Review of Democracy and the News

by Herbert Gans

Oxford University Press 2003 168 pp. 26.00

Copyright © Steven E. Alford 

            The ability of journalists to fulfill their functions within a democratic society has come under increasingly shrill attack lately—from journalists.  From Bernard Goldberg on the right, to Eric Alterman on the left, to attack poodle Ann Coulter, somewhere on the surface of Mars, no one has much good to say about “the media.”  The principle charge is that members of the media fail to do their jobs properly owing to ideological bias.

            A distinguished sociologist has quietly entered the fray with Democracy and the News, a brief, problems-and-solutions oriented book, vigorous in its research and charming in its idealism. 

            Herbert Gans upholds the traditional view of the role of journalism in a democratic society.

            “(1) the journalist’s role is to inform citizens; (2) citizens are assumed to be informed if they regularly attend to the local, national, and international news journalists supply them; (3) the more informed citizens are, the more likely they are to participate politically, especially in the democratic debate that journalists consider central to participation and democracy; (4) the more that informed citizens participate, the more democratic America is likely to be.”

            However, he argues that the terms of the current debate are misconceived, suggesting that the problems with modern journalism “are not the outcome of a liberal (or conservative) journalistic ideology. Nor can they be explained as the work of journalistic serfs obeying the commands of their corporate owners. The problems stem largely from the very nature of commercially supplied news in a big country.”

            More than anything else, the increasingly short news cycles for both television and print media (the latter exacerbated by internet reporting) leave little time for searching out stories.  In addition, media organs have become little more than appendages of larger corporate structures.  Consequently, Gans argues that journalists rely on “top down” reporting, delivering news “that deals with mostly people of power and high rank,” i.e., leading government officials. 

            These officials can be relied on to hold press conferences and schedule other public events for journalists which, Gans argues, transforms journalists into “messengers for high government officials.”

            By giving elite officials a platform, journalists indirectly elbow other government officers out of the news, even though those people (from, say, the Social Security Administration) may well have more direct influence on individual citizens’ lives.

            More serious, journalists focus on “business news” while ignoring economics.  Again, business news features high-ranking corporate actors, while economic news might well purvey information about trends and events that directly affect the working class, who comprise the majority of Americans.

            “The news does not take much account of the political roles that citizens themselves actually play. Despite the lip service journalists give to citizen participation, how and why peopIe participate, other than voting, is rarely reported.”

            Gans then discusses the effects of news on citizens.  Paradoxicaly, he argues that “the effects of the news are limited; consequently, the extent to which journalists can help strengthen the democratic roles and powers of the citizenry is also limited.”

            Despite such pessimism, Gans devotes two chapters to potential solutions to journalism’s problems, and here the argument stumbles badly.  Gans thinks that journalism can play a role in fostering a “citizen’s democracy”: “that form of representative government that maximizes the political responsibilities, rights, and most important, the public decision making of citizens without impaling the function of the economic and political system.”

            If we accept his premise early on that we live in a government-engendered corporate plutocracy which journalism, consciously or not, helps to foster, it’s entirely unclear how Gans thinks that the media are going to voluntarily transform themselves into advocates for the working class. 

            Among other solutions, he advocates developing “multiperspectival news,” journalistic reportage from the homeless, minorities, and other underrepresented groups, which would be “the bottoms-up corrective for the mostly top-down perspectives of the news media.”

            Anyone who has ever heard of John Malone, Clear Channel, or AOL/Time-Warner surely understands that the corporatization of the media can only move further toward utter monopolization.  What power would counter these behemoths’ march toward information domination is not specified.   

Democracy and the News is a sober, researched, and valuable contribution to the current discussion of the media.  However, while Gans’ idealism is admirable, his solutions in no way stand up to the enormity of the problems in the media, problems that do indeed threaten our democracy.