GJR book review: McChesney critique mired in Marxist ideology

Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism is
Turning the Internet Against Democracy
Author: Robert McChesney
Publisher: The New Press, New York
Hardcover: $27.95, 299 pages


The “collapse of journalism” is a hot topic these days. Although its decline preceded the Internet, the Internet appears to be the preferred news medium and a major cause for the failing media business model. Professor Robert McChesney’s latest foray into the discussion over the Internet’s impact on journalism can be found in his newest book, “Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism is Turning the Internet Against Democracy”.

He provides an overview of the debate, borrowing from both “camps” – which include the “celebrants” who see the Internet as the cure for journalism’s and society’s ills, and the more pessimistic “skeptics” who fear it will ultimately kill off journalism (and probably democracy) – to forge a middle way to manifest journalistic reform.The policy initiatives he offers to address the “crisis” and preserve the “democratic” nature of the Internet are intriguing. yet somewhat conflicting at times.

McChesney doesn’t shy away from delivering his Marxist progressive perspective on these issues. But too much of his information is mired in an overarching critique of “capitalism” at the expense of the primary issues of journalism and the Internet. His broad reliance on the term “capitalism” is a frustrating habit resembling the creation of a strawman. It leaves the reader wanting more nuances, especially when encouraged to visit a subject like this by a political economist. Fortunately though, the package of proposals he assembles represent a starting place on which to build a more vibrant journalism in the Internet age.

McChesney’s warnings about the Internet being used as a spy grid in a corporate-state conspiracy is somewhat prescient given recent revelations of the NSA’s massive programs aimed at Americans. But, in an ironic twist, the linchpin of his journalism reform proposals – a media “voucher” program – rests on another now scandal-ridden government agency, the IRS, to determine the nonprofit status of media operations. Giving the state bureaucracy more power seems naïve, given what we know today. It likely would provide more corporate power, as that is the primary “externality” (the negative byproducts he implores the reader to recognize when analyzing “capitalism”) in the current political economic system. The “voucher” program is interesting, and McChesney gives credit to Dean Baker as its designer more than a decade ago. But he offers no good reason for vouchers to be reserved exclusively for nonprofit media. If one supports a direct media subsidy program such as individual vouchers to be assigned by taxpayers, then allowing it to be used toward private or nonprofit would only create more competition.

Private industry isn’t unique in benefiting from competition. Empowering the IRS makes the proposal a non-starter while depoliticizing it likely would provide broader support. McChesney repeatedly holds up government education as a shining example of progressive political results. Although arguing both education and journalism are “public goods,” a “voucher” program apparently only improves the latter through competition. This is a glaring omission in “Digital Disconnect.” Bureaucracy and democracy are clearly at odds in modern political economy, and any hope that the state will keep the Internet free has long passed.

Early on, McChesney appeals to scholars to recognize the “elephant in the room” when analyzing prospects of an Internet-led democratic revolution. That “elephant,” he claims, is “capitalism” – and it’s rampaging through the digital universe, crushing liberty and democracy. Although he notes the Internet’s likely status as the fourth transformative event in the history of communication, the solutions McChesney offers – taxpayer subsidies and more regulations – are not radically democratic because they rely on the current corporatist bureaucracy to work. Arguing for more traditional progressive government action and expecting true Internet-journalistic reform isn’t convincing, and it’s limiting when discussing a “transformative,” paradigm-shifting event such as this.

While journalism is in a crisis of legitimacy, it’s not alone. Practically every centralized system is these days: government, religion, education, corporate finance, etc. While “democratic reform” may have been the progressive goal over the last century, their policies have been implemented in various forms, and their failure is now apparent. This is the fatal flaw in his argument for a bigger and bigger government response to challenge corporate monopolization. Big government and big corporations are now one and the same, and he seems to know this. And this is a very specific kind of “capitalism” that isn’t analogous to “free-markets” as he claims. While his goals are admirable, McChesney’s “Digital Disconnect” unfortunately reads like an attempt to salvage the progressive legacy by re-employing those ideas and expecting different results when it comes to journalism and the Internet.

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