Habermas on the Press and the Market

In the Sueddeutsche Zeitung today, Juergen Habermas sounds the alarm (G) about excessive market influence on Germany’s quality daily newspapers. In the United States — once the home of aggressive investigative reporting — troubling signs have emerged at some of the nation’s top newspapers. The Los Angeles Times has been ruthlessly re-organized, and the Boston Globe has closed all of its overseas bureaus. At a time when the U.S. is fighting two wars.

Habermas, whose 1962 Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere is considered a classic of modern sociology, warns of a similar process on the horizon in Germany. News and information, he warns, cannot be treated as consumer products.

I note that Habermas does not mention blogs or other online information sources even once during the entire piece. Yes, blogs are still in their infancy and, and their influence is often exaggerated by fans. Still, Habermas’ lack of curiosity about this looming transformation is disappointing. That caveat aside, Habermas, as usual, makes interesintg points. Excerpts, translated by yours truly:

TV as “Toaster”

This argument about the special character of the product “education” and “information” reminds one of the slogan that was heard in the USA when television was introduced: This new medium, it was said, was nothing more than a "toaster with pictures." This implied that there was nothing wrong with leaving the production and consumption of television programs exclusively to the marketplace. Since then in the USA, media enterprises create television programs for viewers and sell the attention of their audiences to advertising buyers.

Wherever it has been generally introduced, however, this organizing principle has inflicted political and cultural devastation. Our [German] “dual” television system is an attempt at damage control. The media laws of the various German states, the relevant decisions of the Federal Constitutional Court, and the programming guidelines of the public broadcasting agencies reflect the idea that the electronic mass media should not merely satisfy the consumer’s easily-commercialized need for entertainment and distraction.

Listeners and viewers are not only consumers — not only market participants – but also citizens with a right to participate in cultural life, observe political events, and contribute to the process of opinion formation. On the basis of this legal framework, programs which secure the population a relevant “basic package” of information cannot be made dependent on advertiser-friendliness and their ability to attract sponsored support.

Motor of public discourse

Let us assume that some of the editorial boards [of Germany’s major broadsheet newspapers] come under pressure from financial investors who are interested in quick profits and who plan in unrealistically short time-horizons. When re-organization and cost-cutting endanger journalistic standards in areas relevant to the newspaper’s central mission, the political public sphere will be cut to the quick.

Communication in the public sphere loses its discursive vitality when it is not fed with information based on detailed research, or enlivened by arguments that are based on expertise which cannot be gained for free. Such an impoverished public sphere would no longer be able to resist populist tendencies; nor would it fulfill its required function within the framework of a democratic legal order.

We live in pluralistic societies. The democratic decision-making process can only sustain its ability to convincingly bind deeply ideologically conflicted citizens to the legal order when it satisfies two requirements. First, it must offer inclusion – that is, all citizens must have an equal right to air differences of opinion. Second, the airing of these differences in opinion should satisfy the condition of having a more or less discursive character.

Only deliberative discussions actually justify the assumption that democratic processes, in the long run, will make possible more or less reasonable results. The democratic process of opinion formation has an epistemological dimension, because it also concerns itself with a critique of incorrect claims and value judgments. A discursively vital public sphere participates in this process.

The public sphere contributes to the democratic legitimation of state conduct when it selects the matters that are relevant for political decision-making, develops them into distinct statements of the relevant problems, and, by means of more or less informed and rational positions, and channels them into competing public opinions on the issues.

In this way, public communication develops a stimulating and guiding force for the formation of public opinion and will – while at the same time forcing the political system to develop transparency and to adapt to changing conditions. Without the impulses of an opinion-forming press which informs reliably and comments judiciously, the public sphere will not be able to preserve its stimulating and guiding energy. When the talk is of gas, electricity, or water, the state is required to secure the citizen’s needs.

Shouldn’t it also be required to secure the citizens’ needs when this other kind of “energy” is in question – especially when supply interruptions threaten damage to the democratic legal order? It is not a "’system error" when the state attempts to protect the public good of the quality press in individual cases. The question is only the pragmatic one – how best to do so.

From an historical perspective, reining in free-market forces in the market of press products is somewhat counterintuitive, since the free market actually created the stage on which subversive thoughts could emancipate themselves from state repression.

However, the market can only fulfill this function as long as the laws of the marketplace do not saturate into the very pores of the cultural and political messages that are distributed by means of the market. This is still the correct core of Adorno’s critique of the culture industry. Critical scrutiny is required — because no democracy can afford a market failure in this sector.

UPDATE: I’ve updated the paragraph that begins "We live in pluralistic societies" in line with Jon’s perceptive criticism in comments.

6 thoughts on “Habermas on the Press and the Market

  1. I had read this, with interest, this morning, and I am pleased to re-read it here in your good translation.

    It is, in fact, a thorny difficulty: the media, if entirely entrusted to market forces, tend to turn into engines dedicated to turning us all into avid consumers; usually, this means a mix of blatant commercialism combined with appeals to our lower instincts. On the other hand, if entrusted to the state, the media, may, in the best case, turn into the bland type of programming found in socialist countries, or, in the worst, instruments of propaganda.

    While I find aspects of Habermas appealing–his “constitutional patriotism,” among others–to “erect a democratic dam against the colonizing encroachment of system imperatives on areas of the lifeworld,” on closer examination, opens up a labyrinth of paradoxes, for who will determine what democracy is, who the imperatives of the system? “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?”

    Back to the guardians of Plato’s ideal republic? The masses can’t be trusted, therefore power should lie with an intellectual elite?


  2. “The Los Angeles Times has been ruthlessly re-organized, and the Boston Globe has closed all of its overseas bureaus. At a time when the U.S. is fighting two wars.”

    The LA Times is probably the worst-run major newspaper in the US. The LA area has exploded in size the last 30 years – and the LA Times circulation has actually declined during that period.

    The Boston Globe is part of the NY Times group – and increasingly a satellite paper of the Times. The Old Gray Lady has her own financial problems. Nevertheless there were no announced cutbacks at the Times itself. The Times serves a far larger audience than the Globe – which would you prefer to see cut back?

    I think the newspaper market in the US is going the way that it has in the UK and most of Europe. Every major newspaper in the UK is national. There is no Manchester Guardian or London Times any more – merely the Guardian and the Times. When did one last hear of the Paris Le Monde?

    Investigative ‘journalism’? Methinks there was always much more smoke than fire in that particular supposed activity. Even the classic Woodward-Bernstein Watergate case turns out to have been far less than it appeared, the two young reporters having seemingly been led by the nose by ‘Deep Throat’, who turns out to have been a disgruntled passed-over high poobah in the FBI out to get Nixon.

    It’s still there, though. You see it all the time – just not in newspapers normally. Go to your local bookstore and look in the current affairs section where you will see Bob Woodward’s many books and those of his imitators. Investigative journalism is alive and well!


  3. Thanks for the encouragement, Gary. I have joined the Habermas list.

    I can’t claim to be a Habermas expert, but I am an interested follower of his thought. Speaking completely personally here, I find him easier to read in the original German. The density of his prose seems to be easier to manage in German, a language that permits extraordinary density and precision in the hands of skilled users. Habermas adjusts his style depending on his audience. When writing for a broad, educated audience, as in his “Kleine politische Schriften,” (essays on political issues) he reveals himself as a master of German prose style. A real pleasure to read, even when you’re not convinced by his argument.

    I should say that this is a rapid ‘blitz’ translation designed only to convey the basics of what JH said in a timely way to interested English readers.

    I will update it with a more complete and careful translation; I’ll try to do that soon, as time permits.


  4. Andrew,

    You comment that:

    The density of his prose seems to be easier to manage in German, a language that permits extraordinary density and precision in the hands of skilled users.

    That suggests that German’s permission of density and precision is what makes JH’s prose seem easier to manage in German than in English. Moreover, that connotes that there’s a German relativity to JH’s communication that is integral to what he’s saying—a Germanicness of the communication that resists translation?

    I would like for you to elaborate on your comment, as it’s potentially important.



  5. by the way: habermas just recently included blogs into his concept of the public sphere. just google “habermas” and “bildblog” (which was his example).
    TITLE: Juergen Habermas and Al Gore: Profit Driven Media Endangers Democracy
    URL: http://atlanticreview.org/archives/718-Juergen-Habermas-and-Al-Gore-Profit-Driven-Media-Endangers-Democracy.html
    BLOG NAME: Atlantic Review
    DATE: 06/24/2007 11:32:40 AM
    Juergen Habermas, Germany’s most prominent philosopher, criticizes excessive market influence on Germany’s newspapers in Die Sueddeutsche. Sign and Sight posted a full translation. Andrew Hammel comments in German Joys: In the United States — once the ho


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