media, power, and responsibility

Why are media and power always a bad combination? Whether it is the elite who is abusing the media for its own purposes (in the words of Chomsky and Herman, to ‘manufacture consent‘) or whether it is the media themselves who are powerful, often heard as in ‘the media are biased‘, the message seems clear cut: the media and power do not go together – but is it?

The notion that media often are (ab)used by the powerful goes all the way back to the origins of communication research back in the fifties when it was primarily obsessed with the effects of propaganda. The concern here is that only a particular group of people, e.g. the elite, the powerful, have access to the media and are able to set the agenda for society – if not what the public should think, then what the public should think about. This line of research carries on in the media ownership concentration literature – who owns the media has the power to allocate resources, to control editors and set the agenda. Famous (notorious) examples include Rupert Murdoch and Silvio Berlusconi. 

Then there is also concern that the media themselves are too powerful. While the media is supposed to act in the public’s interest, they often underserve certain segments of the public, such as minorities, or they slant news in favor of particular segments of the public – these are the issues of underrepresentation and misrepresentation. Not to mention the many issues the media effects research is trying to address – television violence is bad for our kids, video games make them dumb and lazy, the internet destroys their attention span, etc.

Most research seems to indicate that power and media don’t go together – bad things happen if they do. What I am wondering is – can the powerful use media for good, rather than bad? Power and media leading to bad things is a relationship of correlation, not causation. What responsibilities, obligations do the powerful have to use media for the greater good? This is a question that has been asked in democratic theory – the media should be a watchdog, should serve as a platform for the public to discuss important issues, etc. More specifically, and something I am interested in, is what kind of obligations are imposed on the media as a result of a particular power disparity – that is to say, what obligations should be imposed precisely because the media are powerful/are controlled by the powerful? 

In broadcast television, the imposition of rules that made sure political issues would be covered in a way that was honest, equitable and balanced was called the ‘fairness doctrine‘. The primary justification for imposing this (controversial) rule was that broadcast television only could carry so many channels because of spectrum scarcity. In other words, only a few limited number of channels could be broadcasted – because of the power this would give to those who control these few channels, the FCC made sure that important issues were covered in a ‘fair’ way. The fairness doctrine had many problems (partially because it wasn’t quite clear what was meant with ‘honest, equitable and balanced’ coverage) and was subsequently abolished. However, one could consider if the fairness doctrine or some kind of equivalent would still have relevance in modern days – in other words, if we’d had to ressurect this, how would it look like? Some have linked the fairness doctrine to the debates we have on network neutrality, arguing that it is in essence a fairness doctrine for the internet. 

One could thus compare the internet protocols – the rules that describe how connections on the internet are established – to rules we have for media access (besides the fairness doctrine, there have also been regulations such as the equal-time rules, specifying that broadcast stations must provide opportunity to opposing political candidates to speak).

But are the internet protocols by themselves enough? The internet protocols are famous for ‘not caring what kind of content they carry’ – as long as the protocols are followed. Should protocols care? The telecom providers argue the internet should care – they say it makes a difference (and a big burden on their network) whether content is video, peer to peer traffic or just text. They want to be able to prioritize some content over others. They want to be able to regulate traffic in such a way that a small number of users don’t end up hogging most of the bandwidth, or at least charge them more for it. Skeptics, and network neutrality proponents, fear that the telecom providers will abuse this power to prioritize content (“let’s make getting to the Microsoft Live search website really fast, and let’s slow down access to Google”). 

But the ability to be able to distinguish, to prioritize some content over others might not be a bad thing. We can disagree about who should be able to prioritize, on what basis – for example, many people might not want the telecom providers to be able to prioritize on the basis of profit maximization – but what about the following: Clay Shirky has helped us understand that the blogosphere follows a powerlaw – that is to say, a small number of so-called A-list blogs gets a disproportionate amount of attention.

If you are such an A-list blog, and you wield a certain power in the form of mass attention, what kind of moral obligations follow out of that kind of power?