Book Review: The Death and Life of American Journalism

(Editor’s Note:  There are many issues demanding citizens’ attention to improve our world, government, and democracy in the direction of the promises of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  The two most basic issues upon which all others depend are media reform and election integrity. If I could waive a wand and magically choose just one, it would be media reform – with media reform election integrity would be possible and likely, without it election integrity is of little consequence.  I spend my time on election integrity because the problems and workable solutions come naturally to me based on my knowledge, education, and experience.)

I have been meaning to review and recommend John Nichols’ and Robert McChesney’s latest book, The Death and Life of American Journalism, for several weeks. I have been a fan of their work since reading their book, Our Media Not Theirs (2002). I attended the Media Reform Conference in Memphis in 2007 sponsored by the group they founded, The Free Press.  Several weeks ago I attend a local panel with John Nichols where he discussed the book’s thesis. I purchased a copy.  Elsewhere I have criticized Mr. Nichols on a couple of critical election integrity issues in two articles he penned in The Nation, yet that does not diminish my high regard for his expertise on media reform.

It is a slow time for election integrity news in Connecticut with the legislative session all but over and the August Primary three months off. Part of the reason there has been so little improvement in our election laws is the lack of demonstrated public interest. Part of the cause of the lack of demonstrated public interest is the lack of information brought to the attention of the public – the lack of news and journalism.

Were the public aware of the corporate outsourcing of elections; the lack of accountability, auditability, and auditing of elections; the sloppy election procedures in many jurisdictions;  the inaccurate totaling of results; and the vulnerablity of manual procedures and election equipment – Were the public aware, would they demand reform?  Would they connect the dots from viruses on their computers, hacking of government computers, and theft of “highly secure” government documents to the dangers inherent in our election systems?  Without news and journalism we may never know. Election integrity is an example of the criticality of  the media to democracy, one of the theme’s of The Death and Life of American Journalism:

  • News, journalism, the free press etc. are a necessary requirement for democracy
  • Our Founding Fathers realized this
  • Media (newspapers) were highly subsidized from the beginning of our country through the late 1800’s
  • Corporate media is relatively new.  It is not working – to the detriment of democracy
  • The press as we know it is sinking fast, close to oblivion now
  • The free market and the Internet unaided are insufficient to save journalism – hence insufficient to support news, information and democracy
  • Other democracies provide relatively large subsidies to the media – with positive, not adverse consequences for democracy and information
  • We can solve the problem with robust solutions, at low cost compared to the risks and the alternative

The book leaves me with new appreciation for the intelligence of the Founding Fathers.  They understood the importance of information to democracy. Tom Paine’s Common Sense and the newspapers of the day were critical to the American Revolution. The Federalist Papers were critical to the Constitution.  As the authors say:

Without a civic counterbalance to the vagaries of the market, it is entirely within the realm of possibility that journalism could wither and die… [The Founding Fathers] threw the full weight of the American Government into the work of  creating and sustaining a diverse, competitive, skeptical, and combative media system for a nation that would rest power with an informed people…”A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it,” explained Madison, “is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy or perhaps both”

The authors present a complete case for and history of the necessity of the free press; for the success of our democracy. They explain the complete commitment of McArthur and Eisenhower to the free press as they worked to create and revive democracy in Japan and Germany.

As much as my esteem for the Founding Fathers increased, my sadness at our current mesmerization by the system of corporate media also increased.  We can often learn from looking to run “government like a business”, yet when we instead run “government by business” what we get is “government for business”.  When I ask myself, “What Would A Successful Business Do?” and “What Should A Successful Democracy Do?” my immediate answer is “Look around and start by copying the best practices of the most successful democracies.”

Nichols’ and McChesney’s “broad proposal” with four components for saving journalism – was formed from what has worked before in the U.S., what is working today in other democracies, and tailoring it to our situation and culture.

No review, no summary can do this book justice.  It is more than a diagnosis and a prescription.  It is a powerful, engaging lesson in history, with an equally persuasive analysis of the current crisis.

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