Has that happened in the U.S.? Perhaps appropriate broadness of information currently coexists with quasi-monopolistic control because the quasi-monopolies cynically distribute that degree of information to keep their enterprises vibrant and extant, or because minor media and bloggers fill in the gaps. If American citizen “Jose Garcia” can get all the information McChesney or John Dewey might think he needs to be a fully effective citizen by regularly reading The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal—and In These Times, Mother Jones, and The Nation—how does dominance by corporate media frustrate the democratic abilities of citizens? McChesney endlessly cites Madison and Jefferson, but neither they nor any logic implicit in democratic political theory requires people to get their best information from mainstream media. It may not be pleasant for one’s favored media to be small fry, but McChesney provides no argument for why mini truth-tellers among the maxi-deceivers don’t meet the constitutional aims of the Framers, who were concerned with availability of ideas, not market control.
That core incoherence in McChesney’s media worldview suggests connected difficulties. Isn’t it ultimately more congruent with democratic theory, not to mention freedom-of-speech doctrine straight out of Mill, that minor-media truth will win in the marketplace over corporate-media blather, regardless of original market share? McChesney’s philosophical deafness here is odd, given that he admits it’s possible to couple his belief that government policies largely created our corporate-dominated media system with the position that the historical result operates fairly well—a stance with which he disagrees, but that he respectfully ascribes to Paul Starr in that scholar’s highly regarded The Creation of the Media.
Other missteps damage McChesney’s appeal as a media theorist. For instance, he takes the rightness of many of his media-policy positions for granted, at least here. On macro issues, he mostly assumes he’s writing to a leftist audience—he concedes that “the political economy of communication” in which he grew up was “the almost exclusive province of the Left”—and so peppers his sentences with solidarity-seeking buzz phrases like references to our “unnecessary, illegal, and disastrous war.” He states repeatedly that if American media exist mainly “to serve elite interests,” they’re a disaster, even though someone on the right might find that leaning unproblematic so long as every slice of society retains access to media that reflect its interests. On micro matters, he’s against TV advertising to children and candidate political advertising, and in favor of nonprofit media and multiple newsrooms in communities, but takes the benefits of those positions to be obvious.
Finally, many of McChesney’s casual claims about corporate media ring false because they exaggerate. He writes that in the “U.S. commercial media system everything is directed at maximizing profits, and everything else is pretty much public relations.” But journalists who have worked in a quality media organization can cite innumerable times when the newspaper or station did a story that cost lots of money, and brought down the profit margin, for nonfinancial reasons similar to those that drive McChesney’s ambitions. And they did so with the support of executives responsible for that bottom line. McChesney’s blunderbuss indictment of corporate media managers as robotically profit-oriented utterly misses, in ivory-tower fashion, the systematic subversion of corporate profit goals by corporate journalists. For a self-anointed realist about journalism, McChesney comes across as someone who knows it only as an academic subject.
Yet despite all these imperfections, I wish more mainstream journalists would read him and other communication scholars. McChesney is utterly right that many journalists and Americans wrongly see the U.S. media system as “natural” when it’s a construct of policy choices and power politics, albeit within constitutional parameters. It might open the eyes of non-scholars to know, as McChesney writes in praising the fine research of John Durham Peters, that the “marketplace of ideas” metaphor glibly tossed out by talk-show pundits as a foundational principle first came into use in the 1930s and grew common only two decades after that.
Perhaps journalists would report more on the astonishing giveaway of the public spectrum to corporations, or launch investigative series on the Interdepartment Radio Advisory Committee within the Commerce Department, which, according to McChesney, allocates almost half the government’s spectrum in classified secrecy that resembles that around the Pentagon’s black budget. Maybe they’d recognize that, as McChesney aptly writes, “There is often a tension between the needs of property and the needs of democracy,” and that the former doesn’t automatically win under democratic theory. Knowing what communication scholars often know might make both journalists and ordinary Americans more unruly, less sheep-like, when their fates and those of the media institutions they depend upon are decided over their heads.
McChesney closes with a canny hypothetical. Imagine, he asks, that: