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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

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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.



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