The Role of the Press in a Democracy: Heterodox Economics and the Propaganda Model

Article excerpt

The central thesis of this paper is that there is need to reinstitute the public purpose requirement for broadcast licensing. On that path, this paper develops an instrumentalist concept of democracy and from there expands to evaluate the ideological function of the press. With a conceptualization of democracy and the press's role established, this paper addresses what is interfering with the news media's ability to inform and educate the citizenry and the consequences of this corruption of media democracy. Recent deregulation and concentration of ownership of media, and controversies concerning the reporting of the war in Iraq have cast doubt on the independence of the press and the vitality and viability of American democracy. In this light, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky's propaganda model (1988) deserves further consideration. It also is important to examine Karl Polanyi's protective response to the media democracy crisis: the citizenry's dramatic attempts to change the trajectory of news away from corporate serfdom to a renewed sense of public purpose. In addition, this paper contends that the retrenchment of the public interest standard makes it necessary to reestablish that standard based on a democracy criterion as a requirement for continued free use of the broadcast spectrum.

Democracy and the Press

At the essence of democracy is the idea that each citizen has a voice, actualized in the right to vote, and when these diverse voices come together a majority rule is formed. But democracy is not just the fact that the majority rules, it is the process of inquiry by which consensus is formed (Ayres 1978; Tool 1979). Voting is simply a tool employed in the technique of self-government and, thus, self-realization. As Clarence Ayres wrote, "Surely the essence of democracy is to be seen hOt in succession of electoral accidents but in the process of public information and discussion and resolution by which the accidents of the ballot box are mitigated" (1962, 229). Ayres would argue further that the true essence of democracy is as John Dewey envisioned it: the continuous process of education and enlightenment (1962). This instrumentalist definition of democracy is essential to understanding the pivotal role of the press in a democracy.

A free and independent press is one of democracy's most important institutions. The press, idealistically, plays a role in the instrumental use of knowledge by enlightening the citizenry, helping citizens to have an educated voice in the democratic process. The more diverse information voters receive, the more accurate social valuations they can make. However, if an issue is distorted or muted in the press due to corporate pressure or government propaganda, as is often the case, the quality of the debate suffers and the democratic process cannot accurately assess society's problems or prescribe solutions.

Failing the Mission

There is general agreement that an independent, pluralistic press is a requirement for an effective democracy. There is also general agreement that a crisis exists in the press's ability to protect and advance democracy (Gans 2003; Baker 2002; Bagdikian 2000; McChesney 1999; Schudson 1995; McManus 1994). Thus, although there exists an unwritten professional creed that the role of journalists is to inform the citizenry in order to advance democracy, the creed is sorely out of touch with reality (Gans 2003). In addition, the suggestion by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky that the media, in a democratic capitalist society, function as a propaganda arm for the government certainly undermines the historical image of journalists as protectors of democracy (1988).

Herman and Chomsky first introduced the propaganda model in 1988 in their co-authored book Manufacturing Consent. The model was put forth as a framework to analyze how the mainstream U.S. media function. This model, for the most part, has been extended to the elite or agenda-setting media like CBS and The New York Times (Chomsky 1997). …