The Brave Struggles of a Scholar/Activist

Bob McChesney is that rare bird, a scholar’s scholar who is not afraid to plunge into the real world with both feet. Five years ago, at a time when the media reform movement desperately needed some fresh ideas and energy, Bob and Josh Silver co-founded Free Press, a new grassroots, activist organization that has led the charge against media concentration.

It was a daring move because, historically, media concentration had elicited only yawns from the national press and the public. With help from colleague organizations and skillful use of the Internet, however, Free Press stopped the FCC’s plans to loosen media ownership rules (which have recently been revived by FCC Chairman Martin). Drawing up on his own rich knowledge of history, McChesney made the case that media concentration was (and is) politicizing journalism, homogenizing expression and subverting open, democratic culture. Congress and a federal court eventually told the FCC to back off.

McChesney is on my mind because I’ve been reading his new book, an intellectual memoir of sorts, Communications Revolution (New Press). The book is a history of media studies in the U.S. and the recurrent failure of the field to grapple with the democratic and political role of communications media. Although there has been a corps of brilliant, independent thinkers who have dealt with these themes — Noam Chomsky, Herb Schiller, Marshall McLuhan, among others — most scholarship in communications studies has been anemic if not irrelevant.

In his book, McChesney makes the case that at certain critical junctures in history, there are openings to start a fresh line of analysis and political reform. He counts three times in the past century — the Progressive Era, the Depression and the Sixties. These periods are critical junctures, he writes, because a new technology is disrupting the economics of the existing media; the journalism of the time is called into question as illegitimate; and major political and social crises are opening up new possibilities to push through significant reforms.

McChesney argues that we are in such a moment right now — and he clearly wants to make the most of it. Because his book stands at the intersection of scholarship and activism, it illuminates a great deal indeed.

What is bracing about McChesney’s argument is its broad historical sweep and the specific recommendations for communications scholars. In essence, McChesney wants his discipline to snap out of its moral narcosis and begin to initiate muscular, empirical research about the political economy of communication. Let’s study the role of the media in advancing the globalization of commerce. Let’s study how journalism fosters — or impedes — democratic culture. Let’s talk about the political economy of the Internet, and how copyright law and spectrum policies advance the goals of the First Amendment, or not.

We are all accustomed to learning about media politics through fleeting sound bites, amidst all the other cultural detritus that pours into our consciousness every day. It can be difficult to develop a more coherent understanding of what’s going on. Well, here’s the antidote: a calm, clear-headed and insightful Big Picture account of media politics. Highly recommended.