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.