Book review: The Death and Life of American Journalism

Shoaib Khan
Tuesday, March 7th, 2017

“The Death and Life of American Journalism” is a 2010 book written in response to a decline in credible journalism and the implications this has for American politics. The work, written by renowned journalist John Nichols and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) communications professor Robert McChesney, is a good introduction to the evolution of journalism over the past several decades. It is also an excellent analysis of the risks that corporate interests pose to public intellectual life. Lastly, it is a good tribute to the numerous journalists that have lost their jobs since the 1990s, and a good investigation to find out how we can help them regain their old standing in society.

The most conservative estimate, given by the American Society of News Editors, suggested that 5900 reporters, columnists, and editors lost their jobs in 2008 alone. The most common response is that this is the result of two factors: the internet and the 2008 economic recession. The authors, however, beg to differ. They note that even as the economy was recovering, journalists were still being laid off. They also note that in other countries like Denmark and Japan, print newspapers are much more lively, despite the availability of internet. Furthermore, one can notice a decline in journalism several decades before either of these two factors took hold. In the late 1960s and 1970s, for example, one could see far more diverse perspectives available in local news coverage. Consumer advocates, such the legendary Ralph Nader, often appeared on the front page exposing unethical activities of various corporations and Congress members. By the 1990s, however, much of this diversity had disappeared.  The key reason, according to the authors, is the business structure of the U.S. news industry. For much of the 20th century, news outlets were run as commercial businesses whose survival depended on outside funding. This resulted in corporations buying out smaller news companies to maximize profits and reduce competition. Additionally, the high costs and time required to produce serious journalism inevitably meant that journalists were laid off in favor of more profit-friendly staff. The result has been that the number of PR specialists per capita in news organizations has more than doubled since 1980, while the journalists per capita has been reduced by 33%. Even worse is the fact that the media marketplace is becoming increasingly dominated by a few conglomerates who keep out any dissenting voices. While the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) is supposed to ensure a diverse media market, corporate lobbying has given these major news companies more opportunities to drive out other local competitors.

The authors, skeptical of any business-like solutions, propose that the federal government should give subsidies to news organizations. This would ensure that they don’t have to rely on outside funding. They show how such a method has been employed by countries such as Denmark and Finland, which provide an average of $35 billion worth of subsidies. This had also been used during the early days of the American Republic, when people such as Benjamin Franklin were calling for newspapers to be exempt from postage fees. This was a time when Americans “defended the right to press liberty not for individual expression in our current, increasingly self-indulgent sense but rather so that the community might hear and judge the merit of others’ view” (P. 115, quoting Robert W.T. Martin). Nichols and McChesney estimate that the early American government spent the contemporary equivalent of $30 billion to ensure newspapers were available to everyone.

Transitioning from corporate media to a publicly subsidized media will not be easy, and so the authors propose a number of methods to help facilitate the transition. Given that many newspapers will inevitably go online, one crucial component is the need for net neutrality -- the requirement that internet service providers give equal access to all content, regardless of viewpoints. They also advocate for increased funding to public broadcasting. Their most interesting proposal, however, is the “news vouchers,” which would be monetary vouchers provided to every citizen of the nation. The vouchers could then be used to fund media organizations the individual prefers.

While the authors provide a great analysis of the problems and solutions to our current news crisis, their work could be improved if it had provided a more in-depth critique of American journalism as a whole, rather than just its modern manifestation. MIT polymath Noam Chomsky, for example, has documented numerous instances of how even older forms of media often mislead the public on various issues, particularly those related to foreign policy and military affairs. Additionally, the book is limited in that it only addresses the ideal reporting system for democratic societies and no other political systems. This might draw further criticism from thinkers such as Chris Hedges and Chomsky, who have some respect for socialist ideas. Despite these drawbacks, the work provides lay readers a good glimpse into modern scholarship on American newspapers and the challenges they face.  The work is a must-read for any individual living in the United States, as it will get their minds thinking on how to reform the media and make it suitable for future generations of Americans.