Random thought: Writing about the elections so far has forced me to think deeper about a few things. One thing it has forced me to think more about is mass media. The label itself ‘mass media’ has many insinuations. Mass media is a vehicle of communication with the masses – the people who are the recipients of this information. Since it has to appeal to a broad range of people media companies have to appeal to the lowest common demoninator. They exploit the human herd instincts and behaviors that have been well-characterized by psychology over the last 60 years. I feel mass media has become very adroit in using this herd instinct to both dominate conversations in the public sphere and goad many into putting faith in some facsimile or simulacrum of reality.
It’s quite logical then that the countries that have reached a high level of industrialization, the mass media of cinema, radio and TV have a key role in political power. Umberto Eco has said the following which I find quote pertinent”
“Not long ago, if you wanted to seize political power in a country, you had merely to control the army and the police. Today it is only in the most backward countries that fascist generals, in carrying out a coup d’etat, still use tanks. If a country has reached a high level of industrialization the whole scene changes. The day after the fall of Khrushchev, the editors of Pravda, Izvestiia, the heads of the radio and television were replaced; the army wasn’t called out. Today a country belongs to the person who controls communications.”
This quote paints a grim tale. Today’s media is dominated by five major companies (Time Warner, VIACOM, Vivendi Universal, Walt Disney and News Corp) which own 95% of all mass media including theme parks, movie studios, television and radio broadcast networks and programing, video news, sports entertainment, telecommunications, wireless phones, video games software, electronic media and music companies. I wonder how much of my news is actually that news or how much of it is the selling of ideologies that have come now to dominate the what’s left of the public sphere. Contemporary research demonstrates an increasing level of concentration of media ownership, with many media industries already highly concentrated and dominated by a very small number of firms
The public sphere in social life is a “place” where individuals can come together to freely discuss and identify societal problems, and through that discussion influence political action. It is “a discursive space in which individuals and groups congregate to discuss matters of mutual interest and, where possible, to reach a common judgment.” Jurgen Habermas the sociologist and philosopher has stipulated that, a variety of factors resulted in the eventual decay of the public sphere, including the growth of a commercial mass media, which turned the critical public into a passive consumer public.
This passivity Habermas mentions above returns us to mass media. Thompson in his book The Media and Modernity pp.26-8, 74 says the term “mass” suggests that the recipients of media products constitute a vast sea of passive, undifferentiated individuals. This is an image associated with some earlier critiques of “mass culture” and mass society which generally assumed that the development of mass communication has had a largely negative impact on modern social life, creating a kind of bland and homogeneous culture which entertains individuals without challenging them.
The issue of challenging people boils down to education for me. Thomas Jefferson is quoted as saying:
“I think by far the most important bill in our whole code is that for the diffusion of knowledge among the people. No other sure foundation can be devised, for the preservation of freedom and happiness…Preach, my dear Sir, a crusade against ignorance; establish & improve the law for educating the common people. Let our countrymen know that the people alone can protect us against these evils [tyranny, oppression, etc.] and that the tax which will be paid for this purpose is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance.”
George Carlin‘s words seem even more prosaic