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.”

That exaggeration, typical of McChesney, suggests one of the many angles from which he’s vulnerable to criticism. What of his own account of thousands of media activists rising up to combat Washington in recent years? Doesn’t that indicate that our media structure has produced a public aware of what’s going on? McChesney practically brags about his discovery, during his later activist period, that media policymaking is less about liberals vs. conservatives than “a case of moneyed interests versus everyone else.” As a result, he submits, “Media reform, rather than being the last issue people will turn to, may actually be a gateway issue for political engagement.”
McChesney’s thoughts on this point are illuminating. “The people who became active in the fight over media ownership,” he reports, “were motivated by a variety of issues,” among them “unhappiness about the limited and unimaginative musical fare found on radio,” the “paucity of quality programs,” and the “general decline of resources for journalism.” He consequently believes the media-reform movement could resemble the environmental-reform movement, which went from fringe in the 1960s to crucial for any politician fifteen years later.

Yet thinking about that social dynamic undermines McChesney’s larger perspective on American media rather than bolsters it. His thousands of media activists presumably read about their inadequacies in the kinds of publications he writes for: The Nation, The Progressive, Mother Jones, In These Times. That signals the core philosophical weakness in McChesney’s inference that corporate domination of big media undermines democratic pluralism of ideas. It’s a fundamental tenet of McChesney’s work that “structural reform of the media system and society” is necessary if we are “serious about democracy.” But why? Oddly for a critic of capitalism, McChesney’s view proposes a market-share credentialing of democracy. If certain ideas, anti-capitalist and otherwise, don’t get the airtime bestowed by network news, or the privileged print space provided by The New York Times op-ed page, democracy is threatened.

Where, though, does the First Amendment or democratic theory require that? We may want greater market share for ideas we favor, but what’s the principled argument that we’re entitled to it? Monopolistic control of major media damages democracy only if it results in the citizenry not receiving the broadness of information it needs to run its own affairs in the manner desired by Jefferson and Madison.

Carlin Romano is the literary critic of The Philadelphia Inquirer and critic-at-large of The Chronicle of Higher Education. He teaches philosophy and media theory at the University of Pennsylvania.