The democratic illusion: Liberal theory and the public sphere as approaches to understand the media's role in democracy

Term Paper 2003 13 Pages

Communications - Media and Politics, Politic Communications



1. Introduction

2. The role of the media in democracy
2.1 The public sphere in context of its contemporary relevance
2.2 Liberal press theory
2.2.1 Privatization and commercialisation
2.2.2 The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the infiltration of the First Amendment
2.2.3 Conservative informational control
2.2.4 The influence of PR and advertising

3. Alternative models

4. Conclusion

5. References

1. Introduction

The role of the media in democracies is to connect decision makers and voters. The media should thus fulfil a basic position and serve as a foundation for the democratic process. In Rich Media, Poor Democracy R.W. McChesney argues that the media, far from providing a bedrock for freedom and democracy, have become a significant antidemocratic force in the United States and, to varying degrees, worldwide. The variables that have caused this development are the corporate media explosion and the corresponding implosion of public life and culture. M.C. Miller (2001) even states that “the generated monoculture, endlessly and noisily triumphant, offers, by and large, a lot of nothing, whether packaged as ‘the news’ or ‘entertainment’”. Whereas the major beneficiaries are wealthy investors, advertisers and the few leading media conglomerates, this concentrated corporate control is disastrous for any notion of participatory democracy.

The text contrasts the two fundamentally different positions of the media’s role in democracy, which are the media in the desirable position as provider of a public sphere in a Habermasian sense, and the media’s role in a liberal theory understanding. By focussing largely on the US media, the prototype of privatization, section two names the most influential corporate powers and presents the influence they exert. Following the description of their independence from any controlling instances, such as the FCC, the text finally points out alternatives which are basically derived from D.W. Mazzocco.

2. The role of the media in democracy

There exist two entirely different points of view concerning the media’s role in democracy (Golding 2003):

First, is the approach to regard the media as a means to broadcast information that enables citizens to participate in the political process through voting - the most elementary form of political action and participation. This basic democratic scheme is sometimes rooted in Habermas’ theory of the public sphere.

Second, is the liberal theory approach to see the media as a check on the state. This position parallels privatization to the most possible extent. Whereas on the one hand liberal theorists emphasize the aspect of state regulation in the interest of the common welfare, on the other hand they play down the emerging private powers that remain unaffected from any controlling instance. The myth of serving the public interest through the private sector thus has more often served as a pretext to protect corporate interest, convenience and necessity (Mazzocco 1994, p. 142). The media has become pure business, whose only purpose is to maximise profits. While advertising and sponsoring emerge as the ostensible factors, information appears as a by-product from this point of view. Orthodox liberal theory is especially well entrenched in the United States (Curran 2000, p. 121).

2.1 The public sphere in context of its contemporary relevance

Habermas’ thesis of the public sphere consists of the basic message that a public sphere can stand for any forum or platform that allows free and open discussion or exchange of views and opinions among citizens. Whereas in 18th and 19th century Britain, the bourgeoisie provided material, set the agenda and organized public discussions, but did not influence these, to establish an independent forum to the hegemony of clergy and the state, today the media is in the predominant hegemonic position, has occupied this public space and undermines discussion. The public sphere in a Habermasian sense consisted of the following key characteristics:

First, it was independent from the influence of state, church, and the equivalent concentrated private powers. In most democracies this independence has been diminished or even abrogated by the colonisation of market forces. Since the media is totally commercialized in some democracies, as in the U.S., its owners use it to fulfil their business interests. Although different democracies feature different levels of state regulation, the media’s independence is not existent any more. The powers that Habermas regarded as corruptive and damaging for independence, be it the consciousness creating privatized industries, state, or others, utilise the media and thus disregard the public interest.

Second, it was open to all in the same way. Every subject with the competence to speak and act was allowed to take part in a discourse. In the public sphere, Habermas says, discourse becomes democratic through the “non-coercively unifying, consensus building force of a discourse in which participants overcome their at first subjectively biased views in favour of a rationally motivated agreement” (Habermas 1980, p. 315 in http://www.georgetown.edu/faculty/bassr/gaynor/publics.htm). Thus, in Habermas’ understanding democratic judgements are based on rationality. Anyway, discourse is the means of how enlightenment and democratic consensus are reached. In contemporary capitalist societies the mass media features a one way entertainment-informational flow from its publishers to the recipients. Whereas at the time of a lively public sphere where the discussion of one day served as basis for the newspaper the next day, it is actually the media owners, shareholders and advertisers who dictate news(paper) content. One could argue that discourse could occur between different newspapers or TV stations. Nevertheless, the small number of conglomerates in an oligopoly limits this opportunity. Media owners protect their markets and try to exclude competitors to maintain their hegemony. It is the free market itself, which acts as gatekeeper. For example, massive financial resources are necessary to set up a new newspaper or TV station, whereas the success will be doubtful. R.W. Mc Chesney (1999:270) argues: “Over time the media system became vastly less competitive in the economic sense” following the explicit logic of the commercial marketplace. Not only media ownership in a few hands, but also cross-ownership and conglomeration account for the annihilation of competitive challenges. R.W. McChesney further states: “Virtually no new daily newspapers have been successfully launched in existing markets in the United States since World War I, … and no new major Hollywood film studios have been established in sixty years either” (McChesney 1999, p. 271). This increasing concentration and conglomeration undermines the opportunities for any discourse, even between conglomerates themselves.

Third, “All participants within the public sphere were on terms of equal power because costs of participation were widely and evenly spread and because social wealth within the bourgeoisie was evenly distributed” (Garnham 1990, p. 107). Capitalism has also destroyed this third preoccupation. Today’s class societies feature structures that accredit certain media access to certain income categories (Golding 2003). Consequently, inequalities exist. Establishments of particular business media such as, for example the Financial Times or other rather expensive business magazines and newsletters, show that the ascendant class of society have their own sources of information. The longitudinal reception of different media might create or aggravate knowledge-gaps and concentrate the classification between information-haves and have-nots. Altogether, the public sphere’s concern was not private, corporate or governmental interest but the public good. Habermas states: “The public sphere could only be realized today, on an altered basis, as a rational reorganization of social and political power under the mutual control of rival organizations committed to the public sphere in their internal structure as well as in their relations with the state and each other” (Habermas 1979, p. 201). Media owners’ ignorance concerning the public interests, which sustains their hegemony in society, is not likely to change in the future. The predominant conglomerates will not withdraw from their power voluntarily. As the state in the U.S. and elsewhere fails to establish structures that are conducive to competition and thus to rational mutual control, one opportunity is to facilitate further establishments of alternative media in trying to install an equivalent to the dominant forces.



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University of Canterbury – Department of Mass Communication and Journalism
Liberal Political Economy Communication



Title: The democratic illusion: Liberal theory and the public sphere as approaches to understand the media's role in democracy