Sunday, October 10, 2004

Fourth Rate Estate

A review of Robert O. Paxton's Anatomy of Fascism in the TLS of September 10, 2004, ended with a gloomy assessment of modern democratic politics:

It might well be argued that fascist regimes are nowadays unnecessary, since the modern parliamentary system does much the same job itself. Perfectly normal governments now intervene throughout society, seeking Gleichschaltung and control of all social institutions and of the private sphere; they engage in constant short-term campaigns for populist goals; they recognize but ignore, indeed tacitly welcome, the democratic deficit; and they seek control of the media in the spirit of Goebbels and Minculpop. They even wage a series of wars against weak opponents, claiming of course to be bringing liberation. With "democratic" governments like these, who needs Fascism?

Though the media come in near the end of this account of the subversion of politics, it seems reasonable to argue that they belong at the beginning. Through the media politicians are able to penetrate society and the private sphere; with the media short-term campaigns arise as needed and drop from sight when they become inconvenient; and in the media intentionaly ineffective handwringing about "democratic deficits" has become a refined art for politicians who prefer the status quo in which most incumbents face no effective opposition to reelection.

Can the press still justify its claim to be the voice of the public sphere capable of challenging institutional politics and vested interests, or is it little better than, as one history called it, a "fourth-rate estate"? And if such capablilities cannot be found in the conventional "press", then where? Do the new media of blogs offer any hope, or spearheaded by reinvented conventional hacks like Andrew Sullivan, do they only offer old wine in new bottles, to quote John Perry Barlow?


Blogger Judd said...

I fully agree that the media seems to have lost whatever obligation to political independence or objective reporting that it once had. But I think that more than anything it has become a crutch for what amounts to laziness and satisficing on the part of the public.

I also think the current incarnations of the media are a symptom of the changing way that the dominant demographic views news and information. It’s kind of a ‘chicken or the egg’ argument: our educational system no longer teaches young people to think critically, and the media does not provide critical (or multiple) points of view. (I don’t mean to bring educational reform to the center of the discussion.) I think the media long ago abandonded being an institution with an oath to provide a specific kind of service in favor of pandering to the most popular or profitable point of view available.

So you might say that the media has done well at adapting itself in order to stay successful in a very different world. If people demanded more of their media, or specifically sought out a diverse variety of information, the media might be forced to take a different form.

The interesting thing is how, or if, the internet may be supporting a shift back towards diversity of information and opinion. In our research this summer we found that people said they valued the internet as a ‘wide’ and ‘deep’ source of information. Many said they in the course of their daily lives they hear about a news story, say a bombing in Iraq, through traditional media like radio, TV, or a newspaper, but then they choose the internet to get the details because they know that it is as convenient to access one source, say CNN, as it is to access alternate points of view like the BBC or al-Jazeera.

9:27 AM  
Blogger Paul Duguid said...

If you do go to the BBC site this morning, you will find that access to independent news outlets has been strikingly restricted by a curious collaboration of Italian and Swiss governments, the FBI, and the UK courts.

10:28 AM  
Blogger Joseph Lorenzo Hall said...

(from here) Gleichschaltung is an example from the early days of the Nazi dictatorship of this use of language to manipulate and confuse.

11:50 AM  
Blogger Joseph Lorenzo Hall said...

One thing that blogs tend to do is resonate. That is, if something is particularly interesting, good, silly or whatever, it will propagate throughout the blogosphere along certain paths... a darwinian evolution of ideas, maybe. So that things that have the right qualities for propagation will be seen by many eyes... this downplays "control" outside of a direct manipulation of the qualities that make a particular story succeed... so minor poets, if good, will be heard.

I'd love to study what blogs people watch, how they watch them (via newsreader or regularly visiting the blog's page) and which ones have "better" content than others. I have a feeling there is a combination of personal bias (I like reading the stuff that person x regularly discusses) and a true getting-at of the the quality of information; some venues will be frequented more often sheerly because they serve a high degree of quality information.

12:02 PM  
Blogger Scott Carter said...

"I think the media long ago abandoned being an institution with an oath to provide a specific kind of service in favor of pandering to the most popular or profitable point of view available."

I have heard this argument before, and the issue I have with it is the use of the term "media" to make such a sweeping statement. I just don't think one can responsibly make such grandiose generalizations about "the media." Publishing decisions are made by individuals who confront and debate the above issue (the chicken-and-the-egg problem) daily -- generally they have not simply sold-out wholesale. Show the car chase or Iraq update and get out of the red or cover congressional hearings and risk insolvency. From my experience (I come from a family of journalists), most news organizations have ongoing internal debates about the balance of the news.

My larger point is, Judd, as an anthropologist, I think you should base such accusations upon extensive, observed decision-making processes in news organizations. If you are basing your statement on an ethnography, or other such study, please cite it.

12:55 PM  

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