Saturday, December 10, 2005

BOOK REVIEW: Do McChesney-Nichols blame government for media crisis?

Or search "Book blames government for media crisis" at
Posted on Fri, Dec. 09, 2005

The Associated Press

NEW YORK - As with lots of pressing issues people grapple with, complaints about the media invite a partisan clash: liberal vs. conservative; Democrat vs. Republican. Or some other "us" against a readily targeted "them."

But maybe there's a more useful, even unifying mind-set: to see the media delivery system for news, entertainment and other programming as being skewed in a cross-the-board, nondoctrinaire way. The media industry is catered to by government policies that ill serve all media consumers, "us" and "them" alike, a new book charges.

"The media crisis is not due to incompetent or corrupt journalists or owners, but rather to a highly concentrated profit-driven media system that makes it rational to gut journalism and irrational to provide the content a free society so desperately requires."

So says "Tragedy & Farce: How the American Media Sell Wars, Spin Elections and Destroy Democracy," written by media activists John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney.

The book takes its title from Founding Father James Madison's observation that "a popular Government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy or perhaps both."

Still good advice. As the book points out, much of the "popular information" dispensed by the media today routinely dwells on celebrity fluff and tawdry crime. Coverage of last year's presidential race paid short shrift to the current war while obsessing on the candidates' military service in a war that ended 30 years earlier.

Meanwhile, thanks to scapegoating as well as self-inflicted wounds, the media too often becomes the story - while other, more important stories go untold.

Make way for tragedy and farce!

"Let's be careful about saying 'Oh, it's right-wing media' or 'It's left-wing media,'" Nichols cautions. "This media system creates results in and of itself, which tend to favor the desire of the status quo, of those in power, and tend to undermine the ability of dissenters to be heard - whether they're on the left or the right."

Squabbling over which outlet is more biased - Fox News Channel or the New York Times - may be good sport, but it ignores the underlying cause.

"Media is the way it is because of decisions made by Congress and the FCC that are not particularly healthy for a democracy," declares Nichols, who is the Washington correspondent for The Nation magazine. "Our media has become more concentrated and more national in its ownership, and less connected at the local level to the people."

Adds McChesney, a communications professor at the University of Illinois, "You have to understand what created this system: a series of government policies and subsidies enacted behind closed doors without public involvement."

Much of it falls under the rubric of "media deregulation." But more often than not, McChesney argues, so-called deregulation advances the interests of the dominant corporate players, further ensuring their dominance while imposing upon them few if any civic obligations (even for government-licensed broadcasters using public airwaves).

The media is more concerned with "filling time and entertaining the audience," says Nichols, "than informing them and getting to the truth. Knowing what's going on with Michael Jackson or the Laci Petersen trial does not provide you with sufficient information to act as a citizen."

But as dire as the situation may be, it is not hopeless. A "take back the media" movement is gathering steam. The public was roused in 2003 when the five-member Federal Communications Commission, discounting widespread opposition, voted to relax existing limits on how much of the U.S. audience a single media company can reach with its TV stations, and how many broadcast outlets one company may own in any market.

The FCC's deregulation package ultimately was thrown out by a federal court, which in its ruling cited that unprecedented citizen uproar.It's a good start on the road "to changing the institutional climate," says McChesney. "We have to change the policies, regulations and subsidies upon which our current media system is built."

One forum for reform is Free Press, the Web site founded by McChesney and Nichols (along with campaign finance activist Josh Silver) to boost public participation in media policy debates.

"Just as the environment is treated as an issue, media - not liberal or conservative media - ought to be the issue," says Nichols. "When citizens get involved, we think they will find a great deal of common ground."

EDITOR'S NOTE - Frazier Moore can be reached at


© 2005 AP Wire and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.


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