The news media is the crucial institution for opinion formatting and political decision-making. It is well supported by mainstream research that corporate and state controlled media function as propaganda systems for dominant elite interests. While the Internet comprises a technological structure that, in theory, allows for more open ways of communication, state-corporate interests have largely been able to control the new media environment. In fact, Herman and Chomsky’s Propaganda Model of media performance put forward in the 1988 classic Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media also applies for the digital realm. The Internet has not been able to develop into an independent public sphere as envisioned by many scholars and pundits in the mid 1990s. As Robert W. McChesney (2013: 190) states in his book Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism is Turning the Internet Against Democracy: “The Internet has proven to be more effective at centralizing corporate control than it has been at enhancing decentralization, at least in news media.”
Academics and activists should strive for changes in the current media system. Proposing media change is a complicated task. It requires (a) a vision of a desired state and (b) a strategy to reach this state. Moreover, the undertaking should be related to actual social struggle – what is possible to achieve in the “real world”. In order to achieve this, and as a first step, I suggest a broad visionary horizon and a general framework consisting of different strategies for media change.
Vision for a New Media System
James Curran (2002: 239) writes in Media and Power we should aspire to retain traditional liberal objectives for news journalism like “watchdog oversight, information, debate and representation” and further include moments that enable media to “facilitate the expression of conflict and difference” and “to assist social conciliation” (ibid.) Essentially, opposed groups shall be enabled by the media to “express themselves effectively” and foster a process of “communal understanding and equitable compromise” (ibid.: 239):
It is desirable therefore that groups outside the structure of privilege should have the media resources to question prevailing ideological representation, explore where their own group interest lies, and be able to present alternative perspectives. However, it is also important that conflicts of identity and interest do not become embedded in endemic social hatred, and that the pursuit of group interest is tempered by concern for the general interest and the claims of others (ibid.)
McChesney stresses similar moments in his book Corporate Media and the Threat to Democracy emphasizing that how to best structure a media system to promote diversity of opinion, freedom of speech, and hard-hitting investigative journalism of the powers-that-be, all the while preventing any sector, especially the wealthy, from gaining undue influence (McChesney 1997: 66-67).
As a major feature of a desired state for a future democratic media, in order to approximate a public sphere, McChesney sees the need to remove the dominant part of the media system from business control and advertising support and place it under public accountancy (ibid.: 66). In order to achieve this state, “the government will have to subsidize some portion of the public sphere” and, simultaneously, “device policies that encourage the growth of a non-profit, non-commercial public sphere independent of state authority” (ibid.) Moreover, commercial media sectors that use advertising should be taxed in order to subsidize other branches (ibid.: 77). Likewise, Curran outlines a model of a democratic media. Without going into much detail here, it seems worth to mention that Curran is, like McChesney, in favor of a subsidized system consisting of a diverse range of media including activist media (political parties, social movements, interest groups, sub-cultural networks, etc.), minority media, professional media, private media, commercial media and public service media (see Curran 2002: 240-247).
Of course, there are important questions concerning the basic organization of non-profit and public service media. Seeing media struggle as part of political and social struggles it should be open to debate and determined by democratic decision-making how future media organizations are structured. A diverse non-profit system should open way for the appliance and experimentation with different forms of organization ranging from public service models to basic democratic forms of organization based on Participatory Economics and workers’ self-management.
Strategies for Winning a New Media System
Having outlined some broad features of a democratic media system the next step is to define a strategy for media change. As a first step, the issue of media change has to be placed on the political agenda which, concerning the power of corporations in Western societies’ political decision-making processes, can only be achieved by a popular movement. Next to this extraordinary task, it might be useful to consider the following strategic issues for people who want to engage in democratic ways of media activism:
Engage in all media sectors (including Internet) on behalf of public and community media and further democratize public media institutions.
People should campaign for media reforms and regulations. These could include the downsizing of media conglomerates and reallocation of licenses as well as the introduction of subsidies and advertising taxes. It is argued here, that past developments that were crucial for the emergence of the current media system, like the decline of working class newspapers, the rise of corporate media and the introduction of advertising, were to a significant degree the result of political decisions and not some kind of evolution. Thus, political decisions can also roll back these developments.
Repel the corporate media and enhance its journalistic standards by critiquing/pressing it (here the Propaganda Model comes into place) and by building alternative media institutions:
This can be done by building alternative institutions which provide counter-journalism like Medialens, PeaceNews, TomDispatch, ZNet, Counterpunch, GlobalResearch.ca, etc..
This can be done by building alternative media institutions that work in the field of traditional news gathering but are built along basic-democratic organizational standards and incorporate specific journalistic codes. The New Standard, a former Internet publication that ceased its service because of a lack of revenues, may provide an interesting example: this publication was specialized in the gathering of “hard news” and implemented a professional code (which had many similarities to traditional norms) consisting of values such as fairness, transparency and accuracy. It also incorporated a strict editing process in order to keep high journalistic standards. Nevertheless, The New Standard stressed it would not claim “objectivity” due to selective and subjective news choices that every journalist had to make. It rather considered itself as a public service provider in that it encouraged journalists to emphasize ‘the interests of those most affected by the policies or events in the story’ (see Peoples Networks Collective 2006: 9). The New Standard was only financed by its readers and did not accept any advertising. Its workplace was build on principles of Participatory Economics designed to promote equity, solidarity, diversity and self-management (ibid.: 3-4). It is argued here that such an organization can provide far superior journalism than corporate media organizations. Once reaching a wider audience it would pressure other media institutions, because of its high quality output, to enhance their journalistic standards as well. Moreover, the rewarding workplace relations would encourage other journalists to want to work in similar kinds of institutional settings that are not based on hierarchical decision making processes (for a detailed overview see ibid. and Albert 2006).
Communicate with the public and engage with other progressive movements to put media reform on their agenda. Significantly, media reform is connected to the struggles in other social spheres like politics, economics, kinship, etc.
Another very important aspect is to establish ties with organized labor. This concerns the traditional working class which should be encouraged to build own media institutions and the journalists and communication workers themselves. Through progressive unionism media personnel can change institutions from within. Moreover, if some of the previously mentioned campaigns are in place, leeway for journalists working within the corporate media to press for superior journalistic standards, institutional change, higher wages, stockpiling of resources and other progressive measures should increase as well.
As this first approximation of vision and strategy for media change suggests this kind of undertaking is not an easy task. One major problem is that the current media shares responsibility in preventing the issue of institutional media change from appearing on the political agenda. Moreover, the historical record demonstrates that the way we structure media organizations is a highly sensitive topic. Therefore, I stress the importance of democratic accountability: the way we wish media organizations to be structured should finally be determined by the people and not by experts, politicians or technocrats. We should also be open to different visions and strategies for media change. Such an approach is democratic and not dogmatic. The history of political struggle and mainstream politics indicates that too specific visions, if enforced from the top, may enhance sectarianism and managerial control over people leading to new systems of power and control. This does not mean that we should not have a guiding framework as the one outlined above. But such a framework should be open to debate and change and be determined democratically by societal members. Moreover, we need a clear vision of how new institutions in developed industrialized societies should be structured in order to better account for humane, democratic and sustainable development (or better, development in accord with stewardship). A time, when capitalism is tottering on the brink offers enormous opportunities for popular movements to seize the initiative and provide a guiding framework for how such institutions may be designed.
Albert, Michael (2006) Parecon: Leben nach dem Kapitalismus, Trotzdem Verlag, Frankfurt a.M.
Curran, James (2002) Media and Power, Routledge, London.
McChesney, Robert W. (1997) Corporate Media and the Threat to Democracy, Seven Stories Press, New York.
McChesney, Robert W. (2013) Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism is Turning the Internet Against Democracy. New York, NY: The New Press.
Peoples Networks Collective (2006) The New Standard Contributors’ Handbook, 2nd ed., The New Standard.
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