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Book Review

The Future of Media: Resistance and Reform in the 21st Century, Robert McChesney, Russell Newman, and Ben Scott, eds.  (Seven Stories Press)

If you've ever had an interest in knowing what American media will be like in the future, study the trends, not the book entitled "The Future of Media" from Seven Stories Press. Despite its title, this book does not predict media futures, whatever they might be.

Conversely, if you ever wanted to know about journalism instructors' opinions about media policy, this book will certainly help. As a plus, a careful read will also acquaint you with opinions of association leaders and minority groups and even a commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission.

Why, one might ask, would a reader want to know about these opinions? Well, if you despise media conglomerates like Viacom, Time Warner, News Corporation, Clear Channel, and Disney, here is a permanent, documented support group for you. This will give you a ready-made set of organizations to blame for most any social problem you can think of. Sort of a giving tree for professors.

In fact, this book is a travesty on ethics in publishing, for it includes a 70-page "Free Press Action Guide" at the end, a cheap sales gimmick that fully betrays the purpose of the book - to get readers to join something called the "Free Press Action Fund." I can think of no better way to destroy the integrity of a trade book.

Actually, despite its title, as an outgrowth of National Conference for Media Reform, November, 2003, the book is a concerted argument against concentration in ownership of media companies. Unfortunately its subtitle, "Resistance and Reform in the 21st Century" doesn’t tell us much more. So the book does become a good example of problems in titling. If a title is cryptic, like this one, only those who are already concerned with the issues will understand what the book is about. Unfortunately the average reader just won’t know. Or perhaps the book is so targeted that it just doesn’t matter to the publisher.

One would expect the compiler of a book on media to include a balance of writers, representing all perspectives. (Especially when one of the chapters is all about "diversity" of media ownership.) Instead, in "The Future of Media" we have a collection of talking heads such as we might see on Sunday afternoon television, mostly activists who have an axe to grind about what's wrong with media policy. Kind of like a demolition derby in disguise.

As a professor myself, I can understand how tempting it is to pepper a series of boring lectures with invective against one or more companies. After all, it’s hardly like the companies are there to defend themselves. And, even if the charges are wrong or irrelevant, repetition can make a professor glib and confident. (Unless, God forbid, a student who works in one of those companies joins the class.)

Even more outrageous are the conclusions some writers reach when deprived of real experience. As a student of frequency allocations, I particularly enjoyed reading about the "chorus of engineers" (wouldn’t you like to see a group of engineers in song?) saying that frequencies can be shared among various transmitters and receivers. Thus, using "smart radio," all services can share frequencies at all times, and - voila! - the need to regulate frequency allocations is removed. Exit the evil Federal Communications Commission. How convenient for media policy planner wanabees!

 Completely absent from this book is a mention of the worst horror to visit American journalists - Gallup poll findings at the time of these writings that showed that the American public trusted journalists about as much as they trusted lawyers and used car salesmen. (While for some reason journalists failed to report this news to the public, comically their trade magazine Editor and Publisher had the gall to blame it on poor grammar!) A few chapters on Internet-related subjects do come close, though, and it may be worth buying the book just to read Part IV.

I had hoped that this book would help to predict the future of media as its title implies, not merely parrot the rampant criticism of media that will always exist. Further, though, I had hoped it would answer the most important question regarding journalism today – was it right, back in the 1970’s, for American journalism professors to abandon the FCC’s March 7, 1946 "Blue Book" on Public Service Responsibility for Broadcast Licensees, which directed broadcasters to consider the public interest in their work? Instead, they began to inculcate their students with "advocacy journalism" and other terms of this ilk, resulting in today’s unmistakable trend toward journalists as salesmen for one political persuasion or another.

While mainstream journalists remain in denial of such charges, the efforts of Matt Drudge and many others have made media bias quite public, and it’s high time for a future of media book like this to deal with the more pressing question – are journalists humble enough to admit error and become responsible to the pubic interest today?


Bruce Cook, Ph.D.


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