Media, Crisis and Democracy: Mass Communication and the Disruption of Social Order

Marc Raboy

Bernard Dagenais

This very useful collection of essays grew out of an international conference at Laval University in October 1990. More thematically coherent than many such volumes, the book's guiding thread is outlined by the editors: "If ... crisis is a structural feature of modern society, and media are the agents of social communication by which a crisis is made public, then the media-crisis relationship becomes a key factor in the struggle for democracy" (p. 5). Deciding which social /political changes are labelled as "crises" and structuring their representation in the public sphere has become "one of the essential functions of mass media" (p. 3); indeed, "the relationship between media and democracy can best be understood by referring to the notion of crisis" (p. 9).

The editors' introduction cogently elaborates these themes (although their effort to illustrate them with respect to the Gulf War would have been greatly strengthened by focusing less on the war itself and more on the preceding five-month crisis). In actuality, though, most of the essays concern how the media define, represent, and /or are otherwise engaged in crisis situations. The media /democracy relationship is a decidedly secondary question, addressed most squarely in two of the essays. The opening chapter by the distinguished theorist, John Keane, notes the threats posed to freedom and equality of communication both by various contemporary forms of State interference, and (paradoxical though it may seem) by the declining sovereignty of the State in the emerging international order; but he sees hope in the growth, however "slow and delicate," of a global civil society. Douglas Kellner's essay previews his subsequent book, The Persian Gulf TV War. He argues that U.S. democracy is threatened through centralized control of the media, especially television, by corporations pursuing their own conservative agendas. While some may find his analysis of Gulf War coverage overly instrumentalist, and insufficiently informed by the nuances of the concept of hegemony which he himself sometimes uses, it is a useful corrective to notions of an independent and adversarial media.

Other general theoretical chapters include Mustapha Masmoudi's consideration of the appropriate relations between media and State in times of crisis, using the Gulf War as a case in point, and Michele and Armand Mattelart's excellent concluding chapter. The Mattelarts provide an overview of shifting understandings of the nature of systemic crisis within liberal-democratic capitalism, and evolving media strategies used by oppositional groups seeking political change, over the past two decades. (Their comparison of two generations of protest is particularly engaging for those of us old enough to remember the 1960s!) Drawing from his years of research on TV representations of violence, George Gerbner challenges the functionalist and behaviouralist "effects" paradigm, and calls attention to the ways in which TV violence serves vested power: through its hierarchical and selective processes of demonization and victimization, and its promotion of a pervasive sense of insecurity amongst heavy viewers, TV violence helps to create a popular climate which can be mobilized politically for State repression. Gerbner also offers some insights into the politics and history of research funding.

The remaining chapters focus respectively on the media's treatment of and/or roles in a particular crisis: the collapse of communism in eastern Europe (Julian Halliday, Sue Curry Jansen, and James Schneider) and specifically Poland (Karol Jakubowicz); the October 1970 crisis (Dagenais); the Montreal Polytechnique massacre (Raboy); the "Amerindian summer" at Oka (Lorna Roth); and the murder of patients by nurses in a Viennese hospital (Peter Bruck). Each of these case studies is linked to broader insights concerning, e.g., the spectacularization and commodification of crisis (Bruck, Roth), the occasional cathartic function of media (Dagenais, Roth), the intertextuality of different levels of the media system (Halliday et al.), and much else.

In dominant political discourse, the media /crisis question is often framed in a top-down way, defining media as a potential threat to social order. By contrast, this book generally takes a broadly "critical" or bottom-up approach. In discussing media censorship and responsibility at Oka, for instance, Roth usefully reminds us that when the Army cut off the Mohawks' cellular phones, and when the media publicized the location of evacuees, the potential for victimization of Mohawks by the authorities or racist vigilantes was increased further. Most of the contributors appear generally to agree that the mainstream media access too narrow a range of voices, and disempower (even if in pleasurable ways, as Bruck argues) audiences-cum-citizens.

At the same time, as one would hope and expect in an edited collection, some interesting and productive differences are evident. For instance, while the book mercifully bypasses the excesses of the "postmodernist" debate in cultural theory, contrasting epistemological positions can be detected: do media (and discourse) construct, or reflect, situations of crisis? At one end of the spectrum, Bruck asserts, fashionably but problematically, that "Crises do not exist in the world. They exist in discourse" (p. 108). His analysis of tabloid discourse is largely internal, avoiding efforts to establish what "really happened" in the hospital. By contrast, Dagenais' analysis of the October Crisis uses the realist epistemological categories of everyday journalism: observers and witnesses vs. active participants; facts and description vs. opinion and argumentation. In between, many of the contributors (e.g., Raboy) quite sensibly acknowledge the media's role in defining crises and structuring them as public issues, without abandoning a bottom-line sense of a real-world-out-there that the media are reporting about, and of structural crises which cannot be reduced entirely to the product of discourse.

Another set of questions raised (sometimes explicitly), but not resolved, concerns the normative conceptions of democracy which underlie the authors' analyses. Some of the essays hint that a new kind of social (and media) system is needed; more often, the authors (e.g., Kellner) invoke traditional liberal ideals of balance, diversity, separation of power, and freedom of the press against such (admittedly very real) threats of State authoritarianism, ethnocentricism, and transnational corporate power. There is a certain timidity here, but it is characteristic of the Left as a whole in an era when alternatives to capitalism have apparently evaporated. It may well be that meaningful human survival necessitates transforming the current model of civilization, but, as the Mattelarts say in the last line of the book, "no one will take the risk of thinking of another one" (p. 180).

The book is quite topical and readable, considering its depth; most of the authors avoid turgid jargon or intellectual dandyism. One could quibble: the three essays originally written in French are occasionally more difficult to follow (translation difficulties?), and technical gremlins struck the references (pp. 186-187). But the book is not just required reading for academic specialists--it is also accessible to motivated journalists and senior undergraduates. It definitely has a place as a supplementary text in courses on media /ideology, socio-political conflict, and social movements.