Big Fish and Small Fry

In his new book, Robert McChesney overstates the threat to democracy posed by corporate media
January 24, 2008

Your average scoop-minded journalist would rather see his expenses cut by 90 percent, or face a plagiarism charge spotlighted by Romenesko, than read a book by a communication scholar.

It’s a blunt calculation of lesser pain. The first two assaults can be fought and repulsed. The third lasers into that part of a journalist’s brain that craves constant feeding of germane fact, persuasive evidence, sensible argument, even-handed analysis, and lively style. Fairly or not, the mainstream reporter presumes that while some books by communication scholars provide all five, that’s only by the logician’s criterion that some means at least one.

Another psychological bent accounts for the aversion of journalists to communication scholarship. The scholars themselves would describe it as “theory aversion,” but it’s more aptly described as “theory immersion”—the feeling, similar to relaxing in a warm bath, in which one’s view of the media world appears both true and practicable in professional life.

Call it the “naturalistic” take on American media. It posits that the shape of the American media landscape reflects two-hundred-plus years of free agents—individual journalists, daring entrepreneurs, aggressive corporations—pursuing their interests in more or less legal fashion, with those interests variously including profit, truth, influence, fame, and, usually, more profit. As Walter Cronkite put it in what’s now deemed a Neolithic, pre-postmodernist era, that’s the way it is, and likely the way it’s supposed to be.

A third aspect of communication scholarship also estranges working journalists. If they’ve sampled the wares, journalists notice that communication scholars view them not so much as fellow media types, or even “informants,” in the manner of anthropologists and linguists, but as worker ants—insects in an organism to be studied aloofly and from afar.

If there’s any communication scholar likely to bridle at being victimized by these clichés or truisms of the journalistic mindset, it’s Robert McChesney. A darling of leftist intellectuals, McChesney, a fifty-five-year-old veteran scholar who teaches at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is an influential populist highly critical of many colleagues in communication studies.

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An activist instrumental in the nationwide movement for media reform, McChesney co-founded the reformist lobbying group Free Press in 2002 (now some 350,000 members strong) and co-launched the National Conference for Media Reform, which has grown from an anticipated few hundred attendees to some 3,500 from all fifty states in 2007.

McChesney has helped win concrete freedom-of-the-press victories, such as delaying the 2003 FCC attempt to relax media ownership rules, and stopping a 2006 overhaul of telecommunications laws that would have threatened “Net Neutrality” (the policy that blocks Internet service providers from discriminating among Web sites). Among his many books, Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Times (1999), stands as a bible and playbook for those who share his reformist passion and anticorporate reading of media history. Now McChesney’s fresh size-up of American democracy and media, Communication Revolution: Critical Junctures and the Future of Media, offers a manifesto that invites concerned parties to weigh the pros and cons of communication scholarship goosed up to activist mode.

In his introduction, McChesney roars with to-the-barricades themes and hortatory clichés not likely to pull in skeptical journalists. “The history of American media,” he declares, “is one continual victory of powerful corporate interests over everyone else.” Both our communication system and revolution are not natural consequences of a free market but “the result of structures and markets created and shaped by policies and extraordinary public subsidies.” If citizens of good will—a coalition of the willing?—don’t respond to McChesney’s “all hands on deck” appeal, “crucial policy decisions will be made by powerful corporate interests and the politicians they own behind closed doors, and the system will be created to suit their needs.” A key reason that citizens should do so, McChesney contends repeatedly, is that we are at a “critical juncture.” It’s an empty phrase he fetishizes and reifies as a virtual discovery of physics—by it, he means a one- or two-decade era such as Reconstruction or the New Deal in which great sociological changes are possible in a way they’re not at other times.

“In this historic moment,” McChesney tells us, “there is a particularly important role for communication scholars and students to play.” He wants “the field of communication to fundamentally rethink its past, present, and future.” A key purpose of Communication Revolution, after all, is to explain McChesney’s movement for structural media reform, whose aims include “keeping the largest telephone and cable companies from privatizing the Internet,” protecting children from all advertising, creating “super-fast ubiquitous broadband” as “a birthright of all Americans,” and developing “a viable heterogeneous tier of noncommercial and nonprofit media.”

Apart from McChesney’s claims, it’s obligatory to ponder Communication Revolution as performance art, because it is in his rhetoric that he differs from many academic peers. McChesney has reached sufficient lightning-rod status that he often feels the need to explain himself. One bubbling-up of this sort comes in his introduction:

My second problem stared at me every time I looked in the mirror: What to do about myself. What role should I play in the narrative?… But I did not want to write an autobiography or memoir, and this book can in no way be considered as such. The book is not about me, but about the issues addressed herein.

Of course it’s not about him—even if he does later interrupt the text regularly with such asides as, “Whether I liked it or not, people were demanding I address the contemporary situation. And I discovered quickly enough that I liked it.”

His taste for passive-aggressive navel-gazing combines with endless repetition to make much of Communication Revolution tough slogging. Chapter 1 begins:

We are in the midst of a communication and information revolution. Of that there is no doubt. What is uncertain is what type of revolution this will be, how sweeping, and with what effects. Precisely how this communication revolution will unfold and what it will mean for our journalism, our culture, our politics, and our economics are not at all clear.

If you edit copy for a living, you’ll notice that the fourth sentence repeats the third, and the second is either meaningless or false. The whole can be cut to: “We’re in a communication revolution with uncertain effects.” We’re dealing, in short, with a flabbily written book. We now suspend our regularly scheduled nasty review to concentrate on the content McChesney offers to journalists: distilled, analyzed, criticized, and appreciated.

One service is a full-frontal attack on communication for becoming a “second-tier” discipline by abandoning the critical edge toward media industries that communication scholars evinced in the 1920s and ’30s. McChesney quotes Wolfgang Donsbach, a recent president of the International Communication Association, who complains that there’s “too much petty number-crunching” in the field, too many research projects of “little relevance and significance.”

McChesney then offers a travelogue, in Chapter 2, of his own journey through the subfield of the political economy of communication, which allowed him to bring his reading of Marx, and concern with social justice, to the architecture of American media. In his early years as a professor, it struck him that true media criticism had fallen to thinkers outside communication, such as C. Wright Mills and Jürgen Habermas, who kept alive big-picture accounts of media life that did not assume false dichotomies such as commercialized media or state-run dictatorial media. McChesney absorbed media critics from other disciplines, such as Noam Chomsky and the economist Edward Herman, who wrote unconstrained by what he regarded as the phony neutrality of the mainstreamers. Reading Ben Bagdikian’s The Media Monopoly in 1986, McChesney explains, provided the epiphany that expanded his growing hostility to the notion among journalists and communication scholars that “the commercial media system was innately democratic and quintessentially American.” Bagdikian showed, he explains, how a commercial media system undermines democracy.

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.”

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.

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.