Who Controls the Media and their Meanings?

This page lays out the two major models of media control, the Pluralist model and the Critical model, and suggests some grounds for something of a convergence between them. It then gives a number of considerations in terms of who controls the media and its meanings, in what fashion.

The Pluralist Model

The 'media in society' are made up of many interacting groups, institutions, interests, many sites of power -- government, institutions, the media profession, audiences with varying interests, advocacy groups, ad companies, and so forth. These have differing (at times, competing) interests, powers, social stakes, interpretive frames.

Many different social forces can have a certain amount of influence on who has access, what meanings get constructed, how they are constructed, and how they are construed. This situation is supported by social traditions, by a relatively open and pluralist society, by laws and ideology supporting the right of different voices to speak, by market forces, and by a consumer who is given power on a number of levels -- for instance the power to raise or lower ratings and sales by their behaviour, the power of have access to education and information, the freedom to construct whatever meanings they want, and the power to act politically influence public opinion and lawmakers.

Some pluralist theorists were aware of the idea of ideology, a term more commonly associated with the Critical Position, as early as the 1930's: aware, that is, of culturally-constructed and institutionally reinforced understandings of the world which privilege the positions of the powerful. As the American researcher Harold Lasswell wrote in 1948,

In every society the values are shaped and distributed according to more or less distinctive patterns (institutions). The institutions include communications which are invoked in support of the network as a whole. Such communications are the ideology; and in relation to power we can differentiate the political doctrine, the political formula, and the miranda. These are illustrated in the United States by the doctrine of individualism, the paragraphs in the Constitution, which are the formula, and the ceremonies and legends of public life, which comprise the miranda. The ideology is communicated to the rising generation through such specialized agencies as the home and school [what the marxist theorist Louis Althusser later called the Ideological State Apparatuses] 1

Lasswell goes on to say that ideology is "only part of the myths of any given society," that there might be counter ideologies within (and of course, between) social groups. Generally pluralists held ideology to be a serious but not an ultimately determining force.

Other pluralist thinkers, however, seem innocent of this concept, and have an unproblematized faith in the freedoms of the democratic system and in market forces.

The Shaping of the Pluralist toward the Critical Position

The pluralist position has been over the last twenty years strengthened and made more ideologically aware through the influence of the work of two European writers working from within critical traditions.

One is the Russian Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin, who advanced the proposition that language is inherently ideological in that it informs and expresses the particular way in which the speaker sees and feels about the world and her position in it; in that any language is made up of many sociolects, or ideological positions, attached to class, region, age, profession, and so forth, so that individuals are situated differently withing the larger social unit; and in that any social meanings involve a complex interplay among and competition among these sociolects, or ideolects.

The other was the French theorist Michel Foucault, who saw power as operating in society through many centers, and in many ways, and who pointed out that power is not inherently negative -- it is what is necessary for anything to happen. Foucault did focus attention on the restrictive forces of institutions and on the central role of ideology, but he also imagined a world much less predictable and much less controllable by socially dominant forces, than the critical position imagined.

Added to these recent positions in support of a pluralist perspective has been the poststructuralist sense that a 'subject' is a socially constructed position within the system of meanings of a society, and that individuals may variously occupy different subject positions (I am variously a father, a husband, a professor, somewhat of a post-structuralist, a dog owner, and so on, and my sense of myself, and my realm of meanings, changes, this theory holds, as I move through these various subject positions). The media may structure subject positions for me; alternately, I may bring the decoding potentials of different subject positions to different mediated messages, hence make different meanings.

The Critical Position

There are varying positions here, but they have in common a belief that societies are managed through ideology and through the economic interests and controls that the ideology privileges. Variously the positions hold that the 'ruling class', influences the understandings of the populace

Different critical traditions put differing emphasis on theses forces; they vary from on the one hand a 'tight control' model rooted in a sense that the economic forces in society are central and drive the formulation and operation of the political, juridical, educational, and cultural structures, methods of operation and beliefs, to a 'loose control' model which sees dominance more in the form of a loose alliance of controlling groups, and control as being exercised mainly through the general socializing process, which privileges the ideas and values as well as the political and economic interests of the ruling elite.

The various positions of power named in the pluralist position are seen by the critical tradition to be circumscribed and united by the dominant ideology, which ideology privileges the ruling class. The media for instance, is an institution; its leaders and professional are trained in institutions; these institutions are shaped through, and serve the interests of, the dominant ideology. The audience themselves have for choice of interpretations only the possibilities that have been structured for them be the socializing process. Again, this control can be seen as structural (operating through the control of money, power, and control of who can speak) or as hegemonic (operating through the construction of a the cultural imagination, which is itself largely formed by, and homed in, institutions).

The Shaping of the Critical towards the Pluralist Position

The critical model, under the pressure of theorists like Foucault and Bakhtin, and of the Cultural Studies tradition with its emphasis on the differing ways in which messages can be decoded by audiences situated differently historically and socially, has moved towards the 'loose control' model, which model sees control as being more distributed than centralized, and effected more through ideology than through direct economic and political forces. There has been, then, a general (although not a universal) movement of pluralist and critical traditions towards each other.

1 Harold D. Lasswell, "The Structure and Function of Communication in Society," in Lyman Bryson, ed, The Communication of Ideas (Institute for Religious and Social Studies, 1948); reprinted in Sources: Notable Selections in Mass Media, ed. Jarice Hanson and David J. Maxcy, Guilford, Connecticut, 1996, pp. 22-29.

Here is how the situation might be seen in practice:

There is control of the media, its content, and its meanings in terms of the following considerations: