Book Review – The Political Economy of Media: Enduring Issues, Emerging Dilemmas

Reviewed: Robert W. McChesney, The Political Economy of Media: enduring issues, emerging dilemmas. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2008.

This weighty volume may be the magnum opus of the most important of America‘s media scholar-critics. But how can that be? Still in the midst of a vibrant intellectual career, keener (one might say) with each fresh disappointment in so-called progress, McChesney is perhaps summing up what he has learned so far, in preparation for doing more.

And he has a lot to say! Writer Danny Schechter once quipped that what Ben & Jerry’s is to ice cream and Elvis was to hip-shaking, McChesney is to media analysis. He has been called the leading historian of US media, he is a prize winning author and college lecturer. And apart form all this, he is that rare creature, the modern Marxist who never lost himself inventing new vocabularies or become out-of-date with the passage of decades and events. He has a sweeping overview of the political economy of hyper-corporate media moves, an intimately close interpretation of ongoing shifts (aided in part, no doubt, by his monthly radio show from the University of Illinois), and an awfully good perception of the middle ground.

He may be, above all things, a historian hiding as a communications expert, in a field where history is usually about the week before, and where dirty secrets of the corporate variety are customarily swept under the rug, out of sight. For instance, the rise and fall of the oligopoly press is generally presented in a naturalized, almost neutral way: business decisions meet new situations. Upton Sinclair, among the best of the critics in the first third of the twentieth century, knew a lot better. His 1920s novel The Brass Check, which had to be printed privately because no publisher dared put it into print, took fact into fictional clothes, but showed popular readers that the publisher editor and reporter of the daily press were craven tools if not actually partners in the control of the news. Populists, socialists and determined individual publishers offered some alternatives along the way, but they were nearly always outgunned. When they were actually deemed dangerous, as socialist dailies and weeklies opposing the US entry into the First World War, they were neatly suppressed (a favorite measure was removal of Second Class mailing privileges, then driving them out of business for failing to maintain a regular schedule; in some cases, FBI and police harassment led to arrests and the smashing of office equipment). Everyone who wanted to keep a job learned to stay in line.

The same process was already well advanced in radio from the creation of national networks and licensing of stations. The Federal Communications Commission, when it was created, had an explicit task of control, and when it exercised that privilege in the name of “fairness,” it provided itself with a good rationalization to do whatever it wanted, which was a lot. It is not quite amazing but impressive that Pacifica stations, with a tiny portion of the listening audience but a determinedly loyal following, have hung on through thick and thin from the later 1940s until today. Hip music helped a lot, and still does, with the listener-sponsored stations at large.

McChesney enters his own era, with himself very much a player, during the 1990s and the onset of media reform (sometimes media reform so-called). He took out some years between undergrad school (at Evergreen State, in Washington) and grad school as a UPI stringer and then an “alt” newspaper publisher, playing a real role not only in the local economic-social doings of 1980s Seattle but also the music scene exploding into a new kind counter-cultural phenomenon. He came back to the academy, then, both older and wiser than his fellow students, began teaching at the end of the decade, and swiftly moved into political circles the led him into projects involving Madison Capital Times columnist John Nichols among others. He founded and still directs the Free Press, a programmatic entity with great prestige among media radicals and the handful of conscience liberals willing to take chances with embarrassing truths.

McChesney had learned a few years earlier that media critics like Herb Schiller and global scholars like Noam Chomsky could be ignored or treated as cranks, and most often were—by those who expected to go on to good careers, grants and assorted perks in the communications field. But he was undeterred. McChesney came at matters especially from the standpoint of assessing US global actions, and saying or writing what others found uncomfortable to mention about all the connections and who the chosen angles of reportage served. It would seem that revelations about “embedded” reporters in Iraq would have blown the cover of most news organizations operating there, and yet it doesn’t seem so, not even at NPR. The same stories of good-deed Americans and their unfailing effort to bring democracy (admittedly, by the most sophisticated weaponry possible) remain “the story.” When, that is, there even is a story, since the audience apathy can be blamed when nothing new or interesting is reported for months and when even unpleasant photo-reminders of US deeds are not shown. For all this and more, Communications Revolution (2007) was a sort of summing up in itself that turns out to be a preparation for The Political Economy of Media.

Perhaps the best thing about the new work is the straight talk—even for McChesney. No academic degree, no expertise in exotic language, will be needed for ordinary readers to understand the arguments. He makes clear at the outset that class inequality and militarization, already noted by Jefferson and James Madison as great threats to democracy and constitutional law, are the poisoned or polluted well from which most other dangers flow. Neoliberalism, the logic of the ruling powers since the 1960s-70s crises posed by social movements at home and abroad were tamed where not eradicated, is the doctrine that profits appropriately rule social life, inequality is a virtual necessity to keep rich and poor moving in their separate tracks, governmental “reform” must be the opposite direction of its old direction of slowing down class divisions and ameliorating the poor, and that the very notion of transforming society in some dramatic and democratic way is wacky, obnoxious and potentially dangerous.

The crisis of neoliberalism, emerging in the last few years, naturally throws new light upon the whole situation. Meanwhile, the digital communications “revolution” would logically open up the channels to renewed discussion of basics. But in the social framework of the 1990s that continues largely intact today, digitization had already been defined as the technological perfection of corporate control over any and all new media. The Telecommunications Act of 1996, very much a bipartisan project, cleared the way for speculation and plunder quite as the deregulation of banking and loans with such phenomenally bad current results. The media at large, nurtured and protected by government assistance of various kinds, has thus had the best of both worlds, the claim to “free enterprise” and to billions of dollars of direct aid and protection of profits.

The same pattern applies in many corporate and political operations within American society, of course. One of the most striking arguments that McChesney has made before and offers here lucidly again is that the rise of corporate conglomeration in the newspaper industry, generations ago, wiped out much of the locally owned and directed press, but also set the logic for “objective” journalism because the press chiefs considered it both necessary and useful to themselves. Leftwing viewpoints could hardly be offered openly, but investigative journalism was, especially for the working reporter and for a large chunk of readership, a huge benefit, the main reason for intellectuals to read the particular newspaper. Cross-media ownership, Web profits and the political tilt rightward (and open encouragement to partisanship) that accelerated in the Reagan years led to Fox News and something just as bad but far less understood: the practical end of investigative reporting. Newspaper staffs reduced to functionaries cutting AP and UPI stories, a task far less vital than searching for the newly elusive advertising dollars, had no one still around for the old jobs. The transformation of the obituaries pages to pay-by-relative may have been a marker for the death of journalism.

McChesney deepens his argument by showing carefully that journalism, such as it exists, has been redirected toward the markets most desired by the bosses. Poverty is not interesting news unless it results in some social pathology (war may be wrong-headed, but waged by the US, can never be pathological) or loss of market shares. Business crises get front-page coverage, of course. And this in a media dubbed with the charge of “liberal bias” or even “leftwing bias”! An all-time bit of evidence, McChesney recalls, is the 13, 641 stories reporting on Clinton‘s encounter with Monica Lewinsky, compared to the 49 reporting George Bush’s intervention to get son George W. out of any danger of being sent to Vietnam. The failures of the first president of the twenty-first president hardly seemed to occur to the media until the second term, and then after a snow job by the New York Times among many others to propagandize for the Iraq invasion and its supposed initial success. McChesney closes a chapter, “Conservative ideology and commercialized, depoliticized journalism have meshed very well and it is this combination that defines the present moment.”

The mastery of detail is the subject of nine chapters at the physical center of this book, and it would be foolish of this reviewer to attempt a detailed recounting of the contents. Essentially essays on discrete themes written 1997-2003, they respond in no small part to critical developments within the field of communications, developments that McChesney is too modest to trace to his own influence. Again and again in the historical patterns he relates, media critics sought to insist that all “public” media should belong, logically, to the public. The most startling material, for me, is the final section on the political economy of international communications, because McChesney knows so very much and makes summarizing vast material look easy. Like the rest of the book, the points herein bear multiple readings, each time bringing back more.

To take only one example, radio. Despite the early monopolization, critics did not lose every battle. Also, there were other models (for the case of the US, obviously the British and Canadian government networks; but of course other parts of the British-colonized world, from India to the Caribbean, were in the same boat) that were taken seriously, if finally discarded. Only in 1933 did Congress get around to passing the Communications Act, signed in 1934, during the Roosevelt administration noted high officials favored public solutions on many scores. The radio industry consolidated itself in the second half of the decade, what has been called the “myth of regulation” barely covered the reality of the profit system, and soon enough Harry Truman would be President. The New Dealers would be replaced with Used Car Dealers, as the witticism went. A lot more happens, the most important of developments unexpected and fairly uncontrolled, but big money and other government support for the powerful is the unchanging subtext.

McChesney, who began his work on popular culture way with coverage of local Grunge back in his Seattle newspaper days, has something special to say about Sports in all this. No subject garnered so many newspaper readers (although the comics page offered the nearest rivalry) from early on, with local partisanship hyped, favorite athletes made into virtual gods, and civil boosterism given free sway. It was good for the papers and good for business to do so, as it would have been bad for business to reveal the dark undersides. Some of the greatest writers, like Ring Lardner, explored those dark sides, but few followed. Radio and then television sports were vast corporate money makers and just became vaster with each new development. Professional football would never have likely overtaken baseball, “the national game,” without television. The drive to keep raising the profit margin in the 1970s led to the invention of new, “trash” sports, mostly a failure but also a metaphor for the cable era with its innumerable sports networks, not to mention sports programs on the other stations. And so on, up to the present. An “adversarial” reporting or commentary, with NPR’s Frank DeFord as a fine example, has been a bonus but an awfully small one, more often aimed at clearing away public doubt (as in “doping” scandals) than investigating the real sources of corruption.

He plows on, in the final section of the book, a lucid treatment of efforts at public reform, fraudulent (that is, as a cover-up for some stealth effort) and real. McChesney is not a cynic and his arguments for real public broadcasting will interest everyone who has been involved or wants to be involved in this great campaign. He ends with a chapter on growing opposition to FCC control, and the somewhat hopeful, “The U.S. Media Reform Movement Going Forward.” The Bushies so overplayed their act during the Iraq War that no one could believe in FCC Chair Michael Powell except as a stooge for the White House. Thus, the plan to scrap all media ownership rules went awry. Public hearing usually regarded as pro forma saw massive local audiences enraged. The rightwing, mostly the Evangelicals, were equally outraged, but naturally from the standpoint of wanting to prevent purported immoral messages and images on the screen and in the boombox. In 2004, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia tossed out the FCCs planned ownership directives. The media reform narrative that jumped from apparent obscurity into one of the lead stories of the day threatened to raise wider questions about democracy and corporations. Horrors!

McChesney ends with this thought: “Today we understand that media systems are the result of complex political economic factors and crucial policy decisions. The need for engaged scholarship has never been more pronounced, in the United States and worldwide. This is our moment in the sun, our golden opportunity, and as political economists of the media we must seize it.”