The Public is (not) Public

When considering the public sphere in the media, it can be somewhat of an illusion to believe that the information that we willingly welcome is not mediated. Habermas’ theory that the public sphere is “a network of communicating information and points of view,” only applied to a fraction of the population, which brings into debate if the public sphere can ever truly be ‘public.’ The foundations of this concept that emerged in the 18th century meant that an “open discussion of all issues of general concern” could be subject to communal debate. However, just as James Deane describes in his chapter Media, democracy and the public sphere, what we see nowadays is the “erosion of the public sphere” which has been instigated by the supremacy of such elements in the media.

The public sphere’s structure as mentioned by Douglas Kellner, reflects the features of capitalist societies. As he states, “public opinion was formed by dominant elites and thus represented for the most part their particularly private interests.” So quite frankly, the public sphere was not so ‘public’ after all. I mean, the fact that this form of ‘social transformation’ was only exclusive for the elite, means that certain groups were “excluded.” But, in saying this Habermas did argue that he in fact was outlining an ‘ideal’ picture of the bourgeois public sphere and not a ‘normative’ vision.

Members of the Frankfurt School of critical theory, Theodor Adorno and Mark Horkheimer discuss the association of the public sphere and the media with clarity as referred to in Kellner’s study. He states that their “analysis of the culture industry” considers how “giant corporations have taken over the public sphere” and as a result, have converted it into one of “manipulative consumption and passivity.” In other words, what was first thought to be the rational discussion of ideas and concerns has evolved into the “manufactured opinion of polls or media experts.”

Looking at such shows such as Q&A or Insight really do bring into attention how mediated information is instigating a mediated public sphere. As described on the Insight SBS website, it is “a discussion forum focusing on a single issue with the participation of a studio audience.” Like Habermas’ idealization, this form of ‘public debate’ is limited to specific viewers, for all television companies have the power to determine what they can unveil to the audience. Furthermore, they are able to select which opinions are heard and which ones are not. Just as Habermas’ theory “excluded the poor and women,” and consisted of “educated and literate” males, content in the media is being “shaped by the demands of advertisers and sponsors who pay for the newly liberalized media” with an intense “focus on profitability” as Deane points out.

So at the end of the day, the notion that the public sphere is fair-minded is sadly a little shadier than one might initially suspect. As can be seen in today’s increasingly competitive media market, the presence of mediated information is what leads to a mediated public sphere. I hope that what you take away from this is the simple acknowledgment that certain corporations can control the public sphere in the media. Thus, through an awareness of this, you can improve your receptivity to the information you accumulate.

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