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.


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