The U.S. Left and Media Politics

By McChesney, Robert W. | Monthly Review, February 1999 | Go to article overview
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The U.S. Left and Media Politics


McChesney, Robert W., Monthly Review


American democracy is in deep trouble. Cynicism and distrust of the political system, fueled at least in part by imposed ignorance, have grown steadily in recent years. There are several reasons for this, but few as important as the condition of our media. Many Americans, especially those on the left, know that after a generation of rampant consolidation and conglomeration, the American media are dominated by less than twenty firms - and that a half-dozen or so corporate giants hold the commanding positions. These firms use their market power to advance their own and other companies' corporate agendas. And they increasingly commercialize every aspect of our culture. By any known theory of political democracy, this tightly-held media system, accountable only to Wall Street and Madison Avenue, is a poisonous proposition.

A healthy democracy depends on an informed and educated public, but the wealthy and powerful few who make the most important media decisions deny that as a possibility. Theirs is a system in which crucial political issues are barely mentioned, or are molded to fit the confines of their elite debate. The public is thus denied the tools it needs to participate as an informed citizenry. Moreover, the media system not only serves the ideological needs of our business-run society, but is itself a major sector of the economy.

One would expect to see an exploration of ways to fight back, among those who see the industry's concentrated power and untrammeled commercialism as roadblocks in the path of democracy. Yet, for generations, the control and structure of the media industries have been decidedly off-limits as a subject of political debate on the left.

As long as this holds true, it is difficult to imagine any permanent qualitative change for the better in the American media system. Without reform of the industry, the prospects for the United States improving the quality of our democracy seem dim indeed. It is mandatory for the U.S. left to put media reform on its agenda.

Until after the Second World War, concern about media reform was less pressing, because labor and the left understood the importance of communicating with and educating their own members and supporters. Every labor union and political group had its own publications in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Some of the more successful and aggressive unions and political parties had extensive media outlets. In the early 1900s, Socialist Party members and supporters published some 325 English and foreign language daily, weekly and monthly newspapers and magazines. Most of these were privately owned or were the publications of one or another of the 5,000 Socialist Party locals. They reached a total of more than two million subscribers.

Similarly, from the late nineteenth century on, just about every labor union had its own newspaper. In the mid-thirties, when the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) was organized, it explained to its members that the labor movement could not thrive if the press remained the exclusive property of capital, and made the creation of labor and public service media a high priority. So did the more conservative American Federation of Labor's central labor council in Chicago, which established a local radio station as a conscious first step in setting up a pro-working-class network. All of this was part of a broader effort during the period to establish a cultural popular front. It was overwhelmed by corporate opposition in the thirties, and was given the final blow with the start of the Cold War in the late forties.

In sum, labor and the left's declining interest in developing its own independent media can be traced to post-war labor-corporate accommodation and the disruption and decline of the broader left as a result of Cold War anticommunism. The process was aided, too, by the change in corporate journalism in these years from a more open conservativism to a new, ostensibly non-partisan or "objective" professionalism, a change designed to broaden the appeal - and the advertising revenue - of newspapers, magazines, and, later, television.

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