The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution That Will Begin the World Again

By Stempel, Guido H. | Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Autumn 2010 | Go to article overview

The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution That Will Begin the World Again


Stempel, Guido H., Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly


* The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution That Will Begin the World Again. Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols. Philadelphia, PA: Nation Books, 2010. 334 pp. $26.95 hbk.

This book offers a well-documented argument for why federal subsidies of mass media are needed. Robert McChesney, the Gutgsell endowed professor of communication at the University of Illinois, has written extensively about the state of the media. He is joined in this book by John Nichols, Washington correspondent for The Nation and associate editor of the Capitol Times in Madison, WI.

They begin with the history of press freedom in the United States, quoting from early proponents of free expression. Thomas Paine, they note, said that the manners of a nation "can be better ascertained by the character of its press than from any other public circumstance." They quote James Madison as saying that, "A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it... is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy or perhaps both." And they include Thomas Jefferson's famous preference for newspapers without government to the opposite.

The authors also take the position that the First Amendment does not mean that the government cannot subsidize media, but simply that it cannot censor or control media. They point out that there always has been government subsidy of newspapers through favorable postal rates, and subsidization of broadcasting through the free granting of exclusive radio and television frequencies that are worth thousands if not millions of dollars.

McChesney and Nichols believe media subsidies are necessary at this time because of the extreme economic difficulties facing all news media. They point to the decline in circulation and advertising revenue for newspapers and the decline in television audiences. (Indeed, an August study finds that TV network viewers are aging twice as fast as the general population, making networks much less attractive to advertisers.) They also document the loss of jobs in the news media.

While acknowledging that the Internet and the recession are partly responsible for these trends, they believe the problem predates the current economic downturn. The problem began two decades ago, they say, when ownerships began to emphasize profits at the expense of service. Providing much higher salaries for CEOs and high dividends to stockholders became the main goals, and layoffs of news personnel followed. CEO salaries, which were twenty-three times those of reporters and editors in 1970, are now 230 times those of rank-and-file newsroom staff.

The authors make the case for government subsidy of journalism well, but they do not address the related issue of declining credibility of newspaper and television news. Is there reason to believe that federal subsidies will help this? Isn't it possible that changes are needed in the news product and how we define news to create more public confidence and interest in the news media?

The authors also overlook two major developments that may represent models for press survival. One is the online New York Times, which reaches 21 million people daily - 40% of the total daily circulation of U. …

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