Free Press, Robert McChesney & the “Struggle” for Media

by on August 10, 2009 · 49 comments

I’ve spent a lot of time here deconstructing and criticizing the proposals set forth by the Free Press, the radical media “reformista” group founded by the prolific Marxist media theorist Robert McChesney.  I have been trying to shine more light on their proposals and activities because I believe they are antithetical to freedom of speech and a free society.  That’s because, as media scholar Ben Compaine has noted, “What the hard core reformistas really want, it seems, is not diversity or an open debate but a media that promotes their own vision of society and the world.”  That’s exactly right and, more specifically, as I argued in my 2005 Media Myths book, the media reformistas want to impose this control by taking the fantasy that “the public owns the [broadcast] airwaves” and extending it to ALL media platforms and outlets.  In other words, McChesney and the Free Press want an UnFree Press.  To cast things in neo-Marxist terms that they could appreciate, they want to take control of the information means of production.  And it begins, McChesney argues, by all of us having to give up this “sort of religious attachment to the idea of a ‘free-press'” from which we all suffer.

Some people accuse me of “red-baiting” or “McCarthyite” tactics when I use the “M-word” (Marxism) or the “S-Word” (socialism) to describe McChesney, the Free Press, and the movement they have spawned.  But these are labels with real meaning and ones that McChesney himself embraces in his work. In his 1999 book Rich Media, Poor Media, he says that “Media reform cannot win without widespread support and such support needs to be organized as part of a broad anti-corporate, pro-democracy movement.” He casts everything in “social justice” terms and speaks of the need “to rip the veil off [corporate] power, and to work so that social decision making and power may be made as enlightened and as egalitarian as possible.”  What exactly would all that mean in practice for media? In his 2002 book Our Media, Not Theirs: The Democratic Struggle against Corporate Media with John Nichols of The Nation, McChesney argues that media reform efforts must begin with “the need to promote an understanding of the urgency to assert public control over the media.” They go on to state that, “Our claim is simply that the media system produces vastly less of quality than it would if corporate and commercial pressures were lessened.”

If you want additional proof of his intentions, then I encourage you to read this lengthy interview with McChesney that appears in the new edition of The Bullet, an online newsletter produced by the Canada-based “Socialist Project.”  (If you ask me, there’s something strangely appropriate about a socialist newsletter named “The Bullet” in light of the millions of people who died while living under socialist tyranny!)  Anyway, let’s ignore that and focus on what neo-Marxist media reform entails according to McChesney.  Because never before has he laid his cards on the table as clearly as he does in this interview.

The “Struggle” for “Media Democracy”

In the interview, as in all his work, McChesney speaks repeatedly about the Marxist concept of “struggles,” which  usually refers to class struggles and worker struggles. But McChesney’s work focuses on “media democracy struggles” as part of an overall struggle for “social justice.”  He says:

Instead of waiting for the revolution to happen, we learned that unless you make significant changes in the media, it will be vastly more difficult to have a revolution. While the media is not the single most important issue in the world, it is one of the core issues that any successful Left project needs to integrate into its strategic program.

In other words, media reform is part of The Big Struggle. The Big Struggle is the effort to overthrow free-market capitalism. And the struggle for “media democracy” is crucial to that, you see, because we are all just pawns whose minds are being manipulated by some far-off corporate puppet-masters in New York and L.A., who are, of course, just feeding us nothing but pro-capitalist propaganda 24/7.  Thus, we have to burn the village to save it, McChesney says:

Many say that corporate journalism, based on profit maximization, best serves a free and democratic society. The position is incorrect. The connection of capitalism to journalism, which has always been fraught with problems, has always been unstable. The relationship between capitalism, journalism, and democracy has never been a sure thing. In the U.S, the notion that capitalism is the natural steward of journalism and should be left alone to provide for a free and self-governing society refers to a period that began during the 19th century. This period ended when owners realized they could make a lot of money by turning journalism into big business. Corporations are not in a position to generate and pay for quality journalism. The news is not a commercial product. It is a public good, necessary for a self-governing society.

In other words, down with private media!  McChesney basically declares that the entire history of private media in America to be one gigantic case of market failure and must be abandoned.

Subsidies to “Save Journalism”

But what’s going to replace private media once McChesney and his media reformistas have moved the regulatory wrecking ball in?  In a nutshell, he wants massive state subsidization of the media:

Once we accept this [the supposed “public goods” nature of all media], we can talk about the kind of media policies and subsidies we want. What are the best ones? How should they be implemented? We are now trying to answer those questions and organize around them.

Herein lies one of the great ironies of McChesney’s work: He spends a great deal of time arguing that the entire history of American media has basically been one big government-created construct (monopolies, entry barriers, subsidies, etc), only to turn around and advocate massive state intervention and subsidies as a solution!  McChesney plays revisionist historian and even tries to paint Jefferson and Madison as media socialists because postal rates from the founding period on down have been reduced for print media mailings. Somehow, McChesney reads this to mean that “the U.S. state has always played a direct and indirect role in facilitating and legitimizing the corporate media system.”  Which is rubbish. The idea that postal subsidies have created “the corporate media system” is preposterous. McChesney is on stronger ground in arguing the state has occasionally helped foster and then protect monopolies, but that is a function of the very “public utility” regulatory regime that McChesney favors! [More on this point down below.]

Meanwhile, in true Rahm Emanual-ian “you-never-want-a-crisis-to-go-to-waste” fashion, the Free Press has started a new project to “Save the News” and move America “Toward a National Journalism Strategy” by endorsing a lot of the same regulations, subsidies, and tax credits that McChesney and John Nichols recently advocated in their Nation magazine essay, “The Death and Life of Great American Newspapers.” As I noted in my City Journal response to that essay back in March, you can file this all under “socializing media in order to save it,” complete with Soviet-style 5-year plans dictated by some faceless elite inside a Beltway bureaucracy. Oh, and there’s the little matter of $60 billion price tag that taxpayers will be left footing.  (But hey, what’s another $60 billion these days?)  Even Free Press favorite Dan Rather is on board with his plan to have President Obama give us “The News America Needs” by “form[ing] a commission to address the perilous state of America’s news media.”  Perhaps once the car commission folks get done driving the U.S. auto industry into the ground they can shift gears, so to speak, and see what they can do to steer journalism onto a supposedly better path.

Down with Advertising

If McChesney and Free Press don’t succeed in destroying private media with their regulatory plans, there’s always Plan B… bleed free market media operators and Internet companies dry by taking away their mother’s milk, advertising.  McChesney argues that “the Internet is increasingly hyper-commercialized” and it is “open[ing] our entire lives to 24/7 injections of advertising messages.”  Thus, wouldn’t you know it, yet another “struggle” is in order!

We need to organize against hyper-commercialism. This is an easy-sell for the Left. We understand that advertising is not something done by all people equally, but rather, done by a very small group of people working on behalf of multinational corporations. Advertising is commercial propaganda…  Advertising is the voice of capital. We need to do whatever we can to limit capitalist propaganda, regulate it, minimize it, and perhaps even eliminate it. The fight against hyper-commercialism becomes especially pronounced in the era of digital communications.  […] There is a fundamental crisis when you are in a world that is entirely commercial, in terms of the integrity of speech and thought. We are at the tipping point and we need to struggle directly against it.

Struggle, struggle, struggle!

Of course, McChesney will have plenty of allies in this particular struggle as Washington continues to wage a war against advertising of all sorts. Of course, there really is no free lunch in this world and something will have to pay for serious news-gathering (and entertainment, for that matter). Of course, McChesney and his Free Press allies will, no doubt, respond that still more subsidies are in order!  There is, apparently, always someone else in their world to whom the buck can be passed.  [But I wonder: Who would be left to pay all the taxes needed to support public media if McChesney’s “struggle” to overthrow The Man succeeds??]

Net neutrality & Infrastructure Nationalization

And don’t for one minute think that McChesney and Free Press are only out for the old media operators.  They’re out for private broadband and Internet players as well.

When speaking about the centrality of Net neutrality regulation to this “struggle” and coming “revolution,” McChesney does a nice job reminding some of us why we have been so concerned about politicizing a debate over network engineering when he says: “What we want to have in the U.S. and in every society is an Internet that is not private property, but a public utility.”  Ah yes, because public utilities have been soooo efficient and innovative in other contexts!  Please.

In advocating increased regulation or state-ownership of communications networks or broadband companies and connections, McChesney seems utterly oblivious to the fact that the very state power he advocates on one hand is the same state power that private parties can corrupt on the other.  He says, for example, that “Our struggle to make the Internet into a public utility conflicts with the interests of telephone and cable firms,” because “Their power rests upon their ability to successfully buy off politicians.”  How does he not see the contradiction?  He’s certainly right to fear that public officials can be co-opted by private interests. (Read up on your public choice theory, buddy!)  But I suppose McChesney believes that his perfect socialist state will be immune to these pressures because it will be run by enlightened, public-minded philosopher kings… you know… like himself.  But that’s nonsense.  See my old essay on the fantasy of “Building a Better Bureaucrat” or Tim Lee’s old essay on “Real Regulators” for more details on why it never works out that way in practice. Or, better yet, since I know he would never read anything I penned on the subject, I encourage McChesney to take a hard look at the definitive 2-volume Economics of Regulation by a far more experienced progressive Democrat, Professor Alfred E. Kahn. In Kahn’s masterwork, you will find the following words of wisdom (and caution) from someone who spent a lifetime studying these issues:

When a commission is responsible for the performance of an industry, it is under never completely escapable pressure to protect the health of the companies it regulates, to assure a desirable performance by relying on those monopolistic chosen instruments and its own controls rather than on the unplanned and unplannable forces of competition. […] Responsible for the continued provision and improvement of service, [the regulatory commission] comes increasingly and understandably to identify the interest of the public with that of the existing companies on whom it must rely to deliver goods.

McChesney makes one final point about Net neutrality that is worth highlighting. When asked whether he had any reservations about making short-term alliances with new media companies or Internet operators such as Google, eBay, Amazon, and Microsoft in the push for Net neutrality regulations, McChesney says: “Absolutely.. But I’ve learned, by participating in over a decade of specific media struggles, that when you are in the short-term and you are fighting to win, sometimes you make tactical alliances.” Nonetheless, he notes, “the ultimate goal is to get rid of the media capitalists in the phone and cable companies and to divest them from control.” And, so, the ends justify the means in terms of striking short-term alliances with those evil, blood-sucking capitalists.  I hope the folks at Google, eBay, Amazon, and Microsoft are reading McChesney’s radical thinking on communications policy and realize that he and his Free Press reformistas will eventually turn their sights on them just as soon as they are finished socializing the infrastructure layer of the Internet.

Conclusion: Against Media Tyranny

In a very strange sense, I admire Robert McChesney.  He is a man of principle.  And he isn’t ashamed to advocate his principles publicly (whereas some of his Free Press disciples do a very nice job disguising their true intentions).

That being said, McChesney’s principles are dangerous ones. Very dangerous.  They are antithetical to a free society, freedom of speech, and technological progress.  At its core, as I noted in my old essay, “Your Soapbox is My Soapbox,” the repugnant morality behind this “media access” movement is that nothing is truly yours.  “Media democracy” means everything is up for grabs.  Here’s how I put it in that old “soapbox” essay:

Imagine you built a platform in your backyard for the purpose of informing or entertaining your friends of neighbors. Now further imagine that you are actually fairly good at what you do and manage to attract and retain a large audience. Then one day, a few hecklers come to hear you speak on your platform. They shout about how it’s unfair that you have attracted so many people to hear you speak on your soapbox and they demand access to your platform for a certain amount of time each day. They rationalize this by arguing that it is THEIR rights as listeners that are really important, not YOUR rights as a speaker or the owner of the soapbox.

That sort of scenario could never happen in America, right? Sadly, it’s been the way media law has operated for several decades in this country. This twisted “media access” philosophy has been employed by federal lawmakers and numerous special interest groups to justify extensive and massively unjust regime of media regulation and speech redistributionism. And it’s still at work today.

Indeed, McChesney has taken this old “media access” movement that Jerome Barron, Owen Fiss, Cass Sunstein and others pioneered long ago, and advanced it to a whole new level, and to its logical conclusion.  The aim is not just to co-opt someone else’s soapbox; it is to smash their soapbox into pieces. It is to tear the very fabric of the First Amendment into shreds and rebuild “media democracy” around the principles not of true freedom, but of state servitude.  You only have as much freedom to engage in speech, reporting, or entertaining as your media overlords will allow.  And God help you if any of it proves popular because then they will really want to crush you like an ant!

I’ll close this rant the same way I concluded my earlier “soapbox” rant:

This arrogant, elitist, anti-property, anti-freedom ethic is what drives the media access movement and makes it so morally repugnant. Freedom doesn’t begin by fettering the press with more chains, it begins by removing those that already exist and then erecting a firm wall between State and Press. The media access crowd has succeeded in breaching that wall with seven decades of misguided and unjust regulation of the press. The movement back toward a truly free press begins by understanding the error in their thinking, rejecting that reasoning, and then embracing, once again, the original vision of the First Amendment as a bulwark against government control of speech and the press.

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