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.”
Communication Revolution gets better as McChesney concentrates reportorially on histories of areas he knows well, including cultural studies. He explains the friction between mainstream scholars “eager to ramp up” the prestige of communication within the social sciences by heavy use of quantitative methods, and political-economy sorts fond of “historical and multidisciplinary” approaches. McChesney rightly vaunts the distinguished First Amendment scholar Alexander Meiklejohn’s argument that while the First Amendment forbids legislation to abridge freedom of speech, it does not forbid legislation “to enlarge and enrich it.” Yale First Amendment scholar Thomas Emerson also argued, writes McChesney, that in the 1930s nothing in the Constitution “prevented the government from establishing a completely nonprofit radio and television system.”
Fired up by this dystopic vision of corporate-despoiled media, McChesney offers up “Five Truths”—it’s not clear whether he misses or actually enjoys the phrase’s Maoist tone—that should make “all media scholars reconsider the core presuppositions upon which their research and teaching have been based.” The “Truths” are:
1. Media systems are created by policies and subsidies; they are not “natural” in any society.
2. The Founders of the Republic did not authorize a corporate-run, profit-motivated, commercially driven media system with the First Amendment.
3. The American media system may be profit-motivated, but it is not a free-market system.
4. The policymaking process is of paramount importance in understanding how a media system is structured and how the subsidies are allocated.
5. The policymaking process in the United States has been dominated by powerful corporate interests with almost nonexistent public participation for generations; it must be addressed if the media system is to be reformed.
Accepting the first four, of course, doesn’t commit one to wholly buying the fifth, or sharing McChesney’s assessment of where American media end up today.
The second half of Communication Revolution then tilts toward McChesney’s activist history. Although he distinguishes on the one hand between editors and reporters—with whom communication scholars should seek solidarity—and investors and owners, who are plainly the enemy, it’s clear that McChesney sees the former as largely stooges in their habits of coverage. If “the public has no role to play in the policymaking process,” McChesney knows why: “[B]ecause the news media almost never cover this story in the general news, 99 percent of the public has no idea what is going on.”