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

From Yochai Benkler - Wealth of Networks
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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