Media in the Public Sphere
Garnham sees the media as playing a very important role in providing essential information to the general public. In fact, Garnham even goes as far as to suggest that the media essentially influences the choices that the public makes, when it comes to the selection of leaders through an elective process. The position of the media within the public sphere according to Garnham, can be inferred from his statement that, “…public communication lies at the heart of the democratic process” (357). This argument according to Garnham, stems from the fact that most individuals, or members of the electorate, essentially make their political decisions on the basis of political debates they witness through the media. As such, Garnham posits that access to the media, significantly influences the decisions that people make. This makes the media and the question of media access a significant aspect of the democratic process.
Further, Garnham also raises an interesting twist to the debate over the role played by the media in the democratization process. This he does by highlighting the existence of a number of factors that have increasingly become significant in determining the levels of access to information, essential in determining the democratic process. The media, therefore, in short, shapes the democratic process by shaping public debate and opinion. Hence contributing significantly to the decision making process of the masses. This is in a way linked to the existence of two groups Garnham refers to as the “information rich,” and the “information poor” (358). The former have access to numerous and diverse content and are therefore capable of making informed decisions. While the latter, who make up a majority of the masses, have continuously been subjected to homogenized content primarily available through free public media.
Garnham encourages a critical look at the new role the media plays through the theory of the public sphere as articulated by Harbemas. The theory of the public sphere argues that equality is achieved through equivalent access within an open market. However, this is not the case, largely due to capitalism. Therefore, it is plausible to argue that although most people usually believe that a free media operating within an open market, free of regulation can act to provide the masses with equal access to public information, this is not the case. The capitalistic nature of the market has essentially led to privatization and commercialization of what should essentially be public information. This has as a result, changed the role of media within the public sphere, from an equalizing factor, into a tool that can be used to limit access to public information. This compromise has allowed for the indirect manipulation of the outcome of a democratic process. This according to Garnham, occurs through the interfering conditions common to any oligopoly, as well as the direct manipulation of political communication usually typical of privately owned media.
At the same time, Garnham also recognizes a number of threats that usually affect the media, more so within the public sphere. He posits that the contradiction between the political realm and the material realm potentially poses the greatest threat to free media. This is mainly because the media is forced to balance between achieving political freedom and maintaining an acceptable level of material productivity. If the balance is not correctly achieved, Garnham claims that there is a very high probability “that pursuit of political freedom may override the search for economic efficiency” or the converse may occur. As such, the greatest threat to the media according to Garnham, is the impracticality of achieving the balance required in order to effectively fulfill political and commercial functions. In fact Garnham believes the two functions are incompatible, as can be seen when he says, “Public communication is transformed into the politics of consumerism. Politicians appeal to potential voters not as rational beings concerned for the public good, but in the mode of advertising………such a politics is forced to take on the terms of address of the media it uses,” (363). This incompatibility compromises the ability of the media to remain objective and productive. What Garnham believes should be a public service is slowly being commercialized and compromised within the open market, threatening its very freedom.
All in all, Garnham feels that the role of the media within the public sphere has significantly changed due to the commercialization of the media. In an attempt to deregulate the media by allowing it to operate within an open market, society has created a dilemma for the media; one that has essentially changed its role from providers of public information in an equal manner, to public opinion shapers, and potentially manipulators of the democratic process. At the same time Garnham also recognizes the threats facing the media as stemming from the conflict that arises from the incompatibility of their commercial and political functions. Seemingly suggesting that the media has essentially gone against the rules meant to safeguard the democratic process and created a loophole through which the democratic process has become dependent upon the purchasing power of the masses.
Garnham, Nicholas. Media and the Public Sphere. Capitalism and Communication. London: Sage Publications, 1990. Print.