We Need to Advocate Radical Solutions to Systemic Problems

- Interview By Mark Karlin with Robert McChesney, Truthout, January 4, 2015

In this interview, Robert McChesney, author of “Blowing the Roof Off the Twenty-First Century,” discusses net neutrality advocacy, how the concentration of capital and media monopolies stifle democracy, and his hopes for a post-capitalist democracy in the United States.

Robert McChesney, a leader in challenging the corporate media’s role in degrading democracy, carries on this fight with Blowing the Roof Off the Twenty-First Century. In the book, he makes an urgent and compelling argument for ending communication monopolies and building a post-capitalist democracy that serves people over corporations. You can obtain the book now with a contribution to Truthout by clicking here.

Mark Karlin: In a Truthout Progressive Pick of the Week interview in 2013 about your book, Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism Is Turning the Internet Against Democracy, you reflected profound pessimism about the capture of the internet by large corporations – and the evolution of net consumers into marketing “products.” Is the trend of the co-option of the web by a few large corporations accelerating?

Robert McChesney: Whether the process is accelerating is a difficult question to measure or to answer. That the process exists and that it is the dominant fact about the internet is not controversial. Barring radical policy intervention, the domination of the internet by a handful of gigantic monopolists will continue and remain the order of the day. After Digital Disconnect was published, I had a meeting in October 2013 with Sue Gardner, who was then the person in charge of Wikipedia. Sue told me that it would be impossible for Wikipedia or anything like it to get launched by then, because the system was locked down by the giants and privileged commercial values. I was left with the impression that Wikipedia got in just before the deadline, so to speak.

If economic power is concentrated in a few powerful hands you have the political economy for feudalism, or authoritarianism, not democracy.

What is striking about this corporate monopolization of the internet is that all the wealth and power has gone to a small number of absolutely enormous firms. As we enter 2015, 13 of the 33 most valuable corporations in the United States are internet firms, and nearly all of them enjoy monopolistic market power as economists have traditionally used the term. If you continue to scan down the list there are precious few internet firms to be found. There is not much of a middle class or even an upper-middle class of internet corporations to be found.

This poses a fundamental problem for democracy, though it is one that mainstream commentators and scholars appear reluctant to acknowledge: If economic power is concentrated in a few powerful hands you have the political economy for feudalism, or authoritarianism, not democracy. Concentrated economic power invariably overwhelms the political equality democracy requires, leading to routinized corruption and an end of the rule of law. That is where we are today in the United States.

You were a co-founder with John Nichols of Free Press, the leading citizens’ advocate for net neutrality. Do you have any expectation that the FCC [Federal Communications Commission], headed by a former lobbyist and shill for mass communication corporations, will actually preserve net neutrality – such as it is – by bestowing “common carrier” status on the internet?

Everything structurally points to a pessimistic answer, as your question implies. There are grounds for hope. First, understand that what net neutrality is trying to prevent is the privatization of the internet – its conversion to cable TV – by the handful of behemoths that have created a cartel for internet service provision (ISP), most notably Comcast, Verizon and AT&T. These firms are parasites who enjoy spectacular profitability due to their ability to build on government monopoly licenses and their ownership of politicians and regulators. But the balance of the corporate community has no particular reason to be enthusiastic about eliminating net neutrality.

When people tune out politics, they are not being hip or cool or ironic. They are being played.

It will simply mean that the ISPs will be able to shake them down for more money to have access to their networks. The ISP cartel has tried to buy off or at least neutralize key internet monopolists with varying degrees of success, but they cannot make an especially compelling argument. Corporations like Google are frustrated by the crappy, overpriced service the ISP cartels provide, and it is affecting their business models. So proponents of net neutrality have some important moneyed interests who are sympathetic to their cause. And in American politics today – where democracy in the textbook sense does not exist – that means everything. It is worth noting that in the scores of US cities with municipally owned and operated broadband networks, local businesses form an enthusiastic base of support. They love getting much better service – for them and their customers – at a lower cost.

Second, there is near unanimous public support for net neutrality among those who know what the issue is and what it is about. This is true across the political spectrum. Free Press has led the organizing coalition and the support is simply off the charts. Behind much of the so-called grassroots support for abolishing net neutrality among (the absurdly misnamed) “libertarian” groups on the right or civil rights groups of the left, one can find a direct or indirect payoff from the cartel. So a politician like Barack Obama used his unconditional support for net neutrality as a rallying cry for his presidential campaign in 2007-08. That has put him in an uncomfortable position in view of the cartel’s pressure on the FCC to accede to the cartel’s wishes. But Obama, to his credit, has recently restated his commitment to net neutrality and his support for seeing the internet regulated like a telecommunication industry would be by law. So there are grounds for hope.

Your latest book, Blowing the Roof Off the Twenty-First Century: Media, Politics, and the Struggle for Post-Capitalist Democracy, returns – as you almost always do in your writing – to the issue of how the concentration of capital and corporate behemoths stifle democracy. Do you have any expectation – given how the internet offered so much promise of being a tool to invigorate a robust democracy and then was co-opted – that the course of unbridled capitalism can be reversed?

How the tension between really existing capitalism and democracy plays out in the United States is impossible to predict, but it is the definitional issue of our times and will be until it is resolved. Every other issue of note – from militarism and the environment to the quality of our lives and the status of our liberties – runs through it. In the book, I address the pessimism that pervades our times because of the sense that the powers-that-be are all-powerful, and resistance is therefore futile. Although understandable, and a safe position to take, it is also absurdly ahistorical. Humans invariably think that tomorrow will be an extension of today. Change is impossible to anticipate in a precise sense. Then once it happens everyone acts like they saw it coming. What we can do is understand the problems in our system and be prepared to resolve them in a humane and equitable manner when they grow so severe as to create crisis points. We do not have the luxury of giving up, because pessimism is self-fulfilling. And, as I discuss in the book, those in power are obsessed with depoliticizing society because they know we have the numbers on our side and they cannot win a fair fight. When people tune out politics, they are not being hip or cool or ironic. They are being played.

How do two of your chapters, “The US Imperial Triangle and Military Spending” and “The Penal State in an Age of Crisis,” illustrate the degeneration of capitalism in the US?

US capitalism is fundamentally flawed, and has a strong tendency toward stagnation. Left to its own devises, without exogenous factors, the private economy cannot generate sufficient jobs and incomes for full employment. That means low growth rates, rising poverty and growing inequality. Due to popular pressure, government politics can arrest these tendencies, with public works programs, progressive taxation, support for unions and the like. Capitalists generally oppose these measures as an impingement on their prerogatives and their control over the economy. Even in Scandinavia, where working-class victories created a much-admired social democracy (unless you are a FOX News fan), capitalists lie in wait always keen to reverse the victories and turn back the clock. In the United States, military spending became the one form of government stimulus spending that faced no serious opposition from capitalists coming out of World War II, and instead it created an army of corporate supporters: Eisenhower’s military-industrial complex. Militarism is now so hard-wired into really existing capitalism in the United States that the call to reduce it to a level approaching sanity becomes a demand to rethink the entire structure of the economy.

Civilian spending remained constant because a significant portion of what had been social spending was converted to prison spending, which is included in the civilian (non-military) spending category.

Since the 1970s, the far right has come to dominate American politics and both political parties have become more preoccupied with serving large corporations and billionaire investors – and much less concerned with the needs of the general population. In doing research on the matter of whether Obama might launch a new “New Deal” upon his election in 2008, my friend John Bellamy Foster and I wrote an essay that is in the book arguing that the key determinant of a new New Deal will be if the amount of government spending for civilian (non-military) purposes increases as a percentage of GDP above the level it had been stuck at since the New Deal raised it in the late 1930s. We argued that it was highly unlikely because of the strong corporate political pressures that exist, and we have been proven right.

But we were also struck by the fact that civilian spending at all levels of government had not changed much as a percentage of GDP for decades, despite all the right-wing attacks on social spending that have dominated the past three or four decades. How could that be? The answer became clear: Civilian spending remained constant because a significant portion of what had been social spending was converted to prison spending, which is included in the civilian (non-military) spending category. Factoring this in, the actual provision of social services had declined as a percentage of GDP. And now, as with the military, there is a huge private sector that benefits from the prison-industrial complex and lobbies for its expansion at every turn, while no major corporate interests oppose the expansion of prisons.

What does this illustrate about the degeneration of US capitalism? As a system, it requires extensive government spending, but it tends toward military and police spending as the preferred option, and that creates all sorts of spectacular problems for anything remotely close to democracy. This point was well understood by the [constitutional] framers who wanted to eliminate as much as possible the scourge of militarism from coming into existence. As Madison and Jefferson repeatedly wrote, a nation that is permanently at war cannot remain free. Militarism generated secrecy, inequality, corruption and what we would call jingoism that in combination would overwhelm democratic institutions and practices.

Truer words have never been written.

What do you mean by the term “post-capitalist” democracy?

If one believes, as I do, that the evidence points squarely to the conclusion that really existing capitalism is fundamentally flawed and increasingly incompatible with democracy and possibly human existence, then establishing an alternative is of paramount importance. I should qualify this immediately. I use the term “really existing capitalism” to describe what actually exists in the United States (and, to varying degrees, worldwide): massive corporations, unfettered greed, corrupt governance, hollowed-out democracy, endless corporate propaganda, obscene inequality, crumbling physical and social infrastructure, crappy, dead-end jobs and a mindless, narcissistic culture. I do not refer to the PR pabulum spewed by politicians and pundits about free markets, entrepreneurs, upward mobility, meritocracy and the invisible hand. That has as much to do with capitalism in the United States today as paeans to workers democracy did to describing the Soviet experience.

The problem with capitalism is ultimately that it radically increases the productive capacity of society but it keeps control over the wealth in the hands of profit-driven individuals and firms.

Why not call the alternative socialism? Well, I am a socialist and I understand that [socialism] to be a system where the vast wealth of society is controlled democratically and put to social purposes; it is not controlled by a narrow sliver of society to do with as suits them. I think the general Marxist assessment of capitalism’s fatal flaw applies today more than ever: The problem with capitalism is ultimately that it radically increases the productive capacity of society but it keeps control over the wealth in the hands of profit-driven individuals and firms, who control how this potential will be developed to suit their own interests. So it is that the productivity of the average worker is many times greater today than is was 50 years ago. But that increase in productivity has not translated into higher living standards, a shorter working week and/or a huge buildout of the infrastructure. Instead we see living standards in decline, inequality mushrooming and infrastructure in varying states of collapse, while there is a record number of gazillionaires. These are clear signs of an economic system that no longer plays a productive role and needs to be replaced.

But the term socialism begs as many questions as it answers and from my experience tends to get people off-track. I think we have to begin tangible discussions and debates over how to take important aspects of our society where capitalist control is clearly dangerous and inimical to democratic practices and values and eliminate it there. For example, take the profit out of militarism and prisons. No one should have a vested interest in war. Take the profit out of financial speculation, that serves no public good. Take the profit out of energy, if we agree that we have a handful of mega-corporations flossing their teeth with politicians’ underpants while the earth gets flame-broiled like a marshmallow. Let’s create nonprofit, accountable alternatives. The point is to replace profit-driven institutions with democratically run alternatives in key sectors, all the while extending democratic freedoms and practices. I could go on and on.

I have no particular antagonism to small business, and a great deal of respect for the people who launch and run them. I started two concerns in my life, one a for-profit rock magazine in Seattle and another a nonprofit public interest group called Free Press. Both succeeded not by exploiting the labor of its workers as much as exploiting the labor of its owners and management. We worked our butts off. I see small business as an extension of labor as much as an extension of capital. In this sense, I am influenced by Lincoln.

So to me the debate should not concern whether some dude selling falafel sandwiches out of his van near a football game should have his enterprise nationalized. That is idiotic. The debate has to be whether we can afford to have so much of the commanding heights of our economy under the control of billionaires and monopolists who use their immense power to enrich themselves but impoverish the rest of us. Until we start having that debate we will not make much headway on the great problems we face.

Can you expand upon your statement in the book that “many liberals who wish to reform and humanize capitalism are uncomfortable with seemingly radical movements, and often work to distance themselves from them”? What are the implications of such a stance?

One of the ironies of American politics is that an element of the progressive community recoils from what I just said because they fear it will antagonize people in power and limit their effectiveness when, say, Democrats win office. The argument is that we can only argue for positions that are acceptable to the mainstream liberal community or else we will lose our ability to influence policy because we will get cast into the wilderness as certified weirdos. The evidence is now in: that approach does not work.

What was most striking about the Occupy movement was how it instantly changed the discussion – albeit briefly – on inequality. Even the Republicans mouthed pieties that this was a real problem that needs a policy solution. That shows what happens when people take principled positions and stick to them. It also shows what happens when people take to the streets for nonviolent protest. It is why the right to assemble and redress grievances is as important a part of the First Amendment as freedom of the press, freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

The paradox is that when there are radicals in the streets raising hell on a principled position, it creates space for the “inside-the-system” crowd to actually get reforms accomplished. The 1960s and early 1970s is a great example of this. But the “inside-the-system” progressive crowd never quite gets that. To some extent it is because they gain their legitimacy by being border policemen, and denigrating those outside the corridors of power as irresponsible and not serious players.

How do you respond to those who argue that revolutionary economic change in the US is not possible because those who earn the minimum wage or are unemployed as a result of capitalist indifference often are ardently pro-capitalist and anti-socialist? This is documented particularly among whites who have only a high school education. What is the disconnect here in getting this demographic to join in systemic economic change that would benefit them?

Neil Postman tells the great story of two priests in a monastery who enjoy smoking every day during their morning prayers. They begin to wonder if this is sacrilegious, so they each wrote to the pope to get his benediction for their daily smoking fest. The first priest gets a letter back from the pope saying it is an insult to the faith to smoke during prayer time. The second priest gets a letter from the pope saying it is wonderful to smoke during prayer time. They looked at the two letters they had sent to the pope. The first priest asked the pope if it was OK to smoke during morning prayers and the pope was aghast in his response. The second priest asked if it was OK to go into a prayer while having a morning smoke. The pope was delighted to see the priest extending his spiritual commitment.

The problems we face are social problems – not individual ones – and require social solutions. That means political movements and activism.

The moral of the story: It is how one asks a question that shapes the type of answer you get. Because many of the best-known pollsters are stuck within a mainstream framework their questions accept and reinforce that framework. So one could probably ask a series of questions of white working-class people on fairness and justice that would make them look amenable to radical social change. These are not the sorts of questions that generally get asked.

It is striking that in recent years a few major pollsters have asked people whether they preferred capitalism or socialism. This would seem a loaded question because Americans know nothing about socialism except that it is a pejorative term to dismiss anyone whose ideas are considered out of bounds. Yet in recent years socialism has been almost as popular across the population as capitalism, and more popular among young Americans. That doesn’t say much about socialism, but it tells us a great deal about what the acceptance of really existing capitalism actually is. And that includes a lot for white working-class people.

This does not diminish the basis of your question, and the series of significant issues it raises, in particular, white supremacy and white racism and the role it plays. There are times that I am optimistic that we have made important headway on this issue and times that I am troubled by the lack of progress. It is a central issue in political organizing. In the book, I have a long chapter on the prison-industrial complex, and it is impossible to understand that phenomenon except through the lens of white racism.

You are a professor of communications at the University of Illinois. Are you seeing increased activism for economic change among the young people you teach and come in contact with?

Not really. There is clearly a willingness to take a harder look at capitalism and be critical of the obvious problems of the economic system today that was largely absent prior to 2008. Even my most conservative students want to get past the PR BS on free markets and understand why their future looks so grim. Students are more open-minded.

But the depoliticization of the past 40 years still weighs like a nightmare on their brains. Students are encouraged to see the world as it is and the solution is an individual solution, not a social one. Being “political” is a sign that someone is not cool and is a weirdo, and God forbid that is the last thing anyone wants to be accused of. This is an issue I write about at some length in the book, because those atop our society regard it as mission critical to keep the nation depoliticized. Their survival depends upon it.

But the problems we face are social problems – not individual ones – and require social solutions. That means political movements and activism. I am optimistic we are moving toward a more political moment as there really is no other credible option.

The book contains a chapter on the 2011 Wisconsin uprising against Scott Walker. What do you say to people who dismiss the historic, massive and lengthy protests in Madison as an anomaly – that the re-election of Scott Walker as governor of the state this year (2014) indicates that the revolt had no long-term impact?

It is too early to know what to make of the Wisconsin uprising, and to dismiss it categorically at this point is absurd. I was at the demonstrations almost every day for six weeks, and I was there as a member of the crowd and not as a “leader.” It was an extraordinary experience. What it taught me was that there is a wellspring of progressive and humane politics in people that is being repressed. The energy, the enthusiasm, the intelligence, the solidarity of the demonstrations was entirely unexpected and almost defies description. (Fortunately it does not, or I could not have written a chapter on it.)

The experience, like Occupy later in the year, raises all sorts of serious questions and issues for organizers going forward. But the idea that the re-election of Scott Walker proves it flopped seems wrong to me, though I can understand the idea. Walker’s victory in the 2012 recall election and then his 2014 re-election has much more to do with: 1) the idiocy of the Wisconsin Democratic Party, which ran incomprehensibly terrible campaigns, especially in 2012; 2) how low voter turnout is crucial to right-wing success – Scott Walker could not win a statewide election in a presidential year when the turnout is closer to 60 percent than 40 percent of adults; 3) money means everything and Scott Walker had unbelievable amounts of it, largely from out-of-state gazillionaires; 4) the absence of journalism means people were increasingly reliant upon asinine TV political ads; and 5) Scott Walker had enough money to flood the airwaves with his propaganda. And it was world-class propaganda.

The importance of media reform in achieving a robust democracy is something you frequently return to. Can you briefly discuss the top three media reform steps that you recommend at the end of the book?

I argue that some of the most brilliant left thinkers of the postwar era moved toward a position that democratizing the media system was central to creating a democratic socialism. I did this research with my buddy Duke Foster because much of it has been ignored or forgotten with the demise of the New Left and the long winter of neoliberalism in the 1970s.

I believe that is still the case, and I believe that communication is an area where there are immediate demands to be developed that can be foundational to a post-capitalist democracy in the United States. I also believe – in fact, I know from personal experience – that each of these issues has the potential for support outside of the political left, even among self-described conservatives. First, let’s eliminate the ISP cartel of Verizon, Comcast and AT&T. Those mega-corporations have divvied up the broadband market and as a result the US pays a fortune for crappy service for broadband, cable, satellite and cell phones. These firms are parasites pure and simple, and play no productive role. There is a magnificent already successful alternative with municipal broadband, and we should have that nationally. These firms – all based on government monopoly franchises and their control of politicians and regulators – have to go. Broadband should be ubiquitous and free.

Ironically, as I motioned before, as radical as this sounds, it is actually a measure that has great appeal to businesses that do not benefit directly from the existence of the cartel. Businesses would love to lower their own costs and also have much better speeds and service for their markets.

What we need is to recognize that journalism is a public good, something society desperately needs but that the market cannot and will not generate in sufficient quantity or quality.

Second, as I also mentioned above, the digital revolution has spawned a dozen or so super-monopolies that dominate not only communication, but capitalism itself. The digital revolution permeates every aspect of the economy. These dozen or so firms simply have too much power for democracy to successfully co-exist with it. It is not just economic power, but political power, that is the concern. This is not simply a left-wing concern. Indeed, it was Henry Simons, Milton Friedman’s mentor at the University of Chicago, who said monopolies were unacceptable, because they destroyed competitive capitalism as well as genuine democracy and the rule of law. The laissez faire champion Simons said if the giants could not be effectively broken into smaller pieces, they should be taken over by the government and run like the post office. I think that is a good way to understand what to do with these giants, especially now that we know the dreadful consequences of their lucrative and secretive marriage with the national security state.

Finally, the resources going toward journalism are in free fall collapse, as the commercial model is evaporating. I have written about this at length for years and will not repeat the analysis here. Nor will I discuss how the absence of journalism produces an existential crisis for any known theory of self-government, and with that the preservation of our freedoms. In a nutshell, advertising provided the lion’s share of support for news media for the past 125 years, and, with the internet, that support has disappeared for the most part. Hence we have maybe 40 percent of the working reporters and editors as we did a generation ago on a per capita basis. It is only going to get worse. (In the book, I have some new research on how Walter Lippmann assessed the last great crisis in journalism almost 100 years ago. It has some important lessons for us.)

What we need is to recognize that journalism is a public good, something society desperately needs but that the market cannot and will not generate in sufficient quantity or quality. We need extensive public support but without government control over who gets the money. That is the great public policy issue we face and a lot is riding on whether we rise to the occasion. The same problem faces every nation on the planet, though each country has somewhat different circumstances.

In the book, I develop an idea that I have written about a good deal in the past, the notion of the $200 voucher. Basically every person over 18 can allocate $200 of government money to any recognized nonprofit news medium of her choice. The core idea comes from Milton Friedman, who accepted that it was necessary to have government funding for education, but did not want to have government-run schools. Friedman’s voucher scheme proved to be a crappy idea for public education, but it is a brilliant idea for news media. You get up to a $40 billion annual subsidy with no government control over who gets the money. Anyone who accepts the vouchers cannot also accept advertising so there is no competition for what little remains of commercial news media. Anything produced as a result of the vouchers must be put online for free immediately and enter the public domain, so anyone can use the work. And people can change their allocation every year so there is tremendous competition to win support.

The idea is becoming increasingly popular. I think it is an idea whose time has come.

Mark Karlin

Mark Karlin is the editor of BuzzFlash at Truthout.  He served as editor and publisher of BuzzFlash for 10 years before joining Truthout in 2010.  BuzzFlash has won four Project Censored Awards. Karlin writes a commentary five days a week for BuzzFlash, as well as articles for Truthout. He also interviews authors and filmmakers whose works are featured in Truthout’s Progressive Picks of the Week.


The Collapse of Journalism, and the Journalism of Collapse

By Robert Jensen, May 2013, The Rag Blog | News Analysis, Truthout

For those who believe that a robust public-affairs journalism is essential for a society striving to be democratic, the 21st century has been characterized by bad news that keeps getting worse.

Whatever one’s evaluation of traditional advertising-supported news media (and I have been among its critics; more on that later), the unraveling of that business model has left us with fewer professional journalists who are being paid a living wage to do original reporting. It’s unrealistic to imagine that journalism can flourish without journalists who have the time and resources to do journalism.

For those who care about a robust human presence on the planet, the 21st century has been characterized by really bad news that keeps getting really, really worse.

Whatever one’s evaluation of high-energy/high-technology civilization (and I have been among its critics; more on that later), it’s now clear that we are hitting physical limits; we cannot expect to maintain contemporary levels of consumption that draw down the ecological capital of the planet at rates dramatically beyond replacement levels. It’s unrealistic to imagine that we can go on treating the planet as nothing more than a mine from which we extract and a landfill into which we dump.

We have no choice but to deal with the collapse of journalism, but we also should recognize the need for a journalism of collapse. Everyone understands that economic changes are forcing a refashioning of the journalism profession. It’s long past time for everyone to pay attention to how multiple, cascading ecological crises should be changing professional journalism’s mission in even more dramatic fashion.

It’s time for an apocalyptic journalism (that takes some explaining; a lot more on that later).

The basics of journalism: Ideals and limitations

With the rapid expansion of journalistic-like material on the Internet, it’s especially crucial to define “real” journalism. In a democratic system, ideally journalism is a critical, independent source of information, analysis, and the varied opinions needed by citizens who want to play a meaningful role in the formation of public policy.

The key terms are “critical” and “independent” — to fulfill the promise of a free press, journalists must be willing to critique not only specific people and policies, but the systems out of which they emerge, and they must be as free as possible from constraining influences, both overt and subtle.

Also included in that definition of journalism is an understanding of democracy — “a meaningful role in the formation of public policy” — as more than just lining up to vote in elections that offer competing sets of elites who represent roughly similar programs. Meaningful democracy involves meaningful participation.

This discussion will focus on what is typically called mainstream journalism, the corporate-commercial news media. These are the journalists who work for daily newspapers, broadcast and cable television, and the corporately owned platforms on the internet and other digital devices.

Although there are many types of independent and alternative journalism of varying quality, the vast majority of Americans continue to receive the vast majority of their news from these mainstream sources, which are almost always organized as large corporations and funded primarily by advertising.

Right-wing politicians and commentators sometimes refer to the mainstream media as the “lamestream,” implying that journalists are comically incompetent and incapable of providing an accurate account of the world, likely due to a lack of understanding of conservative people and their ideas. While many elite journalists may be dismissive of the cultural values of conservatives, this critique ignores the key questions about journalism’s relationship to power.

Focusing on the cultural politics of individual reporters and editors — pointing out that they tend to be less religious and more supportive of gay and women’s rights than the general public, for example — diverts attention from more crucial questions about how the institutional politics of corporate owners and managers shapes the news and keeps mainstream journalism within a centrist/right conventional wisdom.

The managers of commercial news organizations in the United States typically reject that claim by citing the unbreachable “firewall” between the journalistic and the business sides of the operation, which is supposed to allow journalists to pursue any story without interference from the corporate front office.

This exchange I had with a newspaper editor captures the ideology: After listening to my summary of this critique of the U.S. commercial news media system, this editor (let’s call him Joe) told me proudly: “No one from corporate headquarters has ever called me to tell me what to run in my paper.” I asked Joe if it were possible that he simply had internalized the value system of the folks who run the corporation (and, by extension, the folks who run most of the world), and therefore they never needed to give him direct instructions.

He rejected that, reasserting his independence from any force outside his newsroom.

I countered: “Let’s say, for the purposes of discussion, that you and I were equally capable journalists in terms of professional skills, that we were both reasonable candidates for the job of editor-in-chief that you hold. If we had both applied for the job, do you think your corporate bosses would have ever considered me for the position, given my politics? Would I, for even a second, have been seen by them to be a viable candidate for the job?”

Joe’s politics are pretty conventional, well within the range of mainstream Republicans and Democrats — he supports big business and U.S. supremacy in global politics and economics. I’m a critic of capitalism and U.S. foreign policy. On some political issues, Joe and I would agree, but we diverge sharply on these core questions of the nature of the economy and the state.

Joe pondered my question and conceded that I was right, that his bosses would never hire someone with my politics, no matter how qualified, to run one of their newspapers. The conversation trailed off, and we parted without resolving our differences.

I would like to think my critique at least got Joe to question his platitudes, but I never saw any evidence of that. In his subsequent writing and public comments that I read and heard, Joe continued to assert that a news media system dominated by for-profit corporations was the best way to produce the critical, independent journalism that citizens in a democracy needed.

Because he was in a position of some privilege and status, nothing compelled Joe to respond to my challenge.

Partly as a result of many such unproductive conversations, I continue to search for new ways to present a critique of mainstream journalism that might break through that ideological wall. In addition to thinking about alternatives to this traditional business model, we should confront the limitations of the corresponding professional model, with its status-quo-supportive ideology of neutrality, balance, and objectivity.

Can we create conditions under which journalism — deeply critical and truly independent — can flourish in these trying times?

In this essay I want to try out theological concepts of the royal, prophetic, and apocalyptic traditions. Though journalism is a secular institution, religion can provide a helpful vocabulary. The use of these terms is not meant to imply support for any particular religious tradition, or for religion more generally, but only recognizes that the fundamental struggles of human history play out in religious and secular settings, and we can learn from all of that history.

With a focus on the United States, I’ll draw on the concepts as they are understood in the dominant U.S. tradition of Judaism and Christianity.

Royal journalism

Most of today’s mainstream corporate-commercial journalism — the work done by people such as Joe — is royal journalism, using the term “royal” not to describe a specific form of executive power but as a description of a system that centralizes authority and marginalizes the needs of ordinary people.

The royal tradition describes ancient Israel, the Roman empire, European monarchs, or contemporary America — societies in which those with concentrated wealth and power can ignore the needs of the bulk of the population, societies where the wealthy and powerful offer platitudes about their beneficence as they pursue policies to enrich themselves.

In his books The Prophetic Imagination and The Practice of Prophetic Imagination, theologian Walter Brueggemann points out that this royal consciousness took hold after ancient Israel sank into disarray, when Solomon overturned Moses — affluence, oppressive social policy, and static religion replaced a God of liberation with one used to serve an empire.

This consciousness develops not only in top leaders but throughout the privileged sectors, often filtering down to a wider public that accepts royal power. Brueggemann labels this a false consciousness: “The royal consciousness leads people to numbness, especially to numbness about death.”

The inclusion of the United States in a list of royalist societies may seem odd, given the democratic traditions of the country, but consider a nation that has been at war for more than a decade, in which economic inequality and the resulting suffering has dramatically deepened for the past four decades, in which climate change denial has increased as the evidence of the threat becomes undeniable. Brueggemann describes such a culture as one that is “competent to implement almost anything and to imagine almost nothing.”

Almost all mainstream corporate-commercial journalism is, in this sense, royal journalism. It is journalism without the imagination needed to move outside the framework created by the dominant systems of power. CNN, MSNBC, and FOX News all practice royal journalism. The New York Times is ground zero for royal journalism.

Marking these institutions as royalist doesn’t mean that no good journalism ever emerges from them, or that they employ no journalists who are capable of challenging royal arrangements. Instead, the term recognizes that these institutions lack the imagination necessary to step outside of the royal consciousness on a regular basis. Over time, they add to the numbness rather than jolt people out of it.

The royal consciousness of our day is defined by unchallengeable commitments to a high-energy/high-technology worldview, within a hierarchical economy, run by an imperial nation-state. These technological, economic, and national fundamentalisms produce a certain kind of story about ourselves, which encourages the belief that we can have anything we want without obligations to other peoples or other living things, and that we deserve this.

Brueggemann argues that this bolsters notions of “U.S. exceptionalism that gives warrant to the usurpatious pursuit of commodities in the name of freedom, at the expense of the neighbor.”

If one believes royal arrangements are just and sustainable, then royal journalism could be defended. If the royal tradition is illegitimate, than a different journalism is necessary.

Prophetic journalism 

Given the multiple crises that existing political, economic, and social systems have generated, the ideals of journalism call for a prophetic journalism. The first step in defending that claim is to remember what real prophets are not: They are not people who predict the future or demand that others follow them in lockstep.

In the Hebrew Bible and Christian New Testament, prophets are the figures who remind the people of the best of the tradition and point out how the people have strayed. In those traditions, using our prophetic imagination and speaking in a prophetic voice requires no special status in society, and no sense of being special. Claiming the prophetic tradition requires only honesty and courage.

When we strip away supernatural claims and delusions of grandeur, we can understand the prophetic as the calling out of injustice, the willingness not only to confront the abuses of the powerful but to acknowledge our own complicity. To speak prophetically requires us first to see honestly — both how our world is structured by systems that create unjust and unsustainable conditions, and how we who live in the privileged parts of the world are implicated in those systems.

To speak prophetically is to refuse to shrink from what we discover or from our own place in these systems. We must confront the powers that be, and ourselves.

The Hebrew Bible offers us many models. Amos and Hosea, Jeremiah and Isaiah — all rejected the pursuit of wealth or power and argued for the centrality of kindness and justice. The prophets condemned corrupt leaders but also called out all those privileged people in society who had turned from the demands of justice, which the faith makes central to human life.

In his analysis of these prophets, the scholar and activist Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel concluded:

Above all, the prophets remind us of the moral state of a people: Few are guilty, but all are responsible. If we admit that the individual is in some measure conditioned or affected by the spirit of society, an individual’s crime discloses society’s corruption.

Critical of royal consciousness, Brueggemann argues that the task of those speaking prophetically is to “penetrate the numbness in order to face the body of death in which we are caught” and “penetrate despair so that new futures can be believed in and embraced by us.” He encourages preachers to think of themselves as “handler[s] of the prophetic tradition,” a job description that also applies to other intellectual professions, including journalism.

Brueggemann argues that this isn’t about intellectuals imposing their views and values on others, but about being willing to “connect the dots”:

Prophetic preaching does not put people in crisis. Rather it names and makes palpable the crisis already pulsing among us. When the dots are connected, it will require naming the defining sins among us of environmental abuse, neighborly disregard, long-term racism, self-indulgent consumerism, all the staples from those ancient truthtellers translated into our time and place.

None of this requires journalists to advocate for specific politicians, parties, or political programs; we don’t need journalists to become propagandists. Journalists should strive for real independence but not confuse that with an illusory neutrality that traps mainstream journalists within ideological boundaries defined by the powerful.

Again, real independence means the ability to critique not just the worst abuses by the powerful within the systems, but to critique the systems themselves.

This prophetic calling is consistent with the aphorism many journalists claim as a shorthand mission statement: The purpose of journalism is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. That phrase focuses on injustice within human societies, but what of the relationship of human beings to the larger living world? How should journalists understand their mission in that arena?

Ecological realities

Let’s put analysis of journalism on hold and think about the larger world in which journalism operates. Journalistic ideals and norms should change as historical conditions change, and today that means facing tough questions about ecological sustainability.

There is considerable evidence to help us evaluate the health of the ecosphere on which our own lives depend, and an honest evaluation of that evidence leads to a disturbing conclusion: Life as we know it is almost over. That is, the high-energy/high-technology life that we in the affluent societies live is a dead-end.

There is a growing realization that we have disrupted planetary forces in ways we cannot control and do not fully understand. We cannot predict the specific times and places where dramatic breakdowns will occur, but we can know that the living system on which we depend is breaking down.

Does that seem histrionic? Excessively alarmist? Look at any crucial measure of the health of the ecosphere in which we live — groundwater depletion, topsoil loss, chemical contamination, increased toxicity in our own bodies, the number and size of “dead zones” in the oceans, accelerating extinction of species and reduction of bio-diversity — and the news is bad.

Add to that the mother of all ecological crises — global warming, climate change, climate disruption — and it’s clear that we are creating a planet that cannot indefinitely support a large-scale human presence living this culture’s idea of the good life.

We also live in an oil-based world that is rapidly depleting the cheap and easily accessible oil, which means we face a huge reconfiguration of the infrastructure that undergirds our lives. Meanwhile, the desperation to avoid that reconfiguration has brought us to the era of “extreme energy” using even more dangerous and destructive technologies (hydrofracturing, deep-water drilling, mountain-top removal, tar sands extraction) to get at the remaining hydrocarbons.

Where we are heading? Off the rails? Into the wall? Over the cliff? Pick your favorite metaphor. Scientists these days are talking about tipping points and planetary boundaries, about how human activity is pushing the planet beyond its limits.

Recently 22 top scientists in the prestigious journal Nature warned that humans likely are forcing a planetary-scale critical transition “with the potential to transform Earth rapidly and irreversibly into a state unknown in human experience.” That means that “the biological resources we take for granted at present may be subject to rapid and unpredictable transformations within a few human generations.”

That means that we’re in trouble, not in some imaginary science-fiction future, but in our present reality. We can’t pretend all that’s needed is tinkering with existing systems to fix a few environmental problems; significant changes in how we live are required. No matter where any one of us sits in the social and economic hierarchies, there is no escape from the dislocations that will come with such changes.

Money and power might insulate some from the most wrenching consequences of these shifts, but there is no permanent escape. We do not live in stable societies and no longer live on a stable planet. We may feel safe and secure in specific places at specific times, but it’s hard to believe in any safety and security in a collective sense.

In short, we live in apocalyptic times.


To be clear: Speaking apocalyptically need not be limited to claims that the world will end on a guru’s timetable or according to some allegedly divine plan. Lots of apocalyptic visions — religious and secular — offer such certainty, imaging the replacement of a corrupt society by one structured on principles that will redeem humanity (or at least redeem those who sign onto the principles). But this need not be our only understanding of the term.

Most discussions of revelation and apocalypse in contemporary America focus on the Book of Revelation, also known as The Apocalypse of John, the final book of the Christian New Testament. The two terms are synonymous in their original meaning; “revelation” from Latin and “apocalypse” from Greek both mean a lifting of the veil, a disclosure of something hidden from most people, a coming to clarity.

Many scholars interpret the Book of Revelation not as a set of predictions about the future but as a critique of the oppression of the empire of that day, Rome.

To speak apocalyptically, in this tradition, is first and foremost about deepening our understanding of the world, seeing through the obfuscations of people in power. In our propaganda-saturated world (think about the amount of advertising, public relations, and marketing that we are bombarded with daily), coming to that kind of clarity about the nature of the empires of our day is always a struggle, and that notion of revelation is more crucial than ever.

Thinking apocalyptically, coming to this clarity, will force us to confront crises that concentrated wealth and power create, and reflect on our role in these systems. Given the severity of the human assault on the ecosphere, compounded by the suffering and strife within the human family, honest apocalyptic thinking that is firmly grounded in a systematic evaluation of the state of the world is not only sensible but a moral obligation.

Rather than thinking of revelation as divine delivery of a clear message about some fantastic future above, we can engage in an ongoing process of revelation that results from an honest struggle to understand, a process that requires a lot of effort.

Things are bad, systems are failing, and the status quo won’t last forever. Thinking apocalyptically in this fashion demands of us considerable courage and commitment. This process will not produce definitive answers but rather help us identify new directions.

Again, to be very clear: “Apocalypse” in this context does not mean lakes of fire, rivers of blood, or bodies lifted up to heaven. The shift from the prophetic to the apocalyptic can instead mark the point when hope in the viability of existing systems is no longer possible and we must think in dramatically new ways.

Invoking the apocalyptic recognizes the end of something. It’s not about rapture but a rupture severe enough to change the nature of the whole game.

Apocalyptic journalism

The prophetic imagination helps us analyze the historical moment we’re in, but it’s based on an implicit faith that the systems in which we live can be reshaped to stop the worst consequences of the royal consciousness, to shake off that numbness of death in time.

What if that is no longer possible? Then it is time to think about what’s on the other side. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” said Martin Luther King, Jr., one of the more well-known voices in the prophetic tradition. But if the arc is now bending toward a quite different future, a different approach is needed.

Because no one can predict the future, these two approaches are not mutually exclusive; people should not be afraid to think prophetically and apocalyptically at the same time. We can simultaneously explore immediate changes in the existing systems and think about new systems.

Invoking the prophetic in the face of royal consciousness does not promise quick change and a carefree future, but it implies that a disastrous course can be corrected. But what if the justification for such hope evaporates? When prophetic warnings have not been heeded, what comes next? This is the time when an apocalyptic sensibility is needed.

Fred Guterl, the executive editor of Scientific American, models that spirit in his book The Fate of the Species. Though he describes himself on the “techno-optimistic side of the spectrum,” he does not shy away from a blunt discussion of the challenges humans face:

There’s no going back on our reliance on computers and high-tech medicine, agriculture, power generation, and so forth without causing vast human suffering — unless you want to contemplate reducing the world population by many billions of people. We have climbed out on a technological limb, and turning back is a disturbing option. We are dependent on our technology, yet our technology now presents the seeds of our own destruction. It’s a dilemma. I don’t pretend to have a way out. We should start by being aware of the problem.

I don’t share Guterl’s techno-optimism, but it strikes me as different from a technological fundamentalism (the quasi-religious belief that the use of advanced technology is always a good thing and that any problems caused by the unintended consequences of such technology can be remedied by more technology) that assumes that humans can invent themselves out of any problem. Guterl doesn’t deny the magnitude of the problems and recognizes the real possibility, perhaps even the inevitability, of massive social dislocation:

[W]e’re going to need the spirit with which these ideas were hatched to solve the problems we have created. Tossing aside technological optimism is not a realistic option. This doesn’t mean technology is going to save us. We may still be doomed. But without it, we are surely doomed.

Closer to my own assessment is James Lovelock, a Fellow of the Royal Society, whose work led to the detection of the widespread presence of CFCs in the atmosphere. Most famous for his “Gaia hypothesis” that understands both the living and non-living parts of the earth as a complex system that can be thought of as a single organism, he suggests that we face these stark realities immediately:

The great party of the twentieth century is coming to an end, and unless we now start preparing our survival kit we will soon be just another species eking out an existence in the few remaining habitable regions. … We should be the heart and mind of the Earth, not its malady. So let us be brave and cease thinking of human needs and rights alone and see that we have harmed the living Earth and need to make our peace with Gaia.

Anything that blocks us from looking honestly at reality, no matter how harsh the reality, must be rejected. It’s a lot to ask, of people and of journalists, to not only think about this, but put it at the center of our lives. What choice do we have? To borrow from one of 20th century America’s most honest writers, James Baldwin, “Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

That line is from an essay titled “As Much Truth as One Can Bear,” about the struggles of artists to help a society, such as the white-supremacist America, face the depth of its pathology. Baldwin suggested that a great writer attempts “to tell as much of the truth as one can bear, and then a little more.” If we think of Baldwin as sounding a prophetic call, an apocalyptic invocation would be “to tell as much of the truth as one can bear, and then all the rest of the truth, whether we can bear it or not.”

That task is difficult enough when people are relatively free to pursue inquiry without external constraints. Are the dominant corporate-commercial/advertising-supported media outlets likely to encourage journalists to pursue the projects that might lead to such questions? If not, the apocalyptic journalism we need is more likely to emerge from the margins, where people are not trapped by illusions of neutrality or concerned about professional status.


That subhead is not an editing oversight. I wish there were an easy solution, an upbeat conclusion. I don’t have one. I’ve never heard anyone else articulate one. To face the world honestly at this moment in human history likely means giving up on easy and upbeat.

The apocalyptic tradition reminds us that the absence of hope does not have to leave us completely hopeless, that life is always at the same time about death, and then rejuvenation. If we don’t have easy, upbeat solutions and conclusions, we have the ability to keep telling stories of struggle. Our stories do not change the physical world, but they have the potential to change us. In that sense, the poet Muriel Rukeyser was right when she said, “The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.”

To think apocalyptically is not to give up on ourselves, but only to give up on the arrogant stories that we modern humans have been telling about ourselves. The royal must give way to the prophetic and the apocalyptic. The central story that power likes to tell — that the domination/subordination dynamic that structures so much of modern life is natural and inevitable — must give way to stories of dignity, solidarity, equality. We must resist not only the cruelty of repression but the seduction of comfort.

The best journalists in our tradition have seen themselves as responsible for telling stories about the struggle for social justice. Today, we can add stories about the struggle for ecological sustainability to that mission. Our hope for a decent future — indeed, any hope for even the idea of a future — depends on our ability to tell stories not of how humans have ruled the world but how we can live in the world.

Whether or not we like it, we are all apocalyptic now.

This article was also published at AlterNet.


What Watchdog? How the Financial Press Has Failed the American Public

AlterNet [1] / By Laura Gottesdiener [2]  January 9, 2013  |

…2013 is already shaping up to be another year of government-backed wins for Wall Street. As the New York Times’ Gretchen Morgenson wrote, “If you were hoping that things might be different in 2013 — you know, that bankers would be held responsible for bad behavior or that the government might actually assist troubled homeowners — you can forget it.…”…The lack of outrage or investigation by mainstream media comes in stark contrast to the public response to the settlement announcements….So if readers are hungering for more information and outrage, why is the mainstream press so soft on Wall Street? Is it the last three decades’ rampant media consolidation, which has put 90 percent of the nation’s media in the hands of only six major corporations? [5] (That’s down from 50 companies in 1983.) Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Dean Starkman, whose 2009 Columbia Journalism Review article “Power Problem [6]outlined just how badly the financial press failed in the lead-up to 2006 [was asked]  what’s the role of the press–if it’s doing its job? [ and said] “To me, journalism is particularly important because it is the oxygen of democracy. At its best, it is the main thing that is capable of explaining complex problems to a mass audience.That’s its most critical role–and its most difficult task.”…

Full text

From revelations about this week’s hasty, multibillion-dollar bank settlement [3]s to AIG’s brief threat to sue the federal government for its own $128-billion bailout (which the company contends wasn’t as generous as other bailouts), 2013 is already shaping up to be another year of government-backed wins for Wall Street.

As the New York Times’ Gretchen Morgenson wrote, “If you were hoping that things might be different in 2013 — you know, that bankers would be held responsible for bad behavior or that the government might actually assist troubled homeowners — you can forget it. A settlement reportedly in the works with big banks will soon end a review into foreclosure [4] abuses, and it means more of the same: no accountability for financial institutions and little help for borrowers.”

This type of clear condemnation of Wall Street and its lack of accountability remains a rare voice in mainstream media, with few willing to join Morgenson and Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi on their crusades against banking abuses.

The lack of outrage or investigation by mainstream media comes in stark contrast to the public response to the settlement announcements. The comments sections of settlement-related articles are bursting with scathing comments–including demands for both criminal prosecution for bankers and more investigative journalism in the U.S. In an LA Times poll, 94 percent [3] of respondents said that this latest settlement agreement lacked appropriate transparency.

So if readers are hungering for more information and outrage, why is the mainstream press so soft on Wall Street? Is it the last three decades’ rampant media consolidation, which has put 90 percent of the nation’s media in the hands of only six major corporations? [5] (That’s down from 50 companies in 1983.) What about the increasing magazine and newspaper ad revenue coming directly from Wall Street? Or perhaps it’s even due to a redefinition of what constititues financial journalism?

Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Dean Starkman, whose 2009 Columbia Journalism Review article “Power Problem [6]outlined just how badly the financial press failed in the lead-up to 2006, has some ideas.

Laura Gottesdiener: Thanks, Dean, for taking the time to talk. To start simple: In your mind, what’s the role of the press–if it’s doing its job?

Dean Starkman: To me, journalism is particularly important because it is the oxygen of democracy. At its best, it is the main thing that is capable of explaining complex problems to a mass audience.That’s its most critical role–and its most difficult task.

Looking back over the 20th century, the great stories are the ones that pull the curtain back on things that are truly complex, baffling and dangerous problems. I’m thinking particularly of an iconic story that journalists stand up and salute: the Standard Oil series from 1902-1904. This knowledge allowed the public to participate in the question of trusts, and the rest is literally history. The government filed an anti-trust case, and Standard Oil was broken up in 1911. That’s the gold standard, the benchmark for journalism.

LG: So how does this relate to today’s financial press?

DS: The financial system is almost deliberately complex; there’s that famous quote by the head of Morgan Stanley, when he said something along the lines of, “We create things that people don’t understand on purpose.”

To me the business press is put on earth to help the public understand complex problems, and certainly the mortgage frenzy was one of them. And that’s where I have a bone to pick with the financial press.

LG:That’s a nice way of putting it. In your piece you call the lead-up to 2006 a “general system failure” for the media, and wrote that the post-crash reporting gave the “short shrift to the breathtaking corruption that overran the mortgage business.”You also diagnosed the financial press today with Stockholm Syndrome.

So what’s going on?

DS: It’s not fully appreciated that there’s been a big power shift between the big media and the institutions that it covers in the last 20 years. When you think of the 1990s, finance was a really powerful industry, but so was media. In the mid-1990s, Dow Jones, which publishes the Wall Street Journal, was almost the same size of Morgan Stanley. Now Morgan Stanley is literally 30 times larger than the New York Times company.

This power shift is almost an intangible thing, but you cannot discount it as part of the story of the rising sense of empowerment and entitlement on Wall Street and an increasing sense of deference from the business press. Also, you can’t deny that the collapse of financial regulation in the early Bush administration plays a role. The press relies, not to a fully appreciated degree, on a financial regulatory system because that generates a lot of paperwork.

LG:Still, sometimes it feels like mainstream media doesn’t only fail to investigate Wall Street’s crimes–they actually helped facilitate them. Is the business press itself an accomplice?

DS: The biggest problem during this period was this narrowing definition of what constitutes a business story. There are fights over what journalism is, and you can divide journalism into two great competing schools. One is the access school, and the other is the accountability school.

In the lead-up to 2006, the accountability school was increasingly marginalized and in retreat, while the access school–doing the profile and getting the scoop on deals–became much more prominent. And so the big missed story–the accountability story–was the radicalization of the financial system, particularly in mortgage lending and discussions of subprime and predatory lending.

Meanwhile, when I went back and reread some of the coverage by really good reporters from really good magazines, the coverage of Wall Street, even if it was well intended, actually helped to exacerbate the crisis and add flames to the frenzy. Things like positive profiles of Wall Street executives made things worse and made the world worse. Unwittingly maybe, but so what?

LG:That reminds me of Vanity Fair’s glowing profile [7] of Jamie Dimon recently.

So what about today? Even now that the radicalization of Wall Street is obvious, it still seems like mainstream media oscillates between blaming borrowers and banks.

DS: In another debate between schools of journalism, right now it’s a jump ball between the structuralists and the behavioralists. In the case of the mortgage crisis, behavioralists argue that people lost their ability to understand and manage debt, while structuralists believe that people don’t change, that markets change–and that the market changed.

Of course, structuralists are right and behavioralists really don’t have a leg to stand on. The structuralists aren’t only right, all the evidence is on their side.

But the cultural argument of behavioralists still has a lot of saliency, and for lazy reporters it’s easy because all you have to do is make the assertion about human nature, and that’s the end of the discussion.

LG:So, what’s the effect of having the behavioral-based articles in mass media?

DS: What it really does is that it shifts the gaze entirely off the institutions that these papers are supposed to be covering and onto an amorphous public that can’t fight back. Put it this way: If you blame Goldman Sachs, you will hear from Goldman Sachs. But if you blame the public, no one is going to call you. No one is there to stick up for the borrowers.

LG:It’s well documented now that minorities were widely discriminated against by the mortgage industry, and continue to be abused by banks’ failures to upkeep real estate-owned property, just to name one current problem. But if mainstream media articles are using the behavioralist theory, how does this type of blame get allocated?

The behavioralists theory does align with racist attitudes. For example: the mortgage crisis was one of these huge generational setbacks for the black community, and that’s one of those things that was essentially dropped by the press. It’s very poorly understood and documented, and it’s one of the most under-covered aspects of this story.

LG: I understand you’re working on a new book that’s going to take the financial press to task. Can you give us a sneak preview?

DS: Sure. It’s calledThe Watchdog That Didn’t Bark, and it’s forthcoming from Columbia University Press. The book is going to be an argument for watchdog journalism and accountability reporting.

There’s a long tradition of accountability reporting in American business media, and I hope this book will be a revelation to people who think the financial press only reports on investor news, because it’s actually done things that are quite radical in the past. Starting in the early 20th century, we had an emerging business press covering the market, but it had a completely different gaze. It used this form to expose the monopolies and to set the country on the road to reform.

So, I’ll be talking about that particular line of journalism, the origins of business news and the things that impair business news today. In the past the financial press has taken on quite a robust watchdog function.

LG:Last question: It doesn’t seem like financial reporting today is all that much better than it was in the lead-up to the crisis. But what about the future?

DS: There’s no reason to think it’s going to get dramatically worse from here. What we went through was crazy. It was a near-death experience.

Source URL: http://www.alternet.org/corporate-accountability-and-workplace/what-watchdog-how-financial-press-has-failed-american-public

[1] http://www.alternet.org
[2] http://www.alternet.org/authors/laura-gottesdiener
[3] http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-mo-banks-settlement-20130106,0,6497379.story
[4] http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/subjects/f/foreclosures/index.html?inline=nyt-classifier
[5] http://www.businessinsider.com/these-6-corporations-control-90-of-the-media-in-america-2012-6
[6] http://www.cjr.org/cover_story/power_problem.php?page=all
[7] http://www.vanityfair.com/business/2012/11/jamie-dimon-tom-brady-hang-in-there
[8] http://www.alternet.org/tags/banking-0
[9] http://www.alternet.org/tags/watchdog
[10] http://www.alternet.org/tags/mainstream-media
[11] http://www.alternet.org/tags/bailout-0
[12] http://www.alternet.org/tags/settlement
[13] http://www.alternet.org/tags/wall-street
[14] http://www.alternet.org/tags/crimes-0
[15] http://www.alternet.org/%2Bnew_src%2B