Curated by: Luigi Canali De Rossi

Monday, March 13, 2006

Why Mass Media Are Bad: Weaknesses And Limitations Of Commercial Mainstream Media

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Mass media are inherently corrupting. A small number of owners and editors exercise great power over what is communicated to large numbers of people. Mass media should be replaced by participatory media organised as networks, such as telephone and computer networks.

Photo credit: Ben Goode

Strategies to supersede mass media include:
a) changing one's own media consumption patterns,
b) participating in alternative media and
c) using nonviolent action against traditional mass media.

Complaints about the mass media are commonplace.

To begin, there is the low quality of many of the programmes and articles. There is the regular portrayal of violence, given an attention out of proportion with its frequency in everyday life. More generally, most of the mass media give much more attention to crime, deaths, disasters, wars and strife than to harmonious communities, acts of kindness and win-win conflict resolution.

The mass media frequently create unrealistic fears about criminals, foreign peoples and mass protest.

"News" often is more like entertainment than information or education. News reports, especially on television, are typically given without much overt context. The latest events are described, but there is no explanation of what led up to them or caused them.

Consumers of the media consequently hear a lot of facts but frequently don't understand how they fit together. "Context" is the result of the assumptions behind the facts, and this context is all the more powerful because it is neither stated nor discussed.

Even the "facts" that are presented are often wrong or misleading. Powerful groups, especially governments and large corporations, shape the news in a range of ways, such as by providing selected information, offering access to stories in exchange for favourable coverage, spreading disinformation, and threatening reprisals.

Photo credit: Erik Dungan

Advertising is another powerful influence on commercial media.

Advertisers influence what types of stories are presented. But more deeply, advertisements themselves shape people's views of the world. They are a pervasive source of unreality, fostering insecurity and consumerism.

There are indeed many problems with the mass media.

But some media are much better than others, judged by the criteria of accuracy, quality and independence of special interests. Most media critics seem to believe that it is possible to promote and develop enlightened, responsive, truly educative mass media. Efforts at reform can be worthwhile, but have intrinsic limits.

The problem is not with media in general, but with mass media, namely those media that are produced by relatively few people compared to the number who receive them. Most large newspapers, television and radio stations fit this description.

Mass media by their nature give power to a few and offer little scope for participation by the vast majority.

The power of the mass media is corrupting.

The only surprise is how responsible some mass media are. Given the corruptions of power, reform of the mass media, although useful, should not be the goal. Instead, the aim should be to replace mass media by communication systems that are more participatory.

The usual approaches
Most analyses of the media assume that there are just two choices, either state control or a free market. The problem with control by the state is that control is centralised.

The media of military regimes and bureaucratic socialist states are notorious for their censorship. The defenders of the "free market" argue that government-owned media, or tight regulations, are similarly noxious even in liberal democracies.

The problem with "free market" media is that they give only a very limited freedom, namely freedom for large media companies and other powerful corporate interests. Everyone is "free" to own a publishing company or television station.

The limitations of the mass media in liberal democracies are not always easy to perceive unless one has access to alternative sources of information. Fortunately, there are some excellent books and magazines that expose the incredible biases, cover-ups and misleading perspectives in the mass media. The magazines Extra!, Free Press, Lies of our Times and Reportage give eye-opening accounts of the ways in which the English-language mass media give flattering perspectives of business and government, limit coverage of issues affecting women and minorities, cover up elite corruption, promote government policy agendas, and so forth.

The book Unreliable Sources gives examples of the conservative, establishment and corporate bias of US mass media on issues such as politicians, foreign affairs, environment, racism, terrorism and human rights. Intriguingly, conservatives also believe that the media are biased, but against them. [George Comstock, Television in America (Beverly Hills: Sage, 1980), pp. 50-56, reports that about equal numbers of viewers believe that US television is biased towards either liberal or conservative viewpoints.]

The analysis that underlies these exposés is simple and effective: corporations and governments have a large influence on the mass media, and the mass media are big businesses themselves.

These factors appear to explain most of the problems.

The power of the western mass media is especially damaging to the interests of Third World peoples, being an integral part of contemporary cultural imperialism. [See especially the now classic treatment by Ben Bagdikian, The Media Monopoly (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993, 4th edition).

Two hard-hitting attacks on corporate domination of information and culture, focussing on the US, are Herbert I. Schiller, Culture, Inc.: The Corporate Takeover of Public Expression (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989) and Gerald Sussman, Communication, Technology, and Politics in the Information Age (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1997).

In terms of how the dominant influences on the media operate, one can choose between a propaganda model as given by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (New York: Pantheon, 1988)--based on the five filters of ownership, advertising, sourcing from powerful organisations, attacks on unwelcome programmes, and anticommunism--or a model involving organisational imperatives and journalistic practices as given by W. Lance Bennett, News: The Politics of Illusion (New York: Longman, 1988, 2nd edition) and Rodney Tiffen, News and Power (Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1989), among others. For the purposes here, the differences between these analyses are not important. For many other sources, see James R. Bennett, Control of the Media in the United States: An Annotated Bibliography, (Hamden, CT: Garland, 1992]

Photo credit: Bartlomiej Stroinski

Yes, the media are biased. What can be done about it? Jeff Cohen, of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), has a strategy. He says

  • be sceptical of media stories

  • write letters to media companies, make complaints, join talk-back radio

  • don't advocate censorship, but instead advocate presentation of both sides on any issue

  • use public access TV

  • hold meetings and pickets

  • use alternative media

This is a good grassroots approach. But the goal is "fairness and accuracy," namely the balancing of news. There seems to be no larger programme to replace undemocratic media structures.

A sophisticated treatment of these issues is given by John Keane in his book The Media and Democracy. He provides an elegant critique of "market liberalism," the approach by which governments reduce their intervention in communication markets. He notes that unregulated communication markets actually restrict communication freedom by creating monopolies, setting up barriers to entry and turning knowledge into a commodity. He also points out several trends in liberal democracies that seem to be of no concern to supporters of a free market in communication: the use of government emergency powers, secret operations by the military and police, lying by politicians, advertising by governments, and increasing collaboration between elites in government, business and trade unions. The increasingly global reach of communication corporations is also a significant problem.

The traditional alternative to commercial media is "public service media," namely government-financed media (such as the ABC in Australia, BBC in Britain and CBC in Canada) combined with government regulation of commercial media. Keane favours revived public service media, with guaranteed autonomy of government-funded media, government regulation of commercial media, and support for non-state, non-market media, a category that includes small presses and magazines, community radio stations and open-access television stations.

Keane's model sounds very good in theory. He gives an imposing list of things that should be done, but he doesn't say who is going to make it happen--the government, presumably. More deeply, Keane doesn't say how the state itself will be controlled. He wants a new constitutional settlement with enlightened and progressive government media, suitable government controls on commercial media, and promotion of the "non-state, non-market media." But why should "the state" do all this? Why won't it keep doing what it is already doing, as he describes so well?

Limits to participation
In principle, the mass media could be quite democratic, if only they were run differently.

Editorial independence could be guaranteed, minimising the influence of government, owners or other special interest groups. A range of viewpoints could be presented. The power of advertisers could be reduced or eliminated. Opportunities for citizen input into content could be opened up. These are worthy goals.

But there are inherent limits to making mass media truly democratic.

Consider, for example, an alternative newspaper with a substantial circulation and reputation. The editors may be highly responsive to readers, but even so some editorial decisions must be made. Choices must be made about what stories to run, which advertisements to accept (if any), which events to publicise, which submissions to accept, what policies to make about language, and so forth. There are innumerable "policy" decisions to be made. Even spelling can be controversial. Should the paper be open to the debate about spelling reform? What about letters to the editor? Should everything be published, or should some selection be made on the basis of topic or quality?

If there are only a few active contributors, then everyone can be involved who wants to be, and all submissions published. But this is extremely unlikely when the circulation becomes large and the publication is seen to be important. Then lots of people see an opportunity to raise their own favourite issues.

These problems are far from hypothetical. They are quite apparent to anyone dealing with alternative magazines with circulations in the tens of thousands, or even just thousands.

Not everyone who wants to can have an article published in Mother Jones, New Statesman and Society or The Progressive. Such magazines are "high quality" because they are able to select from many potential offerings. But being able to select also means that the editors have a great deal of power.

Being able to define and select "quality" also means being able to make decisions about content.

Of course, from the point of view of the owners and editors of such magazines, they are hard pressed just to survive. Make some wrong decisions and readership may drop off or financial benefactors may be less generous. (Most "alternative" magazines depend heavily on contributions to supplement subscription fees.)

Practising "democracy" within such a magazine, if this means publishing letters from all and sundry or letting readers vote on policy matters, would be a prescription for financial disaster.

These comments are a bit unfair to the alternative media. By definition, even the largest of them is still a small player in the media game. Furthermore, a diversity of perspectives is available through the different alternative media. There are more small magazines available than anyone can read.

My point is not to criticise the alternative media, but to point out that participatory democracy is virtually impossible in a medium where a small number of owners and editors produce a product for a much larger audience.

The futility of seeking media democracy becomes even more apparent when the scale is increased: audiences of hundreds of thousands or millions.

Photo credit: Bartlomiej Stroinski

This is the domain of major newspapers, television stations and wire services. It requires only a little analysis to find that the larger the audience, the more powerful are the key decision-makers in the media organisations and the less effective are any mechanisms for participation.

The very scale of the media limits opportunities for participation and increases the power of key figures. The way in which this power is used depends on the relation of the media to the most powerful groups in society. In liberal democracies, governments and corporations, and media corporations in particular, exercise the greatest power over the media.

The large scale of the mass media is what makes it possible for this power to be exercised so effectively.

Other arguments for mass media?
Before dismissing mass media, it is worth seeing whether there are other justifications for them.

Perhaps there are some overlooked arguments for maintaining mass media even in a fully participatory society. It is worth canvassing a few of them.

  1. Emergencies
    The mass media, especially radio and television, can come in handy in emergencies: messages can be broadcast, reaching a large fraction of the population.

    But the mass media are not really necessary for emergency purposes. Fire alarms, for example, do not rely on conventional media. Furthermore, network media, including telephone and computer networks, can be set up to allow emergency communications.

    Actually, the mass media are a great vulnerability in certain emergencies: military coups. Because they allow a few people to communicate to a large population with little possibility of dialogue, television and radio stations are commonly the first targets in military takeovers. Censorship of newspapers is a next step. This connection between coups and mass media also highlights the role of mass media in authoritarian regimes.

    Military strength is no defence against a military coup, and indeed may be the cause of one. To resist a coup, network communications are far superior to mass media. So, from the point of view of preparing for emergencies, mass media are bad investments.

  2. Media talent
    The mass media allow many people to enjoy and learn from the efforts of some highly talented performers and personalities, including actors, musicians, athletes, journalists and commentators. True. But even without mass media, it is possible for people to enjoy and learn from these talented individuals, for example through audio and video recordings.

    Furthermore, the mass media limit access to all but a few performers and contributors. Those who are left out have a much better chance of reaching a sympathetic audience via network media.

  3. A force for good
    The mass media are undoubtedly powerful. In the right hands, they can be a powerful force for good purposes. Therefore, it might be argued, the aim should be to promote a mass media that is overseen by responsible, accountable people.

    This sounds like a good argument. What it overlooks is how easily power corrupts. Whoever has power in the mass media is susceptible to the corruptions of power, including power sought for its own sake and for self-enrichment.

  4. Large resources
    The mass media command enormous resources, both financial and symbolic. This makes it possible for them to pursue large or expensive projects such as large-budget films, special investigative teams and in-depth coverage of key events.

    Actually, large-scale projects are also possible with network systems. They simply require cooperation and collaboration. For example, some public domain software (free computer programs) is quite sophisticated and has been produced with the help of many people. In centralised systems, far-reaching decisions can be made by just a few people. In decentralised systems, greater participation is required.

These four possible arguments for retaining mass media, in some reformed and improved form, actually turn out to be arguments against mass media.

The mass media are not necessary for emergencies and are actually a key vulnerability to those who would take over a society. The mass media are not necessary to enjoy and benefit from the talent of others.

Power exercised through the mass media is unlikely to be a force for good since it tends to corrupt those who exercise it. Finally, although the mass media can undertake large projects, such projects can also develop through network media, but in a way involving participation rather than central direction.

End of Part I (of two)


Lichtenberg, Judith. 1987. "Foundations and limits of freedom of the press," Philosophy and Public Affairs, Vol. 16, No. 4, Fall.

Martin A. Lee and Norman Solomon, Unreliable Sources: A Guide to Detecting Bias in News Media (New York: Carol, 1990).

George Comstock, Television in America (Beverly Hills: Sage, 1980)

John Keane, The Media and Democracy (London: Polity Press, 1991).

David Andrews, The IRG Solution: Hierarchical Incompetence and How to Overcome It (London: Souvenir Press, 1984).

Ivan Illich, Tools for Conviviality (London: Calder and Boyars, 1973).

Jerry Mander, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television (New York: William Morrow, 1978).

Fred Emery and Merrelyn Emery, A Choice of Futures: To Enlighten or Inform (Leiden: Martinus Nijhoff, 1976).

Frances Moore Lappé and Family, What to Do After You Turn Off the TV: Fresh Ideas for Enjoying Family Life (New York: Ballantine Books, 1985);

Martin Large, Who's Bringing Them Up? Television and Child Development (Gloucester: Martin Large, 1980).

Todd Gitlin, The Whole World is Watching: Mass Media in the Making and Unmaking of the New Left (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980).

Marc Raboy, Movements and Messages: Media and Radical Politics in Quebec (Toronto: Between the Lines, 1984).

John Downing, Radical Media: The Political Experience of Alternative Communication (Boston: South End Press, 1984);

Edward Herman, "Democratic media," Z Papers, Vol. 1, No. 1, January-March 1992.

originally published by Dr. Brian Martin as: "Beyond Mass Media, Chapter 2 of Information Liberation" in 1998.
Published by London Freedom Press

About the author:
Dr. Brian Martin is Associate Professor in Science, Technology and Society at the University of Wollongong. His formal training is in physics, with a BA from Rice University and a PhD from Sydney University. This was followed by ten years working at the Australian National University as an applied mathematician. Most of his scientific research was in stratospheric modelling, astrophysics, numerical methods, and wind power in electricity grids. During this time, he also studied the politics, sociology and other aspects of science. Dr. Martin also became involved in the radical science movement, the anti-uranium movement and the peace movement. All this provided stimulation to study and write on a range of issues, including the politics of science, education, environmental and peace issues. He has published numerous publications within these topics, including Technology for Nonviolent Struggle, Information Liberation, and Suppression Stories. He joined Science and Technology Studies at the University of Wollongong in 1986.

Brian Martin -
Reference: University of Wollongong [ Read more ]
Readers' Comments    
2008-11-01 00:40:40

agabi solomon

good job, but check you contents and make it less philosophical

2007-02-11 20:53:14


Awsome I read it all.

I wish some people in this world were given reality

posted by on Monday, March 13 2006, updated on Tuesday, May 5 2015

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