Interview with Robert McChesney

© Robert McChesney and Figure/Ground
Dr. McChesney was interviewed by Justin Dowdall. February 25th, 2013.

Robert McChesney is a professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is the author of several books on the topic of mass media in the United States and the former host of the weekly NPR radio program “Media Matters” (WILL-AM, Urbana-Champaign). Dr. McChesney cofounded the media reform network Free Press with Washington correspondent John Nichols (The Nation). Free Press is a catalyst for discussion of important issues related to mass media, advocating for the defense of Internet neutrality and criticizing the consolidation of large media conglomerates.

How did you decide to become a university professor? Was it a conscious choice on your part?

No, it was an unconscious choice. As an undergraduate in the 1970s I studied economics and history and I was planning eventually to go to graduate school with no clear idea of what I was going to do with my career thereafter. And then I got side tracked and became a journalist and a magazine publisher. I spent most of my twenties in Seattle working on other things and didn’t go back to graduate school for communications at the University of Washington until I was 30. Even when I went back to graduate school, I was not sure that I wanted to be a professor. I didn’t know much about academia, and I thought I wanted to be a teacher, but I didn’t know if I wanted to teach at the college level. At the same time, what you can’t know until you do it, is if you enjoy writing, that’s such a large part of being a scholar. I had no idea what to do. I was petrified; I guess that’s like most people. I thought that writing might prove difficult for me, but I just started writing that first year and really enjoyed it. I think at that point, I asked myself, “is this is something that I could see doing for a living?” It just felt right, it felt good; it did not seem that hard and was really pleasurable. So, it was really in the process of my first year that I could see doing this. Then I knew that this was the right path, but I was in my thirties and it was also the process of elimination in our society. What exactly else was I going to do?  It wasn’t like there were a hundred interesting jobs “out there” that I could pick from. I had published a rock and roll magazine and a weekly newspaper and had done some editing in my twenties and that was really enjoyable.  Those were some cool jobs, but I could see those were things that I did not want to do when I was 50 years old. They were sort of young people’s employment.  So, I would say that’s all, that the other options stepped backwards and being a professor was still nigh.

What advice would you give to young graduate students and aspiring university professors? Who are the thinkers today that you believe young scholars should be reading?

Well it depends as undergraduate and/or aspiring professors what their research is in. I would give different answers to different people. For the students of the research that I do, the political economy and history of media and media politics, the advice I would give is that the most important thing is to love your work. If you don’t really love the work with a passion the job isn’t worth it. You should get out. It’s almost like being a dancer, you got to have a joy in the work itself, or it’s not a very easy life. Especially with the pressures on academia today with the cut backs and the shirking of the autonomy and privileges that academics traditional had.  That’s my first advice. What thinkers should scholars be reading? I don’t have a laundry list of mandatory authors to read. The authors that influenced me growing up, coming of age, going back decades: Noam Chomsky, Paul Ron and Paul Sweezy greatly influenced me, C. Wright Mills has had a lot of influence upon me. There have been lots of scholars and historians that have been important as well. Those are probably some of the more public figures that have played a large role in my development.  I am pretty eclectic as a scholar and I’m fairly eclectic as a reader, so I don’t really have a set list that everyone should read.

Who were some of your mentors in graduate school and what were some of the most important lessons you learned from them?

I didn’t really have mentors in the sense that the term is used.  My advisor in graduate school was Bill Ames, who died before I finished my degree. And what I really admired about him – and what I try to do with my graduate students – was that he had a lot of faith in me and he let me do whatever I wanted.  He just basically ran interference for me. He didn’t get in the way. He respected me and I find that’s what you can do with your best graduate students. If you’re a mentor you don’t try to put them in your box, you try to let them take off and make it easier for them to be successful. That’s the lesson I learned from him. I think intellectually, my intellectual antecedents, I didn’t have a mentor who said, you have to do this or that. I was pretty much “out there” on my own, sort of finding my own way intellectually. I guess it would have been nice if I had had someone telling me, “I know everything you’re doing and this is what you ought to be doing,” but I did not have that as an option, so I just did what I could. I don’t know if that’s the best way to do it, but it’s just the way I had to do it.

What makes a great teacher in the information age?

Beats me…what makes a good teacher period. It doesn’t seem to make a difference what age you’re in. Sometimes I think I am a pretty good teacher, sometimes I don’t, It really varies. I think one thing that makes a great teacher is having great students. It‘s hard to teach people who have no interest in what you’re talking about. You can try to do back flips and jazz it up all you want. However, if there is not a genuine intellectual curiosity about the world, it’s tough for even the best teachers. It’s hard to grow crops in a parking lot. You need top soil, sunshine, and water. Having said that, I think being a teacher is like being an actor; it’s a commitment you have to make to your craft and to your audience and to the people you work with. I think listening is important, knowing your material is important, and, like an actor, liking people is important – enjoying people, accepting people for who they are. But then that could make a bad teacher too, I don’t know. It could be a lot of gibberish. I don’t know if I am in the position to be the judge about what makes a great teacher. There are some people that would not put me in that group.

 Nearly half a century ago, Walter Benjamin in his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” noted, that “Fascism seeks its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves”. In what way, if any, do you believe that this relates to our current media moment?

Well, I guess that there is an element of truth to that. I have not thought about this quote in this way. I mean, fascism is a very important question. It’s an issue that is very poorly understood in the United States, maybe in the whole world, but certainly in the United States. We think of it traditionally in the United States as being Nazi Germany and rabid nationalism, militarism and Anti-Semitism, and the Holocaust and propaganda. Something that seems antithetical to what the United States has been about. It seems like something that is really weird that is over there, something that could never happen here. I think that the one of the problems with that thinking is that Nazi Germany is not the prototype of fascism. It in some ways distorts fascism, because of its own peculiarities and because of World War II and the Hitler Nazi cult. Fascism has a more traditional meaning that is applied to lots of other countries; Italy was the most famous and is where fascism comes from originally, which is the idea that fascism represents the merger of corporate power with the state, so that the state works on behalf of corporations and corporations basically use the state to advance their interest. They are really tied together in an active process that involves a great deal of propaganda, militarization, and security. When you understand fascism that way, not just as the Nuremberg rallies and the Holocaust, then it seems to be far more saleable with what is going on in the United States. It’s not an inaccurate way to understand our government-corporate power work very closely together.  Our system is functionally democratic, but only by the thinnest of reeds by this point. We have two completely different law systems for the rich and for everyone else. Actually it’s the rich, everyone else, and the poor. There are sort of three different law systems. But we don’t have rule of law anymore, which is a clear sign of a fascist society. So I think that fascism is a very important issue, underappreciated, but of increasing importance. As far as the role of the Internet in it: we once thought that the Internet would make fascism impossible, because it would give people information to control their own lives, it would undermine the ability of tyrants, maximum leaders and demagogues, to control people’s lives. We thought we would have the information and power to sort of blow them aside and run our own lives as a great force for democracy. And as your question with the Benjamin quote suggests, it has so not turned out that way.

In 2009, Francis Fukuyama wrote a controversial article for the Washington Post entitled “What are your arguments for or against tenure track?” In it, Fukuyama argues that the tenure system has turned the academy into one of the most conservative and costly institutions in the country, making younger untenured professors fearful of taking intellectual risks and causing them to write in jargon aimed only at those in their narrow sub-discipline. In short, Fukuyama believes the freedom guaranteed by tenure is precious, but thinks it’s time to abolish this institution before it becomes too costly, both financially and intellectually. Since then, there has been a considerable amount of debate about this sensitive issue, both inside and outside the university. Do you agree with the author? What are your arguments for and/or against academic tenure?

I think that Fukuyama, in this piece, is making some very good points about some of the problems of higher education and tenure. The reason that we got tenure in the first place, at least the ostensible reason that we got tenure, is to protect academic freedom. It’s to protect the right of professors to do research at a certain point of their career without fear that they could lose their job by stepping on powerful people. It’s really a necessary condition to have an independent intelligentsia and independent scholarship. To have any plausible free society where you don’t have your academics and researchers at the beckon call of the powerful and the elites. However, it has been abused greatly. The vast majority of college professors that are protected by tenure today do work that in no way threatens anyone in power and in no way could cost them their job, because it was so controversial or so gutsy. I wish that were a problem. I wish we had universities filled with faculty doing daring research and going after the people in power and challenging their assumptions and the way that the world works. The problem with getting rid of tenure is that it would not solve that problem. The first people that would get fired would exactly be the people that need tenure. The controversial professors, the ones that are taking chances – they are the ones that are right out the door. They’re are not going to be the ones that Fukuyama is taking about, the ones not taking risks or the ones writing jargon; they are safe. They are bureaucrats who got their butts covered. They are not the ones getting thrown out. Believe me, look who runs universities! If you get rid of tenure, they are not going after some meaningless professor writing jargon. They are going to go after professors talking to you. The professors talking to a broader audience and that’s why we have tenure in the first place.  So the solution, if we want to have a creditable and independent intellectual group in our society, is not to get rid of tenure so that existing people in power can start firing professors if they don’t like them. That’s a nonstarter.  The solution instead is to try to find a way to make our professors and intellectuals more engaged.  The great curse is, as Fukuyama points out, that we have a tremendous amount of intellectual work being done in this country that is just garbage, just a complete waste of everyone’s time. It gets jobs and makes careers, but getting rid of tenure will not get rid of that. I don’t think that there is any evidence that will go away, unfortunately, for that argument.

The 2012 United States presidential election saw unprecedented media spending in battle ground states. What lessons do you believe communication and media scholars will take away from the trends that have emerged? In other words, what effect do you see regional segmentation having on the national debate?

Let me rephrase the question, because I am just now in the process of finishing a book on this very subject, Dollarocracy, that I am writing with my friend John Nichols (it will out the middle of 2013). So I don’t know what media and communication scholars will take away from it and I frankly don’t care; I am more concerned with what the American people will take away from this, and people that are engaged in their communities take away from it. There I think we are getting at what we where talking about earlier: the reed that makes us a democratic society is a very narrow reed. Basically, in this society the way this worked for a long time is that you have Election Day and then everyone is equal. Bill Gates, the Koch brothers, Warren Buffet, the CEOs of Fortune 500companies, all had the same power as someone working the graveyard shift cleaning toilets at Wal-Mart. They are exactly equal on Election Day and that’s the day that frightens people in power more than any other for exactly that reason. Because once that Election Day is over, the great masses go back to their couch and go back to sleep and the people that own the country run it. That’s how it always works in America. Election Day is the one day that can upset that apple cart and the one thing that can goof up the system. That’s the great threat always to people in power… intellectual democracies. So the way that they traditionally try to deal with that is to restrict the enfranchisement, so only people with property, only men, only white people, only rich people, can vote. Well, we won a number of great progressive victories over the last hundred years to guarantee universal adult suffrage and now we are seeing a real rollback in that with these efforts to suppress the vote. For instance, felons can’t vote, so we have an absurdly high percentage of Americans who can vote compared to any other country. Again, it is limiting people who can vote, who are not going to be necessarily sympathetic to the idea that billionaires should run the country. What we are seeing with our elections in general is this influx of money. This election (2012) probably cost around ten billion dollars when all is said and done. That is unprecedented, it’s mindboggling, and it’s just the beginning. It’s only going to get worse. It has made it so that the election system has almost no credibility, or at least very little credibility.  That narrow reed that connects the idea of democracy to the reality of the United States, which is really getting thinner and thinner, is very close to snapping. It’s an issue of the absolute utmost importance for you, for me, for everyone in this country going forward.

I was wondering if you could talk a bit about your time on NPR and Media Matters.

The show Media Matters was on the air for ten and a half years and concluded in October of 2012, and it was a great show. The station I worked at which was NPR Affiliate WILLam580 Illinois was very supportive of me from the very beginning. The management could not have been stronger. There is no way that show could have been done on any other NPR station in the country. It took a special station with a lot of courage and real commitment to taking chances and serving the community, to stand behind the show and to be willing to give me an airing every week for an hour. It was a lot of fun and a tremendous show. It was a lot of work, but it gave me a chance every week – as you know if you listened to it, and I think the shows are still up on the web if people want to hear – to talk to really brilliant and interesting people every week. These people were authors, activists, and politicians, and had noncommercial hour discussions and let people call in and ask questions. So, I had a good experience, my station was completely supportive, but it’s not the same sort of programing now that I am gone, and one that we will never see again on NPR. If you know, NPR normally regards a show like that anathema to them, because it puts them in political hot water, despite the fact that it was massively popular. It was by far the most popular show in our station in terms of pledge drive support and I think that a similar show would be similarly popular anywhere in the country. This show can be done by a lot of different people in a lot of different places, but no one will touch it for political reasons and I think that is unfortunate.  The reason I did the show as long as I did – I did not plan to do it ten years – was I knew that once I stopped that kind of voice would not be heard again on NPR.

What are you currently working on?

The book that I told you about with John Nichols called Dollarocracy, which is sort of the money, the political, and the media money election complex, which is destroying democracy in this country. I also have another book coming out also this year within the next few months, called Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism is Turning the Internet Against Democracy, which is a political economic critique of what is taking place online.  So that is what I have been working on the last couple of years.

©  Excerpts and links may be used provided that full and clear credit is given to Robert McChesney
and Figure/Ground with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Suggested citation:

Dowdall, J. (2013). “A Conversation with Robert McChesney,” Figure/Ground. February 25th.
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