The political economy of media

A new book of Robert McChesney More than any other work, The Political Economy of Media demonstrates the incompatibility of the corporate media system with a viable democratic public sphere, and the corrupt policymaking process that brings the system into existence. Among the most acclaimed communication scholars in the world, Robert W. McChesney has brought together all the major themes of his two decades of research. Rich in detail, evidence, and thoughtful arguments, The Political Economy of Media provides a comprehensive critique of the degradation of journalism, the hyper-commercialization of culture, the Internet, and the emergence of the contemporary media reform movement. The Political Economy of Media is mandatory reading for anyone wishing to understand and change media, and the political economy, in the world today.

Introdution. This book presents research and critical analysis in the tradition known as the political economy of media, also known as the political economy of communication. (Though for the most part I will use the term “political economy of media” in this book, I regard both terms as synonymous and have used them widely in my work over the years.) In Communication Revolution: Critical Junctures and the Future of Media, the 2007 book that is the companion volume to this one, I laid out my assessment of the field of political economy of media, its history, its domain, its relationship to other branches of communication research, its relationship with popular politics, and the pressing research issues before it. In this book I provide examples of my own research in this tradition, in twenty-three essays written in the quarter-century from 1984 to 2008.

To understand the purpose of political economy of communication is simple. Every year thousands of media scholars conduct research on different aspects of media and communication. Many of them study the content of the programs or the effects media have upon people. Some study how audiences use media. A growing number look at technology and how that changes the media experience. Nearly all of this research assumes a certain type of media system and that the nature of this system is inviolable. It also assumes a certain type of economic structure as being a given and inalterable. In this work, although formally neutral, the “givens” of commercial media and capitalist economics generally move seamlessly from the “inalterable given” to the “benevolent and not worth questioning” category. They are not subject to critical examination, and scholars who do are sometimes regarded with skepticism if not suspicion.

The political economy of media is the field of people in this latter camp. Political economists of media do not believe the existing media system is natural or inevitable or impervious to change. They believe the media system is the result of policies made in the public’s name but often without the public’s informed consent. They believe the nature of the media systems established by these policies goes a long way toward explaining the content produced by these media systems. Political economists of media believe that assessing policies, structures, and institutions cannot answer all of the important questions surrounding media, but they believe their contributions are indispensable to the comprehensive study of media.

Political economists of media assume the media system is an important factor in understanding how societies function, but they do not assume it is the only or most important variable. In many cases the work of political economists of media demonstrates how media affect other, more deep-seated tendencies in society, such as racism, sexism, militarism, and depoliticization. The significance of media varies depending upon what is being considered. In general, though, the importance of media and media systems has grown over the past two centuries.

How political economy of media proceeds is somewhat more complicated. It is a field that endeavors to connect how media and communication systems and content are shaped by ownership, market structures, commercial support, technologies, labor practices, and government policies. The political economy of media then links the media and communications systems to how both economic and political systems work, and social power is exercised, in society. Specifically, in the United States and much of the world, what role do media and communication play in how capitalist economies function, and how do both media and capitalism together and separately influence the exercise of political power? 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. It has emerged and blossomed during periods of relatively intense popular political activism, initially in the 1930s and 1940s, and then decisively in the 1960s and 1970s.

The political economy of media is often associated with the political Left, because of its critical stance toward the market, and because some of its most prominent figures were and are socialists. For many of the major figures in the field, changing the media system goes part and parcel with changing the broader economic system to produce a more humane and equitable society. But the “project” of political economy of media, to the extent it can be defined, grows directly out of mainstream liberal democratic political theory. Nor is this purely theoretical: the condition upon which the entire U.S. constitutional system rests is that there must be a viable and healthy press system for self-government to succeed. Hence the mission statement for the political economy of media is clear: what structures and policies generate the media institutions, practices, and system most conducive to viable self-government?

Along these lines, it is worth restating a point I developed in Communi­cation Revolution: Two factors that Thomas Jefferson and James Madison highlighted as among the greatest threats to the survival of democracy and constitutional rule in the United States were class inequality and militarism. From these two phenomena would grow corruption, secrecy, oligarchy, and a loss of liberty. To both Jefferson and Madison among the most crucial tasks of a free press were to undermine inequality by giving the poor and propertyless access to information, and also to monitor militarism on behalf of the public and prevent rulers of a rich land from following their inevitable imperial ambitions. Accordingly, political economists of media in the United States have had a particularly keen interest in the relationship of media systems and content to issues of inequality and militarism.

It is striking that inequality and militarism, the two concerns Jefferson and Madison had about the survival of the republic and the two issues that required a free press to monitor and keep in check, are arguably the central threats to self-government today. As we will see in the first section of the book, the press system has failed to fulfill the mandate provided by these two very wise men more than two hundred years ago. This may be the greatest failure of our press system today, reinforcing the greatest failures of our broader political economy.

The field of political economy of media has grown dramatically since the 1960s, for reasons that in the “Information Age” approach being self-evident. Few people doubt the importance of media, of journalism, of entertainment culture, of communication in general for shaping the world we live in. Moreover, media are a central part of the capitalist political economy, the center of the marketing system, and a source of tremendous profit in their own right. Media do not explain everything, but understanding media is indispensable to grasping the way power works in contemporary societies. It is worth repeating that political economy of media does not come close to explaining everything about media, not by a long stretch, but what it does do is essential for scholarly analysis to be comprehensive and accurate.

This book endeavors to provide arguments and research surrounding the enduring issues that define political economy of media past, present, and future. The enduring issues include:

• the nature of journalism and its relationship to democratic practices; how media firms and markets operate

• understanding propaganda, from governments, commercial interests, and private parties

• commercial media and the depoliticization of society

• the relationship of media to racial, gender, and economic inequality

• the relationship of media to U.S. foreign policy and militarism

• the specific role of advertising in shaping media markets and content

• the communication policymaking process

• telecommunication policies and regulations

• the relationship of communication to global and contemporary capitalism

• the nature of commercialism and its impact upon culture

• public broadcasting, and the establishment of alternative media institutions and systems

• the relationship of technology to media, and to politics and society

• the relationship of media to popular social movements

This book addresses some of these enduring issues, the ones I have studied, and draws from research on those areas I have not researched myself. I hope the essays herein contribute to providing a framework for studying all of them.

Yet despite the rise of the political economy of media to some prominence in recent decades, the field has struggled with an identity crisis in the past generation, due primarily to the emergence of neoliberalism, and to the Internet. This book chronicles these new developments, what I term the emerging dilemmas, and how they necessitate some rethinking and reformulation of the field’s tenets. In many respects it is the challenge of neoliberalism and the digital communication revolution that has shaped my research through much of my career. It defines most of the essays in this book.

The emerging dilemmas center on the changes in the global economy and the digital communication revolution, which are closely related. These developments undermine, or at least alter, traditional formulations of scholars in the political economy of media tradition. On the one hand is the question of the relationship of the nation-state to the economy and the communication system in an era when both operate increasingly along transnational lines, and where communication is increasingly central to the global economy. On the other hand, revolutionary digital communication technologies are in the process of blasting open the media system in a manner that is highly unusual, if not unprecedented. Much of the traditional thinking about communication—who says what to whom with what effect—has to be recalibrated.

Neoliberalism, put crudely, refers to the doctrine that profits should rule as much of social life as possible, and anything that gets in the way of profit making is suspect, if not condemned. Business good. Governments bad. Big business very good. Big government very bad. Taxes on the rich, bad. Social spending aimed at the poor and working class, even worse. Take care of number one, and everyone fend for yourself. There is no such thing as “society,” only individuals in fierce competition with one another, and their immediate families, the only permissible freeloaders. (In fact, family freeloading is the occupation of choice for those of great wealth. No ruthless market for those who can afford to opt out. Nice work, if you can get it.) Extreme and growing inequality is not only acceptable, it is the carrot necessary to give the wealthy incentive to get even richer so they will invest and spur growth, and it is the stick necessary for the poor to be willing to work harder and be more productive. Markets are infallible, the unquestionably superior way to regulate human existence and the basis for all other freedoms. Human interference through governments or labor unions, no matter how well intentioned, will only make matters worse in the long run, because it will lead away from a pure market solution. In a free society the state should only enhance and extend the power of the market; it should never interfere with the pursuit of profit except in the rarest of cases, like child pornography or hard drugs. Property über alles. Put this way, neoliberalism is simply capitalism with the gloves off.

Neoliberalism became ascendant in the 1980s and is associated with Reagan and Thatcher. It seemed to be cemented with the overthrow of communist regimes by the early 1990s and the notion that we had reached the “end of history.” There Is No Alternative, as Margaret Thatcher famously intoned. In this environment the political economy of media was thrown for a loop. What was its purpose, if all societies were best run by the market? What was the point of studying and criticizing commercial media, if that was the only plausible system, and the system toward which all nations were rapidly and inexorably moving?

Neoliberalism was the guiding principle behind capitalist globalization, the notion that free markets could bring prosperity and peace to the world if established on a global basis with minimal national government interference. In such a context, the traditional emphasis of political economy of media upon national policymaking seemed antiquated, if not reactionary. The best possible media system for nations and the world was one that let media corporations charge across the world seeking to maximize profit while ostensibly “giving the people what they want.” There was no need for people to study the political economy of media unless it was to cheerlead this process.

Neoliberalism was always an ideological argument to justify shifting power to the wealthy and away from the poor; it was never an accurate description of what was taking place in the economy. Contrary to neoliberal dogma, governments were not shrinking; they were simply working assiduously to assist capital and providing far fewer services for everyone else, especially the poor and working class.1 The prison system was growing as schools were in decline. This was especially true in the realm of media, where the entire system was based upon government-granted monopoly privileges and extraordinary direct and indirect subsides. There was hardly a free-market media system where the governments intervened after the free market created the system.

The end of the 1990s exposed the bankruptcy and contradictions of neoliberalism. The anti-globalization movement combined with the widespread rejection of neoliberal policies in democratic elections across the planet, most dramatically in Latin America, demolished the aura of “the end of history.” It is now far better understood that capitalism in general and media systems in particular rely as much as ever upon the state playing a very large role. Neoliberalism was not an effort to eliminate the state; rather it was an effort to have the state work purely in the interests of capital or large media corporations. Armed with this insight, the political economy of media has been rejuvenated. Accordingly, there has been a massive increase in popular activism to shape media policies in the United States and worldwide over the past decade. In this book I address this emerging media activism as it has risen. For citizens, activists, and media scholars it is one of the striking developments of our times.

Perhaps the greatest damage done by neoliberalism, not only to the political economy of media but to critical scholarship and democratic activism in general, was its attempt to destroy the long-standing human desire that social change for the better—that would transcend the status quo of really existing capitalism—was possible, not to mention desirable. If people act like it is impossible to replace capitalism with something better, they all but guarantee it will be impossible to replace capitalism with something better. Demoralization and depoliticization are the necessary conditions for a “healthy” neoliberal society. That is why just to stand for elementary democratic practices and principles marks one as a radical.

With the demise of neoliberalism, scholars and activists are beginning to revisit the idea of imagining a more humane and democratic social order, one where profits for the few are no longer the highest social priority, but there is still a very long way to go, especially in the United States. Combined with the elimination of the old communist model as the alleged “alternative” to contemporary capitalism, humanity is now beginning a process of experimentation in democratic social structures that has not been witnessed for generations, especially in Latin America. The importance of this work cannot be exaggerated. There is a crucial role for political economists of media in this process, as communication systems are at the heart of both developing economies and political systems. It is where much of our work in the coming generation will be directed.

Another emerging dilemma for the political economy of media has been the digital communication revolution, exemplified by the Internet and wireless communication systems. These technologies are in the process of blasting open the media system in a manner that is highly unusual, if not unprecedented. Much of the traditional thinking about communication—who says what to whom with what effect—has to be recalculated in an era in which communication and information are dramatically more accessible than ever before, and in which time and space have collapsed. These technologies, too, are central to the emergence of the global world order.

In the early 1990s, combined with the neoliberal tidal wave, the digital communication revolution was presented as technologically perfecting the case for free markets in media. Now that anyone could launch a Web site and anyone could have access to anyone’s Web site, there was a truly democratic and competitive media system. The old media conglomerates were soon to collapse; they were merely “rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic,” with their mergers and machinations. They could not survive the competition wrought by the iceberg of the Internet. In this context, the government needed to eliminate subsidies to public broadcasting and rules that limited media ownership, and simply get out of the way of media “entrepreneurs,” to use the swashbuckling term used for what were sometimes nothing more than speculators and corporate slumlords. It was this spirit that led to the privatization of telecommunication systems across the world and to the infamous U.S. Telecommunications Act of 1996.

There is no doubt that the digital revolution has radically transformed media, communication, and society. Our media environment today is dramatically different from that of four decades ago, and one suspects it will again be unrecognizable four decades from now. But what has also become clear is that the neoliberal claims surrounding the Internet—the hype about the Internet as a magical technology—have collapsed. Most important, the notion that the Internet ends any role for government policies or regulations in directing the communication system, that the Internet demands a “libertarian” model where free markets rule and governments play no role, has proven to be false. It has ideological value for entrenched commercial interests wishing to have favorable rules, or to enhance their power, but it has no relationship to the truth.

The media system in the United States has always been the beneficiary of tremendous subsidies, going back to the enormous printing and postal subsidies of the early republic. Today the largest media firms receive extraordinary subsidies ranging from monopoly licenses to TV and radio frequencies, monopoly cable TV and satellite TV systems, copyright, and much more. The Internet is affected by both these policies and subsidies, and much like how the United States has been affected by the institution of slavery long after 1863, they will have a long-lasting influence. The dominant Internet service providers are a handful of telephone and cable companies, businesses whose success was predicated not on serving the public in a free market competition but upon receiving lucrative monopoly licenses from the government. These firms’ “comparative advantage” comes in their unparalleled ability to buy off politicians and regulators; in the market they are generally disliked by consumers, and they give used car dealers a good name. These firms wish to translate their government-granted market power to the Internet era. This is what much of the battle over the principle of Network Neutrality addresses. It is, in effect, an effort by the telephone and cable TV companies to use their immense power over politicians to privatize the Internet and to have control over which Web sites users can access quickly and easily.

Likewise, policies such as copyright, advertising regulation, and media ownership rules directly shape the digital communication realm. The idea that the technology would automatically introduce viable competition has proven to be false. Policies do matter. And market economics do matter. Indeed, to a certain extent it seems the Internet encourages the monopolistic impulse in capitalism as much as the competitive one. In industry after industry—e.g., Amazon and Google—the network effects combine with market economics to point more toward monopoly.

Even if the Internet is kept open and even if broadband becomes inexpensive and ubiquitous—both huge policy battles for the coming generation—that will not address all of the core issues on the horizon. In particular, there are three overriding concerns that only become more pronounced in the digital era. First, there is the matter of the successful provision of journalism, which is currently in a deep and prolonged crisis as corporate cutbacks and erosion of standards are the order of the day. Corporate media apologists say not to worry, now that everyone is blogging we have all the journalism we can handle and then some. Digital technology will eventually solve the problem the pundits tell us; in the meantime just let the media conglomerates buy up all the media they can, lay off reporters to become “efficient,” and rake in monopolistic profits so they can expand the economy and create jobs. You know the drill.

In fact, there is no endgame on the visible horizon that suggests the Internet will magically provide the journalism a self-governing people require. What is necessary are multiple newsrooms of well-paid experienced journalists with institutional support when they offend the powerful, which good journalism invariably does. The Internet offers great hopes for citizen involvement in journalism, and can transform journalism for the better, but it does not solve this fundamental political economic issue of resource allocation and institution building. That is a policy matter, and generating effective policies for the establishment of viable news media is a central dilemma our times. It has always been an issue, but with the twin blades of neoliberalism and the Internet it is approaching crisis stage.

Second, even in a digital nirvana with open, super-high-speed networks and ubiquitous inexpensive access, it will not derail the hyper-commercialism that permeates an increasing number of our institutions and indeed far too much of our social life. If anything, the Internet may prove to be the ultimate enabler of Madison Avenue and corporate America in its quest to enter our minds and empty our pocketbooks. If we learn nothing else from the political economy of media it is that commercialism comes at a very high price and with massive “externalities.” Derailing hyper-commercialism, creating vibrant noncommercial zones, and protecting privacy is a mission critical in the coming era. It will not happen without organized citizens demanding explicit policies to that effect. There is a necessary role for political economists of media in helping to craft them.

Third, as much as the Internet and digital revolution empowers people, it also ensnares them and makes them susceptible to surveillance. We sacrifice something to get the gains. Only now are people recognizing the extent to which governments, often with sympathetic communication corporations assisting them, can intervene in digital communication systems to monitor our behavior, and the prospect is chilling. It is imperative that we devise policies to make governance accountable while preventing government intrusions into our privacy. We have to make the digital revolution serve our interests.

This leads directly to the ultimate and most important work of the political economy of media: understanding and navigating the central relationship of communication to the broader economy and political system. In the United States it is the ante to admission to legitimate debate, even in most academic debates, to accept that though a profit-driven economy may well have its flaws, it is the only possible course of action for a free people. Any prospective alternative entails invariably a decided turn for the worse. The Soviet example was such a nightmare that even to consider the idea that humanity might benefit from an alternative to capitalism is to open the door to a dystopia of murder, intolerance, and barbarism. Hence it is a subject not to be raised in polite company, or even considered, except to congratulate ourselves for dismissing it categorically.

Regrettably this closed-mindedness is proving a significant barrier to our getting a better understanding of how capitalism actually works and affects us and our institutions, and what more humane and just alternatives might be. As much as pledging love for markets is standard procedure in the United States, the system itself has significant flaws, some of which may prove catastrophic and unavoidable unless the system is dramatically reformed. I do not know exactly how reformable capitalism is, or what exactly superior alternatives would look like. What I do know is that getting answers to both these questions requires research, experimentation, and an open mind. If we do not think along these lines it will be ever more difficult to find humane and effective solutions to the deep social problems before us. And in view of the centrality of communication to both the economy and politics, political economists of media find themselves at the heart of this process.

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