The Media Is a Curable Disease

Rupert Murdoch, who got his start in business marketing rats and manure, has chosen to deny Italy access to a television network that has presented critical coverage of both Murdoch and of leading Italian media baron and prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi. The network, Current TV, is the project of a man identified in Italy primarily as a Nobel Peace Prize winner, Al Gore.

Here’s Gore in Italy denouncing Murdoch’s move: (play this video and click 21:37 and 22:36 in the summary at right). Italian media may be dominated by a small cartel, but it includes diverse outlets, including this state network, that permit other points of view. Check out the coverage of this story in Il Fatto and Il Manifesto, and sign this petition.

Meanwhile, back in the land where every goddam airport and hotel lobby blares Fox News at you, our free and independent press has the drawback of all agreeing with itself about almost everything. There’s no anti-Fox News. There’s very little investigative, independent, anti-authoritarian reporting of any sort. Newspapers are dying out, and with them the profession of reporter. Or so warn Robert McChesney and John Nichols in "The Death and Life of American Journalism." Horrendous as U.S. corporate media has been, and as fascistic as our government has become, the authors warn, if we allow reporting to die out we’ll be very sorry. So we must publicly fund journalism.

A new collection edited by McChesney and Victor Pickard called "Will The Last Reporter Please Turn Out the Lights" includes a good deal of debate over exactly how this might be done, and some of the ideas look like real solutions. Various contributors argue quite persuasively that we do not need to reproduce the newspaper news room. We need to fund reporting, editing, and fact-checking to be sure, but we can use the internet for what it’s best at: compiling, sifting, questioning, and verifying. Janine Jackson’s critique of the old media suggests what we need and what we do not need to recover. Yochai Benkler points out that Wikileaks has broken major stories Reuters was unable to, the blogosphere has produced the best coverage of popular protests in foreign capitals, and a reporter for an online nonprofit won a Pulitzer for coverage of Hurricane Katrina. The internet gives us all direct access to statements, press releases, documents, and interviews, with no media filter.

Yet it remains the case, as the contributors to "Will The Last Reporter" endlessly repeat, that most internet reporting and commentary regurgitates the reporting of the old and dying media. What to do? I mean, assuming we had any control over our government, which may be impossible until AFTER our communications crisis has somehow been solved, what should we do to solve the crisis? C. Edwin Baker has proposed that the government pay half the salary of every reporter. Dean Baker has proposed that every American be permitted to allocate $200 of public funds to the news medium of their choice, and every news medium receiving funds would be required to make its reporting available free online. Bruce Ackerman has proposed that internet users click a box whenever they believe an article has contributed to their political understanding; the more clicks an outlet receives, the more public money it receives.

These ideas seem on the right track. A public body would still have to determine what outlets or articles/audios/videos qualified. Libel, war propaganda, pornography and other illegal materials would have to be excluded. Internet access would have to be made available to all. And Ackerman’s idea is probably too susceptible to fraud. I think Baker may be onto the most encouraging angle, one that allows equal weight to those who spend all day online and those who don’t, and one fairly easily monitored. The trick would be to restrict qualified outlets to those that produce serious reporting and to restrict the use of public funds to serious reporting. Clearly, one way or another, we could deny Rupert Murdoch the power to decide what each nation gets to see. All we need is a functioning government.

If we had that, we could bust the trusts and cut the Murdochs down to size. Lacking that, we have to proceed with funding serious independent media on our own. If we would all do so just for one year instead of funding elections, we would shortly have a public sufficiently informed to end the impossible situation in which elections need to be funded. And then we could create public funding of journalism going forward.

Meanwhile, fund the blogs you read, boycott Fox News, and turn off all plutocratic programming with this handy device.