Thursday, May 13

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.