In this session, we conclude our discussion of Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism Is Turning the Internet Against Democracy by Robert W. McChesney, with Chapters 6 and 7.
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The introductory paragraph to chapter 6 only tells a partially true edition of how American interact with the news and the relationship to new journalism. According the the same source that McChesney cites (the Pew Research Center),
Interpreted as the industry of physical paper, McChesney is correct that rates of purchase are falling, but this is often being offset by readership in new online format. In a summary of a study conducted in 2010 by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press (http://www.people-press.org/2010/09/12/americans-spending-more-time-following-the-news/), they found that “Americans are spending more time with the news than over much of the past decade”. Also, though the proportion of Americans who get news from traditional platforms (TV, radio, print) has been decreasing, the number of people who get some of their news from traditional platforms has not decreased.”Meanwhile online newspaper readership continues to grow and is offsetting some of the overall decline in readership. This year, 17% of Americans say they read something on a newspaper’s website yesterday, up from 13% in 2008 and 9% in 2006.” By pivoting into a strong online presence, traditional media have maintained their reputation as a source of reputable news.
Though McChesney writes, “A large and growing number of Americans, especially younger ones, get their news from comedy programs.” (172). However, the full data (http://www.people-press.org/files/legacy/652-8.png)shows that people “turn to source mostly for” “entertainment” and “views and opinions”. Also, the results of people reporting comedy shows as a news source could easily be from biased survey questions. Inclusion of those sources as news prompts users to report that they view them, even if they would not organically consider them sources for news.
The most discernible difference between how news was propagated pre-Internet versus post is that people now consult (in general) a larger number of sources than were available previously. It is likely that this would allow people to hear all sides of the story, account for bias, and formulate their own opinion as opposed to subscribing to the only one presented. This is the perspective maintained by those that McChesney coins the “Celebrants”.
Each new release of technology (printing press, radio, television) modifies the format of traditional media. Currently data does not support that traditional media is being completely eradicated as much as it is being supplemented by its newest form (the Internet). This is not to say that one could not predict that such a trend may be burgeoning, but simply that a trend of that magnitude is not currently supported.
In Chapter 6, McChesney altogether dispenses with the assumption that “there has to be a way to make profits doing digital journalism” (185), and asks what he considers to be the “obvious question: what if it is simply impossible to generate commercially viable popular journalism online, let alone journalism adequate for a self-governing people?” (185) McChesney views journalism inherently as a public good, impervious to being a profitable business model, and I wanted to analyze how he substantiates this claim. There are two ways in which he does this: First, he argues that if we do not view journalism as a public good (and therefore as a commercial interest), then the purpose of journalism is defeated. Next, he uses this argumentation as a springboard to describe how if journalism is publicly funded (as any public good ought to be), it will better serve democracy.
For the first part of his analysis, McChesney starts off by noting that “the point of professional journalism in its idealized form was to insulate the news from commercialism, marketing, and political pressures and to produce the necessary information for citizens to understand and participate effectively in their societies” (187). The reason is that in theory, people should not be privileged over others as consumers of journalism, which is why it was democratic. Instead, it was intended to be a public service for everyone. However, if journalism is not viewed as a public good, then this purpose is no longer met. For instance, Rupert Murdoch announced his iPad-only newspaper The Daily in 2011, hence restricting access to those who only have iPads. Similarly, news content is only published according to its “profitability consideration”, as CEO Tim Armstrong pushed for when AOL purchased the Huffington Post (189). In this model, content will only be published that will appeal to desired affluent consumers and to the advertisers who wish to reach these consumers, leading to an imbalanced relationship where advertisers have majority control and the news media has very little. Perhaps most shocking is the business model of outsourcing journalism to foreign countries where workers can get paid “35 to 40 cents a piece” (192). Even as a defender of outsourcing concedes, “There is no way someone in Manila can possibly understand what is happening in Pasadena” (193), indicating the inevitable lack in quality of reporting that this model produces.
McChesney then examines how publicly funded journalism contributes to a better democracy. He begins by looking at other countries and notes that democratic nations with the very largest per capita journalism subsidies also top The Economists’ Democracy Index. Hence, “the nations with the freest press systems are also the nations that make the greatest public investment in journalism and therefore provide the basis for being strong democracies” (208). But how should we publicly subsidize journalism in America? As a response, McChesney argues that a voucher system would provide a way for the “nonprofit digital news sector to become self-sufficient and have the funds to hire a significant number of full-time paid workers” (212). This voucher system essentially gives the journalists money up front so that what they produce is available to all for free online. Therefore, the news would not be biased towards particular kinds of consumers, and would keep the public informed, hence fulfilling its democratic purpose. But this suggestion is not being considered, one reason being the notion that “subsidies are un-American but profits are all-American” (214). However, given that the current business models are not allowing digital journalism to thrive, it appears that we are at a critical juncture, and in critical junctures, ideas that are thought to unthinkable become possible. Perhaps it is time for subsidies to be considered as an approach to solving the crisis of journalism.
One modern phenomenon that McChesney teases out in the last chapter of his book had one of the strongest impacts on me, as a relatively uneducated (in politics/economics) reader. He writes, “there has been a tremendous growth in worker productivity in American capitalism in the past forty years; far fewer workers are required to produce the same output” (224). He continues to explain that, in a “sane” world, this would be great news. The economy should be flourishing with surplus product. But this would drive down prices and damage profit margins. Instead, these productive workers are fired and smaller work forces are required to take on more labor. “People are working longer hours, with less vacation and later retirement, for stagnant or declining real wages, with less security…” (225). I have heard and read about how bad our economy is nonstop since I was old enough to understand what an economy was, but I’ve never examined how particular capitalist values have created this environment. What McChesney has been leading us to (and at times beating us over the head with) throughout the text is how, as capitalism ‘succeeds,’ more and more people are disempowered and democracy at a wide level fades.
I have always thought that increases in productivity were a result of technological development, and that can cause technology to be the enemy of the worker. While I am very excited to have this (perhaps unintentional) hero come to technologies defense, I am deeply troubled by the attitude that seems pervasive amongst American companies. In his last chapter, McChesney tries to save us by giving his quick keys to mass change, primarily centered on policy issues and reform. Though I am pleased to have some concrete talking points, I am worried that none seem to really address the problem of Capitalism. Yes, more focus on the regulation and conversion of “natural monopolies” may certainly slow that productivity phenomenon, it seems like we need a more serious discussion about what capitalism and democracy means to us as a nation. Maybe with McChesney’s proposed journalism reforms, we can find a venue for such a conversation!
In the last installment of our reading of Robert McChesney’s book, Digital Disconnect, McChesney bemoans the losses journalism has faced since the rise of the commercialization of the Internet. While he does discuss the shutdowns of many newspapers around the country, he is more concerned about journalism’s struggles to find a profitable and viable niche online. McChesney points out that “Advertising disguised the public-good nature of journalism for the past 125 years but now that it has found superior options,” journalism is struggling to get funding despite the proliferation of news apps on tablets and phones. Most of these apps, he points, are free or charge so little, the sources offering these apps barely make any money. Furthermore, he also bursts the ideal of the Citizen-Journalist, which celebrants tout as a big boon given by the Internet, by noting that “Even great journalists need some editing; citizen-journalists need a lot of it”. Without a credible news source, people’s access to news about the outside world including their government’s actions and thus their freedom (and by extension democracy, itself) are threatened, McChesney says. Even worse, some leaders of news sources that are struggling to make profits such as AOL CEO Tim Armstrong “ordered the company’s editors to evaluate all future stories on the basis of “traffic potential, revenue potential, edit quality, and turnaround time”. This in effect implies that the news stories that we read on such websites or papers may have been written to sell, not necessarily to inform. McChesney ultimately presents a call to action, calling for “public investments in journalism” which he says “are compatible with a democratic society, a flourishing uncensored private news media, and an adversarial journalism”. He describes a voucher system in which people in a certain community or neighborhood would pool money together and start a local news outlet. Overall, McChesney effectively addresses the problems the Internet has presented to the field of journalism.
In Chapter 7, McChesney offers a big picture perspective on the current state of society and how its future intersects with our approach to capitalism and digital technologies. McChesney observes that one of the major issues with spreading awareness on the harmful influences of existing capitalism on the social good is a lack of discourse: “Most Americans have no idea that debates on policy could even exist or what the actual deliberations are, due to an effective news blackout on the topics, except on occasion in the business press” (217). This is striking when we consider how digital technology creates the capacity for much discussion and information exchange, so it seems very possible that existing technology is being underutilized for the enhancement of social good. McChesney then gives us some insight into why this might be the case, referencing the Lauderdale paradox: “increases in the scarcity of necessary and normally abundant elements of life…would, if exchange values were attached to them, enhance individual private riches…but only at the expense of the common wealth” (218). Just like monopolizing a well might create business at the expense of giving people access to an essential good, monopolizing the exchange of information – controlling how the sources of news operate, influencing the opacity of policy discussions – creates possibilities for individuals to profit at the expense of all of society becoming a little more knowledgeable and self-sufficient.
McChesney then cites a 2012 survey that is startlingly reminiscent of Turkle’s analysis: “digital technologies, far from relieving workloads, have made it possible for the typical American worker to provide as much as a month and a half of unpaid overtime annually, just by using their smartphones and computers for work sat all hours while outside the workplace: ‘Almost half feel they have no choice'” (218). The spread of digital technology into more and more facets of our lives makes us more dependent and invested in it, yet at the same time we don’t understand how that dependency affects our well-being, or indeed whether the existing state of affairs is one that we want in the first place. McChesney’s analysis resonates with me, and even if you think he emphasizes the harms of rampant capitalism more than the specific benefits of things like the Internet, it’s tough to believe that society today is living up to its potential for good and social prosperity. McChesney warns us that changing the system “will require a broader political movement motivated by a general progressive agenda, not one specifically focused on the Internet or media” (220). At the end of the day, I just wonder if that solution will really work, and if a society colored in so many ways by the presumption of capitalist values will reject them so sweepingly. Perhaps a more targeted approach, one focused on the digital technologies that McChesney emphasizes so much, won’t change the system dramatically, but it might change the system a little, creating a precedent for change and introspection that can then make broader change a real possibility.
McChesney’s hopes the US government can promote professional journalism by providing Americans with a $200 voucher that they give to nonprofit news organizations. The money could be split any way. The recipients would have to publish their work online for free and go in the public domain. Advertising would also not be allowed (211). He argues that other countries are subsidizing journalism at a higher rate than the US, and the voucher is simply a subsidy along the same lines. However, I don’t think it is a complete comparison because many of these countries are promoting journalism for the interest of preserving their language.
McChesney lists many democratic countries that provide more subsidies for journalism per capita than the US on page 206. However on that list, Canada and Britain are the only countries with English as the official language. Globalization poses a threat to many languages, and many countries are trying to preserve their language. I believe that the subsidies to journalism in most of these countries is more of an effort to preserve language than to promote democracy. I think it’s inaccurate to interpret the spending only in terms of promoting professional journalism.
McChesney mentioned earlier that daily newspapers in Finland and Slovakia have had better success at getting readers to pay for content, and he associates this success with their ability to offer content for a low price and in a distinct language (186). If people don’t have content in their native language, this puts more pressure to adopt a more dominant language. For countries holding on to a shrinking language, this presents a challenge in preserving their culture. Subsidies provide more professional journalism in local languages, but I think it’s only the means for preserving culture. I don’t think McChesney would disagree with this statement, nor would he say that it really impacts his overall argument. These countries still value journalism and rank higher on how free their press is (207). However, I feel the way McChesney presents this part is misleading, and if he acknowledged this more directly, it would make a stronger case.
In this week’s reading, McChesney makes a case for journalism as a public good deserving of government subsidies to stay afloat in the digital age. He asks us to consider all the points he presents with a final comment on democracy’s fall at the hand of capitalism, and the consequent “growing gap between the potential and the reality of human society” (232).
This gap is perhaps the most striking element of McChesney’s case in Chapter 6, as he constructs a vision of the ideal journalistic future we were promised. To a certain extent, and in a way that McChesney seems to gloss over in pursuit of a greater point, we have experienced part of that revolution. From a consumer’s point of view, the way we consume news has changed dramatically, mostly for the better. We are in control of how we receive inputs, with information from seemingly hundreds of sources organized and prioritized according to our choosing. We receive push notifications on our phone when news breaks quickly, or use apps such as Pulse or Circa to catch up on news when we have a few minutes.
While McChesney successfully counters that our breadth of sources is somewhat of an illusion – content is created by few, and repeated by many – I wonder if there is something to be said for this autonomy of information sourcing. Is it possible that, despite a dwindling workforce in journalism to lend criticism or credibility to stories, the control we have over what knowledge we consume leads us to become more adept at sifting through raw information and forming our own conclusions and analysis? Understandably, in citing the example of the Wikileaks episode (195), McChesney is doubtful, but I also caution against the haste with which he generalizes one example – in fact, the first modern example on such a large scale – of our inadequacy in processing raw information on our own.
Perhaps more naively, might social response to stories and news – such as we’re beginning to see in the comments section on every news site – eventually become a more efficient system of fact-checking and further research? It seems that a group of citizens with a vested interest in a piece of news, and access to a certain baseline of resources, might have been able to do a better job in catching the safety violations associated with the West Virginia coal mine explosion before the tragic event occurred, than journalists who might be less interested in their assignment for the week as the paycheck they’ll have by the end of it.
In chapter 6 McChesney dismisses the celebrants’ claims that the web will enable journalism to overcome its limitations and instead concentrates on the ways it has deepened the crisis in American journalism.
The continuous trend of news corporations laying off more and more of their staff leads to the conclusion that “corporations and investors no longer find journalism, a profitable investment” (p. 177) The situation leads to the decrease of value of newspapers, which in turn allows for “moneyed interests [to] buy papers and use them to prosecute a political and commercial agenda” (178) while trying to generate profit from those new acquisitions. As the online media business model still relies heavily on advertisement, the owning companies pursue strategies that focus predominantly on increasing view counts and much less so on producing quality journalism. The existence of Journatic, the reliance on volunteer labor and the Huffington Post model all result from this strategy. Meanwhile, small independent non-profit news media cannot compete with its better-funded competitors relying solely on initial funding by foundations and donations and rarely make it to the top positions in Google search.
McChesney’s proposed solution to the crisis is the introduction of government subsidies that are allocated by “citizenship news vouchers”.
When McChesney was introducing the idea of government subsidies I remained very skeptical. Coming from a post-communist country in which anything controlled by or connected to the government is inherently corrupt, I found it difficult to accept that having news medias solely reliant on government funds is a way to get quality unbiased journalism. But what I really like about his proposition is that (at least in theory) the government will not have a say which organizations will get funding.
However, I see a potential problem that can only strengthen the current centralized company control of news media. To get more funds a non-profit should be supported by more citizens. But to reach out to a greater number of potential supporters it has to use traditional advertising and PR channels, which can be quite costly. But as “qualifying media could accept tax-deductible donations form individuals and foundations to supplement their income” (p.212) wouldn’t it be somehow possible for corporations to support the medias whose ideology is in favor of their own agendas? This would create a big competitive disadvantage for smaller companies that would potentially get fewer donations and will therefore have fewer funds for advertising and will consequently reach fewer citizens.
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