McChesney’s Insight into the Future of Journalism and Democracy

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Robert W. McChesney’s speech on the Corporate Dominance of the Internet, Politics, and the Media was a profound narrative that wove together the interrelated nature of the varied structural problems facing the United States. Many of the facts he raised I was already aware of, so for the most part McChesney was remarkably insightful in the connections he made rather than the factual specifics. The most shocking point McChesney raised––which shifted my views on the dominance of these three arenas from being mostly unintentional structural problems to intentional problems strategically laid out by a business elite––was the Lewis Powell Memo. The Lewis Powell Memo blew me out of the water. For me, it was the single factual bombshell that I took away from the speech. Admittedly, my own interest in these matters is relatively new; I’m aware of the fact that I’ve barely scratched the surface when it comes to understanding the workings of the business/politics underbelly, yet for something as fundamentally important as this document to have escaped my knowledge is baffling. It can only speak to the inability of the media to report on something which might not be a “breaking news” story, but is far more central to understanding structural shifts of the last 40 years than any piece of legislation or daily news quip on changing business trends.

In the words of Stewart Alsop, who Powell referenced in the memo, the business elite saw the developing mindset at American universities as fueled “not by rational discussion, but by mindless slogans.” Young people, and growing democratic mobilization, was striking fear in the hearts of this elite. As Powell points out, around this time almost half of all students favored “socialization of basic U.S. industries”––an unbelievable statistic in an age when ‘Socialism’ fulfills nearly the same devil-word purposes for politicians that ‘Communism’ did in the McCarthy era.

Since when was Socialism an acceptable notion in American political discourse in any recent memory? Certainly, I knew of the Socialist dailies and the thriving of Socialism and labor unionism among early 20th Century working class, but the fact that my parents’ generation––the very generation which gave up on a solution to corporatism in exchange for personal security––was so staunchly opposed to the status quo in this specific way (rather than an overly-romanticized movement that collapsed when their musical idols were either washed up or dead at 27) is something which has been written out of our historical knowledge.

McChesney isn’t exaggerating when he said this memo should be taught alongside the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, as it represents a decisive moment when American business and politics responded to a growing public sentiment and quelled it.

The solution to these entangled problems, McChesney pointed out, is democracy. By mobilizing the mass of depoliticized citizens in the U.S., the restructuring of our political system could be possible.

It seems incredible to live in a time when the major business prerogatives established 40 years ago are coming to fruition in concrete ways that would’ve seemed unimaginable even ten years ago. Given that fact, it also seems unimaginable that these changes––which have continued the restructuring of American democracy into the hands of an elite few––won’t come to some sort of head.

Maybe that’s what Occupy wanted to be. Maybe that’s why the protests pushed themselves into the public consciousness as hard as they did, and why business and political interests pushed back just as hard. Maybe it’s why independent investigations into where the Occupy Movement is now, like this one from last week’s Indypendent––which looks at the “burbling of possibilities” left behind by Occupy, while still acknowledging that Occupy’s “mass of humanity naturally brought with it a lot of accumulated baggage, as well as a few demons”––are rare challenges to a journalistic establishment that forgot about activism post-Zuccotti Park.

In a piece from the end of September in the Guardian , 76-year-old investigative-reporting legend Seymour Hersh gave his view on the declining state of American journalism (He would fire 90 percent of current news editors and replace them with ones that couldn’t be corporately controlled). More pessimistic than McChesney concerning these problems of corporate dominance, Hersh believes that the nature of a journalist’s work is to be an outsider, and that this has been lost, as journalism in its current state is part of the establishment problem. Still, he does believe that journalists “at least … offer some way out, some integrity.” It’s a good point; the current system in many ways seems irreparable without a shock to the system making restructuring an immediate necessity rather than merely a vast improvement to our way of life. While McChesney’s idealist belief that activism and democratic participation are the only thing which can cause true social change, even democratic uprisings need substantial support of some kind from within the system they’re fighting in order to ensure that the establishment crumbles. While the business, media, and political domains have all been guilty of ostracizing the majority of the country, journalism has arguably been the most open to democratic participation in recent years, if only because the walls of the traditional journalistic establishment have begun to crumble, and the people have begun to build their own, more inclusive version. If citizen and independent journalism can grow faster than corporate dominance of the internet can, then journalism could very well be the first component of an integrated establishment to start imploding.

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