Contesting Media Power
Official URL: http://www.rowmanlittlefield.com/Chapters/Index.sh...
Abstract or Description
To say that “the media are powerful” is a cliché, yet to ask in what media power consists is to open a riddle. Or so it seems. In the chapters that follow, we intensify this paradox by extending it to a global scale but also, through the rich comparative detail that is generated, aim to show that the paradox is more illusory than real.
One way of defining media power, if an unwieldy one, is as a label for the net result of organizing a society’s resources so that the media sector has significant independent bargaining power over and against other key sectors (big business, political elites, cultural elites, and so on). This seems straightforward until one realizes that the media’s bargaining power (for example, over the framing of a particular story) is of a curious sort: Media are unable to bargain over the basic rule of their existence, which is that they depend on “content” generated by others. (Or at least they did: One interpretation of the recent spread of celebrity stories and “reality” coverage in the press and television in the United States and Europe is that rising economic costs of news production have forced media to generate their own “contents” and treat them as if they were “external” reality.)
Here we come to the heart of the apparent paradox about media power, which derives from the fact that such power faces two ways. From one direction (the more common direction of analysis) “media power” is a term we use to point to how other powerful forces use the intermediate mechanism of media (press reports, television coverage, websites, and so on) to wage their battles (big business against labor, old professional and class elites against new cultural elites, and so on). From this direction, media power disappears; it is merely the door through which the contestants for power pass en route to battle. We find this approach, for example, in Manuel Castells’s recent theory of the global “network society,” in which he argues that in a space of accelerated information, people, and finance flows, the media portal is increasingly important for all social action, but the media themselves have no power as such (1997: 312–17). That this direction of analysis often has precedence is only to be expected; in studying the media’s social role, our priority (whether as researchers or as social actors) may well be to analyze competing forces outside the media, whose conflict is waged in part through media coverage.