Friday 28 August 2009

A more or less partisan press?

The Political Economy of Media: enduring issues, emerging dilemmas, by Robert W Mc Chesney (Monthly Review Press, 2008)
‘...more of the world is formally democratic today, yet most people feel like the fundamental decisions in their societies are increasingly beyond their control’ – Robert McChesney (p. 246)

The belief that a free press should form the cornerstone of any healthy democracy is a well worn plank of liberal theory; and as more countries declare themselves democratic, their lack of a free press has become the criticism of choice amongst Western commentators – even ahead of pointing out the absence of opposition parties. The idea has deep roots in the history of American liberty: Thomas Jefferson and James Madison theorised that an autonomous media should aim to keep class inequality and militarism – which they took as the greatest threats to self-government – at bay. And conversely, critics of American society never tire of noting the corruption and hypocrisy that goes unchecked in its own news networks. Yet the celebration of a free press as part of democracy as an end in itself seems to have risen up the agenda at the same rate that political engagement for more particular ends has fallen. The rallying cry for ‘more democracy’ coexists with a pernicious culture of cynical consent.

US media critic Robert McChesney’s recently published collection of essays, a compilation of his academic and journalistic work from over the past thirty years, starts from the premise that American political culture is dominated by neoliberalism (‘the doctrine that profits should rule as much of social life as possible’) and goes on to discuss the issues and dilemmas faced by the emerging field of ‘political economy of media’. His basic thesis traces the democratic failure of the contemporary US press in assuaging class inequality and militarism to its ruthless drive for profit in an insidious climate of consumerism, corporate dominance and individualism. Split into three sections, covering Journalism, Critical Studies and Politics and Media Reform respectively, this inch-thick volume offers a rich and rigorous critique that touches on historical analysis, the state of the American Left and future of media reform.

McChesney does an excellent job of articulating the approach of good media research. He uncovers the flaws inherent in many corporate media and points to the problems created when editors and owners produce papers and programmes based solely and explicitly on profit margins rather than principled journalism. The image, prevalent on the American right, of packed newsrooms buzzing with liberal-minded journalists grinding a big axe against big business is thoroughly debunked. When there are intimate relationships between media, political and business elites, this impedes autonomous coverage and sounds the death knell for investigative journalism, he says. Whilst the ‘conventional wisdom’ holds professional journalism solved the problem of monopoly capitalist control of media by creating a trained cadre of independent minded journalists, in reality it has created tepid commentary that simply reflects elite opinion. There is a refreshing argument to the tune that the internet has great potential but will not be bringing about The Revolution anytime soon. These 589 pages hold a treasure trove of valuable nuggets that represent the culmination of decades of research into an increasingly complicated and important field.

Yet the history of democracy and its discontents is chequered. The most elegant detractors from formal democracy and the so-called free press have not been businessmen chasing profit or neoliberal ideologies but theorists of the far left. For the thinkers of the early twentieth century, democracy itself was ultimately a form of dictatorship – a bourgeois state – and the breeding of corruption, inequality and apathy could only be countered and eventually overcome through mass political participation. Whilst it is as wrongheaded as it is fashionable to romanticise the writers of the past, it is partly the fear of another Holocaust or Gulag that has turned political life across the board into the fearful fiddling around the edges, which serves to problematise ‘ideologically’ based journalism and inflate the importance of having ‘good evidence’ as if information about the world is value-neutral.

Indeed, there is something odd about a ‘political economic critique’ which frequently references ‘the logic of capitalist accumulation’ yet gives little emphasis to its broader context, or ever discusses the historical emergence of the sphere of politics or its current decrepitude. In the opening essay, ‘The Problem of Journalism’ McChesney says, ‘during the nineteenth century, the logic of newspaper publishing changed from being primarily political to being primarily commercial’. Newspapers were at first politically partisan in reflecting the interests and values of their owners as a propertied class, yet as production costs fell they began to generate increasing profits and advertising became a new source of revenue. This gradual process of commercialisation led to more corruption and rabid sensationalism in order to stimulate sales, creating a conflict between ‘the commercial economics of the press and its explicitly partisan politics’. And ‘throughout this era, socialists, feminists, abolitionists, trade unionists, and radicals’ began to print their own material to further their own interests.

McChesney notes that one benefit of the partisan approach was that it allowed journalists to contextualise and interpret events in a broader ‘political ideology’, which is absent or else hidden today. Yet scant prominence is given to the fact that the rise of socialists and trade unionists during the nineteenth century represented most importantly the birth of political opposition and the maturing of ‘right’ and ‘left’ ideologies into the forms that would dominate the next century. The same technological developments that allowed newspaper owners to increase profits meant others could begin to distribute their own ideas. The emergence of presses that represented coherent and opposed ways of seeing the world came as part of the developing political terrain and growing awareness of class divides, rather than simply business owners simply trying to sell more papers. If profit had been their sole motive, a more rational option for them would have been to launch a socialist rag to meet increasing demand.

Counter to the underlying implication in this collection, it cannot be simply business’ bloodthirsty desire for profit that has led to the disintegration of stalwart journalism and civic life today. There is also the matter of a very real defeat of the left, inability to give meaningful critiques of capitalist society, and the discreditating of any alternative, which has hurried on apathy, cynicism and lack of political contestation tout court. Whilst the idea of neoliberalism implies a diminished public sphere where people become ‘consumers’ rather than ‘citizens’, as is often mentioned, this diminution is not merely ideological, but the result of a real, long historical process - and one that comes hand in hand with lagging rates of economic growth.

McChesney further documents how the lack of public service broadcasting in the US means business tends to control agendas through sponsorship, funding and advertising, leading to a right dominated press. Nevertheless, not all business has ‘right wing’ politics in obvious ways. The development of public service broadcasting in America, he claims would generate more opportunities for radical ideas to enter the mainstream, and a more democratically functioning press. Yet public service broadcasting would only pursue the public good in this sense in an obvious way; and whilst it may be true that large news networks neglect to report a protest or dissident voice today, it would be difficult to say the same of the radical social changes that happened in American society during the 1960s. Partly, it is because there is little radical going on and paltry appetite for ‘radical ideas’. It is equally true that it is far easier now to start up new journals, papers, radio stations and TV channels to put forward alternate points of view than ever before, to build constituencies and authorities through the long process of winning arguments.

To be fair, in the essay Noam Chomsky and the struggle against neoliberalism McChesney notes that ‘neoliberalism’s loudest message is that there is no alternative to the status quo’ (p290) and further comments that ‘it remains unclear how we might establish a viable, free, and humane post-capitalist order – the very notion has a utopian air about it’. Yet it should be stressed that the very real and understandable lack of direction and nerve at the level of ideas impedes the force of ‘radical’ viewpoints in broader society far more than a mainstream press with an agenda. In fact, it is telling the BBC as a public broadcaster has far more legitimacy internationally than it does domestically, as in the UK it is better known for chasing audiences rather than trying to create them. The responsibility for the demise of the authority of public service broadcasting in Britain doesn’t lie with the availability of Rupert Murdoch’s Sky TV however, but has more to do with the BBC no longer having many admirers and more usually reflecting the opinions of existing elites.

So it is salutary that McChesney supports creating a robust press system to check those in power and report on the important events of the day, and championing media reform is a step in the right direction. However, the answer would seem to be to become more partisan rather than less, to develop alternate points of view and create publics rather than assuming them.

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Culture Wars in association with the Battles in Print, specially commissioned essays for the Battle of Ideas festival, with 2010’s essays now online.

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