6. Political Freedom Part 1: The Trouble with Mass Media

From Yochai Benkler - Wealth of Networks
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Table Of Contents


Summary of the chapter


The concept of public sphere can be narrowed down to the “set of practices members of a society use to communicate about matters they understand to be of public concern and that potentially require collective action or recognition” (177). This chapter argues that as a way to structure these practices, mass media has weaknesses: it offers no return loop from the edges to the core (feedback is local or one-to-one) and relies on a passive consumer culture. The Internet and the emerging networked information economy provide a better public platform.

Communication in the public sphere is structured not only by technical infrastructures, but also by modes of organization, economic models of production, culture (literacy, social egalitarianism, etc.), and institutions (legal frameworks, subsidies). For example, equivalent technical platforms were available in France, the UK and the US a century ago and later in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. Yet active public spheres did not always emerge (although repressive regimes may have one, if political opinions spread through networks) and when they did they varied in relative elitism (UK) or populism (US). There was also variation in who supported production hubs, whether it be the state (most countries), advertisers (CNN), combinations of both (BBC, CBC), civil society (party presses in Europe) or nonprofits (the Consumer Report in the US). These distinctions are helpful because they remind us that Internet access will not determine the new public sphere; human capital and agency as well as collective choices based on culture and institutions may well matter more.

Design Characteristics of A Communications Platform For a Liberal Public Platform or a Liberal Public Sphere

There are several basic characteristics of the public sphere necessary, in a wide range of democracies, to communicate private opinion and convert it into public, political opinion and later into formal state action:

  • Universal intake. This does not mean that every voice is heard and every concern debated and answered, but rather that in principle anyone's situation can be considered when someone believes it requires public attention.
  • Filtering for potential political relevance. This is necessary so that the public can focus on important issues.
  • Filtering for accreditation. This ensures that the information communicated is credible.
  • Synthesis of public opinion. What counts as public opinion varies between and among deliberative conceptions and pluralist conceptions of democracy, but some combination of clusters of individual opinion is essential.
  • Independence from governmental control. Though the government can participate in explicit conversations and the administration receives instructions from their output, neither controls the platform itself.

The first and last requirements are the most controversial, for they raise the issue of so-called authoritarian public spheres. Benkler begins this section with Harbermas' descriptive definition of a public sphere and asserts that it can be liberal or authoritarian. The difference is that people in the idealized Athenian agora or New England town halls express, listen to and evaluate proposals, facts, concerns and opinions with complete freedom, while in authoritarian regimes “communications are regimented and controlled by the government in order to achieve acquiescence and to mobilize support” (181). In both cases at least some private opinions are communicated and converted into state action.

Yet when Benkler sets out to define the above criteria (182), he only has "a wide range of conceptions of democracy" in mind, not authoritarian regimes where the public sphere may be partially independent and theoretically universal. It thus seems to make little sense to speak of authoritarian public spheres; in fact, regimes that allow a political, public opinion to form and to influence or “convert into” state action are usually considered democratic. But the extent to which they do so is difficult to assess, since sophisticated executives in any regime both listen to public opinion and retain their own agenda (See Case Studies below).

The Emergence of the Commercial Mass-Media Platform for the Public Sphere

In seventeenth-century Britain, the dissolution of the Stationers' Monopoly was met by libel prosecutions, high stamp taxes, bribery and the type of government acquisition and censorship typical in pre-revolutionary France. Overall the press was compliant and distributed to elite audiences. In contrast, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America saw the rise of media competition and weekly circulation as a result of low regulation, high literacy, and prosperity. Local, small-circulation newspapers, however, came under pressure from economies of scale produced by technological innovations (mechanical presses, telegraphs, railways, etc.) and barriers to entry arose: “James Gordon Bennett founded The Herald in 1835 with an investment... equal to a little more than $10,400 in 2005 dollars”; by 1840 the necessary investment was $106,000–$212,000 and by 1850, $2.38 million in 2005 terms (188).

The invention of radio was the only potential inflection point before the Internet. Many countries did adopt a BBC-inspired hybrid model (Canada, Australia, Israel, India) insulated from market and government pressures. But in the US, a combination of technology, business practices and regulatory decisions replicated and expanded the commercial mass-media model, which would also be a template for television. Herbert Hoover did seek some form of nationalization of radio in the name of public interest, but from 1922 on his policies would “systematically benefit large commercial broadcasters” (e.g. the RCA-GE-AT&T-Westinghouse alliance) over small, educational or religious broadcasters and “point-to-point, small-scale wireless telephony and telegraphy” developed by amateurs.

Throughout the twentieth century, mass media was the dominant model of communications in democracies and authoritarian regimes alike. It played a more important role in structuring the public sphere than civic involvement in associations, which led Robert Putnam to identify television as the primary cause of the decline of American civic life.

Basic Critiques of Mass Media

Independence from political parties, government and the upper-class as well as professionalism and near-universal visibility have allowed concentrated mass media to express, accredit and filter important issues in the public sphere. That these three functions are combined in the hands of the same few operators, however, has led to three primary critiques.

Mass Media as a Platform for the Public Sphere

First, intake is too limited. Few-to-many communication means information loss because there are too few entry points. Concentrated media is also likely to be less representative than distributed media, because reporters are embedded in elite social segments.

This argument about representativeness, however, is not entirely convincing. Media that sells to the masses seems like it would benefit from representing the public as it is, so that viewers can identify with the stories. Also, we can only determine if "distributed media" is more representative when we know something about its distribution - and evidence from 1996-1998 suggests that the Internet reinforces current patterns of political participation, making distributed Internet media (for now) less representative (Norris 1999).

Media Concentration: The Power of Ownership and Money

Second, media owners have too much power - to exercise or sell – over public perceptions and public debate. The reason is the lack of competition (concentration in the anti-trust sense) and the majority “mindshare” that a few media firms hold in politically relevant units (concentration in terms of channels to and from an audience). Eli Noam measured this concentration from 1984 to 2001-2002 and found that local media concentration increased except for local television. Yet in 2003 the Sinclair Broadcast Group owned and operated 62 local stations [59 today], deserving roughly ¼ of American households. (Sinclair was accused of misinformation and involved in controversies for its 8-station ban of an ABC Nightline tribute to 721 soldiers killed in Iraq in 2003 and before it ordered its stations to air a documentary criticizing John Kerry's anti-Vietnam War activism, during prime time just two weeks before the 2004 elections)

Commercialism, Journalism, and Political Inertness

Third, advertisement-supported media uses lowest-common-denominator programming. In addition to business interests, it favors majority tastes, titillating or soothing topics, spectacle and entertainment in order to attract large audiences. Celebrities and local crime take precedence over distant famines, while challenging and politically important questions, controversial views, and disturbing images are served to “political junkies” in niche markets (208). Debate is communicated as a performance, that is as “an already presynthesized portrayal of an argument among avatars of relatively large segments of opinion as perceived by the journalists and stagers of the debate” (209). Talk radio and call-in shows are “the pornography and violence of political discourse” (209).

Benkler illustrates this common-denominator problem using Jack Beebe's refinement of “program diversity” analysis, introduced by Peter Steiner in 1952. A graph based on a hypothetical channel distribution (Table 6.1) illustrates what Beebe established. According to his model, “media monopolists would show nothing but common-denominator programs” (207) - i.e. when there is only one channel (smallest circle on the graph), all viewers are watching the same sitcom. Competition “begin[s] to serve the smaller preference clusters only if a large enough number of channels” is available – here, more than 250 channels. (The present graph uses a hypothetical total of 3 million viewers to highlight the fact that many are not tuning in during the considered programming slot and that the total number of people expected to watch a category of channels does not decrease as the number of channels increases.)

But since a very large number of channels IS available in the US today, one might ask why high-end programming does not emerge and whether it would on the Internet. Another point which Benkler has difficulty to explain is the "powerful counter-example" of Fox News, which he writes is “likely represents a composite of the Berlusconi effect, the high market segmentation made possible by high-capacity cable systems, the very large market segment of Republicans, and the relatively polarized tone of American political culture since the early 1990s” (208).


Sources cited in the chapter

  • Jurgen Habermas, Between Facts and Norms, Contributions to Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996).
  • Peter O. Steiner, “Program Patterns and Preferences, and the Workability of Competition in Radio Broadcasting, ”The Quarterly Journal of Economics 66(1952): 194.
  • Jack H.Beebe, “Institutional Structure and Program Choices in Television Markets,”The Quarterly Journal of Economics 91(1977): 15.
  • “Names of U.S. Dead Read on Nightline,” AssociatedPress Report, May1, 2004, http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/4864247/.

Other relevant readings

  • Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky. Manufacturing consent: the political economy of the mass media (New York: Pantheon Books, 2002).
  • Mark Achbar and Peter Wintonick. Manufacturing consent: Noam Chomsky and the media [film]. New York: Zeitgeist Video, 2002. Clip available here.
  • Pippa Norris. "Who Surfs?" in Democracy.com: Governance in a Networked world, eds Joseph Nye and Elaine Kamarck (Hollis: Hollis Publishing, 1999). Revised draft available here.

Case Studies

Supporting examples

  • This chapter briefly mentions Rupert Murdoch (203), a media tycoon whose name is difficult to avoid when discussing the power of concentrated media. The major shareholder, Chairman and Managing Director of one of the world's largest media conglomerates, News Corporation, is regularly accused of favoring his business interests through partisan media coverage. He is also thought to have suppressed the publication of Hong Kong's last British governor's memoir to curry favour with China, to have caused the resignation of a British MP opposed to the war in Iraq (by revealing his homosexual affair), and so on. More at Outfoxed.org.


  • Although Singapore's media environment is highly regulated and subject to censorship, the Internet has been used for political and policy debate - even on official websites. The public sphere is not independent from government control, and political bloggers are expected to register with the authorities, but some private opinions influence state action. Benkler might call this a semi-authoritarian public sphere, yet it is unclear whether such a government-controlled platform is a public sphere at all.

Key Concepts