One of the key arguments put forth by Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman in their seminal thesis “Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media” (1988) and Chomsky’s classic “Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies,” (1989) was that media as for- profit entities will aid and advance the interests of the elites of a society who control these institutions.
The myth of free & open media in democracies
Media today continues to censor opinions that challenge the status quo especially if it contests the ideology of the elite who control our media. It’s probably one of the reasons you will rarely see someone like Chomsky on mainstream American media given that he doesn’t agree with the picture of the world as painted by the elites.
This is also possibly one of the reasons that the extent of corruption in Wall Street has not got as much air-time as it should have. The documentary ‘Inside Job’ presents a comprehensive analysis of the global financial crisis of 2008 and the root causes of the crisis related to entrenched interests.
Why hasn’t this type of enquiry been part of a mainstream media discourse? Why aren’t we questioning the basic premise of the ideology that led to the crisis?
If you do question the ethics of mindless capitalism, one has to deal with all kinds’ name-calling tactics from being a “Socialist” (which is apparently ugly in American lexicon) to questioning the “American” dream. It’s significant to note that name calling is one of the key tactics used in propaganda. Jon Stewart’s funny but valid criticism shows the extent of this crisis in financial reporting.
Having grown up in the world’s largest democracy – India, I have also constantly seen mainstream news that has limited the breadth of our debate perhaps as set by elite interests. Global & national media tend to often use buzzwords such as “Emerging Superpower”, “India Shining” to describe my country while being animated about our average 8 % GDP growth rates over the last decade. Most of our media real estate is dedicated to the above language even though we still have the highest level of poverty in the world with an estimated 37.2% of Indians living below poverty line. It’s almost like our media is disconnected with the challenges of most of India and caters to a small elite.
When historians document our times with these examples in a few centuries, would the type of rhetoric illustrated above look like propaganda based on a certain ideology?
As a practitioner in the developmental sector, I don’t have the answers to tough ideological questions that can range from capitalism or socialism to vernacular or global. But I would like to have a public space to discuss these issues without being branded as an extremist or radical.
I believe our media in the world’s most vibrant democracies doesn’t offer a space for such objective discourse on public interest issues. Democracies & “free market” mechanisms have “censored” objectionable philosophies that jeopardize some of their agenda. As Clay Shirky Argues “the alignment of advertising-based business models and difficult journalism is an accident” and is not likely to continue when it threatens deep rooted power structures.
The promise of the internet & new media
Internet & new media tools have shown to have a disruptive potential to challenge the above predicament but I recognize that we tend to be a bit idealistic about this idea. We are likely to see new techniques and tactics to shape public opinions in the digital age by the same elites. Below are some open ended points that can threaten the promise of the internet:
- Online media organizations mirror their traditional counterparts in terms of ownership structures & business models and can therefore have similar outcomes
- In her recent book “Consent of the Networked”, Rebecca MacKinnon argues that “Convergence of unchecked government actions and unaccountable company practices threatens the future of democracy and human rights around the world”. Some of the practices as seen in the owners of these digital kingdoms already showcase how we are vulnerable and governed by the rules and possibly ideology championed by these groups. They can tweak their ‘algorithm’ to manipulate what netizens see online. That’s a scary thought given that their primary accountability in the long run is going to be to their shareholders & Wall Street.
- Yet another threat is what Eli Pariser calls The Filter Bubble where he argues that the way internet ecosystem is evolving is deterring greater diversity in perspectives. He argues that the trend could “reinforce partisan and narrow mind-sets” which is unhealthy for a well-functioning democracy.