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Book Review

Digital Disconnect

For the last two decades, media historian and activist Robert McChesney has been telling a critical if largely unheeded story about American media, capitalism and democracy. Its general theme can be inferred from McChesney’s many book titles, including “Corporate Media and the Threat to Democracy” (1997), “Rich Media, Poor Democracy” (1999) and “Our Media, Not Theirs” (2002). His overarching point is that media commercialization, from the early days of radio to the arrival of the Internet, has served American democracy poorly. For much of McChesney’s career, the roar of the digital revolution has drowned out his critique. But recent developments support it, and what seemed to be specialized concerns in the 1990s now bear directly on the role of media, old and new, in a healthy democracy.

McChesney’s latest book, “Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism Is Turning the Internet Against Democracy,” begins with a simple but powerful claim: Most assessments of the digital revolution have failed to situate it in our political economy — not the textbook version, but how we actually do business and politics in America. “The ways capitalism works and does not work,” McChesney states plainly, “determine the role the Internet might play in society.” He fully appreciates the Internet’s transformative power and potential, but he quickly subjects the more extravagant forms of digital utopianism to well-deserved scrutiny. “The problem,” McChesney argues, “is that [Internet] celebrants often believe digital technology has superpowers over political economy.” The digital revolution has done nothing to ease U.S. income inequality, for example, and many experts think it has widened wealth gaps. Moreover, McChesney maintains, the expansion and consolidation of Internet power now pose grave risks to our key democratic institutions, including a free press.

McChesney builds his argument slowly, offering two early chapters on the history of capitalism and the political economy of communication. The first is an armchair survey of an enormous and complex literature, but he peppers it with arresting historical detail. Readers may be surprised that 19th century U.S. presidents, including Abraham Lincoln, frequently sounded like Occupy movement members when it came to questions of labor, capital and economic inequality. “The giant evil and danger in this country, the danger which transcends all others,” Rutherford B. Hayes said after his stint in the White House, “is the vast wealth owned or controlled by a few persons.” McChesney’s second chapter is similarly broad, reaching back to the origins of speech, writing and the printing press before concluding that the digital revolution is as significant as these precursors.

McChesney also draws on mainstream economics to discuss the crucial but frequently neglected notion of public goods, whose side effects tend to produce a healthier economy and society. Economists usually point to national security, infrastructure, law enforcement and education as the key examples of public goods, and though hard-core libertarians argue that companies can and should supply all of them, most economists maintain that free markets, left to their own devices, will fail to provide the appropriate quantity, mix and quality of public goods. For this reason, government investment in them is usually money well spent.

In a 2010 book co-authored with John Nichols, McChesney argued that political journalism is also public good, and he develops that point in “Digital Disconnect” by pinpointing two basic problems with market-oriented journalism today. The first is that the profit motive shapes the selection and presentation of news in ways that frustrate the goal of an informed (rather than an entertained or terrified) citizenry. For-profit media companies say they’re giving people what they want. If audiences like crime stories, even when crime rates are dropping, then crime stories it will be — along with generous doses of “entertainment news,” or thinly disguised advertisements for other media products. For these organizations, the public interest is a vague abstraction compared with profit maximization. When it comes to news, then, their operative principle is clear: It’s good dog food if the dog will eat it.

To see long excerpts from “Digital Disconnect” at Google Books, click here.

The second problem is that political journalism, the only kind the nation’s founders cared about, has always required some form of subsidy. Throughout the 19th century, the government supported newspapers through preferential postal rates and paid public notices. In the 20th century, advertisers picked up the bill for gathering, packaging and disseminating political news. But the digital revolution crashed that business model by decimating ad revenue and readership. Seemingly unaware of this history, U.S. news organizations continue to hope that their customers will eventually pay full price for a service that, in one way or another, has always been massively subsidized. It is a peculiarly American blind spot. Virtually every other advanced democracy supports public media and journalism more generously than we do. On a per capita basis, Canada furnishes about $20 of government support for every American dollar allocated to public media, and the United Kingdom outspends us 50 to one.

Yet even as serious American journalism craters, there are few calls for increased public support. Many reporters regard that support as a good way to turn government watchdogs into lapdogs. Although the evidence from other advanced democracies indicates the opposite, their suspicion is telling. Applying the same logic, corporate ownership and advertising should weaken business and economic reporting, but Americans consider these arrangements free of ideological taint. Meanwhile, Republicans continue to call for the elimination of the $446 million per year we now devote to all forms of public broadcasting, including children’s programming. It’s not about the money. The Pentagon spends $550 million per year on military music, and its annual budget for public relations — that is, the Pentagon-friendly packaging of war news — is $5 billion. It’s often said that the federal budget is the skeleton of the state stripped of all misleading ideologies. If so, the U.S. thinks that managing the war news is 10 times more important than all forms of public media combined.
The digital revolution so far has been disastrous for American journalism, but what about those cool new products and services? Proponents of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which privatized and commercialized the Internet, claimed that the measure would usher in a new era of innovation and competition. In McChesney’s view, that legislation delivered reasonably well on the first promise. Search engines and social media, for example, have created or radically altered whole industries, not to mention our daily lives, and McChesney offers Wikipedia, perhaps the world’s greatest reference work, as a shining example of the noncommercial use of the new technology.

But textbook-style competition in the Internet world was quickly thwarted when the telephone and cable giants entered the arena, and the concentrations of market power are now alarming. Google controls 70 percent of the search engine market and 97 percent of the mobile search market. Apple accounts for 87 percent of music downloads, and Amazon sells the vast majority of books and e-books purchased online. These outcomes reflect the superior goods and services offered by these firms, but consumers are already feeling the pinch of monopoly power. About 20 percent of U.S. households have access to only one broadband provider. The United States ranks 26th in average consumer download speed, but a study of 22 global cities concludes that we pay higher prices for that poorer performance. “Deregulation,” McChesney claims, “has led to the worst of both worlds: fewer enormous firms with far less regulation.” He compares the current state of affairs to the classic scene from “The Godfather: Part II,” in which kingpin Hyman Roth divides his birthday cake — decorated with a map of Cuba — among a small group of assembled mobsters. If citizens and consumers aren’t at the Internet table, McChesney suggests, we’re probably on the menu.

Despite the libertarian rhetoric that regularly issues from Silicon Valley, these empires would have been impossible without government-sponsored research on basic technologies. But as McChesney reminds us, the government has also partnered with these firms in less uplifting ways. We know, for example, that telecommunication giants cooperated with the National Security Agency’s illegal wiretapping program in 2001. After a whistle-blower exposed that operation, no one was prosecuted, and Congress granted retroactive immunity to those corporations. When President Obama took office, the domestic spying program continued, and his administration got tough — with the whistle-blowers. In 2010, the largest telecommunications companies helped the NSA intercept and store 1.7 billion emails, telephone calls and other types of communication every day. The following year, Google received at least 10,000 requests for information from law enforcement and national security agencies, and the company has indicated that it complies with 95 percent of those requests. If Silicon Valley leaders are truly concerned about liberty and privacy, re-examining their own corporate policies is a good place to start.

McChesney’s recommendations for reform, which he offers in his final chapter, include the regulation of digital monopolies, public investments in journalism, stricter advertising and privacy rules, and protections against warrantless surveillance. One doesn’t have to share his leftist politics to endorse these sensible measures; the question is, who will enact them? Obama is unlikely to pick a fight with the Internet giants; indeed, some observers wonder whether he knows how to fight. Nor are such monopolies restricted to the digital economy. We see similar concentrations of market power in finance, retail, food and agriculture, and many other major sectors of the economy. Trust-busting is the next big item on the political agenda, and we may need a new Progressive Era, complete with old-school muckraking, to accomplish it. The Internet can be a valuable tool in that effort, but as McChesney’s important work makes clear, our political economy won’t change with the click of a mouse.

Peter Richardson
Reviewer
Peter Richardson teaches humanities and American studies at San Francisco State University. He has written three critically acclaimed books: No Simple Highway: A Cultural History of the Grateful Dead (2015); A…
Peter Richardson

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