Robert McChesney, 'Communication Revolution: Critical Junctures and the Future of the Media'

IssueApril 2009
Review by Gabriel Carlyle

Though some of us may not fully appreciate it, media and communication systems (and the policies and subsidies that helped create them) should be a central concern for all activists. For example, without docile and generally compliant media it is difficult to see how the British government could have taken part in the disastrous and illegal 2003 invasion of Iraq – or survived the aftermath of having done so – or how it could continue to drive us at full pelt towards the cliff-edge of catastrophic climate change.

Nonetheless, though many of the problems with the existing systems have long been understood, (Chomsky and Herman’s Manufacturing Consent was published in 1988, Ben Bagdikian’s The Media Monopoly in 1983), for much of this period there seemed little hope of effecting major systemic change for the better any time in the foreseeable future.

This has now changed, in large part as a result of revolutionary technologies such as the internet. Indeed, as Robert McChesney notes in this inspiring clarion call to both communication scholars and the general public (a tricky balancing act!), “We have an unprecedented opportunity in the coming generation to create a communication system that will be a powerful impetus to a dramatically more egalitarian, humane, sustainable, and creative society” – though the window of opportunity will not be open for long and success is far from foreordained: it will only happen if organised people make it so.

After reviewing the dismal state of academic communication studies, the rise and (hopefully temporary) fall of research into the “political economy of communication” (which examines, among other things, how market structures, advertising, and government policies shape the nature and content of news and entertainment), and the subsequent “historical turn” by many scholars from this tradition (such as McChesney himself, who did pioneering research on the extensive organised resistance in the 1920s and early 1930s to the creation of the United States’ current commercial broadcasting system), McChesney provides a whistle-stop account of the current US media reform movement, which began in 2003 as a massive grassroots uprising against further media consolidation.

For obvious reasons, activists may find this latter section the book’s most engaging. In the summer of 2003, with just a few hours’ notice of a crucial vote, campaigners were able to mobilise an estimated 40,000 people to call their congressional representatives – blowing out the phone systems in many offices – and by 2007 “grassroots organisations were able to take on the most powerful corporate lobbies in America over a once obscure, technical-sounding issue [Net Neutrality ie preventing the de facto privatisation of the internet] and fight it to a draw in a Republican-controlled Congress.”

The battle is far from won, but also far from hopeless. Indeed, according to McChesney, “there are grounds to believe that the corporate stranglehold over [the US] media system is very much in jeopardy today.”

With the benefit of hindsight, the current changes may or may not be recognised as the fourth great communication “transformation” in human history (following language, writing and the printing press). Whether they are also a democratic revolution though, is up to us.

Topics: Media
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