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Author Biography:Chappell Lawson is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
In June 1995, President Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico held a remarkable press conference in the town of Cuauhtitlan. The president was hoping to reassure his fellow Mexicans that their country, then in the midst of deep economic and political crisis, was on the right track. In the course of his remarks, Zedillo made reference to a small group of "bad guys" (malosos) within the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). These officials, Zedillo implied, lay behind some of the country's recent troubles-including the shocking 1994 assassinations of PRI leader Jose Francisco Ruiz-Massieu and PRI presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio.
Mexican journalists responded vigorously to Zedillo's comments. Did the president mean that men inside Mexico's ruling party were responsible for Colosio's murder? Who, exactly, were the individuals in question? Could the country's problems really be blamed on a small cabal of malosos, however nefarious? And was malosos (a somewhat puerile term) really the right way to describe such people, given that their activities apparently included drug trafficking and political assassination?
The vehemence of journalists' reactions surprised most observers. Traditionally, interactions between the president and the press in Mexico were carefully scripted affairs. Questions were often planted by government officials; independent newspapers were underrepresented if they were represented at all; and the entire performance was carefully edited before being rebroadcast by the country's reliably pro-government media conglomerate, Televisa. Aggressive and hostile inquiries were simply not part of the regularly scheduled programming.
Reporters' reactions to the malosos incident exemplified the changes that had taken place in Mexico's media. In the 1980s and 1990s, independent publications emerged and flourished, supplanting their more staid and traditional counterparts. Feisty talk-radio shows came to dominate the airwaves in Mexico's largest cities. Even broadcast television, once notoriously pro-government, began to devote more coverage to civic and opposition groups. These changes brought increased attention to the viewpoints of civil society, more even-handed coverage of electoral campaigns, and more aggressive investigation of potential scandals.
The changing role and growing importance of the mass media is not a uniquely Mexican phenomenon. In a range of new democracies, the media play an increasing role in giving voice to competing political perspectives and exposing the misdeeds of government officials. In Brazil-where the country's giant conglomerate Globo was once regarded as a right-wing ally of the country's military regime-observers credited the media with bringing about the downfall of conservative president Fernando Collor de Mello. In the corruption scandal that led up to Collor's resignation, the media played a decisive role. As analysts of the Brazilian press put it, "By and large, other social institutions have been a major disappointment. ... Largely by default, the media have assumed ... the role of inquisitor, auditor, and goad." In recent years, such impressions of media influence have resonated throughout the region. As one authority on the Latin American press suggested, in countries where dissatisfied political actors once knocked on the back door of the barracks, they now knock on the back door of the newsroom.
Nor is the media's newfound influence limited to Latin America. In a range of other fledgling democracies, the media play a crucial role in shaping public opinion and-at least in theory-guaranteeing the accountability of government officials. The media's role is particularly crucial in countries where traditional intermediaries (such as political parties and interest groups) remain underdeveloped and where social movements that blossomed during democratic transition have begun to shrink or disappear.
Over the last two decades, scholars have devoted a tremendous amount of attention to the spread and deepening of democracy around the world. Despite this burgeoning literature on democratization, however, there has been little serious research on the emergence of independent media. How does a free press, presumably one of the most vital ingredients in modern democratic governance, develop? What role does it play in promoting democratic transition? While theorists of democratization have lavished attention on constitutional design, electoral systems and political parties, social movements, interest groups, civilian control of the military, and related topics, they have left such questions about the media not simply unanswered but virtually unaddressed.
This omission is puzzling, given the crucial role that the mass media play in modern democracy. Without a relatively diverse and independent press, it is difficult to see how citizens can acquire sufficient information to make meaningful political choices or hold government representatives accountable for their decisions. If the information on which citizens base their political attitudes is censored or distorted, proper evaluation of official decision making becomes difficult, and mass opinion itself appears increasingly manufactured.
For these reasons, scholars generally acknowledge that the mass media represent a crucial element of democratic governance. Media freedom is a core ingredient both in theoretical conceptions of democracy (e.g., Dahl's) and in empirical measurements of it (such as the Freedom House index). But analysts do not understand what factors contribute to the emergence of independent media. Nor do they understand the political consequences of changes in media coverage on democratizing countries. How, exactly, does a free press arise? How does it escape from, evade, or resist official control? And what effect does its success in doing so have on political transition?
Locomotive or Caboose?
Although little explicit research has been done on these questions, there is a default hypothesis that answers them both: the emergence of a free press is simply a product of broader opening in the political system. Political reforms reduce censorship, and full-fledged democratization ultimately guarantees media freedom. From this perspective, the media exert little real influence over the course of regime change; any role they play is essentially epiphenomenal. Media opening-the process by which mass media become more representative of societal viewpoints and more independent of official control-is thus merely a by-product of democratization.
There is an important element of truth to this argument: political liberalization does promote media opening. By itself, however, political liberalization does not guarantee independence or diversity in the media. Or, to put the matter more bluntly, a free press does not appear, like Aphrodite on the waves, in the wake of regime change. Many new democracies have emerged from political transition with media that are hobbled by politicized state ownership (Hungary and the Czech Republic), corruption (Korea), private concentration in the hands of like-minded entrepreneurs (Brazil and Russia), and other unsavory inheritances. Official tolerance and political reform are at best necessary conditions for media freedom, not sufficient ones.
To really understand the emergence of independent media, scholars must look elsewhere-to a number of other variables that shape media coverage. Aside from political liberalization, factors like commercial pressure, journalistic norms, and (less frequently) new communications technologies can also prove powerful in promoting independence and diversity in the media. In Portugal and Spain during the late 1970s, for instance, market competition between different outlets led to significant changes in coverage without full liberalization of the political environment. In Taiwan, the spread of illegal cable television systems frustrated official attempts at censorship long before the end of martial law. And in Communist East Germany, much of the population could receive nightly broadcasts in their native language from West German stations well before the fall of the Berlin Wall. In other words, the "Aphrodite-on-the waves" argument overlooks a series of other factors that encourage media freedom. Political opening may be an important contributor to the emergence of an independent press, but it is not the only one.
Even more seriously, though, models in which changes in press coverage depend on political reform misstate the relationship between media opening and political transition. They portray the press as a sort of free rider on democratization-as one Mexican journalist put it, not a locomotive of change but a caboose of the state. Rather than promoting regime change, the media are simply dragged along by larger political developments over which they have little influence. This interpretation, of course, does not accord with the salient role that mass media have played in democratization in countries from the fall of Ferdinand Marcos in Philippines to the campaign for direct elections in Brazil to the failed Soviet coup attempt of August 1991.
In the chapters that follow, I argue that both pieces of the traditional argument are wrong. First, political liberalization is not the sole or even the most important driver of change in the media. Journalistic norms and commercial competition between media outlets also play powerful roles in shaping the behavior of the press. In Mexico, for instance, journalists' views about their role in society were a decisive factor in the establishment of independent publications. Subsequently, competition for readers proved crucial in strengthening these publications and putting pressure on more traditional dailies to change their coverage. Throughout this process of opening in the print media, political pressures frequently worked to stifle changes in the media that were occurring for other reasons. By the early 1990s, Mexico's emerging Fourth Estate had gone well beyond what the government deemed acceptable. At that point, however, many independent publications were sufficiently well established to fend off official assaults.
Market competition plays a powerful role in encouraging the press to experiment with more independent coverage. Even in an authoritarian system, private media may face powerful incentives to meet audience demands. In Mexico, for instance, television was long dominated by a single private network (Televisa) that consistently supported the ruling party and limited opposition access to the airwaves. In its capacity as ruling party cheerleader, Televisa helped sell PRI to an increasingly dubious mass public. Following the privatization of government-owned television channels in 1992-93, however, competition between television networks led to greater coverage of civic groups and opposition parties on the once reliably pro-regime network.
Second, I argue that changes in media coverage themselves exert a powerful influence on politics and political transition. In Mexico, for instance, independent publications declined to play the role of official scribe for the political elite, turning their attention instead to newly formed civic organizations. Beginning in the mid-1980s, media attention helped to legitimize these new groups by developing a new vocabulary for describing the Mexican political context. Media opening thus contributed to the resurgence of civil society during the early phases of Mexico's political transition.
Another typical consequence of media opening is increased scrutiny of government actions and decisions. In Mexico, for instance, more aggressive coverage of previously "closed" topics by elements of the print media produced a series of revelations that reverberated throughout the Mexican political system. Even broadcast media, locked in competition for market share, began to cover potentially shocking political events. The ensuing scandals helped to delegitimize Mexico's authoritarian regime in the eyes of the mass public.
Yet another common consequence of media opening is greater coverage of opposition parties during election campaigns. In Mexico, coverage of campaigns became substantially more equitable during the 1990s, contributing to opposition victory in the watershed legislative elections of 1997. The repercussions of more equitable media coverage continued to be felt in the presidential elections of 2000, in which opposition candidate Vicente Fox finally defeated the PRI.
Media opening and democratization are thus best conceived as interacting and mutually reinforcing processes. Political liberalization leads to a relaxation in censorship, constrains the arbitrary use of power against independent media outlets, and encourages reform in the legal structure governing the press. At the same time, independent coverage promotes civic mobilization, increases public scrutiny of official actions and decisions, and levels the electoral playing field. Although political liberalization undoubtedly promotes media opening, changes in the media also propel political reform. Because the causes of these changes in the media often lie outside the political system itself-in the competition between rival media outlets and in the changing norms of journalists themselves-media opening is not simply a function of political reform.
These findings have a number of implications for newly democratic and democratizing countries. First, they suggest the circumstances under which tentative initial gestures toward political liberalization are likely to unleash a cycle of political change. Specifically, when media outlets are forced to compete for audiences and journalists have already developed their own internal professional standards, even modest liberalization in the political environment can trigger rapid and thorough transformation of reporting. Changing media coverage in turn exercises a powerful influence on political life, stimulating civic mobilization, triggering scandals, and facilitating opposition electoral victory.
Second, the role of market competition in transforming the media suggests one mechanism by which economic liberalization leads to democratization. By stimulating competition, market-oriented reforms encourage media outlets to take into account the demands of their audiences, rather than the preferences of official censors. In general, these changes in coverage help to legitimize opposition forces, delegitimize the old regime, and generate support for political alternatives. They thus increase the odds of regime change.
But the importance of market competition also underscores the dangers that high levels of media concentration pose for many new democracies. Lack of market competition makes it easier for media owners to introduce their own biases (or those of their political allies) into news coverage.
Excerpted from Building the Fourth Estate by Chappell Lawson Copyright © 2002 by Chappell Lawson. Excerpted by permission.
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|List of Illustrations|
|List of Tables|
|Pt. 1||The Old Regime and the Mexican Media|
|2||The Perfect Dictatorship||13|
|3||Media Control under the Perfect Dictatorship||25|
|4||Media Coverage under the Perfect Dictatorship||48|
|Pt. 2||Media Opening in Mexico|
|5||Opening Mexico's Print Media||61|
|6||Opening Mexico's Broadcast Media||93|
|Pt. 3||The Political Consequences of Media Opening|
|7||Media Opening and Civil Society in Mexico||125|
|8||Media Opening, Scandal, and Regime Delegitimation||138|
|9||Media Opening, Campaigns, and Elections||157|
|Pt. 4||Media Opening and Democratization|
|App.: Data for Figures and Tables||211|