Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 31, 2010

Media for Freedom?

Filed under: media — louisproyect @ 3:30 pm

Media For Freedom?

By Michael Barker

In today’s world the media plays an important role in disseminating information to both sustain and undermine democracy. The mainstream media admirably fulfils the latter role, actively serving the capitalist system that allows a handful of individuals to reap handsome profits from an ill informed populous. However, the mainstream media, along with some influential alternative media outlets, simultaneously serve a vital role for such elites by clouding the plutocratic nature of society in a mist of democratic rhetoric. Consequently, alternative media outlets that pierce such illusions are a vital component for the growth of any coming anti-capitalist insurrection. Thankfully the long-running magazine, Monthly Review, is one such source for revolutionary hope, and their former coeditor, Robert McChesney (2000-2004), has blazed the way in highlighting the problems posed by the mainstream media in the United States. To illustrate the extent of the media-related problems faced by revolutionary activists and to highlight their potential solutions this article draws upon the content of two of McChesney’s recent books, Communication Revolution: Critical Junctures and the Future of Media (New Press, 2007), and The Political Economy of Media: Enduring Issues, Emerging Dilemmas (Monthly Review Press, 2008).

Within these two excellent books McChesney projects an inspiring call to the public “to create a communication system that will be a powerful impetus to a dramatically more egalitarian, humane, sustainable, and creative society, where justice and self-government are the order of the day.” However, he adds that the “window of opportunity” for implementing such changes “will not be open for long” and “will be opposed by very powerful entrenched corporate and political interests.” On this point it is important to acknowledge that while McChesney focuses on conservative opposition to this media project, it is clear that liberal elites are formidable adversaries in any bid to create a media that challenges capitalist power. No doubt we certainly “will need all hands on deck to win the fight,” but we should not necessarily include super-rich liberal elites among those deck hands.[1] By surmising and reviewing McChesney’s two aforementioned books this article endeavours to demonstrate how the fight for a new world order might be won: to do this, however, it is initially useful to review the historical forces that have shaped the current media landscape.

Referring to the important scholarship of Christopher Simpson and Timothy Glander, McChesney notes how they “documented the close relationship of the ‘founding fathers’ of mass communication research to the emerging U.S. national security state in the 1940s and 1950s.”  Likewise, drawing upon the research of Dan Schiller, McChesney surmises how in the early days of mass communications research radical critiques of propaganda were actively sidelined by elite funding bodies. In fact, as McChesney writes, critical approaches to media scholarship were “unwelcome by commercial media sponsors, university administrations, and the key foundations, especially [that of the] Rockefeller [Foundation], which bankrolled much of communication research during these years.” This trend would hardly have been surprising to McChesney who recalls how his own work had been influenced by the political philosopher, C.B. Macpherson, who had long ago pointed out the “paternalism and elitism [inherent] in elements of liberalism.” [2] Indeed, with regard to Macpherson:

Few have done a better job of showing the strain of contempt for genuine democracy that exists within aspects of liberalism, and how such liberals truly fear popular rule. It is this brand of liberalism that both the left and conservative populists harpoon. But what Macpherson also highlighted was the progressive and humanistic impulse of liberalism. I found this notion of liberalism extremely attractive and worth fighting for. (p.76)

McChesney thus regrets the decline of the influence of such liberal humanism on research agendas, noting how:

The broad historical and intellectually informed sweep that informed the research of the 1930s and early 1940s was gradually replaced by an increasingly ahistorical approach that accepted the commercial basis of U.S. media and the capitalistic nature of U.S. society as proper and inviolable. …When the Hutchins Commission made its seminal study of the press and media in the immediate postwar years, it combined piercing criticism of commercial media with lame pleas for industry self-regulation as the solution. (p.29)

Despite the evident shift away from progressive aspects of liberalism, which in recent decades has led to neoliberalism, the misleading “claim that the news media have a liberal political bias is [now] so widespread that it has come to play a crucial ideological role in the functioning of the news media system.”[3] But while this idea of a liberal bias has been thoroughly debunked by critical scholars, there is an element of truth in such claims, a truth that is rarely addressed by leftist researchers. This is because, historically speaking, large parts of the U.S. media landscape have been managed by liberal elites (although these elites are far from progressive); furthermore their associated philanthropic foundations are financing media reform efforts that effectively hide this fact by concentrating public attention on the right-wing nature of the media. Counter to McChesney’s thoughts on this matter, it could be said that in a perverse way conservatives are “battling the establishment liberal media elite.”

As one might expect conservative forces massively overstate their political case, and: “In this world, spun by the likes of Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity, conservatives do righteous battle against the alliance of Clinton, Castro, Bin Laden, drug users, gays, rappers, feminists; teachers` unions, vegetarians, and journalists who hold power over the world.” Such out of whack opinions would be laughable if they were not held so widely, and on this point McChesney helps explain the power that such views hold over the public mind by acknowledging how: “At its strongest, and most credible, the conservative critique taps into the elitism inherent to professionalism and to liberalism.” However, he correctly adds that “this populism turns to mush once the issue of class is introduced.” [4]

McChesney concludes that the “clear lesson of U.S. history is that we need to have a sector producing journalism walled off from corporate and commercial pressures.” But he apparently does not mean that this sector should be isolated from not-for-profit corporations, because, he counsels: “It would help matters if philanthropists and foundations began to devote significant portions of their portfolios to increasing the amount and quality of news and public information.” Here the solution presented to readers is to emulate the success that the political right has had in “masterfully manipulat[ing] traditional U.S. journalism.” Presenting Norman Solomon and Sam Husseini’s Institute for Public Accuracy as just one example, McChesney says: “Like the Right, labor and the progressive philanthropic community need to support think tanks of experts who can provide labor and Left perspectives on social issues for commercial and noncommercial journalists alike.” Yet a critical approach to understanding the historic role that liberal foundations (also known as not-for-profit corporations) have played in the United States (and overseas) would suggest that we should be wary of any solutions that are reliant upon elite aid. It is severely problematic then that McChesney argues that a “major influx of foundation funding” for media reform “is mandatory… for the survival of democracy”.[5]

Contrary to McChesney’s forcefully stated opinion, a strong case can be made that an influx of philanthropic monies will actually undermine long-term efforts to generate the kind of explicitly anti-capitalist journalism that will be needed to help develop meaningful alternatives to capitalism. Unfortunately McChesney ignores the deradicalizing effects that will be manifested by relying upon such a funding strategy, and simply suggests that the main problem with this temporary solution is that elite funders cannot be relied upon to indefinitely “bankroll viable public broadcasting.” McChesney agrees with me that what is “ultimately necessary is to have viable public funding for public broadcasting” but to get this state of affairs he thinks that “the high-quality journalism and public affairs programming provided by philanthropic funds will be Exhibit A in the case for the tremendous public need for a well-subsidized public broadcasting sector.” On this point I vigorously disagree; which helps explain why McChesney’s media activism has meant that he has closely worked with not-for-profit corporations, like for instance the Ford Foundation, whose “philanthropic” activities I am strongly critical of.[6]

McChesney is not reticent of his intimate relations with elite philanthropists, and he openly discusses such matters in his books. With respect to his recollection of the launch of his ties to media reforming capitalist elites, McChesney writes:

I recall being invited to present a lecture on my historical research at the University of California at San Diego in 1995. Before the talk an official for the foundation sponsoring the event told me how much he admired my work. I still remember what he said: “I think we are going through a similar moment to the early 1930s with the Internet today. We cannot afford to blow it this time. Our goal should be to make it impossible for you to write a postmortem for this era like you did the early 1930s.”[7]

The post-mortem referred to by this foundation official was McChesney’s first book, Telecommunications, Mass Media, and Democracy: The Battle for Control of U.S. Broadcasting 1928-1935 (Oxford University Press, 1994). In this instance the official’s comment is particularly significant given that in the aforementioned book McChesney demonstrated the means by which liberal elites (i.e., the Carnegie Corporation and John D. Rockefeller, Jr.) successfully undermined the success of a potentially threatening and progressive media reform movement. The foundation official evidently recognized that the current media reform movement — which has been supported by liberal foundations since the early 1980s — was gaining pace, because as McChesney observed, in the “second half of the 1990s, media was becoming a political issue, especially on the left.”[8]

Evidence of the new interest in addressing media as a political issue was all around. The Nation and The Progressive began to run articles and special issues on the media crisis. Don Hazen and the Independent Media Institute organized two large “media and democracy” conferences in San Francisco in 1996 and in New York City in 1997 to draw attention to the problem. Mark Crispin Miller formed the Project on Media Ownership, and put his ample talents toward publicizing the extent of media consolidation in a series of special issues on media ownership in The Nation. Former TV journalist Danny Schechter, the “News Dissector,” was a one-man army calling for the formation of a media democracy movement along the lines of the student movement in the 1960s.[9]

While foundation support for media reform became a rising priority towards the latter end of the 1990s, there is no doubt that foundation grants also influenced academic priorities in guiding media scholars away from radical research. Thus when leading media political economist, Nicholas Garnham, retired from academia in 2001, McChesney recalled how after speaking at his retirement celebration his “Yankee faculty colleagues” were reluctant to talk about the politics of media reform. “Instead,” he continued, “all the talk was about consumer purchases, upcoming vacations, popular movies and TV shows, and, of course, academic politics: who got this job or that job, who got the big grant, and, after a few drinks, whose colleagues were the biggest schmucks.”[10] Of course such talk is normal in any profession, but the point is simply to observe that big grants bring prestige, and play a large role in shaping research agendas.

Sometime after Garnham’s retirement get-together, McChesney recalled how in late 2001 he “received a phone call out of the blue” from Josh Silver from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. “Silver said he was convinced that deplorable news was the main barrier to success in the issues he cared the most about, and he wanted to organize a campaign to change the media system.”[11] The following autumn Silver again called McChesney, and along  with John Nichols, the three of them formed a media reform group called Free Press. On the successful formation of Free Press, McChesney observes how:

Josh was our only staffer, working out of Sut Jhally’s Media Education Foundation in Northampton. We managed to find a couple of courageous funders — God knows how — willing to give us initial funds, so Josh could have a very modest income and we could eventually add a few more people by the middle of 2003. (p.154)

Free Press cofounder John Nichols suggested that their new organization “should use the environmental movement as our guide” for strategizing: a decision that was influenced by Nichols having “spent a good deal of time interviewing and conversing with Gaylord Nelson, Wisconsin’s former senator,” the individual who had been the “guiding force behind the creation of Earth Day.”[12] Nelson said that he had been inspired to organize Earth Day when he read a 1969 issue of Ramparts magazine, so it is ironic that Ramparts provided the first extended critique of Nelson’s Earth Day activism, noting how it was “the first step in a con game that will do little more than abuse the environment even further.” McChesney unfortunately shows no signs of familiarity with such critiques of liberal foundation co-option of the American environmental movement.[13] This historical blind spot provides one potential explanation for why McChesney consequently failed to recognize why his media reform efforts were suddenly promoted by limited parts of the mainstream media. On his successful courting of the mainstream media, he says:

We knew we were onto something when Nichols and I appeared on the PBS program NOW with Bill Moyers in February 2003 to discuss our latest book, Our Media, Not Theirs. We did not discuss Free Press then — the group did not even have a website yet — but we laid out our basic critique of the failing U.S. media and the need to have citizens change the system and establish a truly free press. Moyers was so taken with the topic that he gave it his longest segment in the show’s history, and then he said the program received as much immediate and positive feedback as any he had ever done. John and I received an avalanche of positive feedback. On the Amazon.com bestseller list, we watched after the show as Our Media, Not Theirs climbed from around 5,000 to end up in the top ten. It was exhilarating. (p.155)

In the aftermath of this momentous television appearance McChesney says that a “massive grassroots uprising against media consolidation… caught everyone… by surprise”; although perhaps the same cannot be said for the liberal elites funding the media reform movement.[14]

Moving on a few years to the evening prior to Free Press’ second National Conference for Media Reform in 2005, McChesney writes how they “organized an ‘Academic Brain Trust’ (the name was meant to be tongue-in-cheek) to meet” to discuss the role of communications scholars in the newly emergent media reform movement. In this way Free Press was able to bring some 150 scholars together with the support of the “Ford Foundation [which] graciously chipped in with some stipends to support a couple of dozen grad students and assistant professors who would not be able to attend otherwise.”[15] The conference in St. Louis then went ahead, but:

Plans to formalize the Academic Brain Trust as an independent entity following St. Louis collapsed when the prospective funding fell through. Some of the scholars kept in touch with each other and collaborated on projects, but too much of the energy dissipated. Fortunately, the Ford Foundation funded the Social Science Research Council in this area and they began to assume the leadership reins by 2006. During the course of the year, the SSRC began giving out grants to academics for media policy research projects.[16]

While McChesney honestly believes that liberal elites and their not-for-profit corporations have not detrimentally influenced his activities, he does acknowledge that: “I have sacrificed some of my independence, not to a corporate benefactor, but to a movement in which I am a participant.”[17] This has meant that as a socialist McChesney has necessarily worked with organizations and people that may seem a little incongruous.

The conservative support in 2003 made for some difficult coalition politics. At one point, we had so many conservatives opposing media concentration on the Free Press website that a friend contacted me and asked me if I had pulled a “David Horowitz” and become a right-winger. One prospective funder withdrew her support for Free Press when she saw that Republican Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi was also opposed to relaxing media ownership rules, and that we promoted this on our site. That just about every major civil rights group in the nation was working with Free Press or some other media reform group on this issue did not seem to register. In her mind, any cooperation with Lott was a de facto endorsement of white supremacy. She has had nothing to do with media reform ever since. Likewise, Free Press lost a board member in protest of our working with Parents Television Council; Bozell had been an antagonist of the progressive organization where she was employed. (Bozell also criticized Free Press and me in a manner that was far from flattering, once terming me a “socialist sob sister.”) (p.165)

Clearly the rapid speed with which the U.S. media reform coalesced around McChesney generated extreme problems for all concerned; but it is especially ironic that McChesney was accused of pulling a David Horowitz. This is because in the 1960s when Horowitz was a leading Marxist activist and editor for Ramparts magazine, he penned the seminal critique of liberal philanthropy. In this three-part series, Horowitz observed how “nominally philanthropic institutions” like the Ford Foundation actually “sustain the complex nerve centers and guidance mechanisms for a whole system of institutional power.”

The jibe that McChesney was pulling a Horowitz was made in reference to the fact that during the 1970s Horowitz decided to renounce his structurally sound grasp of the processes of social change by undergoing a process of intellectual devolution to enable him to become a key member of an increasingly powerful neoconservative elite. However, while the jab at McChesney is unfair — as he is still a committed socialist — McChesney fails to see the irony that he was compared to a fellow radical who documented the anti-democratic practices of liberal elites from both Marxist and neoconservative positions. Here McChesney would do well to learn from Horowitz, but not from his opportunistic and well-funded rantings against progressives, but from Horowitz’s deep engagement with the institutional foundations of capitalism.

In conclusion, it is beside the point that Robert McChesney has aligned his work with liberal capitalist elites, as everyone is capable of making strategic faults under great pressure to act now to counteract capitalism. Instead it is far more important that activists learn from previous organizing mistakes (not just McChesney’s), so they can continue to build stronger movements capable of generating the type of popular momentum for social change that will eventually be capable of eradicating, and not just domesticating, capitalism.

[1] Robert McChesney, Communication Revolution, pp.xii-xiii.

[2] McChesney, Communication Revolution, p.30, p.29, p.76. “In the hands of Harold Lasswell, propaganda research was turned on its head: It went from being a critique of propaganda as a threat to self-government to a theoretically informed treatise on how elites could use propaganda to manage people in their own interests.” (p.29)

[3] McChesney, The Political Economy of Media, p.57.

[4] McChesney, The Political Economy of Media, p.62.

[5] McChesney, The Political Economy of Media, p.141, p.391, p.458.

[6] McChesney, The Political Economy of Media, p.458.

For recent criticisms of the Ford Foundation, see Michael Barker, “The Ford Foundation and the Co-option of Dissent,” Swans Commentary, January 25, 2010; and Michael Barker, “Buying Freedom for Africa,” Swans Commentary, March 8, 2010. To read an excellent critique of not-for-profit corporations, see Joan Roelofs, Foundations and Public Policy: The Mask of Pluralism (State University of New York Press, 2003).

[7] McChesney, Communication Revolution, p.109. “Whether I liked it or not, people were demanding I address the contemporary situation. And I discovered quickly enough that I liked it. As a result I wrote many short pieces for periodicals like The Nation, The Progressive, Mother Jones, and In These Times. I wrote op-eds in scores of newspapers and centrist publications like Current and The New Republic. I quietly abandoned the extensive plans for further historical research I had developed, and wrote a book on global media with Ed Herman and a pamphlet on the media crisis, both published in 1997.” (p.110)

[8] Michael Barker, “The Liberal Foundations of Media Reform? Creating Sustainable Funding Opportunities for Radical Media Reform,” Center for Research on Globalization, June 3, 2008. This article was previously published as a peer-reviewed paper in Global Media Journal, Issue 1, Number 2.

McChesney, Communication Revolution, p.110. For information on the influence of liberal foundations on the early growth of the U.S. media reform movement in the 1980s, see Michael Barker, “Social Engineering, Progressive Media, and the Benton Foundation,” (pdf) In E. Tilley (Ed.) Power & Place: Refereed Proceedings of the Australian & New Zealand Communication Association Conference, Wellington, July 9-11, 2008; and Michael Barker, “Who Funds the Progressive Media?,” Center for Research on Globalization, July 7, 2008. The latter article was removed from their website on the same day it was first published, but it can now be found online here.

[9] McChesney, Communication Revolution, p.111. “There was a community of public interest advocates working on media policy issues in Washington during this period, most notably the Media Access Project, Action for Children’s Television, Consumers Union, the Consumer Federation of America, the United Church of Christ, the Benton Foundation, and the Center for Media Education. The work on media policy by groups like these had blossomed in the 1960s and 1970s, when the space created by popular social movements gave public interest groups increased leverage over the FCC and Congress to enact proactive reforms, especially around issues of promoting community media and minority ownership. In particular, by the 1970s the feminist critique of how media represented women and gender roles attracted considerable interest in the importance of media and the need to change media. (Most of this critique remains all too relevant today and drives significant elements of the current media reform movement.)” (p.113)

[10] McChesney, Communication Revolution, p.151. For more on the conservative nature of academia, McChesney recalls how after Noam Chomsky gave “gave the most brilliant and riveting lecture” in 1986 on media and U.S. foreign policy at the University of Southern California. However, the following morning, “the assembled [university media] faculty all dismissed Chomsky categorically as a conspiracy nut who was unfamiliar with the “real” research on media that they were doing. No actual hard criticism was leveled, just insinuation. No student dared to raise a dissenting voice, including me. I was flabbergasted.” (p.42)

[11] McChesney, Communication Revolution, p.153.

[12] McChesney, Communication Revolution, p.154.

[13] Cited in Mark Dowie, Losing Ground: American Environmentalism at the Close of the Twentieth Century (MIT Press, 1995), p.25.

For more on the co-option of the American environmental movement by liberal foundations, see Michael Barker, “The Liberal Foundations of Environmentalism: Revisiting the Rockefeller-Ford Connection,” Capitalism Nature Socialism, 19 (2), 2008, pp. 15-42; Robert Brulle, Agency, Democracy, and Nature: The U.S. Environmental Movement from a Critical Theory Perspective (MIT Press, 2000); Robert Brulle and J. Craig Jenkins, “Foundations and the Environmental Movement: Priorities, Strategies, and Impact,” (pdf) in Daniel Faber, and Deborah McCarthy (eds), Foundations For Social Change: Critical Perspectives on Philanthropy and Popular Movements (Rowman & Littlefield, 2005); Brian Tokar, Earth for Sale: Reclaiming Ecology in the Age of Corporate Greenwash (South End Press, 1997).

[14] “Then something wonderful and magical happened: The massive grassroots uprising against media consolidation that caught everyone, including me, by surprise. Some three million people from across the nation sent letters and e-mails, made telephone calls, or signed petitions protesting the relaxation of media ownership rules. Free Press became one of the groups doing the organizing work, but we were very much backbenchers. This was a moment in the sun for Consumers Union’s Gene Kimmelman, Center for Digital Democracy’s Jeff Chester, Media Access Project’s Andy Schwartzman, and Consumer Federation of America’s Mark Cooper. They used their skills and experience to drive the campaign, and they were clearly energized by the throngs of new activists and supporters coming to the issue. Outside Washington, existing and emerging media activist groups like Reclaim the Media, Media Alliance, Media-Tank, and the Prometheus Radio Project — which had been fighting for low-power FM — generated grassroots attention to the issue. And then the big guns, MoveOn.org, Common Cause, and even the National Rifle Association, joined the party. Media reform became arguably the second hottest issue in Washington in 2003 following only the war in Iraq, and it had no big corporate lobby behind it.” McChesney, Communication Revolution, pp.156-7.

[15] McChesney, Communication Revolution, p.175.

[16] McChesney, Communication Revolution, p.177. “’Applied’ research is necessary to address immediate policy issues that are being determined in the near term and midterm. This includes research surrounding media ownership, use of spectrum, media content, public broadcasting, and Internet access, for example. The list is actually quite long, and academics have played too small a role heretofore. This is the work that concerns the researchers at Free Press, Consumer Federation of America, New America Foundation, Public Knowledge, and the Future of Music Coalition, and they need all the help they can get The Telecommunications Policy Research Conference has done a much better job of bringing nonindustry scholars into the mix, and under the auspices of the Benton Foundation, a group of scholars connected to the TPRC now meets to work on creating policies to promote universal access to the Internet.” (p.197)

[17] McChesney, Communication Revolution, p.195. This statement demonstrates how McChesney is unable to recognize that liberal foundations, like the Ford Foundation, are in actual fact corporate benefactors, upon whom his media reform movement is dependent for funding.


  1. I must say I object to Barker’s anti abortion screed from a few weeks ago. Just because Sanger was a eugenicst does not mean Planned Parenthood has failed to progress nor does it mean it isn’t an important part of opening acecess to birth control choices.

    Comment by Jenny — March 31, 2010 @ 5:33 pm

  2. […] Media for Freedom?, The Unrepentant Marxist, March 31, 2010. (Critique of Robert McChesney.) […]

    Pingback by Michael James Barker’s Weblog — April 5, 2010 @ 8:50 am

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