The Internet and U. S. Communication Policy-Making in Historical and Critical Perspective: McChesney
Two oppositional and epoch-defining trends dominate U.S. and global media and communication. On one hand, there have been both rapid corporate concentration and commercialization of media industries. The proposed 1995 mergers of Disney with Capital Cities/ABC and Time Warner with Turner Broadcasting, as well as the sale of CBS to Westinghouse, highlight this trend. Most business analysts expect even more merger and buyout activity, leading to as few as six to ten colossal conglomerates dominating global communication before the market stabilizes (Stille, 1995). According to some political theorists, this rampant commercialization of communication poses a severe challenge to the social capacity to generate a democratic political culture and public sphere (Habermas, 1989). Virtually all known theories of political democracy would suggest that such a concentration of media and communication in a handful of mostly unaccountable interests is little short of an unmitigated disaster.
On the other hand, newly developed computer and digital communication technologies can undermine the ability to control communication in a traditionally hierarchal manner. The most dramatic development along these lines has been the Internet, which permits inexpensive, global, interactive, and mass computer communication, as well as access to a previously unimaginable range of information. The Internet has been alternately described as a “functioning anarchy” that is virtually impossible to control from a centralized command post (Lipson, 1995) and “a grass-roots, bottom-up system” (Flowers, 1995, p. 24). Kapor (1994) notes the historical significance of what is now termed cyberspace: “Instead of a small number of groups having privileged positions as speakers-broadcast networks and powerful newspapers-we are entering an era of communication of the many to the many…the nature of the technology itself has opened up a space of much greater democratic possibility.” The executive director of the Internet Society characterizes the Internet as “a profound turning point in the evolution of human communication-of much greater significance than the creation of the printing press” (Flowers, 1995, p. 26).
The long-term trend toward corporate concentration derives from the core logic of capitalism and is presently the dominant force of the two. My fundamental question, then, is to what extent can the emerging communication technological revolution, particularly the Internet, override the antidemocratic implications of the media marketplace and foster more democratic media and a more democratic political culture? This issue is addressed here as a matter of communication policy-making, concentrating upon the U.S. experience. In the first section I locate the current communication policy debates in the broad tradition of U.S. political history and discuss how corporate control of communication has been effectively removed from these debates. This is especially true in the 1990s, as Congress, the White House, and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) address how best to develop the information highway. This presupposition of corporate, for-profit control reduces the range of legitimate policy debates to tangential issues. According to this premise, corporate control of communication should be maximized and the technological possibilities for decentralized, citizen communication should remain minimized, except where profitable. I argue for genuine, democratic, public participation in communication policy-making, with the aim of establishing nonmarket mechanisms to achieve socially determined goals. In the second section I take up the claim that the traditional policy concerns outlined in the first section are irrelevant for the new computer communication technologies, because these technologies have such a powerful intrinsic democratic bias that the traditional issue over who should control them is essentially moot. To address this contention, I locate the rise of the new technologies in the emergence of global corporate capitalism and the tensions between democracy and capitalism. I argue that the new communication technologies are, in fact, the product and a defining feature of a global capitalism that greatly enhances social inequality. For the Internet and the eventual information highway to approach their full democratic potential will require the types of policy measures now being broached only marginally.
Although I compare Internet and contemporary communication policy-making to the historical case of broadcasting, the differences in the technologies suggest it highly unlikely that they will develop along similar lines. The Internet has vastly more potential as an engine of democratic communication, and the real issue before us is how much of that potential will be fulfilled. I conclude that the policy issues surrounding the emerging communication revolution must be accompanied by a nearly unprecedented degree of politicalization in the United States, if we are to approach the democratic potential of these technologies. The communication revolution also presents a special challenge to the discipline of communication in the United States and globally. Just as the global economy and the communication system are in the throes of a turbulent transformation, communication research and education in the United States are at a crossroads. The stance communication scholars assume toward communication policy-making in the coming years may determine the status of the field for generations.
The Internet and U.S. Communication Policy-Making
Two sets of fundamental political questions emerge when discussing the development of any major communication technology. The first set asks, who will control the technology and for what purpose? The corollary to this question is, who will not control the new technology and what purposes will not be privileged? In the case of U.S. television, for example, a few enormous corporations were permitted to control the medium for the purpose of maximizing profits, which would be realized by selling advertising time. Thus the United States put the development of television on a very distinct trajectory, a path rather unlike that which was adopted in most parts of Europe.
The second set of questions deals with the social, cultural, economic, and political impact of the new communication technology on the overall society and explores why the new communication technology is important. The institutional structures created to answer the first set of policy questions will generally determine the answers to the second set. In fact, much of communication policy-making at this second level consists of trying to coerce the communication system-its owners and operators-into behavior they ordinarily would not pursue. The classic case in point would be the constant discussion about reducing the level of television violence. At the same time, however, the second set of policy questions cannot be limited entirely to structural issues, or it would not need to be considered fundamental. Regardless of how a communication technology is owned and operated, it will have consequences that are often unintended and unanticipated, and related only in varying degrees to its structural basis. Thus television dramatically altered the domestic culture of U.S. households in the postwar years (Spigel, 1992), and it has arguably had a strong effect upon the nature of journalism (Baughman, 1992) and public discourse (Postman, 1985).
The process by which society answers these questions can be regarded as policy-making. The more a society is genuinely democratic, the more that society's policy debates concerning the application and development of paramount communication technologies will be open, informed, thoughtful, and passionate. Regardless of how democratic the policy-making process may be, however, these questions still emerge and will be answered in one form or another. As a rule of thumb, if certain forces thoroughly dominate a society's political economy, they will thoroughly dominate its communication system, and the first set of policy questions will not even be subject to debate. So it is and so it has been with the Communist Party in various “people's republics,” and, for the most part, with big business interests in this country.
The United States is in the midst of a fundamental reconfiguration of communication media, often characterized as the information superhighway, or the era of the interactive telecomputer. This is a truly revolutionary era not because of the awesome and bedazzling developments in technology, but because these new digital and computer technologies are likely to break down the traditional communication media industries and call forth a reconstitution of the communicationinfrastructure across the board. In short, the first set of policy-making questions have re-emerged, and the answers we find to them may well set the course of development for generations.
Moreover, the current communication revolution continues, rather dramatically, the historical process whereby mediated communication has become increasingly central to the political economies and cultures of the world's peoples. Global capitalism, politics, culture, and education, to mention a few examples, are being reconstructed in this new era of the information highway. The entire manner in which individuals interact with the world is in the process of being transformed. Hence, the second set of policy issues concerning the social implications of the new communication technologies are of the utmost importance.
The current communication revolution is not unprecedented. It corresponds most closely to the 1920s, when the emergence of radio broadcasting forced society to address the two sets of political questions mentioned above. As with the Internet in the 1990s, radio broadcasting was a radically new development, and there was great confusion throughout the 1920s concerning who should control this powerful new technology and for what purposes. There was little sense of how radio could be made a profitable enterprise, and there was considerable discussion of how liberating and democratic it could be. Much of the impetus for radio broadcasting in the first decade came first from amateurs (Douglas, 1987) and then from nonprofit and noncommercial groups that immediately grasped the public service potential of the new technology (Feldman, 1996; Frost, 1937; Godfried, 1996). It was only in the late 1920s that capitalists began to sense that through network operation and commercial advertising, radio broadcasting could generate substantial profits. Through their immense power in Washington, DC, these commercial broadcasters were able to dominate the Federal Radio Commission such that the scarce number of air channels were effectively turned over to them with no public and little congressional deliberation on the matter. In the aftermath of this commercialization of the airwaves, elements of U.S. society coalesced into a broadcast reform movement that attempted to establish a dominant role for the nonprofit and noncommercial sector in U.S. broadcasting (McChesney, 1993). These opponents of commercialism came from education, religion, labor, civic organizations, women's groups, journalism, farmers' groups, civil libertarians, and intellectuals. They recognized quickly that their task was doubly difficult, as they had squandered their opportunity to establish a nonprofit system in the 1920s, when the commercial interests were still wrestling with the question of how to capitalize on radio. They looked to Canada and Britain, where nonprofit interests were able to direct policy before the commercial interests had become entrenched, thus providing the groundwork for workable public service broadcasting models for the United States. The reformers attempted to tap into the intense public dislike for radio commercialism in the years before 1934, when Congress annually considered legislation for the permanent regulation of radio broadcasting (Smulyan, 1994). These reformers were explicitly and nonnegotiably radical; they argued that if private interests controlled the medium and their goal was profit, no amount of regulation or self-regulation could overcome the bias built into the system. Commercial broadcasting, the reformers argued, would downplay controversial and provocative public affairs programming and emphasize whatever fare would sell the most products for advertisers. Theirs was a sophisticated critique of the limitations of capitalist communication systems for a democratic society, which foreshadowed much of the best media criticism and scholarship of recent years.
The reform movement disintegrated after the passage of the Communications Act of 1934, which established the FCC (and which will be substantially altered for the first time by the Communications Act of 1995, as explained below). The 1930s reformers did not lose to the commercial interests, however, in any fair debate on a level playing field. The radio lobby dominated because it was able to keep most Americans ignorant or confused about the communication policy matters then under discussion in Congress through their control of key elements of the news media and their sophisticated public relations aimed at the remainder of the press and the public. In addition, the commercial broadcasters became a force that few politicians wished to antagonize; almost all of the congressional leaders of broadcast reform in 1931-32 were defeated in their reelection attempts, a fate not lost on those who entered the next Congress. With the defeat of the reformers, the industry claims that commercial broadcasting was inherently democratic and American went without challenge and became internalized in the political culture. Thereafter the only legitimate manner by which to criticize U.S. broadcasting was to assert that it was uncompetitive and, therefore, needed aggressive regulation. The basis for the “liberal” claim for regulation was that the scarce number of channels necessitated regulation, not that the capitalist basis of the industry was fundamentally flawed. This was a far cry from the criticism of the 1930s broadcast reformers, who argued that the problem was not simply one of lack of competition in the marketplace, as much as it was the rule of the marketplace per se. It also means today that, with the vast expansion in the number of channels in the current communication revolution, the scarcity argument has lost its power and liberals are at a loss to withstand the deregulatory juggernaut (Avery, 1993).
This constricted range of policy debate was the context for the development of subsequent communication technologies, including facsimile, FM radio, and television in the 1940s. That the communication corporations had first claim to these technologies was unchallenged, even to such public-service-minded New Dealers as James Lawrence Fly, Clifford Durr, and Frieda Hennock. In comparison to the public debate over radio in the 1930s, there was almost no public debate concerning alternative ways to develop these technologies. By the 1940s and thereafter, liberals knew the commercial basis of the system was inviolate, and they merely tried to carve out a nonprofit sector on the margins. This was problematic, because whenever these nonprofit niches were seen as blocking profitable expansion, their future was on thin ice. Thus the primary function of the nonprofit sector in U.S. communications has been to pioneer the new technologies when they were not yet seen as profitable-for example, AM radio in the 1920s and FM radio and UHF television in the 1950s-and then to be pushed aside once they have shown the commercial interests the potential of the new media (McChesney, 1995a). This has already been the fate of the Internet's computer networks, which, after substantial public subsidy, were turned over to private operators (Kanaley, 1994; Shapiro, 1995).
Policy and the Profit Motive
The emergence of the Internet and related technologies is forcing a reconsideration of media policy unlike, say, television or FM radio, because the nature of digital communication renders moot the traditional distinctions between various media and communication sectors. It is clear that the broadcasters and newspaper chains that have ruled for generations will not necessarily rule, or even survive, in the coming age, although the companies that own them will fare better if they move strategically into the new digital world. This theme dominates the business pages of the press and the business-oriented media. The key question, then, is to identify which firms and which sectors will dominate and capitalize on the communication revolution, and which firms and which sectors will fall by the wayside. This is the tale being told in our business press, and, by prevailing wisdom, this is the key policy battle concerning the Internet and the information highway.
Consistent with the pattern set in the middle 1930s, the primacy of corporate control and the profit motive is a given. All sectors of the federal government repeatedly emphasize that the information superhighway “will be built, owned, and operated by the private sector” (Newslink, 1995, p. 1). The range of legitimate debate extends from those like Newt Gingrich, who argue that profits are synonymous with public service, to those like Vice-President Al Gore, who argue that there are public interest concerns the marketplace cannot resolve, but can only address once the profitability of the dominant corporate sector has been assured (New York Times, 1995). The historical record of communication regulation indicates that although the Gore position can be dressed up, once the needs of corporations are given primacy, the public interest will invariably be pushed to the margins. Nowadays, liberal politicians rarely invoke the rhetoric of public interest regulation that, though mostly hollow, typified the middle 20th century. In fact, the debate is so truncated that the preferred (some would argue, the only) means of regulating communication firms is to create incentives for them, that is, to pay them to act differently such that their profits do not fall (National Telecommunications and Information Administration, 1991).
This situation exists for many of the same reasons broadcast reformers were demolished in the 1930s. Politicians may favor one sector over another in the battle to cash in on the highway, but they cannot oppose the cashing-in process without placing their political careers in jeopardy. Both the Democratic and Republican parties have strong ties to the large communication firms and industries (Auletta, 1995a), and the communication lobbies are perhaps the most feared, respected, and well endowed of all who seek favors on Capitol Hill (Andrews, 1995; Mills, 1995). The only grounds for political courage in this case would be if there were an informed and mobilized citizenry ready to do battle for alternative policies. Where would citizens get informed, though, if not through the news media, where news coverage is minimal and restricted to the range of legitimate debate, which, in this case, means no debate at all? That is why the information superhighway is covered as a business story, not a public policy story. Perhaps it is only coincidental that the firms that control U.S. journalism are almost all major players in the corporate jockeying for the inside lane on the information highway. This is not a public policy issue to them, and they have no desire for it to become one (Hickey, 1995). It is a stunning conflict of interest that goes without comment.
These factors all crystallized with the passage by the Senate and the House of Representatives of the Communications Act of 1995. Perhaps one of the most corrupt pieces of legislation in U.S. history, the bill was effectively written by and for business. Much is made of the new law's commitment to competitive markets. This is, in fact, a euphemism for a deregulation that almost certainly will lead to increased concentration, if the historical record provides any insight (Du Boff, 1984; Stille, 1995). As Aufderheide (1995b) notes, the law “proposes, in essence, to let the big get bigger, and more vertically integrated” (p. 3), placing complete trust in the communication corporations. The limited opposition to the legislation has come primarily from those firms that thought they did not see enough benefits thrown their way, or that felt that their competitors got too many (Aufderheide, 1995a). “In all these years of walking the halls of Congress, I have never seen anything like the Telecommunications Bill,” one career lobbyist noted. “The silence of public debate is deafening. A bill with such astonishing impact on all of us is not even being discussed” (Bien, 1995, p. 1). In sum, the debate over communications policy is restricted to elites and those with serious financial stakes in the outcome. It does not reflect well onthe caliber of U.S. participatory democracy.
The effect of the Communications Act of 1995 is to assure that the market, and not public policy, will direct the course of both the Internet and the information highway. It is, in effect, a preemptive strike by corporate America to assure that there will be little public intervention in the communication system in coming years, and that government will exclusively serve the needs of the private sector. To answer the question of whither the Internet, one need only determine where the greatest profits are to be found. Indeed the commercialization of the Internet is growing at an exponential rate. More venture capital was invested in Internet companies in the first quarter of 1995 than in all of 1994 (Treese, 1995). “The rush to commercialize…the Internet has created an investor frenzy not seen in the technology industry since the early days of the personal computer more than a decade ago,” the New York Times reports (Zuckerman, 1995). Forrester Research reports that total annual Internet-related revenues will increase from $300 million in 1994 to $10 billion by 1999. Other estimates place Internet-related revenues as high as $200 billion by 2000. The revenues will come from Internet software, Internet access fees and on-line services, Internet-generated hardware sales, and Internet consulting and market research (Taylor, 1995). On-line direct selling and advertising are also vaulting into prominence (Goldman, 1995; Sandberg, 1995). The A. C. Nielsen Company now prepares a survey of Internet users to expedite Internet commerce and advertising even more (Caruso, 1995). Much of the commercial involvement with the Internet is still speculative and not generating a profit, much as it was with private radio station owners of the 1920s, who knew they had a potentially hot ticket, but did not yet know how to cash it in. Businesses are frightened of being outflanked in cyberspace, as suggested by the AT&T advertisement promoting the Internet as a business's “secret weapon against the other guys.” Corporate media giants, in particular, are aggressively working to dominate the Internet. Levy (1995) contends that these corporate media ambitions in cyberspace will be foiled because of the antimonopolistic bias of the technology. If so, in the current political environment, that may well mean that the Internet will never fulfill its vast potential and will remain on the margins of the media culture. Aufderheide (1995b) concurs, arguing that the Internet will eventually be regarded as “a demonstration project on the electronic frontier” (p. 1). In any case, the Communications Act of 1995 guarantees that the eventual information highway based on the interactive telecomputer will be a thoroughly commercial enterprise with profit maximization as its founding principle (Baran, 1995; Besser, 1995). It is too early to predict where the nonprofit and noncommercial sector of cyberspace will fit into that picture, but its survival and growth will be based strictly on technology, not policy.
Those forces that benefit from this situation claim that the market is the only truly democratic policy-making mechanism because it rewards capitalists who “give the people what they want” and penalizes those who do not. When the state or labor unions or any other agency interferes with the workings of the marketplace, this reasoning goes, they produce outcomes hostile to the public interest. These were also the precise claims of the commercial broadcasters as they consolidated their hold over the radio spectrum in the 1930s. This ideology of the infallible marketplace in communication and elsewhere has become a virtual civic religion in the United States and globally in the 1990s.
This argument remains infallible only to the extent that it is a religion based on faith and not a political theory subject to inquiry and examination. Under careful examination, the market is a highly flawed regulatory mechanism. Let me provide three brief criticisms along these lines. First, the market is not predicated uponone-person, one-vote, as in democratic theory, but rather upon one-dollar, one-vote. The prosperous have many votes and the poor have none. Is it any surprise that the leading proponents of the market are predominantly well-to-do, and that markets invariably maintain and strengthen class divisions in society? Second, the market does not “give the people what they want” as much as it “gives the people what they want within the range of what is most profitable to produce.” This is often a far narrower range than what people might ordinarily enjoy choosing from. Thus, in the case of broadcasting, many Americans may well have been willing to pay for an advertising-free system, but this was a choice that was not profitable for the dominant commercial interests, so it was not offered in the marketplace. As Barbara Ehrenreich (1995) puts it, “a consumer in a market can never be more than a stunted caricature of a citizen in a genuine democracy.” Third, markets are driven solely by profit considerations and downplay long-term concerns or values not readily associated with profit maximization. One need think only of the global ecology to see the disastrous consequences of a blind embrace of the market. Yet, such an embrace is precisely what has occurred.
If not the market, what then would be a truly democratic manner to generate communication policy-making? The historical record points to two basic principles that should be made operational. First, in view of the revolutionary nature of the new communication technologies, citizens should convene to study what the technological possibilities are and to determine what the social goals should be. At this point, several alternative models of ownership and control should be proposed and debated, and the best model selected. In short, the structural basis of the communication system should be decided after the social aims are determined. The key factor is to exercise public participation before an unplanned commercial system becomes entrenched. This runs directly counter to the present U.S. experience, whereby the decisions are essentially made by self-interested parties whose goal is to entrench a commercial system before there is any possibility of public participation. Is such public participation an absurd idea? Hardly. In the late 1920s, Canada, noting the rapid commercialization of the U.S. and Canadian airwaves, convened precisely such a public debate over broadcasting that included public hearings in 25 cities in all nine provinces. The final decision to develop a nonprofit system was adopted after three years of active debate (Vipond, 1992). Is this a ridiculous extension of democracy? One hopes not. If the shape of the emerging communication system that stands to alter our lives radically for generations is not fair game for democratic debate, one must wonder just what is.
Second, if such a public debate determines that the communication system needs a significant nonprofit and noncommercial component, the dominant sector of the system must be nonprofit, noncommercial, and accountable to the public. The historical record in the United States and globally is emphatic in this regard. In addition, it is arguable that commercial interests, too, must always be held to carefully administered public service standards. There are legitimate reservations about government involvement with communication. The purpose of policy-making, in this case, should be to determine how to deploy these technologies to create a pluralistic, decentralized, accountable, nonprofit, and noncommercial sector that can provide a viable service to the entire population. Fortunately, communication technologies seem to be quite amenable to such an approach. One suspects that if our society would devote to this problem only a fraction of the time that it has devoted to commercializing communication, we could find some workable public service models. Perhaps these two principles seem entirely unfeasible for contemporary U.S. political culture, but is the only alternative to turn the entire coordination of and responsibility for the new communication system over to the private sector? The communication corporations “don't have our best interests, they have their best interests at heart,” David Bunnell, a former Microsoft executive and trade publication publisher, warns. “They're supposed to create profit for their stockholders…this information highway is just too important to be left to the private companies” (Flores, 1995, p. D1). This sentiment is shared by many of the most creative minds in the communications industries, seemingly to no avail (Kapor, 1994). As this basic question is off-limits in contemporary U.S. political culture, most Americans do not even know that it is their right to entertain thoughts along these lines and act accordingly.
Nonetheless, there are numerous Americans currently working to generate a viable nonprofit and noncommercial sector in the information highway, preparing insightful proposals along these lines (Bollier, 1993; Chester, 1994; Chester & Montgomery, 1992; Guma, 1994; Kranich, 1994). These reformers find themselves ignored by the press and shunted aside by politicians. They face the classic dilemma that has haunted U.S. communication activists since the middle 1930s: To be taken seriously, one must acknowledge the primacy of corporate rule, that is, they must concede that theirs is a battle for the margins, not the heart, of the communication system. As gloomy as the situation may be, as long as the identity of the eventual corporate masters of communication is being fought over, there are possibilities for concessions that will not exist once the industry is stabilized. Prior to 1934, for example, commercial broadcasters devoted ample time to noncommercial programming in an attempt to persuade the public that they could be trusted with the control of broadcasting. Once the organized opposition disappeared, however, the commitment to noncommercial broadcasting did, as well. So, in this sense, there might be some hope to promote and protect a nonprofit sector, and in the current political culture that may well be the only immediate option. Nonetheless, by historical standards, there is little reason to believe the nonprofit sector could survive a sustained commercial assault, and any concessions gained now need to be written in such a way as to be protected from later attack.
If, indeed, this is to be the course of the Internet and the information highway, what will be the nature of the U.S. policy debates in the coming generation? By the logic of this argument, the legitimate policy issues will be tangential, the province of lobbyists, lawyers, bureaucrats, and academics, and will assume the role of the market as natural. When the contours of the eventual commercial system become clear, so, too, will the precise nature of the legitimate policy issues. Moreover, the distinct attributes of the Internet and the information highway, for example, interactivity, will create unanticipated policy issues. Clearly the past paradigm of commercial broadcasting policy-making cannot be imposed willy-nilly. At present, the issue of state censorship of the Internet is a reigning concern (Lewis, 1995; Plotkin, 1995), and it is crucial to protect free speech, especially since the record suggests that the impetus toward censorship will increase with pronounced Internet deviation from mainstream thought. At the same time, however, without a principled critique of the market and the types of censorship it systematically imposes, this blanket adoption of the First Amendment can also serve to provide the purely commercial aspirations of corporate America with a constitutional shield from justified public criticism. Such has been the case in commercial broadcasting and with advertising. In these cases, the First Amendment has been used to contract the arena of public debate, and not to expand it (Schiller, 1989).
The New Super Powerful Democratic Technology?
The New Super Powerful Democratic Technology?
Even if the market is permitted to determine the course of the information highway and there is minimal public deliberation over fundamental communication policy issues, there is no evidence that the Internet, or the subsequent information highway, can possibly come under the same sort of monopoly corporate control as have broadcasting and traditional media. “The very architecture of the net,” one scholar argues, “will work against the type of content control these folks have over mass media” (Newhagen, 1995). Others contend that, whereas the large commercial enterprises will develop their “cybermalls,” the rest of cyberspace will be “unpaved,” thereby opening the door to a genuine cultural and political renaissance (Flowers, 1995). The issue here is not whether a citizen-based, nonprofit sector of cyberspace can survive in the emerging regime. That seems guaranteed. Nor is the issue whether this sector can thrive in the emerging regime, because that, too, seems likely if the wildfire growth of the past few years is any indication of what is to follow. If nothing else, cyberspace may provide a supercharged, information packed, and psychedelic version of ham radio. Nor is the issue whether the nonprofit sector of cyberspace will be a significant part of a process that transforms our lives dramatically. That may well take place. Rather, the key issue is whether the nonprofit, noncommercial sector of cyberspace will be able to transform our societies radically for the better and to do so without fundamental policy intervention. In short, will this sector be able to create a 21st-century, Habermasian “public sphere,” where informed interactive debate can flower independent of government or commercial control? This follows the critical strain of democratic theory that argues that the structural basis for genuine democratic communication lies with a media system free from the control of either the dominant political or economic powers of the day (Habermas, 1989; Meiklejohn, 1948).
I have framed the question from a critical perspective, where the market is not assumed ipso facto to be beyond reproach. In my view, the evidence indicates the market is far from a neutral or value-free arbiter of culture and ideas (Herman, 1993b; Herman, 1995; Murdock, 1992). This is also the perspective of the Internet's most articulate advocates. “The Internet represents the real information revolution,” a member of Alternet argues, “the one that removes the governmental and corporate filters that have so long been in place with traditional mass media” (Beacham, 1995, p. 18). Mainstream observers who exult in the potential of the Internet would disagree with the notion that the market or capitalism is an impediment to the development of a democratic public sphere. Some of these analysts often see the Internet and the information highway as elevating existing capitalism to an even higher level of sheer perfection (Gilder, 1994; Gingrich, 1995). In this view, capitalism is synonymous with democracy; therefore, the more that social affairs can be turned over to private interests the better. The function of government is to protect private property and not much else. Indeed, some market-philes take a technological, deterministic stance, asserting that the new communication technologies, since they eliminate the monopolies on knowledge that large corporations have, will lead to a new global economic regime of small entrepreneurs and flexible production. The transnational corporations that presently dominate the global economy will eventually appear like so many clumsy dinosaurs on their way to rapid extinction. Market enthusiasts see this as especially true in communication industries, where size will prove to be a competitive disadvantage. In this perspective, the information highway will be the basis for a new golden age of high-growth, competitive capitalism and an accompanying renaissance in culture and politics (Broder, 1995). As appealing as this may be to some at an ideological level, though, there is no empirical evidence to support this view or to suggest it is on the horizon. In fact, the shift to digital technologies has produced convergence, meaning that the traditional distinctions among media types are disappearing. This in turn enhances synergy, meaning corporations can expand their profit-making abilities by building empires, thereby accelerating the momentum toward global corporate concentration (Murdoch, 1994). Contrary to the claims of the market-philes, the empirically verifiable consequence of the digital revolution is that the telecommunication, computer, media, and entertainment industries, which traditionally have been relatively independent of each other, are now merging and coalescing into grand combinations of unprecedented global scope (King, 1995).
Other mainstream observers may not revel to such a degree in capitalism, but they see the market as the natural order of things and pliable enough to permit the technological revolution to work its magic for both business and the public (Negroponte, 1995; Toffler & Toffler, 1994; Scheer, 1995). In either approach, the market is presupposed to be innately wonderful, or at least neutral, so it is not subjected to any further analysis. The markedly dominant role of corporations and the wealthy in the U.S. political economy goes unmentioned. If the information highway fails to deliver the goods, it will not be the fault of the market or of those who profit by the system.
In fact, the capitalism one finds described superficially in the literature on the Internet and the communication highway is an intoxicating one: It is composed of venture capitalists, daring entrepreneurs, and enterprising consumers. There are no cheap, exploited laborers; no environmental degradation; no graft or corruption; no ingrained classes; no economic depressions; no instances of social decay; and no consumer rip-offs. There are bold, open-minded winners and hardly any losers. It is capitalism at its best. Even to the extent there is a grain of truth in this sanitized version of capitalism, the notion that the communication system is a consequence of the free market is bogus. For example, many of the communication technologies associated with the revolution, particularly the Internet, grew directly out of government, usually military, subsidies. Indeed, at one point fully 85% of research and development in the U.S. electronics industry was subsidized by the federal government, although the eventual profits accrued to private firms (Chomsky, 1994).
I have spelled out my criticism of the market as a democratic regulator of communication and all else in the first section. If we are to accurately evaluate the potential of the Internet and the information highway, we need to replace this mythological portrayal of capitalism with one that is more theoretical, historical, and critical. We also need a more viable notion of the relationship of democracy to capitalism and the relationship of communication to each of them. Only then can we evaluate the claim that the Internet is a supremely powerful democratic force. The relationship of capitalism to democracy is a rocky one. It is true that historically capitalism has been instrumental in giving birth to modern democratic regimes, but it has also worked to limit the extent or viability of that democracy. On one hand, capitalism tends to generate a highly skewed class basis that permits a small section of society, the wealthy, to have inordinate power over political and economic decision-making to the detriment of the balance of society. On the other hand, capitalism encourages a culture that places a premium on commercial values and downplays communitarian ideals. Capitalism thereby undermines two prerequisites for genuine democracy.
Political democracy has always been a problem for a capitalist society like the United States, where a minuscule portion of the population makes fundamental economic decisions based upon its self-interest. This becomes an acute problem when a mature, corporate-dominated, capitalist society also grants near universal suffrage. There is the constant threat, inherent to democracy, that the dispossessed might unite, rise up, and demand greater control over basic economic decisions. In the minds of the powerful, therefore, the system works best when the crucial political and economic decisions are made by elites outside of the public eye, and the political culture concentrates upon superficial and tangential matters. Autonomous labor organizations, social movements, and political parties that oppose the rule of capital are discouraged through a variety of mechanisms, and, when necessary, they are sometimes repressed. Moreover, the tendency of capitalism to commercialize every nook and cranny of social life renders the development or survival of nonmarket political and cultural organizations far more difficult. It is these independent associations that form the bulwark of democracy, making it possible for individuals to come together and become informed political actors (Mills, 1956). In sum, fundamental political activity is discouraged, and, in this context, political apathy appears as rational behavior for those outside the inner circles. This has been, and remains, the reigning characteristic of U.S. politics (Macpherson, 1977). As Chomsky (1987) notes, it is considered a “crisis of democracy” in conventional thinking when the long-dormant masses rise up and begin to pursue their own interests. Therefore, it is not surprising that a major development in the 20th century has been the rise of public relations-or what is often systematic corporate propaganda-to promote elite interests and to undermine ideas and groups that might oppose corporate rule (Carey, 1995; Stauber & Rampton, 1995). The role of the masses is to ratify elite decisions.
Communication is essential to meaningful participatory democracy. Although the record is certainly mixed, on balance U.S. commercial journalism and media have failed to provide the groundwork for an informed citizenry (Lasch, 1995). In Habermasian terms, the media became sources of great profitability in the 20th century and have been colonized by the corporate sector, thereby losing their capacity to provide the basis for the independent public sphere so necessary for meaningful democracy (Murdock & Golding, 1989). The upshot of most critical media research is that the commercial news media tend to serve elite interests and undermine the capacity for the bulk of the population to act as informed citizens (Herman & Chomsky, 1988). Recent scholarship suggests that increasingly concentrated corporate ownership and commercial support of the media have further destroyed the capacity of the press to fulfill a democratic mission (Bagdikian, 1992).
Communication is increasingly essential, too, to the market economy. That is why an analysis of global capitalism needs to be at the center of any study of communication systems in the coming years. It is no coincidence that the communication revolution appears at the same historic moment as the current globalization of capitalism. The tremendous desire by corporations and capitalists to expand globally has provided much of the spur to innovation in computers and telecommunications, with striking effect (Sullivan-Trainor, 1994). In the early 1970s, only 10% of global trade was financial, with the remaining 90% being trade-in goods and services. The percentages flip-flopped in the subsequent two decades and grew at a rate far greater than global economic activity (McChesney, 1995b). Communication and information-related industries are now, by near unanimous proclamation, at the very heart of investment and growth in the world economy, occupying a role once played by steel, railroads, and automobiles (Mosco, 1990).
So what are the observable, new, and important tendencies of this global capitalist order? Several related points are accepted by most observers, though how they are framed and their relative importance are subject to debate (Business Week, 1995; Foster, 1995). First, the ease of transborder capital flows has lessened the capacity of national governments to determine economic policies that might promote any interests apart from those of transnational business, as capitalists can quickly move to more profitable climes (Picciotto, 1991). John Maynard Keynes once noted that democracy would be impossible if capital could move beyond national borders (Bernstein, 1987); indeed, the immobility of capital is a core assumption of neoclassical economic theory. Next, the new global capitalism has also had the effect of giving the international business community far greater leverage in its dealings, not only with government regulations and policies, but with labor as well. As a result, the global trend is toward deregulation, in the hope of luring capital and reducing the power of labor and labor unions, since if they are too effective, business will invest elsewhere. Environmental regulation is an immediate casualty of globalization, as are most government services, which must be eliminated in order to reduce taxes on the well-to-do (capital flight) and reduce economic stagnation.
A third effect is that this process of globalization has been accompanied by decreasing economic growth in the United States and globally in each decade since the 1960s. In fact, globalization emphasizes one of capitalism's basic flaws: What is rational conduct for the individual capitalist is utterly irrational and counterproductive for the system as a whole. Rational investors seek out low-wage areas and use the threat to keep domestic wages low even if they do not move abroad (Albo, 1994; Panitch, 1994). The consequence is that there is a strong downward pressure on buying power (i.e., economic demand), which leads to a decline in profitable investment possibilities (i.e., continued economic stagnation; MacEwan, 1994). Moreover, governments are incapable of exercising the traditional Keynesian policies to stimulate economic growth, as these measures run directly counter to those policies necessary to attract and keep investment. Stimulative economic measures are no longer even a legitimate policy option; even if the World Bank and International Monetary Fund do not veto them, the global capital markets will (Tanzer, 1995). In addition, investment in information and communication tends to destroy existing jobs almost as well as it creates new ones. Unlike steel and automobiles, these new paradigm-identifying industries seem to be incapable of resolving the crisis of unemployment that afflicts the global working class. In this sense, the immediate consequence of the information revolution is not liberation from drudgery, but a sentencing to a life of sheer destitution (Noble, 1995). Finally, because of the wildfire growth of enormous transnational global financial markets that are well beyond the powers of any effective national or international regulation, there is an element of overall instability to the global economy unknown since the 1930s (Sweezy, 1994). In sum, the economic thrust of global capitalism is one of deteriorating public sectors, environmental recklessness, stagnation, instability, and widening economic stratification (Cowling & Sugden, 1994). For those lucky few who sit atop the global pyramid, the future never appeared brighter; for the bulk of humanity, the present is grim and the future is an abyss. Nothing on the horizon suggests any other course (Fitch, 1996; Henwood, 1995).
Salvaging Political Culture
The implications of the global order for political culture are mostly negative (Herman, 1993a). Capitalism's two inherent and negative traits for democracy-class stratification and the demise of civic virtue in the face of commercial values-are enhanced in the new global regime. There is nothing short of a wholesale assault on the very notion of democracy, as the concept of people gathering, debating, and devising policy has been supremely truncated. This is often presented as a crisis of national sovereignty; in fact, it is a crisis of sovereignty writ large. There is nothing really left to debate in the new world order since nations are required either to toe the global capitalist line or to face economic purgatory. Hence, the range of legitimate debate has shrunk considerably, with socialists and conservatives alike effectively pursuing the same policies. The great paradox of our age is that formal democracy extends to a greater percentage of humanity than ever in history; yet, concurrently, there may well be a more general sense of political powerlessness than ever before. Since the democratic system seems incapable of generating ideas that address the political economic crises of our times, the most dynamic political growth in this age is with antirationalist, fundamentalist, nationalistic movements that blame democracy for capitalism's flaws and threaten to reduce humanity to untold barbarism.
The communication revolution is implicated in these developments. On one hand, the transnational communication corporations-among the greatest beneficiaries of globalization-have been leading the fight for NAFTA, GATT, and other institutional arrangements advantageous to global capital (Glaberson, 1994). These firms have set their sights on dominating world communication, entertainment, and information (Oneal, 1995; Parkes, 1995; Schiller, 1995). Public sector broadcasting and communication across the planet have been dismantled and replaced by capitalist, often transnational, communication systems (National Telecommunications and Information Administration, 1993; Pendakur & Kapur, 1995). In particular, the great public service broadcasting systems of Europe, and their associative journalistic and cultural values, have been either eliminated or required to adopt commercial principles in order to survive in the global marketplace (Blumler, 1992). This new world order of communication tends to be uncritical of capitalism and commercialism and to be preoccupied with satisfying the needs of the relatively affluent, a minority of the world's population (Nordenstreng & Schiller, 1993). In short, the new world order of global communication, among the most profitable consequences of global capitalism, tends to reinforce the status quo.
In this gloomy scenario, what are the prospects that the Internet and the technological revolution in communication might break down oligarchy and lead to a revitalization of democratic political culture? Proponents emphasize the attributes of the Internet that make it so special: It is relatively cheap, easy to use, difficult to prevent access to, and almost impossible to censor. Gibson (Harris, 1995, p. 49) characterizes the Internet as “a last hope for democracy as we know it.” The most thoughtful arguments, and the most concerted activity, on behalf of the Internet as a means for revitalizing democracy tend to emphasize how it can empower individuals and groups presently ignored or distorted by the existing media industries. In effect, the Internet, especially the bulletin boards and discussion groups, can provide democracy's much needed public sphere that has been so corrupted by the market. Moreover, given the instantaneous and global nature of the Internet, proponents of the “Internet as public sphere” argue that this permits the creation of a global public sphere, all the more necessary in light of the global political economy. In Mexico, for example, these computer networks may well have permitted the prodemocracy forces to bypass the atrocious media system and to survive and prosper, whereas in earlier times these forces would have been crushed (Frederick, 1995). As evidence to bolster the belief that this is a viable alternative to commercial media, supporters point to a Rand Corporation memorandum indicating considerable dissatisfaction with the existence of these uncontrolled networks of communication and suggesting state surveillance or regulation to keep them in line (Simon, 1995; Wehling, 1995). Although it is true that the prospects for computer networks are encouraging for activists, I believe the following qualifications are appropriate before we can extrapolate that the Internet will provide an unambiguous boon for democracy. First, assuring universal access and computer literacy is far from a certainty, and, without it, the democratic potential of the information highway seems supremely compromised. As of 1995, only a third of the nation's population owns computers, and many of them cannot get access to the Internet (Aufderheide, 1995b). Personal computers are still not affordable for a large number of people, and computer manufacturers favor producing the big ticket PCs with heftier profit margins (Baran, 1995). Although the extent of diffusion of PCs over the next decade can only be guessed, there is little reason to believe that it will approach the level of either indoor plumbing or television, if left to the market. Significant portions of the U.S. population do not have cable television, and in poor neighborhoods up to one third of the population goes without telephone service (Aufderheide, 1995b). Hence the only way to insure universal access and computer literacy will be to enact public policy to that effect, and in this era of fiscal constraint, that might prove to be a tall order. Schools and libraries are often pointed to as the key agents that will democratize computer usage, yet these institutions are in the throes of long-term cutbacks that seem to render absurd the notion that they could undertake this mission. And without universal access and computer literacy, as BYTE magazine contributing editor Nicholas Baran (1995) emphasizes, the PC may well “become a tool for further increasing the economic and educational disparity in our society” (p. 40).
Aside from the question of access, bulletin boards, and the information highway more generally, do not have the power to produce political culture when it does not exist in the society at large. Given the dominant patterns of global capitalism, it is far more likely that the Internet and the new technologies will adapt themselves to the existing political culture rather than create a new one. Thus, it seems a great stretch to think the Internet will politicize people; it may just as well keep them depoliticized. The New York Times cites Wired magazine approvingly for helping turn “mild-mannered computer nerds into a super-desirable consumer market,” not into political activists (Keegan, 1995, pp. 38-39). In particular, having mass, interactive bulletin boards is a truly magnificent advance, but what if nobody knows what they are talking about? This problem could be partially addressed if scholars and academics shared their work with and tailored their analyses to the general public, thereby engaging in a public dialogue. Unfortunately, such behavior runs directly counter to the priorities, attitudes, and trajectory of academic life.
This is precisely where journalism (broadly construed) and communication policy-making enter the picture. Journalism provides the oxygen for democratic discussion; it provides the research and contextualization necessary to understand politics and to see behind the official proclamations of those in power. Journalism does not constitute the range of debate; rather, it provokes it, informs it, and responds to it. As a rule, it is not something that can be done piecemeal by amateurs. It is best done by people who make a living at it and who have training and experience. Although journalism per quo is justly criticized for its failures, mostly due to commercial constraints, journalism per se is indispensable to any notion of democracy worth the paper it is written on. A quality journalism seems mandatory if the “Internet as public sphere” is to be a viable concept, and current theories along these lines are at a loss to address this problem.
Moreover, journalism is presently in the midst of a deep and profound crisis. The corporate concentration of ownership and the reliance upon advertising have converted much of U.S. journalism into a travesty of entertainment, crime, and natural disaster stories. The professional autonomy of journalists-always an ambiguous notion, especially in a commercial environment-has suffered severe body blows. Journalism, real journalism, is not profitable, and resources dedicated to it have been cut back (Kimball, 1994). Without resources, journalists are unable to do any investigative work and must rely upon the public relations industry (generally corporate) and official sources (mostly politicians, corporate-sponsored think tanks, and government officials) for news stories. Morale for U.S. journalists is arguably at an all-time low (Mazzocco, 1994; McManus, 1994; Squires, 1993; Underwood, 1993). Michael Eisner, CEO of the Walt Disney Company, says his firm's prospective growth is based on a “nonpolitical” product that does not threaten political regimes around the world, yet Eisner is now leader of one of the world's largest journalistic organizations (Auletta, 1995b). In short, the market has little apparent interest in serious journalism, nor is such interest in the offing.
Some have described how the Internet will improve dramatically journalists' access to information, but none have come forth with ideas for how it will address the crisis noted above (Crichton, 1995; Gordon, 1995; Isaacs, 1995). The primary contribution of the Internet to journalism at present is ideological: Some mainstream scholars and industry public relations agents point to the vitality of cyberspace as an explanation for why there is no need for alarm at the concentrated corporate control of global communication or for political action to address the problem (Farrell, 1995; Levy, 1995). In the new mythology, the Internet joins the now battered notion of the professional autonomy of journalists as the public's protection from the negative consequences for democratic journalism of an oligopolistic, commercial media system. This argument evades the core point that journalism requires resources and institutional support. In this context, the battle for public and community broadcasting is crucial both in the United States and globally. It is not about the survival of Big Bird as much as it is about the survival of an structural basis for journalism and public affairs (McChesney, 1995a). In sum, the Internet can reproduce only part of the public sphere, and its part will not necessarily be worth much if there is not the institutional framework for a well-subsidized and independent journalism. Shapiro (1995) argues in this fashion that public policy must move aggressively to promote and protect and, by implication, subsidize a public forum in cyberspace. The third qualification to the “Internet as public sphere” hypothesis is that it often seems to exhibit an unchecked enthusiasm for these technologies, and technology in general, that is unwarranted. At its most extreme, some argue that the quantitative improvement in communication technology is leading to a truly qualitative shift in human consciousness. By this reasoning, the computer networks are liberating humanity from the material chains that have kept human imagination and creativity locked up (Rushkoff, 1994). Some argue that cyberspace has created genuine communities that offer a glimpse of how we might truly become a global human family (Rheingold, 1993). Both of these utopian views recognize that commercial and government forces seek to undermine the transcendental potential of the Internet and the information highway, yet both emphasize the revolutionary power of technologies to liberate humanity. At its best, this perspective emphasizes cyberspace as a spawning ground for counterculture, and often harks back to the 1960s and other eras of communitarian ideals. Yet, as appealing as this line of reasoning may be, it really is a nonsensical notion of how history is going to unfold, and, at its worst, this argument degenerates, as Stallabrass (1995) puts it, into “business people and their camp followers (engineers and intellectuals) spinning universalist fantasies out of their desire to ride the next commercial wave” (p. 32).
Indeed, one could characterize the adoption of the Internet as public sphere as not so much a grand victory as it is a case of making the best of a bad situation. On one hand, the motor force behind the development of these technologies is business and business demand. Hamilton noted 60 years ago that “Business succeeds rather better than the state inimposing restraints upon individuals, because its imperatives are disguised as choices” (Rorty, 1934, p. 10). We did not elect to have these technologies, nor did we ever debate their merits. They have been presented either as some sort of product of inexorable natural evolution or as a democratic response to pent-up consumer demand, when, in fact, they are here because they are profitable and because a market was created for them. Now that they are here, people can ignore them only at the risk of jeopardizing their careers and their ability to participate in society. As Postman (1995) notes, “new technologies do not always increase people's options; just as often they do exactly the opposite” (p. 4). I am not advancing a Luddite argument; I merely point out that a central part of democratic communication policy-making is to evaluate the effects of a new technology before adopting it, to look before we leap. That has not been the case with the Internet or the information highway.
All communication technologies have unanticipated and unintended effects, and one function of policy-making is to understand them so we may avoid or minimize the undesirable ones. The digitalization and computerization of our society are going to transform us radically, yet even those closely associated with these developments express concern about the possibility of a severe deterioration of the human experience as a result of the information revolution (Deitch, 1994; Stoll, 1995; Talbott, 1995). As one observer notes, “Very few of us-only the high priests-really understand the new technologies, and these are surely the people least qualified to make policy decisions about them” (Charbeneau, 1994, pp. 28-29). For every argument extolling the “virtual community” and the liberatory aspects of cyberspace, it seems every bit as plausible to reach dystopian conclusions. Why not look at the information highway as a process that encourages the isolation, atomization, and marginalization of people in society? In fact, cannot the ability of people to create their own community in cyberspace have the effect of terminating a community in the general sense? In a class-stratified, commercially oriented society like the United States, cannot the information highway have the effect of simply making it possible for the well-to-do to bypass any contact with the balance of society altogether? These are precisely the types of questions that need to be addressed and answered in communication policy-making and precisely the types of questions in which the market has no interest (Chapman, 1995). At any rate, a healthy skepticism toward technology should be the order of the day.
Democracy, Scholarship, and Communication Technology
The nature of contemporary communication policy-making in the United States is only superficially democratic, and, therefore, there is little reason to believe that the results of such a system will do much more than satisfy the interests of those responsible for the decisions. Communication policy-making follows the contours of political debate in general (Brenner, 1995). This is a business-run society, and the communication system is tailored to suit corporate interests. The role of the citizenry is to conform its ambitions and goals to satisfy the needs of business and profit maximization. It is not the responsibility of those directing the economy to make their activities meet the democratically determined aims of the citizenry or to be accountable for the social consequences of those actions, as democratic theory would suggest (Meiklejohn, 1948). In fact, the market is hardly a substitute for democracy. At most it is a tool, like technology, to be thoughtfully employed in a democracy. And the immediate consequence of the market for global communication is one of increasingly private concentration and commercialization, which are hardly the stuff of democracy.
It is also appealing to think that the new communication technologies can solve social problems, but they cannot. Only humans, acting consciously, can address and resolve problems like poverty, environmental degradation, racism, sexism, and militarism. As Singer (1995) notes, our task is to overcome “the contradiction between our technological genius and the absurdity of our social organization” (p. 533). We encounter the magnificent potential of the new technologies with the wet blanket of conventional wisdom draped over the fires of our social and political imaginations. Nor is the blanket there by accident: Those who benefit by the status quo have helped place it there and are holding it down. So, can the Internet and communication technologies save democracy from capitalism? No, not unless they are explicitly deployed for public service principles. In the short term, that means struggling for universal access, for computer literacy, and for a well-subsidized and democratic noncommercial and nonprofit media sector. In the long term, that means working for explicit public planning and deliberation in crafting fundamental communications policy. Any hope of success will depend on linking and integrating communication concerns to larger efforts to bring heretofore underrepresented segments of the citizenry into the political arena, thereby reducing the power of business and working toward lessening inequality in our society.
Is that possible? Given my argument about the nature of the global economy and the demise of sovereignty, one might assume the situation to be nearly hopeless, and that the only rational course would be to try to eke out the best possible reforms from the existing regime. And since even minor public interest reforms within the existing corporate communication system have proven nearly impossible, some may therefore regard the overall situation as hopeless for the foreseeable future.
In fact, I believe the exact opposite is the case. The current promarket policies are going to be little short of disastrous for the quality of life for a majority of people both in the United States and globally. In the coming generation there will be a pressing need for alternative policies that place the needs of the bulk of the citizenry ahead of the demands of global capital. The Internet may possibly play a crucial role in expediting these developments. We are entering a critical juncture in which no social institutions, including corporations and the market, can remain exempt from public scrutiny. The challenge for those committed to democracy is, as Greider (1992) notes, “to refashion the global economy…so that it enhances democracy rather than crippling it, so that economic returns are widely distributed among all classes instead of narrowly at the top” (p. 403). The tension between democracy and capitalism is becoming increasingly evident, and communication-so necessary to both-can hardly serve two masters at once. From a critical perspective, where democracy is privileged over profit, this is the context for communication policy-making. Given the centrality of communication to global capitalism, the move to reform communication must be part and parcel of a movement to reform the global political economy, as Greider suggests. It is unthinkable otherwise. By this reasoning, there is a special role for communication scholars to play in debating and devising democratic communication policies, but the academic context for critical research is in turmoil. The rise of the Internet and the information highway places the future of communication research and education at U.S. universities in jeopardy. It demands a restructuring, or at least a rethinking, of the very field of communication, precisely at a time that many U.S. universities are downsizing as a consequence of the global economic trends outlined above, specifically stagnation and the collapse of the public sector. This is putting considerable pressure on universities to redirect their activities to elicit support from the corporate sector. In effect, there is increased pressure to move away from the traditional standard of intellectual and scholarly autonomy and link education and research explicitly to the needs o f business (Soley, 1995). This has clear implications for the nature of the scholarship that the new “lean and mean” university will produce, which perhaps explains why the promarket political right is most enthusiastic about the elimination of academic autonomy. The stars on campus are the departments and individuals who attract the most grant money, and departments and scholars who fail to do so face an uncertain future. Nowhere are these pressures more apparent than in communication. It is a paradox that precisely at the historic moment that communication is roundly deemed as central to global political economy and culture, those academic departments expressly committed to communication research are facing severe cutbacks or even elimination. This can be attributed to the historic weakness of communication on U.S. campuses. When cutbacks need be made, communication is easier to attack than more established disciplines. The pressures are doubly strong, therefore, to link up communication research and education to the masters of the corporate communication order, and to opt for what Paul Lazarsfeld (1941) termed the “administrative” rather than the “critical” path for scholarship.
Although cultivating ties to the capitalist communication sector may appear a logical management move, it will probably lead to the demise of communication as a viable discipline. On one hand, the administrative turn is morally deplorable. It takes communication away from what Innis (Carey, 1978) termed the “university tradition,” a source of honest, independent inquiry in service to democratic values. At a practical level, too, business schools are far better suited to conduct research along these lines, especially as communication is now a central business activity. Who needs departments predicated upon public service and professional principles like journalism when the whole idea is to maximize profit? There is no alternative, then, but to do honest independent scholarship and instruction, with a commitment first and foremost to democratic values. Let the chips fall where they may. The field of communication needs to apply the full weight of its intellectual traditions and methodologies to the daunting questions before us. They desperately require scholarly attention. The lesson of the last 50 years on U.S. campuses is clear. If the field of communication does not do it, nobody else will. It will make for a rocky road, but what other choice is there?