American Journalism Review
Democracy and the Newsby Herbert J. Gans
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In Democracy and the News, one of America's most astute social critics explores the crucial link between a weakened news media and a weakened democracy. Building on his 1979 classic media critique Deciding What's News, Herbert J. Gans shows how powerful interest groups and their lobbies, with the help of the White House, are sabotaging representative democracy. In turn he reveals how economic and other changes, in the news media and the news audience, limit journalists' ability to inform the citizenry and defend democracy. Gans argues that journalism suffers from assembly-line modes of production, with the major product being publicity for the president and other top political officials, the very people citizens most distrust. But he makes a series of incisive suggestions about what the news media can do to better report the political news and what political and economic changes in America might move us closer to a citizen's democracy. Touching on questions of critical national importance, this book sheds new light on the vital importance of a healthy news media for a healthy democracy.
American Journalism Review
"A sober, researched and valuable contribution to the current discussion of the media."Houston Chronicle
"The biggest surprise in Herbert Gans' new book isn't his blunt diagnosis of what ails journalism or his fresh, often funky suggestions for reform. The biggest surprise is his challenge to basic assumptions about news and democracy.... Gans is most provocative when challenging our articles of faith, particularly the view that if the press just better informs citizens, then they will become more involved in civic life and democracy will benefit. Gans argues that lack of power is more debilitating to citizens than lack of information.... Gans' assessment of why audiences and journalists seem estranged is perceptive and pertinent, and at least one of his conclusions seems indisputable: 'Journalists cannot function as messengers,' he reasons, unless the recipients want and need them.'"American Journalism Review
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Democracy and the News
By HERBERT J. GANS
OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2003 Herbert J. Gans
All right reserved.
Chapter OneCitizens' Democracy and Citizen Disempowerment
According to the American Dream, American democracy belongs to its citizens and America might therefore be called a "citizens' democracy." The country is formally considered a representative democracy, but the representatives are supposed to be guided by the citizenry, through voting and participating in other ways. Elected officials from the president on down may ultimately make the decisions, but they are still seen as doing the citizens' bidding: acting as surrogates for them between elections. Although elected representatives stand in for the citizenry, they too are supposed to "belong" to the citizens.
Journalists also follow the Dream, but they add an informational provision. The country's democracy may belong directly or indirectly to its citizens, but the democratic process can only be truly meaningful if these citizens are informed. Journalism's job is to inform them. As New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis ended his last column before retirement, "The most important office in a democracy, Justice Louis Brandeis said, is the office of citizen." In an earlier column, he defined the journalist's role: "The theory of democracy is that the citizens are the ultimate sovereign. But intoday's world, individuals cannot personally observe events and reach decisions in a forum, as in ancient Athens. They necessarily depend on the press to be informed." Or, as author and news executive Jack Fuller writes: "The central purpose of journalism is to tell the truth so that people will have the information that they need to be sovereign."
The Dream is an ideal. Most everyone would like to believe it, including the journalists, even as they are kept busy reporting the functioning and malfunctioning of America's real democracy. The ideal democracy lacks a society, an economy, class, power, and other structures, and there is no mention of firms, agencies, and other organizations. Indeed, in the ideal democracy that underlies the Dream, elected representatives are absent, even though the democracy itself does not appear to be a direct one. Not surprisingly, the ideal democracy has ideal citizens: a single and often single-minded public that leaves out the real citizens with opposing interests, beliefs, and values. In this and other respects, the Dream is much too simplistic.
The Dream's value lies in its goal: to establish a viable democratic role for the citizenry. Its value also lies in the central question it raises: what should and can that role be in a country as vast as the United States? What can citizens do if such a country is dominated by organizations big enough to discourage citizens from challenging them, and powerful enough to usually defeat those who try to do so? What can the public do if their elected representatives have had to rent or sell pieces of themselves to such organizations in order to be elected?
I do not propose that citizens are good and organizations evil, or that a greater role for citizens would necessarily lead to a better country. However, if one essential goal of democracy is to represent the interests of all the people, as much as that is possible in a heterogeneous nation, then more effective means of representation must be developed.
The Power of Organizations
The central political role of the citizenry is usually taken so much for granted that it is not often discussed. In fact, that role is thought to be taken care of by the elections. The news media continue to reinforce the idea, particularly through their continuous and detailed coverage of election campaign events (and nonevents), almost as if the never-ending coverage could prove that the citizenry still holds the ultimate power. In some respects, this is even true, because when the winning candidates are willing, able, or required to make good on some of their campaign promises, then the citizenry may indeed have played a powerful role.
The citizens themselves are also realistic, however, for every year that poll respondents are asked, an increasing number, ever closer to a majority, thinks that who they elect president makes no significant political difference. Business journalist John Quirt once put that belief graphically, describing "Washington as a brothel where the privileged princes of perk and pork enjoy themselves while ordinary folks elect a new piano player every four years." Economist James K. Galbraith made the same point more politely: describing America as a corporate democracy, he sees the voters as "shareholders, owners in title only ... [casting] their votes in periodic referenda."
In addition, poll respondents believe the country is run by Big Government, Big Business-and surprisingly enough also by Big Unions, even if few of these still have a sizable amount of power. The conclusion, like the poll question that generated it, is too simple, and some or even much of the time, Big Government acts as it does because it is being pressed to do so by Big Business and to a lesser extent by once Big Unions and others.
More important, the old trinity has become a quartet, the newest member being Big NGOs: nongovernmental organizations such as professional and trade associations, lobbies, foundations, and the array of major political, cultural, educational, religious, environmental, and other nonprofit organizations. Between 1980 and 1997, the number of nonprofit organizations increased from nearly 15,000 to nearly 23,000.
Despite their diverse and often opposing goals and interests, these organizations, be they businesses, unions, or NGOs share at least one characteristic: they are formally organized, bureaucratized with a limited number of objectives that they pursue as single-mindedly and rationally as they can. They are not necessarily partisan but they are nevertheless directly and indirectly political organizations. However nonpolitical their mission statements, they seek and use political influence to achieve their objectives, to grow in influence and size, control their markets or turfs when possible, and make alliances with each other if relevant. I think of them as formal organizations to contrast them with the informal groups: families, friends, neighbors, and fellow workers in which citizens spend most of their lives.
Many of the big organizations are getting bigger, and as two or more merge, others must also, to keep pace. In addition, big organizations find it easiest to work with other big organizations, creating yet another impetus for mergers. Even some of the nonprofits among them command massive resources, hire cheap labor, and engineer mergers. Universities shift more teaching positions to poorly paid adjunct professors and graduate students, although unlike hospitals, they have not yet begun to merge. Nonprofits and NGOs do not make profits, but they operate in many respects like private firms, and their executives associate with, or are recruited from among, their corporate peers.
Citizens seem to be resigned to their lack of power in the world of organizations, and in reality may not even want power, often seeking instead to maximize control over the parts of their lives that matter to them. They buy goods and services from the big corporations, and obtain relevant aid and support from the government, but they cannot possibly compete with the single-mindedness-or the skillful hired hands-of formal organizations. In fact, most citizens often cannot even see, or do not care to see what these organizations and the public officials they elect do below the radar at which individual citizens live their lives.
In any big country that fondly remembers its humble beginnings, small is usually preferable to big, informal is superior to formal, and the citizenry is better than the formal organizations. However this Manichean view can be excessive. In a vast society, many organizations are apt to be big and as the society expands so do its organizations. Moreover, as the world becomes interdependent, organizations become multinational, and therefore yet bigger. Big is not intrinsically evil, however, and big organizations can be beneficial to the citizenry. What distinguishes these organizations from citizens are the economic and political powers they bring to the democratic table. At issue is the unequal balance of power between them rather than merely size, because that inequality per se will likely hurt the citizenry. What matters, therefore, is whether it can be reduced or controlled sufficiently to preserve a viable democratic role for the citizenry.
The balance between citizens and organizations may have been less unequal in the old days but otherwise, the past was hardly superior to the present. Powerful organizations have been around for a long time in one form or another. Current analyses worry mostly about conglomerates and multinationals. In earlier years, interlocking directorates, trusts, unions, and "bureaucracy" were viewed as the major threats. Historically, the culprits included large family firms and individual entrepreneurs (read: robber barons), kings, nobles, and the economic agencies and agents they controlled. This kind of analysis can probably be traced back at least to the time that hunter-gatherers became sedentary and began to acquire unequal amounts of property and power. Whatever the character of these organizations, unorganized citizens have almost always lost out.
The first time he visited America, Alexis de Tocqueville expressed a great deal of interest in informal, social, and other voluntary associations and the popular joining thereof, but were he to come back today, he might ask himself why he did not pay more attention to the economic and other formal organizations of the 1830s. While he would still call attention to the country's individualism, he might also note that the personal freedoms of the citizenry are more limited than he once thought.
Despite the endless parade of politicians who promise more empowerment to their constituents, we live in a country in which the normal state of the citizenry is "disempowerment." The term is clumsy but it is also graphic. In addition, the term suggests that a process is taking place, which in turn raises the question of whether the influence of unorganized citizens, or even organized ones, is changing-or declining.
American citizens are experiencing both economic and political disempowerment. Mergers and takeovers are perhaps the most potent catalysts of citizen disempowerment because many are followed by the elimination of jobs, and the concurrent increase of inequality among those who must take jobs that pay less and offer less security. Additionally, when American firms ship their operations overseas, their accountability, other than to shareholders, moves with them as well. During periods of economic expansion, jobs are regained, although in the United States as elsewhere, income and wealth inequality have not declined during the most recent growth periods. When management presses for higher profits, either because of fears of a takeover, or shareholder demands, more people lose their jobs, whether the times are good or bad. When executives cook the books or otherwise bankrupt their firms, the workers are likely to lose their retirement monies as well.
The country's economic centralization is masked in part by the continuing growth spurts of small businesses. Most new businesses are small ones, and countrywide the average number of employees per business is still only about 20. Presumably that growth will continue as long as new inventions lead to new industries that start as small businesses, except that in the longer run, the big fish eat many of the small fish, then merge with each other. The number of mergers and acquisitions increased from 1,719 in 1985 to 9,634 in 1999.
Small businesses usually pay less than large ones, and so do businesses that provide "services"-except when the services are rendered by professionals. Much of the economic boom of the late 1990s was fueled by a growth in minimum- and other low-wage employment, and there is no reason to believe that this pattern will change. The manufacturing jobs, particularly unionized ones, that provided secure jobs and incomes have declined considerably. Although computerization has created new jobs, many of these also pay low wages, even if the exotically technical high-wage positions have obtained much of the publicity. Still, the lowest wages are paid to welfare recipients who have been put to work to earn their benefits, for which they are in effect receiving subminimum wages. Nonetheless, the economic powerlessness of low-wage workers and the social and emotional powerlessness that accompanies it is undoubtedly felt most intensely by people who have been downsized from well-paying jobs, for example, the autoworkers who have become security guards and the secretaries who had to turn to waitressing.
Another form of economic disempowerment follows from the shedding of employer obligations. These include the reduction or elimination of employee benefits, notably pensions and health insurance, and the shift to several kinds of contingent employment, although so far only among a small, if slowly rising proportion, of the labor force.
Even when they are well paid, workers who are hired as involuntary part-timers, temps, and independent (but still involuntary) contractors lose the economic power that accompanies job security. So far, only a small proportion of the labor force is in contingent jobs, and some people prefer such jobs, but the number of people who will spend their work lives in contingent work of one kind or another is likely to increase. Firms undergoing downturns or unusual competition shift to contingent work to maximize their flexibility, but many then find that such flexibility pays off in additional profits even when good times return.
The most drastic economic disempowerment is reserved for those who are pushed out of the job market or have never entered it. The prototypical example are those among the immense number of incarcerated young people who are in prison for petty drug selling, itself an illegal form of low-wage employment, and other minor nonviolent or victimless crimes. Prison constitutes total economic disempowerment, which becomes permanent if ex-felons do not find jobs.
The new employment arrangements that spell lower incomes and less security can be viewed as a comprehensive power shift that cuts across the entire economy. In this shift, power has moved further from unionized and other blue- and white-collar workers to technicians and professionals, but even more power has shifted to major stockholders in and executives and owners of medium and larger businesses.
Most economic power shifts alter the distribution of income and wealth.
Excerpted from Democracy and the News by HERBERT J. GANS Copyright © 2003 by Herbert J. Gans
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Meet the Author
Herbert J. Gans is the Robert S. Lynd Professor of Sociology at Columbia University and the author of many books, including Deciding What's News, Popular Culture and High Culture, The Urban Villagers, and The War Against the Poor.
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