Thursday, May 13

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.