How The Washington Post’s New Owner Aided the CIA, Blocked WikiLeaks & Decimated the Book Industry
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: We begin today’s show with a roundtable discussion about the sale of one of the nation’s leading newspapers to one of the world’s richest men. On Monday, The Washington Post announced the paper had been purchased by Amazon.com founder and CEO Jeff Bezos. Bezos will pay $250 million for the paper and a number of other publications—less than 1 percent of his wealth, which is estimated at more than $28 billion. Bezos is a friend of Donald Graham, chief executive of The Washington Post Company, whose family has owned the newspaper for eight decades.
Bezos said management of The Washington Post newspaper will remain the same, but it’s unclear what changes might be coming. Last year, Bezos was quoted in an interview with the German newspaper Berliner Zeitung saying, quote, “There is one thing I’m certain about: There won’t be printed newspapers in 20 years. Maybe as luxury items in some hotels that want to offer them as an extravagant service. Printed papers won’t be normal in 20 years.”
AMY GOODMAN: Critics of the sale have cited Bezos’s close ties to the U.S. government. In 2010, Amazon pulled the plug on hosting the WikiLeaks website under heavy political pressure. Earlier this year, Amazon inked a $600 million cloud-computing deal with the CIA.
For more, we’re joined by three guests. In Madison, Wisconsin, Bob McChesney is with us, co-founder of Free Press, author of several books on media and politics, including his Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism Is Turning the Internet Against Democracy. You can read the first chapter at our website, democracynow.org. He also recently co-authored with John Nichols Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex Is Destroying America.
Joining us via Democracy Now! video stream, Jeff Cohen, director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College, where he’s also a journalism professor. He is founder of the media watch group FAIR, Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting.
And here in New York City, Dennis Johnson is with us, co-founder and co-publisher of the book publisher Melville House. He recently wrote an article called “The Obama Business Plan: Be Like Amazon.”
We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Bob, McChesney, why don’t we begin with you in Madison, Wisconsin? Your response to the news that has rocked the industry, that Jeff Bezos is the new owner of The Washington Post?
ROBERT McCHESNEY: Well, I think what’s important is to have a structural understanding and context for this purchase, because the real story, the back story, is that the value of The Washington Post, like all other news media in this country, has plummeted in the last five or 10 years to maybe one-tenth, one-fiftieth of what it was in the late 1990s, and at this point they aren’t wise commercial investments. As the blip you had at the top of the show said, Amy, commercial journalism no longer is profitable. That’s why investors are jumping ship.
But they still have great political value, monopoly newspapers, especially The Washington Post, in the nation’s capital. It might not be a commercially viable undertaking, but it still has tremendous political power. And I think when we understand it that way, that’s the appeal of these remaining legacy monopoly newspapers, like the _Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, to wealthy people, is that it won’t make them money in the short term on that exact investment, but it gives them great political power to advance their political agenda, which, in the case of someone like Jeff Bezos, could give him a great deal of money down the road.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Jeff Cohen, could you respond to the sale of The Washington Post Company to Jeff Bezos and respond also to what Bob McChesney said about how the value of The Washington Post has been declining for several consecutive years, and talk about why Jeff Bezos might have made this purchase?
JEFF COHEN: Well, I think that when Jeff Bezos, in that older quote, talks about it being a luxury item—printed newspapers—I’ve got a good feeling, a good sense, that Jeff Bezos’ Washington Post will not remain a luxury item around Capitol Hill. It may go online heavily, but it’s going to stay there at Capitol Hill, because Bezos, I think, wants that kind of influence in the nation’s capital.
And I’ve been reading all this about Bezos’ politics, which of course is important when you’re a singular owner of a paper as influential as The Washington Post, a paper that actually urged us to get into the invasion of Iraq about a decade ago. But Bezos is like a lot of corporate executives: He’s liberal on social policy—he gave money to the pro-gay-marriage initiative—but he’s very conservative on economic policies that affect the corporation that made him wealthy and powerful. So, we learn about Bezos that he’s donated money to the initiative in the state of Washington—big money—that was trying to institute a tax, an income tax, on the top 1 percent of people in the state of Washington. It was supported by Bill Gates of Microsoft and Bill Gates’s dad. But Bezos was one of the billionaires that put money in to try to stop that. He’s conservative on labor policy, and we know what a bad labor policy Amazon has.
And the most important thing is, the biggest issue facing American journalism in the last month or so has been the surveillance state and these corporations that profit from the surveillance state, because 70 percent of the intelligence agency’s budgets, that come from the taxpayers, is delivered to private contractors. And as you guys mentioned, Amazon just brought down a huge CIA contract to provide cloud services. And we know that that’s not the only one. They want more contracts.
AMY GOODMAN: And, Dennis Johnson of Melville House, why, as a publisher—what are your feelings about Amazon? And then your thoughts about Amazon buying, or Jeff Bezos buying The Washington Post?
DENNIS JOHNSON: Well, my feelings as a publisher are the same as my feelings as an American. This is a—this is a very tough company to deal with, a company that has developed a whole new model for the marketplace of ideas. I mean, something to remember that maybe contributes to what the previous two speakers are talking about is that, you know, Amazon has, since its inception, been a company that, one, has avoided tax payments, or collecting sales tax, in not only the United States but across the world, and, two—
AMY GOODMAN: Explain that.
DENNIS JOHNSON: Well, they are, as a retailer, required to collect sales taxes for everything sold on their website. They have not done that, since its inception. In fact, Bezos originally tried to start the company and found it in an Indian reservation, because he believed it would be a sovereign nation and he wouldn’t have to collect any taxes. He founded the company in Seattle because he felt it would do the company the least harm for sales, for having to not collect taxes in the rest of the country.
So, you know, it was kind of a sham the other day when President Obama went down to speak at the warehouse in Chattanooga, Tennessee, which was a warehouse that Amazon opened only because they cut a deal with the state to not collect taxes for yet another year. They have never paid taxes in Tennessee to date, and they’re not going to for another year or two, but they promise to employ 2,000 people. Those are the jobs that Obama was celebrating. And, you know, this is a very damaging policy for a company to have, obviously. They’re also being contested in the U.K. and elsewhere in Europe for similar policies.
The other thing to remember about Amazon is it’s a company that feels no pain. They’ve, as far as I can tell, never made money. Their quarterly statements are consistently sales are up—they’re astronomical numbers; they made $15.7 million last quarter alone—but their losses are up every quarter, as well. It’s a phenomenal track record, where—and, you know, in the retail market, how do you compete with that? How—in the book business, how does Barnes & Noble, how do the little indie booksellers compete with a company that can consistently lose money like that? Well, they can’t. They just can’t. So, when you see him taking over The Washington Post and you wonder is he going to be able to monetize it, is he going to make it profitable, he probably doesn’t care. That’s obviously not what it’s about. His business is to not operate as if they intend to make a profit.
AMY GOODMAN: But he did make $28 billion—I mean, he’s got $28 billion.
DENNIS JOHNSON: Personally. Sure, he’s a wealthy man, one of the most wealthy men in the country, if not the world. But the company, quarter after quarter after quarter, does not post a profit.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, in his letter to employees after he bought The Washington Post, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos seemed to try to address any potential conflict of interest, saying, quote, “The values of The Post do not need changing. The paper’s duty will remain to its readers and not to the private interests of its owners.” But many people have pointed out that Amazon ranks among the biggest spenders for high-technology companies seeking to influence the federal government. Dennis Johnson, could you talk about some of that, the politics of what Amazon’s lobbying efforts have been and how this is likely, if at all, to influence what appears in The Post under Bezos?
DENNIS JOHNSON: Well, sure. Coming strictly from the book business, I mean, this is a very transparent move to have made. This is a man who has growing interests in Washington. I mean, look, we just concluded the Department of Justice prosecution of the book industry, a shocking case that seems to fly in the face of what we know about antitrust law in this country. And it was a case that most in the book business feel was orchestrated by Amazon, and indeed Amazon did file the initial complaints that started that case. Well, they won. And when they won, most in the book industry saw this as—you know, we thought Amazon was a monopoly, to begin with; now we feel like, well, it’s a government-sanctioned monopoly. Then what happens? Just days after that decision comes down, the president of the United States goes to their warehouse to slap them on the back and say, “Good job.” This is a company that obviously—and this is—
AMY GOODMAN: Well, now that we have this new information, do you think President Obama knew he was buying The Washington Post when he went down last week? Even many of the reporters of The Washington Post who have been interviewed over the last few days, everyone seemed shocked.
DENNIS JOHNSON: Yeah, it was a really well-kept secret, but at the same time other reports are saying that it was probably cut about a month ago.
AMY GOODMAN: And given how much information the NSA gathers on us all, it would be hard to believe the president didn’t know.
DENNIS JOHNSON: I have a feeling—
AMY GOODMAN: You don’t think Jeff Bezos never mentioned this in a phone call or an email?
DENNIS JOHNSON: No, I have—who knows? I take it the president knew. But, you know, looking just at what happened, the president was down there lauding a company that he says is going to really boost the middle class, and really these are $11-an-hour jobs on average. They don’t meet the living wage of that part of the country. They were bought via tax avoidance. This is the—this is the president’s job policy?
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and come back to this discussion. Dennis Johnson is with us. He is a publisher; the publishing house is Melville House. Robert McChesney is with us, co-founder of Free Press. And Jeff Cohen, Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College, a journalism professor and author. This is Democracy Now! Back in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: We have a roundtable discussion on Jeff Bezos, the owner of Amazon.com, the founder and chief executive, buying The Washington Post. Dennis Johnson is with us of Melville House; Robert McChesney, co-founder of Free Press; and Jeff Cohen, journalism professor and head of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College.
I wanted to read from an article about Jeff Bezos written by Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism. She wrote, quote, “How will he react—especially after Amazon’s recent clinching of a $600m contract to provide cloud services to the CIA—to the flow of stories from his own publication on the NSA and its covert pact with the tech industry to trace our every move? How will he like his Amazon workplace practices scrutinised by his own paper? How will he like being in a world where the greatest measure of success is to irritate, damage or, at best, remove a president and other public officials?” Interesting questions, Jeff Cohen.
JEFF COHEN: Oh, I think these are all good questions. I think one thing that’s missing is a discussion of the hallowed traditions, the hallowed journalistic traditions of The Washington Post. I mean, any media consumer who’s been looking at the bevy of articles in the last day and a half has heard about this—you know, “What’s going to happen to The Washington Post’s journalistic tradition—the paper of Watergate—or, the paper that exposed Watergate and published the Pentagon Papers?” I think any serious and very, you know, diligent news consumer is going to realize that the incidents like Watergate conspiracy and the Pentagon Papers, that was 40 years ago, and the hallowed tradition of The Washington Post that we’re worried Bezos is going to ruin—and, again, it may get worse, it may not; most likely it’ll continue—but that hallowed tradition, for 40 years, The Washington Post has really been a newspaper of the bipartisan consensus. And items like or invasions like Iraq could hardly have happened without the editorial pages headed by a sort of a hawk, Fred Hiatt, who’s still in power today, and Fred Hiatt’s editorial pages of The Washington Post has, in a five-month period before the Iraq invasion, more than two dozen editorials urging on that invasion. Skeptics of the invasion were mercilessly savaged in the editorial pages and the op-ed pages, but they weren’t allowed to speak for themselves. And so, when I hear people talk about The Washington Post under the Graham family, the paper of Watergate, it reminds me of people who would look at today’s Barack Obama and say he’s a community organizer embedded with the poor in Chicago. The Watergate Washington Post was decades ago. The Washington Post we should be thinking about in the last 10, 12 years has been a very important instrument of U.S. intervention, imperial foreign policy, at the hands of the editorial page editor Fred Hiatt.
AMY GOODMAN: You know, just on what you’re saying, just to read part of the Washington Post editorial from February 2003 that ran the day after Colin Powell’s Iraq presentation to the United Nations, under the headline, “Irrefutable,” it read, in part, “It is hard to imagine how anyone could doubt that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction. Mr. Powell left no room to argue seriously that Iraq has accepted the Security Council’s offer of a ‘final opportunity’ to disarm.” The headline, again, “Irrefutable.”
JEFF COHEN: And on the Washington Post op-ed page in the next two days, every op-ed columnist, from, you know, one baby step to the left of center to the far right, was endorsing Colin Powell’s speech and endorsing the invasion of Iraq. And that’s been par for the course over there for the last 10, 20 years.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, you also mentioned the Pentagon Papers and Watergate. And Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, of course the most famous reporters in the history of The Washington Post, say they’re optimistic about the paper’s sale to Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. Woodward said, quote, “If there’s somebody who can succeed, it’s Bezos. He’s the innovator, he’s got the money and the patience, so we’ll see. I think in some ways, this may be the _Post_’s last chance to survive, at least in some form of what it was.” Bernstein also said he had high hopes for Bezos, saying he, quote, “seems to me exactly the kind of inventive and innovative choice needed to bring about a recommitment to great journalism on the scale many of us have been hoping for—while employing all the applicable tools and best sensibilities of a new era and the old.” Jeff Cohen, could you respond to that?
JEFF COHEN: Yeah. You know, he might be innovative, and he does have deep pockets, and if I was a journalist at The Washington Post, I’d want someone with deep pockets, as opposed to the Graham family, which has been bleeding money. But the reality is, when we have, as you pointed out earlier, one of the big issues is the surveillance state, and Amazon, the company that has made this individual so wealthy, is so embedded with the surveillance state, I’d be very concerned. And as for Bob Woodward, again, 40 years ago he unraveled a conspiracy and brought down a president. In the last 10, 12 years, he’s been very, very cozy with American presidents, whether Republican or Democrat.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Bob McChesney, your response?
ROBERT McCHESNEY: Well, I think that the absurdity is that we’re reduced to the point where journalism is dying in this country as an undertaking supported by commercial enterprise, and we’re reduced with these monopoly franchises to hopefully get a good billionaire, relative to the Koch brothers, for example. But we should stand back and understand how ridiculous the situation is, that we’re reduced to this pathetic state of affairs, because we really actually need real journalism. We need journalism that tells us about war plans, that tells us about the NSA, long before it becomes too late or deep into the game. And we’re not getting that now, and there’s no reason to think the current system is going to give us that. It’s incredibly corrupt.
It’s worth noting that we have a system like the one we have now a hundred years ago in the United States. If you were to look at American journalism in between 1900 and 1915, it had grown incredibly concentrated except in our very largest cities. There were huge empires, and the Hearsts, the Pulitzers, the Scrippses—the bosses of that era—used their power to actively and aggressively promote their politics, their generally right-wing, anti-labor politics. And it was a result of that period that there was a great crisis of journalism that led to the creation of professional journalism, the idea that the editorial content should not be influenced directly by the owners and the advertisers. And we’re going back to that era, except for we’re doing it without any resources, and there’s even less accountability, far less, than there was then. There’s—you know, in those days, there were four, five, six, eight major daily newspapers in each of our great cities, like New York, Philadelphia, Chicago. Today we don’t have anything like that.
What we have is a plaything for these billionaires that they can then use aggressively to promote their own politics. And when we talk about promoting your own politics, we’ve got to understand, it’s not like Jeff Bezos has to march into a newsroom and say, “Cover this. Don’t cover that.” It rarely works that way. That happens once a decade. You basically set an organizational culture, and smart journalists who want to survive internalize the values, and those that don’t internalize the values get out of the way.
AMY GOODMAN: You know, Bob McChesney, Koch Industries, of course—and we’ve been talking about this for a while—interested in acquiring Tribune’s big regional titles, which include Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune_, Baltimore Sun, Orlando Sentinel. I mean, this is what you have these days. You have the Koch brothers. You also have Warren Buffett, right? What was it? Last year, Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway bought 28 daily newspapers for something like $344 million. This is how it operates in the United States right now. And so, then compare Jeff Bezos to the Grahams, who have owned this newspaper for decades.
ROBERT McCHESNEY: You’re right, and we’re looking at a situation where we have these owners who are making these investments now, like the Koch brothers, and it’s—
AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, I should say Bloomberg. You cannot forget our mayor in New York City—
ROBERT McCHESNEY: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Bloomberg News, one of the world’s largest news and media companies, employing 2,300—2,300 professionals in 146 bureaus around the world, and, I’m sure, employs many more people than that.
ROBERT McCHESNEY: Yeah. In Dollarocracy, John Nichols and I outline people like the Koch brothers and Shelly Adelson and a whole host of CEOs and billionaires that most Americans don’t now, because they aren’t seeking publicity, who are spending hundreds of—tens of millions and hundreds of millions of dollars to buy elections, oftentimes anonymously and surreptitiously through dark money. Well, if you look at that closely, it makes perfect sense they’d want to start buying up newspapers as a political investment, because they’re so cheap now, and you can dominate the discussion to have it frame the issues your way, talk about what you think is important. It’s a very wise political investment. And for people concerned with democratic theory, democratic governance, it’s antithetical to what this country needs to be for the constitutional system to work. When the news media, the Fourth Estate, a pillar of our constitutional system, becomes a plaything for billionaires and there’s no accountability, our government—our governing system can’t work effectively as something except a plaything for the rich.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Dennis Johnson, you’ve spoken about some of your concerns with Amazon as a company—its labor practices, tax evasion and so on. So could you say what you think Bezos’s interests will be now in this position and how Amazon—what’s been happening at Amazon might influence that?
DENNIS JOHNSON: Well, his position, as regards buying The Post, seems fairly transparent. I mean, there’s pending legislation he’s concerned with in Washington regarding collection of sales tax. He is being—Amazon is being talked about more and more openly as a monopoly in the wake of the DOJ decision. Is something going to be done about this?
AMY GOODMAN: The DOJ decision being?
DENNIS JOHNSON: Being the recently concluded case we mentioned a moment ago, the prosecution of Apple and the five of the six major publishers for supposed price fixing. Really what they were trying to do was just create—find a way to stop Amazon from severe discounting, which has really disrupted the marketplace. So, you know, it’s going to be very handy for him to have a newspaper in Washington, D.C., particularly this newspaper. It seems pretty transparent that way.
AMY GOODMAN: How has Amazon affected you as a publisher at Melville House?
DENNIS JOHNSON: Well, Amazon really controls the marketplace. You know, my publishing company has existed just about the same period of time that Amazon has, and we’ve watched it happen. They get current—from Melville House’s point of view, we are an activist press, but we’re also a fairly kind of normal trade press doing fiction, poetry, a wide variety of books. They are 90 percent of our digital business. They’re at least 30, maybe more, percent of our overall business. This is—
AMY GOODMAN: So do they make you more money?
DENNIS JOHNSON: Do they make us money? How do you mean?
AMY GOODMAN: Meaning, are you selling more books because you have this global marketplace?
DENNIS JOHNSON: I wouldn’t say our total business is up, no, at all. In fact, in the recession, I’d say it’s down. They’ve depressed the marketplace. Their—because of their rise and their kind of ruthless tactics, they’ve put out of business a lot of the retail market, which is—which is a problem for them, as well. I mean, there’s a phenomenon known as “showrooming,” where people actually need to see the book in a bookstore before they decide to buy it. It influences Amazon’s sales, even its e-book sales. So they’re—
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And you even said that it’s—Amazon has, quote, “devalued the concept of what a book is, and turned it into a widget.”
DENNIS JOHNSON: Yeah. This is maybe my biggest concern about them. You know, we’re not talking about the business of widgets when you’re talking about books, nor newspapers. You’re talking about the culture of ideas. You’re talking about making art. You’re talking about speaking truth to power. Amazon has, pretty successfully over the course of its 18-year history, turned the concept of the book into a thing that has a set value: No matter what the book is, it’s only worth $9.99. And this has nothing to do with the content of the book, and that’s a dangerous idea to have in the marketplace of ideas.
AMY GOODMAN: But why not make books affordable?
DENNIS JOHNSON: If you ask me or you ask anyone in publishing, we’ll tell you, books are underpriced as it is. It’s always been a low-margin business. It’s not—I don’t know anybody that got into the book business, before Amazon, to make money. They got in it to fight the good fight, because they love literature. And that’s part of the problem. The people in the book business are lovers; they’re not fighters. They just—you know, they want to read. It’s mainly why they got into the business. They’re not used to these really aggressive bottom-line guys like Jeff Bezos, who was a former hedge fund manager, getting into the business strictly to make money. Then you see a marketplace that gets constricted, becomes about just the selling of best-sellers, and it becomes more and more difficult for little publishers like me to sell books about politics, to sell books about ideas and art.
AMY GOODMAN: Bob McChesney, I wanted to go to this issue of WikiLeaks that we mentioned before, because you talk about it in your book. In 2010, the WikiLeaks website was temporarily shut down when Amazon dropped it from its servers just 24 hours after being asked to do so by former Senator Joe Lieberman. You know, people may not realize this, but Amazon runs massive global servers that people can pay for, and that’s what WikiLeaks was doing. In a post to its Twitter account, WikiLeaks said, “If Amazon are so uncomfortable with the first amendment, they should get out of the business of selling books.” Well, last year, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange referred to the incident during an interview on Democracy Now! when he discussed it along with the impact of credit card companies’ blockade of donations to WikiLeaks.
JULIAN ASSANGE: Since the blockade was erected in December 2010, WikiLeaks has lost 95 percent of the donations that were attempted to be transferred to us over that period. So, that is over $50 million. Now, fortunately, our 5 percent of $50 million is still not nothing, and so the organization can continue. But as I said in that press conference, our rightful and natural growth, our ability to publish as much as we would like, our ability to defend ourselves and our sources, has been diminished by that blockade.
Now, the United States government has looked into the blockade in January of 2011 and formally found that there is no lawful reason to erect a U.S. financial embargo against WikiLeaks. So what has happened here is that—and this came out in the commission documents that we published yesterday—is that Senator Lieberman and Congressman Peter T. King pressured at the very least MasterCard and Amazon, but perhaps others, including Visa, as well, pressured those organizations to erect an extrajudicial blockade that they were not able to successfully erect through the Legislature or through a formal administrative process.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Bob McChesney, if you could talk about that and Bezos’s relationship with the CIA? We talked about the $600 million cloud deal. Also, Forbes said a year ago, “commercial quantum computing company D-Wave announced [that] it had closed a $30 million equity funding round. The primary investors … were In-Q-Tel, which invests in technology on behalf of the CIA and other intelligence agencies, and Bezos Expeditions, which is Amazon Founder Jeff Bezos’ private investment firm. … So far D-Wave [had] only sold one of its $10 million systems to Lockheed Martin.” If you could make sense of all of this, Bob McChesney, from WikiLeaks to the CIA?
ROBERT McCHESNEY: When the WikiLeaks scandal broke and I was doing my research for Digital Disconnect, I actually did some research on this. And I consulted people I knew fairly high up in the State Department off the record, and they said that they did not have to put pressure on Wiki—excuse me, on Amazon for that to happen, that Amazon was more than willing to cooperate. It was not a difficult sell, and there was no real pressure on them. They sort of leapt to the front of that parade of getting rid of WikiLeaks and removing it from the server.
And I think it really points to the issue you’re getting at, which this all suggests, which is that the large Internet giant monopolies, starting with, at the top of the list, Amazon, but really including Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, AT&T, Verizon, right on down the list, they all have an extraordinarily cozy relationship with the national security state, with the military, the intelligence community. It’s a harmonious relationship. It’s mutually beneficial for both of them. They interact at the highest levels. And we’ve created this military-digital complex of sorts. And Jeff Bezos is at the top of that. It is something that—as President Eisenhower said in his famous farewell address, that we need to discuss the military-industrial complex, that it’s the reigning issue of our era, he said in 1961. And it remains the remaining issue, but now it has a digital complexion.
And I think this is an issue we have to discuss: How much power is in unaccountable monopolies? And these companies are really unaccountable to the government. You look at Obama running around trying to be on good terms with the companies. And now they control the news media directly, some of them, like Bezos. You don’t have to—if we stood outside the United States and Americans saw another country in this situation, we would instantly deride the country as not being remotely close to being on the democratic grid. It’s in our own country. I think we should be looking at it in the same lens.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Bob McChesney, very quickly, before we wrap, could you talk about alternative models of newspaper ownership?
ROBERT McCHESNEY: Well, I think the—a lesson that’s clear from this is that we’ve had the illusion that journalism is a commercially viable undertaking for the last hundred years in the United States, and that was because advertising provided between 50 and 100 percent of all the revenues to support commercial journalism, and it made it very profitable throughout the 20th century, especially monopoly markets, which most of them gravitated toward. But now journalism has gone digital, and it’s turning to smart advertising. It no longer provides revenue for content for journalism, and that’s never going to come back. We’re not going to have commercial journalism.
And I think we have to then go back to the beginning of the republic. What did we do the first hundred years, before there was advertising in any significant levels for journalism? Well, what we had then to make sure there was a popular press was enormous postal and printing subsidies. We wouldn’t have had an Abolitionist press without it. We wouldn’t have had a daily press serving the masses without those postal subsidies, which effectively made newspaper distribution at that time all but free for these papers, nominal. And we’ve got to think in those terms again. If we look at the most democratic countries in the world, ranked by The Economist magazine, they all spend inordinate amounts of money supporting public and community media, supporting multiple newspapers and newsrooms in communities. They make a strong public investment in nonprofit, noncommercial journalism—independent nonprofit, noncommercial journalism. And that’s how you solve the problem. That’s a discussion that we’re eventually going to have to have in this country, the sooner the better.
AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you all for being with us—a very interesting discussion. And we urge people to tweet it around, to post it on your Facebook pages. The transcript will be up, and you can watch the audio and video. I want to thank Bob McChesney, co-founder of Free Press; Dennis Johnson, who is the publisher at Melville House; and, as well, Jeff Cohen, director of Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College and a journalism professor there.
This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, we speak with Mac McClelland. She wrote a piece called “I Was a Warehouse Wage Slave.” Stay with us.