Book Reviews | Gordon Campbell | News Flashes | Scoop Features | Scoop Video | Strange & Bizarre | Search


U.S. Media Fails to Hold Govt. Accountable

Between the Lines Q&A
A weekly column featuring progressive viewpoints
on national and international issues
under-reported in mainstream media
for release May 2, 2005

U.S. Media Fails to Hold Government Accountable in War and During Electoral Campaigns

- Interview with Robert McChesney, founder and president of the media reform group Free Press, conducted by Scott Harris

Listen in RealAudio:
(Needs RealOne player or RealPlayer)

Over the past several years, America has seen a growing public backlash against policies deregulating the ownership of U.S. broadcast outlets. Sweeping plans for further deregulation put forward by former Federal Communications Commission chair Michael Powell in 2002 ignited a nationwide campaign to oppose the rules change, and succeeded in temporarily blocking the measure. The grassroots movement that rose up to oppose deregulation is also critical of the programming choices available to citizens, leading them to strongly advocate for an increase in diversity of viewpoints on the airwaves.

The fact that half or more Americans mistakenly still believe that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and supported al Qaeda, justifying the Bush administration's war in Iraq -- has led many observers to criticize the performance of the U.S. media. Critics say the lack of investigative and reliable reporting on these critical issues -- both before the U.S. invasion of Iraq and during the 2004 presidential election campaign -- has significantly diminished political dialogue and debate in America.

Between The Lines' Scott Harris spoke with Robert McChesney, professor of communication at the University of Illinois and founder of the media reform group Free Press. McChesney discusses the White House practice of paying commentators to present the administration's views and why he believes American media and journalism is in crisis.

Robert McChesney: Probably the two most important ways to judge a viable press system or media system, at least in terms of governance and politics goes -- the way to judge whether a press system is doing the job, is how good a job it does monitoring the war-making power of government, empowering people to stop those in power from engaging in wars if they want them to -- to keep the country out of war, or to make sure that when a country goes to war it's with the informed consent of the citizenry. And the other great test of a free press is how good a job it does at making it possible to have a transfer of power and accountable and effective elections, so people know who they're voting for, what they're voting for and they enter the polls armed to the teeth with the information needed to govern their own lives.

And if the media system doesn't do those two things, it doesn't matter what else they do, it sucks. If it does those two things, it's most of the way home on probably having a decent press system for society.

I think the 2004 presidential election and the war in Iraq provide case closed caliber evidence that our press system is deeply, deeply troubled and is failing us thoroughly, completely.

Between The Lines: The White House has a propaganda machine, and this was uncovered in recent months when phony reporters were embedded in the White House press corps, going to presidential press briefings on almost a daily basis. There were other "journalists," who were being paid enormous amounts of money to read off the White House scripts. Other problems exist with video news releases that were being rebroadcast by television stations and networks without attribution. Tell us a little bit about where you think the problem lies with alarm bells not being rung loud enough about the dangers of a White House using taxpayer money to propagandize the American people?

Robert McChesney: Yeah, this is clearly an alarming development and I think if we had a viable opposition party in this country or if we had a viable, genuine conservative movement in this country, this would be the sort of scandal that would bring a government down -- what the Bush administration is doing. But the Bush administration is doing this aggressive and contemptuous approach towards media because they know they could get away with it. The press system just rolls over on their belly. I mean they'll write a couple of editorials saying, "Oh, isn't this terrible, naughty you," then they'll go back to sleep for another three years.

What has happened that the Bush administration is doing is unbelievable, it's truly incredible. It's certainly a crisis and a scandal in the magnitude of anything that Clinton ever considered by a factor of 10 or greater. And I think it's equal to something along the lines of an Iran-Contra or a Watergate. It's at that level of scandal we're talking about here because what they're doing is paying off journalists under the table to articulate their party line. They're doing these fake video news releases, they're sending out to TV stations that are carried as real news -- especially on the Sinclair channel, which is sort of their crony system of TV stations. And then they put this sort of plant in the White House press pool to lob the most ridiculous softball questions at the president on those rare moments he ever does do a press conference.

This is an administration that has nothing short of complete contempt for the press and for democracy, accordingly. And the press system regrettably, rather than standing up and fighting back, has more or less just rolled over and apologized for its existence repeatedly. And I think that's why the Bush administration can continue to do it because they know they aren't going to ever have to pay for it.

Between The Lines: Robert McChesney tell us a little bit about the agenda for Free Press and the reform movement nationwide this coming year -- and some of the challenges ahead in terms of reform.

Robert McChesney: Free Press is a group I started with John Nichols and Josh Silver two or three years ago, it's based up in Northampton, Massachusetts. Free Press is formed on a very simple premise, that our media system is not a free market system, it has nothing to do with free markets. All the big companies get government subsidies and monopoly grants and all sorts of privileges that create the system.

The problem we face is that our media system is set up with these policies and subsidies corruptly behind closed doors by powerful special interests and that laws and subsidies are made in the public's name, but the public knows nothing about them. So the point of Free Press is to get informed public participation on these fundamental media policy issues across the board: media ownership; public broadcasting; copyright, Internet access; commercialism in schools; commercialism in our culture. Because we believe the more informed public participation there is, the better the policies will be and the less likely they will be to just serve the big guys who are behind the doors in those smoke-filled rooms.

We're having our second national conference in St. Louis, May 13-15, 2005.There will be 2,000 or 3,000 people there. Our first conference was off the charts in terms of enthusiasm -- and this conference is going to make Woodstock look like a funeral.

If people can get there I'd urge them to. But even if you can't, you can follow it and follow this movement and plug into this movement by going to

Visit Free Press' website at

Professor McChesney is an editor of the forthcoming book, "The Future of Media, Resistance and Reform in the 21st Century," published by Seven Stories Press.

Related links on our website at


Scott Harris is executive producer of Between The Lines, which can be heard on more than 35 radio stations and in RealAudio and MP3 on our website at This interview excerpt was featured on the award-winning, syndicated weekly radio newsmagazine, Between The Lines for the week ending May 6, 2005. This Between The Lines Q&A was compiled by Scott Harris and Anna Manzo.



It's your future ... help make a difference against the corporate media's blackout of news and viewpoints like those in the interview above by helping us distribute to a wider audience in 2005! Please send your donation to:

Squeaky Wheel Productions, Inc. P.O. Box 110176 Trumbull, CT 06611

*** Please note: If you would like your donation to be tax-deductible, please make your check out to our fiscal sponsor, The Center for Global Communications Foundation Inc. (or The Global Center) and send to the above address.***


PRINT INFORMATION: For reprint permission, please email

© Scoop Media

Top Scoops Headlines


Werewolf: Living With Rio’s Olympic Ruins

Mariana Cavalcanti Critics of the Olympic project can point a discernible pattern in the delivery of Olympics-related urban interventions: the belated but rushed inaugurations of faulty and/or unfinished infrastructures... More>>

Live Blog On Now: Open Source//Open Society Conference

The second annual Open Source Open Society Conference is a 2 day event taking place on 22-23 August 2016 at Michael Fowler Centre in Wellington… Scoop is hosting a live blog summarising the key points of this exciting conference. More>>



Gordon Campbell: On The Politicising Of The War On Drugs In Sport

It hasn’t been much fun at all to see how “war on drugs in sport” has become a proxy version of the Cold War, fixated on Russia. This weekend’s banning of the Russian long jumper Darya Klishina took that fixation to fresh extremes. More>>


Binoy Kampmark: Kevin Rudd’s Failed UN Secretary General Bid

Few sights are sadder in international diplomacy than seeing an aging figure desperate for honours. In a desperate effort to net them, he scurries around, cultivating, prodding, wishing to be noted. Finally, such an honour is netted, in all likelihood just to shut that overly keen individual up. More>>

Open Source / Open Society: The Scoop Foundation - An Open Model For NZ Media

Access to accurate, relevant and timely information is a crucial aspect of an open and transparent society. However, in our digital society information is in a state of flux with every aspect of its creation, delivery and consumption undergoing profound redefinition... More>>

Keeping Out The Vote: Gordon Campbell On The US Elections

I’ll focus here on just two ways that dis-enfranchisement is currently occurring in the US: (a) by the rigging of the boundary lines for voter districts and (b) by demanding elaborate photo IDs before people are allowed to cast their vote. More>>

Ramzy Baroud: Being Black Palestinian - Solidarity As A Welcome Pathology

It should come as no surprise that the loudest international solidarity that accompanied the continued spate of the killing of Black Americans comes from Palestine; that books have already been written and published by Palestinians about the plight of their Black brethren. In fact, that solidarity is mutual. More>>


Get More From Scoop

Top Scoops
Search Scoop  
Powered by Vodafone
NZ independent news