By Kevin Anthony Stoda
The following important interview was with John Nichols and Robert McChesney and it took place on Thursday on Democracy Now was undertaken by DN's Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez. Nichols and McChesney were on the program to promote their new book, The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution that Will Begin the World Again. (Click on the link below.)
First of all, McChesney and Nichols point out that for well over the first 120 years of American history, the federal government underwrote the country's entire free and independent press system by providing Americans with the best and cheapest postal system on the planet. John Nichols stated, "Well, I think the most important thing that we bring out in the book, perhaps the vital message, is that there is a hidden history of the First Amendment, a history that was really stolen from us as we entered into a commercial age in the last century, century and a half. At the founding of the republic, there was a deep understanding on the part of the founders that if you promise people freedom of the press, that was a wonderful notion, a great concept, but it was an empty promise, meaningless, if there wasn't a press. You know, you say, 'Well, we're not going to censor you.' Well, if there's nothing to censor, it doesn't matter. And so, the founders understood, and well into the nineteenth century there was an understanding, that you never censored, you set up a landscape where independent journalism could be practiced and could come in all sorts of forms. Since then, some of that understanding has remained, with creation of some of the technologies you discussed. But the theft of that definition of freedom of the press, that it really is uncensored, but also easily developed, and that when it's needed it comes into play, that's been stolen. And in the book, we talk a lot about who really drove the development of an understanding of a press subsidy system. It wasn't Jefferson and Madison. They favored it. They thought it was a kind of a necessary evil, you've got to have it. The people who drove it were the abolitionists, the people on the outside, saying the original sin of the American experiment must be addressed, and they said, you know, we've got to have the resources to create independent, dissenting, small-town weeklies, and they did."
Amy Goodman, interrupted and asked McChesney and Nichols to explain specifically which abolitionists in American History they were referring to.
Nichols continued, "People who died, literally, struggling to create independent weeklies. African--freed slaves and runaway slaves, as well. "
added, "And Garrison." That is William Lloyd Garrison, author of THE LIBERATOR.
Nichols nodded, "Garrison himself. People who were killed at their presses. The fact of the matter is, at the founding of the country, we had a baseline press subsidy system, but it wasn't sufficient to really sustain it. And so, for decade after decade, there were congressional debates over how to extend it and whether to really take off the postal subsidies for the smallest papers, which circulated, you know, at a local level. It was the abolitionists who fought for it, people like Garrison and others. But the fascinating thing is, when you start to rip open this history, go to the truth, you find that Uncle Tom's Cabin has scenes where post offices are being attacked by Southern slavers who don't want the abolitionist press to be delivered. I mean, this is such rich, good history. "
Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the classic, Uncle Tom's Cabin, was published first in the antislavery journal called the National Era--it would thus have been distributed by America's well-financed and efficient postal system.
Nichols continued, "And what we understand, what we come to realize, is that we can create a system in this country today that allows the new abolitionist movements, the new dissenting movements, to have a voice. It won't be a dominant voice. It won't be as much as we'd like. But they can be in play. But if we don't act now, we, the people, as citizens, we're going to end up in a situation where the vast majority of our news and information is packaged by power, by elites, but the same people who didn't want the abolitionists to have a voice 200 years ago."
Juan Gonzalez interjected, "Bob McChesney, I'd like to ask you, we got reports today, in today's paper, CBS News is laying off another 100 people. ABC News is expecting a new round of layoffs. There are those who argue, well, the internet is providing now the kind of platform in news and information that the old media--radio, TV and newspapers--are no longer able to do so and that the internet will eventually supplant this, this is only a transition period. You argue in your book somewhat differently about the nature of newsrooms and their value vis-à-vis what's appearing on the internet."
"Yeah, it's a really important point, Juan, because, you know, everything is going digital. This program is largely received, or will be, digitally at some point in the very near future, not just on television and radio systems. And it's not a technological argument we're making about one technology supplanting another. We understand the digital times we're in. The argument that's crucial is whether the internet is going to provide the basis for substantive journalism to replace what's disintegrating before us. And we go through this very carefully in the book", McChesney replied. "And I think it's obvious that if we want to look at actual resources, so people who get paid money to cover beats, who are accountable for them, who are competing with other journalists, who have proofreaders and copy editors and fact checkers and institutions to support them in their work, they're just not happening online. The resources there barely exist. There are only a handful of journalists who can make a living doing journalism online. And what you have there, too, is if you're seeking out advertising support, it puts journalism in a very compromised position, because there's such a competition for the scarce ad dollars. It really undermines the integrity of news that is essential for a credible free news system."