Robert McChesney (MA, 1986; PhD, 1989): An academic pacesetter

Robert McChesney By Amanda Weber –

Robert McChesney (MA, 1986; PhD, 1989), an intellectual leader in media reform and advocate for good journalism and engaged citizenry, will be inducted into the Department of Communication Alumni Hall of Fame Class of 2010.

McChesney serves as Research Professor in the Institute of Communications Research and the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He’s devoted his life’s work to understanding the history and political economy of communication, with emphasis on the role media play in democratic and capitalist societies.

McChesney has written or edited eleven books, written about 150 journal articles and book chapters and another 150 newspaper pieces, magazine articles and book reviews. Adbusters magazine named him one of the Nine Pioneers of Mental Environmentalism. He also was selected as one of the top 100 classroom teachers on campus while teaching at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Despite his accomplishments and accolades, the possibility of being chosen as an inductee into the Hall of Fame had never crossed his mind. “I know Hall of Fames of departments tend to focus on undergrad and professional majors who go on to careers in the private sectors and business, but not academia. To be an academic and to be honored, I was very flattered and pleased.”

McChesney remembers his time in the School of Communication with great fondness. In the 1980s, he spent six years in the Department studying media reform and journalism, citing them as “five of the very happiest years of my life.” He credits his advisors for teaching him the ways of the academic, and encouraging his entrepreneurial style. “The faculty who were there were very supportive but also gave me a lot of space. They paid attention to what I did, and cared about it, and gave me comments, but they were very hands-off,” said McChesney.

“Specifically, Bill Ames, Don Pember, Tony Giffard, and Lance Bennett; these people were all on my committees. They were my mentors in sort of how you deal with people professionally, so I can’t thank them enough.”

McChesney’s career in academia flourished after writing his dissertation paper, which became his first book and the foundation for his research for the next 25 years. He recalls the first time a stranger introduced themselves as an admirer of his work, about four years after graduate school. “I was at the National Archives in Washington signing in to do some research and another scholar had recognized my name. I think I almost fell over,” he said. It was a rewarding moment for McChesney. “Another human being I never knew was familiar with me as a human being and the research I did and thought it had value.”

McChesney is highly regarded in the world of academia, and the respect for his research and professorship is immeasurable. “He challenges his students, and his professor colleagues to make a difference. To not just study things but engage in topics,” says David Domke, Chair of the Department of Communication. Today, McChesney continues to diligently work hard at what he loves most. “I must confess that my research and teaching flow into my passions so closely. It’s rare, usually when I’m grading a stack of papers, that I consider what I’m doing ‘work’.”