CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - Robert McChesney and other reformers have been talking for years about media politics, but few were listening.
In 2003 that all changed, as the public revolted, from across the political spectrum, against Federal Communications Commission rule changes allowing for increased concentration of media ownership.
"For the first time in generations," McChesney writes in his new book, "media policy issues were taken from behind closed doors and made the stuff of democratic discourse and political engagement."
Encouraging that discourse and engagement was a principal motive in writing "The Problem of the Media: U.S. Communication Politics in the 21st Century" (Monthly Review Press), said McChesney, a professor in the Institute of Communications Research at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He also is a co-founder of Free Press, a group organized in 2002 to promote greater public participation in media policy-making.
"This book is basically, ideally, a way for citizens to understand how the system works so they can change it effectively," he said.
The book also is a work of scholarship, "the culmination of work I've been doing for a decade," McChesney said. With significant new research on the history, politics and policies behind the U.S. media system, he addresses what he says are eight common myths that often keep the public disengaged. Among them:
• The corporate, commercial media system is a natural and logical outgrowth of democracy.
• The commercial news media, with its codes of professional journalism, provide the highest quality journalism possible.
• The news media today have a left-wing bias.
• The commercial media "give people what they want."
To understand the case for media reform, according to McChesney, means dispensing with the notion that the current system is somehow "natural" or the product of a free market. "It's not a free-market system, but in fact a system that was created by and run by government policies and subsidies."
In the early decades of the republic, those policies and subsidies supported a diverse range of media, McChesney wrote. The idea of a free press was that it should serve the needs of democracy, and not the profit motives of media owners. Key among those subsidies was a significant discount for delivery of newspapers by the post office.
"The problems we have with the media today ... are in fact the result of highly corrupt policy-making that lets a handful of commercial interests have inordinate power," McChesney said. The government's policies and subsidies, especially in the area of broadcasting, largely serve those commercial interests. Although the public owns the airwaves, for instance, commercial broadcasters use them at no charge from the government, he said.
The products of the current system, from its "deplorable journalism" to its "hyper-commercialism," are a logical result of the policies upon which it is based, McChesney said. A change in the policies will produce different results.
"The most important struggle is simply to convince people that the media are political forces that can be shaped, not natural ones that must be endured," he wrote in the concluding chapter on the "uprising of 2003."
For those persuaded by his concerns and his viewpoint, McChesney ends on an optimistic note: "We have a very long way to go. But the very hardest battle has been won. Media reform is now thinkable. Nothing will ever be the same again."