The fundamental role of the press in our society depends on historical, economic, social and political bases of our culture
“The “a-light” media are out of touch with the public. I can’t stand their “biasness”. The “on-line” are nothing but sensationalist”.
Ignore the language (elite, bias, online news outlets), and in our daily conversations, you can see a clear divide in our attitudes towards the so-called conventional, mainstream media and their lesser brethrens like the digital startups or local FM radio stations.
Look at this from the perspective of the big vs small media mindset that first revealed itself not long ago in the politically motivated stone-pelting of some outlets’ high-rise complexes. Any amount of browsing public comments on “big media” yields plenty of disparaging posts. Equally disturbing are the increasing attempts at curbing online media freedom, in the name of decency, both by state and non-state actors.
Overall, the flawed picture we get in our heads is this: the “big” media are too powerful and isolated from their audience; the “small” are inept and delinquent. For the politically-disposed, the “big” are status-quoist and even regressive; the smaller are disruptive and even radical. That’s exactly why they ought to be managed, governed, regulated, and urgently so.
But perceptions can be misleading. The fact is that “big media”—irrespective of their location, language, platform, or investment—have more to do with their socio-political clout than their size. The deeper contours of press performance are invariably shaped by the type of society we live in, and more importantly, by the type of politics we practice. Democracy, despite its classic meaning emphasizing direct public participation (people rule) in politics, has today degenerated into political cartels orchestrated by a few leaders. Their contestations form the mainstay of news coverage. Our deeply entrenched hierarchies mean that the “big” are always authoritative even if you don’t like them. The “small” ones deserve indifference and even disdain for they take a less-trodden path and are yet to prove themselves.
“Startup” is another way of saying that someone is merely toddling around. But the flipside in this deeply polarized post-revolution Nepal is that extremes rule, the middle ground has all but vanished. Any authority or tradition is always suspect and subject to insults. Underdogs are new darlings so long as they serve the new tokenism of political fragmentation or technological disruption.
Public perceptions of press performance without their knowledge of media’s values and professional routines run the risk of painting a distorted picture of the role of press in a democracy. Unfortunately, the media do little in explaining their workings to the public. We can most definitely liken them to a lamp. But the lamp exudes light in all directions except on its own foundation.
The legitimate authority of governance in a democracy comes from self-rule, more pronounced in journalism than in any other vocation. And the very first step in self-rule is self-reflection, serious thinking by media professionals about their true democratic role in making public participation in politics possible. So the real issue in the elitist vs populist or big vs small divide is in what manner and how best these media are serving our fledgling democracy.
In that light, press orientations vary: “we will do it for you”, “we will do it with you” and a sort of hybrid of both. Although the first is the most predominant, these are more a matter of degree than kind.
In the first model, democracy is merely competition between key political actors in society; the role of the press is limited to focusing on those elites and their contestations, typically in elections. The public is seen as largely ignorant, irrational, and self-interested. Journalists remain detached and have little faith in their own ability to engage the public in the democratic process or in forming an active community. The best they can do is to guide the public with enough information, which hopefully may lead to public action. That is a rather domineering and pessimistic view.
The second is the populist or community-based model, in which the press joins forces with the public to get things done. It plays a mediating role in activating citizens to govern their own lives. The public is seen as capable of working together as citizens. Journalists, usually from community-based, grassroots and alternative media, abandon the traditional rigid detachment or skepticism and work with citizens to create a participatory, deliberative society. They are no longer mere observers; they actively work for public causes.
That is a more complete view of democracy in action, although putting this in practice has been a challenge.
The hybrid model combines elements of reporting and dialogue, observation and involvement, and interpretation and activism. Here, the role of the press is not only to inform but also to activate citizens towards solving their shared problems.
Historically, Nepal’s press has been elitist in its focus on competitive politics and populist in its public appeal despite limited media access. This reflected in the predominance of official sources and hierarchical and ritualized coverage of leaders and key political opponents in the official outlets and political tabloids.
Since the 1990s, however, elitism also covered pluralistic competitions, not only among politicians but also the members of civil society and businesses. More recently, we have seen a considerable conceptual stretching of pluralism and diversity, followed by a wider focus by the press, even though the coverage is often polarized.
On the other side, participation by way of ownership, management, or production of content on shared issues of the community became a reality in Nepal for some community-based outlets as early as the 1990s. This expansion of democratic journalism reflects further in small-scale radio stations and other community-based media that have experimented with some variations of participatory journalism such as live phone-in, panel discussions, user-created content and citizen journalism. Emerging technologies and platforms conveniently allow it and market forces compel it. Today, even the mainstream media allow their users to be a part of their production process, at least in the form of commenters, bloggers or social media writers. However, the extent to which such journalism has contributed to democratic development can be debatable.
Deliberative journalism, the most substantive form of democratic practice, is by far the most difficult to achieve. Rarely, if ever, do news outlets find the time to make the public a part of the rational decision-making process and problem-solving or service to the community. Few media afford to go beyond routines and privileged sources. Moreover, this type of journalism is seen by mainstream media as a threat to their professional autonomy. Nonetheless, our government’s official motto “service-oriented” journalism reflects some of the ethos of the deliberative form.
Substantive issues like unemployment, health, education, and public utilities call for deliberative journalism, which remains absent. There aren’t that many public rallies or outcries over these issues but interestingly, public participation in competitive politics remains incredibly high in Nepal. Is that because our elitist press covers competitive politics more often than any other subjects?
For practical reasons, public-centric debates on media are rare in Nepal and they have remained overshadowed, for decades, by the unsettled collective or institutional bargaining on freedom, oversight, wages, and subsidies.
Democracy involves much more than informing the public. The fundamental role of the press in our society depends on the historical, economic, social and political bases of our culture. Doesn’t the new democratic context encourage us to move beyond the widely prevailing elitist model? Shouldn’t we work to create more innovative opportunities for citizen’s participation and dialogue, giving up some of the conventional notions of detachment?