Democracy and the Media

Richard Gunther and Anthony Mughan, eds., Democracy and the Media: A Comparative Perspective
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

Review by Adam Jones
Published in Democratization, 8: 3 (Autumn 2001), pp. 216-17.

Lise Garon wrote in 1995 that the mass media are "the forgotten actor in [political] transition analysis." Little has changed in the intervening half-decade, but this new edited volume goes some distance towards filling the void.

Democracy and the Media is certainly one of the most wide-ranging comparative studies of the media every published. The editors note that media analyses have tended to concentrate either on the micro level -- "individual-level effects of political communications" -- or macro studies of "the structure of media systems and how these ... affect politics." Very few, however, have sought to combine "these macro and micro perspectives to examine the reciprocal relationship between the media and the politics of democracy and democratization" (pp. 1-2). That is the ambition of this volume, which offers ten case studies of countries at various stages of democratic transition and consolidation, sandwiched between the editors' theoretical bookends.

Any collection of this type will feature stronger and weaker contributions. Perhaps the most impressive chapter in Democracy and the Media is Miklós Sükösd's analysis of transformations in the Hungarian media. Sükösd ranges expertly over the last 50 years of Hungarian history, pointing out the centrality of the media to the abortive 1956 revolution ("in many families, collections of 1956 newspapers became treasures of family archives, to be shared and studied in secret with trusted friends and young family members"); the role of underground media in the later period of communist rule; the media's "contribut[ion] to the setting of an open-ended, democratic, and pluralist political agenda" during the transition to democracy; and current patterns of media ownership in a country that "has the highest proportion of foreign ownership in the region" (pp. 130-31). Placing his findings in the context of the broader Eastern European transformations, Sükösd argues that "While the media did not cause the former communist regimes to break down or trigger the transition to democracy, they did play crucial roles in determining how, when, and to what degree democratization took shape in both the transition and consolidation periods" (p. 160). His chapter is a model of historical breadth and analytical rigour, and deserves inclusion in any university course on the media and democracy.

Scarcely less valuable are Eugenio Tironi and Guillermo Sunkel's chapter on "The Modernization of Communications in Chile" (though it has little to say on the media's role in destabilizing the Allende government of 1970-73), and Richard Gunther et al.'s examination of "Media and Politics in Spain" over a dizzying six decades in which that country "underwent an extraordinarily broad array of political experiences: from polarized, unstable democracy, to civil war, to authoritarian repression, to uncertain transition, to successful democratic consolidation" (p. 28).

Predictably, perhaps, the chapters dealing with the more settled democracies -- Germany, Japan, Great Britain, the Netherlands, and the United States -- are on the whole less memorable than the vivid studies of dictatorship, transition, and democratic consolidation. Holli Semetko on the UK and Ellis Krauss on Japan nonetheless offer rewarding insights. Only Thomas Patterson's chapter on the United States seems to suffer from a certain superficiality. It is the shortest in the book, and largely rehashes previous scholarship on "the [U.S.] media's commercial and adversarial orientation" (p. 241).

Such a broad compendium of case studies could hardly be all-inclusive, whether in terms of the countries chosen or the themes addressed. Still, a pair of editorial decisions can be questioned. First, the case studies are limited to the industrialized democracies. But some of the most intriguing examples of transitional media are to be found in the "third world": one thinks of South Africa, the Philippines, and perhaps El Salvador. Second, the approach adopted to mass-media functioning is rather mainstream throughout. It is taken for granted that "the mass communicatons media are the connective tissue of democracy" (p. 1); but the more radical and sceptical critiques of scholars like Michael Parenti, Noam Chomsky, and Edward S. Herman are downplayed or ignored altogether. Integrating these perspectives might have lent an added "edge" to a volume that remains, nonetheless, a worthy and in some respects groundbreaking contribution.

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