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Media and Democracy

So I want to put the discussion of capitalism and media on hold for a second, because I think I should confront a more pertinent aspect of this issue:  is the penetration of the media, on balance, good or bad for American democracy?

That’s a really tough question, and I’m really tired, so I probably won’t do it justice.  After all, a real answer to that question has to begin by defining it:  What exactly is meant by “media” and what is meant by “good”?  Moreover, how can something actually be “good” or “bad” for democracy, excepting the possibility of a law that restricted the proliferation of democratic principles?  Is it possible that any organic institution, whether it’s a robust media industry or a robust financial services industry, isn’t necessarily good or bad for our society?

Possible, yes.  I don’t really buy that; after all, there’s good arguments to be made on why some lobbies are bad for democracy, or why inequities in the education system could be bad for democracy, etc etc.  The common thread is this:  those institutions, public or private, that directly influence the public conscience, and thus the public’s disposition towards certain political positions or ideologies, can impact democracy in a positive or negative way.  I think this proposition, while not self-evident, is fairly empirical, via American policy towards guns and Israel, the perpetuation of socioeconomic disparities and unequal representation along racial lines, etc.  Bottom line is, these institutions matter.

That being said, it’s difficult to say whether the American media has been basically good or basically bad for democracy.  Theoretically, a media that does is active in reporting the news in an efficient, detailed manner is manifestly good for democracy; the tools, such as social media and digital content, that allow the media to achieve a deeper societal penetration would only enhance the positive impacts of the media as a whole.  But does that happen in America, generally speaking?

After some consideration, I’d say yes, tentatively (I actually wrote a paragraph trying to justify the opposite and changed my mind).  This is, of course, not to suggest that the media has no negative effects on democracy; one has only to look to Fox’s “coverage” of the Tea Party movement in order to see how the media can be exploited for political ends.  But I’d argue that democracy needs people who contribute to a robust public discourse, which, surprisingly enough, Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh actually do.  I want to be very clear about my argument here:  Manifestly, in principle, there is no reason why radical commentators like those noted above should have negative effects.  Even if they do have some negative effects, it is certainly preferable, from a democratic standpoint, to the converse:  having nobody express political opinions in public fora would stagnate the public discourse and disrupt the free exchange of ideas that is necessary in a democratic society.  Generally speaking, though, people with unpopular opinions are strong catalysts for democratic progress; they compel other citizens to reexamine their own views and move them to justify propositions that they previously believed to be self-evident.  Practically speaking, some people are stupid (harsh word, but it’s true) and will believe anything they hear without examining that; this is more a product of a poor educational system than an inherent flaw in the structure of the media.

I think it is an open question, though, and a difficult one.  The Founding Fathers could not have foreseen the media atmosphere as it stands in America today.  Philosophically, we have to evaluate how the principle of free speech is altered by mass distribution, if at all.  Is there a greater responsibility to temper political speech when that speech is viewed by millions on Twitter?  To what extent can commentators “interpret” facts, if millions will view their interpretations and accept them as true?  I would argue that free speech protections ought not change when speech is mass distributed, provided that commentators do not affirmatively lie.  But it is a tricky question, one requiring sound philosophical examination that I do not endeavor to provide right now.  It is, though, an extremely important question for us to settle, one that has tremendously significant implications for our society.

 

-Evan Goldstein ’12

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