More on Mill and Media

Last class we talked about how Mill’s view is that everyone has the potential to become the member of a society if they are “prepared” to do so. I thought it was interesting how closely Chomsky’s view of modern mass news-media fits with Mill’s conception of “preparation.” As background, Chomsky’s basic theory is that the media is a propaganda model that basically serves the interest of the government regime. This happens because the media’s largest source of information is from government documents, the people who own media companies are entrenched in the political hierarchy, advertising revenue is greatly dependant on producing a program that upholds the status quo, etc. To see more about this, read the opening of Herman and Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent (it’s a lot easier to get through than both Mill and Rousseau). The role the media then is to distract the greatest number of people by giving them hollow information, focus attention on issues that are favourable to the regime, and ignore less favourable issues.

This short summary seems radical, giving the impression that we are being controlled like puppets. However there is, I believe, validity in the argument. We have already brought up in class the plain stupid gimmicks such as CNN’s truthometre or whatever it was. We all know how the news is saturated with fluff “human interest” stories. But there are very important issues that we argue about when we really have now idea what the hell we are talking about. For instance: who in our class really has any understanding of what has gone on in Afghanistan other than there used to be a group called the Taliban who ran the government (and even this statement might be misleading: how much of the country did the Taliban really have strong control over? I don’t know)? We’ve been there for nearly ten years and still we have no concept of the basic details of the situation. One of my favourites: I was in the U.S. when the whole health care debate was going on, and I had no clue what everyone was arguing about. Something about death panels? Maybe that’s just because I am a biased foreigner, but I’ll leave that for another blog post. Another favourite: how it took a couple of years before some Americans would admit Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction, whereas in Canada, the majority never accepted the premise in the first place. This one in particular served a direct political motive. The healthcare one is perhaps a more complex example.

I don’t necessarily want to debate the theory in this post (though I think it would be valuable to discuss the relationship between media and democracy in class), but rather to point out how Mill might condone media taking this kind of role in society by arguing that it could prepare or train the people to act in a way that is better for society. Of course, in Chomsky’s theory, he argues the opposite, that media functioning this way is bad for society. In either case, it is a fascinating subject.

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