If being a good cop means having a first-rate criminal mind, then Robert McChesney is a first-rate media watchdog.
McChesney is a professor of communications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is also one of the leading scholars and activists on the issue of media reform in this country, leading a campaign against relaxation of FCC ownership rules that would allow more consolidation in the hands of fewer media chains and conglomerates.
Needless to say, McChesney is not an advocate of the so-called free market that appears to offer survival to the fittest competitors. That marketplace is a myth, as he argues in his new book, The Problem of the Media: U.S. Communications Politics in the 21st Century (Monthly Review Press, $16.95). He argues that, in many respects, from the standpoint of what would benefit democracy the most, that marketplace is in effect an authoritarian regime. The commercial media market is an "effective media commissar," he writes, in how it limits and controls competition. Its advantage, he says, is that it can achieve its ends, which often are a media monopoly, "without resorting to explicit repression." Explicit repression, of course, would be unconstitutional. Subtle repression in the course of routine commerce apparently is not.
In the book, McChesney relentlessly exposes as a hoax the notion that the current media ecosystem in the U.S. is somehow natural, let alone healthy: Its emphasis on size, its hunger for tax breaks, subsidies, and legislative favors, and its reliance on commercial performance as the sole measure of success underscore the fact that it's a system groomed for special interests. He argues that media policy has been carefully crafted over the decades to stack the deck against diversity and democracy in favor of a wealthy, powerful few.
Long before McChesney began popping up as a go-to pundit on these issues, he had a life as part of the media here in Seattle. He helped to found the Rocket, the city's late music paper, when it was a supplement in the old Seattle Sun, the Capitol Hill alternative weekly of its day. Before that, I knew Bob at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, where we were both students. There, I got to witness the "criminal" aspect of his mind firsthand.
My most vivid memory was a game of Monopoly with Bob and a few friends. Monopoly provides a safe sandbox to give free rein to your repressed, predatory desires, and believe me, at Evergreen in the early 1970s, such inappropriate desires had to be channeled. If Evergreen didn't invent modern political correctness, it was at least present in the delivery room. And I was, for a while, chief representative of the hated media monopoly represented by the official school newspaper, The Cooper Point Journal. In fact, I had survived at least one impeachment attempt by campus lefties who thought my paper was "fascist" because I hadn't given every special interest group on campus its own, guaranteed, unedited niche in the paper. I responded, calmly, that I would take ads from the American Nazi Party, if they paid cash. Anyone else could do the same. (Insert sounds of mob with pitchforks here.)
But back to the Monopoly game. When Bob landed his top hat (or whatever it was) on my property with a hotel on it, he was wiped out. Except that he then informed me that, in fact, he had no real assets because all of his railroads and other properties were currently in a "trust" being managed by another player, John "Duke" Foster, who continues to be a colleague of McChesney's and was then an expert on Marx and Hegel. When I demanded payment, McChesney and Foster refused, saying that while their arrangement wasn't in the rules, such side agreements weren't precluded. In response, the Monopoly board was upended, scattering hotels, houses, and fake money on the floor, and I made a trust-busting lunge for Bob's throat.
Did I mention beer was involved?
So take it from me, McChesney knows what he's talking about when he describes how today's robber barons work: He's tried it out on his buddies.
If one accepts that the current media market in this country is not a free market but one tailored by the government to favor the powerful—and McChesney's book offers compelling evidence that this is the case—the next question is, how would we be better off? One response would be a libertarian one: Level the playing field by eliminating favoritism and rules, except the First Amendment. Another answer is to rerig the system to favor diversity, noncommercial media, and innovation. Don't accept that maximizing profits and protecting "intellectual property" should be the sole force driving public media policy.
It is a tricky thing, because such policy mischief comes very close to intruding on freedom of the press and expression. But McChesney argues that we're already treading on those rights by encouraging a system that seems to foster an inert, ill-informed, compliant population that is getting its information from fewer and fewer owners. Instead, let's err on the side of nurturing a truly democratic "market," where the rights of the public are protected and fostered.
That sure beats playing Monopoly with the media—a game McChesney knows too well.
Robert McChesney will speak at Kane Hall on Thurs., May 6. See Brain City, p. 14, for details.