Challenging the newsmakers

Issue: 121

Ingrid Lamprecht

Robert McChesney, The Political Economy of Media: Enduring Issues, Emerging Dilemmas (Monthly Review, 2008), £25

The US media reform movement seemingly burst out of nowhere in response to the Federal Communication Commission’s attempt to relax media ownership rules in 2003. The movement had gathered force since the 1999 Seattle protests against the World Trade Organisation, but it was the attempt to deregulate the media that gave it momentum. Up to two million people were involved in the campaign to overturn the plan. Where did this anti_corporate public sentiment come from?

Robert McChesney charts the reasons for the shift in people’s attitudes towards the US media in this collection of writing covering nearly three decades of his academic career. He brings up to date and continues the tradition of other important political economists of the media, such as Edward S Herman and Noam Chomsky, who laid the groundwork for critical analysis of the media and scholarly research into the field with their book Manufacturing Consent published in 1988.

McChesney’s account is at times repetitive and perhaps not meant to be read cover to cover, but it is a useful tool for media students as well as all those who want to know why the media is the way it is.

McChesney summarises the history of earlier US media reform movements and their decline in tandem with a weakening US left and the corporate takeover of the media. This helps explain the sorry state of most journalism. For instance, in the face of accusations of political bias (mostly from those on the right) journalists have increased their reliance on official or “expert” sources, which are invariably establishment sources. Similarly, media coverage typically fails to contextualise complex issues, such as workers’ strikes or race riots, in order to avoid “taking sides”.

McChesney rightly points out that such unwritten codes of conduct are not objective but in fact reflect the political status quo and play into the hands of advertisers and media owners with their eyes on profits and market share. There are, of course, many journalists who dare to report on issues media owners and advertisers do not want them to cover, but they pursue their version of journalism as a watchdog of the political and corporate establishments, and they do so in spite of the system.

McChesney also explores how spending cuts, including reductions in investigative reporting and foreign coverage first implemented during the Reagan-Thatcher era of the 1980s, have debilitated the entire media system. Journalistic integrity and profit maximisation do not sit together well but “infotainment” and profit maximisation do. The media owners’ argument that they are giving us the coverage we want does not ring true when we are not given a choice of what gets covered. As a result, a system that was meant to inform and politicise does exactly the opposite.

McChesney goes further in deconstructing the anti-democratic tendencies within the media with the arrival of commercial internet use. Although the internet has democratising potential, corporate interests have hijacked this as well. The 1996 Telecommunications Act effectively wrote off the internet’s potential as a public space for the exchange of ideas because it deregularised the telecoms industry on a global scale. However, such blatant disregard for US public opinion backfired, as became evident when the media reformers surfaced in force in 2003.

McChesney focusses on reform rather than revolution, but he points out that the strength of the US left can influence how groundbreaking the media reform movement will be. The left cannot flourish in the current political climate without a diverse media but, in equal measure, a “people-focused” media cannot develop without a politicised community: “Given the centrality of communication to global capitalism, the move to reform communication must be part and parcel of a movement to reform the global political economy.”