THEORETICAL APPROACHES TO THE MASS MEDIA
Few would argue with the notion that the institutions of the mass media are important to contemporary politics. In the transition to liberal democratic politics in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe the media was a key battleground. Last week in the overthrow of Milosevic state
television an important focus for the 'revolution', and the showing this weekend of footage of atrocities in Kosovo indicates the shift in the agenda there.
In the West elections increasingly focus around television, with the emphasis on spin and marketing. Democratic politics places emphasis on the mass media as a site for democratic demand and the formation of 'public opinion'. The media are seen to empower citizens, and subject government to restraint and redress.
Yet the media are not just neutral observers but are political actors themselves.
There are specific theories regarding media effects. Another notion that we will come back to is the public sphere. Today I’ll look at four broad approaches to the mass media and to culture that underlie perspectives. In some senses some of these views may now be museum pieces, but they do recur in different forms in contemporary debates on the media. In brief they are:
Thereafter, in the last substantially theoretical lecture, I’ll look at debates about the global media and its effects.
1. Mass Society and the Critique of Mass Culture
Writers in this tradition see the new media as a threat either to democratic institutions as they were (anarchy, mob rule etc) or to elite cultural values. Essentially a conservative, pessimistic view of mass education, democratisation and modernisation, suggesting the decline of deference and of elite values. Less common now, at a time when most writers and politicians pay at least lip service to mass democracy and when few would seek to defend a particular elite culture.
See Matthew Arnold's fear of anarchy, in Culture and Anarchy (1867) - written about the time of the major extension of the franchise. Arnold wrote of culture as 'the best that has been thought and said in the world' (1960 edition, p 6).
John Carey, in the first part of The Intellectuals and the Masses, Pride and Prejudice among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880-1939, 1992, quotes another European intellectual, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900): ‘The rabble vomit their bile and call it a newspaper’.
In response to the implications of the 1871 Education Act, and the rise of a new reading public came Lord Northcliffe’s Daily Mail (1896), a newspaper designed for this new market. Intellectuals feared the emergence of the human interest story and the pandering to what were often seen as women’s concerns. Soon after came the first tabloid, The Daily Mirror (1903) explicitly targeting women.
The classic intellectual account of the advent of mass culture in the early twentieth century was by the Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset. His best known book is, in translation, The Revolt of the Masses (1930). Mass education, with a mass culture in its wake, was seen as reducing the autonomy of the ‘best people’, while mass man was either brutal or prejudiced and unthinking.
A literary tradition. F.R. Leavis, as well as attacking newspapers, saw the twentieth century as marked by increasing cultural decline and tried to defend a 'canon' of (mostly English) literary culture. Carey quotes him as referring to ‘films, newspapers, publicity in all forms, commercially-catered fiction – all offer satisfaction at the lowest level’. See also T.S.Eliot, Notes towards the Definition of Culture, 1948.
For an important reflection of this attitude see the early ethos of the BBC under Lord Reith – an ethos stressing the dissemination of elite culture to the masses. (A paternal model), This was a strong tradition in British radio and television. Note even how work such as Kenneth Clark's 'Civilisation' television series (1969) came to be seen as elitist and ethnocentric. Debates of this nature in America were rarer, but note the multicultural criticism of what is assumed to be a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant canon, e.g. Harold Bloom).
Related American post-war debates (in a country with a strong democratic ethos) that accompanied the economic growth, mass consumption and suburbanisation of the fifties. B. Rosenberg and David Manning White, eds., Mass Culture: the popular arts in America, 1957. E.g. Rosenberg: 'At worst, mass culture threatens not merely to cretinize our taste, but to brutalize our senses while paving the way to totalitarianism.' In Britain the term 'admass' was coined by the writer J.B. Priestley to describe an economic and cultural system saturated by materialism (the drive to consume material goods). The world of the advertising copy writer's ad was, he felt (in the mid 1950s) obsessively promoted by the mass media..
Note also Dwight Macdonald (on the left) in the last named book: 'But Mass Culture breaks down the wall, integrating the masses into a debased form of High Culture and thus becoming an instrument of political domination.' (Note Macdonald's notion of Mid-cult, a term describing cultural forms which echo or mirror high (or demanding) forms, but which use pat formulas and and are esentially shallow. Note criticism in Britain of popularisations of literary classics, e.g. the Heritage Cinema of Merchant-Ivory's E.M. Foster adaptations ? (A Room with a View, Howards End etc), or the film of The English Patient?). See Christopher Brookeman, American Culture and Society since the 1930s, 1984, ch. 5.
vi) Two influential British writers on culture and the media and its political implications are Richard Hoggart (e.g. The Uses of Literacy, 1957 to The Way we Live Now, 1995) and Raymond Williams. Both were critical of the Arnold/Leavis tradition, but both owed something to this pessimistic view of the development of mass culture.
Note Richard Hoggart's idea of folk art and the traditional, 'organic' working class community. He feared the erosion of this indigenous 'folk' culture by American 'mass' culture, debasing standards and making people vulnerable to commercial manipulation. Folk culture is seen as a kind of bulwalk against such manipulation.
Criticism: the mass culture/mass society approach is now less common, but elements of it can still turn up, particular in newspapers and journals which provide platforms to a range of conservative views. Some of these views are connected with nationalism and anti-Americanism, e.g. notions of ‘dumbing down’, including in America itself. Note criticism of the BBC and television generally.
Note that 'mass culture'/Americanisation can be seen in certain circumstances as liberating, (and broading cultural expression) rather than oppressing, (and narrowing it). Arguably the mass culture approach sees uniformities rather than diversities in the contemporary mass media/culture.
2. The Media and Democracy.
Contrasting with this is a liberal tradition which sees the mass media as essential to the development of democracy. The mass media is seen, in this view, as helping to secure rights of citizenship by disseminating information and a pluralism of views.
By this process 'public opinion' forms and influences government. The media are seen as essential to the operation of a public sphere of open debate. The press constituted a public sphere in which an open political debate could take place.The notion of press freedom developed as a principle during the wave of democracy of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
John Keane has identified three concepts underpinning the call for press freedom. (See his book The Media and Democracy, 1991):
c) Attaining truth. An argument that falsehoods must be countered, censorship opposed. All notions must be challenged or they will turn into dogma. (John Stuart Mill, On Liberty).
Societies such as the United States, with a constitutional commitment to the First Amendment (the right to free speech) have always placed importance on the autonomy of the mass media. The media facilitate - in this view - a marketplace of ideas. Note the idea of the fourth estate, and of a public watchdog, checking government. (We can discuss later how far the reality falls short of the ideal).
Note the expectation that the mass media should facilitate pluralist debate and the free formation of public opinion in what Jurgan Habermas calls the ‘public sphere’. For a summary see James Curran, ‘Mass Media and Democracy Revisited’, in Curran and M. Gurevitch, eds. Mass Media and Society, 1996, 2000. Note Curran’s assessment of:
a) the media as public watchdog. See the tradition of thought which associates this media independence from the state with the free market. Curran quotes Rupert Murdoch as saying in 1989 that ‘public service broadcasters (in Britain) have played a price for their state-sponsored privileges. The price has been their freedom.’ Curran criticises the notion that the free market preserves the watchdog role, referring to market concentration and the danger of private power.
b) the consumer representation role, with the media operating in the marketplace assumed to thereby reflect popular concerns. Curran again suggests contrary views, including the stronger influence of advertising on the media – over that of sovereign consumers.
c) the informational role. Or is the free trade in ideas and news distorted by market mechanisms into entertainment, spectacle, human interest stories, stereotypes etc.
See the principles of public service broadcasting – a tradition contributing (Scannell) to the ‘democratic entitlement’ of citizens. (These principles include mixed scheduling and partisan neurality). Note the tradition of public regulation of broadcasting, in contrast to the relative lack of regulation of the press.
There is much critical writing of the utopian notion of the media, emphasising notions of forms of media ownership and media practices that set particular agendas. What are the effects of concentration of ownership and the impact of advertising, rather than a free market of consumers, in determining the diversity of the media market.
A man of the left, Raymond Williams (Culture and Society, 1961; Communication, 1962) wanted (unlike Leavis) a democratic culture. He rejected authoritarian, but also paternal (eg Reithian) and commercial models of communication. He proposed instead that the media of mass communications be taken out of the control of commercial and paternal institutions, such as those underwritten by capital and the state, and be democratised and decentralised. This notion of a democratic forum would allow a public forum for previously excluded experiences and perspectives.
See also John Keane, The Media and Democracy, 1991, and his ‘Democracy and the Media – Without Foundations’, Political Studies, 1992. John B.Thompson, The Media and Modernity, 1995, discusses the rise of the press, and its public significance.
3. Marxist/Neo-Marxist Approaches
A strong critical tradition of the independence of the mass media in capitalist liberal democracies.
Classical Marxism proposed an opposition between superstructure and economic base. Superstructure covered culture, but also the state, law, religion and the family.
Base meant the economic substructure, the mode of production and the dominant economic class. Mass media would be assumed to follow the ideological interests of the dominant class in society at that stage in Marx's notion of historical development.
A Marxist tradition sees the media as integrated into the existing economic and political elites and therefore reflecting their interests. The liberal approach sees the media as facilitating social agreement through the dissemination of information and contrary opinion. The classical Marxist view sees one class as manipulating the media's content.
The source in Marx for this approach is primarily The German Ideology (1845-6). There Marx contrasted his approach to that of Hegel by stressing his material analysis of change. 'The ideas of the ruling class are, in every age, the ruling ideas: i.e. the class which is the dominant material force in society is at the same time its dominant intellectual force.' (See T.B. Bottomore and Maximilien Rubel, ed., Karl Marx, Selected Writings in Sociology and Social Philosophy, 1961, pp 90-93.) (Note that despite this Marx admired widely published social critics of his day, including Dickens)
a) One obvious point of research coming out of this tradition studies the political economy of the media. See Peter Golding and Graham Murdock. They see even public service broadcasters operating in the context iof capitalism (competing for audiences etc). They stress concentrations of ownership, conglomeration and media imperialism. They point, for example to Rupert Murdoch's News International, with its variety of multi-media interests world wide.
Noam Chomsky, writing with Edward Herman, might be seen as working with a model that is close to vulgar Marxism, (media seen as close to instrument of class domination, because of the interests of conglomerates, reflected in the commercial press and broadcasting outfits that they control), although he rarely uses Marxist terminology. See their 'propaganda model', in Manufacturing Consent, 1988, and in the video, Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media. Herman/Chomsky: 'the conglomerate media are not a source of popular control over government but merely one means by which dominant economic forces exercise informal influence over the state'. Their model of the American (global?) media is based on four points:
i) concentration of ownership
ii) advertising as the prime source of media income
iii) journalists' reliance on 'legitimate' (often official) sources
iv) dominance of anti-communism as national religion/world view.
c) Another thinker in the Marxist tradition whose work, once translated in 1971, has been influential on media research, is Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) (1971).
Antonio Gramsci's 'Prison Writings', when translated and published in 1971, had a strong influence on media research. He argued that a social group or class exercised dominance in part by force, but more importantly by consent, by obtaining the consent of the majority. The media thus had a central role in developing public compliance. Political and cultural institutions had a 'relative autonomy' from the economic base.
Gramsci wrote for socialist newspapers and stressed the significance of ideology and culture, particularly in a backward peasant society. He promoted the factory council movement in Turin, and helped found, and then led, the Italian Communist Party (PCI) in the early twenties. Arrrested and imprisoned in 1926, he wrote his Prison Notebooks in jail. To him the state's power rested on force but also consent, and intellectuals played a role in sustaining the web of values and institutions which he called hegemony.
The notion of hegemony combined these notions of force and consent, and rested on a particular set of beliefs and ideas that had broad appeal. Central ideologies are seen as becoming most powerful when they are accepted as common sense, i.e. when they are not seen as ideologies at all. According to Gramsci, we can judge ideology to be effective if it is able to connect with the 'common sense' of the people. The ruling class struggled to retain its hegemony over the proletariat. It formally allowed contestation of ideas, which in fact, through linguistic codes etc, the ruling classes' interests were perpetuated. This approach stressed the media's content.
(One influential work that was influenced by the availability of Gramsci's writings was Steven Lukes, Power, 1974. Note his third dimensional view of power.)
Dominant views are of course open to contestation, and to those who wish to promote a counter-hegemony. In Gramsci's day it was the communist movement that provided the counter-hegemonic alternative.
Arguably the media is an important site of this battle to establish central and dominant ideas and ways of looking at the world. Must any counter-hegemonic project (socialism, radical democracy, feminism, environmentalism) establish a successful media strategy.
4. The Frankfurt School
Frankfurt School (Critical theory) writers integrated something of the mass culture view discussed earlier into the Marxist view, arguing the the modern mass media impeded the proletariat's ability yo create socialist political consciousness.
They stressed the interaction between base and superstructure.
However, and this is central to what Adorno and others were saying, art and commodified culture had degenerated into a mere reproduction of and support for the economic base, and existing power relationships. (So if the culture industry took over, the Frankfurt School view was not very different from the vulgar Marxist perspective).
To Marx economic change led ultimately to revolution and emancipation; to Adorno it created mass deception and domination.
The Frankfurt School analysis was ostensibly a radical critique of mass culture, demonstrating the crucial significance of the media in forming social consciousness and defining the limits of change under late capitalism.
(The Institute for Social Research was established in Frankfurt in 1923, and was exiled to New York when Hitler rose to power in 1933; most writers associated with the 'Frankfurt School' returned Germany in 1949. Herbert Marcuse remained in America, and his book, One Dimensional Man, 1964, represents a critique of American 'totalitarianism', based on the notion that American society and culture denied people any real alternative to existing thought and action. It was a key book of the sixties New Left. The figure from this tradition who is still alive is Jurgen Habermas; his book relating to the media is The Structural transformation of the public sphere.
Many of these intellectuals were Jewish, and the emergence of barbarism in one of the centres of European culture was a formative experience. They were leftists who were disappointed that revolution had not spread to Europe, and at the Stalinist direction of Marxism in the USSR. Rationality and enlightenment, they argued, were leading to control and domination, not human emancipation.
Culture was a critical force as long as it provided a 'utopian' alternative to existing society. 'However, with the advent of mass culture in modern times, art threatened to degenerate into a mere reproduction of the economic base'. To Adorno technical rationality had become 'the rationality of domination'. Adorno argued that increases in production had the opposite effect to that anticipated by Marx. Rather than contributing to revolution, the expansion of technology culminated in barbarism, mass deception and repression.
Mass culture was seen as the seedbed of political totalitarianism.
Adorno saw a monopoly control over the production and distribution of culture - wholesale standardisation, and a decline in a critical function for art. He saw formulas, types, cliches and (in cinema) the creation of 'stars' as evidence of this. Culture was purged of spontaneity, novelty and intrinsic worth, and had no real purpose beyond that of achieving maximum profitability'.
Adorno condemned conservative and elitist critics such as T.S. Eliot, Ortega Y. Gasset and Aldous Huxley for fetishizing culture as a sphere autonomous from material production. Adorno rejected the notion that mass culture was produced by the masses - to him it was imposed on the people rather than deriving from them. Whereas conservative critics were concerned that mass culture represented a threat to the cultural and social authority of elites, the Frankfurt School theorists felt that the new 'culture industry' produced the opposite effect: ie it maintained the authority of elites. One group feared anarchy, the other conformity, and a depoliticised working class.
Keith Tester has an interesting chapter, chaper 2, in his book, Media, Culture and Morality (1994). This ‘culture industry’ view was and is associated with the work of the German sociologist and cultural critic Theodor Adorno. His best known book is the Dialectic of the Enlightenment (1947), with Horkheimer. They were partly interested, as Tester explains, in how something as barbaric as Nazism could emerge in one of the centres of European culture. They were also reacting to the culture shock of their own transplanting to Hollywood, and to a very different view of culture. There critique of culture was related to the institutions and arrangements of Western, capitalism.
To Adorno and Horkheimer the media have transformed the possibility of enlightenment to the possibility of barbarism. Reproduction has changed the political role of films, posters or records. Instead of having autonomy they distract their audience, earning profits by doing so. The oppsitional qualities are undermined. Mass production reduces distinctiveness and critical edge. They see an interconnected ‘culture industry’, uniform and monolithic. Reactions are ‘manufactured. Even the great painters are often viewed in terms of the prices they fetch.
Adorno writes on jazz, and sees this form, perhaps surprisingly, as an example of the standardised nature of modern culture – mass produced by the culture industry. The rebelliousness is seen as a stylistic trick. Culture industry deceives us rather than enlightening us.
Tester looks at the way these ideas help illuminate the political role of popular culture. He uses the example of The Clash – and more generally punk music - in the 1970s – initially anarchic, politically forceful, and finally made impotent, incorporated into the marketing plans of the record company. About making money rather than reflecting real social concerns from the bottom up.
'According to Adorno, mass art was merely a commodity to be sold, its technique designed solely to manipulate consumers through pre-digested formulas and calculated effects rather than any concern for artistic form or truth content.' Culture is commodified. (The same critique could be directed at tabloid newspapers or 'junk' TV). But from the perspective of the day Adorno's analysis of Hollywood is over sweeping (Citizen Kane and a host of other films could be cited as having artistic worth and as encouraging critical thought; his analysis of jazz is also highly questionable. (Adorno concentrated on the commercial big bands - eg Paul Whiteman - and belittled the original, black contribution to jazz, denying its autonomy). This arguably blinded him to the rebellious elements in jazz (eg., for example, Billie Holliday and 'Strange Fruit'). Diane Waldman's critique of Adorno's theory of film (New German Critique, 1977) notes that Adorno's belief that film was inherently conservative rested on a belief that the essential nature of film was to duplicate and reinforce reality. Yet styles and aesthetics vary enormously.
Compare the thought of Walter Benjamin (1892-1940). He was more likely, as Tester explains, to see good coming out of the ability of the culture industry to reproduce – books, paintings, posters, reproductions, cinema. See his article: ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’. Does such a reproduced object lose its ‘aura’, or does the process, as Benjamin suggests, make possible a widening access to culture, a democratisation of it. See Eisenstein and the Russian Revolution. Lenin: For us cinema is the most important of the arts. Note also the alliance with the avant guarde in the Civil War period and the twenties.
Herbert Marcuse, One Dimensional Man, 1964, felt that the apparent logic of the capitalist system, including the output of the 'entertainment and information' industries, bound consumers to the system. The products indoctrinate and manipulate, promoting a false conciousness.
** See J. Thompson, Ideology and Modern Culture, and his critique of the culture industry:
a) Too limited a view of the diversity and simplicity of forms of mass communication. Democratic impact. Also see public broadcasting. Too monolithic a view, despite the globalising tendencies post communism.
b) No means clear that the reception and consumption of the products of the culture industry have the consequences that Horkheimer & Adorno suggest. By consuming the product, it is not clear that individuals are impelled to adhere to the social order. Note that there is resistance (see film and mass culture industries). (See, for example, Ken Loach, Noam Chomsky etc.,)
Keith Tester, Media, Culture and Morality, 1994, ch. 2 sees Adorno as provoking thought, defamiliarising our experience of the mass media and its products. He sees Adorno as not despising the people; rather he despises the system, and critics who act as marketing people rather than critics.
To Adorno the ‘customer is not king … not its subject but its object’. The mass media are a contradiction in terms. The masses get not what they want but what it is decided to give them. Tester sees Adorno’s work as still relevant in its questioning of our relationship with the media, and everyday life.
5. Recent work.
Concerned with dominant discourses that excluded alternative explanations, and with the media as a site, so to speak, of contested ground. In Gramsci's terms, ideological domination is never complete, there is always a struggle over the media agenda as a means of influencing public thinking. In the continuous struggle for hegemony the media are crucial. He also moved the study of ideology away from the Marxist emphasis on class to questions of race, gender and ethnicity.
See 'The discovery of ideology', in M. Gurevitch et al, Culture Society and the Media (1982). Hall and others contested the 'limited effects' school of thinking on media effects. He has stressed the role of the media in reproducing ideology.
Hall tended to see the New Right in Britain as gaining ideological hegemony in the eighties, mainly through dominance and control of the agenda by the tabloid press. Note this is a cultural explanation for the success of 'Thatcherism' as a coherent popular discourse, as opposed to rational choice explanations of Thatcherism's success, which emphasise the way individuals saw her policies (eg Privitisation, selling council houses etc) as benefitting them. Jessop et al, 'Authoritarian populism, two nations and Thatcherism', New Left Review, 1984, argued that Hall overestimated the cultural/ideological effect in 1980s British politics.
See Hall's writings in a magazine, Marxism Today, 1987-91.
Note Hall has more subtle in his understanding of the reception of media messages, and allowed on the possibility of oppositional or resistant 'readings'. See Stuart Hall, 'Encoding and Decoding the TV Message', in S. Hall et al, Culture, Media Language (1980). Here the emphasis was put on audience reception, and on texts open to more than one reading. What message is encoded by journalists, filmmakers, and what is decoded by audiences. What is highlighted is that meaning does not lie in the text, the message, alone. One cannot assume effects from an analysis of the text alone. People are not blank sheets, they bring their identities to their reading of a newspaper, or film. Note three readings/types of reception:
i) dominant/hegemonic reading
iii) oppositional, challenging the hegemonic frame.
Recent work is less sweeping and deterministic, more empirically based. See notions of 'agenda setting', the early chapters on J. Eldridge, Getting the Message: News, Truth and Power, 1993, and later case studies in that book, eg ch. 12, on the degree of dependence of the media on elite and more popular sources during Vietnam). Note the common assumption that government has particular ability to dominate the media agenda during wartime.
For a study of the importance of news reporting in relation to the politics of Northern Ireland which also has something to say on debates about ‘media effects’, see David Miller, Don't Mention the War, 1994. Miller is one of a number of writers who suggest strong media effects, albeit in particular issue areas.
b) Those with an emphasis on political economy. What is the relationship between state, media and corporate power. How much concentration of ownership ? For a survey of this see the chapter by Golding and Murdock, in James Curran and Michael Gurevitch, Mass Media and Society, 1996. See also B. Bagdikian, The Media Monopoly.
For critiques of Chomsky/Herman see Milan Rai, Chomsky's Politics, 1995, ch 1; P. Schlesinger, 'From production to propaganda', Media, Culture and Society, 1989 (Reviews Herman/Chomsky and others). But note arguments that press and broadcasters reflect more than the concerns of governments and elites. Schlesinger questions, for instance, the sole reliance on 'official sources'. Note also Chomsky's assumptions about production, content and particularly the reception of the mass media. Note Chomsky's deterministic model, as indicated by the subtitle of another of his books, Necessary Illusions - Thought Control in Democratic Societies. See Goodwin.
Chomsky rejects the view that the media enable the public to control the political process by providing a pluralism of ideas, information and opinion. (See Liberal Democratic theory above). To Chomsky the media police the limits of debate in ways that protect the dominant conglomerate and state interests in society. Note that there are some critics of the Chomsky position who are given a voice in the video mentioned above. Does Chomsky really demonstrate cohesive elite action, rather than assert it? Does he underestimate the autonomy of journalists, and their ability to resist pressures from owners such as Murdoch. (See for example Sunday Times editor Andrew Neil on his relations with Murdoch in his autobiography, Full Disclosure, 1996. (From BN.)
Note multiculturalism and criticism of Eurocentric approaches. See, in terms of issues of global media effects, Shohat & R. Stam, Unthinking Eurocentralism. They draw on Gramsci in their view of embedded Western assumptions about the primacy of Western knowledge - the Plato to Nato project. They see Eurocentralism working at the most basic level of subconscious, instinctive beliefs.
Related to this, much recent work on the media is informed by feminism, if by that is meant the body of ideas formulated since the 1950s, and especially in the seventies, questioning unconsciously or consciously male centred perspectives. See Dominic Strinati, An Introduction to theories of Popular Culture, L. Van Zoonen, 'Gender, Representation and the Media', in J. Downing, ed., Questioning the Media, 1995. Also Van Zonnen, Feminist Media Studies.
BN. October 2000