Mr. Joe Intellectual and the Media

by Howard Fienberg

Fall, 1992

The media is a pervasive force in modern society. It controls what most people hear, see, and often, feel and think. The access to the media by certain groups can be seen through Lukes' three views of power: pluralism, elitism, and radical elitism. The media when looked at in these ways appears to function and make decisions at different levels. The media from the first view of power is one of competing interest groups on a level playing field. Lukes claims that his first view of power takes account only of ``observable conflict'' in the decision-making process and that the concentration of power is within the groups that win these conflicts most often (11). From his second point of view, he takes into account the ideas of the first, but also adds to them his thoughts on issues that don't make it to the political agenda so that they cannot be pondered at all. From his third point of view, he probes the first two, and adds to them an investigation of thought control, and how people's wants are changed.

The question for this essay is based on a hypothetical person, Mr. Joe Intellectual. Mr. Joe Intellectual makes a few hours of statements to several hundred people in some crowded lecture hall. Will Mr. Intellectual's speech be reported in the media; will it be distorted, and, if so, to what extent; and how much exposure will he receive. Mr. Joe Intellectual is a political dissident of some renown. He criticizes ``sacred cows'' of the platforms of people on all sides of the political spectrum. He criticizes and questions the authority of society's elites, whether they be corporate executives, TV anchor-people, or politicians. Therefore, many people feel threatened by him. This question can be considered in terms of the big media and the campus media.

The big media are the largest and most powerful of the television and radio broadcast corporations, such as NBC, CNN, and CBC, and the newspaper and magazine publishing corporations such as TIME, the USA Today, and the Toronto Star. They can be investigated in terms of Lukes' three views of power.

In Lukes' first dimension of power, the big media ``are assumed to be dedicated to service to the public good'' (Chomsky, 13). People and groups are supposed to have equal access to the media. The doctrine of equal time requires that ``if a broadcaster permits a legally qualified candidate for a public office to use his station, he must also give equal opportunities to all other candidates for that office (Barron, 127). Also, there is the fairness doctrine, which could sometimes allow ``groups or individuals representing a viewpoint opposed to one that has been broadcast'' the opportunity for air time to refute the argument (127). These doctrines reflect the pluralist nature of the media, where direct and observable conflict may take place within sight of the public eye. News about Mr. Joe Intellectual's speech would be printed or broadcast and debate would ensue. This debate would occur in plain view and the conflict would probably work out in favor of his opposition, because of its power.

His second dimension of power views the big media as simply serving the elite's interests, rather than that of the public. In order to avoid controversy surrounding Joe, the big media might censor themselves. This is where the fairness doctrine is repudiated, because they claim that they may have to offer free air time to someone opposed to him; thus, it is simpler for them not to talk about him at all (135). Also, the elite feel that ``the general public must be reduced to its traditional apathy and obedience, and driven from the arena of political debate and action'' if their power is to be maintained (Chomsky, 3); thus, another incentive to not allow Joe to go public, for fear that people may actually believe that what he has to say is true.

The third dimension of Lukes' view of power, when investigating big media, is that of systemic or cultural patterned bias. The structure is staged so that ideas far from the mainstream of political thought, such as those of Mr. Joe Intellectual, will not even be considered to be printed or broadcast.

The very structure of the media is designed to induce conformity to established doctrine. In a three-minute stretch between commercials, or in seven hundred words, it is impossible to present unfamiliar thoughts or surprising conclusions with the argument and evidence required to afford them some credibility. Regurgitation of welcome pieties faces no such problem (Chomsky, 10).

How can Joe's complete rejection of the need to return Haitian refugees fleeing persecution to their country, with plausible proof to back it up, fit into a thirty-second piece of time on CNN or a paragraph in the New York Times? It can't, and that is how his ideas kept from the public, because he sounds like he's some fanatical moron.

The university and college campus media are essential for Lukes' first view of power. They are a major force, and serve the future educated class of our society. They could be considered as the solution to the private big media. The elitists argue that there are decisions going on behind the scenes in the big media. Even as the pluralists dismiss this idea, they may refute it by citing the campus media as a solution.

The campus media is an alternative to the mainstream of radio, television, and printed information. It provides differing views at farther ends of the political spectrum than the private media would ever dare. They provide an illuminating experience for our society's future big media journalists, who will enter the big media in a more open state of mind, and insure that, over time, the big media will become more and more pluralistic.

The Trent student newspaper, the Arthur, in its tenth of November issue of this year, printed dozens of articles and views on a proposed Trent University Men's Group. When seen through Lukes' first view of power, it would seem that the Arthur is a decent paper, addressing several sides of an issue, as it should. It also is questioning the power of the university's own elite in the Student Union in an observable conflict and debate.

From this first view, Mr. Joe Intellectual would definitely be able to make his speech and have what he said and did there printed or broadcast by the campus media. An active debate would be printed or broadcast, with people both opposed to his views and supporting them, able to make statements as well.

From Lukes' second view of power, campus media is merely a nuisance to be tolerated by the elite in order to maintain their position of power. It shouldn't matter what is broadcast or printed by the campus media because they have such a limited audience. The ideas brought forth could be harmful to the elite, but the audience is so small that the impact will be relatively negligible. An open campus media is necessary in order to keep the students from taking to the streets in protest all the time. Students need an outlet for their ideas and frustrations, and the campus media serves this purpose so that the era of mass student protest will not occur again. Most students are satisfied by airing their views in their school newspaper and will carry protest no further; thus, the elite's position in power is secured.

When seen from the second view, the Men's Group controversy could be looked at from the campus society or from the outside. From the outside, the elite would be watching, grinning smugly at the worthless debate over a small student group at a tiny university. It only makes it easier to keep the students from focussing on their grievances with the elite, thus assuring the elite's maintenance of power. From the inside, certain special interest groups can be seen to have much more power and leverage over the political agendas than others. When an interview with the president of the Men's Group, Guy Brummel was supposed to be aired on Trent Radio, it was stricken from the schedule because of pressure from the Women's Centre Collective. They told the show that was going to air the interview that ``the issue was already getting more attention than it deserved,'' and accused the show of not ``being sympathetic to feminists''(``To Air or Not to Air''); thus, the item was taken from the agenda, and discussion was muffled.

From this second view of power, the elite could hardly be bothered with Mr. Joe Intellectual and his insane ranting, because the audience to whom he is speaking is so small and limited. Also, he may not receive exposure of any sort if the elite running the student media decide that they do not want his ideas opened to campus debate: his speech may receive no mention whatsoever.

Through Lukes' third view of power, one sees even more activity and use of power. The campus media is structured in such a way that the established interests are in firm control and that the opposition can never ``win.'' In most cases, this means that the campus media will not allow discussion of ideas that are not politically correct at that moment, but if it does, it will obscure and belittle those ideas in a convincing manner.

The structures of both the Arthur and Trent Radio are significantly biased towards certain views. Both are committed to so-called ``women's and lesbian'' issues, as seen by the proliferation of space in the Arthur given automatically to these interests (normally at least two pages), and the number of programs on Trent Radio focussing on these issues, with such names as ``the Open Closet'' and ``Dickless Wonder''. From the amount of power that these groups maintain in the student media, it would seem that they have been structured to try to make people think the way in which the elite would like.

In light of Lukes' third view of power, Mr. Joe Intellectual hasn't got much of a chance. The college media is biased against his views, for the most part, because he questions them, in addition to the general Establishment. The elites would cut up his ideas if they actually printed or broadcasted them, as well as place them in an obscure place of the paper or play them at a time of low listenership.

In conclusion, Mr. Joe Intellectual's experiences on Lukes' third level of power show that he would receive minimal, if any coverage, in the media, whether that be the big media or the campus media. Also, that coverage would probably be distorted in some way, and that this will almost always be the case because the system is biased against him, and he can never ``win,'' as the deck is fully stacked in his opponents' favors; the masses must awaken.

I feel as though someone out there waged a war on knowledge, and I've been shell-shocked by the `Ignorants'. Knowledge of Canadian geography is almost nonexistent, political awareness unbelievable, cultural knowledge abysmal (Hurtig, 10).

Joe will have to spread his words at a grassroots level and slowly and gradually show the public how their interests are not really their own, but those that the elite want them to be. As Lukes says, it is a ``latent conflict,'' between the interest of the elite exercising power, and the ``real interests'' of those that are affected by that power (24-25).

Works Cited

Barron, Jerome A. Freedom of the Press for Whom? The Right of Access to Mass Media. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1973.
Chomsky, Noam. Necessary Illusions. Boston: South End Press, 1989.
Hurtig, Mel. Never Heard of Them ... They Must be Canadian. Toronto: Canadabooks, 1975.
Lukes, Steven. Power: a Radical View. Houndmills: MacMillan Education Ltd., 1974.
"To Air or Not to Air.'' Arthur 10 Nov. 1992: 8.


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