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Sharp Left Turn for the Media Reform Movement

Toward a Post-Capitalist Democracy

Robert W. McChesney is the Gutgsell Endowed Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Illinois. He is the author of Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism Is Turning the Internet Against Democracy (New Press, 2013) and, with John Nichols, Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America (Nation Books, 2013). The views in the piece are the author’s, and do not necessarily represent those of Free Press.

The contemporary media reform movement exploded into prominence in the United States in 2003 as a response to the effort by the Bush Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to weaken media ownership regulations. Three million people signed petitions opposing the rules changes, many of whom were fresh from the antiwar movement and who were appalled by the idea that the same media conglomerates that assisted in the propaganda campaign for the Iraq invasion might be able to gobble up what remained of independent media. The size and success of this popular uprising was enough to contribute to the federal court’s tossing out the FCC’s ownership scheme. It was a testament to the power of activism to thwart the plans of the powerful in seemingly hopeless conditions.

In subsequent years the U.S. media reform movement blossomed, led primarily by a group I co-founded, Free Press. On a number of major issues, from the broadcasting of “fake news” created by corporate PR agencies and the protection of public and community broadcasting to the battle for an open, accessible, and uncensored Internet, Free Press led the charge in Washington, DC. The thinking behind the group and the movement was to have one foot in the battles of the day as they were being fought in the capital, while having another foot doing organizing in the field, with the idea of expanding popular awareness and involvement in the movement. We realized that for most people the range of media policy outcomes then countenanced in Washington seemed abstract or inconsequential. We needed to capture their imagination with bold and radical proposals. The strategy was to create an army for structural media reform so the options expanded beyond what was then permissible in Washington, where, as Jeff Cohen once put it, the “range of debate extends all the way from GE to GM.”

With no small amount of irony, the media reform movement enjoyed considerable success, relatively speaking, inside the beltway in the second term of the Bush administration. The Obama campaign in 2007 and 2008 expressed interest in media reform and worked closely with members of the movement to design what was, by the standards of Washington policy debates, a progressive platform. Except for Obama’s speech against the Iraq War invasion, it was arguably his communication platform that most distinguished him as a progressive in the 2008 presidential primaries. He had the blogosphere all atwitter, so to speak. For the media reform movement, the gravitational pull of the beltway was getting stronger and it was intoxicating. The movement shifted its emphasis from the field to working in the corridors of power. Around the world, media activists looked to the United States as the place where organizing was getting stuff done. Again, there was irony: as recently as 2002 John Nichols and I had written a short book on how the United States badly trailed most other nations in media activism, and needed to get its act together.1

One can debate whether this was an appropriate strategic shift at the time but there can be no debate that the strategy failed. The Obama administration abandoned its platform almost immediately, and repudiated the movement, except for those people who carried its water. For whatever reason, it decided not to put any of its political capital in this area. A few activists argued they had been more effective in the Bush years at winning their objectives. A deep and pervasive depression clouded the struggle, a depression that remains to this day.

What I argue in this piece is that the media reform movement needs to abandon its recent history and turn in a new direction altogether. On the one hand, it needs to return to its roots and the core principles on which the movement was founded. On the other hand, the movement needs to recognize that the world has changed dramatically in the past decade. Specifically, capitalism is in the midst of a prolonged crisis with no end in sight. This changes the political playing field and opens up new requirements and opportunities for democratic reformers. In what follows I elaborate on these points and offer three policy proposals that might provide vision and direction for the media reform movement. These are radical ideas, far outside the existing range of debate inside political circles or even the academy. Unless ideas along the lines of what follow get “mainstreamed,” it will not just be the media reform movement but the broad political left that will be guaranteed irrelevance and failure.

The Context for Radical Media Reform

The major premises of the media reform movement remain unchanged: communication systems develop largely as a result of policies, since there is no such thing as a natural “default” course of development. From the development of copyright and postal subsidies for newspapers at the dawn of the Republic, to the licensing of telephone, broadcasting, and cable TV monopolies, the state has been in the middle of the creation of the media.2 For example, the Internet’s switch from being an anti-commercial, egalitarian institution in the early 1990s to a “whoever makes the most money by any means necessary wins” undertaking was not foreordained by the Gods. It was the province of politics.3

In a capitalist society, including one with formally democratic practices, the policy debates will be weighted, at times heavily, toward commercial interests, especially in a matter like communication where there is tremendous profitability as well as political power attached to dominance. But the debates persist nonetheless, and organized popular forces have won media policy victories. In Europe, for example, the same political left that made labor unions, single-payer health insurance, and subsidized higher education possible was the decisive force that established well-funded nonprofit and noncommercial broadcasting systems. While U.S. history is riddled with examples of the rich getting their way with communication policy debates, there have also been victories for popular forces. From free postage for the delivery of small weekly newspapers in the 1840s (which included most abolitionist publications) to the creation of community radio stations in the 1970s, on occasion organized people have defeated organized money.

One change over the past forty years is that the degree of difficulty for popular forces to influence policy is greater. The corruption of the media policymaking process was one of the founding concerns for Free Press and, if it is possible, the process has grown even more corrupt in the past decade. The U.S. political system has become what John Nichols and I characterize as a Dollarocracy.4 The vast majority of the population has no influence over core policies, regulations, taxation, or the budget, which are the province of large corporations and the very wealthy who dominate U.S. governance.5 Systemic corruption is the order of the day. The election system has been rendered largely ineffective as a means for citizens to engage in self-government. As former president Jimmy Carter said in 2013, the United States is no longer a “functioning democracy,” even by the weak standards of its own history.6 This means the chances of winning media policy battles of any great consequence inside the beltway with the existing array of forces are all but non-existent.

A second change from 2003 concerns the Internet. Everyone knew then that it was just a matter of time until the Internet overwhelmed and subsumed not only “old media” but much of social life; nobody, myself included, really knew exactly how that would occur. Well now we have a pretty good idea. The Internet has become a, if not the, dominant force in modern capitalism. Not only that, the benefits of the Internet economy accrue to a very small number of gigantic firms that all enjoy what economists traditionally characterize as monopoly status. Three of the four most valuable publicly traded corporations in the United States are Internet-related firms, and thirteen of the thirty-three most valuable firms are primarily Internet firms. Several more of the thirty-three largest firms have significant digital operations.7 By contrast, only four of the “too big to fail” banks—that, Senator Richard Durbin, in reference to Congress, conceded “frankly own the place”—rank among the thirty-three most valuable firms in the economy.8 What that means is that these Internet giants control the outcomes on all policy debates that affect them, which increasingly covers most issues of fundamental importance, like taxation, regulation, labor and consumer rights, and trade.

The third great change from 2003 is that U.S. capitalism is in the midst of what Paul Krugman refers to as another great depression. Unemployment remains very high, corporations are sitting on some $1.7 trillion they are not investing in new plants and equipment, and downward pressures on wages are extreme, particularly for the young and the working class.9 This is part of a long-term problem of secular stagnation for monopoly-finance capitalism, as John Bellamy Foster and I write about in The Endless Crisis.10 Stagnation, combined with political corruption, means that poverty rates have returned to levels not seen for nearly a century in the United States, and inequality is trending towards that found in Malaysia or the Philippines, with Western Europe and Japan in its rearview mirror.11 Nothing in the range of current debates on economic policy proposes anything that will change this dynamic. For the bulk of the population, the future is grim.

The political-economic situation in the United States is therefore unstable and ultimately untenable. When one factors in the environmental crisis, this becomes an even more calamitous and desperate period.12 What is striking is that all the paeans to the genius of the market, which remain commonplace in policy or academic debates on communication from the respectable left to the right, now increasingly smell like month-old fish left out on a table. While the news has yet to hit the corrupt elites in Washington, academia, or the mainstream news media, it is increasingly understood by a beleaguered citizenry. It is also understood by Pope Francis, who delivered a condemnation of capitalism, and capitalist media, in November 2013 that was unsparing and radical. “No one else,” the journalist Robert Scheer wrote, “has put it as powerfully and succinctly.”13

What is taking place is little short of a sea change. As John Nichols notes, “Thirty-nine percent of Americans surveyed for a November 2012 Gallup poll said they had a positive image of socialism. In a 2011 Pew survey, 49 percent of Americans under 30 said they felt positive about socialism, while just 46 percent felt positive about capitalism. Among African-Americans, 55 percent had a positive reaction to socialism, versus 41 percent to capitalism. Among Latinos, it was 44 percent for socialism, 32 percent for capitalism.” This is especially notable since few Americans have ever heard anything positive about socialism; it would be like a survey in the Soviet Union in 1955 asking people to compare the merits of capitalism versus communism. What Americans do know today from firsthand experience is that really existing capitalism, to employ the vernacular, sucks. In 2013 the “socialist alternative” candidate Kshama Sawant won a citywide election for the Seattle City Council, over a liberal Democrat opponent in a two-person race. A decade ago a radical like Sawant—who called for using eminent domain to take over abandoned factories and have workers “take over the factories”—would have been unlikely to nudge 1 or 2 percent of the vote.14

In this political-economic environment it is imperative that activists of all stripes speak boldly and truthfully about the problems of our times and the need for radical change. If activists assume radical change is impossible and deem it unmentionable—not because it is wrong but because the entrenched forces are so powerful that to challenge them might undermine short-term legitimacy—by our very actions we increase the likelihood it will be impossible. In view of the centrality of communication to the political economy, media reform activists have to pull their heads out of the beltway and start talking to the people who elected Sawant to the Seattle City Council and voted Bill de Blasio the mayor of New York City. We need to capture the imaginations of people such that they believe politics can lead to radical improvements in their lives, and the lives of those they know and love. Then we can build an army that can shake the foundations of this rotting system.

First Proposal: End the ISP Cartel

Back in the 1990s much verbiage was expended about how the Internet would unleash such a ferocious wave of competition between the Baby Bell telephone companies, the long distance providers, and the cable TV companies, that government regulation (of what were mostly licensed monopolies) in the public interest was no longer necessary. The market could work its magic in combination with the digital revolution, that made competition seemingly endless. There were roughly fifteen major Baby Bell, long distance, and cable/satellite TV companies in 1996 and, it was said, they were raring to take each other’s business if they were freed from government regulations. These firms also said they needed to be unchained because scores of new competitors were about to capitalize on the possibilities of digital technology and come after their markets.

These claims constituted one of the largest piles of horse manure in U.S. political history. The dominant firms that pushed this line of reasoning knew they could game the system sufficiently to all but eliminate the threat of real competition, and they could use the relaxation of rules to greatly increase their market power.15 By 2014, there are only a half-dozen or so major players that dominate provision of broadband Internet access and wireless Internet access. Three of them—Verizon, AT&T, and Comcast—dominate the field of telephony and Internet access, and have set up what is in effect a cartel. They no longer compete with each other in any meaningful sense. As a result Americans pay far more for cellphone and broadband Internet access than most other advanced nations and get a much lousier service. “They’re making a ton of money,” one telecommunication executive said about the cartel members in 2013. “They’re picking the pockets of consumers.”16

These are not “free market” companies in any sense of the term. Their business model, going back to pre-Internet days, has always been capturing government monopoly licenses for telephone and cable TV services. Their “comparative advantage” has never been customer service; it has been world-class lobbying. It was that power that made it possible for them to merge endlessly into corporate goliaths and permitted them to quietly overturn existing regulations a decade ago so they could monopolize their networks for broadband Internet access. That killed competition once and for all. The remaining public interest regulations these behemoths face today are laughable.

The public interest community has responded to the cartel in a number of ways. One policy response has been to press for Network Neutrality, which would prevent the cartel from using its monopoly power to censor websites. (If there were actual competition, the policy would be unnecessary because consumers would be unlikely to select an ISP that engaged in censorship.) Another response has been for communities to set up their own local municipally run broadband services, a public option if you will. Wherever the cartel has not been able to crush these efforts by having their state-level politicians outlaw them, the municipal broadband services have proven highly popular. But they are in a constant battle for survival as the cartel uses its considerable lobbying muscle to try to eliminate them.

The cartel has passed its historical expiration date. These firms are parasites who use their government-created monopoly power to exact economic “rents”—by which economists mean undeserved income—from consumers and other businesses. Let’s cash them out at a price that reflect actual investments, not speculative frenzy. Then let’s make cellphone and broadband access ubiquitous and as close to free as possible. (And by doing so, people could stop paying through their teeth for satellite and cable TV services as well.) How to structure a publicly owned nonprofit network, a digital post office if you will, is exactly where study, debate, and discussion should be directed. It is a solvable problem and one that demands immediate attention.

Ironically, although socialists have traditionally liked this approach to telecommunication, this is an idea with occasional resonance among conservatives and in the business community as well, as other firms are tired of paying a ransom to the cartel for crappy service. Google launched its own broadband service in Kansas City if only to demonstrate how it would be possible to have a vastly superior broadband network if the cartel simply got off its butt and invested some of its megaprofits into it. In 2008 then-Google executive and legendary Internet architect Vint Cerf asked publicly if the Internet might not be better if the data-pipe infrastructure was “owned and maintained by the government, just like the highways.”17 It is a serious question that demands a serious answer.

Second Proposal: Treat Monopolies Like…Monopolies

One of the reasons the Internet boom has not led to a golden age of investment and prosperity in contemporary capitalism—unlike, say, what followed from the emergence of the automobile and all of its many related industries in the twentieth century—is that much of the wealth generated by the Internet has been funneled into a very small number of hands. Aside from the cartel which was an outgrowth of the old telecommunication monopolies, the Internet has produced monopolistic titans like Google, Apple, Amazon, Facebook, eBay, Microsoft, Intel, Cisco, Oracle, and Qualcomm.

These firms take advantage first and foremost of network effects, which tend to produce “winner-take-all” markets and where there tends to be almost no middle class of midsized firms. In addition, patent law and traditional economies of scale contribute to insurmountable advantages over potential adversaries. Indeed, increasingly the Internet seems like a walled garden where these giants are battling with each other for domination in existing and prospective markets, and no one else has a prayer, except to get bought out by a giant. In 2013 the head of the Wikimedia Foundation, which operates the ubiquitous nonprofit and noncommercial Wikipedia, stated that it would be impossible for Wikipedia or anything like it to be created and thrive on the Internet today due to the dominance of the Internet monopolies.18 The system is locked down.

In combination these firms have virtually unassailable power in Washington, and the only time they face any regulatory threat is when the giants find themselves on the opposite sides of an issue, as has happened with Network Neutrality and intellectual-property debates. These firms tend to get glowing press coverage, and their executives and largest investors are regarded like celebrities or championship athletes; the idea that these firms’ legitimacy might be challenged probably seems preposterous to all but a few. Academics trip over each other as they sing the praises of the digital titans. “I am blown away by what I see coming out of the private sector today,” an M.I.T. professor of digital economics stated.19 And indeed, the technological innovations are mind-blowing. But the problem is that these technological advances are all developed to advance the profitability of firms regardless of their social effects. Hence, for example, the obsession with developing amazing surveillance technology that makes the commercial Internet so profitable. Great for them, but not necessarily a benefit for the human race. The Internet brings one of the core contradictions of capitalism to the fore—what is good and rational for those who control the economy is bad and irrational for society as a whole.

These Internet behemoths are all monopolies in the sense that economists use the term: they control sufficient market share—usually at least 50 or 60 percent—to determine both pricing and how much competition they have. As such they pose a direct threat not only to smaller enterprises but to democratic governance. This, again, is not exclusively a belief held by socialists and progressives; it has been at various times a staple belief of conservative free market economic theory.

No less a figure than Milton Friedman argued that capitalism was superior for political freedom and democracy because it separated political power from economic power, unlike feudalism or communism where the people who controlled the economy also controlled the politics.20 One of Friedman’s mentors at the University of Chicago, the laissez faire champion Henry C. Simons, said it was imperative that private firms not be allowed to become too large and monopolistic for this argument to hold. Giant monopolistic firms kyboshed the ability of capitalism to remain democratic, because the large firms would overwhelm governance. Here Simons was in agreement with his periodic adversary President Franklin Roosevelt, who in a 1938 message to Congress stated: “The first truth is that the liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself. That, in its essence, is fascism—ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power.”21

Simons argued that it was imperative—for both genuine free enterprise and democracy—that monopolistic firms either be broken into smaller competitive units or, if that was impossible as with utilities and railroads, they should be “socialized” and directed by the government in a transparent manner.22 He dismissed the idea of effective government regulation of private monopolies to produce the results that competitive markets would bring, because the monopolies would dominate the regulatory process. Because network effects make it nearly impossible to imagine the effective breakup of the Internet giants, Simons’s analysis points squarely in one direction. It is high time we take seriously his concerns and think about how the monopolized Internet services could be put in the public domain, and guided by open source protocol. The late Andre Schiffrin was arguably the first person to grasp this point when he called for public debate about whether Google should be converted to a nonprofit entity in 2011.23

One immediate benefit of this approach: the incessant commercial pressure to collect every possible bit of information on users to better manipulate them would be undermined. It would be far easier to have a regimen with standards closer to what was imagined by the engineers who created the Internet: power would be in the hands of the users who would control their own digital fate, rather than in the hands of giant firms that are mostly unaccountableexcept to their investors.

Third Proposal: Treat Journalism Like a Public Good

Perhaps the greatest irony or unexpected consequence of the Internet has been that, notwithstanding all its democratizing contributions, it has not ushered in a Golden Age of journalism and culture. Instead of unlimited quality and quantity, the Internet has eliminated most of the resources that once went to support content production. What I write in this section applies to the entirety of culture, but I will focus specifically on journalism.

As an institution journalism is in freefall collapse in the United States. There are simply vastly fewer paid reporters and editors than there were a generation ago, and it is especially striking when you consider how much the population has grown in that time. Most newsrooms look like the Polish countryside in 1945. Much of what government does, and government’s interactions with commercial interests, receives much less coverage than they did in the past. Most elections are uncovered, and what campaign journalism remains hardly makes one pine for more of the same. This process began before the Internet, but the Internet has accelerated the process and has made it permanent.

Why is this a problem? All democratic theory, as well as the specific history of the U.S. republic, are premised on the idea that democracy requires an informed participating citizenry, and such a citizenry can only exist with a strong and vibrant journalism. If such a journalism does not exist, our republic and our freedoms cannot survive in any meaningful sense. It is not an exaggeration to say that this point was an obsession for the nation’s founders, in particular Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison.24

This is an issue of particular importance for the mass of the citizenry: those without appreciable amounts of property. The 1 percent, if you will, tend to have access to the information they need to run the world to their benefit. The issue is whether everyone else will have the information they need to participate effectively; that is why the battle for popular journalism is the quintessential democratic struggle. This also explains why in the United States today, those atop the economy appear quite content to have a journalism-free environment, and are the forces that oppose reform. The less people know about how those in power operate, the better.

Why is journalism disintegrating? Commercial interests have decided journalism is no longer a viable investment and they are jumping ship. When Jeff Bezos reached into his spare change jar to purchase the Washington Post for $250 million in 2013, he paid perhaps 5 percent of what the purchase price would have been in 2000. Ironically, for the past two decades, as the commercial interest in journalism has shriveled, the conventional wisdom has been that the Internet would eventually replace dying old media with digital commercial journalism that would likely be far superior to what it replaced. We just had to be patient and let good old Yankee ingenuity, magical technologies, and the profit motive solve the problem.

But that has not happened, nor will it. Indeed, what remains of paid journalism in the United States is disproportionately in “old media.” The Internet has been a total flop. If anything, by giving the illusion of an information rainforest with every Google search, it has made people oblivious to the actual information desert we increasingly inhabit.

Why is that? Advertising provided the vast majority of revenues for journalism in the twentieth century and made doing news media commercially lucrative. Advertisers needed to help pay for journalism to attract readers/viewers to news media who would then see their ads. That was the deal. Advertisers supported the news because they had no other choice if they wished to achieve their commercial goals; they had no intrinsic attachment to the idea of a free press.

The rise of advertising as the primary basis of support prompted the development of professional journalism, in part to protect the content of the news from direct commercial influence; advertising generally was regarded as a necessary evil for the subsidization of journalism. Professional journalism, in effect, was an effort to address the obvious tension between journalism as a necessary democratic institution and journalism as a commercial product intended to maximize profits.

But those debates and concerns are now passé. In the new era of smart or targeted digital advertising, advertisers far less frequently place ads on specific websites and hope to appeal to whoever might visit the website. Instead, advertisers purchase target audiences directly and place ads through Internet ad networks that locate the desired target wherever they are online. Advertisers no longer need to support journalism or content creation at all. This is probably why Rupert Murdoch, the greatest corporate media visionary of our times, abandoned his iPad/smart phone news venture, The Daily, in 2012; it is definitely why the Guardian, one of the most visited and venerated news websites in the world, concedes it has no idea how it can support its operations when and if it is forced to rely upon Internet revenues.

Advertising gave the illusion that journalism is a naturally, even supremely, commercial endeavor. But when advertising disappears, journalism’s true nature comes into focus: it is a public good, something society requires but that the market cannot provide in sufficient quality or quantity. Like other public goods, if society wants it, it will require public policy and public spending. There is no other way. The marriage of capitalism and journalism is over. If the United States is to have democratic journalism, it will require massive public investments.

This begs the question: How did the United States have a press system that was the envy of the world in the nineteenth century prior to the advent of mass advertising? It did so by having massive postal and printing subsidies for newspapers that made the cost of production so low that there were many more newspapers per capita than anywhere else in the world. In the first century of U.S. history, our politicians did not know the term “public good,” but they treated the press in precisely that manner.

The great concern is public money will lead to a government-controlled propaganda system like one finds in dictatorships and authoritarian regimes, or even in the more corrupt capitalist democracies like Italy. Sure the United States had successful press subsidies in the nineteenth century, but that was then and this is now. In view of the entirely unaccountable national security apparatus that is embodied in the modern U.S. government, this is a legitimate and pressing concern. But the process to establish publicly supported journalism is part of the process of democratizing society. They go hand in hand.

This evidence suggests that the more democratic a nation is, the more it is able to subsidize journalism without having the resultant media be a puppet for the government. Every year the Economist magazine ranks all the nations of the world according to how democratic they are, using standard political science criteria. Every year those nations that top the list are invariably the nations that spend the very most per capita on public and community media. Freedom House, another organization that is decidedly unsympathetic to socialism, annually ranks all the nations of the world in terms of how free their press systems are. Government censorship is the single threat Freedom House is most concerned about. Every year the same nations that rank atop the Economist’s list rule Freedom House’s list of the freest and best press systems, places like Norway, Sweden, and Germany. The research shows this: in democratic nations, journalism subsidies tend to make the press more diverse and dissident and critical of the government in power. Like education, it is a public good, and, as with education, the more resources that are devoted to it, the better it will be everything else being equal.

Although the left leads the fight for publicly supported journalism, it is a very popular program across the population once it is in place and people see the results. After the national elections in September 2013 Norway got its most conservative government in generations, including a crew of neoliberal Know-Nothings not unlike the U.S. Republican Party. One of their campaign planks was to end government funding for Norway’s massive public broadcasting system, as well as its extensive newspaper subsidies that allow Oslo to have numerous daily newspapers, rather than the one or two that would exist if left to the market. These newspaper subsidies are mostly given to newspapers with low advertising revenues. They provide, for example, around 30 percent of the revenue for the left-wing daily newspaper Klassekampen (Class Struggle), and make its thriving newsroom possible. To give some sense of Klassekampen’s impact: if a U.S. daily newspaper sold newspapers to the same portion of the population that Klassekampen does in Norway, the U.S. paper would have a circulation of over 1 million copies every day. That would make it the fourth-largest daily paper in the United States. Conservative and liberal newspapers are eligible for the same subsidies and get them.

When the new Norwegian government took its proposal to defund media to the parliament in November 2013, the matter was rejected emphatically. There was opposition to the proposal from Norwegians across the political spectrum. In Norway, the newspaper subsidies go to commercial concerns. I think that is a nonstarter in the United States—the last thing needed is another dose of corporate welfare—and makes decreasing sense as capitalists abandon the field. The crucial goal should be to establish a nonprofit, noncommercial, competitive, uncensored, and independent press system, embracing digital technologies. It is where the debate and discussion need to go.

One idea I like: Dean Baker’s notion (that Nichols and I have embellished) of letting every American over the age of eighteen direct up to $200 of government money annually to any nonprofit medium of his or her choice. The only conditions would be that the recipient be a recognized nonprofit, that the recipient take no commercial advertising, and that whatever is produced by the subsidy be posted online immediately, made available at no charge, and enter the public domain. It would not be protected by copyright. This would amount to a $30 billion public investment with no government control over who gets the money. This would promote all sorts of competition as well, as entities would be competing for the monies. Commercial media would be ineligible for subsidies but they could use the content and anyone could start a medium, commercial or noncommercial, without needing anyone’s permission.

There are probably many other ways we could support a great free press system (and a great culture) in the digital era. It is high time to start that discussion. It is a necessary part, even a cornerstone, of the movement to democratize the United States. I have demonstrated how each of these reforms can appeal to people across the political spectrum, as they are rooted in fairness and a commitment to democracy. But make no mistake: these three reforms alone would radically reshape the nation and put the United States well on the way toward a post-capitalist democracy. We have no time to lose, and, given the brick wall of politics in Washington, DC, we have nothing to lose. As the great saying from France in May 1968 went: “Be Realistic, Demand the Impossible.”


  1. Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols, Our Media, Not Theirs: The Democratic Struggle Against Corporate Media (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2002).
  2. Robert W. McChesney, The Problem of the Media (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2004).
  3. I develop this theme, and much of what else appears in this article, in my book Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism is Turning the Internet Against Democracy (New York: New Press, 2013). Citations and sources for all of the points made in my three proposals can be found in it.
  4. John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney, Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America (New York: Nation Books, 2013).
  5. In 2012, two major studies were published along these lines: Martin Gilens, Affluence and Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012), and Kay Lehman Schlozman, Sidney Verba, and Henry E. Brady, The Unheavenly Chorus: Unequal Political Voice and the Broken Promise of American Democracy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012). See also Larry M. Bartels, Unequal Democracy (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2008); Martin Gilens, “Inequality and Democratic Responsiveness,” Public Opinion Quarterly 69, no. 5 (2005): 778–96; and Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer—and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010).
  6. Alberto Riva, “Jimmy Carter: U.S. ‘Has No Functioning Democracy’,” Salon, July 18, 2013,
  7. U.S. Commerce–Stock Market Capital-ization of the 50 Largest American Companies” (table), December 20. 2013,
  8. Ryan Grim, “Dick Durbin: Banks ‘Frankly Own the Place’,” Huffington Post, May 30, 2009,
  9. Labour Pains: Workers’ Share of National Income,” Economist, November 2, 2013, 77–78.
  10. John Bellamy Foster and Robert W. McChesney, The Endless Crisis: How Monopoly-Finance Capital Produces Stagnation and Upheaval from the USA to China (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2012).
  11. Sasha Abramsky, The American Way of Poverty: How the Other Half Still Lives (New York: Nation Books, 2013).
  12. Naomi Klein, “How Science is Telling Us All to Revolt,” New Statesman, October 29, 2013,
  13. Robert Scheer, “What the Pope Got Right About Capitalism,” Nation, December 3, 2013,
  14. John Nichols, “A Socialist Wins in Seattle,” Nation, December 16, 2013,
  15. This point is explained in Tim Wu, The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires (New York: Knopf, 2010).
  16. Brendan Greeley and Scott Moritz, “Bananas: How T-Mobile Plans to Survive by Blowing Up One of the Most Profitable Business Models Around,” Bloomberg Business Week, November 4–10, 2013, 66.
  17. Eric Schonfeld, “Vint Cerf Wonders If We Need to Nationalize the Internet,” TechCrunch, June 25, 2008.
  18. Conversation with Sue Gardner, Executive Director of the Wikimedia Foundation, San Francisco, California, October 22, 2013.
  19. Professor Andrew McAfee, cited in David Streitfeld, “Amazon Delivers Some Pie in the Sky,” New York Times, December 2, 2013,
  20. Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962).
  21. Franklin D. Roosevelt, “Appendix A: Message from the President of the United States Transmitting Recommendations Relative to the Strengthening and Enforcement of Anti-trust Laws,” The American Economic Review 32, no. 2, Part 2, Supplement, Papers Relating to the Temporary National Economic Committee (June 1942): 119–28.
  22. Henry C. Simons, Economic Policy for a Free Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948).
  23. Andre Schiffrin, Words and Money (London: Verso, 2011).
  24. The material in this section is drawn from Digital Disconnect, as well as Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols, The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution That Will Begin the World Again (New York: Nation Books, 2010).
2014, Volume 65, Issue 09 (February)
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