Robert McChesney’s “Communication Revolution”

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 (Urbana-Champaign) Research Professor in the Institute of Communications Research and the Graduate School of Library and Information Science. In addition, he co-founded (with Dan Schiller) the Illinois Initiative on Global Information and Communication Policy in 2002, hosts a popular weekly radio program called Media Matters on WILL-AM radio, and is the co-founder in 2002 and president of the growing Free Press media reform advocacy organization.


Free Press recognizes that the "current media system is the result of explicit government policies" that special interests representing private investors secretly drafted for themselves. It wants change to democratize the media and increase public participation in it. Toward that end, it seeks to be a "proactive force to advance meaningful media policy in the public interest" and is doing it through a range of vital initiatives. They include challenging media concentration, protecting net neutrality, and since 2003 hosting an annual national conference for media reform that brings together scholars, journalists, activists, policymakers and concerned citizens to discuss and highlight media reform issues and action strategies.


McChesney’s work "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. He’s also a frequent speaker, contributor to many publications, and the author or editor of 16 books, including Corporate Media and the Threat to Democracy, the award-winning Telecommunications, Mass Media and Democracy, and the one he says had the "greatest impact of anything I have written," Rich Media, Poor Democracy.


His newest book and subject of this review is titled Communication Revolution – Critical Junctures and the Future of Media. He believes it may be his best one, and Annenberg School of Communication Dean, Machael Delli Carpini, says it is "part media critique, part intellectual history, part personal memoir, and part manifesto."


McChesney’s premise is we have "an unprecendented (rare window of opportunity in the next decade or two) to create a communication system that will be a powerful impetus (for) a more egalitarian, humane, sustainable, and creative (self-governing) society." He calls it a "critical juncture" that won’t remain open for long. It offers a "historic moment" in a "fight we cannot afford to lose." The stakes for a free society are that high, and stacked against the public interest are powerful forces determined to prevail with friends in high places supporting them.


Nonetheless, McChesney believes "the corporate stranglehold over our media system is very much in jeopardy," citizen actions have successfully challenged them, and in the past three years have won important victories on ownership rules, protecting public broadcasting and standing up to "government and corporate propaganda masquerading as (real) news" and information. However, the most important battle lies ahead – preserving net neutrality and keeping the internet free, open and out of corporate hands.


McChesney notes that the media reform movement has entered a new phase that can democratize the system if citizen actions prevail. It offers the potential for:


– uncensored wired and wireless "super-fast ubiquitous broadband;"


– competitive commercial media markets through new ownership policies;


– a government-supported viable noncommercial and non-profit media;


– media that informs citizens about candidates in place of corporate-paid advertising that slants information about them for private interests; and


– limiting commercialism in media content and ending its influence on children through advertising.


This and more is possible at this "critical juncture" where an "ancien regime" is passing, and it’s up to public activism to decide what replaces it – if we recognize the opportunity and seize it. To understand the communication revolution, McChesney believes "the field of communication (must) fundamentally rethink its past, present and future." He directs his book to scholars, teachers, students and activists but also to concerned citizens because we’re all part of the same struggle that affects everyone.


Who better to lead it than the nation’s foremost media scholar and teacher who’s spent 25 years in the communications field and is helping to remake it. He reflected on what role he should play and decided his own research is "central to (his) argument," and more importantly, his long "association with media policy activism." He further believes if the communication field doesn’t take advantage of this "critical juncture," he "fear(s) not only for the future of the field," but also for the republic now on life support at best.


Crisis in Communication, Crisis for Society


McChesney stresses we’re now "in the midst of a communication and information revolution" that will either turn out glorious, a rare window of opportunity lost, or something in between. Crucial policy decisions taken over the next one or two decades will decide how things turn out with the public very much a player in the process. In the past decade, there’s been "an unprecedented increase in popular concern about media policies" that are now "everybody’s business."


Communication is "central to democratic theory and practice" with new technologies becoming society’s "central nervous system" in ways previously unimaginable. McChesney states the opportunity powerfully: "No previous communication revolution (has had as much) promise (to let) us radically transcend the structural communication limitations for effective self-government and human happiness (in) human history." But only if organized people take on organized money to make it happen, and their challenge is daunting considering the opposition.


Scholars are needed as well, but since the mid-1980s communication has settled for a "second-tier role in US academic life." It’s been undistinguished by too little research even though there are scores of dedicated people in the field. McChesney believes there’s a "gaping chasm between the role of the media and communication in our society," and it’s reached a crisis stage. His solution: engaged scholarship on the issues because what happens in academia affects everyone.


A digital revolution is unfolding that will touch all aspects of our lives – economics, politics, culture, organizations, and interpersonal relationships. Whatever system emerges will shape the future for better or worse. At stake is the prospect of a more democratic communications system and society or whether a huge opportunity will be lost.


Communication scholars and everyone must be engaged. They must recognize that we’re at a "critical juncture" that’s rare and won’t last long. Old institutions and practices are ending, what will replace them is still undetermined, and once something new is established it will be hard to change for decades or generations.


McChesney’s research shows that media and communication critical junctures are only possible when at least two of the following three conditions exist:


– a revolutionary new communication technology that’s changing the current system; today it’s the digital revolution;


– media content, especially journalism, discredited as corrupted or illegitimate; that’s more true now in the US than ever; and


– a major political crisis creating social disequilibrium when the existing order no longer works and social reform movements arise to change it; the condition engulfs us, no tangible relief is in prospect, and it remains to be seen if growing public angst will translate into outrage and action.


Critical juncture examples in the last century were the Progressive era and the golden age of muckraking with it, The Great Depression when radio broadcasting emerged, and the popular social movements of the 1960s. Each time, radical media critiques accompanied social and political change. Today, we’re in another "profound critical juncture for communication" with two of the above three conditions in place and the third on the horizon.


The digital revolution is transforming communication and media practices, journalism is "at its lowest ebb since the Progressive era," and there’s hope the third condition will emerge. Our political economy is "awash in institutionalized corruption, growing inequality," a shaky economy, and a militarized state smashing anything in its way. Our changing communications and media system will have a lot to say about how things play out and the societal changes from it. There’s hope for the best because "an extraordinary media reform movement" emerged in recent years that’s energized "perhaps millions of Americans….engaged with media policy issues" in ways previously unimaginable.


McChesney challenges communications scholars to seize this opportunity – to "broaden their horizons and engage with the crucial political and social issues of the moment." It’s the only way forward, he believes, and must be done in an interdisciplinary way, ideally in a communications department, where scholars use different methodologies and research traditions to interact with each other. The field must be emboldened enough to tackle crucial core issues of our times so it can "arrest and roll back the increasing corporate-commercial penetration of higher education" that’s inimical to scholarship and the public welfare.


Up to now, communication has been a backwater on university campuses, but McChesney believes "methodological diversity and interdisciplinary approaches (can be) great strength" enough for study in the field to make this discipline "the most desirable place for an intellectual to be on a college campus." It now lacks prestige and is seen as a "hepped-up form of vocational education" compared to traditional social sciences "sit(ting) atop Mount Olympus pondering the fate of the world."


Most striking for the author is how historically the study of communication developed in response to the last century’s critical junctures. It came out of the Progressive Era (the Golden Age of media criticism), was crystallized late in The Great Depression and was rejuvenated during the popular struggles of the 1960s. They included movements for civil, women and consumer rights, environmental justice and ending the Vietnam war. Journalism at the time was also attacked as inadequate, and it spawned a proliferation of "underground" newspapers and journalism reviews. Public broadcasting as well came out of this era (and public radio followed) as an alternative to commercial television, but they both failed to live up to their initial promise and are now co-opted and corrupted by corporate money and influence.


McChesney also cites the importance of Justice Byron White’s majority 1969 opinion in Red Lion Broadcasting Co., Inc. v. FCC with implications from it for greater First Amendment freedom expressed through the media. He wrote that "people….retain their interest in free speech by radio and their collective right to have the medium function consistently with the ends and purposes of the First Amendment (which is) to preserve an uninhibited market-place of ideas in which truth will ultimately prevail….That right may not constitutionally be abridged either by Congress or by the FCC."


Had politics turned left instead of right in the 1970s (a real possibility at the time), that promise might have been fulfilled. The digital revolution created another opportunity, and it’s up to the public to seize it.


The Rise and Fall of the Political Economy of Communication


This is McChesney’s personal memoir and his coming-of-age. It began as a graduate student at the University of Washington in 1983 when Ronald Reagan was President and the nation veered sharply right. It was a depressing time for those on the left, and as a result, communication research became uncritical, neutral and stuck to the notion that markets should be "free" and the corporate media system was just, fair, and the only alternative. Conflicting notions were unthinkable as neoliberalism took hold and hardened in the 1990s.


McChesney had other views and believed sticking to "uncritical assumptions was a thoroughgoing abrogation of intellectual responsibility." It wasn’t the best of times to say that and doing it meant very shaky prospects for a successful academic career in communications or in any academic capacity. Even distinguished scholars like Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman were dismissed out of hand in even harsher terms.


At the time of the Cold War, "you were either with us or against us," and the options were a free market commercial media or a government run one. McChesney called it "maddening." He and others like him "wanted a new course, independent of corporate or state control," but it was tough selling that position when dominant thinking went the other way.


McChesney then gives considerable space to reviewing scholars who influenced him most. This review can only touch on them. He notes how Marx had "singular importance" for communications scholars and young radical social scientists back in those days. And by it, he means two Karl Marxes and not the one unfairly demonized in public propaganda. One was the socialist activist and enlightened optimist as Edward Herman described him. The other was an "exceptionally intelligent and learned observer of capitalism" and one of the world’s greatest ever thinkers and political philosophers.


McChesney believes his influence on critical communication research "remains considerable." He stressed that capitalism was based on the pursuit of profit, or what’s called the capital accumulation process. That distinguishes it from feudalism, and accumulation means finding it everywhere possible. Marx also wrote about it as a practicing journalist, and McChesney calls him one of "the greatest journalists of the nineteenth century."


Consider the commercial media then. Much of its history has been the "colonization of….noncommercial cultural practices," using capital to create new ones, and "turning culture into a commodity." Put another way – in commercial spaces, it’s anything for a buck and any way to pay labor the least amount to maximize them. Hence, an inevitable class struggle and having to adapt to the market or be crushed by it. McChesney calls this the "indispensable starting point for cultural analysis." We’re blasted with this thinking because we’re "awash in commercialism" with all its Marxian "commodity fetishism" – branding, advertising and endless promotion to convince us interchangeable products are different when, in fact, they’re pretty much the same except in our minds and how ad wizards influence them.


McChesney then reviews the many scholars who influenced his development beginning with Nicolas Garnham, James Curran, Peter Golding and Graham Murdock in the UK. He also learned about George Gerbner’s work as editor of the Journal of Communication. Most important was the work of Dallas Smythe and Herbert Schiller. They were dominant senior figures associated with the North American communication political economy. Smythe was decades ahead of his time in "recognizing the need to fuse telecommunications with media in communications research."


Schiller became Smythe’s colleague at the University of Illinois before moving to the University of California at San Diego in 1970. He also studied communication as an important component of corporate power and wrote how culture and communication were indispensable parts of the US global economic, political and military agenda. In addition, he argued that commercializing culture had anti-democratic implications, and he and Smythe both were instrumental in developing a new generation of communication scholars.


McChesney cites Chomsky and Herman as well for having played "every bit as large a role for (him) and for many others" in their development in communication and political economy studies. Especially important was the "propaganda model" they developed in their seminal 1988 work, Manufacturing Consent. It consisted of five filters – media ownership, advertising, sourcing, flak and anticommunist ideology – to "filter out the news to print, marginalize dissent (and assure) government and dominant private interests" control the message the public gets. The "filters" remove what’s to be censored and leaves in "only the cleansed (acceptable) residue fit to print" or broadcast.

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