Your average scoop-minded journalist would rather see his expenses cut by 90 percent, or face a plagiarism charge spotlighted by Romenesko, than read a book by a communication scholar.
It’s a blunt calculation of lesser pain. The first two assaults can be fought and repulsed. The third lasers into that part of a journalist’s brain that craves constant feeding of germane fact, persuasive evidence, sensible argument, even-handed analysis, and lively style. Fairly or not, the mainstream reporter presumes that while some books by communication scholars provide all five, that’s only by the logician’s criterion that some means at least one.
Another psychological bent accounts for the aversion of journalists to communication scholarship. The scholars themselves would describe it as “theory aversion,” but it’s more aptly described as “theory immersion”—the feeling, similar to relaxing in a warm bath, in which one’s view of the media world appears both true and practicable in professional life.
Call it the “naturalistic” take on American media. It posits that the shape of the American media landscape reflects two-hundred-plus years of free agents—individual journalists, daring entrepreneurs, aggressive corporations—pursuing their interests in more or less legal fashion, with those interests variously including profit, truth, influence, fame, and, usually, more profit. As Walter Cronkite put it in what’s now deemed a Neolithic, pre-postmodernist era, that’s the way it is, and likely the way it’s supposed to be.
A third aspect of communication scholarship also estranges working journalists. If they’ve sampled the wares, journalists notice that communication scholars view them not so much as fellow media types, or even “informants,” in the manner of anthropologists and linguists, but as worker ants—insects in an organism to be studied aloofly and from afar.
If there’s any communication scholar likely to bridle at being victimized by these clichés or truisms of the journalistic mindset, it’s Robert McChesney. A darling of leftist intellectuals, McChesney, a fifty-five-year-old veteran scholar who teaches at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is an influential populist highly critical of many colleagues in communication studies.
An activist instrumental in the nationwide movement for media reform, McChesney co-founded the reformist lobbying group Free Press in 2002 (now some 350,000 members strong) and co-launched the National Conference for Media Reform, which has grown from an anticipated few hundred attendees to some 3,500 from all fifty states in 2007.
McChesney has helped win concrete freedom-of-the-press victories, such as delaying the 2003 FCC attempt to relax media ownership rules, and stopping a 2006 overhaul of telecommunications laws that would have threatened “Net Neutrality” (the policy that blocks Internet service providers from discriminating among Web sites). Among his many books, Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Times (1999), stands as a bible and playbook for those who share his reformist passion and anticorporate reading of media history. Now McChesney’s fresh size-up of American democracy and media, Communication Revolution: Critical Junctures and the Future of Media, offers a manifesto that invites concerned parties to weigh the pros and cons of communication scholarship goosed up to activist mode.
In his introduction, McChesney roars with to-the-barricades themes and hortatory clichés not likely to pull in skeptical journalists. “The history of American media,” he declares, “is one continual victory of powerful corporate interests over everyone else.” Both our communication system and revolution are not natural consequences of a free market but “the result of structures and markets created and shaped by policies and extraordinary public subsidies.” If citizens of good will—a coalition of the willing?—don’t respond to McChesney’s “all hands on deck” appeal, “crucial policy decisions will be made by powerful corporate interests and the politicians they own behind closed doors, and the system will be created to suit their needs.” A key reason that citizens should do so, McChesney contends repeatedly, is that we are at a “critical juncture.” It’s an empty phrase he fetishizes and reifies as a virtual discovery of physics—by it, he means a one- or two-decade era such as Reconstruction or the New Deal in which great sociological changes are possible in a way they’re not at other times.
“In this historic moment,” McChesney tells us, “there is a particularly important role for communication scholars and students to play.” He wants “the field of communication to fundamentally rethink its past, present, and future.” A key purpose of Communication Revolution, after all, is to explain McChesney’s movement for structural media reform, whose aims include “keeping the largest telephone and cable companies from privatizing the Internet,” protecting children from all advertising, creating “super-fast ubiquitous broadband” as “a birthright of all Americans,” and developing “a viable heterogeneous tier of noncommercial and nonprofit media.”