Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Democratic Index and Public Media by Robert W. Chesney

The Economist is a business magazine that keenly supports capitalism, deregulation and privatization of the economy and is usually unsympathetic towards large public sectors, labor unions, or anything that smacks of socialism. [ My brother buys me a subscription to this magazine so I am quite familiar with how apparently ignorant and narrow their point of view often is.] But every year it produces a highly acclaimed Democracy Index, which ranks all nations of the world on the basis of how democratic they are. In 2011 only twenty-five nations qualified as democratic. The criteria are: electoral process and pluralism, functioning of government, political participation, political culture, and civil liberties. The United States ranks nineteenth by these criteria.

Most of the eighteen nations ranking higher than the U.S. had government media subsidies on a per capital basis at least ten or twenty times that of the United States. The top four nations on the list, the most democratic- Norway ($130 per capita public funding of non-commercial media), Iceland ($45), Denmark ($109) and Sweden ($104) include two of the top three per capital media subsidizers in the world, and the other two are dramatically ahead of the United States ($1.42).

These are the freest, most democratic nations on earth according to The Economist, and they all have perfect or near-perfect scores on civil liberties.  The United States is tied for the lowest civil liberties score among the twenty-five democracies, and on this issues trails twenty nations described as “flawed democracies" in The Economist’s rankings.

Although all of the Democracy Index criteria implicitly depend to a large extent upon having a strong press system –  the report specifically discusses press freedom as a crucial indicator of democracy –freedom of the press itself is not one of the six measured variables. Fortunately, there is a more direct source on press freedom. The Democracy Index can be supplemented with the research of Freedom House, an American organization created in the 1940s to oppose totalitarianism of the left and right, which with the coming of the Cold War emphasized the threat of left-wing governments to freedom.  Freedom House is very much an establishment organization, with close ties to prominent American political and economic personages.  Every year it ranks the nations of the world on the basis of how free and effective their press systems are.  Its research is detailed and sophisticated, particularly concerned with any government meddling whatsoever with private news media.   For that reason, all communist nations tend to rank in a virtual tie for dead last as having the least free press systems in the world.  Freedom House is second to none when it comes to having sensitive antennae to detect government meddling with the existence or prerogatives of private news media.

Freedom House hardly favors the home team. In 2011 it ranked the United States as being tied with the Czech Republic as having the twenty-second freest press system in the world. America is ranked so low because of failures to protect sources and because of the massive economic cutbacks in the newsroom (e.g. the number of paid journalists working for all media is down 40-50% since  1980).

Freedom House’s list is dominated by the democratic nations with the very largest per capita journalism subsidies in the world.  The top nations listed by Freedom House are the same nations that top The Economists Democracy Index, and all rank among the top per capita press subsidizers in the world. In fact, the lists match to a remarkable extent. That should be  no surprise, as one would expect the nations with the freest and best press systems to rank as the most democratic nations .What is usually missing from the narratives of both The Economist and Freedom House is that the nations with the freest press systems are also the nations that make the greatest public investment in journalism and therefore provide the basis for being strong democracies.

One other annual survey supports the Democracy Index and the Freedom House rankings. Since 2002 Reporters Without Borders has produced a highly respected annual world press freedom index that ranks all nations in terms of how freely journalists can go about their work without direct or indirect attacks.  The survey does not address the quality of journalism, but only how unconstrained journalists journalists are to cover their communities and beats without violence or harassment. The United States plummeted to forty-seventh in the world in 2012, largely because of the mushrooming practice of police arresting and sometimes beating up journalists who dare to cover and report on public demonstrations. As journalism weakens, the state has less fear of harassing members of the Fourth Estate, who are seen as unduly interested in issues the state prefers not to be covered. The dozen or so nations that scored well above the rest of the world in terms of press freedom were pretty much the exact same nations that dominated the other lists, those that have the largest public investments in journalism.

Research also demonstrates that in those democratic nations with well-funded non-commercial broadcasting systems, political knowledge is higher than in nations without them and the information gap between the rich and the poor is much smaller. Public service broadcasters tend to do far more election campaign reporting than their commercial counterparts. Those nations with strong public broadcasting have more substantive campaign coverage as well: news about policy that can help inform citizens about the relative merits of a political party or particular candidate. The more public support there is for journalism, the less journalist kow-tow to the government in power.

Consider American journalism as it really exists today in the almost complete absence of significant public support. Elections are a farce. Local elections, indeed nearly all non-presidential elections, barely get any news coverage, and what coverage they do get is generally inane, often driven by the TV ads and comprised of assessments of PR strategies, gaffes, and polling results. As for the presidential election, its coverage is as endless as it is meaningless. Those with the most money to purchase the most ads dominate the political discourse. Few people have any more ideas about the candidates or the issues than what they read or hear as a headline, or get from the PR agents who now generate as much as 85% of news. The logical course for most people is to opt out, rather than be drowned in a pool of slime, spin, clich├ęs, and idiocy. Where has “the marketplace of news” left  freedom, democracy and governance in this country?

If the U.S. Federal government subsidized journalism today at the same level of GDP that it did in the early days of the Republic and throughout the nineteenth century it would have to invest in the neighborhood of $30 to $35 billion annually.

As late as 1910, when postmaster Albert Burleson questioned the need for newspaper and magazine postal subsidies, he was roundly dismissed as someone who knew little about news industry economics. To Americans of all political persuasions –and especially to progressive political movements like the abolitionists, the populists, and the suffragists – even during the most laissez-faire periods in American history, the necessity of a large public investment in journalism was a given. Today public broadcasting receives approximately $1 billion in public support, only a small portion of which goes to journalism and most of that is provided by State and local governments and universities, with only about $400 million coming from the federal government.

There is, of course, one group that definitely benefits from the lack of journalism and information inequality in this country. They do not wish to have their privileges or affairs examined closely, either in politics or commerce. The Wall Street banks, energy corporations, health insurance firms, drug companies, defense contractors, agribusinesses – powerful interests of all sorts- do not want their operations or their cozy relations with the government exposed for all to see, nor do the politicians who benefit from these relationships. These powerful forces oppose anything (whether it be in the form of tax or telecommunications legislation or rule-making)  that would open and enhance our news media and they aggressively oppose any campaign for press subsidies like public, non-commercial media or citizenship news vouchers.

Not all wealthy people are content with a world that lacks democratic journalism. True free-market capitalism would even benefit from a strong press system. But none of the rich have a material stake in pushing the cause, so it founders.  Our political system is so corrupt that it is losing the capacity to address problems that threaten its own existence. Instead, the main issues placed before policy makers are making what seem like endless cuts in social programs, lower taxes on business and the wealthy, ignoring environmental protections, increasing “national security” spending, and corporate deregulation. The hand of unrestrained capital seems heavier and heavier on the steering wheel of public welfare, taking us to places farther and farther off the democratic grid.

1 comment:

  1. I am not talking about the fairy-tale catechism of the heroic upstart little-guy entrepreneurs battling in competitive free markets while the deadbeat government is on the sideline screwing up the job-creating private sector with a lot of birdbrain liberal regulations. I review how specific real-world giant corporations in telecommunications and media have responded to the Internet’s existential challenge to its modus operandi by swallowing American democracy.