Theory and Research in Mass Communication: Contexts and Consequences

By David K. Perry | Go to book overview

9
Mass Communication, Public Opinion,
and Civic Engagement

Obviously, elites of one sort or another rule much of the world. It is difficult to see how this situation could change in the foreseeable future. Nonetheless, elites often have to take into account the desires of both the masses and of publics, groups of interested persons. As V. O. Key (1967) said, even a tyranny “needs the ungrudging support of substantial numbers of its people” (p. 3). As British politician James Bryce (1981) wrote of public opinion processes around the turn of the century: “In some countries, the leaders count for, say, three-fourths of the product, and the mass for one-fourth only. In others these propositions are reversed” (p. 8).

Philosophers and other writers have often disagreed about how much say the masses should have, even in a democracy. Classical democratic political theory viewed humankind as essentially rational and able to choose wisely from a marketplace of ideas. In the United States, press freedom represents an attempt to help ensure such a marketplace. By the early 20th century, however, the Industrial Revolution had created an increasingly differentiated, complex society. Whatever the earlier merit of democratic theory, many writers believed that direct self-governance had become impossible.

At that time, one debate produced some remarkable insights—ideas that still influence media research. Journalist Walter Lippmann (1925) apparently believed in just enough democracy to keep the elites from abusing the masses, whose judgment he questioned. Instead of directly governing themselves, Lippmann largely thought that the masses should only hold leaders and experts accountable after the fact via the voting booth. Philosopher John Dewey reacted sharply to Lippmann's views. “The

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