Two images occurred to me during this week’s readings: the mannered discourse of the civil society representatives at the 2003 WSIS conference, as described by Marc Raboy, contrasted with the spirited/vitriolic (choose whichever you prefer) debates on Fox staples like the O’Reilly Factor. Granted, Thussu doesn’t go into explicit detail on how Rupert Murdoch’s networks shape public debate, but does mention that “Fox News has redefined broadcast journalism in the USA, changing the way television news is presented and framed,” that is, as entertainment.
Another grab from the Thussu piece that caught my eye was the comment that Murdoch’s popular British newspaper The Sun maintains notoriety and high sales by promoting “sex, soccer and scandal” – an observation that will shock nobody who’s been in London when the evening papers come out. What caught my eye was the word “scandal,” because it’s central to Manuel Castells’ argument in Communication Power. While I agree with Professor H that the drier passages might go down easier with a glass of eggnog, Castells does have a lot of interesting points about the relationships between media controls and power, and he argues 1) that major political changes around the world are increasingly related to scandals and 2) their prevalence is changing the global political landscape. (That’s on page 253 and 254 of the book, for those who are curious.)
What struck me about the two images was their obvious contrast. On the one hand, we’ve got an enormous, elaborate, influential network under one individual. On the other, we’ve got an enormous, elaborate, increasingly influential network composed of many individuals and groups. The first influences the public sphere by selecting and framing issues and repackaging them in emotional, infotaining units. The second influences the public sphere via multistakeholder collaboration, networking and lobbying.
Having spent a large chunk of my week slogging through the open consultations of the Internet Governance Forum (the media governance body established by the WSIS at the Tunis meeting Raboy mentions) and having more familiarity with the TV network news format than I’d like, I’d be hard pressed to say which I’d rather participate in. One has flair, but little room for open debate; the other has plenty of room for discourse, and all the flair of a bureaucratic board meeting. Are these the only options for the future of the public sphere?