One theme that is a constant throughout the study of contemporary mass communication is the function that mass communication holds in the democratic political process. Although the present-day concepts of "media" or "mass communication" would have been unknown at the time of the Bill of Rights, it is nonetheless clear that the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of the press essentially enshrines in law the notion that an informed and intellectually engaged electorate is crucial for the health of the American political system. And certainly the drafters of the U.S. Constitution were familiar with the notion that clear reasoned argumentation that could reach a broad majority of citizens was necessary for the political system they envisioned: there would not be a U.S. Constitution if there had not been Thomas Paine's "Common Sense," a widely-reproduced pamphlet laying out the basic argument for American independence. However, in different ways, the thinkers surveyed in this course indicate that the contemporary systems of mass communication such as television and the Internet can pose problems for the operation of the democratic process. I would like to survey the discussions offered by Geoffrey Baym, Andrew Koch, and Gauwain van Kooten Niekerk, and conclude with some thoughts on how these observations on the specifically political ramifications of mass media might be extended in further study.
Geoffrey Baym concentrates his study on television. But Baym, writing in the early 21st century under President George W. Bush, is also at a crossroads in the history of television generally: he begins by noting a "crisis in broadcast journalism." Yet the reason for the crisis is paradoxical: the explosion of cable news outlets has provided more, not less, broadcast journalism than would have been available 25 or 30 years earlier. But Baym also indicates a more significant threat to the health of broadcast journalism than this splintering and proliferation of venues, when he observes that September 11 had a chilling effect on critical inquiry. Whether it was to protect their smaller market shares, or for a more ideological reason, broadcast journalism outlets after 9/11 reverted to an uncritical support for stated Bush administration and state security agendas. The notion of journalism as critical inquiry had been seriously damaged. Thus Baym restricts his focus to a television program which does manage to pursue critical inquiry -- of the sort that journalists from John Peter Zenger to I.F. Stone to Woodward and Bernstein would have considered an automatic part of their job -- despite the fact that it is ostensibly comedy and not journalism. This is Comedy Central's "fake news" program "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart." In Baym's analysis, "The Daily Show" was -- during the Bush administration -- the only broadcast venue that was willing to engage in a critique of the policies and rationales offered by the White House. Yet the differing manner of criticism here was crucial, and holds up Baym's claim that "The Daily Show" is engaged in the "reinvention of political journalism." Baym's most memorable example involves "The Daily Show's" handling of a speech by George W. Bush, where he claimed 8 times in exactly the same words that "the American people are safer." Baym notes that this is geared toward the "sound bite" approach of older-style broadcast media which would film the best of those 8 statements and broadcast it -- his observation is that "The Daily Show" was able to broadcast a different form of coverage, in which they highlighted the content-free nature of the speech and claimed that Bush planned to "fight terrorism with...repetition." As a result, at a moment political journalism on television seems to be failing in its capacity for approaching the statements of those in power critically, this comedy program has picked up the slack with what Baym describes as a "dialogical" approach to democracy, in which the value of discussion within the public forum-as represented by Jon Stewart's willingness to engage in dialogue not only with news clips, but with the actual political figures interviewed on the show-is reasserted for the audience.
Andrew Koch focuses his critique of the role played by the mass media in the democratic political process on the Internet. In the face of much unwarranted techno-optimism, which asserts the Internet has the possibility to transform democracy (by permitting online voting, etc.), Koch actually singles out the same factor that Baym leans upon in his analysis of "The Daily Show": the possibility of dialogue. Koch believes the possibility for dialogue, and serious discussion of relevant issues, is actually somewhat specious on the Internet: as an unparalleled vehicle for the delivery of information, the Internet in Koch's view tends toward a "one-way environment." The difficulty here is that this increases the "passivity of political agents" by encouraging people to become the receptors of delivered political analysis, rather than questioners engaged in their own conversation with the political process. Koch relies on the French theorist Baudrillard, whose notion of "simulation" helps to understand why the Internet seems like it could be a good vehicle for political activity but ultimately is not. To enter cyberpace is to disengage with reality, in a sense, and while Koch argues that the Internet can increase the sense of political actors' passivity (by receiving information) and rationality (by following competing arguments), it undercuts the notion of the "citizen sovereign" because it only offers a simulation of the democratic process. There is no real engaged dialogue taking place: there are merely competing sources attempting to deliver information, and those citizens who receive the information may find their analytical skills are undercut by the fundamental solitude and passivity of the process of web-surfing to get the information.
Gauwain van Kooten Niekerk focuses to a certain degree on the same problems that engage Koch, but he is altogether more optimistic. Niekerk's basic interest is the way in which social media platforms (like YouTube or Twitter) can be used to fill in the role played by journalism within the democratic process: he envisions the emergence of "citizen journalists" who communicate via these social media platforms to bring information into the public sphere. However, he is willing to acknowledge some basic difficulties, such as the fact that citizen journalism is "almost never neutral"-people will research and report things when they have a deep personal investment and bias. This would seem to undercut the notion that the free press in a democracy is there to advance rational argument. Niekerk also somewhat risibly advances the notion that YouTube's viral "Kony 2012" video represents a good example of citizen journalism. His analysis of "Kony 2012" is solely focused on the video's virality and the large numbers of people who watched it. He does not note that the large amount of funding which went into producing the video makes it a poor example of spontaneous grassroots journalism, nor does he note that the producer of the video responded to the virality by running through the streets naked and ranting about Satan, nor does he note that -- in 2014, about two years after the video went viral -- Joseph Kony is still at large and most people take no interest in the subject, since they feel they have done their duty simply by watching this overly-long (by YouTube standards) video. Ultimately Niekerk's optimism seems unwarranted, and makes the reader want to turn back to Koch's earlier, but much more skeptical, view of the Internet.
In all three of these writers, however, the examination of mass communications is merely a way of approaching the question of how to maintain the health of a democratic society. All three writers seem to agree that this health is threatened in the twenty-first century, despite the ubiquity of technologies offering information. But it becomes clear that an "informed" electorate is only the first step in having a democratic society-here Koch's notion of the "citizen sovereign" is valuable in elucidating what is required besides information -- and that discussion and process are arguably more important than the glut of information offered by multiple broadcasting outlets and the Internet's vast storage capacity. Information is pointless unless a person knows how to use it. And the crucial fact would seem to be engagement: that is why these writers mainly focus on this question, as Baym sees Jon Stewart's engagement with footage and with guests, as Koch urges citizens to rise above passivity, and as Niekerk wishes journalism to become open to anyone with an interest in it. However, if the subject of mass media relations to democracy were to be extended to further inquiry, it would be necessary to look at some actual case histories. The disastrous launch of the Obamacare website might make a good subject for investigation: how does this indicate whether the Internet can actually be integrated into citizenship duties and political life? Or we could look at a case history of a foreign country where the Internet has been used as a device for the promotion of democracy: for example, the nation of Estonia…