Scheer Intelligence: How To Save American Journalism
Above image: Mr. Fish.
Publicly-funded media models make a lot of Americans nervous, but Victor Pickard argues on the latest “Scheer Intelligence” episode that it may be the only way to repair our tattered democracy.
It’s no secret that the U.S. funding model for journalism is broken, and that this had terrible consequences for our democracy, but it may not be without repair. As advertising revenue newspapers once relied on has increasingly ended up in the pockets of big tech companies such as Google and Facebook, many have shut down their presses, while others such as the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times have turned to billionaires to fund their papers, resulting in a model that has turned journalism into a playground for the uber rich that conceals the economic plight of most of the population. Author Victor Pickard’s latest book, Democracy Without Journalism?: Confronting the Misinformation Society, however, offers a simple solution to our media woes: government subsidies. Pickard argues that the era for commercial journalism is over, especially when it comes to the kind of expensive, local journalism that democracies depend on. In his book, the author and Associate Professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania urges his readers to see this crisis as an opportunity to reimagine a better, stronger model for journalism.
On this week’s installment of Scheer Intelligence, Pickard joins host Robert Scheer to discuss the failures that have led to this dire misinformation precipice, most of which are rooted in monopoly capitalism, and how more public funding for media could be the exact medicine this ailing country desperately needs. Throughout the conversation, Pickard calls for a democratized media system that is funded, owned, and controlled by the American people, which could mean either building on partially publicly-funded systems in existence, such as PBS and NPR, or starting from scratch.
“A good starting point is to look at what other democracies around the planet are doing,” says Pickard. “When you see, for example, what the UK is doing, or what Germany or what the Nordic countries are doing, or what Japan, Australia, Korea–they all have robust public media systems. So that when the market fails to support the journalism democracy needs, there’s a public social safety net there. They can ensure that all of their citizens will have access to a certain level of news and information [including, in some countries, print media], even when commercial private publishers aren’t supporting the kind of journalism that they need.
“[The core lesson] is these democratic countries that are subsidizing their media,” he concludes, “are not sliding into totalitarianism. Quite the opposite: they correlate with the strongest democracies on the planet.”
Listen to the full discussion between Pickard and Scheer as they examine the past, present, and future of the fourth estate with an urgency that mirrors the subject’s importance during these tumultuous times.
Host: Robert Scheer
Producer: Joshua Scheer
Introduction: Natasha Hakimi Zapata
Transcript: Lucy Berbeo
RS: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guests. In this case it’s Victor Pickard. He’s a professor at the University of Pennsylvania at the Annenberg School, not to be confused with the one where I teach at the University of Southern California. And he’s written a really important book called Democracy Without Journalism?–with a question mark, but the book pretty much answers it; it says you can’t have democracy without journalism–Confronting the Misinformation Society. But this is a book that goes way beyond discussion about, you know, manipulation of elections and bots and Russian interference. We can discuss all that. What he’s really arguing in this book is that the business model, such as it was, imperfect as it was, that financed most journalism–we never had a big, robust public sector, but we’ll talk about that. But the way we never had–you know, the way England, France, or other countries, Germany, has had that. But nonetheless, we had a functioning model, and that business model got destroyed by the internet. And Victor, I’m going to let you define your own book. But I would just say in your concluding chapter, you have a definitive and shocking obituary for journalism as we know it. So why don’t you give that to me in your own words?
VP: Sure, thank you, Robert. Thanks so much for having me on the show. And as I make it very clear in my book, it’s precisely the kind of journalism that you have always done that I’m trying to find out ways to support. And you’re absolutely right, I’m arguing in the book that the core business model for journalism is irreparably broken. It’s clear by this point that there is no commercial future, especially for local journalism, for the kind of journalism that’s very expensive to produce, that democracy requires. It’s that kind of journalism that’s disappearing. We all learn in school that democracy requires a free, and by implication also a functional press. And we no longer have that in the United States. So I’m really trying to think forward, think into the future, about what we can do to replace that commercial model, to create a noncommercial future for the journalism that democratic society requires. And that is what my book is about. But you’re absolutely right, in the conclusion I’m pretty grim in terms of, you know, declaring that the commercial era for journalism is over, and we really do need to create something entirely different. We need to see this crisis as also an opportunity for reimagining what journalism could and should be, and that’s why I wrote this book.
RS: So let me begin with just one question. The conceit of the moment is that the problem is not with a broken business model–because the New York Times and the Washington Post don’t concede that; they think they’re going to be able to revive it–but with bad actors being able to function in the internet space. And just to put it out there, my own view is the internet has brought the best and worst of all times for a democracy. It’s very much expanded access by ordinary people to express themselves and so forth. But it’s also the worst of times, because you don’t have the sort of minimal standard of accuracy and fact-checking, and indeed logic, that was required of traditional publications, because if nothing else they faced the possibility of lawsuits or losing their paying customers.
And the dirty secret of the whole internet revolution is that the New York Times, the Washington Post–they’re no longer supported even to the degree that they were by their customers. It was mostly their advertisers. But all of that’s gone because of data mining and the way the market works now. Google and Facebook and others can get most of the income without supplying the copy, so there’s no consumer check. And most people probably think they get all the news they need, or they get too much news. So why don’t we begin by addressing that, the breakdown of the commercial model, and why it won’t come back?
VP: Sure. And you raise a number of important points that I’m sure we’ll revisit momentarily. But the first idea, or the first notion that I try to push back on a little bit, is that the internet broke journalism. There’s this kind of lazy narrative that everything was fine, and then the internet came along and just ruined journalism, and yet somehow the internet’s going to bring journalism back, paradoxically. But I like to historicize this; I want to show that commercial journalism has always been prone to crisis, going back to the dawn of commercialization, when we moved from a partisan press to a consumer-based press; when publishers no longer saw their readers as first citizens, but instead looked at them as if they were only passive consumers. And because they became so dependent on advertising–and to be clear, historically it broke down to about 80/20; 80% of their revenues came from advertising, and 20% came from reader support, newsstand sales, subscriptions, and so forth. And that is very different compared to most newspaper industries around the world.
So that was the original sin of commercial journalism, which was to be so dependent on advertising–exactly what you were just talking about–that that was always the primary imperative that commercial publishers were serving. It wasn’t the readers, it wasn’t society, but it was advertisers. Publishers were trying to deliver audiences to advertisers, and advertisers recognized that to reach those audiences, the best way to do it was to go through the local newspaper, which typically had a monopoly in that given market. But as soon as advertisers recognized that they no longer needed to depend on newspapers to reach audiences, as soon as they migrated to the web, where digital advertising pays pennies to the dollar of traditional print advertising, that marriage of convenience, you might say unholy alliance–that fell apart. And it’s never coming back. And it’s not–I mean, I think Google and Facebook, as I’m sure we’ll talk about, have exacerbated this problem. But it’s not just a monopoly problem, it’s a capitalism problem. And journalism was never fully supported by the market; advertising itself was a kind of subsidy. That subsidy is gone, and we need to find a way to replace it.
RS: Yeah, but even the advertising model put the consumer at the center. Because for instance, I worked for the L.A. Times for 29 years in one capacity or another, and even though we basically were giving it away free–although we claimed we weren’t–it was pretty hard to drop your subscription, but we needed the advertisers. And the advertisers could only get readers of the L.A. Times, for whatever reason they wanted them–their income, or who they were, or that they were buying a lot of cars, and renting houses and so forth–they could only get them by going in to the L.A. Times. So the consumer, even if he was paying very little in the form of a subscription, was still the target. And the only way to get that target was to put an ad in the L.A. Times, or in the case of broadcast journalism, where most people got it for nothing–there was no cable or anything–still you had, to reach people who were watching CBS at a certain time slot, you had to go in to the ad. What the internet did is it broke that connection with the consumer. And with the end of privacy, and data mining, you can get people who are watching a particular show on CBS without advertising on CBS. Or people who like a certain kind of food, or have a certain shoe size. And so it broke the capitalist connection, if you’d like, between the consumer and the company catering to them, even if the consumer was not paying. And that is the power of Facebook and Google and so forth.
Now, there’s two things that I want to mention. In your book, you really quite in an interesting way lay out that in sort of pre-capitalist–in the sense of, you know, the way we now know capitalism–colonial America, where the Constitution was written, two things were true. One, you didn’t really require a lot of capital to be the press that is enshrined in our Constitution. The penny press, the town crier, the wall poster did not require a high level of capitalization. But also the government, beginning with the wording in the Constitution, where the Post Office is given primacy–this is not even one of the amendments, this is in the heart of the Constitution, that basically periodicals will be shipped for nothing, or next to nothing. There was an argument you mentioned between Washington and Madison; Washington wanted the postal rates to be absolutely free, and Madison said no, you’ve got to charge some token amount. But basically, you have the figures there, something like 90% of this postal service that was preserved in our Constitution, and the postal roads, was designed to have a free, and in a sense publicly subsidized press. The monopoly thing that came in was when these media companies got so large, and the advertising revenue got to be so big, that it broke any sense of responsibility. And as you know, in the case of television, at first you had to force these television stations to have 15 minutes of news, but then news became a big profit center, and that continues to this day. So there is actually–I’m trying to get listeners to know that the thing you are going to end up advocating, a big public role, was actually imagined by the founders in their writing of the Constitution.
VP: You’re absolutely right. And you know, when Americans hear this phrase “media subsidies” today, they often drop into fetal positions. You know, they think this is antithetical to core American freedoms. But if they know their history, as you’re suggesting, they would know that media subsidies are as American as apple pie. Going back to the postal system, which was kind of like the internet of the 1800s. It was primarily a news delivery infrastructure; up to 95% of the post’s weight in the early 1800s was entirely made up of newspapers. So if you put it in those terms, you see that the government has always subsidized our communication infrastructures. Going from the postal system to the telegraph to broadcasting, even to the internet today, these communication networks were only made possible by tremendous public subsidies. And yet we were given this illusion that the natural order of things was to see news, to see journalism, as a commodity, not a public service. And so we have to find non-market mechanisms to support the necessary infrastructure, and that especially means producing the news, making sure that people have access to the news. And that’s what the postal system was meant to do; that’s what every major communication system has done, that the government has always subsidized. So I’m trying to reintroduce this idea by tracing this history back, trying to show both how the market has ultimately driven journalism into the ground, but that also there are non-market alternatives that we can look to, both from our history, but also from what other democratic countries are doing around the globe to produce the kind of local journalism that democracy requires.
RS: So let me just make–I just want to make a point about that, because people get alarmed, at least large numbers of people get alarmed at the idea of “public.” We’re not used to a robust, you know, BBC-type public presence. But this idea of government intervention, if you put it in terms of antitrust, there’s an analogy with the delivery of gas or the phone company. Originally you had only one basic phone company, AT&T, and that was OK as long as it was thought to be a neutral venue, delivering people’s phone calls and so forth, you know, or Western Union for that matter. And then government regulated it to make sure it was neutral. And there was a lot of reeling about the internet at first; you know, internet, after all, started as a government program in the Pentagon. And there was a feeling, it’s OK to have lots of people doing lots of things as long as you had net neutrality, in the same way as the phone service was neutral, and they were not making editorial decisions. And that’s a notion of government–that’s why we have a highway system. The highways are supposed to be neutral. Yeah, there’s speed limits, but they don’t favor Fords over General Motors or over Volkswagen. So I think we should explore that idea a bit. And the real concern I have here is how do you keep neutrality in the age of the internet? And there are a lot of calls now, people want Facebook to censor, they want Google to censor, they want these big, private monopoly companies to make decisions about what people get to see. Whether it’s a story in the New York Post, or it’s in The Nation magazine. And that to my mind is a very frightening intrusion of government, very different than the post office model.
VP: I agree with you, and even to step back a bit and to look at this broader picture, the big picture of the American media system, it’s very unusual compared to media systems around the world. We are at the mercy of a handful of corporations. These monopolies command tremendous power over entire sectors of our communications systems, but they are also only lightly regulated. And yet we are left with these weak, relatively weak public alternatives. So many countries around the world might deal with, you know, one or two of these problems, but we’re dealing with all of them at the same time. And the fact that we are at the mercy of these monopolies, but yet these monopolies have only to return very weak public interest obligations, really puts us in a dangerous place. It would be different if we had a meaningful social contract, whether we’re talking about net neutrality or various public service responsibilities, but over the years what little responsibilities were there have been stripped away. And yet as you’re noting, this idea that government isn’t involved in our media system is a libertarian fantasy. The government is always involved; it’s a question of how should it be involved. Do we have these privacy protections, do we have these affirmative guarantees that Americans have access to a baseline level of quality news and information? Right now we do not have that, and that’s what I’m advocating for in my book.
RS: So tell us what you’re advocating for, really. Because I think it’s a workable model, but people are going to dismiss it as unworkable, totalitarian government. But we’ve got to address that question. The fact is government is very deeply involved with the internet. And we saw that with the revelations from Edward Snowden. When the NSA or the CIA wants to get your private data in the name of national security, they break right through Google or Apple’s restraints and get your most personal–what book you’re reading and how far you’re reading in the book, and what email you sent. They know–the title of my previous book–they know everything about you. And that’s an Orwellian notion of society that is quite realistic at the moment, dystopian as it may sound. So you’re not advocating that kind of government role; you’re–I keep getting back to the word “neutrality.” You want to help ordinary citizens–that was the original idea; you wanted to have a more literate society, a more knowledgeable society to preserve democracy. Towards that end, you wanted them to be able to get mail. They wanted them to be able to get publications, to be informed, otherwise you weren’t going to build a nation of informed citizens and have a democracy. And so this word “neutrality,” I think, is critical here. And what we’re really talking about right now, and when we have these congressional hearings, is government weighing in to intimidate these large internet companies in order to conform to their political tastes and needs of the moment.
VP: You’re absolutely right. I mean, during the Trump administration we’re seeing firsthand the dark side of government intervention in our news and information systems. And we certainly need to prevent that from happening. But there’s also this affirmative side, which is government has a mandate to guarantee the resources that are necessary to have an open and free press system. And if you think about it, the First Amendment itself would be rendered farcical if we didn’t actually have a press system. So there was always at least an implication that this was part of government’s responsibility, and yes, it should remain neutral; it should be content-neutral, ideologically neutral. The government should have no ability to steer our news and information system in one way or the other, but yet it has to ensure that there’s actually support. And if you look at what’s happening right now in the U.S., where you’re seeing these news deserts spread across the country, where entire regions and communities lack any access to any local news media whatsoever, that is a crisis for democracy. We all learn in school that democracy, that self-government requires an informed citizenry, and yet we’re allowing the market to systematically dismantle our news and information infrastructures. And that’s exactly what needs to stop.
So what I call for in the book is that we do need a new public media system; we need something that’s not dependent on the market. But decommercializing journalism is just the first step. We also need to democratize it. We need to have a public system that’s public not just in name only, but that the public–or publics, local communities–own and control their own news media. And also that the journalists themselves own and control their own newsrooms. So I think this sounds utopian, but yet at the same time we’re seeing the current system utterly collapse. So now’s the moment to reimagine what we could have here in the U.S., and try to recreate an entirely different kind of news and information system.
RS: OK, but let me call you out on what is the current system. And the current–and you know, it’s so convenient. It won’t–I assume Trump is going to lose this election; maybe I’m wrong. But all the polls would seem to indicate that, and we should tell people we’re recording this the day before the election. It’ll be on the air probably at the end of the week, so we’ll know. But I think it’s absurd to blame any of this on Trump, really. What Trump is, I’ve referred to him as the sweaty armpit of monopoly capitalism. He reveals more than the establishment wants revealed. That’s my view of it. Because the problems your book addresses were created by Democrats as much as by Republicans. In fact the Telecommunications Act, which allowed these big media companies to not be responsible, in a legal sense of libel, for what they put on, freeing them of the obligation of publishers–I mean, that’s the whole thing. Facebook is a publisher without obligation. If somebody slanders you on Facebook, you’ve got to go after them, and they might not have any resources; you don’t go after Facebook. They were given that pass by legislation that Bill Clinton ushered into law, and signed into law; it had Republican and Democratic support. The whole issue of privacy was squandered by Democrats and Republicans in going for rejecting opt-in and requiring permission to market your data. So there’s a sorry bipartisan record here.
And it seems to me the real issue now is the current–and we should talk about the current situation. The current situation is that the papers that exist, print, and much of the television, is there because there are billionaires and big corporations that find them useful. Whether it’s the Koch brothers finding, you know, the right-wing press useful, whether on the internet or television, or it’s more liberal Democrats. And right now in this election, which is as I say happening before listeners hear this, in the last months the contributions from the big internet companies and from Wall Street I think were two, maybe even three times more than to Trump. So they have found in the Democratic Party a great ally of their power. And are we to celebrate a situation where the richest person in the whole world owns the Washington Post, or the L.A. Times is owned by a billionaire? The new model is billionaire or corporate control, like an MSNBC or a Fox. Doesn’t that alarm you, and isn’t that more to the point, or maybe the reason why you need a more robust public sector, to break up these companies?
VP: Yes, I think so, absolutely. And I agree with you, it’s very alarming. And you’re absolutely right to point out that Trump was not the cause of this; Trump himself is a symptom of these deeper structural pathologies that are running through our news and information systems, our political system, all of our core infrastructures. And these are exactly the kinds of systems that we need to rebuild the moment–and of course by the end of this week, we might not even yet know who won the election. But we can dare hope that we are entering a post-Trump era, and we have to look at rebuilding these systems. And I do think a major part of that will be confronting monopoly power, in all of its guises, but particularly in its power over our news and information systems. And that means traditional media monopolies, but also the new digital monopolies, including the big bad duopoly of Facebook and Google, which are gobbling up almost all the digital advertising revenue–and of course are creating all kinds of social harms, amplifying misinformation, invading our privacy; there are so many problems.
And I agree with you; I think taking on monopoly power, breaking up some of the monopolies, that has to be part of our solution. I don’t think it’s the only part, and that’s why it’s so important to underscore what you keep coming back to, this idea of creating a public media system. We need public alternatives, because some of these problems are not just monopoly problems, they’re also capitalism problems. So we need to find ways to either take, entirely remove journalism from the market, decommercialize it, or at least create these buffers around our news and information infrastructure, so that they are, they can remain neutral. And we often, when we think about censorship, we often assume that means government censorship; we might perhaps think about corporate censorship. But there’s also this thing called market censorship, where we know that when capitalism is driving our news and information systems, it’s creating predictable patterns and gaps and biases, and at the very least we need alternatives to that. We need a mixed media system, not one that’s just entirely commercialized.
RS: Well, let me make a prediction that we’ll look back at the first 15, 20 years of internet journalism as the golden period, in which a lot of small publications–I happened to edit one of them, and still have one going right now, at Scheerpost, let me give a plug for that–but there’s lots of them. We had a great deal of diversity. On the right, on the left, in the center. And yes, mistakes were made; yes, you know; I attribute that mostly to people being freed–these large companies like Facebook being freed by the Telecommunications Act of any responsibility for what they put up. So the small publisher, he’s responsible, or she; they can be sued for libel and defamation and what have you. And yet Facebook somehow can throw anything up there because they’re free of that kind of legal challenge. That was a gift to these companies. The other gift was to let them buy up all the competition. The internet would be a much more wonderful institution if you had 10 Googles, you know, and 10 Facebooks. And so they wouldn’t have the power to lock people out. Now, if Facebook locks the New York Post out of its–or Twitter locks it out of their Twitter account, what do they do? They’ve suddenly lost their contact with a large part of their readership.
And so I think we have to address this question, and when you say “capitalism” and “monopoly” as if they’re two different things, the whole thing about capitalism, as Adam Smith warned us about, is that it will inevitably monopolize or cartelize the economy, unless you have very strict rules to prevent them from destroying the invisible hand where the consumer gets to choose among many companies by having a monopoly. And the whole Silicon Valley model is to develop monopolies in these different areas, or a cartel of one or two companies. And that’s the challenge that–now let’s switch it from Trump to the Democrats. I think the Democrats have embraced Silicon Valley and want to give it a pass, and have given the largest sector–if you look at the amount of money that’s been made just in the last few years by companies ranging from Amazon to Facebook to Apple, it’s the ball game. It’s everything. This is the center of power in America, and it’s a center of power that is adored actually by Democrats even more than by Republicans.
VP: I absolutely agree. It’s a bipartisan problem, and certainly we can’t assume that if Trump is ultimately voted out, that suddenly all of our problems will go away. So I absolutely agree with you that we need to talk about, how are we going to structurally reform these systems and these monopolies. The one small part, though, I would push back on just a little bit, I mean, I absolutely agree with you that unregulated capitalism leads to monopoly power. So these things aren’t necessarily separate things. But simply regulating the monopolies or breaking them up a little bit also is not going to transform our entire media landscape. You know, if we had 10 Googles instead of just one, they probably would still be relying on what many have called “surveillance capitalism.” Their core business model is still going to be capturing information about their users and selling that information to advertisers and third parties and data brokers. So I’m not entirely sure that that, you know, is the best way out–
RS: But could I just interrupt you, just for a minute. OK, no, because I mean–absolutely true. But if you had 10, or even if you had three or four or five, OK, and they got a fair shake, what happens with Google is they buy up as many as they can, and then they give so much for free that, say, Firefox, another search engine out there which does try to protect your rights–or even when Apple tries to protect your privacy, because Apple has to also sell actual phones and things, so they–Facebook pushes back and says no, you have to give us your favorite position there and so forth. And so really, it gets all very murky. But what is at the core of it is–just so I’m not accused of being a socialist, which I’m proud to say I am a Democratic Socialist, but that’s not the point. What we’re talking about is preserving capitalism in the Adam Smith sense. And when I say “10 Googles,” that’s the only–or five–that’s the only way you’ve got a shot at it. And the idea that under both Republican and Democratic administrations they let these companies gobble up all of their competition, you know, all of the alternatives. It’s the same thing that’s happening in China, where private companies are being given the right to dominate the market. We are in no way a purer form of capitalism than they are in China right now as regards these internet companies. It’s absurd.
VP: I completely agree. And I certainly would never suggest that just leaving the status quo intact would be any sensible way forward. We’ve got to, at the very least, break up some of these monopolies. Having some degree of competition is much better than having none. I mean, there’s another academic argument that we could have about natural monopolies, and you were mentioning AT&T earlier as a case of that, where there are some situations where it makes sense to have only one core network. But in those situations, those networks, those centralized powers have to be regulated, have to have things that they give back to the public. And right now we don’t have that. Of course we think we’re receiving all these free services, but as the cliché goes, if you’re getting something for free, most likely you are the product. Which in the case of Google and Facebook, that’s exactly correct.
So I couldn’t agree more that monopoly power is at the heart of many of these problems. And I’m also cautiously optimistic that you’re seeing this antimonopoly movement gain steam. I mean, we’re seeing pushback, and that also weirdly and oftentimes for the wrong reasons has become somewhat of a bipartisan effort. We are seeing some consensus emerge that these monopolies must be reined in, that perhaps we should even break them up. So on that front, I am cautiously optimistic. But even if we’re able to do this, even if we had five or 10 Googles, we’re still dealing with a journalism crisis. We’re still dealing with a situation where journalism is disappearing, the actual content. And even in its beleaguered state, the newspaper industry is still the main purveyor, the main, major source for original news and information, in our society. So that remains a core problem, and breaking up monopolies will not solve that.
RS: No, but breaking up monopolies at least would create room for rivals. And one of the things–for instance, as customers, or the people who are the product–they’re really not the customers, they’re the suckers, they’re the mark, people using Google, for example. As they become more aware of how their privacy is being misused or sold, or sold to others, and other companies come along and say look, we have a different model, we’re going to be more protective, you’ll have opt-in as opposed to opt-out–which is something you mention in your book, but hardly ever discussed. How in the world were they ever given the right, if you’re going Yelping to find a restaurant, and that information gets turned into a whole profile and sold to a third party–why wasn’t that considered a violation of individual freedom? Even William Safire, the conservative columnist for the New York Times who was the speechwriter for Richard Nixon, went on a crusade about that when the Financial Services Modernization Act that Bill Clinton signed, that allowed insurance companies and banks to merge, he said, what’s going to happen to the private data?
Well, that’s the big question here. Why aren’t the consumers, or the suckers, the citizens or whatever, using Google or Facebook given a very clear choice to say you cannot use my data to market or anything else, or to form a profile without my explicit permission? All I did was to sign on to find out a restaurant–or with Amazon, which is a big marketer of data and has the big clouds. And actually if you want to talk about a public private enterprise, Amazon is a major defense contractor, and has the cloud that is used by most of the intelligence agencies. You know, Amazon Web Services and so forth. And their business actually was not very profitable in terms of delivering goods; it was profitable in gathering data about individuals, and then using it to market to them and to their tastes. And again, I don’t find much inclination of Democrats or Republicans–with very few exceptions– to really deal with the main problem here. It’s that we have the most rapacious monopoly capitalism, and it’s disguised as the do-no-harm, Silicon Valley industry that we all love. And then you get from Orwell to Huxley. They’ve got the drug that is pacifying us, to Huxley’s warning. You know, and that is really, to my mind, the great menace at this time. But I’ll leave it to you.
VP: Yeah, all I can say to that is, amen. [Laughs] I agree with everything you just said. But I’m also, we keep talking about, you know, Republicans and Democrats are both to blame here. But another reason that I’m weirdly optimistic about the future is that among young people today, they are not enthralled to the kind of market fundamentalism that captured both of our major parties for so long. And you’re already seeing an open-mindedness towards different kinds of models: cooperative models, noncommercial models. So you know, we say “public”; I mean, in many ways, anything that’s public is socialistic by nature. So, but it’s also important that it’s not just public in name only. And that’s why I keep beating this drum that we have to make sure that our newsrooms look like the communities they serve, that they are owned and controlled by local communities. And I do think this is doable, and that’s why we do have this opportunity with this structural crisis, where commercial journalism is collapsing whether we ideologically agree with it or not. If we’re to have journalism in the future, we’re going to have to seek out non-market-based models. And so for that reason alone, I’m hopeful that young folks today are going to increasingly try out these new experiments. And I think something new will emerge from the ashes.
RS: OK, so let’s take at least–we’ll go overtime here and take at least five minutes. OK, I’ll promise no more than five minutes to listeners, who have other things to do. But I want to get to the heart of your book, and that is a revised notion of the public option, to use the words from the Bernie Sanders medical reform. And I want to apply it to public broadcasting, NPR and PBS and so forth. And what has happened is here was a system–many of these stations started out as college stations, beholden presumably to a local audience run by college boards or whatever, that you know, were elected locally and so forth. What we’ve seen increasingly–as with commercial newspapers and so forth, with their hybrid model now, and a lot of philanthropic, so-called philanthropic money coming in. But that was always true with radio, the Ford Foundation and others. The public funding declined; the public control, in effect, [declined]. Because you’re dependent; yes, you have a lot of individual contributors. But big money and the people who sit on a lot of these boards and so forth are there because they can come up with a lot of money. So why don’t we talk a little bit about the public model and what kind of model? It certainly isn’t the current one that would save us.
VP: You’re right, and I make that very clear in my book, although looking at already existing public infrastructures, whether we’re talking about NPR and PBS or the postal system, I think that’s certainly something we should try to leverage, try to build on, expand, reform. But I certainly wouldn’t want to constrain our imagination to what currently exists. And I think at the very least, we would need to guarantee a budget. I mean, right now, the U.S. is almost literally off the chart–I have this chart in my book that shows we’re almost completely off the chart, we’re this global outlier for how little we pay per person towards our public media per year. It comes out to about a buck forty at the federal level; if you throw in local and state subsidies, it might get you up to about $3.40. So we’re talking about, you know, the price of a cheap cup of coffee or maybe up to a cappuccino, what we’re paying per year. Compare that to major democracies around the planet, the BBC gets about $100 per person per year; Northern, Western European countries get closer to $200 per person per year.
And as you note, this impoverished state of our public broadcasting system forces them to seek out other sources of revenue, especially what’s euphemistically called enhanced underwriting, which essentially is just corporate propaganda, just commercials, advertisements being run on the public airwaves. So you know, that’s not the ideal model. And I think we have to decide: is this something that we can just simply build upon, or do we need to tear it down and create something entirely new? But absolutely, we need to have this public system that’s publicly funded; think of it in terms of public investments, like how we fund our public schools. But it’s got to be owned and controlled; it’s got to be democratized, the power needs to be brought down to local communities. And I think there are ways to do that. Now’s the time to try to broaden our imagination about what’s possible.
RS: So why don’t you tell us what’s possible, and refer to those Western European examples, not to some communist example in China or something. But what does Germany, what does France, what does Italy, what does England do? We’ve seen with health service, we’ve gone from putting them down to now celebrating their abilities in the middle of a pandemic. They seem to be much better than our own medical system. Introduce us–and by the way, I should mention the book is called Democracy Without Journalism?: Confronting the Misinformation Society. I’m talking to Victor Pickard, and he’s a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication, a very famous school at the University of Pennsylvania. And it’s a book really worth reading, because it warns us that if we don’t get a robust public option, we don’t have democracy. And by “public option,” which has been much reviled, it’s been smeared–tell us why this public option in media enhances democracy, and what it would look like.
VP: Right, so I think it is a good starting point to look at what other democracies around the planet are doing. And of course a crisis, a pandemic, helps bring out some of these contrasts and contradictions. But when you see, for example, what the UK is doing, or what Germany or what the Nordic countries are doing, or what Japan, Australia, Korea–they all have robust public media systems. So that when the market fails to support the journalism democracy needs, there’s a public social safety net there. They can ensure that all of their citizens will have access to a certain level of news and information, even when commercial private publishers aren’t supporting the kind of journalism that they need.
But beyond that, if you look at what some of the Nordic countries are doing, for decades they’ve subsidized their print media, their newspapers, directly. They’ve made sure that in any given market, all but the largest newspaper is subsidized, so that they can guarantee a certain level of media diversity in all of their communities. So I think that’s a lesson that we certainly can learn, but also just this core lesson, which is these democratic countries that are subsidizing their media, they are not sliding into totalitarianism. Quite the opposite: they correlate with the strongest democracies on the planet.
So this is part of what I’m trying to do, is just kind of denaturalize our assumptions about the relationship between government and our media. Also point out what Canada, what New Zealand, what France are doing now, where they’re starting to directly subsidize local journalism, because it’s exactly that which is disappearing. Here in the U.S. we don’t have that. We have New Jersey, which has started to subsidize some of its local journalism efforts; and that’s an important lesson too, that this doesn’t just have to happen at the federal level, it can happen at the state level. But meanwhile, we have lost almost a fifth of our newspapers since the early 2000s. Newspaper employees have been reduced by over 50%. This was actually pre-pandemic; now it’s getting even worse. So if we’re going to have a certain level of journalism for all of our communities, for all Americans, we’re going to have to do some kind of subsidy like this, and that’s the conversation I’m trying to spark with my book.
RS: OK, but you’ve got to–and I do want people to read this book. It’s a very–it may be the most important book, in a sense, not of showing how deep the problem is–it does that very effectively–but actually trying to come up with some positive solutions. And I want you to address what for many people makes the public option a nonstarter. And in your book you do discuss it. We have, and our Constitution reflects an obsession with the power of government. We’ve forgotten that, because actually, we have enormous government power in media, I would argue more effective maybe than any country in the world, because it’s effectively disguised as a democratic exercise. But you have government subsidy of media for partisan reasons, or for nationalism or patriotism, very extensively. The CIA is not opposed to using Hollywood to push its message that torture works, as one startling example, in a movie like Zero Dark Thirty. You know, the pro-torture message came from the CIA in the form of advice. So we have, clearly, a blending of government and the private sector when it comes to appeals to patriotism, and also defense of capitalism as equivalent to freedom.
But what I would like you to do is address the concern of people–which I still have, and I’m sure everyone should have–that Orwell was not wrong. That fake news is really most effective when government has this big presence. For all of our–at least capitalism, corporations have their contradictions. And even on the internet, with very limited resources, people who leave–say right now some of the journalists leaving The Intercept, like Glenn Greenwald. You know, he can still find an outlet on the internet. In the old days he might not have found an outlet; he might have been like the legendary journalist I.F. Stone, who was sending it out as a newsletter from his home and reaching 15,000 people after being forced out of New York journalism with its millions in the audience. So I want you to address this fear of government.
VP: You’re absolutely right that it’s a very legitimate concern, and we can point to public media systems becoming captured by the state. You see that in Turkey, you see it in Poland, in Hungary; even the BBC–and Americans often get warm, fuzzy feelings when they think about the BBC. But there have been issues there as well. I lived in London all of last year; whatever romanticism I still had about the BBC was largely beaten out of me by my British friends, who kept pointing out its elitism, the fact that it was so cozy to those in power, didn’t really hold power to account. And yet it was so much better than anything we have in the United States. So I agree that there are ways, there are legitimate concerns, but there are also ways to prevent that from happening. It’s not inevitable that we would end up with a public media system, even like the BBC, that’s something that could be further democratized. We can create the necessary safeguards and firewalls.
And again, I think bringing it down to the local level is key. And we can point to, you know, whether we’re thinking in terms of our public education system, just that opens our minds to this idea that the government could also be supporting public media centers. We could be converting our post offices into community multimedia centers. There are things that we could do that indeed have already been done, in some cases that work quite well. So we just have to get over this fear, realizing that it would not be inevitable that a government-funded media system leads to totalitarianism, would become simply a mouthpiece of the state. There’s tons of evidence showing that public media systems around the world have remained adversarial to those in government, and I think if other democracies have figured this out, I think we can figure it out in the United States as well.
RS: Hopefully. And we’ve run out of time. But we’ve been discussing a really important book, Democracy Without Journalism?–and there’s a big question mark at the end of that, and the answer is no, you can’t have democracy without independent journalism, as the founders of our country recognized. And the subtitle is Confronting the Misinformation Society. But this is not just about the current anguish of the moment of misinformation. Misinformation, as this book points out, has been as American as apple pie; we were misinformed about everything from the genocide of Native Americans to the power of slavery, and this dehumanization up through all sorts of wars that were lied about. But what is different now is you don’t even have the checks of the marketplace, where the people buying the New York Daily News had to be satisfied in some sense or they weren’t going to continue buying it, and therefore advertisers would not advertise. The model is broken. This book deals with, OK, what can you do about it? The author, Victor Pickard, is a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication–is it “for” Communication or “of” Communication? I never can get that straight about these Annenberg schools.
VP: It’s “for” Communication.
RS: OK–at the University of Pennsylvania. The book is published by Oxford University Press. And really, it should be read before you start a discussion about why our democracy is broken, because it cuts through the partisan cant about all this. But that’s it. And thankfully we have our public radio station here, KCRW, which does a very good job of still trying to communicate on the big local issues as well as national. And Christopher Ho is the engineer here who posts our show, I want to thank him. Natasha Hakimi Zapata does the introduction. Lucy Berbeo does the transcription. And the overall producer and director and everything else of Scheer Intelligence is a Scheer other than myself, Joshua Scheer. So that’s it for this edition. See you next week with another edition of Scheer Intelligence.