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Media Debates: Great Issues for the Digital Age

Editor: Everett E. Dennis, John C. Merrill
Publisher: Toronto, Canada: Thomson Wadsworth, 2006
Review Published: January 2007

 REVIEW 1: Tim Dwyer

In the preface to Media Debates: Great Issues for the Digital Age, editors Everett E. Dennis and John C. Merrill remind readers that although communication media are undergoing significant transformations, in an era of deregulation and the internet the fundamental debates involving communication and society both change and stay the same. This is an important initial point to make in a communication and media studies textbook and underscores what Danish Internet researcher Niels Finnemann (2006) refers to as the "co-evolution" of old and new media.

The authors are very well placed to make this claim, bringing as they do a wealth of US and international experience in media research and teaching to the book. Dr. Dennis is professor of Communication and Media Industries at Fordham's Graduate School of Business in New York City, and Dr. Merrill is professor emeritus from the School of Journalism at the University of Missouri. In constructing key issues as "media debates" they have selected twenty topics in a field they suggest, quite rightly in my view, is "multifaceted and multidimensional" (xiv). Their assumption, then, is that there's diversity in our understanding of media forms, practices and institutions, as shaped by age, life experience, political frameworks, and "vested interests."

That said, in broad terms, the authors' analytic framework can be categorized as liberal-pluralist. Readers are advised that the book has been honed over many years of teaching and research in the field, and arises from ongoing conversation and, at times, creative tension between the authors. It seems to me that this continuity is an undergirding strength of the book's pedagogical orientation. The book follows a set case for and against structure, with short argument summations following each case, and the respondent being given the final word.

The range of issues debated is necessarily a "best of" collection, and some readers may have an alternative preferred list of their own, or question the kinds of framing of some of those issues selected. The issues include: freedom of the press; the media-government relationship; media concentration and ownership; the right to know; bias; media coverage of elections; objectivity; public opinion and polls; news; ethics; new digital media strategies; race, ethnic, and other diversities; advertising; war and terrorism; and globalization.

As an introductory level text, the book is aimed mainly at courses in mass communication, journalism, and media studies. Given that intention, the book may sidestep some potential criticisms of oversimplification, or the avoidance of more critically informed stances. An example of a more critical approach to these kinds of questions in the media industries, and pitched at a similar level, can be found in David Croteau and William Hoynes' The Business of Media: Corporate Media and the Public Interest. That text relies on a markets versus public sphere theorization of its materials. Therefore, it could be argued that while the authors of Media Debates present a core set of important polemic issues for students, the framing of these may limit deeper understandings. For example, chapter two focuses on the "media-government relationship." In conceiving the debate as a binary opposition between the media and government, "either as a disagreement between friends or as occasional agreement between adversaries" (30), the authors may foreclose an alternative perspective many see as intrinsic to the operation of commercial media systems. Cosy cooperation between ruling political regimes and commercial media proprietors is well documented throughout the world. Think Rupert Murdoch in the U.S. and Australia or Silvio Berlusconi in Italy, where the latter's arrangements reached its zenith at the point when Berlusconi finally conceded electoral defeat, and stood aside on May 2, 2006.

Yet most of the issues and arguments are clearly laid out and the implications easy to follow. One example is chapter four on concentration of media ownership, where the final summation argues: "Media ownership concentration provides the citizen with the viewpoints of a decreasing number of information providers and places media power in the hands of a minority of very wealth persons" (51). On the other hand, this is more a matter of personal interpretation or preferred interests in specific issues that inevitably arises in a wide-ranging book of this kind.

The book, then, provides an informative, introductory treatment of key debates connected with the work practices, distribution, and broader political, economic, and socio-cultural implications of the major media processes of our times. Its usefulness to students is enhanced through the use of sections for online research tips, topics for discussion and research, and suggestions for further reading at the conclusion of each chapter. In times when the pressures to avoid serious media debate seem to proliferate along with media themselves, this book offers the potential to counteract that trend.

Croteau, David, and Hoynes, William. The Business of Media: Corporate Media and the Public Interest. Thousand Oaks, London, New Delhi: Pine Forge Press/Sage, 2006

Finnemann, Niels. "The Co-Evolution of Old and New Media." Paper presented at COST A20 conference, "The Impact of the Internet on the Mass Media," Delphi, Greece, April, 2006.

Tim Dwyer :
Dr. Tim Dwyer is a Lecturer in Media Policy and Research at the University of Western Sydney. Prior to UWS, Tim worked at the Australian Broadcasting Authority (now the Australian Communications and Media Authority) from 1994-2002. He is a coauthor of Content, Consolidation and Clout: How will Regional Australia be Affected by Changes to Media Ownership? (Communications Law Centre, University of NSW, 2006). With Virginia Nightingale, he is currently co-editing a new anthology, New Media Worlds, to be published by Oxford University Press in 2007.  <T.Dwyer@uws.edu.au>

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