Can the media be made democratic?

That there was once a press free from commercial or governmental influence is a myth.


Since the early twentieth century American journalists have been fascinated by the uneasy relationship between democracy and a media industry that has grown immensely powerful and profitable. The opinion that the democratic process has been undermined – epitomised by declining electoral turnout – by an industry more concerned with increasing corporate profits than the meaningful dissemination of information has repeatedly led to demands for media reform.


In the first part of the twentieth century the American writer and journalist Upton Sinclair drew attention to the corrosive influence of advertising that led newspapers to adapt content to suit powerful sponsors and encourage editorial self-censorship. Sinclair’s book The Brass Check (1919) was a scathing attack on a monopolistic press, in which he said that commercial journalism had become “a class institution serving the rich and spurning the poor,” with the task of “hoodwinking of the public and the plunder of labour”. Brought in some years after the publication of Sinclair’s book, the Federal Communication Act of 1934 was widely seen as the first real attempt to curb media monopoly and reinvigorate the supposedly democratic values embodied in the American Constitution through “public interest, convenience and necessity.” But these and later reforms failed to consider one possibility: What would happen if the government ever saw public information as secondary to free market economics? What would happen if the government actually joined forces with the media to communicate a common ideology that devalued “democracy”?


Media deregulation

According to Bill Moyers, one of America’s best known and respected post-war journalists, this is exactly what happened under the banner of media deregulation. Beginning with Ronald Reagan, deregulation sowed the seeds for a consolidation that eliminated much of the independent media and prompted editorial policy to downgrade the importance of news. But the crowning achievement in the demotion of meaningful news came later with the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which was passed with the support of both political parties. This legislation allowed communications conglomerates and advertisers to join forces to dismantle competition safeguards and devise “new ways of selling things to more people” across the full array of digital and conventional media. Within the media corporations the strategy eliminated remaining divisions between editorial and marketing functions to “create a hybrid known to the new-media hucksters as ‘branded entertainment.’” (Bill Moyers, Journalism and Democracy, Alternative Radio, 8 November 2003).


Moyers’ assessment of the American newspaper industry is equally gloomy. Here, according to a study by the Consumers Federation of America, two-thirds of today’s newspaper markets are monopolies. Not satisfied with this stranglehold, the major newspaper chains have combined with the trade group representing almost all of the broadcasting stations to lobby for further autonomy to extend cross-ownership of media, claiming that this will strengthen local journalism. Moyers notes that in typical fashion none of the organisations involved felt it necessary to report this news, remarking, “they rarely report on how they themselves are using their power to further their own interests and power as big business, including their influence over the political process”. He draws further evidence from the book, Leaving Readers Behind: The Age of Corporate Newspapering, which concludes that the “newspaper industry is in the middle of the most momentous change in its three hundred year history – a change that is diminishing the amount of real news available to the consumer”.


Looking back over American history, Moyers says that during the War of Independence freedom and freedom of communication were the “birth twins in the future United States”, but that today freedom of communication has become an obstacle to corporate profits and has been abandoned. He says that the media that once championed democracy now works hand in glove with government to intentionally undermine democratic values. He identifies certain developments that have ambushed democracy. These include censorship by omission, government refusal to disclose or debate in public, and the overarching power of media giants that “exalt commercial values at the expense of democratic values” to produce “a major shrinkage of the crucial information that thinking people can act upon”.


But according to Moyers perhaps the most repugnant development is the rise of a “quasi-official partisan press ideologically linked to an authoritarian administration that in turn is the ally and agent of the most powerful interests in the world”. This convergence, he says, “dominates the marketplace of political ideas” promoting the “religious, partisan and corporate right” to engage “sectarian, economic and political forces that aim to transform the egalitarian and democratic ideals embodied in our founding documents”. He goes on to provide examples where investigative newsgathering and scrutiny over government, police and the courts has been abandoned to cut costs, avoid institutional embarrassment and maintain this coalition of vested interests. In the absence of a strong opposition party to challenge this hegemony, the task of defending democracy, he says, falls to a reformed media.


The recurrent theme that runs throughout Moyers’ account of the American media is a yearning back to a romanticised “Golden Age”, when a free and independent press kept its subscribers fully informed with important news that enabled them to act. He points to the newspapers at the time of the American War of Independence and in particular to Tom Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense that helped mobilise opposition to the British. Moyers says that as a journalist Paine practised a principle in need of restoration: “an unwavering concentration to reach ordinary people with the message that they mattered and could stand up for themselves.” But was this really a “Golden Age” of democracy or was it, as Sinclair believed, just another instance of the press propagating a class interest under the guise of democracy? Put a different way, has a press free from political or commercial influence ever existed?  

Romanticised past

For many, a belief in the abstract democratic ideal is closely linked to the myths surrounding the origin of the Constitution and the founding of America as a separate country. But far from being a revolutionary event that encouraged a genuine development of democratic values, the War of Independence was a strictly conservative affair. The colonial rebellion was not the work of enraged peasants but of landed gentlemen, who argued their case on the principles of the British constitution by demanding free assembly, trial by jury, and no taxation without representation. Despite pretensions of being “enlightened” – sweeping aside monarchy, aristocracy and the established church – the new republic was never designed to be anything other than an oligarchic state. The political institutions and Constitution mirrored instincts of conservatism and constructed an array of checks and balances motivated by paranoia, suspicion of central government power, and religion that laid the foundation for laissez faire economics.


The expulsion of the British eliminated the constraints of the feudal social order substituting in its place the abstract principles that “all men are created equal” and that power is derived from “the will of the people”. The desire to protect and then extend private property rights sanctified by religious superstition led to a type of liberty intended to allow the pursuit of individual aims and wealth unconstrained by government interference. To those who took up the reins of power, government was to be judged not by its ability to promote prosperity but by its capacity to leave people alone to pursue private ends. The principle that personal opportunity should be maximised also struck a chord with Puritanism that saw the acquisition of money as the just result of hard work and “the Lord’s blessing”.


This moderate civic liberty was deemed more important than any tendency towards democracy, and the architects of the Declaration of Independence – the land and property owners – were quick to construct a system of government based on the division of power that would guard against the “excesses of democracy”. They adopted a definition of “the people” which excluded women, non-landowners and slaves.


While it is undoubtedly true that writers like Tom Paine were influential in pushing the colonial revolt further than originally intended, it is also clear that the real beneficiaries of the break with Britain were the landowners and wealthy traders who were able to expand their own wealth without interference. Although Paine’s call to arms, based on abstractions and ideals, appealed to the ordinary person, the benefits accrued were material and went to the wealthy.


The “democracy” practised today in America is usually held up as the ultimate symbol of “liberty”. But from its outset this system was not envisaged as a condition in which individuals would be kept informed and use the knowledge acquired in the decision making process. On the contrary, this type of “democracy” was constructed as the institutional means to exclude the people from this arena by limiting involvement to the periodic election of someone, normally submissive to a political party, who would make decisions for them.


In capitalist society the media has always had a role to play in the promotion in this kind of vision. The production of a successful newspaper, for example, has always meant that journalistic integrity and editorial objectiveness have been subordinate to the institutional requirement of production for profit. From the moment that newspaper became a commodity and subject to advertising patronage and market forces, the genuine dissemination of information was always going to be the first casualty.


Prevailing ideas

So the media, in America as elsewhere, has a vested interest in driving out all but the most benign opinions and instilling a set of values and a code of behaviour that integrate people into class society. But this does not mean that the media are necessarily part of some conspiracy. While the media’s role is to circulate information presented in the context of society’s prevailing ideas, which have a strong influence over the way people think, this does not mean that the media originate these ideas. In general, the ideas presented by the media are rooted in the social milieu and are traceable, in the main, to the material conditions and the economic relations of society. The class that controls society’s economic structure shapes the institutions that arise in order to manage the economic conditions in its own interests and perpetuate its ascendancy over society. As well as its control over society’s coercive powers and the means by which the wage and salary earners live, this class also exercises persuasive powers, based on legal rights, traditions, customs and, as in America, historical myth that works its way into the consciousness of the working class. In a society divided by class, based on economic interests, the prevailing ideas are therefore a reflection of the needs and aspirations of the dominant class, which explains why many members of the working class often think and act in ways that are in contradiction to their real interests. The media therefore speaks not just for itself but for the whole of the capitalist class.


There are two reasons why Moyers’ belief that a reformed media can resurrect an abstract vision of “democracy” conjured up from a romanticised image of America’s past does not stand up to scrutiny. Firstly, the type of democracy he seems to want has never really existed, and secondly he fails to appreciate that capitalism and genuine democracy can never co-exist. Moyers does not criticise the economic system that compels the media to act in the way it does and does not see that in this system the media cannot operate in any other way – as if in a vacuum, uninfluenced by market forces. Media reform, which tinkers with the detail but leaves the underlying causes firmly entrenched, is, it could even be argued, actually dangerous because it reinforces the belief that capitalism can be made to work in the interests of the working class, when the opposite is patently the case.


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