Dan Carlin

American political commentator Dan Carlin hosts two of the highest-ranked reviewed podcasts, Common Sense and Hardcore History. While he staunchly claims he has no ideology besides being in favor of real solutions regardless of who offers them, he has a definite libertarian bent based on the views expressed in his podcasts. Once a professional radio host, a television news reporter, an author, and a columnist, Carlin knows the ins and outs of media and frequently talks on Common Sense about his outrage at the state of the American press.

He certainly isn’t alone in his anger. Americans have lost faith and interest in major news outlets over the years as journalists have increasingly become concerned with reflecting the political views and interests of their firm’s owners. The 1996 Telecommunications Act allowed Congress and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to destroy the free market in the media industry by welcoming monopolies. Now, the media is largely under control of ten firms: AOL/Time Warner, AT&T, General Electric, News Corp., Viacom, Bertelsmann, Walt Disney, Vivendi Universal, Liberty Media, Sony and Clear Channel (Comcast).

The press, or the Fourth Estate as the founders called it, was considered absolutely vital to the functioning of the country. Thomas Jefferson said to John Jay in 1786, “Our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press, nor that be limited without danger of losing it.” Robert McChesney, author of The Problem of the Media and a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, says that “Democratic theory posits that society needs journalism to perform three main duties: to act as a rigorous watchdog of the powerful and those who wish to be powerful; to ferret out truth from lies; and to present a wide range of informed positions on key issues.” According to McChesney, American journalism as a whole is failing in all three aspects. Jefferson was right to worry about a dysfunctional press. History shows us, as McChesney points out, that concentration in media ownership is highly correlated with authoritarianism and political corruption.

However, today, due to government-enforced monopoly broadcasting licenses and copyright laws, journalists for the Top Ten hold very different goals. In order to move their way up, journalists cater their stories to the ideological biases of the owners of their companies. In addition, instead of challenging politicians and other authority figures, they often use their positions as personal networking opportunities. There is a revolving door in the media just as there is a revolving door in politics and the two along with corporate interests have become incredibly incestuous. When journalists do put the fire to politicians’ feet, it’s far more likely to be based on a trivial offense like having “ten outstanding parking tickets or to have skipped out on a bar bill at a topless club than if they quietly used their power to funnel billions of public dollars to powerful special interests,” says McChesney. Fluff stories are cheap and easy and for some reason, media firms still think they can successfully draw people in with them.

A New York Times article published in June of 2012 said that CNN’s prime time ratings had dropped by 40 percent from a year ago. Viewership has also gone down. Last year for its Monday through Friday prime time slots, CNN had an average of 236,000 viewers. This year, it has 142,000. In a recent podcast, Dan Carlin discussed these dismal numbers with disgust, commenting that despite the fact that CNN is played on almost every television in every airport and hotel lobby across the country 24 hours a day, the number of viewers for his podcasts are competitive with CNN’s numbers, and are actually better if you factor out the senior citizens who watch CNN. When you consider how much money is funneled into CNN while Carlin’s podcasts are run on donations, that is pretty embarrassing. CNN isn’t the lone wolf, though; MSNBC and Fox have also lost a substantial amount of viewers and are not doing much better. In 2000, more than one-third of Americans got their news from late night talk shows and comedy shows rather than TV news programs. Today, that number is almost certainly much higher.

CNN blames its failure on having a bad news year, claiming that last year’s ratings were enhanced due to several breaking events. This demonstrates the drastic change that has taken place in the role of American media. Today’s journalists see themselves as little more than the news-equivalent of glorified weathermen. Their only job is to report on the political and economic climate as it appears, often inaccurately, with little to no further investigation. This is a far cry from what the founders intended. They envisioned a press that would create storms, not just report a sunny day with a high of 75 degrees.  The real irony is that if CNN or MSNBC or Fox were to actually engage in hard news, they would give people a show they actually wanted to watch. If YouTube views are any indication, people love to watch politicians squirm when getting nailed with hard-hitting questions.

Carlin brings this point home in his discussion of the superior quality of international journalists such as Irish journalist Vincent Browne. Watch this video, taken at a press conference in January of 2012 with the European Central Bank’s Klaus Masuch and Barbara Solan regarding the bailout of European banks.

Now compare Browne’s exchange to an interview conducted by Meet the Press’s David Gregory with then Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum on January 1, 2012. In the interview, Gregory and Santorum discussed Iran’s attempts to attain a nuclear weapon and Santorum’s foreign policy goals. The following exchange took place, edited for the sake of brevity:

Gregory: “The reality is, there’s no good option to disarm Iran.”

Santorum: “Yes there is.”

Gregory: “Tell me what you would do differently then.”

Santorum: “I would say to every foreign scientist that’s going into Iran to help them with their program, you’ll be treated as an enemy combatant like Al Qaeda. I would be working openly with the state of Israel and I would be saying to the Iranians, you either open up those facilities, you begin to dismantle them and make them available to inspectors or we will degrade those facilities through air strikes and make it very public that we’re doing that.”

Gregory: “So you would lay out a red line and if they passed it, air strikes by President Santorum?”

Santorum: “Iran will not get a nuclear weapon under my watch.”

Gregory: “Well, two previous presidents have said that. You would order air strikes if it became clear they were going to-“ (interrupted by Santorum)

Santorum: “Yes, that’s the plan. I mean you can’t go out and say, you know this is the problem with this administration, you can’t go out and say that this is what I’m for and then do nothing. You become a paper tiger and people don’t respect our country and our allies can’t trust us. That’s the problem with this administration.”

Gregory: “Alright. Before I let you go, back to the politics. Are you going to win this thing?”

Neither Gregory, nor the journalists included on the panel held after the interview, asked a single follow up question on the constitutionality of Santorum’s policy, despite the fact that Santorum had taken the unprecedented action of making a campaign promise to go to war with Iran without Congress’s approval. Additionally, Santorum spent the first part of the interview saying Obama needs to be replaced because Americans want a small, limited government. Yet no one pointed out the blatant contradiction in his domestic and foreign policies. Instead, they speculated about the election like it was a horse race.

Later on, Andrea Mitchell from NBC said Ron Paul’s foreign policy of peace made him unelectable. This shows the reason there was no follow-up to Santorum’s campaign promise was because they assumed Americans agreed with Santorum and disagreed with Paul. They all believed the president has the power to declare war because the media never calls the government out, despite the fact that there hasn’t been a proper declaration of war since World War II. By not showing people the storms on the horizon and the elephants in the room, American journalists have stopped seeing them as well. In the early American republic, it was natural for all citizens to view the government with suspicion. The founders never suspected journalists would stop questioning powerful figures. But they have, and who is left to do the questioning? Libertarians have all the necessary qualities: distrust of authority, an inquisitive nature, a thirst for truth and the desire to make a difference in the world.

If you’re interested in changing the media, check out Dan Carlin’s podcasts, Robert McChesney’s website, and IHS’s summer journalism internship.