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.

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.

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.