Sunday, September 27, 2009

Democracy in peril?

As Aldous Huxley very rightly put in his Brave New World: “Words can be like X-rays. If you use them properly, they'll go through anything.” I find this a fair illustration of the significant role that language plays in the transfer of ideas and in shaping the society, the culture, and… the entire world we live in. So, should an unregulated flow of words and media products – ultimately, ideas – be allowed, given all their power and influence over people, who then (attempt to) decide how things function? This question becomes even more significant when put into the modern-world context: we see a “chicken or the egg”-type debate about media content and gradually shifting patterns of demand.

Siochrú and Girard point out that media products are special because they are essentially the tools of “society production.” In order not to get back to the discussion of the media shaping identities, suffice it to say that their statement is in itself a powerful argument for a cautious regulation of the media market, especially as it is increasingly privatized and taken over by commercial interests.

A free media market essentially implies equilibrium. This can work perfectly well… in theory. In reality, many times people forget to ask about how that market demand is created. A second question that needs to be urgently addressed is whether, given the above-mentioned special status of the media products, the mega-corporations should be given the unlimited freedom to create that demand. I see the matter as an ethical issue (especially when it comes to news reporting and journalism), unless, of course, the sole acceptable morality is that of profit-maximization and instant gratification.

The traditional “mainstream” approach in the US seems to have been very critical of the European (as well as other governments’) attempts to regulate or, at least, carefully monitor the media market. Well, perhaps justly so. After all, a true democracy cannot function without freedom of speech and a free flow of information. However, I still find it hard to understand how a system that took such great care to create a meticulous structure of checks and balances can be inclined to completely overlook a fundamental threat to its very existence. With the increasing trend of privatization and liberalization of the media markets, which gave way to the rise of the large transnational media empires, the very democracy that freedom is supposed to facilitate is being jeopardized, as the corporations start to acquire and exert political influence.

Yet, their influence – acquired through large profits channeled into active lobbying and “support” campaigns, in expectation of favorable policies and treatment – is not limited to the political sphere. It is no secret that media ownership affects content and that through carefully directed programming, media companies can potentially cultivate the demand for specific “products”, create and promote ideas and social movements, and even kick-start revolutions. The first example that jumps to the mind is the claim made by the Iranian regime about the June presidential election. However, why go there? Let’s look at the US and Obama’s healthcare plan debacle.

Of course, Al-Jazeera, being the channel that it is, is NOT unbiased, but still it provides a very good alternative insight into the recent 9/12 demonstrations and the role Fox News played in all that. Needless to mention, of course, that Fox is one of the central pillars of Murdoch’s empire, and that there is absolutely no coincidence in the fact that he had recently begun voicing his concerns about Obama’s approach to the economy, calling him “dangerous.”

Freedom of speech and information, whether in the national realm or in the global sphere, was meant to serve as a vehicle to ensure plurality and diversity of opinions, as well as best possible access to the best possible information. Being fundamental to democracy, these were also supposed to improve governance AND effectively check the government’s power. Thus, the media were meant to be the “domain of information” and supposedly assumed the responsibility to act as the fourth estate, in the public’s best interest. And yet, the recent trends of conglomeration, privatization, and deregulation have resulted in a situation of decreased competition and domination by aggressively profit-driven corporations that gradually become the very power that was meant to be contained. And so it happens that by “using the words properly” the transnational media corporations are spinning the idea of freedom to serve their own ends, defeating the very purpose of the much-cherished First Amendment.


  1. It's funny that you say 'Al Jazeera being the channel that it is,' because if you look at Al Jazeera English on whole with other news channels in America you will see that they are no more biased than MSNBC or CNN are.

    After all, in an article about Najibullah Zazi last weekend, CNN found it necessary to mention that Zazi and his alleged co-conspirators were Afghan FOUR TIMES. Why?

    What purpose does it serve for them to repeat four times in a single article that the alleged suspects are Afghan?

    All it really did was make it seem as if Zazi and co. just happened to be in the United States rather than the fact that they had all lived in the United States of America for quite some time.

    Also, I think any observer of the media would be hard pressed to find a show like The Listening Post (or Inside Iraq, or Witness or 101 East) on any American news channel. The very fact that AJE would be willing to include a program that analyzes all of the news and its portrayals from around the world says a lot about the stations.

    Not to mention, that pretty much anyone given the choice would rather watch Riz Khan interview someone than Larry King.

  2. You made many interesting points, and I agree. The media tell the audience what to think about and place various levels of importance on topics by simply tagging a story at "breaking/top news." Individuals' ideas and thoughts can be morphed and altered for better or worse by simply watching a cable television broadcast. (i.e. healthcare townhall meetings). The media moguls definitely play to large of a political role via their broadcasts.
    INTERESTING---->"I still find it hard to understand how a system that took such great care to create a meticulous structure of checks and balances can be inclined to completely overlook a fundamental threat to its very existence."

    We both know that the U.S. then and now is a totally different political world. We have grown to love and nourish our capitalistic ideals--money, money, profit, money. In clsoing, an answer to your title of "Democracy in peril?",yes our democracy does need retweaking. In 11th grade world history I learned that no democracy has ever lasted. Therefore, our democratic days may be numbered...not likely...but history says otherwise.

  3. I was speaking to my Farsi tutor on Saturday about some of the recent class discussions and how the different media networks operate (he works for the BBC Persian).

    Something that he stated reminded me of your comment about the media telling the audience what to think.

    He said that people sometimes criticize the BBC for being too slow with news, whereas CNN (the domestic network, not the International one which is beholden to a larger audience) airs breaking news right away.

    He pointed out that the difference between the two is that the BBC will always wait until there are two verifiable sources for any story broadcast, whereas CNN (domestic) will go live on air with a single source.

    That may make some people say 'so what?' but I think it's actually a very important distinction and says a lot about the sensationalist direction many have accused CNN of heading towards in the last few years.

  4. Money, money, money... that's what concerns me, Chemia. And what I've been trying to argue in the post is that there should be limits and checks on EVERY activity. With freedom there come DUTIES, but for some reason the latter have been largely forgotten lately. What is the role of the government, then (and please DO NOTE that it is supposedly democratically elected and representative), if not to protect its own people and their interests?

    Ali, I agree with you COMPLETELY on everything that you said. However, I think you missed out an important point: equal approach to ALL networks. If one is to be critical of the media, he/she should have the same approach to ALL. Yes, Al Jazeera is doing a FAAAAR better job in actual news reporting and analysis than many other networks (particularly some American ones), but one has to admit that they have their own biases and "ulterior motives," just as CNN, MSNBC, Fox, and at times even BBC. You see, I don't watch TV, I mostly read online. VERY RARELY do I read CNN, and NEVER MSNBC or any other network websites for news. BBC, on the other hand, is a daily must. Exactly for the reasons you mentioned. If I can afford the time, I try getting some other LOCAL news websites (depending on which countries dominate the stories of the day): Al Jazeera, Hurriyet, RIA Novosti, Daily Star, RFE/RL... You name it! If you really want to get a good idea of what's going on, reading/watching just ONE news source is NOT enough, just because of the nature of international reporting: it's impossible not to be biased in one or another way, because we're all human, and we're all different (especially when there's conflict involved), and because each network will have to make its programming relevant to its audience.

    And yes, unfortunately, most media are sensationalism-driven (well, I would argue that BBC is not immune to it either, SOMEtimes), just because it SELLS: sensational news -> audience -> advertising => PROFITS. And this is VERY sad and troublesome, especially when we come to think of the role of the media as the fourth estate or as having a "public duty."

  5. When I was back in California last year all my parents had was satelite TV so it was either Al Jazeera and Russia Today or endless hours of talking heads, music videos, and commercials on Afghan TV.

    I don't doubt that AJE has some biases, but I was just annoyed at the way the channel was discussed in the last class session. It became 'the other' (which Al Jazeera Arabic had been serving as for quite awhile) and even apparently, 'Bolivarian' but I could tell by the reactions that perhaps many people had not seen the channel and were all of a sudden left with this image in their minds of what the channel allegedly is.

    Actually, that year spent watching Afghan TV, Russia Today, and Al Jazeera English (I watched the entire '08 election thru AJE) made me realize just how many stories really never get any real coverage on the likes of CNN and MSNBC.

  6. well, no matter how much they claim to be objective, and no matter what a "good job" they do in reporting, they cannot be REALLY objective/representative for 3 reasons:
    1 - as already mentioned, all the societal stereotypes/assumptions will be inherent in the coverage as the reporters mostly come from that society themselves. also, they'll need to make the story relevant to the audience.
    2 - they cannot be "unpatriotic" by offering a completely unorthodox approach, as it will simply NOT be accepted by the public. they can run the risk of losing audience, AND PROFIT.
    3 - they might run into trouble with their owners.

    Nevertheless, just because Al Jazeera or Russia Today are good ALTERNATIVES for those who TRULY value plurality and diversity, does not mean they don't pursue their own agenda. That is why I'd much rather stick to the relative view, and not make absolute conclusions...