Why Media Reform Should Be a Democratic Priority

By Hackett, Robert | Canadian Dimension, January-February 2008 | Go to article overview

Why Media Reform Should Be a Democratic Priority


Hackett, Robert, Canadian Dimension


On New Year's Day, 2003, few crystal-ball gazers predicted that during that year an estimated three million Americans would contact politicians or sign petitions on--what? The Iraq war? Global warming?

Try again: media concentration. Fed up with drastic cutbacks to local programming following massive consolidation in the radio industry, as well as collusion between corporate media behemoths and the Bush Administration's drive to war against Iraq, Americans across the political spectrum successfully intervened to prevent the pro-industry broadcasting regulator (the Federal Communications Commission, or FCC) from further liberalizing ownership rules. It was a stunning wake-up call for the secretive, elitist and arguably corrupt process of communications policy making in Washington, as grassroots organizations like Free Press (www.freepress.net) mobilized popular protest.

There are strong signs of a parallel process in Canada (see Canadian Dimension, November/December, 2007). Media reform should be a top priority for progressive politics and democratic renewal in Canada. Why so?

Media are the institutional space that concentrates society's symbolic power, a concentration that the Internet has only somewhat ameliorated. Yes, the Internet is an invaluable organizing tool for activism--but it's also a foremost means of neoliberal globalization. Besides, as Steve Anderson discusses elsewhere in this issue, its most democratic aspects are under threat from the logic of enclosure, one backed by powerful corporate and commercial forces.

Why Do Media Matter?

Media both reflect power, but also exert power, in interaction with other social institutions. Media can influence the trajectories of social movements--their emergence, consolidation and success or failure. Writing of the relationship between the mass media and the student-based antiwar New Left of the 1960s, Todd Gitlin (in his classic The Whole World is Watching) argues that mass media generally have forced social movements to choose between adopting "moderate" and specific goals and tactics, or become demonized and marginalized by pursuing more broad-ranging and radical programs: co-optation or marginalization. Even if that dilemma is not as rigid as Gitlin suggests, social movements today have reason to be frustrated with their access to the institutionalized machinery of representation. Given the growing ties between huge media conglomerates, the state and global, neoliberal capitalism, the rise of right-wing hate radio in the u.s.; the decline of the public-service ethos and the spread of hyper-commercialism; and serious cutbacks to journalism--it's arguably more difficult than it was in the 1960s to mobilize public support through sympathetic news coverage.

Beyond the fate of social movements, media can help massage public opinion. That is not to say that audiences are dupes--but we are likely not to contest media frames unless we have counterbalancing personal experience or ready access to oppositional discourses. Media help set political agendas--not by changing attitudes directly, but by providing maps of the world beyond our own direct experience, and thereby changing perceptions. Cumulatively, media cultivate the popular imagination. It is not hard to see the political usefulness of the typical Hollywood "action" film: a struggle between good and evil resolved by redemptive and legitimated violence. Views and interests excluded by the dominant media face a "spiral of silence"; the holders of views that are not reinforced by media repetition become reluctant to express them for fear of social isolation--and, over time, they cease to hold them.

All told, these concepts combine to suggest an ideological role. One need not accept Ed Herman and Noam Chomsky's well known "propaganda model" to recognize that generally, and with exceptions, media generate meaning in the service of power.

A Shared Grievance

None of this is particularly new to progressive activists. …

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