Mass Media Promotes Democracy the Journalistic Side Term Paper

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Mass Media Promotes Democracy

The journalistic side of the twentieth century can be defined as the struggle for democracy and an independent media against propaganda and subservience to the state. That struggle culminated during the first half of this century in the seizure of the means of communication by the demagogues of the 1930s and 1940s -- Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin -- and their Cold War reincarnation of the 1950s, Joseph McCarthy -- the ghost that still haunts U.S. journalism. (1) Modern journalism began around 1890 with the advent of a national system of communication and has had a pretty long run.

Describing Philadelphia on the eve of the Revolutionary War, Sam Bass Warner observed that gossip in the taverns provided Philadelphia's basic cells of community life.... Every ward of the city had its inns and taverns and the London Coffee House served as central communication node of the entire city.... Out of the meetings at the neighborhood tavern came much of the commonplace community development... essential to the governance of the city... And made it possible... To form effective committees of correspondence. (2)

The public remains the implicit term of the First Amendment. It is the God term -- the worshipped concept -- of liberal society and the press. Without the public, neither the press nor democracy makes any sense. Today, however, this original conception of a public of discussion and disputation, independent of both the press and the state, has been abandoned. Public opinion, for example, no longer refers to opinions expressed in public and then recorded in the press. Public opinion is now formed by the press and modeled by the public opinion industry, polling and interest groups. (3)

Public life stands for a form of politics in which, in Jefferson's phrase, "We could all be participants in the government of our affairs."(4) Political equality, in its most primitive mode -- to borrow and twist some lines from Bruce Smith -- simply means the right to be seen and heard, or to have a public life. (4) Therefore, the object of politics remains the desire to restore what Alexis de Tocqueville called the "little republics within the frame of the larger republic," and to create a palpable public to which each citizen can belong. (4)

The transition from the original understanding of the press, the public and politics to journalism in the modem era was long and twisted. Throughout the nineteenth century, the public sphere divided into regional and class-based conflicting factions, organized around political parties and a partisan press. Journalism became an organ of such parties or ideologically aligned with political parties. Journalism began to express and reflect a bifurcated public sphere, as individuals joined politics through parties and the press.

The first national and first mass audience -- open to all. Modem communications media allowed individuals in nations as large as the United States to be linked, for the first time, directly to the "imaginary community of the nation," without the mediating influence of regional and other local affiliations. (5) The modern period culminated in the network era of television, when the entire nation seemed to be assembled in front of the three commercial networks -- CBS, ABC and NBC -- especially on the high holy days of politics, such as those surrounding the Kennedy assassination or the quadrennial political conventions. (6)

This rise of national media represented a centripetal force in social organization. Such media greatly enhanced the ability to control vast expanses of territory by reducing signal time and laying down direct lines of access among national centers -- such as New York, Washington and Hollywood -- and dispersed audiences. While they owed something to the crusading tactics of newspapers, muckraking magazines, like sensational newspapers, did not dwell long on any one topic, as Michael McGerr pointed out. (7) They were hit-and-run artists who exposed corruption or urged the passage of pro-consumer legislation, but they did not have the shape and persistence to constitute a tradition of journalism.

In the twentieth century, new traditions of journalism and particular conceptions of the relationship between media and democracy formed themselves in mutual relief. The press, in effect, broke away from politics and became the so-called Fourth Estate. It established itself, at least in principle, as independent of all institutions, including the state, political parties and interest groups. It became the independent voter writ large; its only loyalty was to an abstract truth and an abstract public interest. This is the origin of the concept of objectivity in journalism, as Michael Schudson has shown. (8)

While independent journalism legitimized democratic politics of publicity and experts, it also confirmed the psychological incompetence of most people to participate in it. A political system of "democracy without citizens" evolved. (9) Political journalism became, in Joan Didion's apt phrase, a game of "insider baseball."(10) During the second half of the twentieth century, the average U.S. citizen was no longer interested in politics. Indeed, the title of E.J. Dionne, Jr.'s book, Why Americans Hate Politics, expresses a more active alienation from public life than is revealed by the low voter-turnouts that have marked the entire modern period. (11)

Above all -- as poll after poll showed -- the public increasingly distrusted journalists and viewed them as a hindrance to, rather than an avenue toward, politics and reform. (12) The watchdog press -- the adversary press -- was exposed to even more skepticism during the period of its greatest success, namely during the Vietnam War and Watergate. (13) Ultimately, the public became an observer of the press rather than "participators in the government of (its) affairs" and the dialogue of democracy. (14) Moreover, the aggressive transformation of publics into audiences -- which in the late nineteenth century created the "imaginary community of the nation" -- is now a global process. (15) Multichannel systems, however, have fragmented the audience into narrow niches based on taste, hobbies, avocations, race and ethnicity.

President John F. Kennedy once said in a speech to the nation's broadcasters:

The flow of ideas, the capacity to make informed choices, the ability to criticize, all of the assumptions on which political democracy rests, depend largely on communications. And you are the guardians of the most powerful and effective means of communication ever designed. (16) Similarly, Carl J. Friedrich once observed: The emergence of constitutional government, and in particular the crystallization of the systems of popular representation as we know them, are inextricably interwoven with the growth of the modern press. Without it, constitutional government is unimaginable. (17)

There exists... no other such flexible apparatus." Brezhnev in 1967 reiterated that the mass media were.".. A powerful means of rearing the people and propagandizing the party's ideas."(18) In the euphoria of the transformation of 1989, Polish media proliferated, despite the fact that the communications industry was "reeling" from both increases in printing costs and plummeting sales because of increased cover prices. "Before, it was clear -- the censor, the party, those were our enemies. Today it's the price of newsprint, distribution, all those things that our Western colleagues know all about, but we are just beginning to discover."(19)

Russia and Poland have become a new proving ground for Western journalists seeking to promote the democratic ideals of speech and press freedom. U.S. journalists and academics have been instrumental in media assistance programs (19) and financial aid for the former Soviet bloc. It does not necessarily follow that implementing democratic press reforms will lead to a democratic form of government, though it has seemed to help. Journalist Walter Lippman believed the purpose of newspapers is not to mirror the world, just signalize events. They cannot "perform the functions of public enlightenment that democratic theory requires."(20)

In Western countries like Spain, the media has the freedom to question the countrys governments political stances. The media questioned if the high price being paid by the countrys troop contingent in Iraq was worth paying, pondering if Madrid should stay the course with most Spaniards bitterly opposed to the whole enterprise. In the United States the press has openly carried out an appraisal of President George Bushs stealth visit to Baghdad during Thanksgiving. Newspapers debated whether the Iraqis would be reassured that the United States would put down the insurgency and restore order in the country or whether they would perceive the image of Bush landing unannounced at night without lights and not venturing from a heavily fortified military installation as confirmation that the security situation in Iraq is dire. The papers also described in detail the measures the White House had taken to keep the trip shrouded in the shroud of secrecy.

The media has come under fire and censorship many a time for exposing the truth. Zambia's transition to multiparty politics in 1991 has not led to significant changes in state-media relations. The independent media is weak due to a hostile political and legal environment and severe economic conditions. The ability of the independent press to contribute effectively to democratic discourse is further constrained…[continue]

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