HOW IMPORTANT IS THE ROLE OF THE MASS MEDIA
IN THE THEORY AND PRACTICE OF MODERN LIBERAL DEMOCRACY?
By Miguel Oyarbide (ex Y4, 2004-05)
Bath, December 2005
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It is evident nowadays, that the Mass Media have become something more important than a mere and passive instrument of communication. The depth it has reached and the influence it has in modern liberal democracy has been analysed by many authors in the last times and also attacked, especially from the left wing theorists.
The appearance of Mass Press coincides with the birth of Liberal State. Since then, Mass Media have developed its own role in modern liberal democratic societies in such a way that it has actually been established as the Fourth Estate in the sense that it effectively works as another functional element in the political process. Carlyle is said to be one of the first authors who identified Mass Press as the Fourth Estate:
“Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters' Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important than they all. It is not a figure of speech, or a witty saying; it is a literal fact (...) Printing, which comes necessarily out of Writing, I say often, is equivalent to Democracy: invent Writing; Democracy is inevitable (...). Whoever can speak, speaking now to the whole nation, becomes a power, a branch of government, with inalienable weight in law-making, in all acts of authority. It matters not what rank he has, what revenues or garnitures: the requisite thing is that he has a tongue which others will listen to; this and nothing more is requisite”. -Carlyle (1905) pp.349-350, quoted here
It is important to point out the basic notion explained here, in spite of the historical changes occurred since then, about the importance of communication and its relation to Politics and power: the idea of political communication, idea which we will talk about later.
In the beginning of Mass Communication, liberals claimed for the freedom and independence of Press and to separate it from any kind of external interference. However with the major development of Mass Media, the States themselves rapidly created their own stations of radio and television. Although, in spite of the efforts for maintaining public stations separated from the control of the party in the government or other political powers, it was soon revealed that the independence was not normally complete at all. On the other hand, the Mass Media private sector’s aspirations of independence from external interference have been a constant through History and exist still. It is clear the fact that every single political power has traditionally seen Mass Media as an efficient instrument for controlling and interfering social activities and so, increase its legitimacy.
However, this relationship is not static but fully dynamic and the roles developed by the political powers and the Mass Media have been transformed as well as the connection between both. There is actually an interesting point here because, despite of the fact Mass Media groups claim to be independent and free from any kind of external control, this external control is simply and uniquely identified with State interference while their commitment is actually controlled by interest groups and lobbies which affect in a very strong way the process of transmitting the information itself. Before, when analyzing the relationship between Mass Media and Politics, the theorist fear was focused on the possibility that Politics, through the State mechanisms, would succeed to control Mass Media and would establish itself as the omnipresent Big Brother in George Orwell’s 1984, capable to control and orientate the public consciousness. Yet, nowadays the context has been transformed in such a way that the theorist fear is now focused on groups which control the Mass Media as the ones that would be able to manipulate the political power and the society and finally submit them to their will with their capacity of publicity, suggestion and economics. It is true that the mainstream Mass Media’s main purpose is not as much sharing information or serving like an ideal and global net where every single fact is registered and spread freely as increasing their incomes. So their objective is not the use people principally identify and exercise but this is merely a product sold in the most attractive way in order to receive the incomes. And Mass Media corporations’ main source of incomes is the publicity of other companies that pay to be announced. This should make clear that not everything can be said through Mass Media as some news’ presentation might be negatively related to these economical supportive companies and then affect to the first one’s benefits. Therefore, the question about Mass Media could be rather more about how something is said than what is actually said and, very important too, what is not. Many theorists (principally from the new left wing and the Marxist paradigm) have measured, the influence of interest groups in the transmission of information may create an estate of the public opinion in favour to those groups’ socio-political and mainly economical and commercial interests.
As we said before, Political Communication is a key point when talking about the importance of the Mass Media influence on Politics. As any social activity, Politics and communication have an unavoidable relation in the way that the majority of citizens do not have a direct institutionalized political experience. It is needed a way of transmitting the messages from one side to the other and, therefore, communication gets involved inside the political process structure. Political Communication is constantly being transformed because Mass Media’s self nature, as it depends on technology to develop its role of information spreader. Mass Media signifies a link between the facts that happen and the audience which receives it in forms of “news”. In this way, Mass Media needs and depends on technological changes and the applications they may have on communication. In the early days of Mass Communication, the technology available produced the press, then the radio joined the information market, followed by the television and, lately, the Internet.
The big influence of the Internet in modern western societies has contributed to develop the concept of Electronic Democracy, which is the idea that the current stage of western politics is strongly determined by new electronic technologies which improve and facilitate the process of communication between the political sphere and the citizenship. This moment is analysed by many authors in very different ways. As John Street claims in his article “Citizenship and Mass Communication”, there have traditionally existed four problems in democracies for the existence of a real and full interconnection between the political sphere and citizenship and so persist in modern liberal democracies still:
These problems might be solved by the application of technology to the process of communication, but there are pro and contra arguments. The pro arguments are based upon the idea that this application will provide and era of absolute real-time-knowledge, fully-detailed, complex offer of information sources and complete access to the information and a development of a real exercise of the democracy. The contra arguments complaint that politics are not just a matter of information, which is to what the pros seem to reduce, but part of the culture of a society and, in this way, democracy cannot be “fixed” just by technology as it is not something merely technical (John Street, “Citizenship and Mass Communication”).
On the other hand, the first perspective also reduces Politics to a system were there is a political sphere which manages and decides and a citizenship who only interferes when voting but does not refers about the capacity of reaction of the citizenship.
In current Mass Media, it is hard to distinguish the information from the opinion. It is obvious that since the selection of the materials, the relative attention paid to one or other events or even the simple use of titles and adjectives make objective facts mix with the opinion of the Media. Therefore, the audience does not receive a mere description of what is happening but the evaluation made by Mass Media. The way Mass Media present the information helps to establish a determined perspective in the conscience of their audience about Politics, which has become to appear as simple, emotional and superficial as any other spectacle that comes out through Media. This “spectacularization” of Politics has been studied by some authors as Castells or Gitlin:
“As news are constructed more and more to compete with entertainment spectacles or sports events, so does its logic. Drama, suspense, conflict, rivalry (…), winners, losers and sex and violence are required then”.
-Castells (1997) (John Street, “Citizenship and Mass Communication”)
“Mass Media are interested in the event, not in the underlying condition; the person, not in the group; the conflict, not the consensus; the fact which moves forward the new, not the one which explains it”. -Gitlin (1980) (Quoted in 2003 “Ciencia Política: una introducción”, Josep M. Vallès (p.364); Castells 1997, Gitlin 1980.)
This process might be understood as an impoverishment of Politics through Mass Media, its biggest way of diffusion, which has finally made them become just another spectacle, a show where the citizens, far away from being involved in it, assist as a mere audience (usually with the only intervention when voting) and not as the fundamental part of the whole system, process and result they should be. Marcuse (Frankfurt School) talked about this idea saying that “the means of communication (...), the irresistible output of the entertainment and information industry carry with them prescribed attitudes and habits, certain intellectual and emotional reactions which bind the consumers (...) to the producers and, through the latter to the whole [social system]. The products indoctrinate and manipulate; they promote a false consciousness which is immune against its falsehood... Thus emerges a pattern of one-dimensional thought and behaviour”. (Quoted here from Herbert Marcuse, “One Dimentional Man”)
Through this analysis, Marcuse points out that as result of this process of impoverishment, the society becomes divided into two forms: producers and consumers of information. In this sense, this confirms the reduction of Politics to a mere transaction of information with little or not reaction.
In relation to this, John Street also includes the concept of “packaging” as a conducting link since this refers to “the idea that public representations of politics are increasingly being managed and controlled by parties and politicians (…). The effect of this, it is claimed, is to diminish the quality of political discourse, to ‘dumb it down’. Political arguments are trivialized, appearances matter more than reality, personalities more than policies, the superficial more than the profound. The blame for this state of affairs is typically directed at the politicians and at their professional cohorts, and at a supplicant media which conspires in the erosion of democracy" (John Street’s “Mass Media, Politics and Democracy”, p.185). Moreover, he assesses the interest of many politicians (or probably of their image advisers) to appear in public events with popular celebrities, as Nelson Mandela’s meeting with the Spice Girls, or to show a more kind area of their lives, as Bill Clinton spontaneously playing his saxophone during a campaign.
On the other hand, John Street continues with this “Spectacularization of Politics” perspective, too, but in a different way, as he sees that, “traditionally, citizens have been passive recipients of political information from their papers, radio stations and television channels. They have enjoyed a modest degree of participation through letters columns, phone-ins and the like, but for the most part they have been consumers of political information. The internet appears to change all this, enabling people to become more involved, to interact with the political realm. This opportunity, if it is really there, has profound implications for democracy –and this is what much recent political rhetoric would have us believe” (John Street’s “Mass Media, Politics and Democracy”, p.212).
However, it is possible that the role of Mass Media is not as powerful as controlling the public conscience through their programs. Using an example by John Street, watching violence on films does not necessarily create a whole generation of psycho killers. It is also important to understand the fact that people choose those Mass Media which are nearest to their thoughts and pre-assumptions, receiving the information through those channels of communication in the most pleasant way to them as the message will not create a conflict with their views. This could be thought to work as a feedback to their biased perception of reality.
On the other hand, in the way people relate to Politics, not transmitting some kind of information might be enough for the audience not to have conscience of those issues the Mass Media’s interest groups in the background do not want their public to have “through selection of topics, distribution of concerns, framing of issues, filtering of information, emphasis and tone, and by keeping debate within the bounds of acceptable premises” (Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman, “Manufacturing Consent”, Conclusions). All this process of elaborating the concept of “actuality” is developed, registered and kept in the Public Sphere, structurally transforming it, as Jürgen Habermas attended in his book.
Habermas points out that Mass Media developed a crucial role in the transition from the Anciens Régime to the modern liberal democratic societies (as well as the emergence of the early capitalism and its material culture). As he describes, the “routine production of news” helped to increase the global knowledge and therefore, in some ways, to enlighten citizenship. Further more, Habermas theorises about the apparition of the “bourgeois public sphere” as the key element which characterizes modern societies. The growing economical privatization of certain segments of the society contributed to create two differenced spheres: the public authority (state, including its public interference capacity and its institutions) and the private sphere (family and private relationships). So, Public Sphere signifies the ambit between these two and makes reference to the idea of a common space where the interaction between is developed. Is in this Public Sphere where the role of Mass Media is developed and interferes in the political process scene since Public Opinion exists and might be modified in this common sphere. The Public Sphere itself “appears as a specific domain –the public domain versus the private” and “either the organs of the state or the media, like the press, which provide communication among members of the public, may be counted as public organs” (Jürgen Habermas, “The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere”, p.2). Habermas also assesses the quite revealing etymological similarity between the appearance of the Public Sphere concept and “publicity”, which can be regarded to the previous point of the purpose of Mass Media groups.
The influence of Mass Media does not only affect to the citizenship and institutions political behaviour but also to the political agenda setting, favouring some matters to be included in instead of others or conditioning the development of the resolutions made. Further more, they can help some parties to increase their popularity by paying attention to their discourse or to decrease others’ by ignoring theirs; they can remark or devalue political strategies and decisions.
This is probably the greatness of modern Mass Media, not as much the fact that they can exercise some kind of hypnotizing conditioning on people’s conscience, as some authors seem to argue sometimes, but paying attention or not to certain political stances or social happenings.
As we have analyzed, mainstream Mass Media influence in modern liberal democracies is enormous. They have reached the hegemony of communication and dominated the public sphere. The application of new technologies to Mass Media has contributed to create the Electronic Democracy state with its consequent social implications. But, instead of improving the quality of the political scene, the process of mainstream mass communication (dissident forms of Mass Media information sources keep on being used by a too little minority) has finally produced an impoverishment of the Politics since their commercially oriented spectacularization and their conversion into another mere mass consumption product. The control, or even monopoly, of information by Mass Media groups with the liberal laissez-faire-oriented States’ consent has shown its negative effects over the Political scene. This fact is tremendously risky for the development of a real political consciousness since it affects to the individual political acts and behaviour.
Other bibliography used for this essay (apart from the previously mentioned):
-Gitlin, Todd: “The whole world is watching” (1980).
-Chomsky, Noam & Herman, Edward: “Manufacturing Consent” (1988).