For people who have been following the Media Reform Movement or Tele-Comm policies in the US over the past decade, it is hard not to come across the name Robert McChesney. McChesney has authored numerous books on media policy and media history starting with his groundbreaking work Telecommunications, Mass Media, and Democracy: The Battle for the Control of U. S. Broadcasting, 1928-1935. It was the first book I ever read revealing that the United States’ broadcast system did not naturally evolve as a for-profit system and that broadcaster’s primary responsibility was to “serve the public interest.”
McChesney’s new book, Communication Revolution: Critical Junctures and the Future of Media, presents readers with some similar analysis to what can be found in previous books, but he also presents much new information that should be of interest to both researchers and activists. The author spends an ample amount of time looking at the historical evolution of the field of communication studies and how with the exception of a few writers, a political economy of communication studies is a relatively new phenomenon. The book also is partly based on McChesney’s own personal history as a student and academic, which in many ways makes the journey through the history of communication studies more interesting and relevant to people who see communication issues as essential to radical politics.
The area that stood out the most was the third section, which looked at what McChesney referred to as “critical junctures,” those moments in history when certain factors can facilitate fundamental changes. McChesney believes we are in the midst of one of those critical junctures, which could revolutionize not only our understanding of media, but also how media functions in our world. He identifies five major issues, which are necessary for us to understand if a change is going to occur:
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 non-existent public participation for generations; it must be addressed if the media system is to be reformed.
McChesney has tackled the first point extensively in several books, primarily, The Problem of the Media, so I won’t say much other than that there have been hard fought battles historically that have resulted in the kind of media system we have in the U.S. The second point he makes was an interesting one not so much on the historical position that some of the founding fathers took on media issues, but rather his fascinating account of how the First Amendment has been interpreted. Here McChesney states that “The First Amendment is not meant to sanctify the marketplace of ideas; it is meant to ensure every citizen the fullest possible participation in the working through of social problems.” McChesney cites the work of other communication theorists on this matter to illuminate the interpretation of the First Amendment. He cites Alexander Meiklejohn, who says “The primary purpose of the First Amendment is, then, that all the citizens shall, so far as possible, understand the issues which bear upon our common life. That is why no idea, no opinion, no doubt, no belief, no counter-belief, no relevant information, may be kept from them.”
Imagine that leading up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq that people living in the U.S. had easy access to a broad spectrum of opinions, particularly in major newspapers and broadcast outlets. What difference would it have made for people to be presented with a diversity of information and perspectives through the big media and not just the Internet? Think about how information during US Presidential elections comes to people through the major news media. What if candidates who didn’t have lots of money were given equal coverage? What if the news coverage was not poll driven or partisan driven? And what if, instead of horse-race coverage, the public was provided a steady diet of information on candidate platforms, voting records, and policy issues? This seems to be the point that McChesney is making about what a real commitment to the First Amendment would look like. He also mentions that this was the position that the ACLU took early in its history, but once the media system became a profit-driven system by the late 1930s, the ACLU adopted the more libertarian notion of the First Amendment.
The third point is interesting in that he challenges what is generally regarded as a free-market media system in this country. There are all kinds of subsidies that media systems get at the public’s expense. There is the spectrum give away that is more commonly known, where the frequency for broadcasters was simply given to them at no cost. Then there is the industry spectrum, the internal spectrum that media companies use mostly for internal communication. This is spectrum that could be granted to neighborhood groups, universities, cultural groups or any community based organizations to broadcast information on a very local level. That spectrum was also a gift to big media. Other subsidies include postal subsidies to magazines and periodicals; federal, state and local subsidies for film and television production; the amount of money that federal, state and local governments spend on advertising – money that comes from taxpayers and goes to media companies; indirect subsidies where the government allows businesses to write off advertising as a business expense; political advertising; and the amount of subsidies that are diverted to big media companies for overseas expansion.
Points four and five are related in that McChesney examines how the policymaking process works and how it has increasingly become more undemocratic. Here the author makes the important point about the shift in media ownership policies and that the idea of de-regulation is a misnomer. In 1996 when the last major Telecom Act was passed it is usually referred to as a deregulating policy, when in fact it was the opposite. McChesney states, “It meant that a small number of firms were permitted to gobble up ever more monopoly radio licenses from the government and establish vastly greater market power. The FCC was doing just as much regulation, only now it was simply regulating on behalf of the big guys. Deregulation in media policymaking means, in reality, re-regulation purely to serve powerful corporate interests with no concern for the general public whatsoever.”
The book ends with a lengthy overview of the recent media reform movement, with an emphasis of the work done by the group that McChesney helped found, Free Press. He provides numerous examples of how people have organized to stop some undemocratic media policies from going through and how media reform has become an organizing tool with other social justice movements. Communication Revolution is a call to rethink our understanding of communications and media policy and to foster a historically critical juncture that could make media a truly democratic and public-centered tool.
Robert W. McChesney, Communication Revolution: Critical Junctures and the Future of Media, (The New Press, 2007).