Don’t Let Murdoch Rewrite our Media History

Back in December at the Federal Trade Commission’s workshop on the future of journalism, much was made about the verbal sparring between Arianna Huffington and Rupert Murdoch. It made for good theatre, but an important thread was lost in the blogger-versus-publisher storyline: Murdoch’s attack on the notion of a role for government in the future of media and journalism.

But last week, Patrick Maines of the Media Institute took to the Huffington Post to rehash and support many of Murdoch’s arguments, which are riddled with inconsistencies, contradictions and misrepresentations. Apparent believers in the theory that if you say something enough times it’ll come true, these Big Media boosters are attempting to rewrite history to fit their free market narrative, turning a blind eye to the profound impact government policy has had on the corporate media they defend.

For all their points of agreement, Murdoch and Maines actually start from very different places. Whereas Murdoch held up journalists as heroic and defended their labor and their product as vital and worthwhile (ironic, given his cuts to newsroom staff), Maines offers his view on journalists’ stupidity and selfishness . “Despite their general lack of experience or expertise in law, commerce, finance, or technology, people with journalistic backgrounds are these days testifying before Congress and regulatory agencies, sponsoring seminars, and writing papers in a broadly coordinated effort to influence laws and regulations that govern the media,” Maines writes.

Maines suggests that while the news industry goes through radical shifts and upheavals, working journalists and concerned citizens should stay out of the debates about the future of the industry. We’ve heard this before. While it’s acceptable for corporate media execs to unleash waves of lobbyists on Capitol Hill, journalists — the people with firsthand knowledge of what it takes to meet the information needs of communities — are told to stay on the sidelines. America has a long history of media policy made in the public’s name but without their consent, and Maines suggests we keep it that way.

The idea that the public should stay out of media policymaking and that policy should stay out of journalism is rooted in a revisionist history of American media. Both Murdoch and Maines are proponents of this revisionist view. In his remarks, Murdoch invokes the country’s founders, but only gets it half right. He writes, “The Founding Fathers knew that the key to independence was to allow enterprises to prosper and serve as a counterweight to government power.” While this is true, the founding fathers also understood that the government must ensure that the press remained both vibrant and free. In their recent article in the Nation, Robert McChesney and John Nichols write:

“From the days of Washington, Jefferson and Madison through those of Andrew Jackson to the mid-nineteenth century, enormous printing and postal subsidies were the order of the day. The need for them was rarely questioned, which is perhaps one reason they have been so easily overlooked. They were developed with the intention of expanding the quantity, quality and range of journalism–and they were astronomical by today’s standards… Our research suggests that press subsidies may well have been the second greatest expense of the federal budget of the early Republic, following the military.”

Over the past year, numerous journalists, historians, economists, policy makers and even some publishers have argued that we must revive America’s proud history of public support for the public good that is journalism. However, the only role Murdoch and Maines can see for government is to continue down the same deregulatory path that helped wipe out local media and put the majority of sources of news and information under the control of a few giant corporations.

Maines suggests, “Where the media do not receive government funding – directly or indirectly – they are free to speak critically of the government without fear of a loss of revenue, a condition that is undone if they do receive funding.” And yet, new research by NYU professor Rodney Benson comparing the American and French press shows government funding does not inhibit free speech or weaken the press’ watchdog role. In fact, his study found the state-subsidized French press to include more hard-hitting stories on government accountability and a wider diversity of viewpoints than the commercial American press.

Any journalism policy must strengthen and protect the First Amendment. As the advertising-supported model crumbles and commercial media increasingly traffic in sensationalism and junk news, there is a growing desire for a new kind of media in America. The commercial media that Murdoch and Maines so fiercely defend have pushed diverse viewpoints off the air, decreased the amount of news and information reaching communities, and injected advertising into every corner of our lives. A press that is controlled by a few powerful interests – that is the real assault on our First Amendment.

What we need are media that grapple with the difficult issues of our times and help communities and citizens make informed decisions and take action. The last year has seen the emergence of a remarkable consensus among journalists, citizens, academics, publishers and lawmakers regarding the need for smart government policies to support the future of journalism and foster more kinds of speech – not less. Murdoch and Maines would like us to forget the longstanding role the government has played in fostering our free press in America, and would like us to ignore the current government handouts that have allowed Big Media to define (and dismantle) journalism in our modern era.

If working journalists and concerned citizens don’t speak up about the kind of media we need in America, then Murdoch and Maines will.

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