Thinking Democracy: Inside the Politics of Journalism and Scholarship

The United States offers considerable formal protection for free speech and press, especially political speech. Yet we live within a degraded political culture which makes it increasingly difficult to describe the country, in any meaningful sense, as a functioning democracy. A central task of media analysis and criticism should be to resolve that paradox. Robert McChesney’s new book, ‘Rich Media, Poor Democracy’, does just that, and with added fire, it is a scathing look and ultimate indictment of the ‘status quo’ corporation oligopolies and their lackey media monoliths. An intelligent and brilliant piece of muckracking.

The United States offers considerable formal protection for free speech and press, especially political speech. Yet we live within a degraded political culture which makes it increasingly difficult to describe the country, in any meaningful sense, as a functioning democracy. A central task of media analysis and criticism should be to resolve that paradox. Robert McChesney’s new book, ‘Rich Media, Poor Democracy’, does just that, and with added fire, it is a scathing look and ultimate indictment of the ‘status quo’ corporation oligopolies and their lackey media monoliths. An intelligent and brilliant piece of muckracking.

The most compelling and useful analysis chooses the more radical path. Robert McChesney’s Rich Media, Poor Democracy does a superb job of explaining this current political crisis. Very much willing to take on sacred cows, and to critique the larger political and economic system, McChesney further delivers a critique that, increasingly, cannot be argued in polite social circles. It is not just that corporate capitalism creates occasional problems in a democracy, he proposes, but that corporate capitalism is fundamentally inconsistent with meaningful democracy.

In todays’ journalism, as well as in the scholarship about media and democracy, there are two key requirements for entry into the club of serious practitioners. One is the reflexive denial of the crucial fact mentioned above: that the corporate capitalist institutions through which most journalism is practiced are antithetical to democracy. It is not just that they may have flaws in how they help shape the larger practice of democracy, but that they are in themselves anti-democratic. Corporations are, by matter of law and practice, hierarchical and authoritarian. Everyone who has ever worked in a corporation is well aware that democracy – even in its most conventional forms – isn’t on the corporate menu.

Given that institutional context, it is amusing when scholars and critics turn to questions about our political culture and ask, “Is mainstream journalism doing all it should for democracy?” The point is not whether “all” journalism that is done in the corporate media sector is actively subverting democracy or if it is just pure propaganda, but rather, ‘that the general thrust of corporate journalism is not likely, in any sustained manner, to even come close to addressing the anti-democratic nature of corporations, or even to lend a critical eye to other fundamental questions of justice that could seriously disrupt the status quo.

Especially in a post-Soviet world (in which the demise of Leninist-style authoritarian regimes is taken as the proof of the triumph of a capitalist system), raising these obvious points about the nature of corporate capitalism is increasingly difficult in the media or in scholarship. To do so is to risk being seen as either (1) a flake who doesn’t understand how the world works; or (2) a fanatical ideologue of the left. Either sort are, by definition, people who can safely be ignored.

The second key requirement for respectability in mainstream media or scholarship is some measure of devotion to “American exceptionalism” or “Ultra-Americanism”: the widespread doctrine that the United States is a shining city on the hill, a country that has stepped outside of history and acts in the world as a moral exemplar, not as a power-hungry state – unlike all those other nasty states that simply pursue their own interests. This is an interesting hypothesis, which suffers only from a complete lack of evidence to support it. That minor problem rarely derails the conventional wisdom, however. Even the alleged critical liberals often, in the course of their criticism of the most vile U.S. actions abroad, accept unthinkingly, ‘that mythological account of the nation’s history. In these matters, third-world peasants, who routinely suffer greatly the consequences of this myth, generally have a clearer and more adept view than the average pundit or professor.

These two fictions about the nature of the U.S. domestic power structure and its actions abroad frame almost all of the reporting and analysis in mainstream journalism, and a frightening amount of scholarly research. The political and intellectual ferment of the sixties opened up some space in the culture for dissent in both professions, but that space has been consistently under attack, and in the nineties such dissent has been driven even further to the margins.

So, for example, the work in both mainstream newsrooms and economics departments reflexively extols the virtues of the market and capitalism while ignoring deepening economic inequality that suggests a failed system. More particularly, the United States can lead an illegal and ineffective war in Yugoslavia, yet occasion no publically significant critique from newsrooms or university faculty. In both arenas, managers and administrators make clear what it takes to get ahead, to be considered a “serious” journalist or scholar. Critical questions, so long as they are not too deep, can be asked, and so long as the answers stay within the prescribed conventional wisdom. Compliance is induced through rewards more often than punishment (though a variety of punishments are held in reserve for recalcitrant types).

McChesney’s book deals directly with the questions of the political economy of media. He takes apart the myths of the free market, to expose the way in which corporate control, conglomeration, and concentration have systematically narrowed the range of free speech, and contributed to the degradation of the political culture. To explain how this “commercial carpetbombing” came to be, he immerses the reader in history as well as the contemporary political struggles over policy and practices. In a particularly timely and insightful chapter, he uses that history to warn that ‘internet policy’ is heading toward the same commercial deadend as broadcasting.

Because his mission is large – he takes on the entire media system, journalistic and entertainment, including print, broadcast, and computer media – he sometimes spends only a short time on critiques of news practices and content. But those analyses are compelling and more than adequate. (The ‘key work on these issues remains Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s 1988 book, Manufacturing Consent.) Perhaps most important, in the end McChesney helps readers understand not just the scope of the problem, but why citizen initiatives to produce more democratic media are crucial and possible.

McChesney clearly aims at changing the way the culture thinks about media, democracy and the commercial system. He struggles against the way that system encourages people to be depoliticized, fragmented, and isolated from popular movements. He resists the ideology of capitalism that argues ‘all of this is natural and inevitable’, which he fundamentally insists is “the biggest lie of them all.”

These days, even when radical critics present compelling evidence and reasoning about the problems with illegitimate systems of power such as capitalism, a common response is that we have to concentrate on reforms that are “realistic.” The big system, many argue, simply can’t be changed. McChesney’s book offers illustrative lessons on this crucial point. First, history and common sense suggest that no system of unjust power is permanent. Too many such systems have collapsed in the face of popular movements to support such wildly uncontrolled pessimism. Second, most radicals (at least those not stuck in the nineteenth century) understand that the route to meaningful social change will be made, at least in the short term, largely through reforms to existing systems. Being radical doesn’t necessarily mean calling for armed revolution. Instead, radical can mean seeing the structural and institutional roots of the problem and being open to sensible strategies for meaningful change, which sometimes will include working for reforms. The best reform proposals will incorporate the more radical analysis and long-term goals. This is crucial not just to insure that the reforms actually have some immediate effect, but that they potentially can create conditions leading to a more basic structural and institutional change.

McChesney’s book not only critiques the current system, but offers exactly those kinds of reform proposals. Grounded in the history of the broadcast reform movement of the thirties that unsuccessfully tried to challenge commercial broadcasting, McChesney is clear about the scope of the problem and not naïve about the possibilities. His suggestions will not be immediately implemented by politicians or media owners, but they give activists who want more democratic media tangible and reasonable goals: protect and expand public service broadcasting; develop further decentralized community and public access radio and television; strengthen journalists’ and media workers’ unions, giving them greater control over content; hold commercial broadcasters to stricter public service standards; limit concentration of ownership; reduce the amount of advertising through regulation and taxation; subsidize film and cultural production that the market doesn’t; and subsidize multiple newspapers and magazines to provide diversity of opinion.

In a very real sense, journalists are helping to pull the trigger on democracy, perhaps not so much by what they are doing, but by what they are not doing: providing honest, incisive critique into the workings of the economy and the imperial actions of the United States. The hardest, but most important, work a journalist could do is to take apart the myths of one’s own society, which is precisely what contemporary journalists rarely seem able to accomplish.

Although the United States was designed to be ruled by a moneyed aristocratic class, throughout our history real democracy has continued to break out. The current attacks on democracy by corporations gaining even more control over society – thoroughly Orwellian in the way they claim the market and corporate culture are the embodiment of democracy – are perhaps as great a threat to democracy as this country has ever seen.

The answer to that threat likely will be in a series of reforms, but those reforms must stay rooted in a radical critique that doesn’t shy away from hard truths. To return to the paradox: one would hope that journalists and scholars would make good on the freedom of speech they enjoy and be allies in this struggle for real democracy – democracy that means more than trudging off to cast a ballot every couple of years, democracy in which the public has a role in the formation of public policy. But the systems in which journalists and scholars are rooted tend to make them, if not outright enemies in that cause, at best uneasy allies.

Our best hope, as McChesney makes clear, is that there is still enough real democracy – the kind of democracy that can allow meaningful public participation instead of just public spectatorship – left in the system that collective action and mass movements can turn journalists and scholars from servants of power to real allies of the people.

Author: thee_InVection_report

News Service: TheExperiment Network

URL: http://www.theexperiment.com/articles.php?news_id=592