This is my lengthiest blog yet, and might be the longest I'll ever post, but it might be the most informative and interesting blog I've posted so far, so if you're a regular reader or just stopping by, please bear with me. In this blog, I'll briefly describe the six models of media we have and argue which of those models should
serve as our media model. Then I'll evaluate mainstream media (MSM), or "big media," while comparing it with new media (NM). Finally, I'll look at what the future may hold for NM and whether it can fulfill the media model that I believe we should have.
Professor Jan Leighley, a media scholar, explains in her book, Mass Media and Politics: A Social Science Perspective
, that there are five kinds of media models journalists and the media can operate under. Here's a short run-down of them (for further elucidation, see her book, pages 9-13):
1. Reporters of Objective Fact
- This model says that reporters are only supposed to report the cold hard facts, and nothing else. Most members of the media would say that this is the model they subscribe to as professional journalists. However, biases can unconsciously creep into anyone's work; furthermore, reporters can't report all
the facts, so choosing which facts to focus on is an important consideration that can have political consequences.
2. Neutral Adversary-
According to this approach, the media should serve as a government watchdog and an outside, informal check on government. Many investigative reporters may claim to be following this model by trying to find out 'what the government is really
' or by "holding politicians accountable
3. Public Advocate-
This model assumes that the job of the media is to go beyond reporting the cold-hard facts and serving as a government watchdog to actively taking the side of the people against the government (or against other economic powers). 'Advocacy Journalism,' as it is sometimes termed, can be seen as the heir of the 'Muckrakers,' the Progressive Era journalists like Jacob R
iis, Upton Sinclair
, and Lincoln Steffens
who exposed the corrupt practices that occurred in cities, businesses, and society.
4. Profit Seeker-
I don't think I was alone when I thought this Sunday's New York Times first section looked more like a shopping catalog than a newspaper. On most Sundays, and especially during the Holiday season, the actual news articles are buried under avalanches of ads so much so that the news-stand guy may as well ask you 'would you like some news stories with those ads?' The Times' website
, by comparison, isn't quite as smothered in ads, but it's still chock-full of them.
But I shouldn't pick on the Times alone. Big Media today, be it widely circulated newspapers, network news, and highly-rated cable news programs, operate under the profit seeker model, which holds that the job of news is no different than any other segment of the media- to garner the most profits as possible. This has had serious consequences for the media, which I'll elaborate on later.
Leighley's final model holds that the media's role is to be the mouthpiece of government, or to be 'the keyboard on which the government can type.' In this model, the media is allowed to manipulate the public- if that's what the government wants it to do. While we don't have a propagandist media in the 'classical' sense, such as the Nazi or Soviet media machine (or even the repressive Chinese media today), critics have said that much of our media is
a mere mouthpiece for the government in that they merely transcribe what government says without really questioning it. This was a serious criticism leveled by Eric Boehlert in his book Lapdogs
. Boehlert pointed out that in the run-up to the Iraq war, the media barely questioned the rationale behind going to war- that Iraq possessed WMD and was an imminent threat to the United States.
Even though our media doesn't operate in the propagandist model, there are elements that do, such as the 'stenographer journalist' who only types down the spin of what Washington officials give out and distribute it to the public. Political advertising is suffused with propaganda, as I've discussed
. If you want to be on the lookout for propaganda, here are some characteristics of it, according to Nicholas Jackson O'Shaughnessy in his book Politics and Propaganda: Weapons of Mass Seduction
: propaganda appeals to the power of emotion over rationale; it conjures up utopian visions and repressed prejudices, and uses symbols, myths, and rhetoric that are "cognitive short-cuts" to convey its manipulative messages.
But on a lighter note, if we did have actual totalitarian-style propaganda, here's what it might look like:
6. The Tocquevillian Model-
This is a media model coined by Professor Stephen Pimpare of Yeshiva University, a media and politics expert, that views the media as being responsible for adequately informing the public so that we have all the information we can possibly need, and in as convenient of a way as possible, in order to make the rational, well-thought out decisions (such as votes) that we have to make as a polity in order to be a flourishing democracy.
It's based on what Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in his essay On the Relations between Public Associations and Newspapers
"Nothing but a newspaper can drop the same thought into a thousand minds at the
same moment. A newspaper is an adviser that does not require to be sought,
but that comes of its own accord and talks to you briefly every
day of the common weal, without distracting you from your private affairs...To suppose that they only serve to protect freedom would be to diminish their importance: they maintain civilization."
Yes, that's strong, but Tocqueville, as well as Pimpare, believes that newspapers- or today, the media, when functioning properly- actually uphold our democracy. And quite frankly, I agree. I believe that the media is such a powerful tool that for it to be used any other way than as a public service for which to properly inform the public is an egregious offense that can have disastrous consequences. The media operating in the propagandist model, or in the profit seeker model (as it currently does), has particularly horrible consequences.
But even functioning in the neutral adversary or public advocate models is not enough; if reporters are too caught up in trying to uncover secret government plots, they may neglect to cover the more transparent issues. If the goal of journalists is to inform the public as well as possible, then the positive aspects of the watchdog and advocacy models can be subsumed under the Tocquevillian model, since they also fall under the category of informing the public (and in those cases, informing the public of political corruption and making sure the government is also informed about the opinions of the people). The way to gauge how the media is performing is to examine whether it's upholding the republic by observing if it's keeping us as informed as possible.
(A big part of this model is that the media needs to serve as a "linkage institution" that not only informs the people of the workings of government but that also informs the government of the wishes of the people. This can be accomplished through well-done, truly random, representative, scientific polling, except that most of the polling that's done doesn't really measure public opinion, it is merely a reflection of attitudes conveyed by the media elite that are adopted by the audience. So most public opinion polls only measure the extent to which there's unity or dissent among elites in the media.)
So, looking at the media from a Tocquevillian framework, has MSM, or "big media," done a good job in maintaining the republic by keeping us as informed as possible? Well, the short answer is NO. Why the answer is no will require a bit more explanation.
The crux of the problem in terms of why MSM hasn't fulfilled the Tocquevillian model of media is because, unfortunately, it doesn't operate according to the Tocquevillian model; it operates according to the profit-seeker model. There has always been commercialization in journalism to a certain extent, but it has taken on a new level in recent times due to a contemporary drive towards media consolidation that has resulted in virtually every media outlet (except internet sites- at least not yet, but I'll get to that later) falling under the control of six giant conglomerates whose soul purpose is to maximize profits for themselves and their share-holders.
Robert McChesney discusses the "hyper-commercialism" of the media and the corporatization of journalism in his book The Problem of the Media: U.S. Communication Politics in the 21st Century. He says that media consolidation and its resulting commercialization of news was not inevitable but was result of government policies of deregulation. It is something that can be reversed, as evidenced from the public uprising of 2003 against further FCC deregulation.
The 1976 movie Network, is a great portrayal of how the news business is obsessed with ratings and the lengths it'll go to achieve them: