The Development of Media and Democracy

The mass media in its various forms has played an important role in the democratic process for centuries, but with the inception of new electronic networks the possibility for media influence on the way in which we govern ourselves has greatly increased. First the printing press, then radio, then television facilitated the communication necessary for democracy to be realized.

Though at first participation in American discourse was limited to white property owners, with the rise of partisan newspapers in the early 19th century, the ability to challenge the status quo and participate in the democratic process increased. In 1896 the McKinley campaign expanded the accessibility of government to citizens by employing a transportation strategy that sent orators across the nation on trains to speak to large crowds. But it was Franklin Roosevelt who made the most effective use of technology in his famous 'fireside chats.' For the first time, Americans could hear their president's words the instant that they were spoken. Geography no longer posed quite so large an obstacle to communication and a new intimacy between citizens and their representatives was formed (Smith 3). Television furthered this process by providing a visual picture to accompany the sound of voice.

But these previous forms of media fall under what James Carey calls the "transmission view of communication... whereby messages are transmitted and distributed in space for the control of distance and people (Carey 15)." Traditionally, institutions produce information for mass consumption by the public. Some would go so far as to say that this type of unidirectional communication acts as a form of thought control.

One may argue about whether the media in its various forms functions with the goal of accruing and exercising power, but what Carey implies in his critique is a broadcast paradigm of communication in which a few sources provide information to the populace. This one-to-many flow, however, has been consistently undermined by electronic networks which allow individuals to become not only consumers of culture, but also active participants in its production.