them. Many of these people rank among our closest friends and all of them are true comrades. It is a doozy of a line-up. This book could not possibly exist without their contributions although we alone are responsible for the arguments we make and any flaws in the final product.
Here goes: Craig Aaron, Pat Aufderheide, Marvin Ammori, Ben Bagdikian, C. Edwin Baker, Dean Baker, Randy Baker, Gerald Baldasty, Patrick Barrett, James Baughman, W. Lance Bennett, Sue Blankman, Frank Blethen, Ryan Blethen, John Robinson Block, Jay Blumler, Mary Bottari, Sister Miriam Brown, Roane Carey, Tim Carpenter, Jessica Clark, Steve Cobble, Bob Cohen, Jeff Cohen, Ana Cohen-Bickford, Jim Conaghan, Congressman John Conyers, Mark Cooper, FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, Matt Crain, James Curran, Sean Michael Dargan, Phil Donahue, Laura Dresser, Diane Farsetta, Laura Flanders, Linda Foley, John Bellamy “Duke” Foster, Laura Frank, Bob Garfield, Ed Garvey, Amy Goodman, Linda Gordon, Glenn Greenwald, Peter Hart, Chris Hedges, Edward S. Herman, Hannah Holleman, James Holm, Brent Hueth, Arianna Huffington, Shanto Iyengar, Richard John, Mark Jurkowitz, Rick Karr, Richard Kielbowicz, Richard Kim, Naomi Klein, Deepa Kumar, Barbara Lawton, Chuck Lewis, Mark Lloyd, Gary Lucas, Bernie Lunzer, Loren Lynch, Adam Lynn, Ben Manski, Josh Marshall, Christopher Martin, Robert W.T. Martin, Mark Crispin Miller, Ralph Nader, Victor Navasky, John Nerone, Eric Newton, David Nord, Geneva Overholser, Jeffrey Pasley, Sandy Pearlman, Michael Perelman, Victor Pickard, John Randolph, Michael Ravnitzky, Mark Ritchie, Niel Ritchie, Joel Rogers, Matt Rothschild, Senator Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Scahill, Jan Schaffer, Michael Schudson, Ben Scott, Josh Silver, Caroline Sinclair, John “Sly” Slyvester, Patti Smith, J. H. Snider, Matt Sobek, Norman Solomon, Audrey Sprenger, Paul Starr, John Stauber, Vince Stehle, Inger Stole, David Swan-son, Rod Tiffen, Derek Turner, Katrina vanden Heuvel, Gore Vidal, Christopher Warren, David H. Weaver, Mark Weisbrot, Aidan White, Bruce Williams, Granville Williams, Scott Wilson, Dave Zweifel.
R. Jamil Jonna did the hard research and prepared the charts in the book and authored Appendix III. He worked insane hours over the summer to help us complete the book. We cannot thank him enough.
Bob thanks Dr. Dale Brashers, his colleagues, and the terrific staff at the Department of Communication at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for supporting this research. John does the same for Katrina vanden Heuvel and his colleagues at The Nation magazine and Dave Zweifel and his colleagues at The Capital Times. Without institutions with a commitment to fostering a broader and better discourse, books of this sort would not be possible. We are fortunate to be employed by them.
We thank the extraordinary staff of Free Press for leading the fight for journalism, and making this book more than an academic exercise.
We thank our families: Inger Stole, Amy McChesney, and Lucy McChesney for Bob; Harrison and Mary Nichols and Mary Bottari and Whitman Genevieve Nichols Bottari for John. They sacrificed much of 2009 to the words you hold in your hands.
Carl Bromley recruited us to Nation Books, embraced this project and ably guided it to completion. He was the first to see the promise of this project. John Sherer of Basic Books took a personal interest in the book early on, prodding us to be even more ambitious in imagining its potential. Marco Pavia oversaw production and demonstrated a passion for producing a beautiful look. Caitlin Fitzpatrick and Michele Jacob have graciously crafted the marketing and promotional plans for the book. Cait, in particular, went far beyond the call of duty as she pieced together our 2010 North American book tour.
This book is dedicated to two people. David Austin supported not just the cause of media reform but every endeavor (sound or crazed) in which we have engaged over the past decade with an organizer’s flair for pitching in before he was asked, asking wise questions and providing steady support grounded in an understanding that love and solidarity are the same thing. David helped launch each of our books and it saddens us beyond words that his untimely death robs us of the opportunity to share this one with him.
This book is also dedicated to the greatest and most courageous television journalist of our times, and one of the finest persons we have ever known. We desperately need a media system that strongly encourages, rather than discourages, the type of independent, principled and brave journalism he does. As we engage in that battle, his work demonstrates what can be done and what we are fighting for. Indeed, when we are asked to provide an example of the journalism we seek, we respond not with a long list of prerequisites but with a single name: Bill Moyers.
Bob McChesney & John Nichols Madison, Wisconsin October 2009

AMERICAN CRISIS; American Opportunity
America was called into being by a journalist. When Virginia plantation owners who would become presidents were still pondering petitions to King George III, when a Boston lawyer who would also be president was fretting about the excesses democracy might unleash with the replacement of colonial rule, good Tom Paine argued in the Philadelphia Journal that Americans had a right to govern their own affairs. Within weeks of his arrival on American soil in the fall of 1774, months before “the shot heard round the world” was fired at the North Bridge in Concord and a full year and a half before the penning of the Declaration of Independence, Paine outlined “the essence of liberty” as self-governance by informed and empowered citizens. It was Paine, that ink-stained wretch and citizen of the world, who convinced uncertain patriots that “the sun never shined on a cause of greater worth” than the revolt of 13 small colonies against the mighty British empire—inspiring the continentals to fight not for gain or glory but “to begin the world over again.”1
Having experience with the power of the press—he was the most widely read writer in revolutionary America—Paine would eventually observe: “Whoever has made observation on the characters of nations will find it generally true that the manners of a nation, or of a party, can be better ascertained from the character of its press than from any other public circumstance.”2
America, like any country that would be democratic, requires not merely a free press but a functional press—media that regard the state secret as an assault to popular governance, that watch the politically and economically powerful with a suspicious eye, that recognize as their duty the informing and enlightening of citizens so that they may govern themselves in a republic where, as Paine observed, power rests “inherently with the universal multitude.”3
These radical notions are the essential underpinnings of the American experiment. They have been well regarded and widely respected across two centuries. Yet, a free and functional press does not merely occur. While Paine argued that there is a natural right to liberty, the journalism that sustains it does not naturally follow. A media system that sustains journalism of consequence is willed into existence and maintained by a people and by their representatives.
Without a civic counterbalance to the vagaries of the market, it is entirely within the realm of possibility that journalism could wither and die. Its replacement would be not a void but the sophisticated propaganda, be it private or public, of a modern age in which it is possible to tell people much of what they need to know to consume products and support spurious wars but nothing that they need to know to be voters and citizens. This is the fear that the founders sought to guard against when they established a free press with protection in the Bill of Rights. They threw the full weight of the American government into the work of creating and sustaining a diverse, competitive, skeptical and combative media system for a nation that would rest power with an informed people rather than an enthroned magistrate. The makers of the American experiment knew precisely what they hoped to avoid. “A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it,” explained James Madison, “is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy or perhaps both.”4
For the better part of 15 years, we have argued that the existing and evolving commercial news-media system has contributed to the collapse of quality journalism in America, creating precisely the circumstance Madison feared.We don’t claim to be pioneers in the criticism of consolidated, downsized and dumbed-down news. We discuss herein the long tradition of criticism of the problems for journalism wrought by commercial control.
The systematic deterioration of journalism has, for many years now, been observed and chronicled on the margins, among journalists, media scholars and activists. But it has until the current moment been largely ignored by the political mainstream and, not surprisingly, by the commercial news media. To some extent this neglect was grounded in the fact that the largest news-media firms were raking in colossal profits as they grew bigger and fatter over the past three decades. If firms were making money, the thinking (in what will be looked back upon as a period of capitalism-on-steroids) suggested, they had to be serving the public.
But when the money flow slowed and the speculators began to jump ship, leaving journalism to sink with the wreckage of newspapers, it suddenly became clear even to those who had once sung the commercial system’s praises that no service had been rendered.
By the end of this first decade of the 21st century, the crisis of journalism is obvious to all. Daily newspapers are in free-fall collapse. The entire commercial news-media system is disintegrating. Wall Street and Madison Avenue are abandoning the production of journalism en masse. Our nation faces the absurd and untenable prospect of attempting what James Madison characterized as impossible: to be a self-governing constitutional republic without a functioning news media.


On Sale
Jul 12, 2011
Page Count
416 pages
Bold Type Books

Robert W McChesney

About the Author

Robert W. McChesney is the Gutgsell Endowed Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the author or editor of 23 books. His work has been translated into 30 languages. He is the cofounder of Free Press, a national media reform organization. In 2008, the Utne Reader listed McChesney among their “50 visionaries who are changing the world.” He lives in Madison, WI.

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John Nichols

About the Author

John Nichols is the national affairs writer for the Nation magazine and a contributing writer for the Progressive and In These Times. He is also the associate editor of the Capital Times, the daily newspaper in Madison, Wisconsin, and a cofounder of the media-reform group Free Press. A frequent commentator on American politics and media, he has appeared often on MSNBC, NPR, BBC and regularly lectures at major universities on presidential administrations and executive power. The author of ten books and has earned numerous awards for his investigative reports, including groundbreaking examinations (in collaboration with the Center for Media and Democracy) of the Koch brothers and the American Legislative Exchange Council.

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