- 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
- 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
- -- competitive commercial media markets through new ownership
- -- a government-supported viable noncommercial and non-profit
- -- media that informs citizens about candidates in place
of corporate-paid advertising that slants information about them for private
- -- 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;
- -- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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.
McChesney calls the "propaganda model" one of the "signal
contributions of the political economy of communication" and goes
on to review other notable figures in his development as a scholar/activist
in the field.
- Among them were C. Wright Mills and his classic book,
The Power Elite. Also Jurgen Habermas in directing media studies away from
the notion that there are only two ways to organize media - private or
state-controlled. He then mentions Harold Innis, Marshall McLuhan, Neil
Postman, Alexander Meiklejohn and others and the important contributions
each of them made.
- Finally, there's the Monthly Review political economy
of Paul Baran, Paul Sweezy and Harry Magdoff that highlighted the "nature
and importance of monopoly and corporations in modern capitalism."
Monthly Review's tradition doesn't assume the market is neutral or benevolent
or that class inequality is natural. It also rejects the notion that markets
work best. On the contrary, Baran and Sweezy argued the dominant system
"tends toward crisis and depression," and history proves it.
- They also explained the role of advertising that's simply
marketplace manipulation to make interchangeable products look different
(or sows ears look like silk purses) and uses spurious claims to do it.
Sweezy and Magdoff further analyzed how global capitalism was shifting
to a "financialization" system under which financial speculation
and debt accumulation were growing at exponential rates. The result is
extraordinary instability that may in the end usher in another Great Depression
like in the 1930s with some economists and social observers believing it
could be the worst one ever and longest lasting. Predictions are never
easy, "especially about the future" as film mogul Louis B. Mayer
once told an interviewer who asked how well his newest movie would do at
the box office.
- McChesney says that scholars (aside from Mr. Mayer) produced
his foundational knowledge base on which he built his own research and
writings. They're considerable and continue to expand with new books, scores
of articles and the most important media reform activism anywhere by the
man most qualified to lead it in spirit, scholarship and by example.
- He begins by defining the political economy of communication
subfield and its two components:
- First, it must address "in a critical manner"
how the media system interacts with and affects the disposition of power
in society. What side is it on - the progressive one for reform or that
of the ruling elite. "In a critical manner" is the "nub
of the matter" for him. The measure he uses relates to the information
necessary (from journalism through the media) for self-government and effective
freedom. The media has to be a watchdog to keep a check on those in power
or want it. It has to separate truth from lies, provide a wide range of
information and opinion on vital issues, and get it to the majority of
people to be a truly democratic force in a free society.
- Second, is an evaluation of elements that shape the media,
journalism, "occupational sociology," news and entertainment
content - market structures, advertising, labor relations, profit issues,
technologies and government policies.
- Together, these two components give the field its "distinction
and dynamism." That was missing during the 1960s and 1970s critical
juncture period. It made its position precarious in the 1980s when leftist
voices lost out and official culture "dynamism" veered right.
Progressive social change prospects couldn't be bleaker at the time, and
neoliberal change made things worse from then to the new millennium. Margaret
Thatcher's dictum applied and still does - "There is no alternative
(TINA)" with bureaucratic governments the enemies of progress. It
was "the end of history" the way those on the right called it
and wrote about in bestselling books.
- McChesney notes that people on the left and right agreed
that "the media system was inexorably attached to corporate capitalism
(and that) leftward change (was) unthinkable" for the great majority
who went along to get along. Earlier political economy dynamism "lost
its mojo", and university administrators disparaged it. It went against
the dominant grain and threatened to undermine funding ties to industry.
The result was a weak curriculum, fewer jobs, and a poor career choice
option in the academy for ambitious young graduate students. By the 1990s,
"the political economy of communication was a nonstarter in American
communications departments." McChesney called this a "grand irony
- in the Information Age" at a time communication as a discipline
needed the emergence of political economy as a cornerstone of the field.
- Nonetheless, with precious little support and a hostile
political environment, a surprising amount of top research was produced
from scholars like Smythe, Schiller, Chomsky, Herman and others. They believed
it was vital to tell the truth and let the chips fall where they may. Particularly
striking was the critique of journalism at the time as a key to understanding
the relationship between the media and politics. Two landmark books stood
out - Ben Bagdikian's Media Monopoly in 1983 and Herman and Chomsky's Manufacturing
Consent in 1988 (already mentioned). Their importance was that both "fundamentally
changed the way the news media were regarded" among activists and
the greater public. Bagdikian quantified the extent of media concentration
but also foretold how journalism would be downsized and fundamentally corrupted.
- Manufacturing Consent showed how elite interests control
content and use it as a propaganda and anti-democratic tool. It demolished
the notion that journalism is neutral and highlighted how controlled it
is. The result today is stunning. Journalism has been co-opted, corrupted,
and gutted; investigative reporting is practically extinct; political and
international reporting has deteriorated; and localism has collapsed. Seventeen
years ago, the Philadelphia Inquirer had 46 city reporters. Today it has
24. The Washington Post wrote how state of international coverage keeps
being cut back - fewer foreign bureaus and correspondents. In an atmosphere
of despair, however, political economic criticism is attracting a resurgence
of dynamism in what McChesney calls "media policy studies" at
a time of an emerging new critical juncture.
- The Historical Turn, Critical Junctures, and "Five
- McChesney chose historical research as his entry to the
political economy of communication field. It gave him a chance to be "less
abstract and more concrete." It was also a better way to be taken
seriously because sound evidence supported him, but when he began his doctoral
studies, he wasn't sure how to proceed. He then read Bagdikian's book cited
above. It was his "epiphany" as it showed how the "system
is responsible, so (it) has to be changed." But that kind of thinking
was radically against the grain that believes press freedom means the right
to "make as much money as possible in the media business" and
the public interest be damned.
- Bagdikian showed how corrupted this kind of journalism
is to a free and open society. He also made the case that the media system
isn't natural or based on a "free market" model. It's only "free"
for owners, as journalist AJ Liebling once observed, and politicians corrupt
it for their big media allies.
- McChesney was struck (maybe horrified) that other nations
debated who should control their media, but none of this went on here.
So he searched for a historical record and found it "throughout US
history." In every case, media issues went unexamined, underexamined
or studied with little sense of purpose.
- In commercial radio broadcasting (emergent in the 1920s
and 1930s), he found loads of evidence of organized opposition to commercial
broadcasting at a time many believed this new medium should be public,
open and commercial-free. Sharing that view were educators, labor, religious
groups, farmers, civil libertarians and journalists. McChesney called it
"scintillating" as he build a "mountain(ous)" historical
record on what no one had ever written. He said he "found (his) dissertation"
topic and "intellectual calling."
- In the early 1930s, there was serious (unreported) debate
about whether a commercial broadcasting system should be adopted because
few people at the time (the onset of The Great Depression) thought a corporate-owned,
advertising-supported one was natural and best for the country. Republicans
and Democrats were among them, and compelling arguments at the time were
that this type system was inimical to democracy that should be uncorrupted
by commercial interests. That view lost out because of "the corruption
of the process (dominated by big money), not because the American people
opted for commercial broadcasting." They never had a say.
- The struggle over radio broadcasting was "the last
great battle over media in the" country up to the present. Thereafter,
until now, it was assumed all of it was fair game for commercialism and
profits. The public interest wasn't even a consideration except for a brief
period in the 1960s. But McChesney was awakened at the time to the notion
of "critical junctures" because he had "stumbled across
the one important (one) in American communication history." He wondered
if there were others and "began to see everything in a new light."
- It directed his attention to earlier periods and battles
on structuring the telephone system that ended as an AT&T regulated
monopoly. He mentioned the Jacksonian era that produced some of the greatest
journalism in our history. He cited Richard DuBoff's work on the telegraph
industry's emergence in the 19th century and Richard Kielbowicz's research
on the post office and the role it played early on to establish our press
system through public subsidies. Later came the struggle for controlling
and structuring satellite communication and cable TV from the 1950s to
the 1970s. This drew him to the current era, he was encouraged to address
it, and he discovered he liked the challenge.
- It got him to co-author a book on the global media with
Edward Herman and continue writing powerfully important books in the field
because media after the mid-1990s was a hot political topic, especially
on the left. These type ideas were being popularly received, and new organizations
sprung up to address them like the media watchdog group Fairness &
Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) in print and on weekly radio. McChesney put
it this way: "Something was happening here." There was newfound
interest, but at first only on the fringes. When the 1996 Telecommunications
(giveaway) Act passed, there was no public participation and never any
coverage in the media so most people hardly knew what was at stake.
- Something had to change, and it had to come from the
grassroots to put heat on Congress and the FCC. The need was for "aggressive
outreach" to organized groups - "labor, civil rights, feminist,
environmental, educators, peace activists, health care" - all of which
"were getting screwed over by the media" but had no idea media
was the problem. McChesney believed that a "radical change in strategy
and tactics, and a drastic increase in resources (to do it) were necessary"
to whip up public concern for the cutting edge issue of our times.
- Then in the 1990s, another world transforming major development
occurred - the emergence of the Internet that reflects the "entirety
of the digital communication revolution." These were unchartered waters
in the first critical media juncture since the 1960s. The Internet "open(s)
up space for discussions about fundamental questions of media institutional
structures, about technology, about the relationship of media to politics,
and about communication history" in ways unseen for decades.
- With this development came a new wave of research that
revealed five closely related and vitally important truths about communication
in the new century:
- First, media systems aren't natural. They're created
by government policies and subsidies that are strongly influenced by the
nation's political economy. Even in capitalist economies there's space
for a vibrant a non-profit media, and a "core principle of professional
journalism is to provide a safe house for public service in the swamp of
- Second, the First Amendment doesn't authorize or advocate
a corporate-controlled, profit-driven media. It's not an open sesame for
limitless gain or government-sanctioned right to ignore the public interest.
McChesney cites the "trailblazing research" of C. Edwin Baker
on press and speech freedoms. He concluded that court constitutional interpretations
see the press as necessary and distinct from people exercising free speech
rights as well as from other commercial enterprises. He also sees government
playing an active role in creating and structuring the media.
- The Constitution doesn't authorize commercial broadcasting,
prevent government from making it non-profit, and the High Court's 1969
Red Lion decision gave every American First Amendment rights. A key question
now is how the Supreme Court will interpret press and speech freedoms in
the digital age when all the rules are changing. McChesney believes sound
research and citizen activism are crucial to influencing the judicial outcome.
- Third, the American profit-driven media system is not
a "free market" one. Media giants today get enormous subsidies
in many forms that are "as great or greater than (for) any other industry."
- -- monopoly licenses for radio, TV, satellite TV spectrum,
cable TV and telephone worth hundreds of billions of dollars gaining in
- -- free industrial spectrum TV, cable and telephone that
companies use internally and are worth billions more;
- -- postal subsidies worth still more billions with giant
publishers now getting a better deal than small ones;
- -- federal, state and local subsidies for film and TV
- -- all levels of government advertising worth billions
- -- allowing advertising expenditures to be a deductible
- -- electoral political advertising amounting to 10% of
TV ad revenue;
- -- and the largest subsidy of all - copyrights that are
a government-created and enforced monopoly power to crush competition;
plus one other -
- -- government lobbying efforts for media giants overseas
for deregulated markets and to divert subsidies to benefit US companies.
- Fourth, the policymaking process that's key to understanding
how our system is structured and subsidized for private interests that
don't represent the public. Subsidies, per se, aren't bad. The issue is
what they're for, who gets them, who's left out, and what values are promoted.
- Fifth, giant corporations control government policymaking,
the public is ignored, and media reform can't happen unless the system
changes. Today, the FCC, like other government agencies, serves dominant
private, not public, interests, and it shows in its rulings. The major
media won't report them, of course, and McChesney says "99% of the
public has no idea what is going on (and instead) are fed a plateful of
free market hokum" about giving people what they want. He further
says "the entire rationale for our media system rests upon a fairy
tale about free markets....that (in fact are structured) to protect the
corporate media system from the public review it deserves" and desperately
- Consider "deregulation" as an example that's
used along with "free market" mumbo jumbo propaganda. It implies
a competitive marketplace when, in fact, it reduces competition by increasing
monopoly control in telephony, broadcasting, cable and satellite communication.
McChesney cites the key anti-competitive 1996 Telecommunications Act as
Exhibit A. Supporters claimed it would increase competition, lower prices,
improve service, and Vice-President Al Gore called it an "early Christmas
present for the consumer." Hooey.
- This was a major piece of anti-consumer legislation.
It raised limits on TV station ownership so broadcast giants could own
twice as many local stations as before. It was even sweeter for radio with
all national limits on station ownership removed, and on the local level
one company could now own up to eight stations in a major market. In smaller
ones, two companies could own them all. The bill also consigned new digital
television broadcast spectrum space to current TV station owners only and
let cable companies increase their local monopoly positions. The clear
winners were the media and telecom giants. As always, consumers lost out
without ever knowing what went on behind their backs.
- In the new millennium, however, a historic opportunity
for change emerged in the form of another critical juncture spawned this
time by the digital revolution. "The Internet, cell phones, and digital
technology (are) revolutionizing all forms of communication" that
are already threatening some long-established media industries with extinction
or requiring they reinvent themselves to survive - all print publications,
for example. This is unfolding in 2007, but the future remains uncertain
and has yet to be written. It can go either way or maybe both.
- One of the great unanswered questions of our times is:
does the Internet "qualify as the fourth great communication 'transformation'
in human history." Consider McChesney's first three:
- -- the emergence of speech and language 50,000 to 60,000
- -- writing around 5000 years ago that came many thousands
of years after agriculture; writing made scientific, philosophical and
artistic achievements possible;
- -- the printing press that radically reconstructed all
major institutions and made possible scientific advances, political democracy,
an industrial economy and religion.
- It hardly needs saying these changes were enormous in
human development, and for McChesney to believe the Internet may one day
rank among them (even if not their equal) is mind-boggling to imagine.
He makes his case more compelling by broadening the digital revolution
to include biotechnology and related scientific developments because their
advances depend on information technology.
- When someone of McChesney's stature posits these views,
we need take note and consider a future not long ago unimaginable, but
what will emerge can't be known until it begins unfolding over time. Of
equal importance is whether change of this magnitude will be democratic,
and that possibility is "very much in our control," McChesney
believes. That's because the legitimacy of major journalism is being questioned,
and growing millions around the country are doing it. Today, there's more
media criticism and activism here than anywhere in the world - an astonishing
condition given how absent it was a bare decade ago.
- "No one expected (its) first stirrings (would) come
over the unlikely issue of low-power FM broadcasting (LPFM)." It spawned
hundreds of unlicensed "pirate" operators in the 1990s. The FCC
tried to shut them down but couldn't even though pressured by commercial
interests. The result was the legalization of 1000 new LPFM non-profit
stations in 2000. Commercial broadcasters declared war to stop them and
got the House to reduce the allowable number to a fraction of what FCC
- Something then remarkable happened when scores of outraged
people demanded Congress allow this vital initiative in citizen broadcasting.
They foiled the National Association of Broadcasting (NAB), but only briefly.
In the end, NAB won by getting an anti-LPFM provision added to a budget
bill in the dead of night before Christmas - much the way other anti-consumer
legislation gets passed by hiding it in other bills passed in off-hours
and unreported in the mainstream.
- Despite defeats and powerful opposition, however, there
was "growing popular momentum (on) media issues" in 2002 in spite
of a "real disconnect with these developments among communication
scholars." That would soon change, but there was no way to know it
then. At the time, McChesney knew his efforts were best directed off-campus
because that's "where the action was." He had no way to know
"all hell was about to break loose," and the possibilities from
it are exhilarating.
- Moment of Truth
- McChesney relates how he, Josh Silver and John Nichols
co-founded Free Press in 2002 with a vision he called simple but a bold
plan to achieve it. They wanted to reach other organized groups with a
stake in reforming the media - labor, feminists, civil rights groups, environmentalists,
educators, journalists, artists and private citizens who feel the same
as they do but need direction and leadership. Communication scholars weren't
at first included, but that would change later on.
- The three co-founders thought it would take years to
gain momentum and begin having an effect, but they caught a break when
the FCC announced it would review media ownership rules in the fall of
2002. Free Press felt certain they'd be relaxed, but "then something
wonderful and magical happened." A massive grassroots action arose
with three million people energized in opposition. They flooded Congress
with letters, e-mails, phone calls and petitions protesting what FCC proposed.
Free Press got involved and so did other consumer activist organizations
like Consumers Union, the Center for Digital Democracy, the Media Action
Project (MAP) and the Consumer Federation of America. Other groups outside
Washington joined as well, including the Prometheus Radio Project.
- Along with MAP, it won a Third Circuit Court June, 2004
decision in the Prometheus Radio Project v. FCC case that ruled for diversity
and democracy over greater media consolidation and ordered the FCC to reconsider
its ill-advised ownership rules. They included the kinds of policy changes
now resurrected by the current FCC under a new chairman, so the struggle
goes on and continued vigilance is needed to prevail.
- The 2003 media ownership encounter accomplished a lot
for Free Press. It got its members "battle-tested and seasoned"
fast and taught them at least six crucial lessons:
- -- the public cares enough about media issues to organize
around them and become energized and active; many issues motivate them
that include a lack of localism in media, "unimaginative musical fare"
on radio, poor media coverage on many issues like the Iraq war, few quality
programs, inadequate representation of women and people of color as owners
and in the media, vulgarity and excess commercialism, and more; one or
more of these issues galvanize millions of Americans to react and growing
- -- people have considerable ability and insight about
media issues; they know the media should do more than "amuse, entertain,
or hawk products;"
- -- media reform can be a "gateway" for public
activism; it ignites people to get involved in political activity; it won
the last media ownership fight, stopped the Bush administration from paying
journalists like Armstrong Williams to corrupt themselves for profit, and
it protected Net Neutrality so far by keeping the nation's telecommunication
laws from being overhauled by Congress and a real chance for consumer-friendly
- -- Internet and digital technologies dramatically change
the way political organizing is done that would have been impossible earlier;
they greatly lower the cost and make it much easier to be effective with
- -- the media reform movement is nonpartisan by being
neutral and aims to expand the range and quality of viewpoints; it's also
a "bedrock progressive issue" that advocates "establishing
the institutional basis for effective and accountable self-government;"
- -- conservatism is unable to address media reform concerns
or provide a coherent government philosophy; there's dissension in their
ranks that contributed to the Republican 2006 collapse; the movement abandoned
its principles for honest and small government, balanced budgets, respecting
individual privacy, the rule of law and competitive markets; instead it
shows one-sided support for corporate interests, entrenched wealth and
corrupted itself by its actions.
- McChesney discussed his National Conference for Media
Reform initiative and what he learned from the first one held in 2003.
First, it's crucial to have credible research be part media reform so first-rate
communication scholars must be involved to produce it. Second is the importance
of linking scholars to the actual "sausage-making" process on
Capitol Hill so the right kinds of legislation get introduced and become
- In 2004, an important effort toward this got started
called COMPASS - the Consortium on Media Policy Studies formed by heads
of several key university communication programs. It supports a broad range
of media studies by "creat(ing) a critical mass of (doctoral) students
working in policy research (and making this effort) a cornerstone of the
field (by producing) journals, conferences, and academic lines." In
other words, making COMPASS communication research "relevant outside
the discipline and the academy." But it's not enough as the struggle
for "communication to embrace the critical juncture (goes) beyond
researchers at Ph.D. programs; it has to be all-encompassing."
- Free Press knew it had to get scholars involved in the
second media reform conference in 2005 and did it on short notice with
a "solid" 150 of them attending. Key for reform is credible research
to take on the "vending-machine" kind by corporations and the
FCC. It's contaminated with lies and distortion and must be countered with
hard, well-documented facts - the real stuff that can stand up.
- Media reform took shape between 2003 and 2007 and exposed
the Bush administration's efforts to undermine freedom with a host of illegal
and unethical acts:
- -- fake news the major media airs promoting administration
- -- paying off "professional" journalists to
promote these policies in their reporting;
- -- having a "ringer" in the White House press
corps to ask planted pro-Bush questions;
- -- appointing a corrupted crony to head Public Broadcasting
and a former head of all US overseas propaganda to run National Public
- -- attempting to cut Public Broadcasting funding;
- -- being the most secretive administration in US history
by issuing presidential Executive Order 13233 on November 1, 2001; this
order violated the 1978 Presidential Records Act and the 1974 Freedom of
Information Act. It also violated the Supreme Court's 1977 decision in
Nixon v. Administrator of General Services on "executive privilege"
eroding over time (12 years set as a limit) and James Madison's 1822 warning
that "A popular Government, without popular information, or the means
of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or perhaps
- -- establishing an obscene level of friendly ties to
the corporate media to be sure never (or hardly ever) is heard a discouraging
word from them on administration policies no matter how outrageous or illegal
- These and other acts corrupt a free press, millions know
it, and they want change. Central to it is an emerging "classic struggle"
very much in play but with no certain outcome over the most important issue
of all - the future of the Internet and battle for Net Neutrality. That
fight must be won, doing it is daunting, and the opposition is powerful
media and other monied interests with friends in high places matched against
others supporting the public. McChesney calls Net Neutrality "a defining
issue for this critical juncture (and) the First Amendment for the Internet."
Media reform activists have drawn a line in the sand. This corporate-free
and open space must be defended at all costs. The stakes are that high.
- Here's where things now stand. In the late 1990s, cable
companies weren't able to get the Clinton FCC to exempt their Internet
access from the principles of neutrality. They also lost in court in 2000,
but things changed after George Bush took office and appointed Michael
Powell FCC head. His Republican commission brazenly redefined cable modem
service by calling it an "information service." As a result,
they simply exempted cable broadband from the provisions of the 1996 Telecommunications
- Consumers and competitors then sued, three years of litigation
followed, and in summer 2005 the Supreme Court decided for FCC and the
cable giants in National Cable & Telecommunications Assn. v. Brand
X Internet Services, so it's now for Congress to address.
- After FCC's ruling in 2005, cable modem and telephone
DSL broadband service became exempted from net neutrality provisions of
the 1996 Act. Only Congress can reverse this, and that's where things now
stand. This issue is "the great rallying cry for the media reform
movement in 2006 and 2007." Free Press took the lead and formed the
SavetheInternet.com coalition that now includes over 800 organizations
across the political spectrum united in a common aim. It's an unprecedented
effort in the crucial battle ahead, and it's getting results.
- In 2006, it derailed telecom legislation the industry
tried to ramrod through Congress. It got the democratic FCC members to
insist Net Neutrality be a condition of any telecom company merger. They,
in turn, got AT&T to agree to these terms when it bought Bell South
for $67 billion at end of 2006. Explicit in the deal was Net Neutrality
protection for two years.
- The battle is back in Congress for a binding solution,
not just a staying action to buy time. Senators Byron Dorgan (Democrat)
and Olympia Snowe (Republican) reintroduced their bipartisan legislation
to make Net Neutrality the law of the land in 2007. House Democrat, Ed
Markey, is on-board as well as head of the key subcommittee on telecom
legislation. These are positive developments, but the battle remains unresolved
so far, and McChesney says we're "entering unchartered waters."
In addition, the Republican FCC continues to carry water for the telecom
giants and ruled in late December to approve greater media consolidation
despite overwhelming public opposition supported by key members of Congress.
- Media reform is bipartisan, progressive and goes hand-in-hand
with "reform work on campaign finance, voting rights, and electoral
systems reform" as part of an all-embracing "democracy movement."
The effort itself has "four distinct segments (with) common (uniting)
interests" that have made the US the global media reform leader:
- -- media policy activism from groups like Free Press
(with its growing 400,000 membership) and others that focus on core issues;