Friday, November 18, 2016

Of mass media, propaganda and mass society

I responded recently to certain questions a researcher posed to me as part of her ongoing work on a paper on media trends in India.

This post is based on my responses in italics to some of her questions.

*I was asked how my blog site works differently from a traditional newspaper. (This question may sound strange, but I was told it was originally meant to be asked of people running much larger-sized publishing outfits and was put to me without being rephrased because of time crunch.) 

Mine is just a blog site that I use as a personal diary to post my thoughts, articles, etc., whenever
I feel like writing. 

There have been many weeks or even months when I didn’t feel like writing and so didn’t post anything.

I think all or most ‘traditional newspapers’ are or behave as if they are ‘mass media’ vehicles.

I view a ‘mass media’ vehicle as targeted towards ‘mass society’ and making use of ‘mass production’ set-up.

A ‘mass production’ set-up, by its very nature, can only be a capital intensive enterprise, which means only very few people can own and control it.

That implies (a) ultimate control vests in one or a few persons, (b) existence of a hierarchy of managerial/editorial functionaries as is usual in any capitalistic enterprise even though such a hierarchy is ill-suited to journalism’s need for open and uninhibited communication.

These implications lead to further implications, such as top down command and control that often results in tendentious reportage or manufacture of propaganda material.

Another upshot of ‘mass production’ set up is a narrow defining of areas to be covered by reporters according to their place in the hierarchy, which means initiative and intellectual growth gets straitjacketed.

In a ‘mass production’ set-up, the managers/editors must fill up the available space (excluding the space reserved for advertisers) with some ‘material’ each day of publication regardless of whether they have the news or commentary that really measures up their own standards.

So factuality, discourse, debate, intellectuality, reasoning, sentiment, balance and every other element of journalism become subservient to regular ‘production’ of the periodical, which becomes the overriding concern.

The medium becomes an end in itself; the information and ideas just become the filler and all journalistic functions become increasingly production-oriented and degraded.

I also feel that moving up the hierarchy in a media organization often means that the journalist so promoted ends up making less effort to gather facts (degradation of empirical nature of journalism) and settles into smug opinionatedness.

Given the top-down nature of control in a media organization, one also feels that going up the hierarchy has a lot to do with a person’s willingness to conform to the owners’ wishes. 

Thus journalists transform into some kind of ‘managers’ as they move up the hierarchy.

These factors put one’s job in a mass media organization completely out of kilter with one’s need for one’s sense and sensibility to evolve. 

In other words, one’s media career often inhibits or works against one’s better sense and one’s intellectual evolution.

One can debate what came first: ‘mass media’ or ‘mass society’. It’s clear to me, however, that ‘mass media’ facilitates the creation of ‘mass society’ and the existence of ‘mass society’ helps justify the existence of ‘mass media’.

There would be no ‘mass media’ without ‘mass society.’ And the ‘mass society’ would loosen up towards more autonomy and less heteronomy (i.e. would tend towards losing its ‘mass’ character) if ‘mass media’ were to be eliminated.

I would instantiate ‘mass society’ as people living in large cities like Mumbai and Delhi with incredibly high population densities and huge crowds in public places being a regular experience of each individual.

The defining characteristics of a ‘mass society’ are its heteronomy and impersonal relations which are wholly accounted for by two abstract domains of ‘political’ and ‘economic’ – as contrasted with the more autonomous and real domain of ‘communal’ which includes family, close friends, neighbours, etc.

Such ‘mass societies’ inexorably come to be seen as possessing ‘crowd’-like characteristics and as requiring to be ‘supplied’ with news and views through standardized means similar to the ones utilized in meeting their more material needs.

Put simply, ‘mass societies’ are treated as ‘crowds’ to be satisfied, pacified and controlled with mass produced goods and services, including the media.

Standardized means of production and supply of news and views to a large population, which can only be organized as a capital intensive enterprise, will inevitably tend towards a system of propaganda in line with the requirements of the two abstract domains of ‘political’ and ‘economic’.

In simpler terms, ‘mass media’ can only be a means of propaganda with the propaganda function varying or evolving according to the ‘political’ and ‘economic’ factors.

Since I deem ‘political’ and ‘economic’ domains abstract and unreal as against the real domain of ‘communal’ (i.e. of ‘community’), I view mass media as tending towards the unreal.

(I should point out again that I believe that the two abstract domains of ‘political’ and ‘economic’ stand for ‘heteronomy’ of human life whereas the real domain of ‘communal’ represents the ‘autonomy’ of human life.)

*I was asked how I view the mainstream media, especially with regards to the issues I cover in my blog posts.  

Mainstream media in India, in my opinion, bears striking similarities with the ‘propaganda model’ of mass media expounded by Herman and Chomsky in their 1988 work, ‘Manufacturing Consent: the Political Economy of the Mass Media’.

I, for instance, have taken a critical look at the public-private partnership (PPP) policy and projects in my blog.

The mainstream media, on the other hand, has refused to look critically at PPPs and continues to publish the propaganda material handed out by the government and big business.

I also have thought through concepts like ‘religion,’ ‘culture,’ ‘secularism,’ ‘communalism’ (a word that seem to have a special meaning and negative context in India), etc.

The mainstream media continues to be obtuse and dangerously propagandistic in its uncritical acceptance and promotion of stupid Western ideas as applied to the Indian context.

*I was asked as to how the name of my site reflects my cause.

The title of my blog site, ‘Thinking Through,’ reflects the difficulty I have in accepting the received, mass disseminated ideas.

I think many of these ideas, particularly those of the West, are pernicious or simply stupid when they are applied to non-Western societies (or even to Western ones).

I think ‘mass media’ and ‘mass education’ are taking us all towards ‘mass stupidity’.

So the problem is not that people can’t appreciate the truth; the problem is that a constant state of propaganda fills one’s head with so much stupid ideas that people find it difficult to appreciate simplest and most intuitive of realities and truths.

I was asked as to what I wanted to achieve through my blog.

I believe I have worked for the last 4-5 years on concepts like ‘religion’, ‘culture’, ‘community’, etc., and have come up with quite intuitive understanding of them.

I believe these ideas can disabuse people of the stupidity, narrow-mindedness and conflict into which they are forced through mass propaganda.

So my primary goal is to have my ideas help people realize their own vulnerability to propaganda and start thinking on their own.

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