Chapter 4: The Mass Media of Communication

Education and the Common Good: A Moral Philosophy of the Curriculum
by Philip H. Phenix

Chapter 4: The Mass Media of Communication

The importance of the mass media lies in the fact that for the first time in human history the means exist for speedy total communication. The mass media provide the channels for full publicity. They constitute the basis for the rapid creation of a public, or of publics. This is the literal meaning of "publication." The mass media of communication must be of crucial significance for democracy. These techniques make it possible to define "the people" with new clarity, for they constitute an effective source of common experience. They greatly multiply the interconnections between individuals and among groups and correspondingly increase the need for conduct that takes account of other people. In nondemocratic forms of social organization the privileged ruling classes are protected by a curtain of privacy which shields their actions from general view. To be sure, mass communications may be used by tyrannical individuals or groups to increase deceptions and to compound injustices. But in the long run it would appear that these new media work in the direction of some sort of democracy, by making information available to everyone. This may not be ideal democracy, but it will be a form of social organization in which all the people must be reckoned with. Since under modern conditions the actions of all people in key positions of power and influence are thus likely to be known almost immediately by nearly everyone, these people cannot make decisions without reference to the reaction of the public. Hence the mass media produce a society in which all the people are at least tacitly consulted in the making of decisions of public consequence. In this sense they constitute an important democratizing force in the modern world.

It is not enough, however, that the mass media contribute to democracy. The crucial question is, what kind of democracy do they serve and promote? There is no doubt but that radio, television, newspapers, and all the other potent modern means of public-making create forms of association in which each person counts, in a way hitherto unknown. But to what end does he count? What is the animating spirit of those great new publics generated by the magic of the mechanical and electronic arts?

Three answers may be given to these questions. The first answer is that the mass media are tools for advancing the interests of those who control them. This concept of the purpose of mass communication is probably the one most widely held today -- though usually tacitly rather than explicitly. The channels of publicity, according to this view, are means of exerting influence, of getting people to believe and to act in ways the publicist desires. They are techniques for amplifying the power and range of the user’s words, so that he may (quite literally) have a greater voice in the conduct of human affairs. They are impersonal agencies for manipulating other people.

This first conception of the function of publicity is democratic only in the limited and perverse sense that the mass media create and influence whole publics, and that presumably every person is entitled to advance his interests in this way. But the publics thus created are not communities of free persons; they are masses of more or less identical psycho-physical objects pushed this way and that by the powerful purveyors of propaganda.

A second conception of the purpose of the mass media is, apparently at least, more benignly democratic than the first. This is the view that the function of the agencies of mass communication is to create and sustain a "popular culture." Now the goal is to serve the public’s interests, by supplying the people with what they want; it is not manipulation and control of the public by special interests. From this standpoint the people are consumers to be satisfied, rather than objects to be managed. There is always an author, an editor, or a performer who can represent every person and every kind of life, thus creating a great company of others who remind one that he is not alone and who give him assurance that what he does and approves is right. In this manner the powerful techniques of public-making have provided a major answer to the democratic demand for self-determination. While it is still not practicable for each person to do exactly what he wants, the mass media do contribute immeasurably to that self-justification which is the mainspring of the autonomous spirit. In this mass society every person -- a few misfits excepted -- can at last find public warrant for being or becoming whatever his heart desires.

Actually the craving for collective support for oneself is a sign of misgivings about one’s worth. Multiplication of this same self through mass identification does not produce personal strength, but only magnifies weakness. The pandering function of the mass media merely weakens human personality by fostering self-deception. The truth is that man is not and never can be really autonomous. He is not and never can be free to order existence to his heart’s desire. When he tries to do so, he is both resisted by the outward barriers to his asserted sovereignty and beset within by the sense of meaninglessness which comes from having no correspondence with the health-giving laws of life.

There is a close connection between the use of the mass media to advance special interests and their use to give the people what they want. When people live by the principle of want-satisfaction, they will employ any available means for acquiring the wanted objects. They will give honor, prestige, and power and will gladly subject themselves to those who will supply their cravings. In a society pervaded by the goals of consumption, those who seek power for themselves can also, by skillful psychological manipulation, create new wants, which they then proceed to satisfy, at a profit to themselves. A people whose highest goal is the freedom of personal gratification is thus most likely to be enslaved to those who produce and distribute the so-called "good things of life."

The third answer to the question about the purpose of the mass media and the nature of the publics created by them comes from affirming the democracy of worth instead of the democracy of desire. In this case the basic premise is that the organs of publicity exist to advance neither special interests nor public satisfaction, but solely the cause of excellence. Both those who publish and those who see or hear are committed to act and to judge in devotion to what is right and true. The process of communication is not simply a bipolar one between the publisher and his public, but is a triadic one involving also the controlling reality of truth, which transcends the participants and transforms the relationship between them.

The character of the mass media of communication and the purposes by which they are directed are, of course, of profound educational significance, chiefly because today they are among the most, if not the most, powerful and pervasive of all educational influences. Young people -- and older people, too -- are caught in an almost continual and inescapable barrage of sights and sounds from the various organs of publicity. Until recent years the average person had to seek out sources of information and entertainment. Now he has to seek refuge from their omnipresent importunity. Whether he wills it or not, every person is, as it were, bathed in a flood of symbols pouring in from the mass media -- music, news, sports, weather and market information. Onto the time-honored stimuli of the natural and social environments have been superimposed the more insistent stimuli of this new symbolic environment.

To a considerable extent the broadcasters and publishers are the leading educators of our day. It is they, perhaps more than schoolteachers and parents, who set the intellectual and moral tone of the society and suggest the values that shall govern the conduct of life. Perhaps the mass media are the real public schools -- the institutions in which the public is not only taught but brought into being as a public.

The public channels of communication are educationally important also because they provide a wealth of teaching materials and models for parents and teachers. The teacher is no longer one whose main function is to impart information, which is so abundantly available and attractively arranged in a variety of published forms. The function of teaching has become one of selection, evaluation, interpretation, application, and individual guidance. To put it another way, the mass media have shifted the emphasis in education from teaching to learning, because they offer at least the possibility of such rich resources of well-organized, authoritative, and cogent materials for learning that students need only the time and the incentive to learn. Again, this is to say that the most influential and important teachers, to some extent today and even more so tomorrow, are those who, speak and write for the mass media. Nonetheless a continuing and increasingly important task of ordinary teachers and parents will be to develop in young people the trained perception and critical judgment that will enable them to use published materials profitably and responsibly.

One further important link between education and the mass media is the fact that authors, broadcasters, advertisers, and others who speak through the public channels are nurtured in homes and schools. Thus, the traditional institutions of education may help to determine the character and the purposes of what is done via the newer agencies. In a healthy society the influences of homes and schools should complement and sustain those of the mass media, and vice versa, replacing the chaotic and frequently antagonistic relationships that now so largely prevail.

We turn now to a consideration of some of the principles that need to be observed if the mass media of communication are to contribute to a democracy of worth. As a preliminary to this analysis, however, it will be necessary to discuss the major antidemocratic consequences resulting from the use of these techniques. Along with the democratization of sorts inherent in the creation of comprehensive publics, there are also contrary, potentially undemocratic tendencies. These follow from the high cost of production in the mass media. Considerable equipment is required to print and market newspapers, books, and magazines, to make radio or television broadcasts, and to produce motion pictures. While per capita costs of mass-produced items are low, because of the large numbers of people involved, the cost per issue or per program is normally high. As a result, considerable concentrations of wealth and power are required by the mass media of communication. It is not possible for anyone who wishes to do so to create a public. The privilege of publication is limited to those who command the requisite resources of money and position.

These simple economic and political facts underlie the antidemocratic potentiality of the mass media. The ability of a relatively few already powerful people or organizations to exert still further pervasive influence introduces the possibility of tyranny and misuse of power in some respects even more devastating than that accomplished by physical compulsion. To hold the mind and imagination of a public in subjection is more injurious to their dignity as free persons than bodily restrictions would be.

These undemocratic tendencies and dangers can be counteracted. The mass media are not necessarily contrary to democracy. They can and should contribute to human freedom and justice in a democracy of worth. What is required is the public regulation of the mass media, by reference to standards of worth, in such a manner as to prevent their arbitrary employment for the advantage of private interests, either through deliberate manipulation or through giving the public what it thinks it wants.

The use of the mass media in a democracy of worth is based on four principles. The first principle is freedom of speech. If truth is to be known and right is to be done, there must be opportunity for exploration and for search, hence for diversity of beliefs and for the public expression of this diversity. The basic assumption of the free and open society is that no one can speak about the true and the right with final and full authority. There must be no official public view to which all are obliged to hold and from which no variance is to be permitted. It follows that the mass media should be organized so as to permit and encourage the creation of many publics. A single system of production and distribution, resulting in the making of a single public, would destroy the contrast and the variation that are the source of cultural enrichment and social progress. In other words, democracy should be pluralistic. A monolithic society, consisting of only one public, is a threat to truth and justice. Freedom of publication is a prerequisite for this necessary pluralism.

Freedom of speech is not, however, without its conditions and limitations; it is not absolute and unconditional. It is founded on the presumption of good faith in those who publish. It is one thing to defend plurality on the ground that no one can claim complete knowledge of the good and the true. It is something else to uphold it from the point of view of the demand for individual autonomy. To stand for freedom in the name of a truth that is beyond mortal reach is different from defending it for the sake of personal license. In this contrast lies the clue to what is meant by "good faith." Good faith is faith in the good. It is action predicated on loyalty to the good.

Thus, to the first principle must be added a second -- namely, the principle of regulation. It is in tension with the principle of freedom, of speech, not as total contradiction, but as partial limitation. It sets bounds to freedom. While plurality of published influences is desirable in order to allow for criticism and improvement, not any and every influence may be permitted. Any society needs some minimal standards which prescribe in broad terms the range of permissible public communications. Such definite judgments are necessary because even people who are committed to the good are never completely devoted to it. A society organized on the basis of dedication to excellence as an unargued presupposition is made up of people none of whom actually fulfills that ideal. There are also people in such societies who do not even nominally profess or assume any such allegiance to values and who pursue their autonomy, relying on the good faith of those who are dedicated to the right.

Whether the regulation shall be narrow or broad depends chiefly upon the degree to which the members of the society are actively and consciously devoted to the good. When such devotion is nominally assumed but is actually weak, it is necessary to set up stringent legalistic regulations which define within a narrow range the allowable forms of published and broadcast materials. When loyalty to the good is actually widespread and strong, social controls on what is communicated may be correspondingly relaxed.

Regulation of the mass media is not practiced solely in a democracy of worth. Such controls are also the main reliance of non-democratic social orders -- the means by which the techniques of public-making are reserved for the special purposes of those who hold the reins of power. Regulation is likewise essential in the democracy of desire, as the basis for insuring the social peace and cooperation necessary to satisfy the maximum number of interests. Though undemocratic societies, democracies of desire, and democracies of worth all must regulate the mass media, the nature and source of the regulations are different. In the first two, the controls are based on considerations of efficiency and expediency: in the one case for maintaining inequality of power; in the other, for distributing and equalizing power. In the third society the controls are based not on preservation or accommodation of interests, but entirely on value considerations -- on right, justice, and qualitative excellence.

Every society censors communications that would immediately en. danger the security and safety of the public. For example, use of the mass media to incite rebellion against the established government or the publication of military or diplomatic secrets are obviously inadmissible in any kind of society, on the grounds of corporate self-preservation. Other matters that would be repugnant to most people, such as gross misrepresentation of facts important to health and safety, or public displays of vicious and immoral conduct, would also normally be prohibited by law.

The question then arises of who should do the regulating. Ultimately the responsibility lies with the agencies of government. The courts may adjudicate complaints brought against publishers or broadcasters, legislatures may prescribe the limits within which freedom of speech is allowed, and other government agencies may exercise regulatory powers through the granting and withholding of licenses.

The extent to which such government control is required depends upon the degree to which regulation is privately and voluntarily effected. In a society where the people are widely committed to the right rather than to the advancement of their own interests and the satisfaction of their own desires, the censoring functions of government can be reserved for the occasional serious offender who escapes other controls. When voluntary private regulation is weak, strong government restrictions are required.

The producers of the mass media may regulate themselves through their own associations, both on an advisory basis and by invoking sanctions on those who stray beyond the bounds agreed upon. Individual producers may also regulate themselves, in the light of standards of excellence to which they have pledged their loyalty. Such self-control does not really belong under the principle of regulation at all, for it is simply the responsible exercise of freedom. This indicates that ideally freedom and regulation are not in any way opposed to each other. In fact, to be truly free is to regulate one’s conduct in accordance with the good. The principle of regulation is contrary to the principle of freedom only when freedom is taken in the sense of autonomy.

The distributors of the materials of mass communication are another important means of control. For example, subscription agents and booksellers can to some extent choose what they will and will not sell and to whom. Motion picture theaters can sometimes determine the films to be shown, and they can in certain cases restrict the viewing of films to appropriate persons (for example, to adults). Since television and radio programs, on the other hand, are open to everyone without limitation, it is necessary to maintain a more broadly applicable standard of public propriety than applies to the other forms of mass communication.

Finally, voluntary regulation of the mass media may be exercised by the receiving public as individuals and as groups. Voluntary associations such as churches and clubs may adopt their own standards of quality and may employ their own corporate disciplines to enforce the observance of these standards. Of special importance in this respect are families, in which books, newspapers, magazines, movies, and broadcasts may be chosen with reference to standards of worth considerably different from and higher than those generally prevailing. Family standards are continually subject to erosion from the inflow of debased materials from the mass media -- as in the brutality and immorality of many of the so-called "comic" books, the triviality, sensationalism, and distortion of most journalism, and the preoccupation with crime and violence in many television programs. It is the obligation of parents to maintain at least minimal standards in the home by appropriate regulation of the reading, listening, and viewing diets of their children.

Similarly, libraries and museums may regulate the quality of the materials acquired and the manner of their use by the public. Schools, too, play an important part in the selection of published materials, both in choosing what is used in regular instruction and in influencing students’ habits of seeing and listening.

The ultimate goal of control of the mass media is to educate the public in self-regulation -- to develop in all the people, whether producers or recipients, a reliable sense of what is worthy and what is not worthy of being made public. In this manner the principle of regulation supports and confirms the principle of freedom.

The third principle for the mass media in a democracy of worth is that of social support for excellence. In a democracy of desire or in an undemocratic system, where mass communications are used to advance the interests of individuals, of groups, or of the people as a whole, excellence is at best a by-product. There is no necessary relation between true worth and the satisfaction of wants. It is not often likely to be to the advantage of a newspaper publisher, for example, to print the whole truth or to present the most searching analyses of the news. Nor, apparently, can movie, radio, and television producers normally afford to offer a steady flow of high-level programs. Under these conditions, while materials of great worth may be produced, their appearance is fortuitous and sporadic and their tenure precarious. Furthermore, the very excellence of the offerings is compromised and tainted by their subordination to the interests they are used to serve.

The predominance of commercial support for the mass media in the United States is evidence that in this field a democracy of desire prevails. Newspapers, magazines, radio, and television are largely supported by the sale of advertising. Hence the nature of what is communicated is mainly determined by what will sell products. Each commercial sponsor tries to present whatever will please the most people among those who are in the market for his product. If he can make use of snob appeal to sell automobiles, washing machines, or beer, he may sponsor a symphony orchestra, but if a sordid murder drama would commend itself to a larger public, he will present that instead. Under this system there is no commitment to excellence as such, but only as it may happen to be a useful tool of product promotion.

By contrast, in a democracy of worth, excellence is the direct and primary aim, to which other considerations are subordinate. In such a society the means of mass communication are given direct social support for the publication and broadcasting of excellent materials. The money and the manpower are provided specifically to accomplish these beneficent purposes, which are of such great importance for public well-being. Thus, dependence upon organizations whose primary purposes are entirely other than public communication is avoided.

The principle of social support for excellence may be carried out by a number of different means. The most obvious way is for the government to operate its own general press, radio, and television services for the public good. This has not been done in the United States by the federal government, presumably because such activities are not included among the powers specifically assigned to it by the Constitution. However, some of the state and municipal governments have entered the broadcasting field in a small way. In many other countries government-controlled mass media are the rule. In some cases -- to public well-being have been made. In other cases the dangers to liberty in government-operated press and radio have become evident. This peril is most ominous when the government has a monopoly of the mass media. As pointed out earlier, democratic freedom depends on a plurality of public-making agencies. Even though the official media of communication may in principle be devoted to the good, those who operate them are never wise enough or good enough to be the exclusive architects of the public mind. Thus, while a case for government-supported mass media may be made, other independent agencies should coexist in the field with them, and safeguards should be provided in the system of government to insure that high professional standards prevail and that the media are used for the general good rather than for partisan advantage.

A second means of providing social support for excellence in the mass media is through private, nonprofit organizations devoted directly and exclusively to the mass production and distribution of high-quality communicated materials. Examples of such agencies are the noncommercial educational radio and television stations and certain nonprofit publishers and film makers.

Third, there are commercial mass media devoted to excellence and supported by direct consumer purchase of the materials produced rather than indirectly by the sale of unrelated advertised products. The highest-grade newspapers, magazines, and books are supported by a reading public dedicated to excellence. The success of such publishing enterprises depends upon a widely diffused will to truth and a widespread interest in significant cultural attainments. The plan of subscription television rests on the application of the same rationale to this newer medium of communication. Whatever its shortcomings in other respects, the idea has the great merit of establishing a direct relation between product and purchaser, thus creating the means of responding to a substantial demand for programs of consistently high quality.

Finally, the social support for excellence can be accomplished through the various institutions of formal education. As pointed out earlier, the mass media are now in fact, if not in name, the most powerful of all the agencies of education. Their function is to disseminate widely the resources of culture by means of words and images. This is also the primary function of schools. By long tradition the schools are deliberately responsive to the claims of truth and of other ideals of excellence. The mass media, as now organized, have no such generally acknowledged objective. This is understandable in a society organized on the basis of expediency, but not in one dedicated to the realization of values. In a democracy of worth mass media ought to be frankly regarded as agencies of education and should be made an integral part of the work of the institutions of education. The making public of information and even of entertainment is a natural and proper extension of the function of regular educational agencies.

A growing recognition of the educative role of the mass media may result in profound changes in both the schools and the agencies of mass communication. There is no reason, for example, why outstanding teachers cannot make valuable materials for learning at every level available by press, radio, and television to the public at large. With such public accessibility of the materials of instruction, the emphasis of teachers in school classrooms may shift considerably. Guidance, testing, and individual application can largely take the place of presentation of learning materials by the teacher. The primary function of most teachers should be to stimulate and channel the students’ dedication to make use of the abundant resources available through modern techniques of symbolic reproduction and distribution.

The great universities should become centers of public education in a new sense. They should not merely cherish their own intellectual life, serving only those who come to them for instruction. They should become major centers of mass communication, carrying on a continuous work of adult education of the public in the letters, sciences, and arts, by printed publications, by motion pictures, and by radio and television broadcasts. For this work they should receive the substantial material support that would be required to do the job at a high level of competence. In this way the institutions of education could admirably exemplify the principle of social support for excellence.

The fourth principle of democracy in mass communication is that of criticism, or of evaluative response by the receiving public. Only by criticism can the one-directional nature of mass communication be overcome.

Criticism may be accomplished in several ways. The first way is direct communication of the individual with the author, publisher, or producer. A relatively small number of thoughtful letters or conversations may have a significant influence on the quality of what is published. A second mode of criticism is the regular publication of reviews by expert critics. Evaluations by such reviewers have considerable effect upon the professional standing of authors and producers and in the formation of public opinion. They are particularly essential in a society devoted to values, to keep before the public a clear vision of ideal ends to be served and to show explicitly in what respects materials offered for public reception do or do not measure up to these standards. Third, criticism can be accomplished implicitly by the publication of material that acts as a countervailing influence. Fourth, indirect and inarticulate, but nevertheless effective, criticism may be effected by giving or withholding support for the agencies of mass communication. With commercial mass media supported by advertising, the individual consumer may respond by purchasing or not purchasing the advertiser’s products. This is obviously a cumbersome and certain mode of expressing evaluations. With government controlled media, criticism must take place through the regular political channels. In the case of mass media supported by private philanthropy or by the sale of materials to the public, criticism is exercised directly and powerfully on an economic basis.

It is with respect to the critical function that the pertinence of the institutions of education to the mass media of communication is perhaps most evident. Criticism is integral to the educative process. It is an essential feature of good practice in schools, colleges, and universities. When mass communication occurs under the auspices of nonschool agencies, criticism is an extrinsic function -- an activity carried on by interested outsiders who wish to have a part in determining the nature of what is made public. When the mass media are an arm of the schools, the critical function is intrinsic, since self-appraising, reflective activity is an essential feature of education. It is this self-evaluative function that makes the institutions of education uniquely appropriate as centers for mass communication in a democracy of worth.