(Not Quite) Back From the Dead

It’s been a long, difficult academic year, but it was successful: I’m now all-but-dissertation and have given myself two years to complete the research I came here to do. Over the next week I’ll update the legacy projects on this site, and hopefully over the month I’ll get back into the swing of regular analysis.
I have learned some important lessons this year.
The overarching one is that the media reform movement, as embodied by its main standard-bearer, Free Press, is dangerously toying with hubris. This is, unfortunately, best-exemplified by the behavior of two of the organization’s most prominent members: founder and past-president Robert McChesney and executive director Josh Silver.
Bob had been my academic advisor. Although he professionally resides at the University of Illinois (albeit now in a different department than mine, for reasons that are too complicated to explain), he’s for all intents and purposes not really here, except for the days when he has to be here. Bob’s now living in Madison, Wisconsin, about 250 miles up the road. You may listen to his oft-enlightening weekly radio program, Media Matters, which originates from our university’s public radio station. To the listener, the show sounds “live and local,” but he’s actually “phoning it in” over an ISDN line from his basement in Madison. The miracles of modern broadcast technology cut both ways.
In the context of being a doctoral student, when your advisor is not around, it complicates what is already a formidably stressful situation. Bob and I did most of our communication over e-mail, which was awkward, to put it mildly. Simply put, when it comes to advising graduate students, you can’t just phone it in.
The formal inquisition of my doctoral studies to-date took place on May 6th. The weekend before, Bob e-mailed me with a concern about the manner in which I answered his preliminary exam question (in the process of answering it, I disputed its premise). After what I thought was a relatively benign exchange, the day before my defense I received an e-mail excoriating me for essentially questioning Bob’s intellectual integrity. Without any rational explanation, other than that I had the audacity to challenge his frame of thinking about the subject on which he was testing me, he declared his intent to resign from my committee effective the minute my defense was complete. The matter was non-negotiable. He actually waited until the following day.
It could have been much worse. Bob could have torpedoed the entire process for my perceived intransigence, which would have effectively flunked me out of school, or forced me to start the entire prelim ordeal from scratch. But being dissed by one of the great minds in your field of study still stings, and I’m left to find a replacement member to fill out my dissertation committee.
That was the second important lesson learned. The transformation of activist scholarship into applied, practical movement-building use is not easy, and Bob McChesney is one of the lucky few to have been talented enough at the right time to create something special. We are, indeed, in the midst of a new critical juncture, which reaches far beyond our media environment. However, it still is a singular accomplishment in the context of a larger struggle. The fact that our work may have helped to create such an opportunity is not even half the battle.
That being said, professors have four major duties: research, teach, advise students, and participate in departmental/public service. The latter two are important because they help build and sustain a community in which scholarship may flourish and be made useful to the public at large. They are also no less important than the former two duties, which are the ones most publicly acknowledged. It may be technically tenable to shirk one duty by overcompensating in another, but it is not ethically so.
Whereas Bob and I parted on amicable terms, I have no love lost for Josh Silver, the executive director of Free Press. An acquaintance spent more than two years working for the organization, building and maintaining a multitude of valuable information resources. Last month, after weeks of mangled communication involving Free Press’ exploding bureaucracy, Mr. Silver summarily terminated her.
This person has received nothing but glowing praise from the Free Press staffers she’s worked with directly, yet Mr. Silver declared her work was of “average quality” and she “rarely demonstrated an ‘I’ll do whatever it takes to get it done’ attitude, which is the driving M.O. for this organization.” No evidence, no explanation. Also, a useful excuse – one that employment law generally defines as “wrongful dismissal.”
But it didn’t stop there. When concern was expressed to Mr. Silver about the way Free Press had handled the situation, he shot back quite the retort.
I would much rather risk alienating you than fail to maintain the expectation of excellence that has launched Free Press into a formidable national force. If you’re impugning my leadership of this organization, I think you’ll have a steep and lonely challenge that will not have a positive net effect for you.
Translation: “F*ck with me, and you’ll never work in this town again.” Not the type of response you expect from the grinning, boyish, well-coiffed mug featured regularly in the Huffington Post. And definitely not the proper response from someone working to build a democratic, inclusive movement that is still fighting defensive actions and cannot afford to alienate its most natural allies. It is despicable.
Please allow me to be clear. This is not a blanket indictment of Free Press. There are some wonderfully talented, committed, and honest people working for the organization, which in and of itself continues to do good works. I use FP research and reportage in my classes, more often than Bob’s own books. But the organization is growing at such a rate right now that the evidence of institutional expansion is being internally translated in its upper echelon as external power, and that’s a premature assumption.
These are the primary reasons why I’m not attending this weekend’s National Conference for Media Reform in Minneapolis. I realize I’m missing out on the chance to meet and learn from from some truly good-hearted people, engaged in real change for media democracy. I know I’ll definitely be missing an A-list progressive love-fest of the highest order. But it’s time to take a break from that scene.
I’m way past tired of the egos and the gold-digging. This is a lesson I already knew, but had painfully reinforced this academic year. Activism is not a career-choice, it’s a vocation. You don’t fight your battles to work your way up a ladder to secure stature, notoriety, and a place of power within the status quo. You fight your battles and hope that your knowledge, talent, and drive will sort out the rest to let you live to continue fighting. You may not ever see the change you seek, but there is value in the struggle.
Free Press and its ilk, while a necessary part of the process of reforming the U.S. media environment, do not represent the end-state. The media reform movement itself is just one larger aspect of contemporary life-struggle. Losing sight of these truths opens the door to mistakenly aligning your priorities to perpetuate the very problems you purport to seek change.