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:

the federal government had issued an edict demanding that there be a sharp reduction in international journalism, or that local newsrooms be closed or their staffs and budgets slashed. Imagine if the president had issued an order that news media concentrate upon celebrities and trivia, rather than rigorously investigate and pursue scandals and lawbreaking in the White House….Professors of journalism and communication would have gone on hunger strikes…entire universities would have shut down in protest. Yet, when quasi-monopolistic commercial interests effectively do pretty much the same thing, and leave our society as impoverished culturally…it passes with only minor protest in most journalism and communication programs.

Over the top, sure, but it makes you think. 


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.