How the media has let down democracy

Journalists need to be heard to be able to convey truths. But social media has dumbed down public discourse and made it difficult for reflective commentators to be heard

Arun Maira

[Image by under Public Domain]

The completely unexpected victory of Donald Trump as the President of the USA threw mud in the face of mainstream media which it has not yet been able to wipe off. In a turn of the year introspection in CNN’s Reliable Sources show on New Year’s Day 2017, Carolyn Ryan, senior editor for politics at The New York Times, Michael Oreskes, head of news for NPR, and Kathleen Carrol, former editor with the Associated Press discussed citizens’ increasing mistrust of institutions in general and the media in particular. They wondered why the media “could not get it”. Why could all the political polls and all the political pundits in the mainstream media not understand what was going on in the country? They worried that the mainstream media was becoming increasingly irrelevant in public affairs. Carolyn Ryan was troubled that the media was paying too much attention to listening to its own readers and viewers and too little to listening to people in general. The fundamental questions were what role should serious media play in society and whether it is capable of playing that role any longer.

What role should serious media play in society and is it capable of playing that role any longer?

Listening to the discussion, I had a sense of déjà vu, with a recollection of another discussion on the role of the media. This was at the Aspen Institute’s seminar on the Challenges of Global Capitalism in Aspen, Colorado, in July 2002. The seminar was conducted by the philosopher Michael Sandel, author of Democracy’s Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy (1998) and other books and also the best-seller What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets (2012). In the seminar, Jerry Levin, CEO of Time Warner, chaired a discussion on the role of the media.

Many participants expressed their anguish at the ‘dumbing down’ of discourse on mainstream media. Discussions on TV had deteriorated into gladiatorial contests, such as the hugely successful American show at that time, Crossfire. The participants asked, “How would citizens be engaged with the deeper issues of their societies if all they saw and read in the media was designed only to entertain them? Did not the media have a responsibility, as a pillar of democracy, to engage and educate citizens about these issues?”

Levin countered that the media was a business, and as a good business it must give its customers what they wanted. If they wanted more entertainment, then the media must give them good entertainment. If the media did not give its customers what they wanted it would go out of business, he warned. Presaging Carolyn Ryan’s concern in the New Year’s Day CNN discussion, he explained why the media must focus on the demands of its readers and viewers. The media is a business, he said, and businesses must give their customers what they want.

A participant in the Aspen seminar said that society could not allow business leaders to get away with the justification that they were giving people what they wanted. Many people want hard drugs, she said. There was a lot of money to be made by supplying hard drugs to these customers. Could a business that supplied hard drugs be defended on the principle that it was giving people what they wanted? Just as sellers of drugs are declared as criminals, all business leaders must be held responsible for the bad effects their products and services have on the lives of people, she declared. Moreover, the participants said, the media has a special place in democratic societies. In democratic societies, the media is given the freedom, as a conscience-keeper of a society’s values, to comment freely on social issues and to criticize all other institutions including governments in power. The media must not become a business like any other business, they insisted.

The dumbing down of public discourse

More recently, the angst about the diminishing role of the media in shaping public discourse was very evident in ‘Forum 2000’, which was held in Prague in October 2016. Forum 2000 was established in 2000 by Vaclav Havel (the playwright-philosopher, who led Czechoslovakia’s peaceful Velvet Revolution against Soviet rule), for thought-leaders to periodically meet and reflect on the state of democracy in the world. The concern with the role of the media had increased between the Aspen seminar in July 2002, and the Forum 2000 in October 2016 because in the meantime social media had rolled out around the world. Social media has changed the character of the media. It has dumbed down the public discourse.

Social media has changed the character of the media. It has dumbed down the public discourse

In a special discussion at Forum 2000 on ‘Is the Media still Setting the Agenda?’ Thomas Kent, president of Radio Free Europe, Per Nyholm, editor of a large Danish newspaper, and Petr Dvorak, director general of Czech TV, observed that the ‘serious’ media was setting the agenda only within limited groups of ‘people like us’. The public think that the serious media represents only the elite. Whereas social media has democratised agenda setting.

Social media was hailed as the technical saviour of democracy in the Arab Spring. It seemed to have provided the means for citizens from outside the politician establishment to overcome the power of autocracies. Barack Obama used social media to assist him against democracy’s Establishment (professional politicians, political parties, and the big money that supports them). However, disillusionment with social media ran through the discussions at Forum 2000.

Wael Ghonim, the internet activist who helped spawn the Arab Spring in Egypt with his Facebook posts, says (in an interview in October 2016 with The WorldPost) that the structure of social media promotes ‘mobocracy’, not democracy. He says, it “brings together people with common passions irrespective of whether the information they share is the truth, rumour or lies”.

“While once social media was seen as a liberating means to speak truth to power. Now the issue is how to speak truth to social media,”Ghonim says.

It all boils down to money, speakers at Forum 2000 lamented. Advertisers provide the money media needs to run. Media owners pander to advertisers. TRPs on TV and eyeballs and clicks on social media have become the measures of media businesses’ success. On social media, customers don’t pay for content, and social media owners don’t pay producers of content. Citizens post videos; citizens make comments; citizens report ‘news’. The more shocking these posts are, the more attention they attract, and more advertisers can be charged. Thus, a vicious circle has formed, like a tightening noose, and we have entered a “Post Truth” era in the media and in public discourse with quality of the content, and the truth, gasping for air.

We have entered a “Post Truth” era in public discourse with quality of the content, and the truth, gasping for air

The principal thrust of new technology in social media businesses is to provide better algorithms that can determine what each person likes and give her more of that. If we like some views, social media will give us more of the same. It does not waste any of its business resources (and our time) by offering us anything different. This is smart business. But it makes human beings into increasingly passive consumers rather than responsible citizens with inquiring minds who have doubts and questions and are competent to make their own choices.

The Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2016 is ‘post-truth’. ‘Post-truthism’ in public discourse has been growing rapidly with the expansion of social media. The political and societal implications of it were realised with a thud with the shock of Donald Trump’s completely unexpected election as President of the USA in November last year. “In the end, the finger pointing got to Facebook’s boss, Mark Zuckerberg,” The Guardian reported on November 20, 2016. Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, has set up a News Partnership team to deal with the problem and Facebook will also develop new algorithms to filter out ‘non truths’ in public postings.

We must listen to people with different beliefs, who are not like us, to bridge deep boundaries that are even dividing people of the same colour and the same religion within countries. The Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump have exposed these divisions in countries that have so far been proud of their democratic character and the quality of their free press.

The combination of technology with journalism has created a philosophical problem that technology alone cannot resolve. On the one hand technology algorithms are expected to become even more efficient at giving us only what we already like. On the other hand, Facebook’s CEO says, new algorithms will be developed to direct us to listen also to people who are not like us and who we may not like. What should the algorithm shut out and what should it bring to our attention? Who will give the machine the rules to follow? What are this person’s values and beliefs?

Democracy’s discontents

This philosophical conundrum is not limited to the conflation of technology with journalism. It goes deeper to the conflation of other institutions of capitalism and democracy. Michael Sandel posed the question “What money can’t buy?” In his book with that title, he actually asks a deeper question: “What is it that money should not be allowed to buy?”

The fall of the Soviet Union a quarter of a century ago marked the end of history according to Francis Fukuyama. The ideologies of free markets and democracy had triumphed over state-controlled economies and societies. Yet, 25 years later, the liberal democratic order seems to be losing the battle against populism and authoritarianism. The conflict is within societies that have embraced both, ideas of free markets and capitalism for their economies, and ideas of democracy for their politics and governments. When both sets of ideas are applied in the design of institutions, there is bound to be conflict. Because capitalism and democracy run on fundamentally different principles. Protection of property rights is fundamental for capitalism. Protection of human rights is fundamental for democracy.

Capitalism and democracy run on fundamentally different principles

In capitalist institutions, decision-rights depend on how much people own. One dollar should equal one vote in corporate governance. In democratic institutions, every human being, rich or poor has equal decision-rights. Each human mind, whether it belongs to a billionaire or a pauper, must have an equal vote. When these conflicting principles are applied together, there will be conflict. An appliance designed to run on AC electricity will blow up when it is connected into a socket supplying DC electricity.

Money should not be able to buy people’s votes, but it does. This is why reform of the funding of elections and political parties is imperative for the health of democracy. Money should not be able to buy people’s minds, which it does when the media becomes a business like any other. Therefore, the reform of media institutions—their funding and their ownership—has become imperative for the survival of democracy.

Money should not be able to buy people’s minds, which it does when the media becomes a business like any other

Economist Albert O. Hirschman saw the contradiction between institutions of capitalism and democracy building up 50 years ago. He observed in his book Exit, Voice, and Loyalty (Harvard University Press, 1970), that the more attention business managers pay to listening to their customers and the better they get at it, the less capable they become to hear the voices of citizens in society.

Recall Carolyn Ryan’s concern, on CNN on New Year’s Day 2017, that the media was paying too much attention to listening to its own readers and viewers, and too little to listening to people in general. Also recall Jerry Levin’s defense of the media at the Aspen seminar in 2002. The media is a business he said. It must give its customers what they will pay for.

Hirschman pointed out that Milton Friedman, who famously decreed that the business of business must only be business, had expressed his difficulty in accepting the notion that people should desire to express their views to make them prevail. Friedman describes people’s desire to be heard as a resort to ‘cumbrous political channels’. He would much rather they resort to ‘efficient market mechanisms’ and use their money rather than their mouths to make their opinions known.

Business corporations in general will have to change the principles by which they operate for democracy, and indeed for humanity, to survive. The business of business must not be only business. The purpose of a business corporation, in whatever sector it is—whether the media, manufacturing, or services—cannot be only the production of profits and financial value for investors. Corporations must be governed with other values: with a caring for the conditions of the environment and communities in which they operate. Just as democratic governments are expected to be accountable to citizens, corporations must be accountable to citizens too, not only to their customers and investors.

To be heard or not?

Citizens want journalists to tell only the truth: to report the facts undistorted by their personal values. This would be impossible. Journalists are human beings too. Like all human beings, they acquire lenses through which they see the world: lenses that are shaped by their own histories; the cultures of the communities in which they have been brought up; and their education. The philosopher Hilary Putnam (The Collapse of the Fact/Value Dichotomy and Other Essays, 2004) has argued that the distinction between factual claims and value judgements is positively harmful when identified with a dichotomy between the ‘objective’ and the purely ‘subjective’. The ‘facts’ journalists can see are unavoidably coloured by their lenses and their values.

Journalists who want to report important facts to the public have two dilemmas. One is the age-old dilemma mentioned before about the impossibility of separating their own values from their account of the facts—of separating subjectivity from objectivity in social affairs. Even as they write, they will apply adjectives before nouns to make their account of the facts interesting to their readers. The adjectives they choose accord with their views about the person or place they are writing about. Is Mumbai a dynamic city or a decaying city? Is Donald Trump a strong leader or an unreliable leader?

The second dilemma for journalists is a more recent one created by the conversion of media into a business like any other, and also by the rapid proliferation of social media. Journalists need to be heard to be able to convey truths. Social media has made it more difficult for reflective commentators to be heard. To use an analogy, once upon a time crooners and balladeers could gently sing words that moved us, with a piano or a guitar in company. Today singers must yell and curse to be heard above the din created by the percussion blasting through amplifiers. Similarly, quiet commentary in the media is not noticed by the public. Tweets by celebrities about their birthday parties, and their views about anything and everything, get most attention. The principal competition to them for attention on social media are trolls who curse, spew hate, and spread canards. As the journalists lamented in Forum 2000, serious journalists and writers do not get attention in popular media. They are able to set the agenda only within limited groups. The masses are out of touch with them, and they are out of touch with the masses too.

The masses are out of touch with them, and they are out of touch with the masses too

So what can a serious commentator do?

When I was in college, over 50 years ago, I was invited to participate in a debate. The subject was Bertrand Russel’s famous comment: “I would rather be Red than dead”. I got the subject slightly wrong. I thought it was, “I would rather be ‘read’ than dead.” Those who had got it right spoke about the pros and cons of communism. Some went deeper to debate whether one should give up one’s convictions to survive, and join the Reds if to oppose them would be fatal.

Mistaking ‘Red’ for ‘read’, my concern was with the dilemma of a person who wants to change the tide. He must speak up and be heard to have any influence on public values. However, if by being heard, he risks being permanently silenced before he can influence any change, then what is the use of speaking up. On the other hand, if he chooses to conform so that he can survive to be heard, what will he say? What will become of his own values?

Donald Trump is heard widely because he tells many people what they want to hear. He speaks in language that shocks and in frequent tweets that his supporters, as well as those who do not agree with him, cannot help but hear. He is heard by all above the background noise.

Eight years ago, the new editor of a newspaper for whom I had been writing a monthly column for many years, told me that competition from social media was compelling his paper to change its tone and style. He said the subjects of my pieces were too serious, and the style too calm, for the younger readers that his paper must attract. Could I write about the more mundane concerns of these younger readers? And, could I make my language louder and shriller, he asked, to appeal to them?

There were some truths about our society and ourselves that I felt must be said, even to young people, even if they do not want to hear them. Also, I could not bring myself to exaggerate and curse just to be read. So I declined to distort my writing. I lost access to a large pool of potential readers that I could have had if I could have conformed with the tide. Did I do the right thing?

Doing the right thing

Small signs of hope are the media leaders who have not given up. They are developing new formats and new channels of communications, using social media too, to engage citizens with the deep institutional challenges that democratic societies are facing. To return to the metaphor used at the Aspen seminar, they are not willing to sell hard drugs to their customers (and make more money) if their customers say they want hard drugs. (I consider Founding Fuel as one such innovative media venture with a conscience).

A principal cause for the challenge to liberal democracy from rising authoritarianism and populism in many countries is the perception among the 99% that the 1% are colluding with their governments to make rules that serve them. They are corrupting institutions to serve their narrow interests. Political parties, large corporations, and mainstream media, all are tarred in the public mind with the brush of moral corruption. The solution for the decay of institutions cannot be another institution above them all to make them more honest. Because it cannot be ensured that this institution will not be corrupted too when it is led by similar people.

The courage to speak truth to power, and to be heard above the din, have become the principal challenges of our times

The solution has to be the awakening of the moral consciences of leaders of political parties, business corporations, and the media. They, and the institutions they lead, must serve the needs of citizens and society, and not just their own personal needs of power, profit, and popularity. To have the courage to speak truth to power, and also to be heard above the din, have become the principal challenges of our times for good journalists and citizens who want to make the world better for everyone. 

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About the author

Arun Maira
Arun Maira

Former Chairman, BCG India &

Member, Planning Commission

Former Member, Planning Commission of India
Former Chairman, Boston Consulting Group, India
Chairman, HelpAge International

Any discussion on policy, the future of India, and indeed the world, is enriched with Arun Maira’s views, and not just because he was a member of the Planning Commission of India for five years till June 2014. Arun is one of those rare people who have held leadership positions in both, the private as well as the public sector, bringing a unique perspective on how civil society, the government, and the private sector can work more closely to improve the world for everyone. He has led three rounds of participative and comprehensive scenario building for the future of India: in 1999 (with the Confederation of Indian Industry), 2005 (with the World Economic Forum), and 2011 (with the Planning Commission).

In his career spanning five decades, Arun has led several organisations, including the Boston Consulting Group in India, where he was chairman for eight years till 2008. He was also the chairman of Axis Bank Foundation and Save the Children, India. He was a board member of the India Brand Equity Foundation, the Indian Institute of Corporate Affairs, and the UN Global Compact, and WWF India.

In the early part of his career, he spent 25 years in the Tata group at various important positions. He was also a member of the Board of Tata Motors (then called TELCO). After leaving the Tatas, Arun joined Arthur D Little Inc (ADL), the international management consultancy, in the US, where he advised companies across sectors and geographies on their growth strategies and handling transformational change.

Recognising his astute understanding of both macro as well as micro policy issues, Arun has been involved in several government committees and organisations, including the National Innovation Council. He has been on the board of several companies as well as educational institutions and has chaired several national committees of the Confederation of Indian Industries.

In 2009, Arun was appointed as a member of the Planning Commission (now replaced by the NITI Aayog), which is led by the Prime Minister of India. At this minister-level position, he led the development of strategies for the country on issues relating to industrialisation and urbanisation. He also advised the Commission on its future role.

With his vast experience and expertise, Arun is indeed a thought leader. He is invited to speak at various forums and has written several books that capture his insights.

His most recent book, A Billion Fireflies: Critical Conversations to Shape a New Post-Pandemic World and Transforming Systems: Why the World Needs a New Ethical Toolkit before that, talk about how systemic problems of social inequality and environmental unsustainability are becoming intolerable. Prevalent precepts of good business management and best practices in government as well as civil society organisations are failing the needs of humanity. This calls for a whole new toolkit founded on systems thinking, ethical reasoning and deep listening. And that civil society, government and private companies need to work together to encourage a variety of local systems solutions for deep-rooted issues that impact different communities differently.

His previous books include An Upstart in Government: Journeys of Change and Learning (2016); Redesigning the Aeroplane While Flying: Reforming Institutions (2014)Remaking India: One Country, One DestinyTransforming Capitalism: Improving the World for EveryoneShaping the Future: Aspirational Leadership in India and Beyond; and Listening for Well-Being: Conversations with People Not Like Us (2017).

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