Robert McChesney is a leading media scholar, critic, activist, and the nation's most prominent researcher and writer on US media history, its policy and practice. He's also University of Illinois Research Professor in the Institute of Communications Research and the Graduate School of Library and Information Science. UI is lucky to have him, and he says there's "no better university in the United States to do critical communication research."
McChesney also co-founded the Illinois Initiative on Global Information and Communication Policy in 2002. He hosts a popular weekly radio program called Media Matters on WILL-AM radio (available online), and is the 2002 co-founder and president of the growing Free Press media reform advocacy group - freepress.net.
McChesney and Free Press want to democratize the media and increase public participation in it. Doing it involves challenging media concentration, protecting Net Neutrality, and supporting the kinds of reforms highlighted at the annual National Conference for Media Reform.
McChesney's work is devoted to it. He also "concentrates on the history and political economy of communication (by) emphasizing the role media play in democratic and capitalist societies" where the primary goal is profits, not the public interest.
McChesney speaks frequently on these issues, and has authored or edited 17 books on them. They include Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Times, the award-winning Telecommunications, Mass Media and Democracy, and his newest book and subject of this review, The Political Economy of Media: Enduring Issues, Emerging Dilemmas. He calls it "the companion volume" to his 2007 book, Communication Revolution: Critical Junctures and the Future of Media.
Whatever McChesney writes merits reading. This new book is a compilation of his best political-economy-of-media work in the past two decades. It contains 23 separate offerings under three topic headings - Journalism, Critical Studies, and Politics and Media Reform. Issues discussed include:
Most content was previously published in journals or as book chapters in anthologies, but most of the information has never appeared in book form before. It may be largely unknown to readers. Three offerings are new and were written specifically for this book. Combined, the material is timeless, cutting-edge and must-read on the most vital issue of this or any other time—the state of the media and its importance as a vital information source and fundamental prerequisite for democracy. McChesney quotes James Madison saying:
"A popular government, without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or, perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives."
Today, its mostly from the media, mainly television, and therein lies the problem. Democracy requires a free, open and vibrant media. It, in turn, needs democracy. The "central question" McChesney poses is whether "the media system....promote(s) or undermine(s) democratic institutions and practices. Are media a force for social justice or oligarchy?"
The political economy of the media is committed to enhancing democracy. It first arose in the 1930s and 1940s, blossomed again in the 1960s and 1970s, is often associated with the political left, and that's a key reason for its decline in the past few decades. Today, the media is in utter disrepair, totally corrupted, controlled by big money, and unconditionally backed by Democrats and Republicans to serve state and capital interests. "We the people" are nowhere in sight, and that has to change.
Scholar/activists like McChesney aim to do it. The Political Economy of Media is his latest effort, and in it he highlights 13 "enduring issues:"
Along with "enduring issues," McChesney covers "emerging dilemmas" in the wake of neoliberalism's 1980s emergence, its 1990s dominance, the growth of a global economy, and the blossoming digital communication revolution.
At a time when government partners with business, profits are the be-all and end-all. Markets, we're told, work best, so let them; taxing the rich is sinful; big government, bad; giveaways to the people, unacceptable; inequality is good; competition is better; and socialism for the wealthy and free market capitalism is best for the rest of us—a.k.a., the law of the jungle.
By the new millennium, the "bankruptcy and contradictions" of neoliberal dogma lay exposed. Global justice eruptions occurred, but became quiescent after 9/11. They still bubble below the surface and may explode anywhere at any time. Moreover, given the state of things, according to McChesney, "The political economy of media has been rejuvenated." The growing media reform movement involves scholars, activists, students, and ordinary people—comprising, McChesney says, "one of the striking developments of our time."
Neoliberalism is discredited. It violates essential human desires and needs. It's beyond repair, and it inspired "the idea of imagining a more humane and democratic social order." It's showing up in places like Venezuela. Political economists of media have a role in spreading it. Communication systems are vital to do it, and digital age technology potentially can make it explode. Assuring "Net Neutrality" is key, but alone not enough.
Giant telecommunications and cable companies want to prevent it. They aim to privatize the Internet, charge big for everything, and control its content. The issue remains unresolved, but the public can't afford to lose this one because real democracy depends on a free and open media.
More policy battles remain as well, and will become "more pronounced in the digital era." McChesney cites three:
The key is making digital technology work for, not against, us and preventing private for-profit interests from controlling it. The "most important work of the political economy of media" is thus: "understanding and navigating the central relationship of communication to the broader economy and political system." Ours is based on markets über alles. It's a failed ideology that has to change. Barriers have to come down to show how predatory capitalism really is, how harmful it is to the greater good, and what humane alternatives exist. This can only be donethrough a free and open mass media. Communication is essential, and "political economists of media [are] at the heart" of using it constructively and justly.
McChesney's book is long and detailed, but crystal clear in its message. It's essential to read in total, and keep it as a key reference guide to the media's problems and how to fix them. To energize readers to get the book, this review covers a sampling of the book's contents and selective offerings in it.
Real democracy needs superior journalism to "comfort the afflicted, afflict the comfortable," and function as a "rigorous watchdog [over] those in power." Today in the mainstream, not a shred of these roles exists, but it wasn't always that way.
Politically neutral, nonpartisan, professional or objective journalism was unthinkable in the republic's first few generations. Journalism's job was to inform, persuade, and yet be highly partisan by providing a wide range of opinions. Newspaper publishing evolved "from being primarily political to being primarily commercial" because of growing advertising revenues. Competition flourished, cities like St. Louis had at least 10 dailies until the late 19th century, and they represented their owners' respective politics.
The post-Restruction Gilded Age changed things. Concentrated wealth was its hallmark; the press became less competitive, commercialism flourished, and corruption followed, along with yellow journalistic sensationalism to generate sales. At the same time, socialists, feminists, abolitionists, trade unionists and various radical types avoided the mainstream and established their own media to advance their interests.
From the Gilded Age's onset through the early 20th century Progressive Era, "an institutional sea change transpired in US media." Newspapers consolidated into fewer chains in fewer hands, and most communities ended up with one or two dailies. At the same time, the "dissident press" lost much of its following and influence. IAll these factors created a crisis in early 20th century journalism.
Yet, during that Progressive Era, muckraking journalism proliferated to a degree never again equalled. Reformers like Robert LaFollete called the commercial press destructive to democracy, and historian Henry Adams (grandson and great grandson of two former Presidents) was unsparing in his criticism. He said, "The press is the hired agent of a moneyed system, set up for no other reason than to tell lies where the interests are concerned."
The era produced and inspired critics like Upton Sinclair. He produced cutting-edge works like The Jungle, taking on meatpacking plant abuses, and The Brass Check, that was "the first great systematic critique of....capitalist journalism." Other great figures were George Seldes, who produced scathing media critiques, I.F. Stone, Lincoln Steffens, and a host of notables mostly unknown and unread today.
Professional journalism came of age at this time, with schools established to "train a cadre professional editors and reporters." The students were taught to "sublimate their own values," and produce "neutral and unbiased copy."
In fact, "neutral" content was a non-starter. As journalism evolved in the US, publishers still wanted their values expressed. It's all about business and profits, and journalists had to internalize these ideas to stay employed. As a result, "three deep-seated biases" are in the "professional code," according to McChesney, and they're more prominent than ever today:
It means fiction can be substituted for fact, news can be carefully "filtered," dissent can be marginalized, and supporting the powerful can be substituted for full and accurate reporting. As a result, 'aggressive' wars are called 'liberating' ones, civil liberties are suppressed for our own good, patriotism means going along with crimes of state, and vast corporate malfeasance becomes 'just a few bad apples.'
Professional journalism in the US, says McChesney, "hit its high-water mark....from the 1950s into the 1970s, but it was lots different from today. We had Cronkite then. Now it's Couric, and that's one part of a greater problem. But even in its 'golden age,' owners' interests came first. A 'virtual Sicilian code of silence' protected the wealthy and powerful. Even so, a few good journalists stood out and still do, but they don't show up often, and never on the New York Times' front page or any other major broadsheet. As for television, media giants no longer even pretend to provide real journalism. We've sunk that low in an age of technological wonders. The more channels we get, the less there is to watch—less of any worth, that is.
In the 20th century's early decades, media owners and journalists vied to shape what content was permitted. By mid-century, however, the battle was over. Media giants prevailed. They consolidated and grew more dominant, and the idea of giving news divisions more autonomy made increasingly less sense. Bottom line considerations took over, and journalism, or what passes for it, "became subjected to [increasing] commercial regimentation."
New technologies emerged. Cable and satellite TV arrived, and with them the proliferation of channels. A handful carry round-the-clock news. The hours have to be filled, but what passes for information is sensationalist pseudo-journalism and fluff. Truth is distorted or omitted. Juiced-up reports on murder, mayhem, mishaps, and celebrity gossip predominate, and entertainers and low-paid teleprompter readers impersonate news people.
Target audiences are middle and upper class earners. In contrast, workers and the poor are left out. Little or no reporting shows up on their issues, but business programming has proliferated. Regrettably, it hasn't subjected commercial interests to hard scrutiny. Instead, reporters are paid touts, and their work is "rah-rah capitalism," and it "teem(s) with reverence for the accumulation of wealth." The mass media let 2001 and 2002 corporate scandals go unreported until they got too big to ignore. Many thousands lost jobs, pensions and benefits, investors were bilked of millions, but a mere handful of fraudsters were held to account. The media "missed the developing story in toto."
The alternative press and Ralph Nader spotted trouble in the mid-1990s. The corporate scandal developed into a major news story and an enormous political scandal, with the president and vice-president linked by their association with Enron. Teapot Dome and Watergate made heads roll, but this round of corruption didn't lay a glove on politicians because Democrats were as tainted as Republicans.
The media happily obliged in laying low like the politicians. After all, they're giant businesses and members in good standing in the corporate community, with interlocking interests and shared political values. In addition, a number of their own executives were investigated for fraud, including Disney's Michael Eisner, News Corporation's Rupert Murdoch, Charter Communications, Vivendi Universal, AOL Time Warner and Adelphi Communications, the latter for "orchestrating one of the largest frauds to take place at a US public company." Despite this epic scandal, corporations got off with "bloodied noses and sullied reputations, but little more."
Consider a "broader political-economic pressure....to market news to target audiences." In a largely depoliticized society, there's less demand for political journalism and every incentive for professional journalists to avoid controversy. Real reporting is dumbed down. Trivia substitutes for hard news, and local TV stations have been discontinuing news programming altogether. Walter Cronkite wonders if democracy can "even survive."
It's in this climate that editorial budgets are lowballed. Everything has to be profit-justified, and surveys show journalists are "a grumpy lot" because of bottom-line pressures delivering low pay, no raises, job insecurity, and grim expectations for their future prospects. The growth of media giants makes everything worse. Consolidation lets companies spread their editorial budgets across different media so one reporter can do the same job for a newspaper, web site, TV and radio station, or wherever else owners' directives demand.
A striking development is the rise of the PR industry. It's a cheap substitute for real news. All of it is hype and fake. Its content is created for a corporate and government clientele, and it comes in the form of "slick press releases, paid-for experts....bogus citizens groups, and canned new events." Surveys show this amounts to from 40 to 70% of what passes for "news." But the public thinks it's real.
Except in times of war, international coverage also disappears. So has investigative journalism. It was once the "hallmark of feisty 'Fourth Estate' journalism in a free society." Now it's almost extinct, and for the same reason overseas reporting is gone—it's expensive, and bottom-line considerations won't tolerate it.
With real journalism absent and in a culture committed to commercialism, truth flies out the window. Officials can lie with impunity, as can business fraudsters. McChesney calls it "a scoundrel's paradise." Professional standards are relaxed, and it forces journalists to shape stories for their owners and advertisers. Today, news departments "cooperate with advertisers to co-promote events and use advertisers as experts in stories." This phenomenon comes in two forms:
Consider another issue—the so-called "liberal media" bias. It's bogus, but resonates because hard right flacks push it. Their critique is fourfold and largely bogus:
The first and last points especially are rubbish. Successful journalists internalize their owners' values. Bosses have power, journalists don't. On issues where journalists lean left, it's where bottom-line considerations aren't affected—women's, gay, lesbian and abortion rights, civil liberties, affirmative action, and so forth. Overall, journalists are pro-business, and why not? Successful ones get good salaries and benefits, and enjoy the fruits of their celebrity.
So how can the bashing of the so-called "liberal media" go on? Because it resonates and has "tremendous emotional power...." It began in the 1970s as an effort to tilt news rightward. It aimed to foster conservative values, train a cadre of appararatchiks, establish conservative think tanks, and hammer all anti-conservative coverage as "liberal" bias.
The bashing works and makes news reporting more sympathetic to business and right wing politics. Republicans got more powerful. Democrats partnered with them. Journalists play ball with their bosses, and those most pro-business are held in highest regard. The combination of "conservative ideology and commercialized, depoliticized journalism" defines the problem of the media today.
American journalism has been sinking for decades. Now it's in crisis. The stakes couldn't be higher. Without viable journalism, democracy is impossible, tyranny takes over and—when full-blown—needs revolutionary disruption to uproot. Constructive action is needed now, and "the political economy of media is uniquely positioned to provide" it.
The starting point—democratic journalism to hold those in power (and wannabes) accountable. It must separate truth from lies and provide a wide range of informed opinions on the cutting-edge issues of our times. By this standard, today's dominant media fails, and that's putting it mildly.
Journalism is co-opted and corrupted. Commercialism gutted it. Investigative journalism is a memory, political and international reporting no longer exist, and local reporting is an afterthought. All that's left is "the absurd horse race" campaign coverage of endless polls and "he said, she said" along with fluff pseudo-journalistic celebrity features. For the most part, it's impossible to get real news and information in the mainstream media.
We've been heading in this direction for decades, but things came to a head post-9/11. The "war on terror" began. Wars without end followed, and the dominant media hyped them. They were hawkish and giddy, championing aggressive wars, international law violations, and repressive legislation, while at the same time silencing dissent.
Anti-war became anti-American, and nowhere was the trumpeting greater or with more effect than on the New York Times front page. Its star reporter Judith Miller led the charge. She'll forever be remembered as the lead stenographer to power. Without her headlined coverage (little more than Pentagon and administration handouts), there might not have been an Iraq war—even though she had plenty of help selling it.
"For a press system, [war reporting] is its moment of truth," says McChesnet. In reporting on the war—from its run-up to the current occupation—the major media sunk to its lowest-ever depth. They flacked the pro-war line, still support it, and tout the idea that America is benevolent and its intentions honorable.
"Professional" journalism is to blame. It's in crisis, and it's important to ask why. The industry cites the Internet: its liberating power, unleashing of new competition, and taking away advertisers. Their solution—cut budgets, report less, and consolidate for even greater size and dominance. Rubbish.
Journalistic standards were in disrepair long before the Internet, and for reasons discussed above—they've had to internalize media owners' commercial values, or else. The problem got a huge boost with the passage of the monstrous 1996 Telecommunications Act. It was grand theft media, a colossal giveaway, and a major piece of anti-consumer legislation hugely detrimental to the public interest. It let broadcast giants own twice as many local TV stations as before. It was even sweeter for radio, with all national limits on station ownership removed and greater local market penetration also allowed. Current TV station owners were handed new digital television broadcast spectrum, and cable companies got the right to increase their monopoly positions. Media and telecom giants were winners. Consumers and working journalists lost out.
Professional journalism's "core problem" became more pronounced—relying on "official sources" as legitimate news, blocking out dissent, leaving out the public altogether, and relying more than ever on fake PR releases without checking their truth.
Given the state of crisis, alternatives are needed, and critics "whose analysis [have] been on the mark the longest" are the ones to look to for answers. They've deconstructed the current system, understand how it's broken, and know what's needed to fix it.
From political economy of media research, McChesney cites four "propositions to guide understanding, scholarship, and action":
Consider the evidence. Communication and technology firms spend more on lobbying than any other sector or group. The largest firms assign a lobbyist to each important congressional committee member. They also spend millions in campaign contributions and for PR. Combine this with the "golden revolving door." Key government officials, aides and FCC members move on to lucrative private sector jobs as reward for their considerations while in government.
Here's more evidence:
What's needed is a "range of structures that can provide for the information needs of the people [with] as much openness, freedom, and diversity as possible. That is freedom of the press."
More than ever today, US history is clear. We need a journalism-producing sector "walled off from corporate and commercial pressures." Government has to be involved. It's most important for the Internet and digital revolution. Left to market forces, they'll be co-opted for profit. Communication giants will control it, charge to the max, censor it, invade our privacy, spy on us, and carpet bomb us with commercialized everything. McChesney is bluntly realistic. Unless we take proactive steps and stop this, "we may come to regret the day the computer was invented."
Consider other policy considerations as well. For the Internet to provide free speech and a free press, "it has to be ubiquitous, high speed, and inexpensive." Much like other essentials, we need broadband access "as a civil right" for everyone—for political, cultural and economic reasons. Other developed countries are way ahead of us. Telecom giants won't do it. Government has to. It has to quash industry efforts to privatize the Internet, preserve Network Neutrality, and keep the Internet open and free. McChesney puts it this way: "The future of a free press [depends on] ubiquitous, inexpensive, and super-fast Internet access as well as Network Neutrality."
But that alone won't solve journalism's crisis. It'll take resources and institutional support. The Internet is wondrous, but not magic. It won't make communication giants amenable to change or transform bad journalism to what serves the public interest. Even so, the blogosphere has potential. Citizen journalism is flourishing. Over time it can increase. But it won't replace full-time professional journalists and the vast audiences they reach. And it's equally important to have competing newsrooms—far more than now operate.
The problems are great. No magic bullet will solve them all, but McChesney offers suggestions. In addition to what's above, he lists:
McChesney cites an imperative—to "conduct research on alternative policies and structures [to] generate journalism and quality media content." Over a decade ago, a $100 tax rebate idea was proposed. It would let people donate it to any nonprofit news medium choice and could potentially raise hundreds of billions of dollars. It was considered radical then, but no longer. It could launch a real alternative media with public benefits not now available. It would also be an antidote to what McChesney calls "a steady diet of [mainstream] crap" that's dulled the public appetite for great journalism.
His criticism doesn't repudiate the political economy of media, it completes it. On one side are the firms, owners, labor practices, market structures, policies, occupational codes, and subsidies. Its opposite examines journalism as a whole and the media system as well, and assesses how they interact with broad social and economic relations in society.
The political economy of media requires enhancing participatory democracy. In turn, it needs great journalism and media systems, as well as an informed and engaged citizenry. Journalism needs democracy, and the reverse is true. They also, as McChesney observes, depend on "media reform and broader movements for social justice [that will] rise and fall together."
More on The Political Economy of Media follows in Part II. Watch for it soon on this web site.
Mr. Lendman's stories are republished in the Baltimore Chronicle with permission of the author.
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