Course: Introduction to Media Studies (Media and Society) SLLS1005
Two opposing views on the role of media in society have thus far dominated media studies: the Marxist and liberal-pluralist perspectives. Simply, Marxist theorists see the role of the mass media as a means of maintaining the existing state of affairs, while the liberal pluralists see the role of the mass media as a means to promote the freedom of speech. The following essay will look more closely into the theories of these two schools with regards to how they see the role of the media in society, and offer some examples related to media in South Africa and globally.
According to the Marxist approach, capitalist society is seen as one of class authority; the media is seen as part of an arena where class views are highlighted and promoted under the veil of autonomy. Society is led to believe what they digest and they then form part of the dominant class culture (Jacobs, 2008). Economism is one of the key features of classic Marxism whereby the economic base of society is seen as determining everything surrounding it, including the social, political and intellectual consciousness (Chandler, 2000). In this way, the messages carried by the media, including the way that they are produced is determined by the economic base of the organisation in which they are produced. Commercial media organisations are forced to cater to the needs of advertisers and produce material that would maximize products (Curran et. al. 1982). The main concern lies with the ownership and control of the media. The Marxists see the ruling classes as promoting their views while denying any alternative ideas and so creating a false consciousness (Curran et. al. 1982). When evaluating ideology, the Marxist approach believes that the dominant ideology within society is the ideology of the ruling classes and according to the Marxist political economy, conceal the class struggle (Chandler, 2000).
The Frankfurt School is concerned with the development of a revolutionary philosophical variant of Western Marxism (Sander et. al. 2000: 54). Two members of the Frankfurt school, Adorno and Horkheimer, developed a sociological approach to media. They saw media as a “culture industry” maintaining power relations and lessening the resistance levels of society by popularizing certain types of culture (Sander, 2000: 55). The masses are seen to be ‘dumbed’ by the media and they lose their ability to function as citizens, being overpowered by the constant consumption of culture and products (Sander, 2000: 55). These individuals, according to Adorno, are open to the domination of the industrialised, capitalist system (Sander, 2000: 55). As Herbert Marcuse states: “The products indoctrinate and manipulate; they promote a false consciousness, which is immune against its falsehood” (Chandler, 2000). The Frankfurt school has an intensely pessimistic view of the media.
McQuail (2005: 56), however, argues that it wasn’t until the 1960s and the 1970s that the ‘alternative paradigm’ or Marxist approach, took shape, where it combined ‘’anti-war and liberation movements of various kinds’’ (McQuail, 2005: 56), together with neo-Marxism.
It could be argued that the Marxist approach is an accurate depiction of the media’s role in Europe in the 19th Century. In 19th Century Europe, political systems were mostly led by either monarchies or aristocracies with little power being afforded to the working classes. The 20th century, however, saw an increase in single-party democracies and increased freedoms that fit more closely with the liberal-pluralist approach.
The liberal-pluralists view, lies with the independent role that the media has to play in society (Williams, 2001). John Keane distinguishes four arguments that underlie the free press theory. The first is the theological approach. Here John Milton (1644) opposed any state restrictions on freedom of expression...