Wednesday, June 23, 2010


Saving the news

By Reginald Johnson
June 23, 2010

Everywhere you turn, journalism seems to be dying.

Battered by a number of factors, including the recession and years of bad management, newspapers are going out of business. Once proud papers like the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Rocky Mountain News, for instance, have shut their doors. The L.A. Times and Chicago Tribune have filed for bankruptcy. Others like the Boston Globe are teetering on the edge.

The papers that are still afloat are reducing staffs and cutting newsprint costs in a desperate bid to stay alive. In the process, there’s less stories being produced for readers about government, business and culture.

At the same time, the electronic media isn’t exactly jumping into the breach and offering a solid news alternative. TV and radio stations have slashed their news staffs in recent years, too, and offer almost nothing in the way of substantive reporting.

The Internet also doesn’t provide much fresh news from the many websites that have cropped up; most news on the Web comes originally from the newspapers that are still around.

So if newspapers go the way of the horse and buggy, who’s going to cover what's going on in your local and state governments? Who’s going to keep track of corporations and nonprofit organizations?

There’s no question that having an informed citizenry is absolutely critical to maintaining a healthy democracy. Without an informed populace, our system will collapse.

There’s a growing number of people out there who are trying to figure out how we save the news business or somehow create alternative vehicles for journalism.

Robert McChesney, a professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Illinois and John Nichols, the Washington correspondent for The Nation magazine, have spent a number of years studying this issue, and recently came out with a pathbreaking book, “The Death and Life of American Journalism --- The Media Revolution That Will Begin the World Again.”

In it, McChesney and Nichols argue that the traditional model that has supported and allowed newspapers to thrive for decades no longer works. That model was based on papers devoting a large portion of their pages to commercial advertising, and in so doing bringing in solid revenue. That money in turn allowed publishers to set aside another healthy portion of the paper to news stories, which brought in circulation revenues, as well as provided a public service.

But in recent years, advertising and classified has been drifting to the Internet. Circulation has been lost in large part because big corporations --- which swallowed up papers in the 1980s and 1990s --- decided to cut costs to keep profits high and in so doing weakened their product and lost readers, particularly young readers.

McChesney and Nichols believe that there’s no way to revive the old commercial model for journalism (despite some of the brave predictions about a comeback by some newspaper owners). Instead, to really save journalism and make it grow, they say, the public sector has to step in and play a major, supporting role.

The authors maintain that journalism must be seen as a “public good” --- just like education and the military are seen as the public good. And they add that if Americans want good journalism to make our constitutional system work, “it means we need a massive public intervention to produce a public good.”

To keep good papers and magazines alive and spur the growth of new, independent and non-commercial on-line publications and programs, billions will have to be spent in public subsidies, they say.

Among the ideas McChesney and Nichols put forth are these:

· A tax credit for newspapers worth 50 percent of all the salaries paid to all journalistic employees, up to a maximum of $45,000. “This credit would result in papers hiring (and not firing) many more journalists.”
· Cut postal rates for magazines that have less than 25 percent of their space devoted to ads, to 5 cents. Many magazines, on both the left and the right, are floundering. A postal cut would help them stay alive, and cost the government $200 million a year, the authors write.
· Establish a “Journalism Division” in the AmeriCorps program, which already sees the government place people in community service programs. Young people would be paid to go work at a community radio station or other media, and go out and report on the community. “It strikes us as a win-win; we get more journalists covering our communities, and young journalists have a chance to gain valuable experience…” they write.
· While McChensey and Nichols see no commercial future for major dailies, they say it’s in the public interest to make sure at least one newspaper remain alive in every community that has traditionally had one. “To this end, the federal government must intervene to aid the transition to post-corporate ownership models for daily papers.” A federal office set up to oversee the transition of failing papers could buy the papers for a time, and then resell them to new owners, or provide low-interest loans to new ownership groups to make the deals themselves.
· Revitalize our pubic broadcasting systems, which have been woefully underfunded for years. Canada, Britain and other countries spend a lot more than the U.S. and have excellent news programs on their public systems. Right now, the U.S. spends only $409 million on PBS and NPR. If we spent as much per capita as Canada, the federal commitment would be $7.5 billion.

If all these proposals and others they mention were implemented, Nichols and McChesney write, the total tab would run around $35 billion.

The authors concede that “that’s darned near inconceivable in a nation that has battled over whether to spend a paltry $400 million on public broadcasting.”

But they also note that that $35 billion is close to what much smaller nations like Denmark and Finland spend per capita on public media.

They also point out quite aptly that the amount is just 3.5 percent of the $1 trillion America is spending on the military this year.

To many journalists (such as myself), the idea of public subsidies sends off alarm bells. Won’t there be government censorship?

McChesney and Nichols recognize this concern, and say emphatically, “Let’s be clear about this: the bedrock principle that government must not censor or interfere with the content or journalistic operations of news media is non-negotiable.”

They point out that while the First Amendment prohibits state censorship, it also does not prohibit or discourage the public from using the government to subsidize and spawn independent media.

In fact, the early press in this country, small newspapers and journals, got started in large part through postal and printing subsidies.

“It is not too much to say that without those huge subsidies, our nation would not have evolved as it did, indeed it might not have evolved at all,” they write.

(John Nichols spoke about his book recently at a pubic forum in New Haven. Audio CDs and DVDs of this event will be available in coming weeks at

Monday, June 7, 2010


Israel given a pass again by U.S. media

By Reginald Johnson
June 7, 2010

So ships carrying humanitarian aid to a country with desperately poor people are attacked in international waters by men firing automatic weapons. The assailants kill nine passengers and wound dozens of others.

The passengers were unarmed at the time and did nothing to provoke the violent assault.

It’s pretty clear the attackers acted in a totally illegal way, committing criminal acts. Right?

Wrong! The attackers were Israeli, so international law and accepted norms of behavior don’t apply --- at least in the eyes of the major U.S. media, not to mention American leaders.

The Israeli military can do whatever it wants, whenever it wants. And no matter how outrageous their actions, the Israelis are always in the right, and they are always the victims.

Proof of this dictum has been laid out over the past few days with the pro-Israel coverage by U.S. media outlets, concerning the deadly attack on the flotilla the morning of May 31. The ships were bringing aid to the beleaguered land known as the Gaza Strip, part of Palestine.

The flotilla of six ships, carrying 10,000 tons of emergency food and building materials as well as 700 activists and representatives of 40 nations, was attempting to break the illegal Israeli blockade of Gaza. The siege by Israel has been underway for three years and barely any supplies are being allowed in.

The shortage of food and other necessities has been growing more and more acute in Gaza, particularly since the brutal invasion of the territory by Israel in January of 2009, an attack that gutted Gaza’s infrastructure and caused 1,400 mostly civilian deaths.

The flotilla had been warned by the Israelis not to try to enter Gaza. Israel had maintained that the ships could be Trojan horses, secretly carrying weapons to the Hamas leaders who govern Gaza, and who Israel considers terrorists. In response, the flotilla organizers offered to have a neutral third party check the boats to guarantee the absence of weapons. But Israel did not agree to this, and the flotilla proceeded.

Around 4 a.m. on May 31, the Israeli navy surrounded the flotilla, which was 70 miles off the Israeli coast. Helicopters hovered over the lead ship, a Turkish vessel, the Mavi Marmara. Soldiers rappelled down ropes onto the ship and began firing their guns at close range. This continued even after a white flag was raised. Some passengers did try to fight back, using sticks and metal bars.

The Israeli forces took control of all the passengers, forced the boats to an Israeli port and put them all in detention, prior to deportation.

Immediately, there was world-wide criticism of the Israeli action, and demands at the UN for an official condemnation.

President Barack Obama and U.S. officials simply expressed concern, but worked to block an official UN condemnation.

And mainstream U.S. news outlets, from the get-go, soft-pedalled the Israeli atrocity and took sides with Israel. The first report I heard was on News Radio 88 (CBS) in New York Monday afternoon. After describing the attack, the reporter quickly noted that there were “two sides” to the story, and then gave the Israeli view, that their soldiers shot only in self-defense at violent passengers.

Later Monday, NBC’s evening news with Katie Couric did not directly quote any eyewitnesses or officials of aid organizations, who had gotten reports back from passengers. Instead she gave direct audio clips from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and another high Israeli official, who both said the soldiers had acted in self-defense, since passengers had attacked them with clubs. They also alleged that there were pro-Hamas terrorists among the passengers.

The report was very-one sided and begging for a rebuttal. But since Couric apparently didn’t try to get the other side, none was given.

The Washington Post was outrageous with its knee-jerk defense of Israel, saying in a June 1 editorial: “We have no sympathy for the motives of the participants in the flotilla --- a motley collection that included European sympathizers with the Palestinian cause, Israeli Arab leaders and Turkish Islamic activists.”

Cable TV pundits, even those considered moderate, were also biased in their comments on the Israeli attack on the ship. MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, apparently upset with the widespread criticism of Israel, said he felt that Israel was being hit with “a bad rap” or something to that effect.

It was also upsetting that liberal talk-show hosts Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow did not deal with the Israeli ship attack on their shows last week, at least what I saw.

So there you have it. Even the liberals of mainstream journalism won’t touch the issue of Israeli conduct with respect to Palestine and its allies. It is the sine qua non of American mainstream journalism. Don’t go there. But in my view, if you don’t go there, you’re not being a journalist.

It was left to the alternative media on radio and on the Internet to pursue the truth. The same night that NBC and others were running their one sided reports, Scott Harris of the Between the Lines radio newsmagazine interviewed Ramzi Kysia, an organizer with the Free Gaza Movement, one of the groups that sponsored the flotilla.

Kysia said international journalists were on board the ship and they reported via a satellite feed at the time of the attack that Israeli soldiers had killed people by firing their guns as soon as they landed. There was no indication of provocations from the other side. He also said officials in different ports had checked the ships during the trip, and found no weapons, putting the lie to the claim that the ships were secretly carrying arms to Hamas.

Kysia said that the attack was “an attempt to frighten off future
humanitarian aid efforts for Gaza.”

Other shows like Democracy Now! and articles on sites like Common Dreams also presented viewpoints on the attack from people other than “the usual suspects” (Israeli and American officials) to get a fuller account of what happened to the flotilla.

The lack of courage by the mainstream media to report candidly on the brutal policies and actions of the Israeli government --- as well as the American policy of condoning the actions --- is a chief reason why there continues to be no resolution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and why the Palestinians, such as those who live in Gaza, remain oppressed and living in abject poverty.