- 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
- 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,
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.
- McChesney is today's most notable media scholar and critic.
Whatever he writes merits reading. This 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:
- -- the problem of journalism;
- -- a century of radical US media criticism;
- -- telling the truth at a moment of truth about the invasion
and occupation of Iraq;
- -- journalism - a look back and ahead;
- -- battling for the US airwaves early on;
- -- media sports coverage;
- -- public broadcasting in the digital age;
- -- the commercial tidal wave;
- -- the new economy - myth and reality;
- -- the political economy of international communication;
- -- the Internet
- -- US left and media politics;
- -- rich media, poor democracy;
- -- the escalating war against corporate media;
- -- US media reform going forward, and more.
- Most content was previously published in journals or
as book chapters in anthologies. Most have never appeared in book form
before, so 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
- "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
- 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
- -- journalism and its relationship to democracy;
- -- understanding political, commercial and private propaganda;
- -- commercial media and politicalization of society;
- -- media's relationship to inequality - economic, racial,
gender, and so forth;
- -- media's relationship to US foreign policy, militarism
and the imperial state;
- -- the importance and role of advertising;
- -- the communication policy making process;
- -- telecommunication policies, regulations or lack of
- -- communication's relationship to global and contemporary
capitalism and its predatory nature;
- -- commercialism's impact on culture and society;
- -- public radio and broadcasting; how they've been co-opted
and corrupted; and the emergence and importance of alternative media institutions
- -- the relationship of technology to media, politics
and society and importance of the digital revolution; and
- -- the relationship of media to popular social movements,
including a growing force for real media reform.
- 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 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 good, competition better, and best of all is socialism for the
wealthy and free market capitalism for the rest of us - aka, the law of
- By the new millennium, the "bankruptcy and contradictions"
of neoliberal dogma lay exposed. Global justice eruptions occurred, became
quiescent after 9/11, but still bubble below the surface and may explode
anywhere any time. Moreover, given the state of things, "the political
economy of media has been rejuvenated." There's a growing media reform
movement. In it are scholars, activists, students, and ordinary people
comprising "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
- More policy battles remain as well and will become "more
pronounced in the digital era." McChesney cites three:
- -- what passes today for journalism; it's "in a
deep and prolonged crisis (because of) corporate cutbacks and erosion of
- -- hyper-commercialism is getting more hyper; it's all-pervasive;
derailing it is crucial; the public's role vital; and
- -- digital revolution technology cuts both ways; it empowers
people, yet entraps them as well; it makes everyone vulnerable to surveillance;
increasingly, there's nowhere left to hide.
- Key is making digital technology work for, not against
us and keeping 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 uber alles.
It's a failed ideology, yet no fit topic for open and public discussion.
That has to change, and 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. It can only be through 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, detailed, crystal clear in
its message, essential to read in total, and kept as a key reference guide
to the media's problems and how to fix them. This review covers a sampling
of the book's contents, selective offerings in it. It's to energize readers
to get the book and discover it all.
- The Problem of Journalism
- 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 it 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. At the same time, newspaper publishing changed
"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' 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. It created a crisis
in early 20th century journalism.
- Yet, during the 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
- 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, IF 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."
They were taught to "sublimate their own values," produce "neutral
and unbiased copy," and (likely) greater revenues for publishers.
- In fact, "neutral" content was a non-starter.
As journalism evolved in the country, publishers 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," and they're more prominent than
- -- professional journalists regard whatever government,
business, or other prominent figures say or do as legitimate news;
- -- conflicting sources are ignored so power figures set
the agenda and are uncontested; journalists become stenographers to them,
and a free press is "guaranteed only to those who own one;"
- -- most important, journalism reflects the views and
aims of the ruing class; "we the people" are nowhere in sight.
- It means fiction substitutes for fact, news is carefully
"filtered," dissent marginalized, and supporting the powerful
substitutes 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, "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, but none used for the greater good. 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
- 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." It let
2001 and 2002 corporate scandals go unreported until they got too big to
ignore. They bilked investors of multi-billions. Many thousands lost jobs,
pensions and benefits, 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. It 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. This
one didn't lay a glove on politicians because Democrats were as tainted
as Republicans so they laid low.
- The media happily obliged. 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 executives
were investigated for fraud. They included Disney's Michael Eisner, News
Corporation's Rupert Murdoch, Charter Communications, Vivendi Universal,
AOL Time Warner for cooking its books, and Adelphi Communications for "orchestrating
one of the largest frauds to take place at a US public company." At
the end of an 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
- 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 pretty grim expectations for their
future prospects. The growth of media giants makes it 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 for a corporate and government clientele, and it comes in the form
of "slick press releases, paid-for experts....bogus citizens groups,
canned new events," and 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 a culture committed to
commercialism, truth is out the window. Officials can lie with impunity.
So can business fraudsters, and 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." It comes in two forms:
- -- direct commercial penetration of news; it corrupts
its integrity; is in the form of bribes to write stories, host commercial
events, and overall act as a proxy for an advertiser and be well paid for
- -- journalists reporting favorably on their owners' commercial
operations, such as ABC News promoting a Disney film or NBC News selling
the Winter Olympics; this proliferates; it's called "synergy; for
journalists with integrity it's "poison."
- 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:
- -- journalists have "decisive power;" owners
and advertisers are marginalized;
- -- journalists (by their nature) are political liberals;
- -- journalists use their position to advance liberal
- -- objective journalism would report conservative views.
- 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 go on? Because it resonates and
has "tremendous emotional power...." It began in the 1970s. It
was 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.
- It's 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.
- How to Think About Journalism: Looking Backward, Going
- 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
- Journalism is co-opted and corrupted. Commercialism gutted
it. Investigative journalism is a memory. Political and international reporting
no longer exist. The same is true for local reporting, and all that's left
is "the absurd horse race" campaign coverage of endless polls
and he said, she said along with pseudo-journalistic celebrity features
and the rest. For the most part, it's impossible getting real news and
information in the mainstream.
- The media keeps sinking lower. We've been heading there
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,
repressive legislation, and 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 Times front page. Its star
reporter Judith Miller led the charge. She'll forever be remembered as
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." In 2002, 2003 to the present, it was nowhere in sight.
In reporting on the war, its run-up and current occupation, the major media
sunk to its lowest ever depth. They flacked the pro-war line, still support
it unconditionally, and tout the idea that America is benevolent and our
- The notion is preposterous, indefensible and disastrous.
And 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 - internalizing media owners'
commercial values, or else. It means a little autonomy is allowed but increasingly
less as the giants got bigger. They 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 ever 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. For
starters, structure matters. So do institutions. They shape media content
everywhere. They transmit values that become internalized and a requirement
to rise to the top, or even stay employed.
- From political economy of media research, McChesney cites
four "propositions to guide understanding, scholarship, and action:"
- -- media systems aren't "natural" or "inevitable;"
they result from explicit policies and subsidies; no mandate says only
for-profit ones are allowed; a professional journalism "core principle"
is for a public service "safe house....in the swamp of commercialism;"
- -- the First Amendment isn't to grant special favors
to communication sector investors alone; a strong argument can be made
for government to structure the media; Supreme Court decisions don't equate
a free press with commercialism; they support the state's right and duty
to make a viable free press possible; without it, "the entire constitutional
- -- the dominant US media system is for-profit, but it's
not a free market system; the media giants get enormous direct and indirect
subsidies amounting to many hundreds of billions of dollars; they cut both
ways; they can be beneficial when they serve the greater good; for decades,
rarely have any been directed that way;
- -- structuring the media should be over subsidy and policy
choices, what institutions they'll support, and what values they'll encourage
and promote; over time, the process grew more undemocratic; the public
is completely left out; the FCC is the industry's handmaiden; and the idea
that free markets give people what they want is rubbish.
- 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:
- -- the indefensible "immaculate conception"
notion that the US media system arose "naturally;" in fact, powerful
figures created it for commercial interests; and
- -- the amount of public subsidies debunks the "free
market" myth; consider the term "deregulation" as well;
in communications, it's pure propaganda for an industry with less, not
more competition; under it, great journalism is impossible; the system
has to be overhauled, and doing it will take enlightened government policies
in a much different operating environment.
- 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. It's shameful and must change. Telecom giants won't do it. Government
has to. It has to quash industry efforts to privatize the Internet, preserve
Network Neutrality, keep the Internet open and free, and 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,
and with public support can flourish. 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, but McChesney offers suggestions.
Besides what's above, he lists:
- -- policies that "more aggressively shape the media
system" - antitrust and communication laws for more diverse ownership;
19th century-style postal subsidies to encourage a broader range of publications;
and most important a viable nonprofit, noncommercial real public and community
access broadcasting, not the government and corporate-controlled kind from
NPR and PBS;
- -- the problem of the Internet allowing Americans "to
construct a personalized media world;" it leads to "group polarization"
- sharing common experiences selectively, becoming less informed, respectful
and more distrusting of outsiders; journalism is key for Americans for
a viable democracy; public media provide it best, and they may influence
- -- a more radical solution - policies that encourage
local and employee ownership, and/or community daily newspaper ownership;
within a generation, they'll be largely digital and indistinguishable from
other media forms.
- 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 and its analysis of journalism. On one side are
the firms, owners, labor practices, market structures, policies, occupational
codes, and subsidies. Its opposite examines journalism as a whole, the
media system as well, and how they interact with broad social and economic
relations in society. Where inequality exists, depoliticization is encouraged
by those on top.
- The political economy of media requires enhancing participatory
democracy. In turn, it needs great journalism and media systems. An informed
and engaged citizenry as well. Journalism needs democracy, and the reverse
is true. They also 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.
- Stephen Lendman is a Research Associate of the Centre
for Research on Globalization. He lives in Chicago and can be reached at