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News Media Revolt: Canada Next?

Activist scholar McChesney rallies growing movement.

Tom Barrett 29 Oct

Tom Barrett is a contributing editor to The Tyee.

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Robert McChesney: 'Critical juncture'

Journalism faces a crisis around the world and unless it's fixed, society is in big trouble, American scholar and media activist Robert McChesney says.

"The market's not going to solve the problem.... The technology's not going to rescue us."

Great journalism requires resources, institutional support, well-paid journalists and competition, McChesney told an audience at the Simon Fraser University downtown campus Saturday.

Creating institutions that can produce great journalism is going to take "enlightened, engaged, creative policy-making," he said.

"Short of that, we'll never be a free society."

McChesney, the author of several books including Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Times, was in Vancouver to attend a conference of the Union for Democratic Communications, a group of academics and media reformers.

Reform movement gains steam

In a speech co-sponsored by Canadians for a Democratic Media, the B.C. Library Association and The Tyee, McChesney talked about how a media reform movement has sprung up in the U.S. in the past five years and how Canadians can learn from the experience.

The organizers of Free Press, a group that McChesney helped found, state the goals of the movement this way: "diverse and independent media ownership, strong public media and universal access to communications."

Said McChesney: "I think that five years ago, if someone had said to you you're going to go listen to an American tell you how to organize a media reform movement, you would have said that's like having Dick Cheney lecture me on human rights.

"That would have represented the ultimate hubris of Americans."

But in the last few years, as big corporations have sought to increase their control of the media, Americans have been fighting back and winning, McChesney said.

The U.S. -- and probably Canada as well -- is at a "critical juncture" in history where it might be possible to make substantial, long-term changes to the media system, he said.

"There are moments historically in every country in which the range of policy options is much greater than at other times, when society can put you on a path to go one way or another way. If you pick one way, you're not getting off it for a long time."

Conditions for change

Changing the media system has historically required at least two out of three conditions, McChesney said. The three factors are:

  1. A technological revolution. When a radical, fundamentally new technology comes along, society has to decide who's going to run it.
  2. Discredited media content. Usually this means journalism. When media content is seen as being "of poor or dubious quality ... people are willing to raise some hell."
  3. A broader social crisis, where all institutions are being questioned, as happened in the 1960s and '30s.

"My argument is if you get all three of those in line you not only have a critical juncture, you have a chance to do very positive and progressive things," he said. "If you only have two of them, you've still got a chance to do good stuff.

"And we've got two of them now in the United States and I have a strong feeling you have the same two here."

The Internet, McChesney said, has brought the technological revolution. At the same time, "journalism in the United States is in absolute free fall. Deep, severe, prolonged historical crisis."

Don't blame the Net

This crisis, which is being repeated to some extent around the world, is not due to the Internet, despite what media owners claim, McChesney said.

"That's preposterous. It's a deep-seated historical problem that goes back to the beginning of commercial journalism.

"And it's been aggravated in the last three decades by concentrated ownership, in local markets and nationally, and by severe cutbacks in resources to journalism."

This crisis, he said, was identified in the early '90s, long before the web was a part of everyday life.

"The Internet might have accentuated it, but it certainly didn't create it."

Given growing economic inequalities, we may be about to experience the third condition, broader social upheaval, McChesney said.

'Absolute scandal'

Unchecked commercial media pose a major threat, he said.

"We're in the midst of a tidal wave of hyper-commercialism in this world. What we're doing to children in the United States is nothing short of child molesting.

"It's an absolute scandal.

"And if all the Internet does is to sort of open up ... people's central nervous systems to Madison Avenue so that every nanosecond and every pixel of our lives is sponsored by some corporation, then I think we'll rightfully regret the day that the Internet was invented."

Key issue: Net neutrality

A few more thoughts from McChesney:

On the net neutrality battle in the U.S., in which telecom companies want to make some Internet sites easier to access than others:

"This is not a fight of the capitalist class versus the masses. This is a fight of two extraordinarily corrupt, government-created sleazeball monopoly industries -- and that's being generous -- versus the rest of the human race, including the business community."

On what big media companies want:

"Company town media where they can own the newspaper, the cable system, three TV stations, eight radio stations in one town. Have one newsroom serve all.

"It's their version of heaven, our version of hell. And it's a nightmare for anyone except the owners of those company town media."

On the media reform movement being "progressive" but "nonpartisan":

"We organize across the political spectrum, left to right.... This is not a left-right issue. It's big money, it's corporate interests versus everybody else usually."

On the goal of the U.S. media reform movement:

"Basically, our goal is to make it so no politician can ever run for office in the United States without having to answer on all these issues formally in their campaign.

"We want to do what the environmental movement did in the United States. In 1964 there was no environmental movement. No politician ever said anything about the environment in an American campaign.

"In 1976 there was not a single politician who wouldn't [talk about the environment]. If you were Ronald Reagan, you had to have a policy on the environment."

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