Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Not Mao Zedong or a Communist...But a Socialist

In its June 10th edition, Communications Daily [subscription required] reported that FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, once again bemoaning the state of investigative journalism, said the FCC may conclude the only way for news to survive is to have more government support. Commissioner Copps said it is not productive for proposals for more government support for news and investigative journalism to be met with comments to the effect that "you're Mao Zedong" or "you're a Communist."

Fair enough, up to a point. It is generally more useful to debate directly the underlying merits of proposals than it is to debate labels attached to the proposals' proponents.

But when asked about ways for the government to support journalism, Communications Daily reports that Commissioner Copps referred to the proposals of Robert McChesney, the University of Illinois professor who is co-founder of Free Press. Now, as many who follow communications policy know, Professor McChesney is an avowed socialist.

There are many on the Left who take umbrage when those who criticize their policies characterize them as "socialist" – they might even huff and puff about McCarthyism. They apparently think the characterization harmful to their cause. Not Robert McChesney. I don't know whether he would or would not be pleased with being called Mao Zedong or a Communist. But I know he doesn't shy away from the Socialist label, or from advocating what he calls socialist policies.

Indeed, anyone having any doubts should read Professor McChesney's latest essay (with co-author John Bellamy Foster) entitled "Capitalism, the Absurd System," in the current edition of Monthly Review, a self-styled "Independent Socialist Magazine." You should read the long article for yourself if you want to take in Professor McChesney's full argument as to why capitalism should be replaced with socialism. Here I want only to provide three excerpts to give you the flavor:

"It seems clear that this need for a 'bursting asunder' is where the United States is now. Capitalism, viewed as a system of generalized commodity production motivated by the competitive pursuit of private gain without limits, and thus driven to the amassing of concentrated wealth, even at the expense of public welfare and environmental sustainability, is well past its productive era—during which it could make claims to some degree of rationality. We have reached 'The End of Rational Capitalism.' It survives now on bubbles, bloated debt, military spending that borders on suicidal, and a deadening hypercommercialism."

"Mere state ownership of key productive forces is not enough to create a socialist society; the people must exercise a sovereign rule over these productive forces and society as a whole, and the society must be organized to promote collective needs. Just as democracy is not an accomplished reality unless the vast majority of the people rule society, so socialism is not an accomplished reality unless the associated producers control the productive forms of society and use them rationally and sustainably in the collective interest."

"We were provoked to write this article because the possibilities in the United States for a genuine, free-wheeling discussion of capitalism’s defects, and the merits of socialism, are greater today than at any time in generations, and we must not let this historic moment pass."

Again, if you are inclined, read the entire article. In any event, I do not think that Professor McChesney would object that I have unfairly characterized his views. And he would not disagree that his project is to further the cause of socialism in the U.S.

If I were back in college, I would enjoy debating the full range of Professor McChesney's ideas for days on end. But what I want to highlight here are McChesney's ideas concerning media policy, and the way these ideas relate to advancing his socialist project in the U.S. And, of course, I am interested in the appeal of Professor McChesney's ideas to Michael Copps because, as a commissioner at the agency that exercises great power over communications and media companies, Commissioner Copps' views matter.

To my way of thinking, it is disturbing that Commissioner Copps is sympathetic to Professor McChesney's views.

PFF's Adam Thierer has done very good work critiquing Professor McChesney's suggestions for "saving" journalism and news. For present purposes, I want to refer to just one of Adam's many pieces on the subject, which you may find here. (You may find several others to similar effect on the PFF blog.) Here are some of McChesney's quotes highlighted in Adam's piece, "Free Press, Robert McChesney & the 'Struggle' for Media":

"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."

"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...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."

"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."

Interestingly, Howard Kurtz's column in the June 21st Washington Post is all about a revival or reenergizing of investigative journalism, with the likes of new organizations such as ProPublica and Internet companies such as AOL playing a leading role. Kurtz reports:

"After years of feeling unloved and unwanted, some fortunate journalists are again finding their services in demand. While most print newsrooms remain shrunken and some major newspapers are mired in bankruptcy, new media incarnations are giving the restless and the jobless a second lease on life. AOL says it plans to add hundreds of journalists to its stable over the next year. Yahoo has opened a Washington bureau. The Wall Street Journal just created a New York section. And TBD, owned by Politico's corporate parent, is recruiting for its online effort to cover the Washington area."

There is no doubt, as I noted in my testimony in April at an FCC forum on "public media," that the news operations of newspapers and broadcasters have been hobbled due to the emergence of new media competitors (and due in no small measure to antiquated media regulatory policies steadfastly championed by Commissioner Copps.) But there is much evidence, as reported in the Kurtz piece and elsewhere, that innovative news and investigative journalism enterprises, in a variety of for-profit and non-profit forms, are arising to meet the needs of the American people. Witness the plans of Yahoo and AOL, ProPublica, and so forth.

But none of these efforts will make a bit of difference to Robert McChesney. And the extent of today's media abundance, or the diversity of views available, won't make any difference either. For, as I have set forth above in his own words, what he wants is for the government to reshape the media to his liking, away from what he sees as a media that promotes capitalism to one that promotes socialist ideals. As he puts it plainly, the connection between capitalism and journalism must be broken by eliminating the profit motive.

Integral to all Professor McChesney's proposals is the notion that the government must subsidize journalists and news organizations. This necessarily involves the government in making determinations concerning what constitutes real "news" or "journalism" and/or what constitutes an eligible "news organization" To be sure, in McChesney's world, a news organization with "capitalistic" sympathies would be unlikely to receive government subsidies. Aside from everything else I have already told you, how do we know this? Because Professor McChesney states forthrightly, in a recent edition of the Socialist Project's magazine, The Bullet, that “the ultimate goal is to get rid of the media capitalists.” You can't get rid of the "media capitalists" without the government controlling the media.

Now all of this is not to suggest that Commissioner Copps agrees with all of Professor McChesney's views, even as he says he would look to McChesney's proposals regarding expanding support for public media. But given what many Americans would surely regard as McChesney's extreme anti-capitalist socialist philosophy, it would be useful to know in what ways, if any, Commissioner Copps disagrees with Professor McChesney's views.

It would be useful, but I think I already have a sense. There is a fundamental difference between the perspective of Professor McChesney and Commissioner Copps, on the one hand, and me, on the other. Putting their views in the very best light, I think it is fair to say that they fear private (corporate, if you will) control of the media far more than they worry about the dangers arising from government control. Certainly Professor McChesney wants more government media control in order to promote views that are consistent his own vision of what America should be.

My perspective is just the opposite. I certainly do not wish to see a media environment in which a few voices, corporate or otherwise, dominate. This would not be healthy for the vitality of American democracy. But, thankfully, we do not live in such a media environment. Indeed, due to technological developments over the past thirty or so years, we have more media abundance, and more diversity of views readily available to the American people, than at any time in our country's history.

In our Bill of Rights, our Founders made a clear choice. The First Amendment stands for the proposition that we have more to fear from government control of the media than we do from private control. Our Founders understood it is only human nature for government officials to want to promote views sympathetic to their interests and to suppress those that are not. Referring to the safeguards to rights established by the Constitution, James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 51: "It may be a reflection on human nature that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government."

The First Amendment's intent is to prevent government officials from exercising control over the media, not to facilitate the exercise of such control through the handout of government funds with the inevitable strings attached. The strings necessarily will always have to do with deciding what journalistic content is or is not worthy of government support.

It doesn't matter much to me, for purposes of debating his ideas, that Robert McChesney calls himself a socialist. It wouldn't matter much to me if, going back to Commissioner Copps' statement, he calls himself Mao Zedong or a Communist.

What matters to me is fighting Professor McChesney's ideas, and those of Commissioner Copps to the extent he shares McChesney's views. In that fight, I am happy to stand with the Founders, and with my understanding of what they meant when they wrote the First Amendment.