By. Miguel Angel Sanchez de Armas
John B. Thompson belongs to a generation of sociologists who have refreshed the study of media and communication by rereading and reexamining traditional schools, in fields that the establishment academic would avoid with a hint of disgust. Such is the case of his theory of “scandal” in the media.
During a visit to Mexico, this Cambridge researcher who has studied the influence of the media in the formation of modern societies, It opened a space for me to exchange points of view.
Of his extensive academic catalogue, I was particularly interested in The political scandal: power and visibility in the media age.
As he indicates in the introduction to the text, “From the Profumo case to rigged television game shows, from Watergate to the Clinton-Lewinsky affair, scandals have become a fundamental aspect of modern political life.”
Thompson wonders: “What are the characteristics of political scandals and why have they become so relevant today? What are the social and political consequences generated by the concern produced by scandals in the public sphere?
During the The talk extended into his reflections on the role that the media really have in the construction of what we call “a democratic society” and what he judges to be the true nature of the relationship of the media with the political class (rather than with the ” State”, as proposed by the classical school).
This is due to the fact that during election seasons -particularly but not exclusively- we notice the trade in favors between the political class and the media that abdicate their role as social controllers to put themselves at the service of a party program. We clearly warned about this in Mexico.
The question is whether or not this abandonment of principles impacts the behavior of voters in the way their strategists think. My own perception is that this is not the case, and that the true consequence of this traffic is the gradual depoliticization of growing sectors of society.
And if my perception is correct, the politicians and media sharing the business will pay a heavy price as today’s “victories” will be reduced to pyrrhic episodes in the very near future.
In the case of Mexico, it would be convenient for well-known politicians to see themselves in the mirror of those who cannot escape their past no matter how much they put on “democratic” powder.
Here are excerpts from the conversation I had with Professor Thompson:
SdA: The relationship between the media and politicians is widely questioned…
J.T.: The media are a group of organizations that operate with their own forms of competition and rewards, the same as political instances, mounted on peculiar structures. But although both are structurally differentiated, their fields overlap and the area of overlap is the arena of mutual dependence and mutual suspicion.
It is mutual dependence because politicians need the media to circulate their messages among voters, while the media require the content that politicians provide. But by obeying different dynamics and logic, they frequently enter into relationships of conflict and tension. Such mutual dependence, mounted on different structures and even regulated by a cynical attitude between the parties, frequently places them in conflict.
In this context, what we call “the audience”, that is, the group of ordinary citizens, is not really part of either of these two worlds, but has, to a large extent, its source of political information in the media. .
Although it can be proposed that this relationship influences the perception that citizens have of the political and social world, it is not something that can be taken for granted. These are variable empirical phenomena that must be carefully analyzed. I do not believe that attitudes and behaviors of the electorate are a mechanical consequence of what the media serve and what politicians want to promote. It is a fallible process, fraught with unpredictable consequences.
Now, while the increasing availability of media gives leaders unprecedented political and symbolic power, at the same time, to the extent that they cannot control the process, it makes them vulnerable in ways that have never been the case in the past. . This is what I propose with the “scandal theory”: it is the reaction and consequence, or the reverse of the process, of the mechanisms used by political power to try to set the agenda of the voters.
In general terms, then, it is a reciprocal dependence and mutual suspicion. Personally, I don’t think that’s wrong. I think it is very important that news organizations maintain their independence from governments and see themselves as the fourth power, that is, entities that have part of the responsibility of assigning responsibilities to governments. They must be critical of governments and distrustful of political power. It is part of your responsibility.
However, there is always the danger that things will go too far and that duty of supervision will turn into cynical behavior. Some journalists are so deeply cynical and skeptical that they actually contribute to a climate of mistrust.
SdA: “Scandal” is a term that can be confusing. I suppose that applied to the media you give it a rather biblical meaning.
J.T.: I use the term “scandal” because it is a wonderful lens to study how the media have transformed the nature of political life since at least the 18th century. The development of the media has promoted a new concept of the political. By linking structures that each operate with their own logic, common areas are created: politicians use the medium to make themselves heard but the medium is beyond their control and one result can be the distortion of that message.
SdeA: Has the political class been successful in manipulating the media?
J.T.: I have no doubt that energy and efforts are wasted within governments for that purpose. Tony Blair’s government was famous for its efforts to prevent the media from reporting situations and events not favorable to his administration. I think politicians try to influence the media, but they can’t control it.
SdA: It seems a futile task if we take into account that the penetration of the “news” constantly decreases while “entertainment” monopolizes the audience.
J.T.: I cannot give a generic answer. I wonder: could governments stop trying? I do not think so. It is too important a situation for them to take an attitude of laissez faire, laissez passée before the media. On the other hand, although some of the theories of the last century on the influence of the media on electoral practices -such as Lazarsfeld’s- maintain a certain validity, there are undoubtedly factors of greater weight in the determination of such conduct.
SdA: What then is the role of the media in the construction of democracy?
J.T.: There are changes, but it would be unwise to assume that they are unique to our era. Even in the 18th and 19th centuries there was great plurality with the rise of various print media offerings, so the assumption that everything was simpler in the past is not correct.
There have always been instances of mediated communication and spaces where political actors used the media as a vehicle. Today, with the proliferation of media and new technologies and new options that allow individuals to generate and circulate content -such as blogging– New audience profiles have been generated.
This has made the panorama more complex, of course, but it seems to me that it is more quantitative than qualitative. It is difficult yet to know whether or not this will present a significant challenge to the role of traditional media.
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