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Can We Fix Journalism?
An interview with Robert W. McChesney.
Robert W. McChesney is one of the most important scholars when it comes to the media—he’s the Gutgsell Endowed Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Illinois Urbana–Champaign, and he’s written important books like Digital Disconnect (2013).
I was honored/thrilled to interview McChesney. See below my interview with him, which I edited for flow, organized by topic, and added hyperlinks to.
Before we plunge into the interview, let’s look at an extremely important letter that Thomas Jefferson wrote—the letter is dated 16 January 1787 and I can confidently say that it’s the most interesting letter that I’ve ever read in my life:
The tumults in America I expected would have produced in Europe an unfavorable opinion of our political state. But it has not. On the contrary, the small effect of those tumults seems to have given more confidence in the firmness of our governments. The interposition of the people themselves on the side of government has had a great effect on the opinion here. I am persuaded myself that the good sense of the people will always be found to be the best army. They may be led astray for a moment, but will soon correct themselves. The people are the only censors of their governors: and even their errors will tend to keep these to the true principles of their institution. To punish these errors too severely would be to suppress the only safeguard of the public liberty. The way to prevent these irregular interpositions of the people is to give them full information of their affairs thro’ the channel of the public papers, and to contrive that those papers should penetrate the whole mass of the people. The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them. I am convinced that those societies (as the Indians) which live without government enjoy in their general mass an infinitely greater degree of happiness than those who live under European governments. Among the former, public opinion is in the place of law, and restrains morals as powerfully as laws ever did any where. Among the latter, under pretence of governing they have divided their nations into two classes, wolves and sheep. I do not exaggerate. This is a true picture of Europe. Cherish therefore the spirit of our people, and keep alive their attention. Do not be too severe upon their errors, but reclaim them by enlightening them. If once they become inattentive to the public affairs, you and I, and Congress, and Assemblies, judges and governors shall all become wolves. It seems to be the law of our general nature, in spite of individual exceptions; and experience declares that man is the only animal which devours his own kind, for I can apply no milder term to the governments of Europe, and to the general prey of the rich on the poor.
This is a fascinating comment:
The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.
And this is a fascinating comment too:
If once they become inattentive to the public affairs, you and I, and Congress, and Assemblies, judges and governors shall all become wolves.
The Problem and the Solution
1) What are the most exciting projects that you’re currently working on?
The only project of note that I’m currently working on is that I’m trying with a handful of people to come up with a system to rejuvenate independent local journalism in the United States.
2) What are some of the solutions and policies that you’re looking for there?
I think the premise of our work is that the commercial journalism system is dead—advertising isn’t coming back. The commercial journalism system had flaws to begin with and was far from perfect, but for the lion’s share of its existence in the 20th century a lot of resources did go to journalism, and there were resources and jobs, even if the resources weren’t necessarily spent the best way or used the best way. Today’s decline of journalism traces to multiple factors, but the primary factor is that the internet has given advertisers—who provided the vast majority of the funds that paid for US journalism—a much less expensive and more effective way to market, and so they’ve jumped ship completely.
Local journalism has historically been the heart and the crucial part of US journalism. And that’s the part where the collapse is the worst today—there’s very, very little journalism left at the local level in the US. Regrettably, the effects are self-evident—even if people want to get involved locally and understand what’s going on in their communities, it’s really hard to do because there just aren’t enough resources there to make it possible. And so we have an information climate that’s ideal for propaganda, and rogues and demagogues, and all sorts of bullshit—that’s what we’re living through right now.
It’s more than just a matter of information—without local news media, people are easily demoralized, and people are increasingly alienated from their neighbors and communities, and it’s very unhealthy.
Our work on journalism is based on the idea that we need to regard journalism as a public good that our society desperately needs (which is self-evident—our Constitution and all democratic systems are built on the idea of an informed citizenry) but that the market can’t provide in sufficient quality or quantity (which is the crisis that we face today). And the market never will be able to provide that public good—the evidence is now in, and we can see that the advertisers have completely jumped ship, and investors and entrepreneurs have also abandoned journalism because it doesn’t have any profit potential. So it’s basically left to us to recreate local journalism.
The core public-policy problem is: How do you get public funds to pay for local journalism without giving the government control over the content? That’s the big question when you devise a policy for journalism.
This country’s framers understood from the get-go that self-government requires a press system that draws people into public life, gives people information, and gets people involved as people who govern themselves and as people who don’t let others boss them around. In that sense, the framers were products of the Enlightenment. The framers didn’t debate this point, and even the most conservative framers—those least sympathetic to popular democracy—agreed with this.
Back in that era—in fact, before the end of the 19th century—newspaper publishing wasn’t especially profitable. The framers understood that the press was a public good that needed public support, so the framers instituted massive subsidies for post-office delivery of newspapers. Virtually all newspapers were delivered by post office until the large cities emerged in the late 19th century, and post-office delivery of newspapers was virtually free due to these major subsidies. The subsidies were intended to lower the cost of starting a newspaper in order to encourage people to start newspapers, and it was a very successful policy. So for the first 75 or 100 years of American history, the federal government basically subsidized the newspaper industry.
The genius of the policy was that there was no content requirement to get the subsidy, so all viewpoints were accessible. In fact, some of the scandals that were crucial to generating Northern support for a war against slavery came when Southern post offices refused to distribute abolitionist newspapers—this was considered an outrageous affront to this great American tradition where if you could get a newspaper to the post office then you could get it delivered.
So that’s the tradition that we need to build on: public money to provide local journalism with the necessary resources, but without government control over content. Is there a way to do that?
We think there are ways to do that. Without going into detail, you could put a lot of money (say, $100 per person in the country) into a fund each year, and that fund would be distributed to each county’s local non-profit news media based on which local non-profit news media got the most votes in each county’s annual election. There would be all sorts of conditions to prevent fraud, which is of course a major concern in areas like these, but the idea would be that a lot of money would be spent to provide the necessary resources so that you could have real journalism at the local level that would be accountable. Anything produced with this public money would have to be made available for free to everyone online, so there’d be no profit from this and nobody would get rich off this.
It’s an issue whose time has come. But it’ll take a little while longer before any policy like this is embraced. There’s not a single politician in Washington with a functioning brain who doesn’t know about the journalism crisis, but I think they feel like there’s nothing they can do about it except pray the market will somehow make journalism profitable again, even though all the evidence is emphatically clear that that won’t ever happen.
3) To what extent do you think that the New York Times and the Washington Post are somewhat insulated from the crisis? Do they still have lots of money for investigative journalism and everything?
I primarily work on local journalism because that’s really the heart and soul of American journalism, including for national media.
50 years ago, there were several dozen newsrooms covering American politics out of Washington and also a lot of newsrooms covering American economics and American culture out of New York City, and these newsrooms were associated with other local news media. The 10 largest newspapers all had bureaus in Washington. The Des Moines Register for years had a huge bureau that covered agricultural issues for the whole country because it was such an important issue in Iowa, and many states had some sort of industry like that and they had a Washington bureau to look out for their interests, and the reporting would be shared nationally to the extent that people were interested in the issues.
And even 25 years ago, there were a dozen newsrooms that covered Washington and the world for the American people—there were options.
All of that’s gone now—it’s all disappeared. The New York Times is really the only national newspaper we have now, and if the NYT doesn’t cover something then it hardly gets covered at all. The Wall Street Journal does national coverage, and it’s traditionally done very good journalism—it’s pitched at the interests and needs of those at the top of the pyramid, but that doesn’t affect the quality of their journalism, and their journalism is as good as the NYT’s and often superior to the NYT’s. WaPo primarily covers Washington politics in the same way that the LA Times covers Hollywood—it’s the local industry—so they don’t cover much outside of Washington unless it pertains to Washington politics. So we’re really a country with one or two or three national newsrooms, and it’s sort of like that gigantic now-defunct nation-state that my generation was incessantly told didn’t have a free press.
I don’t know the exact figures, but I’m certain the NYT’s resources are less than they were two or three decades ago. There’s also no doubt they have less pressure on them to get stories, since there’s no competition and if you don’t like it then you have nowhere else to go—you either read the NYT or you just stop consuming the news.
It’s a pretty pathetic state of affairs when you look at our national and local news media’s sheer, utter, total collapse.
While we’re on the subject, I’ve done some work on local news media that determines the percentage of GDP that’s gone to local journalism over the course of American history. The best way to compute it that I could determine was to look at US daily newspapers’ total revenues, since they pay for journalism and all their bills out of the total revenues. As their income goes down, they have less money for reporters, so that’s a pretty good indicator of how much resources will be there for journalism in the communities. And for much of American history, until the middle of the 20th century, daily newspapers accounted for roughly 1% of GDP. That’s a lot of money—that means $1 out of $100 paid for local newspapers, so that’s a major industry. A lot of wealth was made in that industry too. And a lot of jobs were created in that industry.
Starting in the ’60s and ’70s, it shrank a bit due to media consolidation where newspapers were gobbled up and resources were cut back—and TV’s influence might’ve played a role too. But in the 1990s, it started to fall sharply, and then it collapsed in the last 20 years with social media and the internet. So it’s down to under 0.1% now. So that’s more than a tenfold decrease.
Those numbers are shocking, and they say everything that needs to be said. Those are the sort of funds we need to replace if we want to have real journalism, or legitimate journalism, or accountable journalism. Or journalism that will do what we need journalism to do, which is empower people to govern their own lives—that’s the whole point, and if it doesn’t do that then it’s not journalism.
1) What do you think about Dean Baker’s ideas on how to solve the problems that we have regarding the journalism crisis?
Dean Baker has been an absolutely visionary analyst of internet-generated changes in journalism and culture. I’m familiar with his idea to fund journalism and culture with a $100 public voucher that a person could give to their preferred medium each year—anything produced with the voucher would go into the public domain. I’ve written positively about that proposal many times, and for two decades I was probably Dean’s loudest champion on vouchers.
I’ve turned away from the voucher system because I think the system has serious problems at the local level in terms of implementation and effect, and my focus is on local media. But my critique about vouchers is all about effective implementation, not spirit or intent.
I favor a more general system where people cast votes for where they want the money to go and where whoever gets the most votes gets the most money—for a number of reasons that I’ll go into below, I think that that’s a much more effective way to achieve the voucher system’s purpose.
2) Baker told me that he’s pushing for “getting some sort of tax-credit—at the national, state, or local level—to support creative/artistic work, including journalism”; that this system would be an “alternative to government-granted copyright-monopolies” and would be “modeled on the charitable contribution tax-deduction”; that progressives “endlessly bemoan the outsized influence that the rich have on politics/policy” and “have no remotely credible mechanism for countering it”; and that this system is a “simple route that could be implemented even at the local level if we ever had a city where progressives had significant influence”. So Baker’s system is about supporting journalism, but also about fighting back the power of wealth, and you can imagine that a world with better media would be a world with more progressive politicians getting elected and so on and so forth.
I haven’t seen Dean’s tax-credit proposal, so I can’t comment on it.
Crucially, Dean’s system—like my system—ensures that any publicly funded work goes into the public domain (maybe with a Creative Common license) so that everyone has access to it. If you get paid on the front end, you can’t also get paid on the back end.
Journalism works best in a copyright-free environment, whereas artists and musicians and authors rely more on copyright and would be more likely to gravitate toward the copyright system as opposed to a publicly funded system.
3) I like the $3000 minimum that Baker has in there because it ensures that people can’t just give the voucher to their dad to whatever—the minimum means that you’d have to get together with 29 other people and all give your voucher to someone in order to defraud the government, and then you’ve just engaged in fraud in order to pocket $100 each, so that’s not a very attractive fraud scheme at all. And Baker also doesn’t distinguish art from journalism from pornography from whatever else, which is great, since you don’t want to have to engage in that whole fraught process of policing boundaries.
Fraud prevention is crucial, since we know people will try to do fraud. Our system requires a prospective recipient to get at least 3–4 percent of their county’s vote and also to demonstrate that a certain percentage of the funds were spent on producing content that they put into the public domain—these requirements would go a long way toward eliminating fraud.
I think Dean is absolutely right about not policing boundaries—in everything I’ve worked on, there are no boundaries and there’s no content regulation, so if people can get support to do something totally off-the-wall then that’s fine. The only rules are that you can’t sell more than a smidgeon of local advertising and you have to make it free to everyone immediately.
4) If you ask Baker about fraud, he’ll quickly point out that there’s a lot of fraud in the charitable contribution tax-deduction, so that’s important to remember.
That’s true about charitable contributions, but I think that this system must meet a higher standard than some system set up by and for the rich.
There are two important limitations with the voucher system.
First, if everyone gets a voucher (say, $100) then they’ll logically think: “This is my money. It’s like my money in my bank account. Why can’t I just keep it? Why should the government be allowed to force me to allocate this money in a certain way?” So in America you’ll have endless fights about that, even if those fights wouldn’t happen in Sweden or Germany or Japan.
Second, a significant percentage of people won’t spend their vouchers and it’ll be hard to get people to take this thing very seriously, so the amount of money allocated will be pennies on the dollar relative to what you need for the system to be successful.
5) But let’s say that I’m not enthusiastic about the system. Won’t I notice over time that my friends are using the system? And won’t I notice over time that my friends are asking me how I’ve allocated my own vouchers?
But it’s not useful if it takes until the year 2370 to kick in. The problem will be that this thing needs to take off pretty quickly or else it’ll die—when Congress meets to refund it, people will say: “No one’s using this BS thing. Let’s junk it.”
Our idea is to set a total budget for every county (say, $100 times the population of the county) and then have everyone in the county vote once a year on which eligible qualifying candidates will get the money. The criteria will be simple, will prevent fraud, and will make sure that it’s local and based in the county.
So unlike with vouchers, it doesn’t affect the amount of money if you don’t vote—it just means you aren’t influencing where the money goes.
And there will be a lot of incentive to vote, since the money will be spent no matter what, so if very few people vote in a country then those very few people will have a lot of power.
And this system will ramp up really fast because you’ll suddenly see these media with lots of resources and reporters and everything and so you’ll ask how those media got all those resources and then you’ll say: “Wow—I’d better vote next time!” And people will then be incentivized to start to compete to get popular support.
It’s also important to encourage multiple voices—no matter how great a single news medium is, you don’t want one news medium to be your dominant or sole voice in a community. An election system lets you give everyone three votes or four votes, so you can vote for three media or four media that you want to support, and then you tally up all the votes and divide the money up based on the percentage of the vote that each prospective recipient got. And this means that you can vote for different things, and you don’t have to make tough choices between things you really like, and you can try something new without the need to abandon anything you really like.
With both Dean’s system and my system, one complaint is that public money will conceivably go to media that I would find deeply offensive and outrageous and appalling—media that would make me want to throw up. But there’s no way around that risk because you can’t get into censoring content.
6) It’s true that someone like Alex Jones could make a lot of money from this system.
People have to keep in mind that most of the most reprehensible right-wing media is commercially driven by people who are out to make as much money as possible—very few of these people are in it because they really believe in the cause. The true believers are the ones paying the money, not the ones getting the money.
Our system removes the profit, and has pretty strict regulation, so there’s way less financial incentive for right-wing media operations to get involved.
7) Under Baker’s system, you can’t give your voucher to Fox News, since they would have to put their stuff into the public domain in order to take voucher money—is that correct?
Yes, and that’s true for our system as well.
8) Baker’s system applies to all creative work, so I asked Baker if Taylor Swift would go on his system, and he said that she’s doing well under the current system so it’s unlikely that she would ever choose to take voucher money.
In our system we do it at the county level, so Taylor Swift could run in every county in the country and say “Give me your money and I’ll make songs and give it to you for free”, but she’d have to be in 3000 elections. And she’d have to somehow live in every county, which is impossible. So that’s an advantage of the local system—you only run in one place (the place where you physically live), so it’s not like one person in Kentucky or New Hampshire can just run everywhere.
9) I know people in progressive media, and they get excited when I tell them about Baker’s system and they say: “Oh, great! I know tons of people who would all give me their voucher money! That system would be wonderful for me!”
Our system is all about local journalism—this money is meant to go to people who live in a county, so that they can cover their county and work in their county. Your main residence has to be in the county that you run in—the preponderance of your labor costs also have to be spent in the county that you run in, though you can form functional alliances in order to get a D.C. office or do overseas coverage or whatever.
Let’s say you live in Wayne County, Michigan. Our system would make it really easy for 10 or 20 people who live in Wayne County and share a concern about journalism to get on the ballot and say: “We’re going to cover Wayne County, and this is how we’re going to do it.” And then these people could get enough funds to actually hire several full-time people and actually do it. And if these people do a good enough job, they could get even more support a year later.
And this proposal would do a lot for racial justice—Detroit’s in Wayne County, and people from Wayne County’s African-American community would get on the ballot and get funds and produce content.
But it’s not a national thing, so it’s not like you would give your voucher to Democracy Now! or something.
10) Let’s say that someone in Wayne County has a Substack. Could they get money under your system?
They could post it on Substack—they just have to meet the criteria, be locally based, and put the content into the public domain so that everyone can see and use the content for free.
11) How do you police whether they’re adequately focusing on the local?
You don’t do content regulation—nothing will stop local people from convincing their neighbors to bankroll a music operation or something.
But this program will strongly encourage journalism because there’s no profit and content must be put into the public domain.
12) So you can’t say that there’s some quota for how many local stories you have to do, right?
Right. You can’t do that—that’s not a place you want to go.
13) But will your system support national media?
No—it’s all local.
But let me emphasize the crucial point that virtually all major national media grew out of local media—before we had TV networks, local media would cover Washington, cover national politics, and cover regional politics. And the same thing would happen with our system because there’s no reason why a news organization covering Cook County, Illinois that’s well-funded and non-profit and non-commercial wouldn’t say: “OK, 10% of our editorial resources will go to our Washington bureau and 10% of our editorial resources will go to Springfield to cover state politics.” That’s a natural development—that’s exactly what traditional media have always done.
14) I would love to see a paper that compares in an interesting chart the pros/cons of your system with the pros/cons of Baker’s system!
The basic logic is the same with both systems. The voucher system has value: it’s idiot proof; you get your voucher and you spend it and people like that; and it seems really simple. And with national media, that might be a better system in countries like Italy or France—you’d get it organized and it would be great.
But I think that the local election system wins hands-down for the reasons I gave you: localism (something that’s really locally based and that’s really locally from-the-ground-up); multiple voices (no single dominant victor); and a guaranteed large budget that doesn’t fluctuate.
15) When Baker throws up numbers regarding how much you might allocate to this program, it’s an absolute ocean of money! At the federal level you could easily invest $50 billion or something, and then the fascinating question is how big the gap is between the proposed figure ($50 billion or whatever) and the status quo.
This country’s framers understood that effective media is just as important to preserving American democracy as the military is. Something like $35–$50 billion annually is a drop in the bucket next to the military budget, and this spending wouldn’t have the waste that the military budget has.
Back in the 1840s, there was an audit to see how big the public subsidy to the media was—the post office provided heavily subsidized circulation for newspapers, and about 10% or 15% of newspapers were distributed for free because you didn’t have to pay the postage if you sent a newspaper to another newspaper. I looked at the data from that audit with a friend of mine who’s a statistician, and we determined that that subsidy in the 1840s was equivalent to $35 billion in 2010 dollars.
I think that that’s pretty much the amount that we need today—I think that we should set the budget to $100 per person over the age of 16, and that way the budget will automatically grow as the population grows. You’d have to account for inflation over time as well.
16) Would right-wingers be equally appalled by your system and by Baker’s system—aren’t both concepts equally appalling to right-wing people?
I think that people across the political spectrum understand that there’s a crisis—conservatives are also deeply frustrated about the lack of coverage of their communities, and conservatives probably aren’t happy about coverage of national politics either.
The Trumpian right wing hates democracy, so it won’t be wild about something that gives people journalism and informs them—you never see too much crying on the political right about the decline of journalism because that crowd is absolutely happy to replace journalism with a bunch of crap on the internet (conspiracy theories and so on) that will help them win power, maintain power, confuse the general population, and weaken the opposition. So they won’t ever be sympathetic to systems that give people journalism.
But I don’t think that that’s true all the way through their mass base, and it’s certainly not true for people who consider themselves pre-Trumpian conservatives. I think that this is a winning issue with most Americans—and with most people in the world—once you strip away the highly emotionally charged framings and just say to them: “Here’s how a system could work to empower you to run your own affairs.”
The idea is really not unlike a public education system, except that it’s even more accountable to actual citizens.
The goal is media—and journalism, ultimately—that’s well-funded, non-profit, and non-commercial. We just want to figure out the system that will most efficiently and accurately do that, that will minimize fraud, and that will maximize people’s power.
17) What about having Baker’s system at the national level and your system at the local level—why not have both systems in parallel?
Maybe down the road, but I think you want to get one started first and see how it plays out.
And I think we need local journalism much more than we need national media. The crisis at the local level is staggering—you have huge “news deserts” in the US where there are no reporters covering anything, and the coverage that exists is usually horrible. The data says that most people feel even more estranged from local politics than they do from national politics, and the reason is that there’s no local coverage. If you want to get involved at the local level, what do you do—go to some Facebook page and hope that someone can tell you something?
So that’s the immediate crisis, and I think that you’ve got to address the local crisis first—we need local reporting and local content all over the country, and then the national will grow from the local.
18) It doesn’t sound like it should be a partisan issue—why would conservatives want to live in a news desert?
You’re exactly right. The rank-and-file conservatives want to have local power, even if right-wing billionaires stand to gain from people not knowing about—for example—pollution and corruption in their community.
19) But I think that people do see problems with the national media as well—at the national level, people would love to have progressive counterweights to corporate media. I guess that Democracy Now! is the biggest progressive thing right now at the national level.
Let’s say that our system got off the ground. You could have people doing one in Buffalo; others doing one in Monroe County; others doing one in Albany; others in Erie, Pennsylvania; others in Cleveland; maybe even others out in Boise, Idaho. They’d all be friends with each other, and they’d get to know each other, and they’d see each other. And everything would be online in the public domain for everyone to see, and they’d be able to use each other’s stuff. Alliances would form. And maybe 10 of these papers in different New York counties—or anywhere in the country—would pool their resources and hire a full-time person to work for them in New York or in Washington covering this or that. This sort of stuff would happen naturally.
Like I said before, local press in the US used to cover national politics—people’s livelihoods depended on certain policies, and so local papers needed to have bureaus in Washington to cover things like the Department of Agriculture or things like the agriculture-relevant committees in the House and Senate. It’s very natural for that to happen.
What Ideal Media Looks Like
1) How should the media operate and what does ideal media look like? Back in the ’50s, the media had an objective aesthetic—the anchors would speak in a monotone voice and there was a very neutral tone. But today you turn on cable news and it’s an absolute carnival—the background music and the “Breaking News” alerts and the visual ornamentation are preposterous.
I don’t think that we can say a priori what the media should look like—I think that it’s something that comes through practice. You can say that the media ought to do this or that, but then real unforeseen problems will emerge during coverage when the media try to do those things, and solutions will only emerge in response to those problems.
So you want to create a system that lets people shape it. But I think that you want to remove the profit motive so that people don’t make money from doing unhealthy things or things that you wouldn’t do if it weren’t profitable to do it. And our proposal wouldn’t affect commercial media one iota—people would still have the freedom to do that if they wanted to.
We know what existing journalism’s limitations are. There’s a heavy reliance on official sources, so that relying on what people in power say is the legitimate range of debate. And the media accepts a framework based on how political power is balanced and based on the weight that wealth and power and privilege have over what’s considered legitimate to discuss in our society.
Real journalism wouldn’t allow these factors to weigh in like that and destroy the analysis’s quality and integrity.
2) Would you say that Democracy Now! is free from the propaganda model?
3) What are your criticisms of Democracy Now!? Sometimes they do stuff that I don’t like, so I wonder what the ideal should be.
Every medium will have something you’re critical of—even if you have your own medium that you control everything about you’ll still probably be critical of things: “I was on a deadline, and I shouldn’t have run that one!”
We can try to set up the structural terms to maximize freedom, encourage people to do the best possible work, and remove as much as possible the things—corruption, reliance on the profit motive, commercialism, and so on—that hamper the work. But the people who do the work will shape what the media actually are, and there will be a lot of paths and a lot of solutions.
And the nice thing about a healthy journalism is that you have a multitude of different tones and a genuine garden of different viewpoints and approaches. And if the democracy is strong enough, the liars and frauds and lazy people and loafers will get exposed and the people who do great work will lead the way and inspire others to do great work too.
4) Is there a lot of value in being upfront with your viewers and just saying at the outset of your program: “This is how we make our editorial decisions.” For example, they should say at the start of those UFO segments on YouTube: “We think this will get a lot of clicks, so that’s why we chose to cover this.” That would be the honest explanation, right?
That wouldn’t be a threat in a sane system—that only happens in a system where your livelihood depends on getting clicks so that you can sell your audience to advertisers. Once you take away the structural need to sell your audience to advertisers, your journalism’s primary objective will no longer be to get clicks—your incentive will instead be to share a story that people in the community that supports you give a damn about. And if they actually want UFO stories, that’s fine.
5) But is there a chicken-and-egg problem where the more dumb content you run, the more that creates a taste for dumb content—what if people don’t know that they have a taste for serious content until they see that serious content?
Our commercial system definitely satisfies the need for dumb content—I don’t think that you could have dumber content than what’s on TV now.
The whole point here is that people will actually consume serious content that affects their community. We have a preposterous situation right now where most Americans feel totally ignorant about what’s going on in their own neighborhood, and enough Americans would like to know about their communities that well-funded systems would be taken advantage of in a way that would point us in the right direction. And if it doesn’t work, at least we tried.
There’s no nanny-state option to force people to care about things, since that wouldn’t work. And if you don’t have confidence in people’s ability to govern their own lives, there’s no reason to even have journalism.
6) Should the ideal for media be the opposite of today’s cable-news carnival? Maybe the most boring aesthetic that you can imagine is a good ideal.
When you don’t have very interesting or valuable content, you have to ramp up the things blowing up on the screen and the music in the background. But when you have something important to say, you don’t want that crap getting in your way. For most of the stuff they have on CNN, you’d better simultaneously have rockets going off and symphony orchestras playing and rap music playing, since the actual content is just endlessly recycled drivel.
7) I’ve noticed that Democracy Now! will cover (for example) the death of some folk singer and you’ll ask yourself why this is supposed to be newsworthy and then you’ll think: “Well, it’s because their left-wing audience likes folk music.” Why not just articulate openly and honestly who your audience is and why you’re choosing to cover certain things? You could announce: “Our demographics like folk music, so we’re going to cover this.” It’s strange to me that the logic is never articulated and is always implicit and unspoken. And it’s the same thing when Fox News covers something to do with Ronald Reagan and doesn’t explain why.
Everyone should understand with any news medium that coverage is a decision, that these are “editorial decisions”, and that there’s no objective answer to what to cover. The New York Times covers what they think you should know about or what they think you should agree with, and it’s the same with the Economist or anything else, and that’s one of the reasons it’s imperative to have multiple well-funded news media in every community.