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Professor: Communication system at critical juncture, time for action is now

Craig Chamberlain, News Editor

Bob McChesney
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Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
“Media policy is becoming everybody’s business,” and its direction is at a “critical juncture” – possibly short-lived – when significant change is possible, says Bob McChesney, a professor of speech communication, media historian, and media reform activist.

Released 10/15/2007

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Our communication system is rapidly transforming before our eyes. But we don’t have to just watch, University of Illinois professor Bob McChesney says in a new book. In fact, we shouldn’t.

“Media policy is becoming everybody’s business,” and its direction is at a “critical juncture” – possibly short-lived – when significant change is possible, according to McChesney, a professor of speech communication, media historian, and media reform activist.

In “Communication Revolution: Critical Junctures and the Future of Media,” being published this month by The New Press, McChesney argues from his study of history that such junctures in communication are few and far between. Most of our major media institutions are the result of such times, when policies could have – and often should have, he believes – gone in different directions.

At this current critical juncture, “the future of our media system is very much up for grabs,” McChesney said. “It’s very much going to be determined by what we do in the next few years.” And the future course of American democracy may be in the balance, he said.

McChesney has been a prolific writer on the subject of media history and reform in the past decade, as the author or co-author of books such as “Tragedy and Farce: How the American Media Sell Wars, Spin Elections, and Destroy Democracy,” “The Problem of the Media,” and “Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Times.”

In all of these books, as in his current book, he makes no secret of his disdain for numerous trends he sees in the modern media: its consolidation under fewer and fewer large corporations; its ever-growing commercialism, such as in advertising directed at children; the influence of industry money and lobbyists on politicians and politics, and the weakening and distortion of journalism.

McChesney has strongly argued against the perception that media systems are somehow a natural outgrowth of society, or at least free enterprise. On the contrary, he has written, those systems are created by policies and subsidies determined through government action, going back to the country’s founding.

That is the first of “five truths” about communication that McChesney described in “Communication Revolution.” The others:

• The nation’s founders did not authorize, with the First Amendment, “a corporate-run, profit-motivated, commercially driven media system.”

• The media system “may be profit-motivated, but it is not a free-market system.”

• “The policymaking process is of paramount importance in understanding how a media system is structured and how the subsidies are allocated.”

• That process in the U.S. “has been dominated by powerful corporate interests with almost nonexistent public participation for generations; it must be addressed if the media system is to be reformed.”

In his current book, McChesney suggests that the field of media studies has lost significant prominence over the last three decades, even as the importance of the media in society has grown dramatically. In addition, much of the research being done disregards the dramatic changes taking place.

“I think most of the scholarship in communication takes for granted a certain type of media system,” McChesney said, “but it’s disappearing, whether we like it or not.”

Many key areas related to media policy are crying out for study, but getting little attention, except through “coin-operated research” by media corporations, McChesney said. “This is a moment of opportunity for us to resume our rightful position as scholars, because there are so many crucial policy decisions being made in media right now and in the coming years.”

McChesney, in his new book, also supplies his take on the early history of the current media-reform movement, especially through the five-year development of the organization Free Press, of which he is a founding member.

As part of that account, he describes the surprising grassroots revolt in 2003 against proposals to relax federal rules against media consolidation, as well as battles against cuts to public broadcasting and corporate attempts to limit Internet access.

“Before 2003 the operating assumption was that (media reform) was the last issue people would organize around, if only because it seemed so ‘wonky,’ ” McChesney wrote. That assumption proved wrong. “Media reform, rather than being the last issue people will turn to, may actually be a gateway issue for political engagement,” he wrote.

And though media reform is clearly a movement with progressive tendencies, attracting greater numbers from that end of the political spectrum, it also is nonpartisan, McChesney said. Many self-described conservatives, and conservative groups, have joined in fights against media consolidation and other corporate-supported actions.

“There is no sort of principled conservative opposition to us, per se. The opposition to us is almost all money-driven,” McChesney said.

The debate about the future of the media at this juncture, he said, is not one of free market versus government regulation. “It’s either government regulation working corruptly for corporate interests or government regulation out in the open working for all our interests, subject to debate.”