Thinking Democracy: Inside the Politics of Journalism and Scholarship

By Robert Jensen

Published in Texas Observer · September, 1999

[This article appeared in the Texas Observer, September 17, 1999, pp. 26-29.]

review essay of:
RICH MEDIA, POOR DEMOCRACY: Communication Politics in Dubious Times.
By Robert W. McChesney.
University of Illinois Press.
394 pages. $32.95.

UNCERTAIN GUARDIANS: The News Media as a Political Institution.
By Bartholomew H. Sparrow.
The Johns Hopkins University Press.
277 pages. $48.00. $17.95 (paper).

The United States offers considerable formal protection for free speech and press, especially political speech. Yet we live within a degraded political culture which makes it increasingly difficult to describe the country, in any meaningful sense, as a functioning democracy. A central task of media analysis and criticism should be to resolve that paradox. These two new books about the media and journalism acknowledge the sorry state of contemporary politics, but take different paths to understand it.

The most compelling and useful analysis chooses the more radical path. Robert McChesney’s Rich Media, Poor Democracy does a superb job of explaining the political crisis; Bartholomew Sparrow’s Uncertain Guardians offers some insights, but in the end is less effective. In large part, Sparrow is limited by his desire to accommodate his argument to the conventional academic discussions of these matters, while McChesney is willing to take on sacred cows, and to critique the larger political and economic system. McChesney delivers a critique that, increasingly, cannot be argued in polite social circles. It is not just that corporate capitalism creates occasional problems in a democracy, he proposes, but that corporate capitalism is fundamentally inconsistent with meaningful democracy. Sparrow grazes around the problem, but never fully confronts that reality and its implications, so in the end his analysis comes up short.

Reading these books together also reminded me how closely related are the problems in journalism and academic research — and how similar, and effective, are the socialization processes for journalists and academics, working to contain and limit independent thinking and dissent. My observations have been developed over a decade’s work as a (mostly) loyal reporter and editor in mainstream newspapers, and a decade’s work as a (mostly) disloyal professor in a university journalism department. While working as a journalist, I always had a vague feeling that something was amiss. As a professor and independent journalist, I have come to understand the limits of the mainstream journalism that I had worked under, while at the same time realizing the limits of most scholarly attempts to explain journalism’s failures.

There are plenty of creative, bright, thinking people in both professions, and I have learned much from colleagues in both places. But in both jobs, I have also seen how a system that provides formal freedom of thought can stifle critical inquiry and keep thinking people corralled within fairly narrow boundaries.

In journalism, as well as in the scholarship about media and democracy, there are two key requirements for entry into the club of serious practitioners. One is the reflexive denial of the crucial fact mentioned above: that the corporate capitalist institutions through which most journalism is practiced are antithetical to democracy. It is not just that they may have flaws in how they help shape the larger practice of democracy, but that they are in themselves anti-democratic. Corporations are, by matter of law and practice, hierarchical and authoritarian. Everyone who has ever worked in a corporation is well aware that democracy — even in its most conventional forms – isn’t on the corporate menu.

Given that institutional context, it is amusing when scholars and critics turn to questions about our political culture and ask, “Is mainstream journalism doing all it should for democracy?” The point is not that all journalism done in corporate media actively subverts democracy or is pure propaganda, but that the general thrust of corporate journalism is not likely, in any sustained manner, to address the anti-democratic nature of corporations, or even to lend a critical eye to other fundamental questions of justice that could seriously disrupt the status quo.

Especially in a post-Soviet world (in which the demise of Leninist-style authoritarian regimes is taken as the proof of the triumph of a capitalist system), raising these obvious points about the nature of corporate capitalism is increasingly difficult in the media or in scholarship. To do so is to risk being seen as either (1) a flake who doesn’t understand how the world works; or (2) a fanatical ideologue of the left. Either sort are,by definition, people who can safely be ignored.

The second key requirement for respectability in mainstream media or scholarship is some measure of devotion to “American exceptionalism”: the widespread doctrine that the United States is a shining city on the hill, a country that has stepped outside of history and acts in the world as a moral exemplar, not as a power-hungry state – unlike all those other nasty states that simply pursue their own interests. This is an interesting hypothesis, which suffers only from a complete lack of evidence to support it. That minor problem rarely derails the conventional wisdom. Even allegedly critical liberals often, in the course of their criticism of the most vile U.S. actions abroad, accept unthinkingly that mythological account of the nation’s history. In these matters, third-world peasants, who routinely suffer the consequences of the myth, generally have a clearer view than the average pundit or professor.

These two fictions about the nature of the U.S. domestic power structure and its actions abroad frame almost all of the reporting and analysis in mainstream journalism, and a frightening amount of scholarly research. The political and intellectual ferment of the sixties opened up some space in the culture for dissent in both professions, but that space has been consistently under attack, and in the nineties such dissent has been driven even further to the margins.

So, for example, the work in both mainstream newsrooms and economics departments reflexively extols the virtues of the market and capitalism while ignoring deepening economic inequality that suggests a failed system. More particularly, the United States can lead an illegal and ineffective war in Yugoslavia, yet occasion no publicly significant critique from newsrooms or university faculty. In both arenas, managers and administrators make clear what it takes to get ahead, to be considered a “serious” journalist or scholar. Critical questions, so long as they are not too deep, can be asked, and so long as the answers stay within the prescribed conventional wisdom. Compliance is induced through rewards more often than punishment (though a variety of punishments are held in reserve for recalcitrant types).

Now, back to the books, with this caveat: I know both authors — McChesney for about six years as a colleague in communication studies at another university, and Sparrow for the past year as a fellow U.T.-Austin professor, where he teaches government. I find them both to be honorable folks, though I can’t say for sure either would say the same about me.

McChesney’s book deals directly with the questions of the political economy of media. He takes apart the myths of the free market, to expose the way in which corporate control, conglomeration, and concentration have systematically narrowed the range of free speech, and contributed to the degradation of the political culture. To explain how this “commercial carpet bombing” came to be, he immerses the reader in history as well as the contemporary political struggles over policy and practices. In a particularly timely and insightful chapter, he uses that history to warn that internet policy is heading toward the same commercial dead end as broadcasting.

Because his mission is large — he takes on the entire media system, journalistic and entertainment, including print, broadcast, and computer media – he sometimes spends only a short time on critiques of news practices and content. But those ana-lyses are compelling and more than adequate. (The key work on these issues remains Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s 1988 book, Manufacturing Consent.) Perhaps most important, in the end McChesney helps readers understand not just the scope of the problem, but why citizen initiatives to produce more democratic media are crucial and possible.

McChesney clearly aims at changing the way the culture thinks about media, democracy and the commercial system. He struggles against the way that system encourages people to be depoliticized, fragmented, and isolated from popular movements. He resists the ideology of capitalism that argues all this is natural and inevitable, which he calls “the biggest lie of them all.”

Sparrow, on the other hand, begins his study with the assertion that the watchdog function — providing a check on other centers of power — is the news media’s main role in a political system. But because of the constraints on news organizations, he argues, “they are unable to fulfill their Progressive Era role as independent guardians of the national interest.” His task is to explain why.

Sparrow is generally on the right track in detailing those failures. But for the most part, he leaves unexamined the questions of ownership and structure, sometimes mentioning them in passing but not taking them to be central to his task. He does a fine job of explaining how mainstream media outlets, all nominally operating independently of each other, can be thought of collectively as an institution that has effects on the political system. From there, he charts the microprocesses by which that happens. The problem is not that such an examination is uninteresting or without value. But when that analysis ignores the larger political economy and ideological framework in which media operate, it is easy to get bogged down in explanatory models that sometimes obscure more than they reveal.

For example, at various times Sparrow describes as a high point of journalism the media’s role in revealing details of the Watergate scandal. But from a more fundamental perspective, Watergate shows more precisely the limits of the press’ watchdog role. The most glaring sins of the Nixon administration — everything from truly grotesque war crimes in Southeast Asia to harsh repression of radical political dissent in the United States — are very well documented, but rarely formed part of the serious political discourse in the press. Yet Watergate, a relatively trivial political scandal, is remembered as a great triumph of the press. Such an embarrassing dichotomy says much about the national limits of political discourse.

There is an important lesson in this disjunction: What is usually seen as “reputable” and “neutral” scholarly work is almost always, at best, partial and diversionary, and at worst, nothing more than ideological obfuscation. Meanwhile, scholarly work derided as politically biased by “reputable” and “neutral” scholars is most likely to offer insight. Although such a notion is routinely denied or ignored in both journalism and scholarship, all inquiry into society, politics, and culture is rooted in political and moral assumptions and understandings. There is no neutral ground.

These days, even when radical critics present compelling evidence and reasoning about the problems with illegitimate systems of power such as capitalism, a common response is that we have to concentrate on reforms that are “realistic.” The big system, many argue, simply can’t be changed. These two books offer illustrative lessons on this crucial point. First, history and common sense suggest that no system of unjust power is permanent. Too many such systems have collapsed in the face of popular movements to support such pessimism. Second, most radicals (at least those not stuck in the nineteenth century) understand that the route to meaningful social change will be made, at least in the short term, largely through reforms to existing systems. Being radical doesn’t necessarily mean calling for armed revolution. Instead, radical can mean seeing the structural and institutional roots of the problem and being open to sensible strategies for meaningful change, which sometimes will include working for reforms. The best reform proposals will incorporate the more radical analysis and long-term goals. That is crucial not just to insure the reforms actually have some immediate effect, but so they potentially can create conditions leading to more basic structural and institutional change.

McChesney’s book not only critiques the current system, but offers exactly those kinds of reform proposals. Grounded in the history of the broadcast reform movement of the thirties that unsuccessfully tried to challenge commercial broadcasting, McChesney is clear about the scope of the problem and not naïve about the possibilities. His suggestions will not be immediately implemented by politicians or media owners, but they give activists who want more democratic media tangible and reasonable goals: protect and expand public service broadcasting; develop further decentralized community and public access radio and television; strengthen journalists’ and media workers’ unions, giving them greater control over content; hold commercial broadcasters to stricter public service standards; limit concentration of ownership; reduce the amount of advertising through regulation and taxation; subsidize film and cultural production that the market doesn’t; and subsidize multiple newspapers and magazines to provide diversity of opinion.

Sparrow also makes recommendations for reforms, a few of which track fairly closely with McChesney’s. But Sparrow’s work is limited by the lack of a bigger structural critique; because he doesn’t tackle the basic causes of the problem, it’s difficult to see his overall vision for change having much meaningful impact.

For example, the authors handle the question of “civic” or “public” journalism in sharply different ways. Those terms describe a current movement in mainstream journalism, to shift away from tired old methods of covering politics and public life that keep journalists disconnected from the real concerns of citizens and trap them in an insider game played by politicians and campaign consultants.

The public journalism movement has generated much discussion within the industry. But because it addresses neither the corporate control of the society and media nor the ideological haze that covers the culture, public journalism offers little hope of creating a truly critical journalism that could engage readers politically in a meaningful way. McChesney diagnoses public journalism’s flaws and dispatches with the movement in short order, while Sparrow labels it “the most important reform for the news media.” But after almost a decade of experimentation with public journalism, it is painfully clear the movement offers no substantive change, either in journalism or politics.

When Sparrow falls back on the claim that reforms such as public journalism are realistic, we might pause to consider what, in this context, realistic really means. Indeed, some of Sparrow’s suggestions are more likely to be taken seriously by mainstream corporate journalists and even owners. But is it realistic to suggest that changes in the micropractices of an institution that leave untouched its basic structure will have much effect? Such attempts at journalistic reform that steadfastly ignore the power of the bosses and society’s ideological framework are a bit like trying to reform the methods of Mafia hit men while leaving untouched the rules and ideology of Mafia dons. You might get a kinder, gentler hit man, but in the end a hit man is still going to pull the trigger for the boss.

In a very real sense, journalists are helping to pull the trigger on democracy, perhaps not so much by what they are doing, but by what they are not doing: providing honest, incisive critique into the workings of the economy and the imperial actions of the United States. The hardest, but most important, work a journalist could do is to take apart the myths of one’s own society, which is precisely what contemporary journalists rarely seem able to accomplish.

Although the United States was designed to be ruled by a moneyed aristocratic class, throughout our history real democracy has continued to break out. The current attacks on democracy by corporations gaining even more control over society – thoroughly Orwellian in the way they claim the market and corporate culture are the embodiment of democracy — are perhaps as great a threat to democracy as this country has seen.

The answer to that threat likely will be in a series of reforms, but those reforms must stay rooted in a radical critique that doesn’t shy away from hard truths. To return to the paradox: one would hope that journalists and scholars would make good on the freedom of speech they enjoy and be allies in this struggle for real democracy – democracy that means more than trudging off to cast a ballot every couple of years, democracy in which the public has a role in the formation of public policy. But the systems in which journalists and scholars are rooted tend to make them, if not outright enemies in that cause, at best uneasy allies.

Our best hope, as McChesney makes clear, is that there is still enough real democracy – the kind of democracy that can allow meaningful public participation instead of just public spectatorship – left in the system that collective action and mass movements can turn journalists and scholars from servants of power to real allies of the people.