Media and Democracy: An Interview with Robert W. McChesney

By Csapo-Sweet, Rita | St. Louis Journalism Review, March 2001 | Go to article overview

Media and Democracy: An Interview with Robert W. McChesney


Csapo-Sweet, Rita, St. Louis Journalism Review


Robert McChesney's insightful analysis of mass communications and its effects on American journalism and American culture has put him in the forefront of current media criticism. His speciality is understanding the impact of the concentration of media ownership on the democratic process.

A research professor in the Institute of Communications Research at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, McChesney has written or edited seven books, including the award-winning Telecommunications, Mass Media, and Democracy: The Battle for the Control of U.S. Broadcasting, 1928-1935; and Corporate Media and the Threat to Democracy. His newest books are Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Times; and It's the Media Stupid!

McChesney will be in St. Louis in April to talk at an event co-sponsored by SJR and the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

Recently he took time to sit down with us to discuss a range of media topics.

SJR: What does Noam Chomsky mean when he says: "Propaganda is to democracy what violence is to a dictatorship?"

McChesney: In all democracies prior to the 20th century, the propertied elites wanted to limit suffrage to themselves. They feared the idea of universal adult suffrage. By the early 20th century, in the United States, in the northern states we had universal adult male suffrage. Women were added eventually everywhere by the 1920s. Then finally in the 1960s and 70s, you had the end of Jim Crow and universal adult suffrage arrived all across the country. Well that changed everything. That's when propaganda became central to the maintenance of social inequality. For example, the rise of public relations and the rise of propaganda as an institution came almost immediately with the rise of universal adult suffrage.

Read our great thinkers from the first part of the 20th century, from the first half of it, like Walter Lippmann and Harold Lasswell. There's a clear understanding that, after everyone got the vote, the elites needed to guide the masses around for "their own good." The liberals did it for benevolence, conservatives out of malevolence, but the result was invariably the same. The masses needed to be told what to do and taught the appropriate myths to believe so they would obey orders. In comparison to police states with authoritarian death squads, it's very hard to maintain a plausible political democracy merely buttressed by propaganda. That's the situation in which you then resort to death squads and persecution. In police states there's no effort to delude people into thinking it's a healthy society. You simply bludgeon the masses into submission. This is always the distant, final option for any ruling class or elite. But this is not a tenable solution in the long haul because people will resist it. History has shown that over and over and over.

SJR: Do you think that it is possible at some point in our society to have that sort of social structure?

McChesney: I think the farther down the social pecking order you go the less interest there is in bombarding people with propaganda. I don't think that our ideologues are really trying to convince the poorest people of the ghetto, the poorest immigrant workers, that this is a wonderful society.

SJR: Do you think people really believe that we live in the freest society possible?

McChesney: It's hard to generalize, because we are a heterogeneous society and it's somewhat skewed. The farther up the pecking social order, the more people are likely to believe the mythology of our society: that we live in a meritocracy which is the best of all possible worlds. I think the farther down the pecking order you go, the less likely those notions are embraced as truisms.

SJR: Was this recent election a good example of that?

McChesney: This is a very depressing election--and very enlightening at the same time. Media coverage of the election, and the post-election debacle in Florida, was really atrociously influenced by official opinion.

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