Apart from McChesney’s claims, it’s obligatory to ponder Communication Revolution as performance art, because it is in his rhetoric that he differs from many academic peers. McChesney has reached sufficient lightning-rod status that he often feels the need to explain himself. One bubbling-up of this sort comes in his introduction:
My second problem stared at me every time I looked in the mirror: What to do about myself. What role should I play in the narrative?… But I did not want to write an autobiography or memoir, and this book can in no way be considered as such. The book is not about me, but about the issues addressed herein.
Of course it’s not about him—even if he does later interrupt the text regularly with such asides as, “Whether I liked it or not, people were demanding I address the contemporary situation. And I discovered quickly enough that I liked it.”
His taste for passive-aggressive navel-gazing combines with endless repetition to make much of Communication Revolution tough slogging. Chapter 1 begins:
We are in the midst of a communication and information revolution. Of that there is no doubt. What is uncertain is what type of revolution this will be, how sweeping, and with what effects. Precisely how this communication revolution will unfold and what it will mean for our journalism, our culture, our politics, and our economics are not at all clear.
If you edit copy for a living, you’ll notice that the fourth sentence repeats the third, and the second is either meaningless or false. The whole can be cut to: “We’re in a communication revolution with uncertain effects.” We’re dealing, in short, with a flabbily written book. We now suspend our regularly scheduled nasty review to concentrate on the content McChesney offers to journalists: distilled, analyzed, criticized, and appreciated.
One service is a full-frontal attack on communication for becoming a “second-tier” discipline by abandoning the critical edge toward media industries that communication scholars evinced in the 1920s and ’30s. McChesney quotes Wolfgang Donsbach, a recent president of the International Communication Association, who complains that there’s “too much petty number-crunching” in the field, too many research projects of “little relevance and significance.”
McChesney then offers a travelogue, in Chapter 2, of his own journey through the subfield of the political economy of communication, which allowed him to bring his reading of Marx, and concern with social justice, to the architecture of American media. In his early years as a professor, it struck him that true media criticism had fallen to thinkers outside communication, such as C. Wright Mills and Jürgen Habermas, who kept alive big-picture accounts of media life that did not assume false dichotomies such as commercialized media or state-run dictatorial media. McChesney absorbed media critics from other disciplines, such as Noam Chomsky and the economist Edward Herman, who wrote unconstrained by what he regarded as the phony neutrality of the mainstreamers. Reading Ben Bagdikian’s The Media Monopoly in 1986, McChesney explains, provided the epiphany that expanded his growing hostility to the notion among journalists and communication scholars that “the commercial media system was innately democratic and quintessentially American.” Bagdikian showed, he explains, how a commercial media system undermines democracy.
This trip down memory lane inspires one of McChesney’s best passages:
When, exactly, did Americans approve of the idea that a handful of corporations selling advertising were the proper stewards of the media or that it was inappropriate to ever question their power? I knew enough even then to understand that at the time of the Founders, there was no sense of professional journalism, media corporations, or modern advertising. So no way could it be said that the Founders authorized or sounded off on the mess Bagdikian was describing. But if not them, then who? When in American history had this debate taken place? When had the American people ratified the corporate media system as the proper one for the United States?
McChesney immediately bolsters these sharp questions by giving details of what he dubs the “last great battle over media in the United States,” the mostly forgotten opposition to the mass commercialization of radio broadcasting in the 1920s and ’30s by “educators, labor, religious groups, journalists, civil libertarians, and farmers.”