In the study of sociology, social institutions play a vital role in implementing and dictating the norms and rules within the society. These social institutions may be political (political organizations), economic (business corporations, companies, or entities), or related to the civic society (family and socially-oriented cause groups). However, the advancement in technology and the sudden influx of the people's demand for information and entertainment created the most powerful, prevalent, and influential institution in the society, which is the mass media institution.
The mass media as an institution has become an essential element in the society, for the mass media helped shape the culture of American society, especially those concerning the values, traditions, and norms of the society. The mass media also helped proliferate the need of the people to access and know everything and every issue that is of public interest and concern to the society. Because of its influential ability to provide people with information and knowledge that are current and up-to-date, the mass media as a communication institution gradually transformed to be an economic, cultural and politically-influenced institution as well. Economically, mass media served as an institution wherein the American culture, particularly pop culture, is continually shaped and influenced by the mass media. This, in turn, results to the cultural influence of mass media, which illustrates how this institution helps spread the prevailing culture in the society. Furthermore, mass media also served as the society's 'guard' against anomalies and issues concerning the society, which shows the character of mass media as an institution that provides surveillance for the society.
These gradual transformations and overlapping of the functions of mass media in the society are best summarized as follows:
Main activity is the production and distribution of symbolic content;
Media operate in the 'public sphere' and are regulated accordingly;
Participation as sender or receiver is voluntary;
Organization is professional and bureaucratic in form; and Media are both free and powerless.
The following functions show how mass media has been a central institution wherein the society and its dynamics are best reflected. However, through the years, the growing power and influence of mass media has also resulted to studies concerning the dysfunctional effects of the mass media in the society. Indeed, research and studies have been conducted that gave way to revelations and new information that criticizes the excessive control that mass media can have and impose on the American society.
Criticisms on the sociology of mass communication are best discussed through the criticisms of Michael Parenti, Ben Bagdikian, and Bill McKibben. These critical analyses will be discussed thoroughly in this paper, using each author's discourses regarding the dysfunctions of the mass media communication. More particularly, "Make-Believe Media: The Politics of Entertainment" by Michael Parenti, "The Age of Missing Information" by Bill McKibben, and "The Media Monopoly" by Ben Bagdikian will be analytically compared and a discussion of their thesis and similarities and differences in criticism of mass media will be conducted for a better insight on the harmful, but influential effects of mass media in the society.
In "Make-Believe Media: The Politics of Entertainment," Michael Parenti focuses on refuting three important functions of mass media. These functions include the assumption that mass media operate in the 'public sphere, is free and powerless, professional, and that mass media participation as sender or receiver is voluntary. Parenti's thesis is basically built on the refutation the fact that mass media is free and powerless and that media participation is voluntary. For Parenti, mass media is controlled by the media conglomerates or businesses that are profit-oriented and politically-biased. The author focuses on culture as the means of mass media and the companies behind it to spread the politically-biased and propagandistic agenda of dominant economic and political organizations to the society in the form of popular culture.
Parenti uses the concept of culture in addressing the issue of mass media as an institution that is utilized for propaganda purposes. In identifying the nature of culture, Parenti states that "culture is anything but neutral. Much of what is thought to be our common culture is the selective transmission of class-dominated values." The use of culture as the primary tool for political propaganda that favors the vested interests of political and economic entities is effectively accomplished because culture is a value-laden and highly-structuralized element of the society. As a value-laden institution, mass media helps promote the values that it considers as dominant and prevalent within the society it operates. These values are illustrated in the traditions and customs that people subsist to. Meanwhile, culture is highly-structuralized because culture is proliferated through primary and secondary groups, like the family institution (primary) and community (secondary).
Parenti thus proceeds in showing how mass media as a social institution as "politically neutral." However, this is refuted by the fact that mass media is controlled by the media conglomerates and powerful politicians in the society. Because of this, mass media is not free and becomes, instead, as a powerful entity in the society that spreads politically-biased propaganda by spreading culture identified as "popular culture." In the 11th and 12th chapters of Parenti's book, entitled, "Preemption, Profits, and Censors" and "The Myth of Cultural Democracy," respectively, the commodification of culture, mass media myths, and censorship are discussed. Through the concept of "popular culture," Parenti proves the claim that he presents in the chapters used in this study: "... our culture is now aptly designated as "mass culture," "popular culture," and... "media culture," owned and operated by mostly giant corporations whose major concern is to accumulate wealth... The goal being exchange value rather than use value, social control rather than social creativity." Cultural imperialism is evident in the use systemic censorship of cultural elements and mass media forms, such as print, broadcast, and film media. Censorship is proliferated because of the mass media myths that have been believed about the mass media institution through the years: the first myth stating that "culture is to be treated as mutually exclusive of... political economy," and the second myth being that "... social institutions are autonomous entities, not linked to each other." Through the use of censorship, Parenti proves that society is provided with information and entertainment that are 'pre-selected' by the mass media owners, where the audiences are given information that favors the vested interests of powerful individuals and organizations in the mass media. Because of pre-selection and censorship, mass media is limited in the ideology and artistic expression, McCarthyism is evident in mass communication media, and, according to Parenti, "supply creates demand," forfeiting the claim that mass media is a free and open system.
Bill McKibben's "The Age of Missing Information," meanwhile, also resounds and reiterates Parenti's thesis that the mass media institution is used for political propaganda and is not an open and free system where information and entertainment are transmitted to the society. McKibben's criticism of the mass media institution is particularly based on the premise of how technologies and advancements in mass media communication become detrimental to the present state of the society's environment. Thus, McKibben decrees an environmentalist stance in criticizing the mass media institution. His main thesis is that the mass media institution, despite its status as an information-giving and entertainment-providing institution, is actually "missing" in information," which is contrast to the fact and reality that the environment provides this 'missing information' for the society to explore and appreciate.
What made McKibben state that there exists 'missing information' in the endless sources of information in mass media. This 'missing information' is the element of reality that people must see in mass media forms, which, unfortunately, they do not get at all. Like Parenti's conclusion, McKibben believes that TV, radio, and news papers are controlled by business corporations and political organizations and are pre-selected, leading to the limitation of true and factual information, as well as the standardization of mass media content. Also, as mass media develops into a greater and more powerful institution through the help of technology, problems of exploitation and destruction of the environment becomes evident as mass media encourages and promotes campaigns that increases American consumerism. This theme is best illustrated in the detailed and informative reflections of McKibben as he took note, studied, and analyzed a one-day period of varying programs of over 93 cable stations in Fairfax.
The growth and increasing information that technology in mass media delivers promotes the exploitation and use of environment for society's ever increasing needs and problems. In the first chapter of his book, 7:00 A.M., evidence of implied environmental exploitation is shown as McKibben narrates the continuing influx of information that he gets from television programs in a single day. The following passage shows how information and entertainment are interspersed with facts relating to the exploitation of the environment: "For sore throats, the actors of Shakespeare's time used to take a live frog... Since seaweed grows "in the nutrient-rich ocean," it comes as no surprise in the Annushka cosmetics organization that it…