Highly Mediated

The Political Economy of Media

by Robert W. McChesney, Monthly Review Press, 2008.

As with all things under the control of capital, the mainstream media aims for profitability. Under the current dominant model, media profitability depends on advertising, which fosters an important relationship between media owners and the rest of Big Business. According to Internal Revenue Service data, total US spending on advertising now tops 250 billion dollars per year and the largest 0.04 percent of corporations are responsible for 50 percent of that spending. But what makes the media an especially unique asset for capitalism is that it serves as the primary source for disseminating political, cultural, and economic ideas. Media-controlling corporations play a direct role in shaping how people understand social relations. They police the boundaries of social discourse to protect and legitimize the capitalist status quo.

Neither the media’s function as a profitable asset nor its role as gatekeeper of social discourse can be ignored. For this reason, a radical critique of the media must identify how it functions on various levels as an integral part of capitalism. Further, radicals must establish their own relationships to media, given our need to participate in social discourse as part of efforts to instigate change. On this score, Robert McChesney’s The Political Economy of Media both succeeds and fails. His analysis of the political economic history of the media system is excellent; he makes clear that the contemporary media system coevolved with monopoly capital and is not merely in need of reform. Yet, when considering resistance to the media system, he focuses on battles that are largely aimed at holding back corporate media advances rather than rolling them back as part of a larger struggle against capital. It’s not that McChesney’s ideas about “resistance” are undesirable in and of themselves, but rather that they exclude the very anti-capitalist critique his own historical and political economic analysis would seem to demand. McChesney rightly derides analyses that try to treat the media like any other facet of capital, but he then tries to elevate media reform above every other anti-capitalist struggle. Anti-capitalists need to acknowledge the role of media reform. However, this means approaching reforms with the aim of undermining and moving beyond capital.

Capital’s interest in the media’s protective function should be obvious. Nevertheless, in the US we continually hear claims that the news media has a “left/liberal bias” (with the term liberal itself having been twisted to denote anything moderately socially progressive). Defenders of the media system weigh the charge of liberal bias against the charge of right-wing bias and conclude that the debate itself is proof that media remains as neutral and objective as possible. Activists are often drawn into this debate and join the call for balanced news coverage and a reduction in ownership concentration.

The media’s “conservative bias” and the increasing concentration of media outlets are both worrisome. However, if the mainstream media is wholly beholden to capitalist owners and advertisers, are balance and ownership diversity all we need? This question demands that we ask and answer some others. What, precisely, is the relationship between media as a means of communication and the accumulation drive of capital? How should anti-capitalists engage with mainstream media and its “alternative” counterparts? Does our critique of capitalism require a distinct critique of capitalist media? And can radicals support demands for reform without becoming merely reformist? In considering questions such as these, McChesney’s analysis digs beneath the glittering distortion of surface impressions to consider how the contemporary media system is the product of the process of capitalist accumulation and not merely its unwilling hostage.

McChesney is well known and much praised among left-liberals. His work has appeared in The Nation, The Progressive, In These Times, Z, and Monthly Review and he has collaborated with Edward Herman and Ellen Meiksins Wood. Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Ralph Nader, and Jesse Jackson have all written blurbs for his books. Weary of his celebrity status on the left, I began to read The Political Economy of Media with an admittedly jaundiced eye. Nonetheless, I can say that the book provides a good introduction to McChesney’s work, an informative explanation of how contemporary professional journalism coevolved with commercialization, a wide-ranging critical assessment of mainstream media, and an interesting overview of recent media reform campaigns. The book is not without its faults, though, and these begin with a misleading presentation of its own contents.

Although it’s unclear from the title, The Political Economy of Media is actually a collection of previously published essays, rather than a single text of new material. Only one chapter – ten pages out of 589 – contains material that’s entirely unique to this book. As a collection of essays, the book lacks the flow and cohesion of a single text. For example, a chapter on Noam Chomsky’s critique of neoliberalism inexplicably follows a chapter on the increasingly blurred line between editorial and commercial content. The lack of transparency about the book’s status as a collection of essays is misleading and violates a basic courtesy to the reader. Let’s hope that subsequent editions add the subtitle “Collected Essays.”

To be fair, many of the essays were first published in obscure anthologies and may be unfamiliar to many McChesney readers. For those less familiar with his work, The Political Economy of Media provides a comprehensive overview of an important body of research, bringing together McChesney’s academic and popular works, with articles that previously appeared in peer-reviewed journals such as Journalism Studies and Journal of Communication alongside those from explicitly partisan sources such as Monthly Review and Socialist Register. As a collection of essays, it’s easy to jump around and read the chapters that are of greatest interest.

The essays are readable and easily understood. McChesney does not weigh the reader down with jargon and even the essays originally written for scholarly journals are free of cumbersome academic vernacular. Because the book is not a single, original text, it cannot be reviewed in terms of a central argument carried throughout. Instead, I will focus here on what I think McChesney does best: exploring the political economic history of media in the US and the role of business in media’s development; and what he appears to consider most important: the US media reform movement in which he has played a large role.

Under capitalism, mainstream media are predominantly commercial enterprises. For McChesney, this is the starting point for a political economy of media. Where most scholarly research on media and communications accepts as given the media’s commercial nature and its integration into capitalism, political economists of media do not. For them, ownership structures and commercial interests are important for understanding media content. This critical stance provokes political economists of media to consider how the media interact with other dynamics of capitalism such as racism, sexism, and militarism. McChesney claims that this perspective leads political economists of media to adopt an advocacy position concerned with enhancing democracy.

For McChesney, a functioning democracy depends on a vibrant and healthy media system. The first line of the first essay, “The problem of journalism” makes McChesney’s position clear: “Democratic theory generally posits that society needs a journalism that is a rigorous watchdog of those in power and who want to be in power, can ferret out truth from lies, and can present a wide range of informed positions on the important issues of the day” (25). No postmodern advocate of journalism as storytelling or fetishist of changing technology, McChesney maintains a classically liberal position on the media as a mechanism of public dialogue and opinion formation.

However, as McChesney explains, today’s “professional journalist” striving to be neutral, non-partisan, and “objective,” is not what Enlightenment-era liberal theorists and politicians had in mind when they advocated for a free press. It is insufficient to claim that corporate interests infringe upon the objectivity previously enjoyed by the free press since the very ideas of neutrality and objectivity were actually products of the commercialization of media.

Exploring the political economic history of media makes it clear that contemporary media has not suddenly become hostage to intensifying commercial interests. Rather, it has evolved and grown as an integral component of those interests. Prior to the concentration of media outlets in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the range of opinion was broader, more diverse, and highly partisan. People could immerse themselves in a sea of explicitly one-sided opinions. Viewed from McChesney’s classic liberal position, this is desirable since it fostered public debate and allowed citizens to form their own opinions rather than adopt those favoured by elites.

As the press became monopolized, its overt partisanship became more problematic. Concentration resulted in fewer owners and fewer opinions. As a result, the public became increasingly distrustful of media. Criticism of media’s capitalist bias became widespread. Publishers realized that public confidence had to be restored if newspapers were to remain profitable. Consequently, according to McChesney, they sacrificed “their explicit political power to lock in their economic position” (29). In order to do this, they established schools of journalism to train generations of “professionals.” The ethics of this profession called for a separation between the press’s commercial interests and its editorial content. The journalist was expected to suppress value judgments and simply “report the facts.” With these guiding principles in place, the previous generation’s press diversity was made to seem superfluous since the public would be offered the unvarnished truth. Although they are not commercial enterprises in the ordinary sense, even state or publicly funded media institutions such as the CBC, PBS, or the BBC have fallen into this model of the professional journalist. McChesney’s critique remains valid for all mainstream media and pre-empts attempts to acquit public broadcasters on the basis that not-for-profit status somehow ensures diverse coverage.

According to McChesney, “professional journalism” instituted biases in the press. These included an over-reliance on “official sources” – government officials, experts, and other professionals – and story selection that favoured commercial interests. However, despite these problems, McChesney notes that until the 1970s journalists had a degree of autonomy and could at least choose and investigate stories. Now, with declining newsroom budgets and increasing concentration, the situation is getting worse. Today’s journalists are often little more than glorified stenographers to official sources. Meanwhile, the scope of “official” sources has been broadened to include representatives of business, while controversy is feigned by wallowing in the muck of celebrity misdeeds rather than by uncovering the crimes of business and government. Twenty-four hour news channels proliferate but journalism is increasingly hard to find.

Alongside this history of contemporary journalism and commerce, McChesney explores radical 20th century critiques of mainstream media. He notes that this history is often unknown in the US, where a powerful mythology surrounds the press. Americans are told that their media system is the envy of the world because of its neutrality, nonpartisanship, and objectivity, and because its freedom is guaranteed by the Constitution. A history of critique can hardly co-exist with such a sacred institution. However, this history of critique coincides with most Americans’ gnawing doubts about the media’s commercialism and their distrust of its coverage. According to McChesney, even journalists are beginning to question and criticize corporate control of the press. As with the high point of press criticism during the early 20th century, today’s media operate in a context of increasing concentration, greater public awareness of commercial influence, and the emergence of alternative media projects.

Unfortunately, these parallels are as depressing as they are inspiring. After all, the earlier era’s critique included an explicit and widespread indictment of capitalism. McChesney writes that all of the challengers in the 1912 US presidential election – Eugene V. Debs, Theodore Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson – criticized the press for having a capitalist bias. This would be unthinkable today. What’s more, even with radical criticism, the reforms that came out of that era ultimately served to strengthen the capitalist press. Given the contemporary media’s pedigree as a product of commercial interests, mere reforms are unlikely to produce the conditions necessary for a genuine democracy.

Unfortunately, reforms are all McChesney has to offer. He calls for increased support for media workers, alternative press, and labour/left think tanks. He recommends lobbying efforts to change government policy. He declares that the “objective is a more diverse and competitive commercial system with a significant nonprofit and noncommercial sector” (391). Essentially, McChesney calls for a return to the partisan era that preceded the commercial takeover even though partisanship itself failed to prevent the initial conglomeration. Making a fetish of that era’s partisanship is especially dangerous in light of the fuel it added to the sectarianism that immolated radical movements. Partisanship helped to derail Debs’s inspirational presidential campaign and bolstered labour’s misguided support for Wilson. Although the reforms advocated by McChesney are desirable, it’s hard to see how they would provoke sweeping social change unless they are incorporated into explicitly anti-capitalist organizing.

To be sure, McChesney has done much to highlight how commercial interests perniciously impact the press in both practice and content. He acknowledges the need to connect media criticism to the critique of capitalism. Nevertheless, he stops short of exploring how the media reform movement can become explicitly anti-capitalist. Instead, he maintains his classically liberal posture and assures us that, if media reform “is debated in the light of day, there will be progressive outcomes” (497).

According to McChesney, this debate is happening and the media reform movement is becoming larger and more powerful. As evidence, in a chapter entitled “The Escalating War Against Corporate Media,” he describes the 2003-2004 fight against the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) attempt to relax ownership restrictions. However, while the movement managed to stop a policy change favourable to the corporate media, it failed at its stated aim of strengthening ownership restrictions. At best, the campaign was an “escalating defense against corporate media.” This is not to deny the movement’s real achievements. However, if these achievements are not placed in a radical anti-capitalist context, they become reformist and risk being rolled back or transformed in ways favourable to capitalist interests. For McChesney, “if changing media is left until ‘after the revolution,’ there will be no revolution” (461). In response, it suffices to note that, if the revolution is left until after we change the media, there will be no revolution.

Creating a more humane political economy demands a massive effort on every front. It means confronting every institution controlled by the capitalist elite. This struggle demands that we understand all of the institutions under capitalist control, and few provide a better understanding of the capitalist media than McChesney. Reforms like those sought by the McChesney-founded Free Press can be important steps in the process of confrontation. However, the reform of a single institution cannot produce the sufficient conditions for sweeping social change. This is especially true if activists seeking reform allow themselves to be co-opted by electoral politics. Co-optation of this sort remains all too common and was on full display during last year’s Free Press organized National Conference for Media Reform, where a number of speakers openly endorsed Obama. This is not to say that the media reform movement should completely abandon electoral politics. Instead, it is a call to recognize that activists seeking reform will have a far greater impact when backed by a radical critique than if they are drawn to enthusiastically endorse one corporate funded candidate over another. For all of his attentiveness, McChesney neglects to read the fine print. There, it is written that reforms, if they are to be successful, must be the caption on the big picture – a humane post-capitalist society.