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Category Archives: The Vulgar Barrel

why I started reading Marx in the first place. In the style of US education I experienced (mostly public, but with secondary education split: two years catholic-private and two years suburb-public advanced placement track), it occured to me, for a reason I am not aware, that the theories of Karl Marx were implicated in so many major events and yet so casually disregarded, or relegated to a single 45 minute class. Maybe some students read the Communist Manifesto, which even Engels says in the Introduction was a polemic, an important one no doubt, but a dated one as well. However it is perhaps impossible for most teachers let alone teenagers of the United States to read a polemic like the manifesto and understand, at the very least, what is meant by the term ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’. A dictatorship is a particular arrangement of rule generating fields. It can be a dictatorship in the sense we think of today, i.e. Pakistan, Cuba, North Korea, Libya, etc., or it can be a ‘representative’ republic. In either case there are those with much power to dictate and participate in dictation and those with much less. Furthermore, as even the most basic demographic and economic statistics will make clear, there are clear trends and dominant patterns as to which groups dictate in any given system. The ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ makes much more sense when put next to the concept ‘dictatorship of the bourgeoisie’.

Of course, I’ll be the first to suggest that better and more sophisticated terms exist for analyzing the manifestations of dominant groups in society. However, that is not the issue at hand. The one or two classes that, thankfully, can be afforded the theories of Marx should at least present the material in an informed manner. The vast majority of school teachers (and probably even most teaching university) are not equipped to talk about Marx. Few of them have read it, and most of what they have read about it provided the very misconceptions they go on to teach. Do not get me wrong. Mrs. Fidler and Mr. Heys were (are I hope) great and passionate teachers who instilled the same in their students. However, neither could explain accurately the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ and indeed both used it as evidence of marxism’s dictatorial (popular sense) agenda. This was the same teacher who created a handout bulleting some of the main points of a school of historians studying the US and USSR as ‘enemies in the mirror’ -a progressive idea in the US classroom; a hand out for which he claims he could have received some form of disciplinary action. Teachers need people with more knowledge on a subject from time to time. In fact, Mrs. Fidler often brought guest speakers into the classroom, an Egyptologist, a Hindu physics professor, a Zen monk of ‘western’ descent. Perhaps if I ever live in Omaha before she moves or retires I can feature for a class or two… Critical theorists, do you know a teacher? Should guest speakers become a bigger part of classroom agendas in general? If the teacher was more of a mediator between specialists and students, could the teacher then focus even more on their areas of interest and be expert in those? Dissolve the role of teacher by making the task universal (which it really already is in so many ways). Erect the role of mediator and guide.

At the front end of last week’s We Media Conference in London, the BBC radio show ‘World Have Your Say’ posed this question for audience response: ‘Who do you trust to provide accurate, truthful information?’

Before moving on into the meat of this post it might be prudent to offer context. The We Media Conference was, ostensibly, commited to furthering ‘the power of us’. Hosted by The Media Center, Reuters, and the BBC, the intent of the conference was to: 

‘foster collaboration through conversations, connections and shared knowledge; organize conversations with individuals and organizations who are using the Internet as a collective force of unprecedented power; create a setting to talk to them and to each other – a day for learning, sharing, ideas and opportunities. We Media is about how we create a better-informed society by collaborating with one another.’

Much of what I overheard, in bits and pieces, seemed to have championed ‘bottom-up’ approaches to structuring ‘new media’ -putting more power in the hands of us by promoting the proliferation of the tools and skills necessary for news and narrative production. This can only be accomplished by cooperatively constructing a structure of de-industrialized news and narrative production process, a de-centered and inter-subjective news, a news where sender and receiver roles are more reciprocal and the number of senders and receivers greater than now and growing. Podcasts, blogs, wikis, and mash-ups are the formats and models most referenced as exemplary potentials. However, we are off track. Suffice to say, AV will take a close look at what information The Media Center has made available (which is a lot) on the conference to see if their activities measure up to their aim (we hope so!).

But first the preface! The question of the day, ‘Who do you trust to provide accurate, truthful information?’

While it is clear people will have particular information sources they trust and others they trust less, the problem I have with this question is that it presents the concepts of ‘accuracy’ and ‘truthfulness’ in objective terms. That is, the question is framed in such a way as to make the issue of blog versus traditional ‘news’ as merely a matter of which media structure is able to adhere to present and popularly (though this may be changing) held ethics of ‘objectivity’ in news production.

The question assumes, as does the objectivist ethic, that there is THE truth out there to report on and that if the reporter distances themselves from the events in question the news will be free of subjective bias and therefore truthful. The problems with this are many, but essentially it boils down to two things: a) is it possible, in the first place, to ever entirely free one’s self of subjective bias? In an industrialized news production process this question takes on additional implications in terms of the many structural influences and directives placed upon the reporting. b) to what extent is ‘objective’ news dehumanized news, a news that silences the voices of the many people effected by the events being ‘objectively’ reported? In the case of Iraq, for example, while the ‘objective’ media focused on explosions and political power plays, it was bloggers who were able to provide subjective context by ‘broadcasting’ their own narratives to the world -or at least the world wealthy enough to purchase access equipment (which were the world members whose governments were causing all the ruckus in the first place -and I’m not just talking about the United States – Europe does imperialism too). 

This is, of course, not even addressing the extent to which social assumptions and presuppositions of news organizations as institutions of truth and its distribution inadvertantly (or perhaps even cynically in some cases, i.e. Fox) both create and mask bias in the news business.

While news institutions are blogging, blogs et al are largely de-centered and generaly cannot pretend to offer ‘objective’ views, i.e. THE truth. It is generally evident to a reader, one would suspect, that the views and information offered are the views and information of and from a partiuclar person with a particular agenda which, in many cases, is explicitly stated. I suggest that such a contextualized subject as provider of information of interest to them is more ‘truthful’ than their counterparts constrained by hierarchy, credentials, and a veil of ‘objective’ ethics.

In light of this, the whole question of ‘who do you trust?’, at least in terms of ‘popular press’, i.e. blogs, podcasts, etc., is largely irrelevant. As one of the respondents to the question said to much applause (and I praphrase heavily since the BBCs online radio player has no ‘rewind’ function) ‘There are over 50 million blogs all run by different people; all offering their own information and perspectives on different or related discussions. Some blogs I trust; others I do not trust, in much the same way there are some journalists I trust and others I do not trust. Therefore this question of whether or not I can trust blogs as a whole means nothing to me’. Can we trust a populated media? Can we not trust ourselves?

(See Wed, May 3rd):

AV is officially back-logged. The number of pieces to post is outpacing the time to post them. In an attempt to ameliorate this some longer posts will be serialized and released in an asynchronous manner. For those who may have already read part 1, I made significant revisions so chose to replace the old ‘part 1’ post with ‘parts 1 and 2’. On that note, let me present AV’s new category, “The Vulgar Barrel”!

So much sociology is riddled with impotent functionalism, crude depictions of radical perspectives, and liberal apologist stances seemingly limitless in ubiquity, naïve in conception, and utterly unoriginal in content. The Sociology of Journalism is one such work. In chapter two Brian McNair presents two ‘traditional paradigms’ and suggests a ‘new approach’ for transcending the traditional perspectives and approaching journalism as sociological subject with fresh analytical eyes. However, McNair’s ‘traditional paradigms’ are poorly conceptualized and his ‘new paradigm’, ‘the dynamics of the production environment and the relative impact of its elements on the form and content of output’ (McNair: 33), is not new in the least, and has, in fact, been part and parcel to the theory and method of the very radical and Marxist perspectives McNair seeks to deligitimize in this ‘must read’ text for university bound communications students.[1]    

To begin, McNair establishes an inadequate frame which he uses, more or less, to discuss the objectivity norm and ideological struggle in and over journalism’s ethical standards (a socially constructed and sanctioned method for practicing professionalized journalism (Schudson: 2001)). McNair conceptualizes the competitive perspective which holds normative views and expresses ideal iterations of content and form, and the dominance paradigm with its “focus on things as they are, and the gaps between the real and the ideal”’ (McNair: 19). Now, I do appreciate dichotomous relationships, or bimodal analytical frames. They can be useful so long as one remains aware that they seldom tell the whole story, and even then the story they tell may not make sense if the dichotomy is not well constructed. McNair’s dichotomy is not.

‘The competitive (or normative) paradigm views advanced, liberal capitalist [‘western’] societies…as arenas of essentially equal competition between diverse groups of social actors, for whom media function as resource and representative…” (McNair: 19). The media is a “’fourth estate’: an independent institutional source of political and cultural power which monitors and scrutinizes the actions of the powerful in other spheres” (McNair: 19-20). ‘Capitalism is the best of worlds we can reasonably expect, journalists ideally serve the public interest, media provides competition of thought, opinion and ideology; audience with freedom of choice’ (McNair: 21).

 This is not a surprising construction. However, it must be pointed out that the assignation of the ‘normative’ function to this particular paradigm makes about zero sense. Everybody holds normative views, whether they ‘buy in’ to the hegemonic Weltanschauung or not. A normative view is nothing more than a person’s perspective on how something ought to be and need not be mystified as a certain paradigm’s function. I would be willing to agree with McNair’s linking of normative generation with this paradigm only inasmuch that journalism can, as one effect of its product, reinforce mores and norms as they change and shift within the broadening or narrowing restraints of larger, slower moving material and ideological constructs. In that sense, journalism as we know it is complicit in the shaping of normative views whether intentional or not. However, this is not what McNair means, and this is, in fact, the core critique of McNair’s other ‘traditional paradigm’.     

The ‘dominance paradigm’ is, essentially, McNair’s concept of radical (mainly Marxist) critique. Naturally the ‘dominance paradigm’ sees ‘capitalism…as characterized by exploitation, injustice and inequality”. This paradigm draws attention to how, ‘…inequalities of life chance…generate social tensions and pressures which must be managed through relations of domination and subordination which structure the socially stratified system. The liberal pluralist ideal has little to say about the role of the media in managing these tensions’ (McNair: 22). McNair characterizes the dominance perspective with a structuralist-functionalist interpretation of media as performing simple (and intentional) conflict management on behalf of a particular ruling class. The essential problem with this is that it presents Marxism and radical theory as only concerned with economic conditions such as patterns of income distribution. This is a reductionist approach to Marxism that should have died long ago, and one which helps lead McNair to some fairly outrageous conclusions, which I discuss further below.

With respect to media, McNair presents the entire Marxist camp’s perspective as one of media engaged in the business of perpetuating particular ideologies to maintain social stability in the face of otherwise hostile and stratified groups. ‘The media function as an outlet for communicating the already existing ideological or value system: the cultural consensus prevailing in a given society at a given time’ (McNair: 23). Similar to what Gramsci more succinctly conceptualized as the hegemonic Weltanschauung. From this is produced a ‘dominant discourse’ so that the effect of journalism is to “reproduce legitimizing and rationalizing discourse across social boundaries and over time” (McNair: 23). The media are able to produce this discourse because, thanks to the ‘competitive paradigm’ they are perceived “as purveyors of truth…a persuasive power which can influence the structure of ideas circulating in a given society” (McNair: 24).

McNair’s presentation of the ‘dominance paradigm’ is almost adequate in parts, and as I agreed above, media can aid in de/legitimization. However, McNair’s ‘dominance paradigm’ really only betrays a superficial acquaintance with Marxism and related radical perspectives. Underneath his construction brews a tension as he tries to present Marxist critique in a monolithic and anti-subjective manner. Of course, this may well be the only way McNair knows how to approach radical theory. Indeed, I would expect little more from one who can write “market forces…create incentives to invest in quality journalism” and still take themselves seriously (McNair in Hackett: 90). One incapable of imagining a journalism beyond investment structures has no business in summarizing radical approaches in the study of journalism -period.

Nevertheless, he tries, and in doing so definitely and with prejudice follows the narrow confines of Marxism’s ‘orthodox’ (Leninist) and structuralist (Althusser) interpretations, in addition to the somewhat broader views of the Frankfurt School (which he does not reference) and their adoption of the ‘hypodermic needle’ model of cultural inculcation of the masses by the dominant strata via monopolized media channels. “Ideology…is present in journalism as part of the environment within which it is made. Journalism itself contributes substantially to the maintenance and reproduction of that environment and the social system which has generated it” (McNair: 25). Okay. Then how do ideologies change according to the ‘dominance paradigm’? Changes in dominant ideologies, according to McNair, occur when present ideologies fail to legitimize inequality at which point political revolution ensues and replaces the old ideology. In other words, McNair presents ideological change in the ‘dominance’ paradigm as the product of an exceptionally crude and two-dimensional economic and political determinism. He uses, predictably, the Bolshevik example, and in doing so completely guts Marxism (and even its Bolsheivk iteration, to be fair) from its essence as a paradigm of praxis. Any Marxist worth their weight knows they cannot afford to sit around and wait for economic and political conditions to ‘ripen’ to such an extent that neither the state nor ‘its’ media can hide the alienation of the human from the systems they’ve made.

The Marxist approaches missing from McNair’s paradigmatic summary will be discussed in part 3. 

Works Cited

Hackett, R. (2005). ‘Is There a Democratic Deficit in US and UK journalism?’ In S. Allan (Ed.), Journalism: Critical issues (85-97). Maidenhead, Open University Press.

McNair, B. (1998). The Sociology of Journalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Schudson, M. (2001). ‘The Objectivity Norm in American Journalism’. Journalism, 2(2), 149-170.

[1] This book (as well as McNair’s immanent one) were promoted as such on, accessed 05.07.2006