Democracies and Media Systems: Action versus Distraction
by Concha Mateos
The history of the media is saturated with communicational kidnappings. –Edgar Borges1
This essay discusses profound tensions created by corporate media systems within modern democracies and how these relations may differ among Europe, Latin America and the United States. We will see that media systems are a central part of the democratic, or undemocratic, character of any society.
Democracy may be defined most simply as rule by the people; from the Greek, demos or the people; cracy orpower
– power by the people. A society is democratic when each individual within it has an equal capacity to influence the decisions that govern collective life. Power is in everyone’s hands.
The media system of a society and its characteristics (i.e., the numbers and types of media players, ownership structures and audiences, content distribution, and so on) produces the public discourse, a discourse that circulates among people, a discourse that is consumed by the public. Public opinion is constructed through the consumption of a media-produced discourse. And based on public opinion constructed in this way, women and men make political
decisions governing collective life.
These decisions are political and are about power, whether the person who makes them knows it or not. Throughout the day, we all make a number of political decisions: we pay rent for an apartment; we buy (or do not buy) products from factories that exploit children; we ask another customer to not smoke in a café; we enroll in a Spanish course; and so on. These are examples of the demos making decisions and governing society. These are actions that are regulated politically, that become possible, or not, due to the adoption of particular policies. And they are actions that spring from the opinions that we hold about these and myriads of other things.
Therefore, the manufacture of public opinion has always been an objective of those who rule, those in power. If one dominates the creation of public opinion, one dominates the bases upon which decisions are made by citizens in a democratic society.
Of course, the conduct of others can be dominated or determined byforce. But the history of humanity represents a continuous demonstration that domination by force and physical repression generates more complicated problems for ruling powers than does domination through a more symbolic violence – the shaping of minds by the organized management of public opinion.
And where does the domination of the public opinion occur? It occurs, above all, in media communication processes. Manuel Castell (2008) points out indisputably that power relations are increasingly established within communication processes, and these are made according to the possibilities allowed by the media system in each society. Thus the media system becomes a central part of the democratic, or undemocratic, character of a society. And for that reason, we want to address it.
Castell reminds us that the same tool used for power is and can be a tool used to counter power, though of course, not without costs: “Torturing bodies is less effective than shaping minds. If most people are against the values and norms institutionalized and established by the state, through laws and regulations, ultimately the system will change, but not necessarily to fulfill the hopes of the agents of social change. But change will come. It will just take a while and will be at the expense of suffering, much suffering.”
So yes, the domain of communication is power. And it can generate counter-power. But this power creates strong tensions: few have it; others want it. Yet, in a democracy, everyone should be able to exercise power, and for this it is necessary to establish some ground rules to ensure that “the demos is governing.”
If there are places where that power is not distributed equally, things shall be transformed – and probably painfully so. The media space in this first decade of the twenty-first century is a contested terrain. Some struggle to distribute power more equally and others work to keep power more concentrated among the few. Some feel that their rights are at stake and others feel that their businesses are at stake.
It is unlikely that those with power will give it up without resistance: “[The process of] social change, [as] we know it, is always violent. Nobody will give up peacefully what he or she already has and considers his or her property. No injustice disappears by itself; it involves fighting. Like it or not, violence defines all of these processes. Peace is not the human reality.”2
Citizens in Darkness, Democracy in the Dustbin: The Business of Confusing People, And of Creating Immunity by Noise
If information about what you are deciding contains confusion, your decision will not be able to serve and defend your interests nor respond to your desires with guarantees. The more confusion, the more your decisions become alien, and less yours. That is, the more confusion, the less you.
Forcing people to decide with high levels of confusion is tantamount to denying any future possibility of complaint: If they choose or make a decision (even if they do so in the dark), they will be made fully responsible for the outcome. But, by having chosen in the dark, in fact what has happened is that the outcome has been left to chance, even if it is a chance disguised as free choice. To what extent can we call that decision, or election, made without knowing, a real
The more confusion, the more invisible will be those responsible for the outcome. This idea is summarized in Castilian popular culture in the saying “In troubled waters, fishermen gain.” Yes, troubled waters do not let the hooks be seen. Therefore, the propaganda of domination through the public opinion has always invested much effort and resources in spreading the idea that choice is good, that being able to choose is important, that choice is what makes the difference between oppression and freedom. As if choosing in the dark was some kind of freedom. As if ignorance could lead to a
destination other than dependence, madness, or slavery without conscience and without resistance.
And what about those responsible for the confusion? Do they exist? Can we see them? Do we know them?
The system of domination through the public opinion also seeks to maintain the idea that the confusion is simply confusion, and that it is not created by anyone. The confusion is a natural part of the system says the propaganda of domination.
But the confusion is not a natural part of the system; the confusion is allowed, permitted, and even generated and encouraged. This has been one of the great uses, and misuses, that media power in the service of domination has given to the legal tool called ‘free speech,’ it has been used as a key to open the road to the ‘freedom of noise.’
The upper classes have always sought to live in areas far from noise, protected from noise, and when they have not been able to avoid the noise, they have forbidden it, i.e. they have transformed it into a crime.3 This is about physical noise. But what has happened to the ‘informative noise’ created by the manufacture of confusion? The ruling elite have not opposed it with the same firmness as they have physical noise. Why? Because not to pursue it creates a useful confusion– it makes social, economic, military and political responsibilities, among others, invisible.
Noise works. Noise confuses. And further, confusion reduces complaints. It is particularly effective when the confused people never realize that they are confused.
When people ignore their own confusion is difficult for them to know the person responsible for it, given that, by not seeing the confusion, it becomes unthinkable that someone is responsible for it. The logic makes it non-existent. And those who do not exist, cannot be judged. The trick is called “immunity by noise.”
Democratic Conditions of the Media System
For those who advocate a democratic society, it is unacceptable to maintain a non-democratic media system. The democratic condition of a society requires a dynamic of opinion formation that is also democratic. Opinion guides the individual and collective decisions and also makes those decisions seem acceptable. Public opinion requires collective deliberation with the participation of all viewpoints existing in society. This, according to Miguel de Bustos, is pluralism (de Bustos, 2004).
How does such pluralism help to construct public opinion, and to decentralize power, in democratic societies?
Marcial Murciano synthesized concisely the features of media systems that define a democratic state:4
1. Right to freely express, comment and publish
2. Political pluralism
If we also consider the sector of telecommunications, Murciano adds other values that are economic in nature: economic growth, employment, competition and innovation.
When asked about the political elements that are necessary for the democratization of communications, Armand Mattelart replied in a more generic way:
“Ithink that the only way to democratize is to restructure and rethink public service, an idea of public service applied to the public and private arenas. The second thing is that I believe that now is a historical moment in which we cannot ignore the so-called receptors.”5
It is, therefore, necessary that we add to these five requirements, consideration of public service and the participation of its service recipients (receptors). We can take this map of features as a reference to test the democratic quality of a media system. Who has been in charge of governing our media systems by these principles?
A Right or a Commodity?
We might think that access to information should be open to all in society, should be seen as a right. Yet, increasingly processes of communication have been left in the hands of the privatized market making them commodities controlled by corporations. In Europe it was less so at first, while in the US, privatization has become the rule. As pointed out by Juan Carlos Miguel de Bustos: whatever they want to call it, “one of the fundamental characteristics of contemporary capitalism is the increasing commodification of all human fields, including information and communication, as it has
already been [observed] by McChesney and Mosco.”6
The media system regulated by the market is based on the fact that there are companies that use communication to produce economic benefits for their owners. How? Selling and buying groups of people. Which people? Those who perform a particular activity. What activity? Paying attention to something. The larger the group, the higher price the
advertiser must pay to buy the attention of this group of people who are potential customers of their products. These dynamics create social perversions in several ways.
In our developed world slavery is forbidden; one may not sell and buy people. Yet this is true only if you sell a person in their entirely, as a whole individual. But, if you sell a portion or a characteristic of a person, no problem; the business is allowed. The attention of a person is something that belongs to them intrinsically, is something that is part of their birthright. The media market, especially advertising, is the market of attention: it sells aggregate attention, called ‘audiences.’ This market operates through a massive expropriation of the private assets of thousands of spectators. In our developed world there are businesspeople who enrich themselves by selling the product of this expropriation: they take people’s attention, sell it, earn profits and pay nothing to the owners of the commodity. Fantastic! For them.
But just as we get our attention expropriated for free, our attentions are also neglected. Another failure of the market as a basic framework for social communication is the neglect of certain people and certain messages. For example: Who wants to buy the attention of those who are unwilling or unable to buy things? Nobody. The market-driven media system works with only recipients-consumers. Communication is made for people who are expected to consume, that
is, people who may feel they lack things, things that may be obtained in exchange for money. Following this logic of departure, the media talks to these people, not to help them achieve or do things themselves, but to make them come to the market of products and services. It seeks to distract them away from what they may want to do, and to distract them toward what marketers want them to do. The media will talk to them to convince them to pay for others to do
things for them…the media wants people who can buy, not people who invent solutions to solve the shortcomings of the system, of the market. Here, distraction is key.
Any progress in people’s capacity to achieve self-satisfaction outside the market represents a serious threat to the maintenance of market mechanisms. It is unlikely that a market-based media system will put much effort into getting people to learn to live without the market.
Democracy, however, needs precisely the opposite: that people make, invent, seek and find by themselves, people who produce solutions and take the initiative. Democracy tires people out, and it should tire them out, because it requires sustained action.
Action Against Distraction
There are many democracies, but not all work with the same dose of people’s participation in their collective government. Some have legal frameworks that invite people to take a real part in power; others less so. And there are
powers that, above all, give men and women many entertainment options. They claim to have democratic equality because they offer many, many entertainment options. And the more options, the more likely democracy is assumed. This leaves us with a paradox: to be very distracted (i.e., not attentive to the decisions that others make for us) is proposed as equivalent to living democratically. The collective acceptance of this paradigm (that choosing from many distractions equals democracy) manages to hide the fact that many people miss out on democracy. Are those left out distracted as well? Yes, but they remain outside the process and remain outside of power, whatever the means of distraction used to achieve and maintain their disempowerment.
This problem has traditionally been perceived differently by the citizens on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Let’s look at these differences. The Mythological Conditions of the Capitalist Media System
In several works, media scholar Robert W. McChesney has addressed an ideological armor that has protected the US corporate media system from criticism.7 These ideologies promote public beliefs that discourage and deactivate any attempt to transform the corporate controlled media toward a more democratic, decentralized system.
McChesney summarizes eight myths that protect the ideological apparatus: 1) the media does not really matter because they only reflect reality, they do not shape it; 2) the commercial business formula is the natural system, is stipulated by the founding fathers, and is a logical and coherent consequence of the democratic system; 3) the debate over media policy has reflected what the public thinks and cares about; 4) the commercial media are the ones that ensure quality professional journalism; 5) US journalism still remains largely progressive and left-wing; 6) the commercial formula, more than any other formula, guarantees that audiences receive what they want; 7) technology determines the nature of the media; and 8) there are no alternatives that can improve the situation.
These are the values and norms that the capitalist system has institutionalized through laws, educational agendas, cultural products, and so on.
Now let’s go back to Manuel Castell’s idea that we have highlighted previously: if a majority of the people is against…
these mythological, institutional ideologies, then with suffering and other consequences, they will transform and the system will fall.
How does the media system of domination protect itself to prevent such a thing from happening? With the concept of Walter Lippman’s bewildered herd, as Noam Chomsky has analyzed it.8 And by securing the intellectual solitude of each individual. It is easier to fool those who have no friends, those who are alone.
So the media prefers the bewildered herd of people, controllable with propaganda, those who live (vegetate, intellectually at least) entertained and incommunicado with other people. In distracted, entertained isolation, the corporate media protects itself from the majority who may wish to transform the system. Without these protective dynamics, people begin to think, confirm evidence, support alternative ideas and, ultimately, awaken their complaints. Again, distraction is key.
It is easier to abuse people if they do not talk with one another, do not share their findings! The more warned people are, the harder it is to mislead them. And the more people communicate and relate with one another, the more likely concerted actions will occur (Mills, 1993), the only actions that can counteract power.
The Organization of Silence and Noise
Power organizes silence around issues that should not be known by citizens. And to prevent the operation of organizing silence from becoming obvious, power also organizes noise. The media system of our societies is the central machine of organized silence and noise. The media system is the mechanism used to establish who will dominate the apparatuses that make noise or make real information.
The Conditions of Domination
Following Mattelart and Murciano then, what are the general conditions and features of democratic media systems, e.g., a decentralized, pluralistic, participatory system…a system that does not let communicative power be managed by a minority?
A democratic media system is simply a system in which power is diluted, or where power, as such, does not exist. That is the defining feature: power is contained in all the elements but none of the elements alone has the power. We all fully self-govern ourselves, no one governs us. Therefore we all have a real power; while no one has collective power, we all contribute to it.
In 1995 Michael Sénécal characterized three types of logics or approaches with which one can articulate the relationship between democracy and communication in a media system:9
1. The commercial logic: the state governs the distribution of
leadership in the system. State intervention is not necessary.
2. Thestate logic: the state institutionalizes the role of the media
transforming it into a public service that must be provided to
citizens to achieve social, not commercial, goals.
3.The social movements logic: communication is an element of change.
Based on these three approaches we can distinguish three types of media that can configure the system: private (privately owned and profit-focused), public (managed by the government and focused on general interest), and community (social and private management and focused on general interest). According to the principle of non-domination required in a democratic society, these three sectors would have to handle and share the media power fairly and equally.
However, in the US the situation has always been characterized by the hegemony of the private sector. In Europe, until the 1980s, the state logic prevailed as part of a welfare state that had the regular intervention of the government to ensure social objectives. In Latin America, public institutions have always existed in an irregular manner, sometimes strengthened under dictatorships (an exemplary case is Argentina) but these systems are almost always in crisis. The
community sector, even when lacking proper legal protection and fighting all sorts of materials limitations, has been in fact a living, constant and active element since the 1970s. This was the period in which ideas such as the right to communication and the social-based demands of access to the public voice gained impetus.
But what is the use of media power? What can be done when you have it? Those who hold this power can decide what and who appears in the discourse and who and what will not be named; and can also manage the distribution of leadership, noise, silence, censorship and the foci of attention. In a social group in which all members are alert about the same thing, look at the same side, and pay attention to the same issues; highlighting something and forgetting about something else is quite simple. On the other hand, in a social group where each member looks at a different side, pays attention to different issues, and bases its interest, attention and credibility on different sources, it is more complicated to get them all to consider the same subject as remarkable.
So, when you have power, what you actually have is the attention of a large number of people focused on the same thing and, therefore, a greater chance of getting them to think about the same issues, and even of leading them to think in the same ways.
The communicative power operates in the space of the symbolic, creating the intelligence that, in turn, creates people’s opinions. Opinions are always the product of the information that each person has received, understood, appreciated and has finally assimilated. That is the information that each person owns.
Based on such understanding, media power is, therefore, the power to regulate people by regulating the information they receive. This power controls what the Democratic Federal Communication (FCC) commissioner, Michael J. Copps called the “civil dialogue” that a society maintains to make decisions and to self-govern. In the debate just before the FCC made the decision in June 2003 to deregulate the US media market, Copps said: “The decisions we make today,” he said, “will recast our entire media landscape for years to come. At issue is whether a few corporations will be ceded enhanced gatekeeper control over the civil dialogue of our country; more content control over our music, entertainment and information; and veto power over the majority of what our families watch, hear and read.”10
Who is Interested in a Democratic Media System?
The media system, which we consider here as a basic tool for coexistence in a radically democratic society, was transformed by capitalist development. The capitalists saw clearly that the media system was an extremely useful tool for its own expansion.
The creation of demand has been central to the goals of capitalism. Demand must be sufficient, growing, and as far as possible, predictable and consistent, in order to maximize the productivity and investment and to prevent and reduce production without sales (stocks).
Toward these ends, capitalists became infatuated with the toy called media. The toy had social purposes to fulfill, but capitalists had other purposes. So early on, clear tensions emerged between social and capitalist conceptions of the media.
Further, tensions grew between those in political power– those who wanted to regulate political coexistence, and those with economic power– those who wanted to create a homogenized and secure demand for production.
And what about the men and women, the viewers, readers, and citizens who support the system? To assess the degree of democracy in a media system it is necessary to know what role is given to the people in the design of that system and its operation.
The control of national and global media are now highly concentrated within fewer and fewer mega-corporations. This allows massive use of people’s attention and involves commensurate domination: Who wants this to change?
Can we now expect those who have built the systems for concentrating the media power to decide to change and pave the way for changes that will dilute that power? Can we expect those who have sought and aggregated power for decades to suddenly one day begin to distribute it more equally? We might expect it, but it is highly unlikely that
what we hope for will happen. Action is needed.
Our Media, our Policy
Over time, the media power has been concentrated in the hands of a few corporations, and this has not occurred by ignorance, mistake or by chance. And this concentration has not been achieved as a natural and spontaneous consequence of ‘market drifting’’ or market forces (Zallo, 2010; McChesney, 2002). The concentration of power has been assisted by a collection of political decisions often taken without democratic supervision.
In the summer of 2002, when the US media landscape began to stir, McChesney and Nichols reviewed the work they had published in 2000, entitled It’s the Media, Stupid. With new texts and contributions, including those of Noam Chomsky, they published Our Media, Not Theirs: The Democrat Struggle Against Corporate Media. The work examined who owned the media and found that corporate conglomerates had secured an oligopolistic control of the media system. These structures of concentrated power mock the concept of freedom of press, “where anyone can launch a medium and participate in the marketplace of ideas.”
It was political decisions have allowed the concentration of media power decisions that took the media away from the people. Yet the problem is not that they have taken control of our media. The problem is that they have taken the problem away from us almost completely.
The laws governing the media systems are being developed without taking into consideration the citizenry, a people left aside—but very distracted by a multitude of media entertainment. Not considered, among many examples, are the cultural needs of men, women, young people, the demands of professionals, and the conclusions of academic researchers. Democracy needs to be informed by all these pluralistic views, but they are not.
They are our media. It is our attention. It is our problem and we have the capacity to produce our own solutions. Action against distraction is our agenda.
CONCHA MATEOS holds a Ph.D. in Media Studies from the University of La
Laguna (Islas Canarias, Spain), and postgraduate studies specializing
in Political Communication at the Complutense University (Madrid).
She is a faculty in the Universidad Rey Juan Carlos (Madrid) and has
worked as journalist for radio, television, and political
organizations in Spain and Latin America.
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