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Reading Reflection (week 6)

Posted in Uncategorized by filizefe on February 17, 2009

“The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom”

by Yochai Benkler

Chapter 6: Political Freedom

Part 1: The Trouble with Mass Media


Yochai Benkler in this chapter analyzes the question of how the Internet and the networked information economy affect the structure of the public sphere over the mass media. Starting with the end of nineteenth century and throughout the twentieth century, mass media, and modern democracies co-evolved together. During this period, mass media (print, radio, and television) was dominating the platform of public sphere. Today, with the Internet as a technology and the networked information economy, we need a substantial alternative platform for the public sphere.


The interaction of culture, organization, institutions, economics, and technical communications infrastructure shape the public sphere. Mass media structured the public sphere of the twentieth century in all advanced modern societies. The Internet affects the public sphere on the cultural practice of public communication. The statements of the public sphere in the Internet are the invitations for a conversation, not a finished product as it was in mass media.


Design Characteristics of a Communications Platform for a Liberal Public Platform or a

Liberal Public Sphere


The communications system that offers the platform has to provide some design characteristics:


          Universal Intake: Filtering and accreditation to a set of political discussion topics.


          Filtering for Potential Political Relevance: Filtering the domain of organized political action.


          Filtering for Accreditation: Accreditation requires different kinds of judgments and provides a critical point of control. Credibility is a source of accreditation for the public at large.


          Synthesis of “Public Opinion”: Synthesizing the varied versions of beliefs and positions and rendering them to form a condensation point for collective action.


          Independence from Government Control: Converting privately developed observations, intuitions, and opinions into public opinions.


Basic Critiques of Commercial Mass Media


In liberal democracies, the advertising-supported, commercial mass media dominated the construction of the public sphere in the twentieth century. Sometimes, these media have played a fundamental role as “the fourth estate”. The emergence of the networked public sphere challenges this dominance of mass media.


Three primary critiques of commercial mass media:

1-      Too limited intake. Many unrepresented views due to distance from journalists.

2-      Too much power to the owners.

3-      Entertainment over news and analysis because advertising-supported media needs to attract large audiences


Three primary defenses or advantages in commercial mass media:

1-      Independent from government.

2-      Economic power for large newsrooms to support to perform the watchdog functions in society.

3-      Visibility and independence to identify important issues percolating in society.


Mass Media as a Platform for the Public Sphere


Basic characteristics of the communicational structure of mass media:

1-      Communication from a small number of people to a big audience,

2-      Vast difference between the number of speakers and the number of listeners,

3-      Immense audience of mass media affects the filtering and synthesis functions of the mass media as a platform for the public sphere.

4-      Functions of intake, sorting for relevance, accrediting, and synthesis are all combined in the hands of the same media operators because of high costs of organizing these media.


Media Concentration: The Power of Ownership and Money

The power of the commercial mass media depends on the degree of concentration in mass media markets. The two concerns of media concentration are:

1-      Lack of competition in a market,

2-      Mindshare: Media is concentrated when a small number of media firms play a large role.


Commercialism, Journalism, and Political Inertness

Another concern is that commercialism undermines the capacity to provide a platform for public, politically oriented discourse. The concern is that the commercial interests of these media will cause them to pull content away from matters of political concern.

Three components:

1-      Advertiser-supported media need to achieve the largest audience possible which leads such media to focus on lowest-common-denominator programming and materials,

2-      Issues of genuine public concern and potential political contention are toned down,

3-      Journalistic ethics vs. necessities of commercialism.


The core characteristic of mass media is that the content is produced prior to transmission in a relatively small number of centers and then transmitted to a mass audience, which consumes it.


The Internet communications alleviates the worst weaknesses of mass media as a public sphere. New models of public communication such as greater access to individual communications and to collaborative speech platforms can significantly improve the platforms for the public sphere.


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