“Media” – one of the most popular words as it seems. We speak of mass media, of media revolution and of living in a media society. And we complain about stimulus satiation [Reizüberflutung] when we are overloaded with all these letters, sounds and films, pixels, headlines, jingles. Media – when we use this term in this context we speak of print and electronic media, the so called mass media – affect our modern life in nearly every way; the following text deals with the importance of media to politics and society.
Media’s prime task is to inform the people. This relates to our form of government: In a democracy the “demos” should know what goes on in the world as it is the one, that decides. A modern democracy cannot work without the media which are an agent between public and state, the Latin word “medius” describes a status in the middle and that is exactly where we can find media: between two entities of communication. You could counter that nor the ancient Greeks for example needed the media in their democracy, and it was a really excellent type of democracy, when we look at its structure. That is true and when we think of why it was so excellent we will see the directness embodied by the Ekklesia – a meeting of all then civilians. Something like that is unimaginable for modern polity. Since we cannot organise a meeting between 50 million people to inform them orally, we need an instrument, the media. That is the precondition for political participation of the people.
Information as a main task of media sounds easy but in my opinion it is not that simple at all. Information is always a balancing act between objectivity and subjectivity. On the one hand media have to inform about all important happenings and keep the information as neutral as possible. On the other hand media should also be a platform for groups and organisations that are not mainstream. It should control and criticise not only political parties but also society. Concerning this control function it is important to have a variety of media horizontal and vertical, both different types of media such as TV and newspapers and different providers such as ARD, ZDF or RTL. Due to the control function we call media the forth force in a contemporary democracy.
Media have also an economic side. The German TV system consists of public and private stations. In my opinion it is necessary to have both, for both have advantages and disadvantages. Private TV stations can decide freely what they want to present. As they live on advertisement fees and earn the more the higher their ratings are, a market arises. That has the inescapable consequence of a reign of market’s rules: We are talking about the law of supply and demand. To reach good ratings private TV stations broadcast what people want, some problems can result from this point: There is the danger of delivering stereotypes or superficiality and indifference in general, TV becomes a dumbing machine, as some people claim. “Infotainment” instead of information, “politainment” instead of policy. Besides there are public TV stations, and the main difference is that they are not really free, their program is created under a certain standard and the directors are from different groups such as political parties or labour unions.
But then they do not have to look on ratings and can really achieve media’s aim of political education. We need both, public TV stations not to become too superficial, and private ones to be aware of a state TV monopoly which might exist in dictatorships for example, a historic example is the Third Reich, where the Nazis’ most important propaganda machine was the “Rundfunk”, controlled by propaganda minister Goebbels in person; a contemporary example could be the situation in Tibet, where both internal and external media have no permission to film and no access at all respectively. Not for nothing one of the basic principles of democracy is freedom of press.
Media have two further important tasks: entertainment and creating topics of conversation. It sounds sarcastic but this is a main reason why people for example watch TV: to be able to have conversations with lots of people, even if they have no other similar hobbies. Furthermore it raises your status if you are informed, to be subscriber [Abonnent] of the FAZ or DIE ZEIT for example. Sociologists warn against a so called knowledge gap. This means that a gap develops between people who are informed and take part in cultural and perhaps intellectual life and people who are not. Perhaps you could compare this knowledge gap to the often recited poverty gap.
Mass media have big influence on our all day life, whether we want it or not. They set trends and spread them, they influence our way of thinking in an enormous way and they have a long arm in political issues.
These characteristics are more positive than negative as long as some conditions are fulfilled: first a wide diversity of media, second no oligopolies/monopolies and of course freedom of press, third fulfilment of media’s main tasks information, political education and control.
The last words belong to an anonymous author and by quoting him I want to remind you of the Hesse election campaign:
“In former times politicians made policy and the media reported on it. Today media makes policy and the politicians put it into execution.”