The Political Economy of Media: Enduring Issues, Emerging Dilemmas

Robert W. McChesney
Monthly Review Press (2008)

Reviewed by David Weiss

This book review was originally published by Theory in Action, Vol. 3, No.1, January 2010 (© 2010) DOI:10.3798/tia.1937-0237.10013


“There is an opportunity before us to reinvigorate journalism and, with that, democratic governance in the United States. But we need to correctly understand the source of the problem to prescribe the solutions… [W]ithout viable journalism we not only make democracy unthinkable, we open the door to a tyranny beyond most of our imaginations. I argue herein that the political economy of media is uniquely positioned to provide the insights necessary for constructive action.”
Robert McChesney, The Political Economy of Media, 118.

Robert McChesney opens his 589-page tome by acknowledging that “whereas some readers may devour the book from beginning to end…many readers will be as likely to read only a handful of chapters, or read the chapters out of order” (8). For better or worse, and despite having separately read and taught sections of this book, I chose to read The Political Economy of Media (henceforth, TPEOM) from front to back.

Doing so revealed the book’s flaws as a collection (as I detail below), yet also its strengths—or, more accurately, the strengths of its author’s ideas, the depth of his copious research, his profound and broad knowledge of media and economic history and theory, his personal and professional devotion to education in all the best senses of that word, and his commitment to bringing the fruits of his academic labor to bear on the process of social, political, and policy change. For Robert McChesney is not merely a brilliant scholar and perhaps the foremost political economist of media of our time; he is a passionate advocate and tireless activist for media reform, embodying personally the claim he makes (repeatedly) throughout TPEOM about the study and critical analysis of political economy being inextricably linked to political and social action and reform. In McChesney’s words, “the political economy of media has always been about the task of enhancing participatory democracy; media and communication systems are a means to an end, with the end being social justice and human happiness . . . It is only in the context of people coming together to struggle for social change that depoliticization is vanquished and victory becomes plausible, even inevitable” (151, 153).

McChesney, an endowed professor of communication at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is also host of a weekly radio show, Media Matters; the co-founder of Free Press, a leading media-reform organization; and a fixture on the public radio and live lecture circuits, where he speaks regularly about media, journalism, and politics—and most recently, about net neutrality, an issue for which he is a tireless advocate. His writing frequently informs speeches and position papers on issues of media reform and regulation delivered by U.S. senators and representatives. Fittingly, TPEOM reflects, even exemplifies, McChesney’s approach to media political economy as a field of study that inevitablyimbricates theory and political and social action.

As McChesney explains in the introduction to TPEOM (and elsewhere, many times, in only slightly varying ways), political economy of media is

a field that endeavors to connect how media and communication systems are shaped by ownership, market structures, commercial support, technologies, labor practices, and government policies. The political economy of media then links the media and communication systems to how both economic and political systems work, and social power is exercised, in society. (12)

However, while many scholars who categorize themselves as political economists of media limit their work to merely the (critical) study of those issues, McChesney sees—and enacts—the direct connection between his scholarly specialty and direct political action. Indeed, his definition of political economy of media does not stop with theoretical concerns and questions, but, rather, only begins there:

The central question for media political economists is whether, on balance, the media system serves to promote or undermine democratic institutions and practices. Are media a force for social justice or for oligarchy? And equipped with that knowledge, what are the options for citizens to address the situation? Ultimately, the political economy of media is a critical exercise, committed to enhancing democracy.

Given this “mission statement” at the center of a discipline that, in other scholars’ hands, is purely an academic pursuit, it should be no surprise that TPEOM serves as both a virtual encyclopedia of the theory of political economy and also a call for, and practical guide to, taking direct action.

TPEOM consists of twenty-three chapters, most of which were published as either book chapters or journal articles between 1984 and 2008, usually in somewhat different form, and often as co-authored pieces with other activist-scholars in the fields of political economy, media reform, and/or journalism. As McChesney warns in his book’s preface, TPEOM “brings together what I regard as the best elements of much of my research in the political economy of media over the past two decades. It is not meant to be representative.” This non-representative “bringing together” approach captures what is both praiseworthy and problematic about TPEOM, an excessively large even if not strictly exhaustive assortment of the author’s writings between 1984 and 2008. For, despite McChesney’s grossly understated claim that he “edited out as much repetition as possible, because I tend to return to a number of familiar themes in my articles” (8), the degree of repetition—and, in too many cases, overt recycling of content—in the book is, in fact, rather mind-numbing.

Repetition notwithstanding, the quantity and importance of the topics covered in TPEOM, and the consistent, direct application of theory to practice in the coverage of those topics, is impressive. The book’s contents span articles and chapters about the current, sorry state of journalism both domestic and global; the history of the development of the broadcast media system in the United States (and its tragic hijacking by corporate interests); explorations of the inevitably insidious intertwining of corporate, political, and media power; ruminations about the role the Internet might or might not play in the democratization of media control and content; critical analyses of media reform movements around the world (and comparisons to the virtual non-existence of such movements in the U.S.); systematic deconstructions of neoliberalism and, in particular, the neoliberalist claim that the only truly “American” media system is an unregulated “free-market” system (despite the fact that, as Mc-Chesney repeatedly demonstrates, U.S. media systems have always and only been beneficiaries of government policies granting media owners not only massive subsidies but also near-monopoly licenses); and comparisons between Left/labor movements in the U.S. and abroad—among many, many other topics.

Of particular relevance to readers of Theory In Action, McChesney consistently and expressly links virtually every historical fact, theoretical explication, philosophical argument, critical analysis, and statistical data point to a call for action (including, in many cases, specific directions to follow in the process of building or revising a platform for change)— even in those sections of his book not ostensibly devoted to the cause of reform. What inevitably results, though, is a reading experience that is useful but redundant, despite McChesney’s intention to segment his volume into different areas of focus.

The first of three large sections, entitled “Journalism,” has as its stated purpose the presentation of “research that is to assist us as we attempt to establish a media system that we can rationally expect to generate the journalism we need to engage in self-government” (23). Specific topics critically addressed in the section’s five chapters include the gutting of newsroom staffs (and the inevitable result: shoddy journalism) in the pursuit of corporate profits; the “exhuming” of the century-old tradition of radical media criticism in the United States, touching on the work of everyone from Upton Sinclair to Noam Chomsky; the failure of the American press to challenge the Bush White House’s claims and rationalizations during the 2002-2003 run-up to the Iraq War; and the media policies and subsidies historically and currently in place that encourage the maintenance of the status quo. This section of the book is most successful as a cohesive, thematically unified collection of essays. Still, given the repetition of what McChesney calls his “familiar themes”—most important, the critique of contemporary journalism’s failure to serve as a “rigorous watchdog of those in power and who want to be in power,” to “ferret out truth from lies,” and to “present a wide range of informed positions on the important issues of the day” (25 and elsewhere), it is not necessary that an interested reader tackle all five of its chapters, nor that she read them in order.

“Critical Studies” is the name of section II. As this amorphous title suggests, the issues covered in this nine-chapter section are rather diverse—everything from the history of public broadcasting and a warning about the dangers of advertising and hyper-commercialism, to a detailed statistical exegesis of the “new” digital economy, a critique of the globalization of media corporations and content, and a survey of the centuries old interrelationships between the worlds of media and professional sports. It is not always clear why some Section II essays were placed where they were—or, in some cases, included in the book at all. Chapters six and seven, for example, both explore the struggle between commercial forces and educational/social reformers for control of radio in the 1920s and ‘30s; in doing so, they tackle many of the issues addressed in Section I (“Journalism”) and would have therefore been just as effective there. More problematically, the two chapters cover nearly the same ground, actually including identical sentences and some nearly identical paragraphs. (The chapters’ titles alone should have raised a red flag for McChesney’s editors: “The Battle for the U.S. Airwaves, 1928-1935” and “The Payne Fund and Radio Broadcasting, 1928-1935.”) Surely a more forceful editorial team might have succeeded in convincing McChesney to leave one of these chapters out of TPEOM—or, failing that, in merging the contents of the two into one non-redundant essay that would still “provide a tradition to draw from as we face important questions of the relationship of communication to democracy” (212). Chapter eight (“Media Made Sport: A History of Sports Coverage in the United States”), while interesting reading, might also have been omitted from TPEOM, as it—uncharacteristically for a McChesney essay—offers little or nothing in the way of recommendations for leveraging its historical content into pragmatic guidelines for reform. Still, the middle section of the book provides evidence that the pressing concerns of McChesney’s activist political economy of media reach well beyond the confines of journalism, extending into nearly all aspects of popular culture and entertainment, government policy, and First Amendment law.

The final section of the book is “Politics and Media Reform.” A reader scanning only the table of contents of TPEOM might assume that it is only (or primarily) here that she would encounter proposals for effecting meaningful change in the service of participatory democracy. But she would be wrong. Indeed, by the time the reader reaches this third section, she will have already encountered McChesney’s prescriptions for change (policy reforms to strengthen or enforce journalism education, media literacy progams, student media, the public broadcasting system, net neutrality, enforcement of antitrust laws, community broadcasting, and a host of others) and, in most cases, steps that must be taken by Left, labor, and other social change-minded factions to move these media policy issues to the center of their broader reform agendas. Still, in Section III, she will encounter a few new topics, such as a particularly insightful explanation for the dearth of debate in U.S. political culture about the legitimacy of corporate media, a fascinating account of the (sadly) anomalous 2003 citizen uprising against the Federal Communications Commission in the wake of that agency’s attempt to further loosen media ownership regulations, and a stunning criticism of the Left’s failure both to use the media effectively and to recognize media reform as central to its broader mission of social change. (“The Left can use media as an educational tool to explain the flaws in the existing social order and to present its vision of what a more democratic society would look like [and] can also use media reform as an issue that unites its disparate elements” (388)). Of course, if the reader is smarter than I was, and approaches TPEOM in a piecemeal fashion rather than reading it in its entirety from front to back, she will find in just about any Section III chapter the same useful blend of history, theory, critique, and call to action (and variations on McChesney’s favorite “familiar themes”) that can be found in just about any section I or section II chapter—again, for better or worse.

The advantage of the repetition (or, depending upon your perspective, the consistency) of the contents of TPEOM is that its facts are important, its arguments persuasive, its connections insightful, and its recommended actions appropriate and necessary—meaning that a reader who decides to peruse even just one chapter of TPEOM is more than likely to encounter something both convincing and useful, usually an essay that combines fascinating (and often surprising) historical background about the development of media systems and their intricate relationships to government and society; insights from political economic theoreticians and other critical scholars of the media, including but by no means limited to

McChesney himself; a practical rationale for being aware of said history and theory; and, finally, recommendations for specific actions that can and must be taken to raise public awareness, challenge and change current media systems, and agitate for reform of government media policies. Indeed, McChesney’s defense of his predilection to repeatedly explore past movements, struggles, defeats, and occasional victories can be applied to the project he urges into action by the publication of his own book: “Studying the structural press criticism across numerous eras [and societies] amounts to locating the indisputable common denominators of the current crisis. It is a tool for greater understanding, stronger critique, and a robust movement for that elusive goal: change” (82).

 1 David Weiss is Assistant Professor of media studies at Montana State University-Billings. His research encompasses critical approaches to mediated and other public discourse, particularly debates over identity and representation; political communication; religious rhetoric in the public sphere; and governmental/legal language. He is currently editing a book about religious discourse in Democratic Party politics and co-editing a collection of essays about the rhetoric of American exceptionalism. Address correspondence to: David Weiss; e-mail: