Media Studies for the Hell of It?: Second Thoughts on McChesney and Fiske

by: Aniko Bodroghkozy / University of Virginia

Robert McChesney John Fiske

Robert McChesney (left), John Fiske (right)

I’ve been thinking about a somewhat inflammatory polemic that Robert McChesney (above, left) wrote almost a decade ago in which he skewered unnamed Postmodern and Cultural Studies-influenced media historians for producing “politically timid and intellectually uninteresting and unimportant” and “trivial” work (McChesney: 1996, p. 540). He argued that, given the policy and regulatory decisions — such as the recently passed 1996 Telecommunications Act — that were likely to fundamentally reshape the communications landscape, media scholars needed to be providing historical scholarship (and by extension, one assumes, non-historical work as well) that intervened and provided context for these policy debates (p. 550).

The work that McChesney characterized as “trivial” tended to focus on audiences and the “discovery” that “they do not necessarily swallow whatever the corporate masters feed them” (p.544). Clearly McChesney was mopping the floor with the scholarship of John Fiske (above, right), his students, and those influenced by Fiske’s work on popular culture and television. The piece also seemed to be excoriating Lynn Spigel’s hugely influential cultural history of suburban families and the introduction of television in the postwar era (Spigel: 1992). McChesney may have been coy about “naming names,” but it was pretty clear who he was talking about.

For a young scholar like me this was far more than an academic battle among competing intellectual paradigms. If you were a grad student in the Telecommunication section of the Department of Communication Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the 1990s, this was about you. In the early 1990s McChesney was a junior faculty member struggling to get tenure in the Journalism and Mass Communications Department one floor down from Comm Arts in Vilas Hall. Upstairs on the 6th floor of Vilas Hall, John Fiske ruled. Brought into the department in 1988, Fiske was a star. His brand of “affirmative” Cultural Studies was the emergent paradigm, McChesney’s hoary old “political economy” appeared residual. In Fiske’s terminology the “financial economy” that scholars like McChesney, Dallas Smythe, Herb Schiller and the like focused on wasn’t the end of the game. Scholars needed to pay attention to the “cultural economy” of audiences and its meanings and pleasures (Fiske: 1989, p. 26). Grad students on the 6th floor of Vilas, such as me, would genuflect in front of the financial economy of television, but then quickly move on to the really fun, interesting, sexy, and cutting edge stuff we could analyze in the cultural economy. Political economy scholarship and policy studies were like broccoli. Good for us as media scholars-in-training, but not tasty. We taught issues of ownership and control and media concentration to our students because we knew it was important for them to understand how the media industries were configured. These issues were never central, however, and certainly not in our own developing scholarship. Cultural studies made a more satisfying meal and it seemed more well balanced.

Fast forward to 2005. John Fiske is retired from academe and runs a successful antiquing business in Vermont and writes about 17th century oak furniture. Robert McChesney is now the star. He writes best selling books (McChesney 1999), gets compared to Thomas Paine and Paul Revere, heads up one of the most dynamic of a growing number of media reform organizations, Free Press, and has managed to make political economy of the media sexy. It’s feeling to me that McChesney’s paradigm is now emergent and cultural studies residual. (Here in Flow, some of the most stimulating and well-responded-to pieces have been columns on media reform from Tom Streeter and Mike Curtin).

Let me pose a question bluntly: to what extent does it matter whether TV audiences can or do perform negotiated or resistant readings of Fear Factor or Punked or The Apprentice or Desperate Housewives? Are audience agency and receptive practices important right now? In the past, one could argue (and I certainly have) that television as popular culture functioned as an important cultural terrain for mediating and negotiating significant social change (Bodroghkozy: 1992, 2001, 2004). Fiske’s argument that popular culture was “on the side of the subordinate” and had politically progressive (albeit not “radical”) possibilities made sense within the context of television programming in the 1960s and 1970s. A mushy form of liberalism was hegemonic common sense throughout this period. Even the Reaganite 1980s could not significantly overthrow the cultural impact of the social change movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Jane Feuer found the pervasive self-reflexivity of 1980s TV to constitute a “postmodern form of complicitous critique” (Feuer: 1995, p. 9). By decoding reception practices during this period, critics and scholars could actually produce useful information about the cultural handling of larger political and societal forces.

And with broadcast television of the 1990s, we saw a new “Golden Age” of quality and popular prime time fare. A commentator on Public Radio International recently extolled 1990s TV observing that “in the ’90s the best shows were also by and large the most highly rated shows. That had never happened before. And mainstream TV was arguably superior to mainstream motion pictures. That had never happened before either.” I could have deconstructed this “high culture/low culture,” canon formation talk, but instead I sat in my car nodding vigorously at my windshield as I listened. Clearly in the 1990s when TV was “good” (even while some of my grad school colleagues were almost perversely fixating on “bad” TV), it became intellectually defensible to study the texts and audiences of the medium. Television merited humanistic and textual analysis even though cultural studies approaches were not grounded in questions of aesthetics and artistry. I don’t think it is any accident that television studies entered the academy during this “Golden Age.” And the “best” shows of the 1990s were also ones that welcomed readings over contested ideological positionings and subversive discourses. There is excellent scholarship on shows like Roseanne, thirtysomething, The Simpsons, Murphy Brown, etc. Fiske’s best (and regrettably last) book on television was about how 1990s television produced media events that brought to “maximum visibility” otherwise hidden cultural currents and shifts in the structure of feeling (Fiske: 1996).

But the 1990s was the time when McChesney’s voice cried out in the wilderness that we cultural studies/Postmodernist scholars of television and media were blind — bewitched by carnivalesque trifles and simulacral silliness. Most media scholars are ready to concede, of course, the intellectual shallowness and “banality” (in Meaghan Morris’s terminology) of the mania for finding “resistive” or “oppositional” activity everywhere in the pop culture environment. That moment does seem to be “oh so 90s” and over. The 1990s also saw the entrenchment of media deregulation that has ushered in the frighteningly concentrated industry we find ourselves with today. What I am trying to figure out is to what extent McChesney was correct to chastise cultural studies-oriented media scholars (historians or not) for our preoccupation with bottom-up tactics over top-down strategies of power, ownership, and control. Were we feasting on cultural studies meals of empty calories and sugary treats when we should have been eating our broccoli, strengthening ourselves to produce muscular scholarship for battles in the political arena?

I am struggling to find an answer. I’m not ready to junk my own approach to television study (which has always tried to account for lines of power, dialogue, resistance, and incorporation across industry, text, and audience formations within specific historical contexts). On the other hand, to analyze contemporary television and media and not take account of the massive concentration of ownership of all sectors of media into a small handful of conglomerate behemoths with more power than many nation-states seems intellectually decadent.

McChesney and his acolytes are becoming political activists and intervening directly into the political and regulatory regime. Whether one agrees with McChesney and Free Press’s particular agenda or framing of the issues seems beside the point. The point is for television and media scholars and students to get involved in media reform politics. I went to the first national media reform conference organized by McChesney’s group in 2004, held in, of all places, Madison. Practically nobody from the 6th floor of Vilas Hall was there. Practically no television studies/media studies scholars I know (except for Constance Penley and fellow former Vilas “telecommie” Norma Coates) attended. I couldn’t understand why not. I found it strangely ironic to return to Madison and find my intellectual allegiances shifting, at least somewhat, away from what the 6th floor had represented to me as a grad student and moving downstairs to the 5th floor. A couple weeks ago, the second annual media reform conference took place in St. Louis with reportedly over two thousand in attendance. I couldn’t make it this time around but hoped other media scholars could.

For me, it comes down to this: regardless of what we do in our scholarship, if we consider ourselves students and teachers of media and television but are not on some level involved in media reform, we’re doing media studies “for the hell of it.”

Works Cited

Bodroghkozy, A. “Good Times in Race Relations?: CBS’s Good Times and the Legacy of Civil Rights in 1970s Prime Time” Screen, 2004.

—. Groove Tube: Sixties Television and the Youth Rebellion. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2001.

—. “Is This What You Mean By Color TV?: Race, Gender and Contested Meanings in NBC’s Julia.” Private Screenings: Television and the Female Consumer. Eds. L. Spigel and D. Mann. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1992.

Feuer, J. Seeing Through the Eighties: Television and Reaganism. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1995.

Fiske, J. Media Matters: Race and Gender in U.S. Politics. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1996.

—. Understanding Popular Culture. Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1989.

McChesney, R.W. “Communication for the Hell of It: The Triviality of U.S. Broadcasting History.” Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media 40 (1996).

—. Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Times. New York: New Press, 1999.

Spigel, L. Make Room for TV: Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1992.

Image Credits:
1. Robert McChesney
2. John Fiske

Please feel free to comment.


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  • Kayaneh M. Tasian

    Bodroghkozy’s article echoes the conversations I have had countless times with my fellow graduate students. Many of us share her struggle with the pulls of what we know we need to study and teach and what we might prefer to study and teach, as well as the recognition that there is too often a chasm between media studies and media practice or media reform. She has touched on what are perhaps two of the most important questions we media scholars should be asking ourselves, which are at their best self-reflection and at their worst self-doubt, but nonetheless essential to our field: how should we study media and to what end? I certainly haven’t found a hard-and-fast answer for myself to the first question, but I do know the answer to the second, and I am grateful to Bodroghkozy for reminding me and for encouraging others to remember and think about why we do this. I hope that we will use this venue to discuss these issues and to share strategies for engaging ourselves and our students in the media world.

  • Michael Kackman

    learning from pleasure

    The candy/broccoli binary is a handy one, but it only serves the dieticians. What Fiske really argued was that if we want to understand why audiences engage with media the way they do, it just might be a good idea to meet them where they are, rather than where we wish they were. That’s the real legacy of Frankfurt School political economy that is carried through into contemporary cultural studies — not to catalog ownership, but to help map out the systems of knowledge and power that made that ownership possible. That means taking pleasure seriously. If we’re especially thoughtful, we might even map out the origins and implications of our own vengeful pleasures, enacted through criticism. Doing so might tell us something about how and why media reform movements gain popular traction — or don’t.

  • good questions vs good answers

    Thanks to Michael Kackman for his comment, with which I agree. It’s worth remembering that while Meghan Morris excoriated John Fiske for “banality,” she also heaped more than a little disdain on orthodox left political economy. The Fiske/McChesney “debate” raises good questions, but IMHO if you want good answers, you have to go beyond both authors. Raymond Williams, Stuart Hall, and others did a fine job of leading careers that intertwined activism and subtle critical analysis; neither of them ignored political economy, and neither ignored or oversimplified questions of pleasure and audience response.

  • onward ho!

    Aniko, thanks for your piece. It raises important questions. I attended the media reform conference in St Louis a couple of weeks ago and it was very inspiring to be amongst academics, activists and policy makers blowing their horns. Patti Smith’s gig wasn’t bad either! As much as I appreicate the work McChesney is doing, I can’t ever imagine it outside of a dialogue w/ Fiske, Spigel, Williams, Hall, among others. Maybe it’s up to us to figure out ways to forge interplays in their work. You’re right — we need to get more involved in media reform, particularly with the rewriting of the 1996 telecom act next year. Onward ho!

  • intellectual property and effectual culture

    This debate, which has been going on since cultural studies entered the scene of new left criticism of the media, has always overlooked a fundamental linkage which is only now becoming clearer. With the push for more control of cultural property by these multinational conglomerates, it is clear that all of this resistant reading and active viewing wasn’t just producing meanings and pleasures, it was also producing value. It is this value which is being appropriated though the push for intellectual property rights and total control over the new distribution system which could have made possible the creative resistance Raymond Williams predicted would happen with the video-camera and VCR. Perhaps the corporate bosses won’t win in this stuggle, but Bodroghkozy is right in saying that we now have a responsibilty to be involved in it. It threatens not only the material ownership but the creative potential of our common cultural future. An awareness of the audience’s role in this total social process is essential to awakening them/us to their/our stake in this struggle.

  • Media Studies

    Thanks for a helpful essay. But, or and, for those who imagine that media studies, cultural studies, and political economy were ever opposed other than in the minds of 50 or 60 TV studies graduate students and teachers, here’s a list of names that might give food for thought: Dave Andrews, Michael Curtin, Susan G Davis, Susan Douglas, John Downing, John Nguyet Erni, Philomena Essed, Rosa-Linda Fregoso, Faye Ginsburg, Herman Gray, Larry Gross, Larry Grossberg, Laura Kipnis, Justin Lewis, George Lipsitz, Cameron McCarthy, Lisa McLaughlin, Jorge Mariscal, Randy Martin, Rick Maxwell, Andrew Ross, Ellen Seiter, Bob Stam, Tom Streeter, George Yúdice, John Sinclair, Cesar Bolano, Jesus Martin-Barbero, Arvind Rajagopal. That took 5 minutes to compose and is very partial.

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  • Interplays

    While I think Aniko Bodrogkhozy’s call to arms is important, and humbling, I wonder whether immediate inclusion in media reform debates is what we ALL need to be doing. Certainly, some of us must, and I’m thankful for it. But perhaps, to play with the diet metaphor offered, the “person” doing the eating is media/tv/comm studies as a whole, not one individual. Some of us eat the broccoli, some the peanut butter, etc. What matters is an overall balanced diet (and we all need sugar). Taking part in media reform presupposes a certain level of knowing the answers, and many in our field are providing important answers to questions of how audiences interact with texts, which leads to a greater overall understanding of the mysteries of media effects, powers, affects, aesthetics, quality, identities, etc. If the reformers are to get anywhere, it must be armed with some of this knowledge. Indeed, I think some strands of poli econ reformism still need to learn a great deal about aesthetics, for instance, often concerned only with representation and ownership (broccoli) to an unhealthily utilitarian degree. Maybe Jason Mittell’s column in this issue could help them. Perhaps, then, we could call for a dialogic approach that looks to what Lisa Parks nicely called “interplays,” whereby no one individual will do it all, but we are all mindful of what we’re adding to the general dialogue, so that our work may not have a hard policy edge, but it could ultimately be USED by someone with a hard policy edge.

  • Political economy vs cultural studies

    Well, it seems like it’s time again to reread John Clarke’s old 1990 essay, “Pessimism vsPopulism: The Problematic Politcs of Popular Culture”. Battles such as these are as old as academia and politics. First, They occur partly we don’t listen and respect each other – or because there is personal gain in not doing so.Second, they occur because a movement in scholarship is typically intended as a corrective to a previous movement. Eventually another movement grows to correct the second one, etc. If we remeber these two point sit will be easier to see, as Toby Miller points out, that many scholars blend viewpoints, the benefit which John Clarke pointed out.If we respect our fellows we will give them the benefit of assuming that while they argue a particular point, they may neglect to explicitly acknowledge, but likely do know there are positive arguments on the other side. But when trying to make a corrective writers understandably focus on their own point. McChesney certainly has made great contributions with his efforts to organize media reform. But in his urgency, he seems to have lost sight of the original value of culturals studies, that it argued against the pessimism of the time which claimed that people were passive dupes, and argued for the existence of a reservoir of agency and reistance in everyday life that could provide the repertoire for initiating the very organized activism McChesney (and most of us) hope to support and participate in. Similarly, the Fiskean focus on resistance needed also to place this everyday resistance within a context of relative levels of resistance and the forces it confronts.Else it degenerates into pollyanna pronouncements.

    In sum we need to avoid attacking each other, to listen to what is unsaid, to remember we are on the same side, and to unite in this time of crisis.

    In scholarship this means working toward syntheses of politcal economy and cultural studies, just as John had proposed fifteen years ago.

  • Political Economy versus Cultural Studies or Political Economy and Cultural Studies

    If memory serves, it’s now a decade since Nicholas Garnham and Larry Grossberg engaged in a highly fractious colloquy in Critical Studies in Mass Communication. While I think Garnham’s argument that the analysis of culture is impoverished if it overlooks the political and economic context in which its forms are manifest is essentially correct, Grossberg raised an interesting point when he accuses Garnham of criticising cultural studies for BEING cultural studies rather than political economy. Whether their exchange generated more light than heat is a moot point, but it’s revealing that the debate shows no sign of burning itself out. I’d like to suggest that this may be because the academic proponents of different versions of political economy and cultural studies have never been sufficiently clear what it is that they are actually arguing about. Paradigms and theories are not in themselves intrinsically good or bad- their relative virtues have to be gauged in relation to the phenomena they are trying to analyse and explain. It seems to me that the arguments about political economy and cultural studies have a propensity to engage on a metatheoretical level (e.g. disputes over structure/agency dichotomies ) which is both undertandable and appropriate- except that in the resultant rarefied atmosphere, the original matter in question is often overlooked. Now a media phenomenon which still hasn’t been adequately explained is the so-called ‘Fox effect’, namely the remarkable and disturbing trend seen in US mass media coverage of the Iraq War, where Fox News’s partizan support for the neoconservative agenda appeared to impel other networks to modify their own frames of reference in order to conform. As the polemical documentary “Outfoxed” indicates, there was a strong correlation between audience propensity to watch right-wing news channels and to hold demonstrably false beliefs about Iraqi involvement in 9/11 and possession of WMD. How does one account for this? You could begin by emphasising structural constraints on news production or, alternatively, a failure of professional values in journalistic culture, but that doesn’t explain either the convergence of news media perspectives or the differential responses in audience reception. Of course, a dozen books have already been written about these events- but it does seem to me that the issue(s) of media coverage of the Iraq War provide an excellent test-case for demonstrating the explanatory power and limitations of political economic and cultural studies approaches. Anyone willing to take up the challenge?

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  • The education divide

    The battles described here strongly echo the arguments which go on in the media education/literacy field. I have colleagues, from Canada and the UK, who noe refuse to attend American media literacy events because of the seemingly irreconcilable differences over tactics and focus between media educators strongly influenced by cultural studies/audience reception povs (eg David Buckingham) and the more bullish group who come from the effects (usually il-effects) tradition. IFor one, I am now less willing to go to US media conferences becuause of prior confontations–and withdraw, alongside British colleagues, when attack on the media-l discussions got personal (especially from one individual in New Mexico). As well as accounting for issues of ownership, censorship etc, we were rash enough to talk of ideas of pleasure, the realities of yoputh culture etc.I once contrasted this with the situation in New Zealand, where we have nationaly-sanctioned Media Studies in all levels of schooling, as living in a country ‘where the ideological wars are over’best wishes from Down Under

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  • Are these comments really by teachers of media studies? Hmmm.

    It was heartening to read atleast one of you pointing out that Fox News somehow manages to misinform its viewers. The other networks do, too.

    Gosh, what media theory is that?
    It’s called “lying.” That’s what governments do to get away with crimes using what is called by the Pentagon and CIA, “psychological operations” or “strategic persuasion” or other euphemisms for manipulating people’s minds.

    Read Christopher Simpson’s book,’The Science of Coercion: Communication Research and Psychological Warfare, 1945-1960.’

    Then read about the Office of War Information during WWII.

    Then read Carl Bernstein’s 10/20/77 Rolling Stone article called ‘The CIA and the Media’based on suppressed parts of the Church Committee’s Final Report on CIA abuses. Around 400 journalists were CIA or complicit with them including the highest levels of management.

    There are far fewer media organizations today over thirty years later and the system of state-controlled media is much more efficient than back then.

    Research the elements of social engineering, role modeling, violence desensitization, conditioning, indoctrination, subliminal framing, keyword hijacking, imitative deception.

    Learn the Pentagon’s codified methods of counterpropaganda.

    Learn the 25 Tactics if Disinformation.

    Learn the 8 Traits of a Disinformationist.

    Then you might be able to analyze US media. Because the CIA has a strong hand in it.

    But then staff at the University of Virginia probably know about such things. If not, your students should get their money back.

  • These and other acts corrupt a free press, millions know it, and they want change.hopefully it would changed i’m not against it but if it is for the best then it should be done…

  • We can render our own help and give a part about this issues. We are entitled to do our rights. Media may play a big part of our life but we don,t have to be affected as long as we do what we believe is right either if it is for political or economical studies.

  • I agree with Chaser above. Media does play a huge role in the lives these days, we are constantly bombarded with more advertising than ever. But at the end of the day we still have to do with believe is correct. As mentioned in the last paragraph of the article, if you are a media student and you are not involved in media reform, why are you doing it?

  • A little bit out of the topic. I never knew that there will be so many scholarships out there. And I never try to apply it. Could you please tell me how to get scholarship? Is it different for each college?

  • Its true, media plays a big role in our life and it can change our lives with its role. Not bad all the time but sometime.

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