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FDL Book Salon Welcomes Robert W. McChesney, Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism is Turning the Internet Against Democracy

Welcome Robert W. McChesney (Univ of Illinois) and Host John Nichols (Twitter)

Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism is Turning the Internet Against Democracy

Bob McChesney and I have written a stack of books and articles together. We have co-founded a national media reform group, Free Press. And we have maintained a multi-decade discourse on politics, economics, society and rock-and-roll. So you should take my assessment of his role as a media critic, watchdog and analyst with that in mind.

But when Bob McChesney raises the alarm about a media issue, I say pay attention. Even if no one else is sounding the alarm, pay attention. Why? Because no one spends more time than McChesney engaged in the serious endeavor of figuring out how we now communicate, how we will communicate, how powerful media corporations seek to influence that communication, and how government agencies can and do fail to protect the public interest in a wide-open and wide-ranging democratic discourse.

That’s what McChesney has done with Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism is Turning the Internet Against Democracy (The New Press), a groundbreaking new book that Juliet Schor hails as “a major new work” on new media. “Steering between the treacherous Scylla and Charybdis of Internet boosters and skeptics,” explains Schor, “McChesney shows how the economic context of the digital environment is making the difference between an open and democratic internet, and one which is manipulated for private gain.”

That, of course, is the great debate that must be had with the rise of any new media platform. McChesney knows the outlines of such debates; his groundbreaking 1995 book, Telecommunications, Mass Media, and Democracy: The Battle for the Control of U.S. Broadcasting, 1928-1935 (Oxford University Press) helped to define our understanding of the emergence and consolidation of commercial broadcasting in the United States. But of course that book was written long after the definitional debates regarding radio and television broadcasting.

What makes Digital Disconnect so exciting is it arrives as the essential debates about the Internet are still going on. McChesney shows us how communications conglomerates are already gaming the process to create rules and regulations that favor their bottom lines. Vital battles have already been lost, often with little or no attention from so-called “mainstream media.” But McChesney does offers more than an explanation of how much is at stake. He provides an outline for what communications scholar Eric Alterman describes as “a path forward to try to repair the damage.”

The question of whether we will follow that path remains an open one.

If Americans demand a free-and-open Internet, defined not by the demands of multinational corporations – and the speculators who recognize the possibilities for epic profits – but by civic and democratic values, we can still have it.

We can strike the right balances when it comes to privacy and commercialism. We can realize the full potential of remarkable new technologies.

But that will not happen by chance. Internet utopians might want to imagine that the digital landscape is so vast, that the World Wide Web is so grand in scope and character, that this media platform could never be colonized.

But McChesney reminds us that the empire has already struck back: Google’s grabbing a 97 percent share of the mobile search market. Microsoft’s operating system is used by over 90 percent of the world’s computers.

Monopolies, duopolies and trusts are shaping a digital destiny that serves their bottom-line demands. But this new media produces insufficient journalism to replace the thousands of reporters and editors who have been forced off the beat as old-media outlets contract with the loss of advertising dollars to the Internet. At the same time we are being data mined by politicians and profiteers who are turning the Internet into what McChesney describes as an unparalleled apparatus for government and corporate surveillance.

This is not what we should want.

And it is not what we must accept.

We can address the digital disconnect and make the Internet a tool for informing and advancing our democracy. But that will only happen if we recognize the fight that is going on and if we also recognize that we the people have a right – make that: a responsibility – to shape our digital destiny and the communities, the nation and the world that will extend from it.

Digital Disconnect provides us with the information we need to achieve that recognition – and to act on it.


[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book and be respectful of dissenting opinions.  Please take other conversations to a previous thread. – bev]

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John Nichols

John Nichols