THE MEDIA is buzzing about the purchase of the Washington Post by Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon.com. Why? What’s the importance of this development?
- THE CONTEXT for the Bezos purchase is that commercial journalism as we’ve known it in the United States for more than a century is dying. It’s in its spiral death throes right now. Capitalists can’t make money publishing journalism, and it’s a perfectly rational determination for a capitalist to make.
- We’ve had the illusion that popular journalism serving a mass audience could be a successful financial undertaking for the last century, largely because advertising has provided the great bulk of the revenues, anywhere from 50 percent to 100 percent. For newspapers, advertising has provided 70 to 80 percent of the revenues. Advertisers have had no particular interest in journalism per se; they only needed to support news media to accomplish commercial aims.
- And now we’re in a universe in which advertising dollars increasingly go to digital formats. In other words, advertisers no longer have to purchase space from a content provider to reach their target audience. On the Internet, it’s called smart advertising. It used to be that if an advertiser wanted to reach 25 million women ages 29 to 34 who might be in the market for an automobile, the advertiser would have to find television shows or newspapers or magazines that those women go to, and then some of the money for that ad goes to subsidize the content on that site or that medium … //
… SOME PEOPLE suggest that the flattening out of journalism has also democratized the medium–and that’s why there’s a crackdown on sites like WikiLeaks and why Sen. Dianne Feinstein has been talking about narrowly defining who is a journalist and who is not. How does this related to the new media empires being bought by Bezos and the Koch brothers?
- THERE HAS been a decline in journalism–a decline in the resources going to it and a decline in the institutions doing journalism. In the Internet age, this has given rise to what we might call “citizen journalists,” which is a euphemism for unpaid journalists–someone who is basically a volunteer, blogging in their free time, covering what they want to cover, not covering what they don’t want to cover. And really not held to any standard by anyone because they’re doing it on their free time. If you don’t like it, don’t read it.
- This creates a dilemma–the traditional criteria for journalists are deteriorating, but is everyone then a journalist? Is it a distinct enterprise? It’s something that’s very difficult to wrestle with, and I think that trying to narrow it down is the wrong way to go. I think it’s preposterous. But at the same time, to the extent that we’ve had special privileges for journalists in terms of access to information and powerful people, if everyone’s a journalist, the system doesn’t really work well either. So it’s an unresolvable problem.
- I think the really interesting question here is that the foundation of the crisis today with government spying–much of what Snowden revealed and what WikiLeaks revealed too, if people paid attention–was that the National Security Agency, the CIA, the FBI, the military, have this tremendous capacity to know everything about us. They basically have access to everything, and they collect everything … //
… THIS MODEL of “professional journalism” that we’re witnessing the death throes of was the product of a crisis of the previous model, what could perhaps be called the era of “robber-baron journalism.” Can you talk about what caused that crisis? … //
… WHAT DOES this history tell us about what needs to be done as the era of professional journalism confronts its own mortality?
- THE PRESS barons from 100 years ago were making enormous fortunes–some of the richest people in the world today are from that era. Today it’s done differently. That’s not where they’re making their money. They’re making their money on Amazon or in Koch Industries. They’re buying the newspapers simply to push policies that will help their economic interests in their main industries. So it’s a very different zone, and I think it’s a worse zone in many respects.
- The great existential problem we face as a society for journalism is to somehow come up with the resources to support independent, competing journalism that can actually draw us into public life so we know what the heck is going on and we can participate. The framers of this country–and I’ve written some pretty critical stuff about them, and they deserve the criticism they get on a number of fronts–got this to their immense credit. Jefferson and Madison, Tom Paine, Ben Franklin, and even Washington and Adams and Hamilton got this.
- They understood that self-government wouldn’t work unless there was a credible press system. And no one had any illusions that the “market,” or the profit motive, would generate a press system that would do it. To paraphrase Jefferson, rich people always get the information they need to run the society, but if we want the mass of people to have the information they need to participate, we have to have subsidies to create a free press. We have to basically bankroll it. That’s why we got the postal and printing subsidies.
- I think that vision is what we need today. We’ve got to be talking, and soon, about what sort of spending can we do as a society to create competitive, independent, nonprofit, non-commercial media, uncensored, with the resources to actually cover the NSA, with the resources to actually get in and see Chicago’s City Hall, what the relationship is between the developers and companies and banks and decisions made there, because that can’t be done by some dude in his pajamas, volunteering his time as a blogger.
- That’s hard. You need competing newsrooms that are accountable, and if someone screws up a story, they pay a price for it. That’s a public policy issue of the highest magnitude. In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a better era, when defining “freedom of the press” in one of its decisions said that the whole constitutional system of the United States is predicated on their being a free press. The first duty of a free people is to guarantee you have a press system. Without it, nothing survives. And I think we’re living through that right now.
(Robert McChesney is a professor of media studies and a renowned scholar about the history and political economy of mass communication. He’s the author of number books, most recently Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism Is Turning the Internet Against Democracy and, with John Nichols, Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America. He talked with Eric Ruder about the implications of the collapse of journalism).
Short Video: voices you should have heard, 2.37 min, on Zcom, by Sofia Campos, August 30, 2013;
Why Sen. Feinstein Is Wrong About Who’s a Real Reporter, on EFF.org, by MORGAN WEILAND, August 9, 2013;
Book: Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism Is Turning the Internet Against Democracy, on The New Press, by Robert McChesney, Spring 2013, Trim: 6 1/8 x 9 1/4, 320 pages, ISBN: 978-1-59558-867-8;
Top Secret America, on The Washington Post, Sept. 17, 2010.