The Murdoch Effect

Debate on American media policy can be traced back to September 25, 1690, with the publishing of the first newspaper, Public Occurrences, Both Foreign and Domestic, published in Boston by Benjamin Harris (Duniway, 1906). It provided an effective way to transmit news that included the battle that Governor Winthrop waged with the French and the Indians and news of inhumane treatment of French prisoners of war (Shaw, 1959).  Benjamin Harris, however, was banned from publishing a second issue of the newspaper as the Governor and Council issued a ruling that expressed their “resentment and disallowance” of the newspaper and prohibited future similar publications by limiting anyone from setting “forth in print without license first obtained” (as cited in Duniway, p. 69).  

Even with this early regulatory limitation, newspapers and other forms of media thrived in the early 1700s (Kanungo & Allen, 1999). With the advent of new technology over the last three centuries, the limit of media outlets appears endless. However, the increase of technology has left some scholars arguing that the augmented supply and varying choices have had effects that could be labeled as antidemocratic (Barber, 1997; Prior, 2005). Prior maintained that the increased options in media and news leave many individuals less likely to make choices that provide them information necessary to be active participants in the democratic process. In addition to challenges brought by increased choice, scholars have also noted that democracy has suffered setbacks due to policies that have led to increased media consolidation and corporate conglomeration (Iosifides, 1999; Wellstone, 2000). Wellstone contended that for democracy to work, media must be diverse and accountable to people. According to Wellstone, this could only occur with increased regulation of media ownership that includes the limitation of any one company in owning multiple media outlets and markets. Finally, among many other issues, scholars have noted that neoliberal tendencies in the media have led to a focus on profits instead of performing a watchdog role, which further threatens democracy (McChesney, 2001; West, 2004).

The overall change in the structure, policy, and purpose of the media has resulted in a move away from the philosophy of American journalist Walter Lippmann in regard to the media system. Lippmann (1920) warned that when those who control the media “arrogate to themselves the right to determine by their own consciences what shall be reported and for what purpose, democracy is unworkable” (p. 11). Rupert Murdoch, owner of News Corporation, one of the largest media conglomerates and owner of Fox News, best summarizes the present state of media and the move away from Lippmann’s philosophy. Murdock’s philosophy of the media system is simple, “The buck stops with the guy who signs the checks” (as cited in Vitullo-Martin & Moskin, 1994, p. 26).  

Robert McChesney, professor of communications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, authored the book titled The Problem of the Media: U.S. Communication Politics in the Twenty-First Century (2004), which provided a historical, economic, and political examination of the working of the U.S. media system. McChesney blamed the current state of the media on the corporate control of two spheres: the media system and the policy-formation process. This corporate control of both spheres has led to the diminishment of a healthy and functioning democracy in the United States. McChesney additionally charged that the lack of participation by the public in the communications policy-formation process allowed the owners of the media system to shift the system toward antidemocratic ends. McChesney, however, attributed the lack of participation by the public to eight myths besieging the media system.   He concluded by offering alternative options to the existing media system. An analysis of his assessment of the existing media system and communications policy in the United States, his offered alternative solutions, and the fact that he is the founder, president, and board of directors chairman of Free Press, a national organization for media reform through regulation of consolidated corporate ownership, indicates that McChesney is on the liberal part of the media system and communication policy debate.

The purpose of this paper is to review McChesney’s (2004) book, The Problem of the Media, within the framework of the current media system and communication policy debate.   This review contains an assessment of the purpose and primary arguments that McChesney presented in his book, and a discussion of the implications and limitations of the book.

Purpose and Primary Arguments

The primary purpose of The Problem of the Media was to make the reader aware of the existing media system, its workings, and how it has come to the current state of economic, political, and social power. McChesney sought to have the readers understand the system to allow them to have a more vigorous position in the policy formation process which has allowed the current system to be built on and sustained.  

In an interview with Juan Gonzalez (2004), McChesney explained that he wrote the book to add to the knowledge base on the media system in the United States, which “gives us … as citizens who are dissatisfied of the caliber of journalism we’re getting and dissatisfied with the type of media that we’re getting, the power to know that the system we have today isn’t natural law, but a result of policies.”   With this knowledge, McChesney argued that “as real citizens in a democracy, we have an obligation, not just a right, but obligation to establish free press” ( ¶ 5).   Furthermore, in an interview with David Barsamian (2005), McChesney stated that he wants people to take away from the book that “we don’t have to have one company own all the radio stations, we don’t have to have our children’s brains marinated in advertising starting at age 18 months … [and] we don’t have to have government censors on public broadcasting” (Audio recording). As McChesney warned in The Problem of the Media (2004), the market-driven media system is in itself the “most effective censor. Hence, by definition, capitalist control over media poses a serious problem for democratic press theory” (p. 225).

After studying the subject for more than 20 years, McChesney presented a thorough examination of the U.S. media system, including the communication policies that have changed the system. Although the problem of the media is sustained for a multitude of reasons, McChesney focused on eight myths, which he argued make the case for a democratic media system much weaker unless they are debunked.  

McChesney offered the following as the eight myths that protect the U.S. media system: (a) media does not matter since it reflects reality rather than shapes it; (b) the current corporate media system is the result of natural law, the intent of the Founding Fathers, and a valid result of democracy; (c) interest and opinions of the public have been taken into account and represented in the debate regarding media policy; (d) current commercial media indisputably offers both the most superior level of journalism available and the level of journalism necessary in a democracy; (e) news media in the United States has a liberal or left-wing bias; (f) the current commercial media system provides people what they want because of pressures for profit; thus, the best policy to solve the problem of the media is to apply a laissez-faire philosophy; (g) the nature of the media is determined by technology; and (h) the current media system is the best option, no alternatives are available, and alternatives would not improve the problem of the media. The following sections provide a discussion of McChesney’s primary arguments of myths relating to the existing system being the result of natural law; offering the highest quality journalism; which is necessary for a democracy, and having a liberal bias.

Outgrowth of Democracy and Natural Law

McChesney argued that the current commercial and corporate media system is not the intent of our Founding Fathers, the Constitution, or a natural product of a democratic society. Instead, McChesney proposed, the result of media system owners seeking to increase their profits and power and doing so by spreading this myth to the general public is to allow them to gain control of the policy-formation process. McChesney drew from three sections of the Constitution to provide evidence for his claims on this myth. He focused on the rights of Congress to create copyright protection laws, rights of Congress to create post offices and post roads, and rights of the people to enjoy free press protected in the First Amendment. He also provided a historical framework of the discussion of the free press and concluded that the idea of free press held during the early years of this country was dichotomous to the current views of free press, which apply a libertarian philosophy toward the media system and its owners.  

Other scholars concur with McChesney in his argument that the current media system is the result of explicit policies, and a historical assessment shows that the system is not a natural outgrowth of democracy, the Founding Fathers, or the Constitution (Baker, 2002; Cook, 1989; Park, 1923; Vaidhyanathan, 2002; Yoo, 2000). Baker proposed that the Constitution protects the press because the press has a crucial role in contributing to democracy and democracy’s legitimacy. In addition, Baker stated that certain early regulations and government interventions, including copyright laws, similar to what McChesney argued, would allow for “diverse public discussion and cultural exploration of common interests” (p. 210). Vaidhyanathan noted that certain government interventions, like the copyright laws, have been around for more than 200 years and have historically served democracy very well. Yoo challenged the current notions that state that government interventions are a threat to democracy, and found that laws like copyright protections do not need to be reduced in time or scope to protect democracy. Park found that the natural development of the media system, specifically the newspaper, was one that was transferred via the post office and was highly subsidized, a direct opposition to the current libertarian and hands-off model. In fact, according to Park, the media did not have to become an independent commercial venture until businesses saw it as a way to transfer advertisements. Furthermore, Cook contended that the current media system operates the way it does because of two centuries worth of negotiations between those in charge of the media system and those in Congress.

Although scholars agree with McChesney about the historical development of the media system, some argue that certain government controls, like subsidies, could actually be antidemocratic (Jacka, 2003; Kirtley, 2005). Jacka argued that public broadcasting, a form of subsidized media, offers nothing more to democracy that is not already offered by the private media system. Kirtley maintained that when the government funds the media system, those in charge could take control of the system and decide what is reported. However, history is still on the side of McChesney, even with government subsidies, the media system had a much more diverse output (Schudson, 2001). Furthermore, McChesney (2007) argued that many of the shifts in policy are the result of big corporations trying to limit the diverse media outputs. For instance, he found that Time Warner had a direct hand in lobbying and changing postal mail policy to have the United States Postal Service charge more for the delivery of periodicals for small publication companies versus large ones, which is an abandonment of the last 215 years of post office policy.

Quality of Journalism and Democracy

McChesney posited that another myth of the current media system is that it provides the highest quality of journalism and that this level of journalism is needed in a healthy democracy. McChesney contended that the media system has to take a watchdog role in a democratic society. He contended that each medium of the system does not need to provide for this need; however, as a whole, the system has to contribute to a democratic society its watchdog services. McChesney believed that the current profit-driven media system fails at this role because of its noncompetitive nature and the rise of professional journalism.  

According to McChesney, media used to be extremely biased and partisan. Each newspaper would have its own political views, and in a campaign year, a particular newspaper might not even cover a major political contender if it favored a different candidate. However, McChesney believed that this was not a problem since there were multiple daily papers in any given market, and even if every newspaper lacked the coverage of a specific issue, individuals were able to start their own newspapers. Changes in communication policy resulted in media consolidation. Media moguls needed to justify this consolidation and did so by stating that there was no need for multiple newspapers since each would supply an objective view on the news, following a professional journalism ethic, which included the reliance on official sources. McChesney argued that this was antidemocratic because when legitimate or official sources decided not to comment on a specific issue, it would not be covered since it would be considered subjective rather than objective. Thus, the system would still remain biased, except now all outputs would have the same bias of following the ethic of professional journalism. According to McChesney, the limitations placed on journalists are counterproductive to the media’s role as a government watchdog.

Some scholars concur with McChesney that the current media system does not provide the highest quality of journalism and a quality that is necessary for a healthy democracy (Asp, 2007; Eide, 2007; Novek, 2005; Pöttker, 2004; Thomas, 2006). Eide argued that journalism does not have a political bias; instead, it has a professional bias since journalism is becoming an ideology in itself. Asp noted that democracy involved the free exchange of ideas; and the current quality of journalism, based on the ethic of professional journalism that rose in the first decade of the 20th century, limits this free exchange of ideas. Asp continued by stating that in a democratic society, journalism needs to support “free and autonomous opinion formation” (p. 32). Thomas maintained that current consolidation of the media reduces the quality of journalism necessary for a democracy since “the health of our democracy depends on multiple viewpoints being debated” (p. 133). Finally, Pöttker found that separation of information from opinion in journalism ultimately results in communication barriers. These barriers, according to Pöttker, eliminate certain subjects from the public knowledge and dialogue.  

Some scholars, on the other hand, disagree with McChesney’s position on the low quality of journalism, mostly due to the professional ethic, and its antidemocratic effects (Francke, 1995; Warren, 2006; Warren, 2007). Francke claimed that the professional ethics in journalism, which results in objectivity, removes political bias and business bias. Warren (2006) proposed that the current ethic of professional journalism is necessary to fight corruption in the government. Warren and Francke, however, did not consider objectivity as a bias in itself, as argued by Eide (2007). The objectivity bias could be as, if not more, antidemocratic than political biases and business biases. In addition, they did not consider that a reliance on official sources limits the journalists’ ability to act as a watchdog and cover issues that the official sources choose not to discuss, as contended by McChesney.

Rupert Murdoch also disagreed with McChesney on issues of professional journalism ethics and their opposing relationships to democracy. In an interview with Alan Jones (2004), Murdoch stated that with the existence of the internet, media consolidation should not be an issue to the quality of journalism or the role journalism has in a society. In fact, Murdoch claimed that it is “so easy and so cheap to start a newspaper or start a magazine, there’s just millions of voices … the old ideas of [media] being too concentrated … I think that’s fading away.” However, McChesney disagreed and pointed to the fact that a daily newspaper has not been started in a mature market since the early 1900s mostly due to the startup costs that would be required.

Liberal Bias

McChesney postulated that the idea of a liberal or left bias in the news media is another dangerous myth produced by those in charge of the media system to ultimately deter the existence of democratic media policies. In fact, according to McChesney, this myth exists because of the right-wing control of the media system. McChesney stated that the conservative attack and proposition of a liberal bias in the media are based on four principles: (a) journalists decide the news while owners and advertisers have no say; (b) journalists politically affiliate themselves with liberals; (c) journalists break their professional code and abuse their power in order to proceed with the bias; and (d) journalism that is objective would produce news that is congruent with conservative values and opinions. On the other hand, in his analyses of the system, McChesney found: (a) advertisers and owners have the ultimate say on what is reported; (b) when surveyed, newspaper publishers favored a Republican presidential contender over a Democratic one by an overwhelming margin; (c) evidence suggests that the professional code is being followed by most journalists; and when it is not, it usually is biased toward conservative or right-wing individuals and issues, an act that is defended by a claim that they are “balancing the [liberal] bias” (p. 109); and (d) conservatives never criticize the news as being biased when it is easy on the right-wing or hard on the left-wing.

Evidence from academics suggests a congruency between their findings and those of McChesney. A number of scholars have stated that there is no liberal or left-wing bias in the media or news reporting (Alterman, 2003; Defining Bias, 2005; Gilens & Hertzman, 2000; Parenti, 1996; Riley, 2003; Sutter, 2001). Riley stated that the “nastiest name” a journalist like himself is called is “liberal” (p. 110) and encouraged journalists to challenge that charge. An editorial in the Columbia Journalism Review (Defining Bias) urged journalists, in a democratic society, to report on corruptions within the political structure and fight being labeled as having a liberal bias when they present unfavorable findings toward conservative and right-wing individuals and issues. Sutter analyzed the liberal bias issue from an economic perspective and found that if it had existed, it would be unstable and cause a split in the market, which violates the endeavors of a commercial and profit-driven corporations. In addition, Sutter found that owners of media outlets are typically conservative, and history has shown that they have ordered members of their press to report on Republican candidates in a positive light. Finally, Alterman found that those who argue of a liberal bias neglect the role of advertisers and owners of the media system, concluding that “you’re only as liberal as the man who owns you” (p. 14). In addition, Alterman maintained that those who point to examples of liberal bias fail to systematically prove its existence.

Other scholars and pundits, however, have argued against the position held by McChesney, and found that there is in fact a liberal bias (Coulter, 2003; Groseclose & Milyo, 2005; Rieder, 2005). Rieder (2005) argued that a liberal bias exists and pointed to a segment on a CBS show that portrayed President Bush in a negative light. Groseclose and Milyo attempted to empirically prove that a liberal bias existed and found that, through a complicated formula, a liberal bias existed in journalism and media, except in a limited number of outlets. Finally, Coulter concluded that a liberal bias existed in the media, and that media elites are more liberal than those in the Democratic Party. Coulter made her proposition on the basis that “a higher percentage of the Washington press corps voted for Clinton in 1992 than did his demographic category: Registered Democrats” (p. 56). However, McChesney warned against looking at the political preference of journalists as a measurement of media bias, since the power to make final decisions on actual publication and reporting lies with the owners and advertisers. In addition, Alterman (2003) argued that when looking at the numerous errors in Coulter’s research, one must conclude that they “demonstrate the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of a journalistic culture that allows her near a microphone, much less a printing press” (p. 4).  


In The Problem of the Media, McChesney offered the devastating antidemocratic effects if action is not taken to debunk the eight myths and have the public enter the communication-policy formation process. Other scholars have also added insight on the effects of the increasingly corporate, commercial, and unregulated media system. Turner and Cooper (2007) found that as consolidation and concentration rise, women and minorities would own fewer television stations. They found that even with women comprising of 51 percent of the population, they only own 5.87 percent of all commercial television stations.   They also found that Blacks and African Americans, comprising 13 percent of the U.S. population, own 0.6 percent of all television stations. When considering that women own 28 percent of all U.S. business and minorities own 18 percent of all business, Turner and Cooper maintained that their ownership of television stations is not only lagging but also decreasing. According to Turner and Cooper, “The pressures of consolidation and concentration brought on by bad policy decisions have crowded out minority owners, who tend to own just a single station and find it difficult to compete with their big-media counterparts for programming and advertising revenue” (p. 3). Turner’s (2007b) study on radio stations yielded similar data on women and minority ownership.

Each of the eight myths discussed by McChesney has its own implications. For example, the myth of a liberal or left-wing bias, McChesney maintained, actually increased political bias that favors the right-wing or conservatives. Recent data, collected in the spring of 2007, revealed that out of 257 news and political talk radio stations that are owned by the five biggest commercial radio station owners, almost all programming, 91 percent, was conservative (Center for American Progress & Free Press, 2007). Furthermore, the data revealed that an astonishing 2,570 hours and 15 minutes of broadcast time, on these 257 news and talk radio stations, were spent on conservative talk, and only 254 hours was spent on progressive talk.

McChesney also argued that the current media system has implications on the local news and that the myth of the internet as a solution allows for big media to sustain its existence. In testimony to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on localism, Turner (2007a) argued that locally owned television stations and newspapers produced more local news than their non locally owned equals. Turner also stated that broadcast television and newspapers are the most relied upon source for local news, since they are usually the only units that produce such news. Finally, Turner contended that even though a small percentage of the public does use the internet for local news, they usually visit the websites of local television stations and newspapers. Overall, a reading of The Problem of the Media reveals a large number of negative implications due to the current media system.


McChesney provided an informative discussion on the existing media system in the United States. However, The Problem of the Media does suffer from a number of limitations.   One limitation that is cited by McChesney’s critics is how opinions like his can appear so often in print, television, and film if in fact there is this problem with media consolidation and conglomeration. Hrynyshyn (2005) stated that many individuals have access to opinions like that of McChesney and that it could not be simply “a lack of choices for the audience” (p. 676). Hrynyshyn concluded that owners and advertisers could not have as much control as McChesney contends. However, Hrynyshyn failed to recognize or consider the audience of McChesney’s work and failed to consider that McChesney’s work could have limited influence due to continuing myths of a left-wing bias perpetrated by media system owners.

Another limitation of McChesney is the lack of credit he gives the internet for assisting in informing the public of the myths on the failures of the media system. In fact, based on information retrieved from the Free Press website, in the 48 hours that followed a FCC vote to further allow media consolidation, 165,000 individuals signed a petition to ask Congress to overturn it (Stearns, 2007). This would not have been possible without the internet. However, it is also important to understand the demographical information on those who seek out this type of information on the internet. Based on calculation of internet user demographics using data provided by Quantcast (2007), those who visit, a site that consistently reported on the status of the FCC ruling, are 59.4 percent more likely than visitors of to have the head of household with a graduate degree, and 108 percent more likely than visitors of However, this ultimately leaves one question unanswered: If big-media controls the media outlets visited by the average American, how can the masses be informed about the myths to ultimately result in democratic communication policies?   McChesney does not provide an answer to this question.


Robert McChesney’s (2004) The Problem of the Media was an exceptional analysis of the communications policies and politics in the United States that support the existence of an antidemocratic media system. His argument on the eight myths and their contribution to the tolerance of the current system is well supported by other scholars in the field. Furthermore, his argument for a new media system that is large, funded, pluralistic, diverse, nonprofit, and noncommercial allows readers to understand the alternative possibilities to the current media system. Overall, McChesney is able to present the urgency of the matter and the importance to the public.  

McChesney allows the reader to understand that the existing media system has had a variety of negative implications in the United States. The Problem of the Media is important, not just for those who study media and communications politics and policies, but also for all those who care about sustaining democracy and moving away from the hyper-commercialism that has resulted from the current policies. Even though more of the public is becoming familiar with issues regarding the media system, it may, however, be too late. The recent decision by the FCC revealed its lack of appreciation for public opinion and the lack of coverage by corporate and commercial media of the ruling. One cannot help but worry about the future of democracy in the United States when a major antidemocratic action is taken by a government organization and those who are supposed to act as the watchdogs choose not to inform Americans about the decision due to corporate commercial interest.



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Contributed by:  Andre Manukyan

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