Why Fiske Still Matters

by: Henry Jenkins / Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Media Matters

Cover of Media Matters by John Fiske

Aniko Bodroghkozy’s “Media Studies for the Hell of It?” in FLOW’s previous issue argues that we should revisit Robert McChesney’s 1996 polemic against John Fiske and the “affirmative” strand of cultural studies. If we had only listened to McChesney back then, she argues, he would have prepared us for our current struggles. I share her desire to see a greater dialogue between cultural studies and political economy and her call to put our theories into action. But, in my view, political economists should have spent more time listening to Fiske; their continued failure to absorb his key lessons represents a recurring blind spot in the media reform movement today.

A little historic clarification: Fiske might still have “ruled” Villas Hall in 1996 but he was under siege everywhere else. I will not dignify the kind of personal and professional abuse he confronted as anything like an intellectual debate between competing theoretical and methodological paradigms; his arguments were reduced to caricature (of the “resistant readings of Fear Factor” variety) and more often subjected to eye-rolling and finger-wagging than rebuttal. Today, even many of Fiske’s former students act as though studying under him was a youthful indiscretion on the order of wearing leisure suits or a mullet. “Semiotic democracy? I can’t believe we used to talk that way!”

By the mid-1990s, Fiske had published Media Matters, which as Bodgroghkozy notes, remains his most important work. There, Fiske lays out a sophisticated account of structure and agency. Media Matters examined a series of political/media events to show how America was struggling with –- and against — becoming a multiracial and multicultural society; the book discussed the emergence of a new kind of grassroots media power and warned about the emerging influence of right-wing media and the dangers of a surveillance society. McChesney might have provided a clearer picture of what we were fighting against (that’s debatable), but Fiske always gave us a much more potent vision of what we were fighting for. (Does anyone else find it curious – given this history — that McChesney currently hosts a radio show called Media Matters?)

Contrary to McChesney’s reductive reading, Fiske never argued that media ownership or cultural policy was irrelevant. For Fiske, resistant reading was always a survival mechanism in a world where media control rested elsewhere, a bottom-up tactic in the face of top-down ideological power. In Media Matters, Fiske absorbed and responded to criticisms leveled against his earlier work. By contrast, McChesney has learned nothing from his critics. Far too much media reform rhetoric still rests on melodramatic discourse about victimization and vulnerability, seduction and manipulation, “propaganda machines” and “weapons of mass deception”. Fiske’s great ideological sin was that he spoke about empowerment: any meaningful social change must start from the premise that what we do can make a difference; democracy must be built on respect for the intelligence and judgment of the public. Otherwise, why bother.

Part of what makes McChesney’s more pessimistic perspective so attractive today is the anguish many of us feel about the outcome of the last presidential election, which seems the most powerful demonstration that media concentration is shutting down or distorting important debates. Yet, despite Fox News, George W. Bush has the lowest level of public support of any American president in history at this point in his administration. Despite Clear Channel, public support for the attack on Baghdad never broke 80 percent (ten percentage points lower than the highest level of support for the Gulf War) and has remained closer to the 50 percent mark. Despite Karl Rove, Bush’s social security reform effort was dead on arrival. Surely this says something about the critical capacity of consumers, their ability to access alternative sources of information, or the enhanced potential of groups to organize using new media tools, probably all three.

American media is now being shaped by two seemingly contradictory trends: on the one hand, new media technologies have lowered production and distribution costs, expanded the range of available delivery channels, and enabled consumers to archive, annotate, appropriate, and recirculate media content in powerful new ways. At the same time, there has been an alarming concentration of the ownership of mainstream commercial media, with a small handful of multinational media conglomerates dominating all sectors of the entertainment industry. Few media critics seem capable of keeping both sides of this equation in mind at the same time. In some cases, they identify competing and contradictory trends towards concentration (Robert McChesney) and fragmentation (Cass Sunstein), a “culture boom” (Nick Gillespie) and an American “monoculture” (Mark Crispin Miller). Some fear that media is out of control, others that it is too controlled. Some see a world without gatekeepers, others a world where gatekeepers have unprecedented power. And they all describe some aspects of our contradictory and transitional media system.

In the 1980s, some like McChesney could dismiss all of those resistant subcultures, textual poachers, and active audiences as figments of our over-active imaginations; today, you can find them all out in full force on the web. The internet has made visible the invisible work of audiences. Consumers have become key participants in media culture; the debate now centers on the terms of their participation, not whether spectatorship is active or passive. The media industry likes to talk about Napster, Bittorent and Grokster as disruptive technologies but in fact, they are disruptive cultural practices of the kind that Fiske gave us the tools to identify and analyze.

By themselves, neither Fiske nor McChesney can fully explain some recent efforts to reconfigure the relations between media producers and consumers. Take for example the launch of Current TV, a network that seeks to “reinvent” television news for younger viewers. As the new network’s chairman Al Gore explained at a recent press conference, “The Internet opened a floodgate for young people whose passions are finally being heard, but TV haven’t followed suit. Young people have a powerful voice but you can’t hear that voice on television — yet. We intend to change that with Current, giving those who crave the empowerment of the web the same opportunity for expression on television.” Of course, this network is being shaped by many of the same old corporate interests and there are already reports that Gore’s attempts to “empower” citizens are being transformed into efforts to attract desired demographics. Surely, we need cultural studies and political economy to understand how this idea for a more participatory news network got transformed into whatever we will see when Current goes live in August.

Painting with admittedly broad stokes, Fiske depicted a world where consumers and producers confronted each other from positions of unequal power with no guaranteed outcomes, other than the likelihood that both would survive to fight another day. This seems to me a much better description of the current moment than one where corporate media totally dominates, all diversity is eradicated, and consumers are dupes. As with previous revolutions, the media reform movement is gaining momentum at a time when people are starting to feel more empowered, not when they are at their weakest.

The potentials of a more participatory media culture are worth fighting for. Put all of our efforts into battling the conglomerates and this window of opportunity will have passed. McChesney is right to argue that digital media does not inevitably lead to Democracy but foolish not to recognize that all kinds of groups are working hard right now to insure that it achieves those democratic potentials — at least some of the time.

That is why it is so important to fight back against the corporate copyright regime, to argue against censorship and moral panic which would pathologize these emerging forms of participation, to publicize the best practices of these online communities, to expand access and participation to groups which are otherwise being left behind, and to promote forms of media literacy education which see children as active contributors to a new media culture rather than helpless victims of “weapons of mass deception.” These forms of activism, which emerge from theories of audience resistance and participatory culture, are just as important — just as “political” — as McChesney’s efforts to cap media ownership.

We should be fighting a multi-front battle against media concentration and for a more diverse and participatory culture yet McChesney and his allies dismiss any path forward except their own. For example, in “U.S. Media and Left Politics,” McChesney describes media literacy as a dangerous concept because it implies that we might mitigate the influence of corporate media and dismisses participatory journalism because he contends that journalism is too important to be left in the hands of nonprofessionals (i.e. citizens). He is uninterested in exploring what it means to live in a world where bloggers can discredit the assertions of major news organizations, countercultures can circulate alternative versions of popular culture, and anti-brand activists can rapidly organize and deploy. Whenever he raises the Internet, it is simply to dismiss any idea that such media matters — in his world, it is all or nothing. Either you are the most powerful force in the room or what you do has no real consequences. Fiske’s theories allowed for partial victories and contradictory outcomes.

McChesney, Mark Crispin Miller, and their supporters damage their own credibility when they talk about a contemporary “monoculture” at a time when most consumers see themselves as having access to unprecedented (though far from all inclusive) diversity. This assertion is right up there with the old saw that there is not a dime’s difference between the two parties — a simplification, a rhetorical excess that does no one any good.

Bodroghkozy waxes nostalgically about a “golden age” of progressive and self-conscious television. She implies that such shows aren’t being made anymore. On the contrary, there is much more progressive popular culture being produced today than in the 1980s: liberal documentaries are playing in the multiplexes and being circulated via Netflix, The Daily Show offers a daily rebuttal to other “fair and balanced” newscasts, West Wing is modeling the way to a “purple America,” and shows like HBO’s The Wire consistently complicate the orthodoxies of the “war on drugs,” to cite just a few examples. The contemporary media landscape is fragmented, to be sure, these are no longer the highest rated shows, they are as always ideologically impure, but college educated progressives represent a niche which is being well served at the moment. After all, today’s media workers were our students then. Even those who didn’t fully buy our Marxist critiques of their future employers absorbed new ways of thinking about media content and consumer relations.

McChesney consistently depicts media companies as well-oiled corporate machines that always recognize and pursue their own interests, but the closer to the ground you get the more media conglomerates look like dysfunctional families whose various divisions scarcely speak to each other. We can not afford to ignore the agency of cultural workers who work within the cracks of the system to produce meaningful content any more than we can ignore the degree to which contemporary media companies seem genuinely spooked by the muscles being flexed by their consumers. In both cases, Fiske offers a more dynamic vision of cultural production and a more compelling account of social change than McChesney.

Fiske taught us that constructing cultural hierarchies often masks other exercises of power. We should be concerned by this version of the media reform movement’s often paternalistic and puritanical rhetoric: its dismissal of all popular culture as “bread and circuses” and its willingness to woo cultural conservatives by floating the idea that “indecent” content illustrates the dangers of media concentration. Again and again, this version of the media reform movement has ignored the complexity of our relations to popular culture and sided with those opposed to a more diverse and participatory culture.

None of this means we should walk away from the challenges of media reform. It does mean we should resist falling lockstep behind the version of media reform being offered by McChesney. Instead, we need to build better theories, forge better alliances, and adopt more diverse tactics and the best way to do so is to find a way to talk to each other across the polarizing terms of the Fiske/McChesney debate.

Fiske taught us well. He was a gracious mentor who never demanded that we enlist in his cause. Some of the best contemporary political economists — Mike Curtin and Rick Maxwell, among them — were Fiske’s students and they may be among the best prepared to fuse the two traditions. He taught us to critically examine any and all claims made about media power. He greeted healthy and civilized debate with a twinkle in his eye. Fiske was always far more generous with his critics than they were to him. Of course, we need to update and nuance his theories to reflect new political and economic realities and a shifting media landscape. His formulations were provisional, he let us watch him work through his ideas, and there is no doubt that if Fiske was writing today he would have significantly revised his perspective. But anyway you cut it, we need Fiske now more than ever.

Image Credits:
1. Cover of Media Matters by John Fiske

Please feel free to comment.


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  • John and Bob

    I appreciate Henry’s thoughtful and nicely-written piece. Here is my own reaction.

    John Fiske (1842-1901) occupies a special place in US intellectual history. He was a key popularizer of Darwin’s theories in the 1870s and 1880s, and of US history-writing in the subsequent two decades. His latterday namesake had a different politics, but also worked to popularize ideas–albeit within educational contexts, not social movements or policy circles. In the 1980s and 1990s, John Fiske’s work took off in the US in contexts entirely different from its policy and intellectual origins. That genesis was in dupolistic, ruling-class-conscious broadcasting systems in Britain and (to a lesser extent) Australia that needed shaking up, from consumerist perpsectives. The principal destination of his work of course became the late 1980s and early 1990s United States, which was undergoing former FCC head Mark Fowler’s burning-toast revolution of consumer sovereignty via deregulation. In that environment, the academic impact of John’s excellent prose and decent cultural politics was manifold–including a form of address that fitted the deregulatory times, whatever his own wishes may have been. The consequences of that deregulation are clear since General Electric and Larry Tisch used money from armaments and tobacco to buy networks, then stripped them of the capacity to report on international news. None of that occurred because of John’s writing, but students in the humanities paid attention to his work and, often, not to what else was going on. We need a corrective to the Fowler legacy at a policy level. In that context, what Bob McChesey is doing today is speaking to millions of people, far beyond John’s essentially academic audience. Bob’s constructions of cultural studies are at serious variance with my own, but I concur with his position on cultural policy, and think it is time for those defining themselves as active readers to engage with ownership and control as well as pleasure and polysemy. I agree wth what Henry writes about John, but want to add to it and give more flavor to his view of Bob.



  • john and bob

    Thanks to Henry for the compliment and to Aniko for the motivation to write. I think we madison grads ought to think about a reunion, not to talk about who ruled Vilas but to make our statement about doctoral education in media studies/cultural studies in the US–which seems to me what this exchange is about. The issues raised here are, to my mind, about what and how we think about a media studies PhD education. The underlying anxiety seems to be how we will link our research, theory, and practice to urgent policy matters. The madison reunion could deal with this in depth, or at least talk about program changes we hope to make whereever we are. The FLOW debate makes it clear that we need to define a new political and social relevancy for the courses of study we promote and plan to teach. Bob and john are not the point; they matter less than our collective vision to expand our borders of thought about media power/aesthetics/culture, domestically and globally. Toby urged us to globalize and inter-discipline-ize our collective identity; Tom, Mike, and others tried to say we need to innovate our approaches to policy and critique; Horace reminds us that the humanities needs us and we need the humanities, as fraught as this relationship has been over the last 30 years; and we need to highlight our ties to the social sciences and engineering schools as well. So let’s call for a reunion of the Madison “gang” and see what happens. We can invite bob, john, but also david bordwell and mary ann fitzpatrick (the two true rulers of Vilas in the 80s and 90s) and others–Horace et al.. Let me say also that every recent policy/media reform gathering I’ve attended this year has been a reunion of old rivals with new progressive agendas–the primary goal has been to improve the informational and cultural conditions in the US. This rallying cry unites more than the the political economists and cultural studies people. Every meeting includes economists, lawyers, effects researchers, activists, policy wonks and others. I’m happy to say that Aniko’s dualism isn’t really relevant anymore. So here’s my point: The time for feuding is over. Let’s get together and rock the system in all the ways we’ve learned how to do it.

    Enough of this wondering which side we are on. The folks in this debate should know that we’re beyond that question, at least–now let’s talk about change.


  • Victor Kulkosky

    Dialogic Fiske and Monologic McChesney?

    Henry Jenkins’s piece is a fine example of dialogue in action. He points to the “seeimingly contradictory trends” in mass media today. “Few media critics seem capable of keeping both sides of this equation in mind at the same time,” he points out.

    Horace Newcomb (see his piece in this issue) suggested an approach to keeping both sides of the equation in mind way back in 1984, in his article “On the Dialogic Aspects of Mass Communication,” in the debut issue of Critical Studies in Mass Communication. At that time, the political economists and the culturalists were also feuding. Newcomb outlined how those focused on the hegemonic model reacted to all evidence of counter-hegemony by simply expanding the reach of hegemony, which seems similar to the approach of McChesney and others today, as Jenkins sees it. Newcomb noted Morley’s discoveries that audience reactions to television shows couldn’t be accurately predicted simply by knowing their social position. Newcomb suggested the dialogic approach of Bakhtin and Voloshinov, who at that time were not yet the stars of a global cottage industry. Bakhtin and Voloshinov’s sophisticated account of the complexities and evolution of meaning in daily language use could, Newcomb argued, be fruitfully transferred to studies of television.

    Unfortunately, as I found in researching my thesis, there hasn’t been much followup on Newcomb’s proposal — at least not much that I found. If anyone knows of such work, I’d like to hear about it.

    Bakhtin’s account of the contest between monologue and dialogue, or centripetal and centrifugal forces, oculd be productive not only in media studies but in the debate outlined above. To put Jenkins’s discussion in dialogic terms, we might say that Fiske focuses on dialogue and McChesney and others in his corner focus on monologue. Those who see the menace of a “monoculture,” however, have this strange notion that the weapon to use against this monologue is another form of monologue. Jenkins appears to be calling for a mutually productive dialgoue, or as Bakhtin (1981, p. 282) put it, “… [the speaker’s] orientationtoward the listener is an orientation … toward the specific world of the listener; itintroduces totally new elements into his discourse; it is in this way, after all, that variouspoints of view … various social ‘languages’ come to interact with one another.”

    In anticipating counteraguments, I suppose someone will insist that Bakhtinians downplay power relationships. I would respond that an approach that sees monologue denying the Other as “another I with equal rights and responsibilities” has plenty to say about power relations. You talk about power, and I’ll talk about dialogue, and let’s agree to meet regularly and trade notes, shall we?

  • “media monopoly” is popular

    This has been a nice discussion. One small twist: There’s an interesting irony here in that the best argument for the Mcchesney line about media monopolies is that it’s popular. If Fiske is right that we need to think hard about what’s popular, then we need to think of why so many have turned out for the media reform conferences. There are more than a few media reformers who readily concede that the media monopoly charge is in many ways problematic, but, they point out, it is galvanizing; the battles over FCC ownership regulations have gotten more new people involved in media politics than anything else since the 1960s. If it’s not the end of the discussion, recent events suggest that it’s not a bad way to get it started.

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  • Popping by many years later to respond to Tom Streeter’s great comment.

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