Love the message. Not so sure about the messenger. 

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Digital Destiny: New Media
and the Future of Democracy
By Jeff Chester
New Press
$24.95, 304 pages

As a semi-activist during college in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, I was shocked to learn that good political viewpoints do not necessarily translate into positive social energy. I’ve met insensitive bullies with awesome political views, and amazingly down-to-earth and goodhearted people who believe in agendas that I find unfathomable. What bothers me so much about media watchdog Jeff Chester is that I share his passion for issues of media choice and personal privacy, but in his new book, Digital Destiny: New Media and the Future of Democracy, he makes enormous logical leaps and engages in gross oversimplification and ad-hominem attacks that leave me with a very low opinion of his slant on media reform.

In the opening paragraphs of Digital Destiny, Chester boasts that he has spent more than 25 years on the front lines of the battle to preserve our media system and fight encroachment by corporate interests.

Despite several incisive chapters that dissect telecommunication policy debates of the late 1990s, his book is remarkably disconnected from the developments that have rocked our global communication landscape during the past five years. Chester devotes less than three pages to podcasts, social-networking sites, the
blogosphere, and YouTube.

The book is further marred by a polemical style that reduces complicated issues to a clear-cut conflict between “Big Media” and media activists. Sounding suspiciously like President Bush, he divides the world into two camps: those who are with us and those who are against us.

Perhaps as a result of this Manichean worldview, the book is packed with misrepresentations. For example, Chester chastises the USC’s Annenberg School of Communication in Los Angeles for accepting money from media companies, suggesting that such ties make academics incapable of addressing the economic interests that threaten our public sphere. This is grossly unfair to such Annenberg-affiliated media critics as Robert Scheer, Manuel Castells, and Larry Gross.

If he reads this review, Chester will find it easy to discount my criticisms. As the cofounder of an agency specializing in immersive promotions and a college professor in a media-studies department, I fall into two of the camps that he demonizes.

If Chester’s reductionist views were accurate, my institutional affiliations would make me an enemy of his policy recommendations. But, in the final chapter at least, his suggestions are right on target.

America’s public broadcasting sphere needs to be protected from those who would snuff its vitality. Legislators should protect consumers from intrusive marketing strategies, and media consolidation should be combatted with antitrust laws.

In this new century, our media landscapes and political battlefields are far more complicated, and far more grey, than Chester’s binary analysis can comprehend. If you are concerned about new media and democracy, you would be better served by contributing $10 (a fraction of the book’s price) to your favorite podcaster, blogger, or public-broadcasting outlet than by
buying this book. 

Aaron Delwiche is a professor at Trinity University.


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