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Mass Communication: Political Culture and Democracy
Observations and Experiences in a Comparative Perspective

Thomas Meyer

Mass Media shape the Political Culture

In all times it has been obvious that communication is one of the crucial constituents of political life. Some, like the famous German-American Political Scientist Karl W. Deutsche, have even said that politics is nothing but communication. And it is also obvious that incumbents of all different political systems have been well aware of that most of the time. The open question however always has been, what specific function has communication had to fulfill. And in that connection: In what direction was it running- top-down only, in the society itself at the grassroots, bottom-up or more or less symmetrically both ways? Needless to say, these are the very issues even today when it comes to the discussion of the the of mass media in a democracy and for the furtherance of its political culture.

It is self-evident that democracy, usually defined as government by consent, is crucially dependent on a sufficient degree of two-way communication and horizontal communication at the grassroots, otherwise their cannot be consensus building and responsiveness. So, democracy, even in its most modest and reductionism concepts- such as the economic theory of elite competition, requires a free public sphere with a free mass media and certain effective channels for two-way communication, bottom-up and top-down and, what is even more important, open and active deliberations of all issues of public concern. Without this there cannot be democracy worth its name.

In the present era of mass media communication, the old questions are still the key to understanding the contribution of communication to the performance of the political system and its political culture. Mass media, such as newspapers, radio and television do have the potential of including practically everybody into the political public sphere and the process of political deliberation, will formation and decision making. But, whether they succeed in materializing this historically new potential or not depends on a variety of conditions which by no means are fulfilled automatically once modern mass media come into existence. Print media, Radio and television can cause depoliticization of the rank and file or contribute to its enlightenment and appropriate information, they can serve the sheer interests of political power or that of the population and the public good. Information alone can be quite a mixed blessing.

Therefore, a large and crucial portion of the responsibility for both the construction and nutrition of a democratic political culture and even for the long-term performance of governance rests with the media system and its actors. And this is all the more so in the modern media-society as it is here that the media is mainly and sometimes almost the only constituent that can give meaning and structure to the society's public sphere. Whatever the fruitful contribution of other factors for a of public deliberation, such as civil society, may be in the overall public sphere of modern societies, the responsibility of addressing the supreme decision making bodies and the entire society invariably rests within the reach of the mass media. In this sense, they beat the ultimate responsibility for a quality of public discourse that is democratically adequate.

In present day media democracies, the mass media are a crucial part of their respective political culture contributing substantially to shape the rest of it. For the media to be capable of rising to this challenge, two hard and a whole bunch of soil conditions have to materialize. The most obvious of the hard conditions which normally goes undisputed is of course the legal guarantee for a free media and free flow of information to exist. An effective legal framework, which gives sufficient protection to the media system and its actors is one of the necessary conditions for a democratic public sphere. Such a legal protection is, as we all know, still far from being even in the post-totalitarian world of today. And, in some countries where the lake appearance of an independent media is stage-managed it is often dangerous to be a responsible journalist.

Hard Conditions for Democratic Communication

As I understand, in this country, a headway has been made in the right transformation of 1990. With this, one of the necessary (hard) conditions for democratic communication is being met. But institutional freedom of communication is not yet a sufficient condition for it's appropriate democratic performance. Even formally free media can create a particular type of a representative public sphere which is not much more than a stage on which personal power parades its glory.

The second hard condition to be met lies with the decision-making power over the means of mass communication which normally but not in all cases is connected with the ownership of the different mass media units. This connection, however, is neither direct nor unequivocal. Widespread misunderstanding dominates the discussion.

There are roughly four models of decision-making power connected with the two principal forms of ownership.

a. Public ownership combined with public control over the relevant decisions concerning the performance of the respective media unit. (Not the government, but civil society organization exercise effective control over media units).

b. Public ownership combined with government control.

c. Private ownership with decision making at the owners' discretion.

d. Private ownership with decision making in a legal framework or a strong cultural tradition concerning professional rights for journalists, quality standards and the like.

Obviously, some combination of models A and D is required to meet the second hard condition for a public discourse of democratic quality. Many countries today represent one or another type of blend between the different models. In India e.g. there is free press and up till now a government controlled TV. In Germany, you find both public-ally and privately controlled TV and Radio plus private print-media under certain public restrictions for private control. I do not want to discuss the various models in theory and practice here. My own preference however is clear: public control for the bulk of TV and Radio units plus a strong legal and cultural framework to protect the professional freedom of journalists in private print media and broadcast units.

Soft conditions for democratic communication

But even when such a useful model is effective, still certain crucial soft conditions have to be fulfilled for a media system to meet the challenges of democratic communication and democratic culture. As they are often neglected in public discussion I would like to focus my considerations on these additional conditions. They are intrinsically related to the basic structures and functional laws of mass media performance as such and not to the forms of ownership and control alone.

Let me just mention some of the most, crucial ones:

1. Mass media are intrinsically asymmetrical. The access to their functions is very unequal. Some social and political actors do have direct access, others have at least indirect, sometimes even powerful, access and some social actors have no access whatever.

2. Mass media do have the power to set, to build and to shape the political agenda of a polity. Whether political issues at stake in the real political arena and the daily life of society are represented or not in the picture of political life as construed by the media is highly dependent on the media actors who in this respect function as very effective gatekeepers.

3. The agenda structuring function also lies with the media actors as it is up to their discretion whether certain issues rank high or low, are dealt with extensively or in a volatile manner only.

4. But what in the long run may be even more relevant in its effects for building political culture is the way in which the media shape the portrait of the processes and the logic of politics in the political area which is enshrined in the reports they give and in the news they construe.

To cut a complex matter short, I would like to point out some of the most widespread mistakes that are usually made concerning these soft conditions, some of which are most detrimental for an appropriate democratic culture of communication.

Before going into some detail I have however to locate the function of' the mass media system as such in the framework of the entire society. What is the functional role the media system has to perform for the society? Whereas it is the social function of the political system to produce legitimately binding decisions for the whole society, it is the function of the media system to draw the attention of the largest possible part of the society for common issues and by way of that to contribute to the self-perception and integration of a given society.

In order to perform this particular function the media system, of course, cannot follow the same rules of selection, processing and presenting the relevant information as e.g. the educational system or the scientific system. The underlying basic law of the media system is to deal with information in such ways as to maximize attention, however under certain restrictive conditions such as correctness of information, respecting personal, public and private rights and abiding by basic ethical, moral and political standards.

Within the very wide framework constituted by these factors and criteria, media units and media actors are free to construe their picture of political life which under no conditions every can be just the one and only truthful copy of reality. It is invariably a particular construction of reality competing with many other such constructions. Such adequate media constructions are necessarily built through a process of intensive selection and artful presentation. Professionally, in journalism above all, it means competence in the handling of the twin sets of rules of selection and presentation in an appropriate manner. To say it before everything else:

A journalist who desires to audio-educate people just to enlighten, without catching their attention in curiosity, would almost automatically obstruct his very intention to the same degree to which he would abstain from implementing the rules of selection and presentation which are meant to attract attention and which characterize journalistic professionalism.

But in their turn it is also these very same rules which will hamper his efforts for enlightenment if used excessively and without severe controls regarding issues and contexts. Media work means: to attract, to amuse, to entertain and to inform, to explain and may be even to enlighten. Media work is an effort to create accountable forms of synthesis between all these factors.

The immanent tensions between the rules and criteria of successful media presentation of political life entail that the media are amongst the most crucial factors, if they are not the single most and crucial factor which either can contribute positively to the building of a political culture or impede it from emerging and growing.

Traps and Fallacies

What if both the hard conditions for free media are met with some dangerous traps for inappropriate performance of media actors along the lines of the soft conditions which is looming large? In some of the most advanced media democracies of the world of today these traps have successfully caught large parts of media performance and, by way of that, impaired their political Culture.

Let me mention just the most frequent ones.

I. There is above all the fallacy of over-personalization, particularly with respect to political celebrities and incumbents. The fallacy is committed when politics is depicted mainly as an activity of some most prominent political actors. Whatever these actors do is reported as politics.

This fallacy suggests itself. Because, at the same time it pleases the mighty and the most prominent figures of the society and caters to the need of large parts of the audience to indulge in a simple, entertaining and fascinating spectacle. In quite a superficial manner, it seems to serve the interests of both sides of the respective media: its consumers because they get a well digestible meal and the mighty which eventually can exercise control over the media and its personnel. However, even in a most autocratic system, politics is always much more than what some of its star actors perform. The dominance of this fallacy in a media system leads to the creation of the representative (feudalistic, pre-democratic) type of public sphere- fascinating power parades.

2. There is also another fallacy closely connected with the first one, the fallacy of just transporting stage-managed symbolical politics to the audience without making clear what it is by its very nature. Politics invariably has two internally linked dimensions: the instrumental function of problem resolution through policies: for instance, a new school in a village. And, also, it always has the symbolical function of expressing certain meanings and giving sense to an action in a wider socio-political context; for instance, the prime minister coming to that village in order to inaugurate that newly-built school at a public function. However in the world of today, particularly under the influence of mass media (TV), we observe an increasing propensity of political leaders to disconnect the symbolical dimension from the instrumental dimension in most artfully state-managed ways, in many cases, smartly scripted with a well advised view to the media an their rules of functioning. In our case, the prime minister going to that village, richly garlanded, entering a most inappropriate old school and playing, actor-like, the role of a politician highly interested in the progress of the educational systems without delivering anything real.

At least 80 per cent of the media reported activities of Ronald Reagan nave been performed along these lines. In many cases, the placebo character of such symbolical actions is not at all obvious. It is the obligation of quality media not only to mirror the surface of such on-stage activities but also to make transparent their context and background so that its clients get the full and the real information.

To the degree in which this fallacy is committed and the stage of the media politics proper will be replaced by a misleading spectacle, which is highly disconnected from the realties of the country. (In Germany, an interesting and promising discussion about these concerns has just begun in the quality media)

3. There is the fallacy of following the agenda of the incumbents instead of that of the society. Media actors of necessity are gatekeepers. It is only for them to take the decisions about their own agenda: what will be in their paper or broadcast and what not. Which issues, persons, problems, ideas, interests, organizations and groups matter and deserve broad attention, urgency or prominence and which don't. Even in very free and professional media systems, there is always a strong propensity of the media to focus on the incumbent, their performance, and the issues they forward, the problems they take serious, and the groups and interest they refer to.

The more modern political communication is shaped and materialized through mass media, the more it becomes true that reality is only what they show it to be. What is not in the media is no! real. To a high degree, therefore, the agenda setting power of' the medic, is' a political decision making power because it defines what can become a matter of political concern and what not. Subsequently, it is one of the most crucial challenges for the media in a democratic society to build its agenda- the line of interest, problems ideas, hopes amid experiences of the people and the civil society even when they are not delivered and presented in an artful manner on glorious public stages so that the media can swallow and digest them comfortably. The media, which follow the agenda of the power structure, will mainly serve as an echo of the interests and intentions of the powerful.

4. There is the fallacy of depicting politics in an apolitical manner. In a rather exaggerated but interesting way, this fallacy has been analyzed and castigated by the US media ecologist Neil Postman. According to him, under the predominance of TV-adapted political information strategies, we are about to amuse ourselves to death. That means the life and the processes of politics in the mass media of today, more often than not, is depicted along the lines of drama, amusement, personality clashes, personal charisma, etc. to such a degree that it creates an absolutely distorted picture of what is really going on in politics and leads large portions of the public astray.

Politics in its very substance is a time consuming process in which a broad variety of actors pursue interests and value-based policies using particular resources, refer to public ideals for legitimization, acting in a given institutional and cultural framework. It is invariably not an instant matter but a long term process, with goal attainment or failure through conflict, compromise or consensus and more often that not a mixture of all of them.

These factors and their particular patterns of interaction must become visible and discernable in the media's picture of the political world if it wants to meet its democratic responsibilities.

It is the objective of professionalism in journalistic work, at first, to select, to condense, recompose and, secondly, to arrange, stage and give attractive presentational form to political events and topics, but done in such ways that the structure of the what is at stake and where the proper gates and levers for intervention are located. This is no easy art, because the twin traps of either depoliticizing by misusing extensively media forms of presentation of by alienating the audience through instruction methods are always lurking nearby.


The temptation of going the easy ways of either pseudo political entertainment or pseudo communicative political instruction is increased and sometimes overwhelming when one or more or the following three conditions prevail in the contest of journalistic work:

1. lack of professional training and, consequently, of appropriate journalistic skills,

2. Pressure from above or outside,

3. Extreme shortage of time to be thoroughgoing.

This is why all those responsible for journalistic work, the individual journalists, the journalists' federations, those in charge of the education and training programs for young journalists and those who exercise power over their working conditions and the ways they are made use of have to contribute to favorable conditions for the mass media to perform in such ways as to help democratic political culture to grow.

Because of their wide reach, mass media can contribute immensely to public information and political culture. In a society where literacy rate is still low, it is nonetheless not only radio and TV which provide the rank and file with information and models of understanding and meaning but the print media as well. We know very well from empirical research carried out by the IIMC, each single person in a village that can read a newspaper will spread the news and the schemes of interpretation in a multi-step flow to the rest of the population -- provided that the print media are such that at least one of the villagers would he able and like to read it

Media which obey the rules that can lead to the optimization oft their reach and at the same time carefully mediate politics in an adequate manner and avoid the key fallacies will contribute most substantially to the political culture of democracy both by educating the incumbents and by enlightening the rank and file.

Media which are trapped by the usual fallacies of depoliticizing politics by the way they depict it and build their agenda thus will probably abandon their responsibility blaming everything on the deterioration of' the political culture of their polity.

The hard conditions for democratic media communication are necessary but only when the soft factors are also catered for. Thus all 'the sufficient conditions for an appropriate democratic communication are fulfilled. Only then mass media will contribute to the building and development of a democratic political culture that deserves its name.

And, this is why the responsibility of the actors of the media system is so extremely great.



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