Interview: Robert W McChesney on US news media and politics

Robert Waterman McChesney is an American professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign in the Department of Communication. He specializes in the history and political economy of communication, and the role media play in democratic and capitalist societies. He co-founded Free Press, a national media reform organization.

COMPASS: The media is not concerned about core political problems in society, like accumulation of political power and corruption, and instead, use the resources to propagate irrelevant themes. Why is the communication with the public on such a rudimentary level? What is the problem with the US media today?

Robert W. McChesney: The US news media coverage of the political campaigns in the United States is horrible. It is very frustrating for citizens, it has been bad for quite a long time and it’s gotten worse. I think the major critique of the coverage of politics in the United States is that journalist do very little actual hard digging of candidates, whose interests and values they represent and what they might actually do to address serious problems. That would take a lot of work and media companies don’t really want to spend resources doing research. Instead they do really simplistic stories that basically look at polls and surveys and sort of evaluate and spend a lot of time making their own predictions. Candidates are often evaluated primarily in how well they can deceive voters and con voters that are supporting them. The candidate is very successful at creating and aura of sort about themselves, even if the aura is completely inaccurate to their actual record. Candidate like this is regarded as very good politician because he is a very good liar. That is not exposed to the American politics, and when its done right it’s a badge of honor to the mainstream journalist who appreciate politician who can manipulate people.
Now the other point about our mainstream coverage in United States is that it is not biased for one of the parties or for the other per se, but it is very much biased towards the mainstream. And the mainstream is where big money is. So, the candidates who represent the interests of Wall Street and the wealthy and the powerful and don’t really challenge the pentagon too hard are considered to be the serious candidates. Candidates who step outside that path, who are critical of the US foreign policy, critical of militarism, who are critical of Wall Street, critical of capitalism, they are going to be ignored unless they cant be ignored and then they are going to be treated by a very different standard then mainstream candidates, and that’s always been the case. Now, mainstream people materialize that as a natural order of things but for anyone who is not in the mainstream it’s a great source of frustration.

COMPASS: You are saying that the corporate media is going hand by hand with other corporations and they do not want to change the existing model of behavior?

Robert W. McChesney: One way to look at it is that in the United States, the way it is evolved in last 30 years, running for president really is no longer about being the head of the democratic governing system accountable to voters. There might be some rhetoric about that, but no one buys that anymore. Really being president is being CEO of America incorporated and you are answerable first and foremost to the rich people of the country. Тhis may sound like a crude Marxist rhetoric but it is actually the truth. It is the only thing that explains how the American politics works. For example, the person who was considered the leading candidate six months a go for the republican nomination, Jebb Bush, brother of George W Bush, son of George H. W. Bush, had problems in his campaign and haven’t gained much attraction in the polls. He tried everything and he finally had to retreat to meet the handful of families who put up hundreds of millions of dollars to pay for his campaign. They basically invested in Jebb Bush, and he had to explain to them why their investment wasn’t working out and ask for more time and money. It explains that in the end they are accountable only to the people who pay for their campaigns.

COMPASS: Do you think that people in United States have better understaning of the political situation than the few decades earlier?

Robert W. McChesney: Yes. In fact, most people outside of the United States are not aware of what the political system is actually like in America. They make the assumption that it`s like in other countries that are considered democracies where most people vote and there are lot of political parties that represent a different range of political viewpoints. Ironically, people that best understand American political system are the people who live in the old Soviet Union that was one party state. That is because in the United States we have two parties and there are differences between them, there is no question about it, and there is a big difference in the quality of live depending which party is in power, but their differences are small compared to the similarities between them on fundamental issues.
But, what most people don’t get is that in the United States a minority of people vote. The majority of Americans never really vote in the elections. In our presidential elections we have the all time highest turnout and it is the barely over fifty percent of people voting, and couple of times it was beneath the fifty percent. In all other elections like the congressional elections it is only usual at the 33 to 35 percent.
And the people who don’t vote are really where the story is. The people who don’t vote are the young people, people under 30 don’t vote and the poor people. The poorer you are the less likely you are to vote. Especially in the latino and other non-white communities. They are a hard working class people who do the hardest jobs in the America, and doesn’t vote because they don’t think anything is in it for them. And, because of that the elections especially on presidential years skew away to the right, because the people who vote, that 35 percent of the population, is much whiter, it is much richer, it is much older and it is much more politically conservative. They dominate the political system and everyone else figures that the game is rigged so they don’t get involved. And the Democratic Party does not do a great deal, except rhetorically, trying to organize non voters and get them to vote. They don’t really made that a major point of process, and three of four decades a go they dropped any effort to do that in spite of the fact that it is obvious that they would win more elections. It is very interesting question that speak volumes about where the values of the people who run the Democratic Party are. People like Hillary Clinton and Bill Clinton and Al Gore, and even Barack Obama.

COMPASS: What would be efficient and just model of communication between the elected representatives and the people in the future, in order to avoid the economical collapses and possible societal breakdowns?

Robert W. McChesney: The only way to answer this is to make it a larger question. What sort of news media system does a democratic society that want to engage in responsible self government need? One thing is really crystal clear that it does not need the system the United States has. You have a commercially driven system where a handful of large corporations dominate the news media that does not produce the necessary results. But ironically even that fails to capture the extend of the problems in the US and I think increasingly world wide. The problem in the United States is that commercial interest, when they dominate the news media did some good things, there were some good commercial media, that actually covered the news well, but the problem now is that the commercial journalism is collapsing world wide especially in the US. It is not profitable journalism any more, and the reason for that is pretty simple. In the US and in the most countries, capitalist countries, advertising provided the majority of money payed for the journalism in the last hundred years. The final consumer, the reader of the newspaper, or the person who listened to the radio broadcast, only provided a small portion of the money that payed for the programming. It was payed by the advertiser. In the era of the internet, advertiser no longer have any reason to directly support news media unless they just want to buy propaganda.
The reason for this is simple. If you are the advertiser and want to buy an add in the magazine, and the magazine is red a lot, then you thought that you will sell a lot of product. But there were lot of people who red the magazine and didn’t buy your product. But if you go to Google, Yahoo, Facebook, and place an add there, you can say “I want a reach of three million women, 18 to 24 who might be in the market to buy a new car, in the next six months”. They will place your add on the majority of web sites those three million women visit. You don’t have to buy an add in the newspaper website to reach them, because advertising networks know everywhere we are going in real time. They will find us, and they know everything they need to know. And the add will appear only to the people of that target group. Because of this, there is no reason to buy an add in the newspapers or the news media websites. So, there is hardly any money left for the journalism and with that the quality of the product goes down the hill and you start loosing your public. It is a downward spiral. That is the process going on in the US today. We probably have only 35 percent of the working editors and the reporters that we had 25 years a go. Huge parts of public life are no longer covered. Majority of the good journalists have been laid off off and have been replaced by the less expensive and less skilled journalists. There is a tremendous downward pressure on working conditions and wages and there is a flood of unemployment. There is also a tremendous pressure by the media owners who look the other way to allow commercial interests to influence the news, so they can get money from advertisers.
Everything going on in the commercial system is bad for journalism. If we are to be serious about the journalism we need to recognize that the commercial systems which had its pluses and minuses, no longer has its pluses, only has its minuses. We have to do something else. We need to create an independent, uncensored, competitive, non commercial, well funded news media system in the United States and in the other countries around the world. I know it seems like less of an issue in countries like Sweden or Norway, that still has strong public broadcasting systems, and kept traditional journalism more alive, but in US and many other countries it is severe. I could think of the journalism that would not cost as much, but it would need a public support. This is the issue that can’t be ignored forever. The corporate guys, the commercial guys, the money guys are never going to give us the journalism we need. They are not even giving us any journalism that is not worth doing financially or is not giving them enough power to influence politics for the corruption purposes. The whole system smells.

COMPASS: Popular and civic movements that oppose the existing model rose up and are gaining more power and sympathies. USA saw a rise of strong occupy movement that motivated the people to ask for the social change. Why the US politics lacked the will to communicate with those people?

Robert W. McChesney: If you look at the America and how the voters voted, you would get the impression that Americans are pro corporate, contented population of people who want the lower taxes on the rich people, who want to cut social services like public education and health-care and everything else and that they would want to have wars with every other country on earth. But if you come to America you will find it is the minority of population, distinct minority, and that the significant part of the population is completely alienated from the political system and is very frustrated with the directions our country is going. I think that the occupy movement, which came right after huge uprisings in Midwestern states, four years a go, against the right wing governments that had hundreds of thousands people protesting out of the blue, was the opening bell and that we are in the different year in America now.
America is changing radically for the better or for the worse today compared to ten, twenty or thirty years a go.
The standard of living has fallen for much of the population, inequality has grown, the employment market, the labor market for people under the age of thirty is like the economic depression of the 1930s. It is horrible. Labor unions are pretty much abolished except of the handful in public sector and the few other industries. Working conditions are horrible. Generally speaking the quality of life is deteriorating in this country and the political system is doing nothing to address it. In fact, it is making it so. So there has been a periodic explosion recently completely unexpected by the mainstream and which challenged the conventional narrative of how our society works. We have experienced the similar explosion, even bigger, in the past six months. In the campaign of the independent socialist Bernie Sanders, to get the democratic party nomination. No votes would be held for several months, but already Sanders established himself as one of the two legitimate candidates to win with much less money and terrible media coverage. He gets treated horribly in the media, like a pedophile. It is unbelievable how his coverage degrades compared to Hillary Clinton who is treated like the heiress to the country.
But he has generated enthusiastic support unprecedented in American history. Literally giving public addresses to crowds ranging from ten thousands to the 25 or 30 thousands, in five or six places in last three months. And the crowds are overwhelmingly working class people, and the young people. He is getting parts of the American population that are totally estranged from the political process. It is really exciting and fascinating to see that he is using the word “socialist”, the word that has been banned in the America for hundred years. And he is having success in defending the term to the point that many people under the age of thirty in the United States prefer socialism to capitalism. He is helping educate people on this great tradition.
America is a country in flux, but it is not a conservative country where the people of the country are running around, bracing each others how they love free markets, and how they love war and how they wish rich people would pay less taxes and poor people would get less help.
I think we are in the beginning stages of reckoning in what sort of country are we going to live in. It has been escalating now for a fifteen years to this day, it is exploding right now in the Sanders campaign, and it is probably going to continue.

COMPASS: You mentioned earlier that the word “socialism” is gaining popularity in working class, young and unemployed. The rise of, so called “radical left” ideas in Europe, especially Greece, Spain, Iceland and recently UK, gained much support in the Europe. At the same time, in certain western countries, a far right movements, some even openly fascist gained support. Still, the European media targeted and some even crucified the left. Why is there a fear of socialism and left in the west?

Robert W. McChesney: I don’t think this requires any great sophistication on the matter. Socialism says that the core problem of the society is that the wealth is concentrated in the hands of the very small number of people, and that it generates social problems, and that it needs to be changed, one way or another. And since the people of great wealth have a tremendous political influence, and tend to own news media, they don’t look favorably at that position. For them it is a really bad idea, because they benefit from inequality. In the United States and worldwide the system of capitalism is failing everywhere. And you see it in Britain, when you have somebody like Jeremy Corbin became the head of labor party. Corbin is the most left wing head of the labor party in its history. And we are talking about the country that had a pretty far left labor party in the first half of the 20th century. And we are talking about Bernie Sanders coming out of the woodwork in the United States, a guy who wouldn’t get two percent of the vote 25 years a go. He can win the democratic nomination, it is not out of the question, but he can finish second. We are talking of left parties arising all around the Mediterranean region. But, the news media is not going to cover them well. They are going to treat them all like they are a bunch of wild lunatics. The problem is that the mainstream parties have nothing to offer. They basically are corrupt, serving to the same worthless policies the rich people have always wanted. They are fine as long the economy is going well. But now the system is not working and doesn’t look like it is going to get any better for a long time. We may well be entering the period where after two hundred years the capitalism has run of its course. And it means that there has to be some sort of fundamental change. Unfortunately to me there are obvious choices to make the society much more democratic and change the economy to represent the interest of all the people. That seems the rationale, humane, democratic way to solve the problem. Unfortunately that is not a universally held position. And what we have found historically, is that when the system tend to collapses, when the mainstream collapses, because the economy is in crisis, not only the democratic left emerge, and became much stronger, because the people are seeking democratic and humane solutions to the problem, but also the right emerges and fascism emerges. The fascism only became a dominant phenomenon in the world when you had the great depression and high unemployment across the industrial world. Then the right wing organized into the anti democratic movements to try to solve the problems on the right. And the way the fascist always solved the problems is they increased government spending on unemployment, always followed by militarism, surveillance and security and never on social programs. And they demonized some sector of the population with racism and chauvinism. That is how they always do it. I’ve never heard of the non racist fascist movement.
These are the two choices that are emerging when the system is in crisis. We will either turn left, towards the socialism ore we are going to turn into the another direction to the place I’ve never thought in my life I will see returning, but which is emerging again everywhere in the world.

COMPASS: It is obvious that the monetary and the political system came to the end of its life. Is it possible to predict how long this system will be able to sustain itself?

Robert W. McChesney: No one can predict that. That is impossible to say. All we can do is look at the pressures and say, “We see this pressure, something’s got to give”. I’ll tell you a story I always keep in mind, whenever somebody ask me to predict something, especially for the people who tend to think that if something doesn’t change immediately, it will never change. Back in the 1980s I had a college professor that was white South African. He came to America in the early 1960s and he strongly opposed apartheid in South Africa. He followed politics in South Africa passionately and supported the anti apartheid movement. And before I left Seattle and moved to Wisconsin in 1988. I went to say goodbye to him in his office. I found him there, very depressed. And I said, “What’s wrong?” And he said that the he is hopeless and that he thinks that things in South Africa will never change. It was 1988. and Nelson Mandela was still in prison. I was sorry to leave him in that state of mind.
But, in the following years, Mandela was not only released, but it managed to gain so much support to bring down the entire apartheid system and to become elected president of free South Africa.
And that was the smartest guy on South Africa I knew. He was completely wrong about the situation, that was on the very verge of social change. He had no idea what was coming. No one saw the civil rights movement coming to America ten years earlier.
We can’t accurately predict these things. But we can see the pressures and things that aren’t working and do our best to participate as events develop so we can have humane and democratic outcome. That is all we can control.

COMPASS: What kind of political action would be able to implement the social and economical change? What should we do to help it became a reality?

Robert W. McChesney: The ultimately what we are going to need everywhere in the world is a different type of the economy. That doesn’t mean there want be businesses, or small businesses, or investors, but I think it is going to be non profit, it is going to be community owned, cooperative and in some cases state owned. Building this new economy in the ashes of this old economy is the great struggle before us. Eventually, and probably sooner rather than later, It is going to require having control over government and make policies to encourage the different economy, one that is sustainable with the environment. Unless we are talking about really re-doing the economy we are just taking a crap and we are not doing anything. If we leave the economy in the hands of the Wall Street and the biggest companies and rich investors, they are just driving humanity off the cliff. That’s all they can do. They have no vision besides their own wealth. We’ve got to come up with the alternative. Our political vision has to include that. And it has got to be one that really calls for much more democratic participation, involvement in the economy, and in peace with the environment. That has to be a political vision that would end the poverty on this planet.