American Journalism Is Failing Democracy

By Robert Jensen

Published in Nieman Reports · April, 2001

[This article appeared in print in Nieman Reports, Spring 2001, pp. 84-85.]
Review of
Drive-By Journalism: The Assault on Your Need to Know
Arthur E. Rowse
Common Courage Press. 274 Pages. $17.95 pb.

My heart is with Arthur Rowse’s critique of contemporary journalism. As a former journeyman newspaper reporter and editor who still writes frequently for popular audiences, I too feel betrayed by an American news media that is increasingly cowed by concentrated economic power and complicit with elites in the slow but unmistakable decay of real democracy.

Rowse offers a clear and compelling account of the symptoms of the news media’s failures in “Drive-By Journalism,” but in the end I think his diagnosis of the causes of the problems misses the mark, which sends his prescriptions veering off target. In short: Mainstream commercial journalism is in as sorry shape as Rowse contends, but not exactly for the reasons he assumes, and it can’t be fixed in the ways he suggests. Rowse describes the disturbing trends in journalism, in regard both to what is and isn’t covered in the news, and tells important stories about journalists asleep at the switch. But I think a more radical analysis is needed to guide reform.

From the first pages of the book, Rowse doesn’t hold back on his critique: “Rather than using its freedom to foster the informed citizenry necessary for a vital democracy, the press has been merging competing voices into a homogenized newsamuse cartel. It exploits the First Amendment for commercial gain, shaping politics to its own needs, allowing advertisers and publicity agents to color the news and destroying public servants with cheap, shallow ‘gotcha’ journalism, the bastard child of informed investigative reporting.” The book details the “self-censorship, predatory practices, commercial pressures and political bias” that Rowse says have plagued the press for years. Today, “the detrimental forces are stronger and the consequences more serious,” he warns.

Rowse’s impressive résumé includes stints at The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, and U.S. News & World Report, along with books and numerous freelance articles (including for Nieman Reports). He comes to the task with an obvious love of the craft nurtured through long experience in the business. This is both a strength of the book and a limitation. On the plus side: Rowse seems to have seen firsthand, or reported on, virtually every type of journalistic malfeasance, and he writes in a fierce and lean style infused with a passion for politics and the press. On the negative: He overestimates the influence of the media.

The book is at its best when it goes after the hypocrisy of the news business, such as in the chapter “Exploiting the First Amendment for Profit.” Rowse details the shameful behavior of greedy and self-interested media corporations on such issues as telecommunications legislation, and he rightly charges the industry with helping redefine the First Amendment to protect corporate rights. The result, he says, is a process by which “citizen democracy is being replaced by corporate democracy.”

Another of my favorite chapters is about public relations. Here he shows how managers’ pressure on news organizations to save money makes the manipulation of journalists easier than ever for politicians’ publicists and the propaganda machine of corporations. This happens not only through the usual p.r. mechanisms but also through the creation of phony “citizens groups” funded by the business community.

Despite all that I like about the way Rowse tells the story, I think his analysis is too media-centric, both in assessing blame for the country’s political situation and in looking for solutions. In Rowse’s view, “Controlling what people see and hear is the ultimate power.” There’s a way in which that is true, of course; if people aren’t allowed to know certain things, it’s hard for them to know how to act. People with power in the United States long ago learned that controlling the public mind is in many ways a more efficient form of social control than the violence that totalitarian systems use to control people’s behavior directly.

But in our system this doesn’t mean that ultimate control over the picture of the world presented in mass media rests with news organizations, let alone with journalists. Rowse argues that, “When it comes to running the country, there’s no power higher than media power.” Yes, media influence is powerful. But real power lies in the institutions that control resources and decision-making, and media corporations are but one segment of that power, not the ultimate power.

This means that Rowse’s prescription for improving the health of our political system primarily through media reform misses the point. Media reform is crucial, but it has to be part of a larger social movement that addresses illegitimate structures of authority and unjust concentrations of power throughout the society, in private and public arenas. In other words, a revitalization of progressive politics more broadly is necessary. But Rowse dismisses such hope for “sweeping changes in American politics” as a “pipe dream” and says we have a better chance of “changing media practices than political views.”

I don’t know of anyone concerned with the decay of democracy who doesn’t understand the importance of mass media, but media reform cannot happen in a political vacuum. For example, one of Rowse’s suggestions is “to seek broad agreement with Wall Street to allow media managers to remove news operations from the same profit goals imposed on other divisions and lower short-term profit goals in order to preserve long-term profitability and foster more responsible journalism.” But why would Wall Street respond to such a plea? If investors thought it was in their interests to pursue responsible journalism because it was more profitable, they would. But for the most part they don’t, and there’s nothing in the structure of corporate capitalism to motivate them to change.

Rowse offers the beginnings of a radical analysis but doesn’t head in the radical direction necessary. That illustrates another aspect of the problem with mainstream contemporary journalism—the way in which journalists reflexively operate within the narrow ideological framework of American politics. The visible political spectrum in the United States, which has always been far less expansive than in most of the rest of the world, runs from the hard right to the liberal. While all shades of reactionary ideas are routinely aired in the United States, very little of left/progressive/radical thinking is allowed in the mainstream. For an example, just look at how hard politicians of both major parties and journalists worked to keep Ralph Nader out of the 2000 presidential contest.

Rowse positions himself at the critical edge of that visible spectrum, but he is unwilling to step very far outside it. The reason for stressing this about a book that I think generally is on target is not to engage in a who-can-be-more-critical contest but to be clear about the assumptions that underlie our analyses so that we are clear about where we are heading. Like Rowse, I believe that serious media reform is essential. But that project should go forward yoked to a strengthening of labor rights, curbs on corporate power, and a host of other progressive political projects. For example, decision-making authority over the news should be transferred from corporate managers to working journalists, but that kind of change isn’t going to happen without a revitalization of the U.S. labor movement. Greater control of the news by those who work in covering the news can’t be separated from the larger goal of greater control by all workers over their working conditions.

At the core of all of these struggles has to be a rejection of the key ideological dogmas of the culture—that “free” markets in contemporary capitalism are a vehicle for democracy and that the United States is a benevolent force for peace in the world—accompanied by a willingness to ask tough questions and find honest answers. Journalists have a role in these struggles, maybe even a special role. But to place too much hope in journalism is both unfair to journalists and unwise for us all.