Page 16


BOOKS & THE CULTURE Thinking Democracy Inside the Politics of Journalism and Scholarship BY ROBERT JENSEN 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. 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 and editor in mainstream newspapers, and fessor 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 antidemocratic 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 these obvious points about the nature of corporate capitalism is increasingly difficult in the media or in scholarship. To do so who doesn’t understand how the world 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 powerhungry 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 26 THE TEXAS OBSERVER SEPTEMBER 17, 1999