Eroding the Fourth Column

This week’s readings, read at an angle, put neoliberalist capitalism at odds with democracy. They aren’t mutually incompatible – they can coexist for years, decades, maybe longer – but slowly, slowly, neoliberalism, should it be allowed to erode the fourth column of independent and fact-driven journalism, primes the population against democracy.

Des Freedman first describes how the neoliberal impulse to extricate the government from the economy leads to informational media communities being treated as any other sector of the economy. The media is not but another sector of the economy, given its role in creating a shared narrative – particularly in a political system where citizens depend on the accuracy of that narrative to then direct their governments.

Ignoring this special political role means the media sector is left to consolidate, with all the power behind those broadcasters pooled in the hands of the unelected directors of those corporations. Rupert Murdoch and the late Roger Ailes are boogeymen of the political left on this issue; while the Washington Post’s Jeff Bezos and CNN are frequent targets of the political right.

That power comes from the ability to effectively elevate or deplatform politicians, should a massive media conglomerate be directed to do so – perhaps even by the politicians themselves, perhaps, engaging in explicit backroom deals like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan have all been accused of doing.

But it also comes from the ability to shape the narrative in ways that can be barely perceptible, as Tess Slavíčková and Peter Zvagulis describe. If the media, a key part of the social fabric binding together the nation, insinuates that a certain (usual ethnic, but with potential focus on religious, class, or urban/rural divisions as well) group is the ‘norm’ and that every other demographic is deviant, and presents those groups only in association with indicators of ‘societal decay’, then it contributes to creating a damaging social narrative. Consolidation also suffocates potential dissenting voices, making it harder for the groups Othered by these exclusionary narratives to push back against their depictions or the inappropriate contextualization generated in the name of quick deadlines or engaging narratives running roughshod over the quest for accuracy.

This then leaves the door open to populists ‘say the quiet part loud’, and either serve as firebrands defending these groups shut out from the mainstream media – or as a representative of a ‘silent majority’ angry that these Others are leeching from the social chest.

Neither is good for democracy. And while Freedman concedes that the populists will eventually be integrated into mainstream politics, will eventually lose the novelty and shock appeal that garnered them so much free media attention, this will not happen before they damage the democratic fabric of the society. They might actually sabotage democratic institutions – taking steps from populism towards authoritarianism proper – or they might just inscribe new patterns of hurt into the palimpsestic vocabulary of politics.

Regardless, allowing unbridled neoliberal impulses to recast media companies as just corporations amongst others undermines the fourth column of fact-finding journalism, leaving democracy like a chair with one shortened leg.

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