It is widely believed that mass media-especially the printed press-are necessary for the implementation of democracy in a country. The old (traditional) media, in my view, have largely failed in introducing, securing, and expanding democracy in any country. Basically, the media only reflect and try to retain the basic ideology and values of the societies in which they exist. The actual rule by the people does not appear to be a basic ideology anywhere.

Democracy, it seems to me, is a first principle of mass media ethics. Neither media practitioners nor citizens can make ethical decisions without having some kind of voice in media or political management. In theory, the media must try to expand democracy.

But in the U.S., for instance, the media do little or nothing to bring the people into the decision-making sphere of national life. Even during election periods the media largely serve as publicity platforms for the mainline politicians and political parties. They make little attempt to show the people how they can have a greater impact on national policy. They make little effort to bring new people into the political process. They make little effort to show the citizens how they can enter the decision-making ranks of government.

Authoritarianism of one kind or another is the dominant media-press philosophy globally. And with it is a thick overlay of raw machiavellianism. I think it is safe to say that there are two concepts at work everywhere: (1) some kind of oligarchy or autocracy, and (2) some kind of egoistic pragmatism or machiavellianism. It has always been the case.

But, today, with the new media-especially the Internet and the World Wide Web-many persons see the possibility of going beyond the traditional mass media in expanding democracy and ending much of the alienation felt by the world's populations. The question is: Will it happen? Or will the new media simply repeat the vested-interest perspectives of the old media in whatever nations they exist?

Three Types of Authoritarianism

One can make the case that all press systems are authoritarian. Let us look at three basic symbiotic authoritarian relations: press-government, press-people, and government-people.

In the press-government relationship, the government or the press (in a few instances) is the authority; in the press-people relationship, the press is the authority, and in the government-people relationship, the government is the authority. One should note that in none of three types are the people the authority.

Press-government: Government (if dominant or autocratic) is obviously authoritarian, whereas in so-called libertarian countries like the U.S., the press is the authority, vis-οΎ…-vis government and the people. The U.S. press for instance, free from government, typically makes its own editorial decisions but the people are largely ignored in decision-making.

Press-people: We have here a clear case of "press authoritarianism." The people have little or no input into the press. It is the press that is dominant-either autonomous as in the U.S., or government-dominated-and-directed as in autocratic or closed societies.

Government-people: The government (in relation to the people) is authoritarian. Its elite hierarchy makes constant decisions not asked for nor ratified by the people. In most countries, even where there are periodic elections, government dominance and decision-making is little changed. The government is basically the authority. Governments of all types are elitist, plutocratic, and very tenuously related to the masses of citizens.

The Media and Democracy

A country is not "democratic" simply because voting is permitted. Only a small portion of the people even vote, and those who do have no real say in determining those who run for office. Then, after the election, the people recede back into oblivion, having nothing really to say about ongoing government decisions. The media have not really tried to do anything about this situation-have not tried to break this fundamental bond of authority held by all governments.

For a country to have a democratic press or a democratic political system, four things are necessary: (1) regular widespread people's input into decision-making, (2) a knowledgeable and interested public, (3) a free and open marketplace of information, and (4) a responsible and receptive media management and political establishment.

What we actually have around the world are oligarchies, plutocracies, aristocracies, and autocracies of various kinds. (In the U.S., for example, there is a plutocratic oligarchy, where a few rich people make the governmental decisions.) People "rule" only in theory, and at present a meaningful democracy is a myth. The media-especially the "new" media-perhaps can do something about this.

If media owners and strong governments can refrain from interfering with interpersonal communication, the new media may be able to reach millions of people directly without any "gatekeepers" and achieve a level of freedom never before seen in press-government-people relationships. Finding ways to circumvent both government and the traditional press must be the mantra of the post-modern world.

Attempts, of course, will be made to retain the present domination of communication by big government and big media corporations. Buy-outs of the new media by the corporate giants will continue, and governments will use ever-more sophisticated methods to control them. The happy forecast of peoples' communication and freedom from restraint may prove to be nothing but a dream. Power and money are likely to remain supreme and the democratic concept of people-rule and the right to communicate is in for a long battle.

Who Is a Journalist?

This question will loom large as the new century goes forward. Is the lone person sitting at his or her computer a "journalist"? Or must there be some kind of centralized and identifiable corporate entity to accept responsibility for there to be "journalism"? In those countries having constitutional provisions for a free press, will cyber-communicators be considered journalists and part of the press? This is an important question. Even in a so-called "free press" country, just who will be covered by this freedom? The hope of many persons around the world is that the Internet and World Wide Web will open up communication channels between members of the masses, and the formal media and the government can thereby be bypassed.

Can the cyberspace community be considered an international "public sphere" where a true pluralism of messages can be sent and received? This would not exclude the present formal institutionalized media from also operating, but it would provide a much greater diversity of information and reasoned opinion. Of course, much of this cyber-info can be-and probably will be-useless, superficial, and even harmful. "Cyber-gossip" may well dominate. And there would be no institution (like a newspaper) held responsible to maintain some kind of quality and gate-keeping for the information. It is true that without the market incentive (or government desire) for a high degree of care and quality, cyber-journalism might become a nightmare of anarchistic and vulgar gushings from the darkest regions of the individual soul, lacking credibility or substance.

Expanding the Democratic Ideal

Regardless of the impact of the new media on free and enlightened journalism, we can be safe in saying that they should provide an impetus for democratic expansion. It is true that, for many, democracy is not what the media should seek-and there are many countries that exemplify this. These governments see democracy as dangerous and the people as basically too uninterested or too ignorant to rule. But assuming democracy as an objective, what can the media (old and new) do to make it more of a reality than it is today?

Let me make a few suggestions:

* The media can decide to give more people, and a greater variety of people, a greater voice.

* A free nation-wide, non-politically biased, national newspaper for a country (parallel to National Public Radio in the U.S.) could be instituted for the citizens at large in a given country.

* The media could suggest ways in their stories and editorials for the people to have a greater impact on government-maybe like suggesting that voters insist on regular meetings with their representatives.

* The media can provide more solid, governmental and political news, and reduce the amount of sensational, entertainment (especially sports) news. They are harming democracy, not helping it, by keeping the people occupied with trivialities and propagandistic political advertisements and slogans.

* The media (old and new) can try to reach more people with more information designed to make them more politically sophisticated.

* The government could use the new media for more people-participation in government. For example, voting could be eliminated and citizens could be appointed by lottery to parliaments and law-making bodies. This would eliminate economic, class, racial, and religious voting biases and would assure greater diversity in government.

* In market-economy countries the anti-trust laws could be better enforced-or, even better, a new law limiting an individual or corporation to ownership of no more than one medium.


Assuming countries desire to proceed toward democracy (and, of course, such an assumption is problematic), the national leaders and the media of communication must decide to cooperate to bring about more people-involvement in government. But, if countries do not want a democratic system, then they should get on with their elite-power systems and cease all the talking about "democracy."

What we have worldwide today is democratic rhetoric, but not true democracy. There appears to be no real resolve to open the doors to the people and provide real democracy.

Vested interests in the capitalistic media and in the autocratic-or party-dominated media conspire against democratization. Presently, media are used chiefly as advertising channels, as propaganda instruments, and entertainment havens. There is no real effort to expand democracy-either in the media or in government.

A few small efforts here and there-like public journalism in the U.S.-have made overtures to greater democratization, but they seem to really get nowhere. The great majority of media (at least their owners or controllers) do not seem to be ready for democracy. Oligarchy and plutocracy are in the global media saddle, and they are tough and experienced riders.

Two things really must be done to change the status quo. First, media operatives themselves must determine to change, to welcome outside opinions and information, and second, governments must truly want to accept non-elite citizens as legitimate participants in government.

These two necessities pose an uphill struggle. There is real reason to believe that neither the media moguls nor the deeply rooted government elite want democracy. And since they don't, the term will remain simply a high-sounding rhetorical tool for further narcotizing already jaded and alienated publics.

* John Calhoun Merrill is Professor Emeritus in the University of Missouri-Columbia, and has written many books and articles on the philosophy of journalism. For the academic year 2003-04 he is a visiting professor of journalism at American Univ. in Cairo, Egypt. He may be E-mailed at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

The above article was published in Media Ethics , Fall 2003 (15:1), pp. 9,32-33.