Thursday, May 13

Communication Revolution 3: The historical turn

What is “the historical turn”?

Harking back to my previous post, McChesney credits Marx as the origin of much of the revitalization in communication studies. Adopting Marx’s emphasis on historicism (not his emphasis on historical determinism) provides the “historical turn” for many disciplines, including communication. In chapter 3 of Communication Revolution, McChesney tells the story of how he personally came to realize the importance of historicism—the necessity of taking the historical turn—in his own academic career.

He notes that communication adopted historicism partly for pragmatic reasons, not just philosophical ones. While “History provided an opportunity to be less abstract and more concrete” (100), it also made communication “ideologically less threatening” (100) and allowed its “evidence [to] be more soberly appraised” (100). Also, adopting a historical perspective gave communication academic gravitas and afforded it more respect in the academy.

McChesney ascribes his historical “epiphany” (101) to a book titled The Media Monopoly, written in 1986 by Ben Bagdikian. According to McChesney, many books had already “chronicl[ed—and continued to chronicle] the weaknesses of the journalism produced in the commercial media system” (101), but Bagdikian went further. He “deconstructed professional journalism to reveal how, instead of protecting the public interest, it also had inbred biases that served the commercial and political interests of media owners” (101). This led McChesney to wonder how, why, and when this came to be, because he refused to believe that this is simply the way things have always been and thus are supposed to be. So, he began a historical study and turned to the commercialization of radio in the 1920s and 1930s and, not surprisingly, “found evidence of extensive organized opposition to commercial broadcasting” (103). He found that mainstream scholars, “even when staring at the documentary evidence suggesting the contrary, . . . accepted the claim that commercial broadcasting was the natural American system” (103).

For McChesney, taking the historical turn means looking to the past to determine actual causes rather than assuming that things are they way they are because that is the way they are supposed to be. In doing so, he says, “I was able to look at the same material as other scholars had and see patterns no one had noticed before” (104). And it was not only a matter of interpreting the same sources differently: “And I was able to locate reams of material no one had ever even looked at before” (104).

The historical turn, however, does not only look to the past. For McChesney and those of like mind, it also looks to the future. He now uses his understanding of history in an effort to affect positive change in the present in hope of a better future. For him, this means advocating public policy that removes communication—including media, journalism, and telecommunications—from the control of both the state and the “free” market and puts it directly in the hands of the people.

McChesney, Robert W. Communication Revolution: Critical Junctures and the Future of Media. New York: New Press, 2007. Print.

Communication Revolution 2: Political Economy of Communication

What does McChesney mean by “political economy of communication” and why is this so important to him?

Chapter 2 of Communication Revolution provides a history of the discipline of communication since the critical juncture (see my previous post) it faced in the 1960s and also of McChesney’s personal academic ancestry in the field. The “political economy of communication” refers to an attitude toward or a school of thought within the discipline that came to be as a result of two internal splits.

McChesney writes of his years as a graduate student in this period, “I found myself in the midst of an intellectual war zone” (40), with the combatants being “mainstream” and “critical” scholars. Mainstream research was largely quantitative and descriptive in nature and did not question the status quo of the role of communication in American society—it did not question its assumptions. Importantly, “These presuppositions included a belief in the basic propriety of the U.S. political economy and the justness of the corporate media system” (40). Critical research, as its name implies, did engage in such foundational critique: “To critical scholars, this adherence to uncritical assumptions was a thoroughgoing abrogation of intellectual responsibility” (40).

As you might imagine from my previous post, McChesney came down on the side of critical research. He devotes a significant amount of this chapter to explaining the role Karl Marx plays in critical approaches to all disciplines and to communication in particular. Without recounting this entire discussion, let me offer McChesney high praise for explaining this more clearly than I have ever heard or read before. He notes that initially, to be of the critical school was seen as also necessarily being anti-capitalist and thus anti-democratic and thus communist or socialist. Acknowledging that “the socialist movement in the sense Marx understood it ran its course nearly a century ago” (47), McChesney goes on to quote Edward Herman, a colleague and collaborator of Noam Chomsky: “We should not ignore what Herman characterizes as the second Karl Marx, an ‘exceptionally intelligent and learned observer of capitalism’” (48).

Originally an anti-mainstream coalition, critical scholarship itself split into two camps in the early 1980s, both generally and specifically in communication:
On the one side came the post-structuralists and the postmodernists, often engaging in high theory with a decreasing interest in capitalism, socialism, or organized social change; on the other side were those more concerned with conventional politics, . . . often emphasizing the importance of criticizing capitalism and asserting the continuing importance of class analysis as an organizing concept. (59)
The first camp became known as cultural studies, and the second, with which McChesney aligned, focuses on the “subfield” or “area” of communication that became known as the political economy of communication.

This term indicates that its adherents assert the role that communication—media, journalism, telecommunications, etc.—today plays not in providing the people with information but instead in supporting the agendas of the political and economic elite. McChesney discusses at length many critics whose works are seminal to the political economy of communication. They, and their topics of study, include the following:
- Dallas Smythe: “how commercialism is the defining feature of U.S. television; how U.S. broadcast regulation and policy debates were distorted to serve corporate interests; the commercialization of the electoral process; and the elements of propaganda in the U.S. media system” (62).
- Herman and Chomsky: “developed the ‘propaganda model’ to explain the pro-elite and antidemocratic bias built into the U.S. news media coverage of public affairs. . . . The system works not through any form of conspiracy; its is a ‘guided market’ system where core values are internalized so that the story selection process seems natural and proper” (65).
- Also, “Chomsky, more than any other figure, argued that the United States was far from being a genuine democracy, and that the media system played a major role in cementing inegalitarian class relations” (66).
- Robert A. Brady: “compared the situation in Nazi Germany and fascist Italy with the United States, and saw parallels in the use of media, public relations, and advertising to control public opinion” (66).

As you can tell, the political economy of communication has a very activist attitude toward the role that communication should play in American society, and “When social activism outside the academy was strong, it energized the research [of this school of thought] and gave it meaning” (83). However, “The problem for the political economy of communication (and critical work more broadly) came in the 1980s, when it was clear that the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s had collapsed” (83). However, one lasting legacy of this period in communications history is today’s nearly ubiquitous distrust, according to McChesney, of journalism as an unbiased, objective, pro-populist profession. Rather, “The corruption of journalism, the decline of investigative reporting, the degeneration of political reporting and international journalism, the collapse of local journalism are now roundly acknowledged by all but the owners of large media firms and their hired guns” (94).

McChesney, Robert W. Communication Revolution: Critical Junctures and the Future of Media. New York: New Press, 2007. Print.

Communication Revolution 1: Intro & Role of the Academy

This first entry on Communication Revolution will introduce the book’s thesis and address the first question posed to me: What significance does academe have at this “critical juncture”?

In his 2007 book Communication Revolution: Critical Junctures and the Future of Media, Robert W. McChesney identifies the United States as being at a “critical juncture in media and communication” (10). For him, a “critical juncture” is “a period in which the old institutions and mores are collapsing . . . [They are] relatively rare and brief periods in which dramatic changes [are] debated and enacted drawing from a broad palette of options” (9). If you’ve heard of or read Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, think “paradigm shift.”

McChesney says that any two of three conditions must exist to create a critical juncture. Today, first, “There is a revolutionary new communication technology”—namely, the internet, and more specifically, Web 2.0—“that undermines the existing system” (10) of print and broadcast media. Second, “The content of the media system, especially the journalism, is increasingly discredited or seen as illegitimate” (10). Looking at just one side of the political spectrum, conservative commentator “Sean Hannity has said that ‘Journalism is dead’” (O’Neill), and liberal pundits often say the same when pointing to conservative news outlets.

For McChesney, these conditions combine to create a perfect storm of sorts that will hopefully give rise to a new paradigm of communication, journalism, and media that will empower the individual and revitalize democracy. However, he also sees the distinct possibility that this moment of crisis will come down on the side of the already-powerful, including the political establishment and the nearly monolithic industry that emerged in America, particularly since the Telecommunications Act of 1996 that loosened the restrictions on the number of media outlets that a company can own in a given market.

If the former outcome is to prevail rather than the latter, the academic discipline of communications must step up to the plate, according to McChesney:
My argument is that during a critical juncture, scholars simply need to broaden their horizons and engage with the crucial political and social issues of the moment. Question presuppositions and abandon them; replace them, unless the weight of evidence justifies their maintenance. Dive in head-first equipped only with curiosity, democratic values, and research skills, and see what happens. (13)

McChesney argues that academics hold a unique position that is vital to the thriving of a true democracy. Only tenured academics can be truly free from the interests of economic and political gain—unlike their “peers” in the private and governmental sectors—and can thus provide truly independent and honest research and reflection on the great debates that wage during a period of critical juncture. As he writes, “People outside the academy are going to have their judgment affected by the positions they are in . . . Societies need public intellectuals and need to provide them with some autonomy and insulation . . .” (17).

McChesney pulls no punches about the significance of the times in which we live and communicate. On one hand, they “may well lead to highly undesirable outcomes: the ongoing deterioration, even elimination, of journalism as we know it; the commercialization of every aspect of our cultures, including childhood; and the loss of a vision of public space or the common good” (xii). However, he hopes for the opposite: “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 . . .” (xii-xiii). Given their unique freedom from enslavement to economic or political gain, academics have a duty to provide their fellow citizens with the research and information they need to lead our nation down the correct path at this critical juncture in its history.

McChesney, Robert W. Communication Revolution: Critical Junctures and the Future of Media. New York: New Press, 2007. Print.
O'Neill, Jim. "The Death of Journalism." Canada Free Press. Canada Free Press, 29 Oct. 2008. Web. 12 May 2010.