Monday, September 14, 2015

Journalists as Democratic Agents & Keepers of Meaning (The Dewey-Lippmann Debate)

“The majority is never right! Never, I say!
That’s one of the social lies a free, thinking man is bound to rebel against.
Who make up the majority in any given country? Is it the wise men, or the fools? ….”
                                    (Ibsen, 1882)
The above question was posed by Dr. Stark, the protagonist in a popular Norwegian play by Henrik Ibsen. It not only reflects the mood of people in the end 19th – early 20th century, but can also be called the basic conceptual question that spurred the debate between Walter Lippmann, a journalist in his 20’s and the philosopher John Dewey, in the early 1920s. Dewey believed that human beings had the potential to make intelligent judgment. However, Lippmann thought of this faith in the public as unrealistic and idealistic. This difference in opinion reflects the split in twentieth century liberal democratic thought into participative and elitist factions. This also helps us understand the role and aims of citizenship in a modern democracy. (Myers, 2001) Most importantly, this debate on the role of communication in society and the elitist vis-a-vis participatory approach to journalism started by Lippmann and Dewey, is still valid even today.
In his book “Public Opinion”, Lippmann critiqued the model of democracy where the general public had power in their own hands. He supported the establishment of an elite body of experts who would help people see the real, accurate pictures of the world. Lippmann argued that people’s exposure to the world is limited. The information people receive through other sources, media, opinions, educations, and beliefs create “picture in their heads” or a “pseudo-environment” which affect their judgments.  Hence, to know what the real world is like, people often resort to maps of the world. Again, Lippmann points out that maps (or guidance) provided by random sources can be tools of propaganda. In other words, the creator of the maps can affect the public’s decisions as well. Further, Lippmann in his book ‘The Phantom Public’ expressed his doubts about the very existence of ‘public’ capable to cause social change. Thus, at the level of the nation, public opinion is either manufactured or phantom (McAllister, 2012).
The extensive use of propaganda in our past shows us that Lippmann’s argument is indeed true. While corporate propaganda often entices consumers to invest in certain products/ companies, war time propaganda has proved to be highly successful in motivating people to fight against a nation they have no personal grudge against. Recent religious propagandas have succeeded in persuading people to sacrifice their lives to promote or protect a certain ideology. In this case, can Lippmann’s recommendation to solve the problem hold true in today’s world?
Lippmann advocated the establishment of elite bodies of experts who would take data from the outside world, synthesize and then give the public an accurate picture of the world. The public would be passive receivers, spectators of the pre-synthesized content.
John Dewey, through a review of ‘Public Opinion’ in The New Republic, and later his book The Public and its Problems, expressed that the creation of such a power block is fundamentally undemocratic. He did not support the idea of aristocratic administrators of knowledge because he thought that they would become a self-interested power block in their own right. (Bybee, 1997).
Thinking about the world at present, media does the job of the ‘elite-body’ proposed by Lippmann. They claim to provide their audience with the ‘real’ picture of the world. But an interesting question is “What’s really real?” (Babbie, 2004) A postmodern view says that all that’s “real” are the images that are derived through some point of view. A country having a single media channel (i.e. a single elite body disseminating synthesized information) has often been an indicator of propaganda/ suppression of right to information of people.  History has shown us that most dictatorial regimes have at first tried to censor, then take over media. Sir John Dalberg-Actonhad said, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Thus the power of being the single source of information in a country can lead the public to be manipulated.
Dewey was convinced that public had the potential to make the correct decision. But he agreed with Lippmann that the public need help to understand and make informed choices in the democracy. Hence, experts have to gather and supply facts and unbiased, unmediated information which will help people make an informed choice. Dewey stated that a democratic government must serve the interests of the people, and the population must in turn participate in the political process. In the Dewey-an framework, journalists as experts are supposed to just provide factual information to citizens. The people in his framework are not merely spectators, but active participants.
The world, at present, seems to reflect the views of Dewey. Public is invited to participate in news media through polls, comments, interviews and other segments. However Hermida argues that media is still not completely participatory in all stages of news production- data collection, reporting, analysis and dissemination of information. According to him, editors of news media were the most enthusiastic to incorporate public participation, in the form of views and comments, once the news has been published/ broadcast. This observation led him to believe that journalists still see themselves as an elite group which mediates the flow of information to people (Hermida, 2011). The study further goes on to say that the audience are now active recipients of news but at the same point of time they are active content builders. With the advent of social media, popular news topics are often debated publicly, shared, liked, or ostracized. News content is often sourced from developments on social media. Though, public is often led by the voice of certain opinion leaders, they have the opportunity to be aware of all the other points of view on the topic. Internet, Mobiles, and platforms like Facebook and Twitter have helped public to truly be a part of the knowledge sharing process.
This rise in public participation in the information sharing process is further confirmed by surveys by Pew Research Center. According to latest data, the viewership of traditionally non-participatory media like print news, cable news etc have decreased significantly. Local TV and digital newspaper have gained popularity. While no reason has been mentioned in the report for the same, can the participatory localized nature of these media have something to do with the rise in viewership?

Perhaps the answer can be found in Dewey’s words “There is no limit to the expansion and confirmation of limited personal intellectual endowment which may proceed from the flow of social intelligence when that circulates by word of mouth from one to another in the communications of the local community…We lie, as Emerson said, in the lap of immense intelligence. But that intelligence is broken, inarticulate and faint until it possesses the local community as its medium.” (Dewey J. , 1992)

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