The functions of mass media

December 30, 2008

When considering the form that democratic media could take, it is important to consider whether mass media – with its inherent potential for non-democratic effects – has any useful functions that are not anti-democratic. This question is akin to the question of whether government has any functions that are not oppressive. In an analogy to the anarchist position which claims that any governmental activity is necessarily oppressive, one could claim that the only functions of mass media are anti-democratic, i.e., those of allowing a privileged minority influence over the rest of the population. That position would claim that all mass media should be abolished (in the same way that the anarchists want to abolish government altogether) and people should rely exclusively on non-mass (or intimate) forms of media. In this view, the best that a democratic control structure over mass media could produce would be neutralizing those anti-democratic functions, leaving the entire organization useless.

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Steven Levitt has risen to stardom by riding on the overblown rhetoric resting on the overblown claims of Freakonomics. It is, unfortunately, in the nature of popular books that they oversimplify and over-claim. Academic literature is supposed to be different: rigorous, cautious and, of course, peer-reviewed for accuracy.

Of course, if all those attributes really applied, a career like that of Levitt would have been impossible, since the econometric methodology he employs is far too weak to be able to produce with any credibility the kind of results Levitt is aiming at. It is clear, therefore, that within the community within which Levitt works, some standards of critical thought have been suspended. However, even when credulity is being stretched and poorly supported statements are taken as proven, one may still hope for the superficial ground rules to apply. Specifically, for example, one hopes that when previous research is cited and summarized the findings of the research are fairly represented.

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The term “censorship” describes the act of suppressing certain ideas by those who control some distribution channels. Despite regular attempts by interested parties to limit the term to describe very restricted or extreme cases of suppression of ideas, the term is usually, and very reasonably, understood to cover any attempt at reducing the circulation of an idea, by any person or organization. The negative view, which most of the population, as well as official ideology, take of censorship therefore encompasses any such activity. According to this view, the desirable media system is democratic – i.e., one which allows all people an equal opportunity at presenting their ideas and having them considered by others.

The implicit universal rejection of censorship notwithstanding, much of the communication patterns that dominate Western society are inherently censoring activities. The members of the elite group that influences (to varying degrees) the content of wide circulation media – publishers, broadcasters, advertisers, editors and reporters – routinely make decisions that amount to suppressing some communications, containing certain ideas, in favor of other communications, containing different ideas. Those decisions, although usually purporting to reflect only objective accepted standards, are in reality almost completely subjective. They therefore reflect the ideas and biases of the very select and atypical group of people who make them.

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