The Unquestioned Power of Media, A Threat to Limitation of Democracy

By Sirikit Syah


The connection between mass media and politics results in a great power, which power is hold by a small number of people called the elite group. The power this elites hold undoubtedly has a great impact on the majority people they –formally or informally- rule. One of the many significant impacts of this power is in the formation of public opinion.

This paper will focus on the role and power of a certain elite group, the mass media, in influencing and even forming public opinion. The writer bases her writing on the assumption that an unquestioned power of mass media –like any other kind of power, e.g. military or political power- might have contributed to monopoly or homogeneity of voice and opinion, which eventually means a limitation of democracy.

Furthermore, the media can also be used and even manipulated by other elite groups. The cooperation between the media and the elite groups, in concealing certain issues and exposing other issues, in order to influence public opinion, may be done under suppression or willingly. Alone or in cooperation with other institutional powers, however, the media seems to make the public passive consumers of information. Are media giving enough choices? Do they reduce the opportunities of ordinary citizens to express their opinions? Is democracy threatened by the media power? This paper would try to answer these questions.

Mass Media as Elite

Mass media, as Van Dijk writes, plays an active and powerful role among many other elite institutions in society. None of other power elites and their discourses could be as influential as they are without the mediating and sometimes reinforcing functions of the press, radio, and television. Furthermore, Van Dijk notes that the media has a specific and nearly exclusive role, that other elites need the media to inform both the public at large and each other, to exercise their power, to seek legitimation, and to manufacture consensus and consent. This argument emphasizes the fact that not only the media is considered elite, but also it is a special kind of elite.

Why the media are grouped as elite? Mass media society is considered an elite group, since it is constructed of a small number of people having a vast capability in giving information to a large number of people. Imagine Pravda, which had circulations of 20 millions per day, or Asahi Shimbun (15 millions per day). The readers of both newspapers might exceed the numbers of circulations, may be even doubled or tripled. But while reading it, people hardly realize that, in fact, only a couple of hundred editorial staffs put all the information together. They gather data of selected issues or events and happenings, they decide which information is more important than others, and they publish their choice of information for people to consume. Only a couple hundred of people decide what tens of millions of people need to know in any single day. What a privilege. Who are these people?

It depends on where you are. In New Order Indonesia (1966-1998), these people were the friends and relatives of former President Soeharto, the crony. In other places, they might be the ruling party leaders, the big corporations, or the strongest lobbyists. All lead to one significant tool: a system. The system constructed by the elite power might resulted in policy or regulation of mass media industry, which might give unbalanced opportunity –or even privilege- of ownership and control to certain people. Consider Rupert Murdoch, who has media corporations in 4 continents; or a few conglomerates, who dominate the media industry in the US; the single player Communist Party in former Russia which had control over Pravda, or simply the authoritarian governments of Singapore and Malaysia , all created by a certain kind of system.

The system, either stabilized under political regime or the regime of capital and market, would create or maintain members of elite groups in their privileged place. As Stuart Hall mentions, only members of this group are free to make their opinions heard, because they dominate the channels of communication. Technically, in such system, anyone could ‘become a press lord’ or ‘own a television station or two’. But actually, not ‘everyone’ did – only ‘some ones’. The importance of system in determining which group of people could become members of mass media industry is so obvious, as expressed again by Hall: “It gives the whole machinery of representation its fundamental orientation in the value-system of property and profit. It prevents new kinds of grouping, new social purposes and new forms of control from entering, in a central way, into the production of culture”.

This way, through a system of politics or capital and market, only a small number of people are likely to have opportunities to play in this very tempting arena: the mass media. Media people are, undoubtedly, parts of an elite group.

How The Media Influence Public Opinion

Any democratic theory usually stresses the primacy of the individual. However, the political process demands that individuals act collectively in making decisions. The private political opinions of the individual become the public opinion of the people as a whole. (McNair : 1995). And no other entity has a greater power than the mass media in influencing and/or forming opinions of individuals collectively.

There are many ways by which mass media influence public opinion. David L. Paletz and Robert M. Entman write that the media can change some people’s opinions by the events they report, how they depict them, or the way they link symbols for emphasis. News is only one of the ways the media influence public opinion. Many times also advertisers dictate what the people should buy and consume. In case of political or presidential campaigns, news might be balanced and objective, but there are advertisements –usually one-sided and subjective, which influence people to whom they should give their votes. Entertainment pages or programs dictate which life style is the most appropriate to practice by people of this century. Sometimes politicians, backed up by sponsors/advertisers and supported by the media, use entertainment programs to send their message. Academics and observers are debating about this kind of infotainment, as whether they are dumbing down or reaching out to a wider audience. The important fact is, elite groups will use any way to influence the public.

Many times people feel fed up with a certain news but it keeps coming to their living rooms (TV bulletins) or banging at their doors (subscribed newspapers), and they would eventually consume it, although reluctantly. That is the power of news. It penetrates to our daily lives through radio, television, newspapers, and now –Internet. From an observation of the new free press in newly democratic Indonesia, it is noticed that people have a love-and-hate relationship with the press.

Having been heavily controlled for 32 years, the newly free press uses its freedom in euphoria, most of the time ignoring ethics and law. The media could and would publish or broadcast almost anything they like. The reaction of the public is interesting. One day they are so proud with what the press presents to them and they applaud it. Another day they find the press has gone too far, they condemn it, and even attack journalists or press institutions. At some point they take their weapons and embark to a conflicting region to fight in an unfamiliar war. They believe they are doing ‘jihad’ . This kind of action is taken after consuming provocative news in the media.

The impact of free press might not be as profound in western and democratic countries like the US, UK, France, or Australia. But in a country like Indonesia, and may be some other newly democratic countries, people believe what the media (the newly freed media) say, and they have a strong passion towards it. So, people might love and hate the press, it depends on what is on the news.

The question is: what is news? There are many theories of news, but in accordance to the notion of public sphere, Brain McNair defines that ‘the modern concept of “news” developed precisely as a means of furnishing citizens with the most important information, from the point of view of their political activities, and streamlining and guiding public discussion, functions which are taken for granted in contemporary print and broadcast journalism’.

Then, what is the most important information? In 1997, when an American embassy was bombed in one of African countries, US media were busy exposing and exploring the scandal of Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. In 1992, when Nelson Mandela was released from prison, US media chose to put the affair of Donald Trump and Marla Maples in front pages. In 1994, World Cup event in the US was over shadowed by the news of OJ Simpson murder stories. In Indonesia, subscribers of CNN International had to swallow endless news on an ‘unknown hero’ of an ‘unknown sport’ (American football is unknown, let alone OJ Simpson the player). Indonesia was not alone in this case of US media penetration of ‘selected international news’. The next question is, who decides the most important information.

Mass media have control over what shall be presented to the public. They often have an interest in playing the watchdog role over state leaders, public figures, corporate owners, or politicians. But on the other hand, the media may be complicit in the politicians’ concealment of sensitive information. Media, which are committed to government, for instance, may choose to ignore a newsworthy story. There is an abundant example of this, be it in New Order Indonesia, where the press was suppressed by the government; or in liberal and democratic US, where the media are voluntarily echo the voice of the government.

In 1922, Walter Lippmann had already observed the power of media in influencing their consumers. Every newspaper is the result of a whole series of selections: which reporter to be given the assignment, what events to be covered, what items to be printed, is it on the front page or back page, how much space the story will be given, how the story told, and so on. Media practitioners hold the power of deciding what information shall be consumed by the public, and in terms of politics, which political party shall be given more coverage than the others.

The result of a political campaign more often than not, is heavily influenced by what is covered/presented in the media. Following Labour’s victory in 1997, the newly anointed Prime Minister Tony Blair sent a handwritten message to the editor of the Sun, thanking the paper for its ‘magnificent support’. He even said that it ‘really did make the difference’. This proves that even high-level politicians admit the wonder of media support in winning political campaign. The Sun, with its readership of 10 millions, obviously has used its power in influencing voters that let the Labour Party win the campaign.

Besides the content or how the story told, the media also influence people by the language or visual they use. When a headlines in an Indonesian newspapers said ‘Moslems’ Help Is Needed in Ambon’, completed with a picture of men marching in traditional white clothes and swords, the next day, hundreds of followers in Java island registered to sail to the islands of Molluccas bringing any weapon they had. They believed they were called to help fellow Moslems in a far away island in defending their religion. When pictures of a man who happened to be Christian being killed by a gang of (happened to be) Moslems appeared in Time, the whole world believed that Christians followers were under suppression by the majority Moslems in Indonesia.

The Danger of Unquestioned Power

Studying the violence happened under the influence of media reporting, especially in newly democratic countries, or countries with different ethnicities, races, and religions, we cannot help but blaming the free media. McLuhan keeps reminding us about this: ‘Why shoot the messenger?’ If the news is unpleasant, we shall not blame the media. But how if the media keeps banging on your door and shouting depressing information on daily basis, as if there is no other news which is refreshing and enriching?

In 1994, a guest at Sally Jessy Raphael talk show in a US TV network shot death the other guest, two days after they appeared together in the show. The shooter felt embarrassed by the revelation that he was a gay, disclosed by the would-be victim, in front of millions of American audience. Heavily criticized, Sally went on with her program of disclosing secrets of American citizens (although most of them do it deliberately and willingly). That was not the last time the freedom of speech killed. Recently a husband killed his wife after a performance together on a TV talk show program, in which it was revealed that her wife has had an affair.

Another ‘un-domestic’ example is the tragedy in a part of Africa, during 1993-1995. About two millions people were killed in the clash between Hutu and Tutsi tribes, and part of the responsibility was in the voice of a radio journalist who delivered hate speech on air during that time. He is now serving 35 years of prison, but this is quite an example of how dangerous the abuse of media power could be.

No entity shall be allowed to hold an almost absolute power, be it military, religious leaders, politicians, or the government, let alone the media. Mass media, equipped with intellectual capability and advanced technology, has a strong tendency towards holding an almost absolute power. Let’s take a look at the First Amendment of the US Constitution. The media literally could do anything they like and even the Congress, the highest institution in the US, shall not interfere with it.

Of course the media sometimes make mistake, but the most people could do about it is bringing the media to court. Who would do that? Only the rich and the famous. And even when a mistake is found, the press may be freed because of the absence of malice, or the shield law (protection of witness). Hate speech, which may provoke violence, is also protected under the ‘freedom of expression’. This almost absolute system is, unfortunately, believed to be the best in the world, regardless the settings. The fact is, the system might work well in the US, which foundation was based on the spirit of ‘freedom’, and the level of education is high. But on the other hand, it might ruin a society, which foundation is based on the unity of different ethnicities, races, and religions; a condition which is quite sensitive to ‘free speech’ without tolerance, particularly if the level of education is considerably low.

The power of the media, clearly, is not only in its mediating role between elite groups (media sources) and citizens. Some people may see the media as dependent on other institutional powers, without which, they cannot produce anything. But actually, there is another dimension of power that the media hold, which is the power of creation and control. In the words of some academics, “Despite their dependence on other, for example, political, corporate, academic, and social elites, mass media institutions have at least some means to control these other elites, which is also an important element of the power dimension that goes beyond that simple mediation (Altschull, 1984; Bagdikian, 1983; Golding, Murdoch, & Schlesinger, 1986; Lichter et al., 1990; Schiller, 1971, 1973, 1989).

So, if the power of the media is unquestioned and unchallenged, the media would become the most powerful entity in the universe, far above the leaders of powerful states or parties, and the international conglomerates. How would it be prevented or should it be prevented? Civic education is one of many weapons to prevent the media from dominating people’s lives and dictating public opinion. Another thing is law enforcement. Some people comment that UK has the most heavily regulated mass media in the world, but learning from the experience of adopting the US free media principle in our country, it could be said that media regulation is necessary. If anything is regulated, why is not the media?

Media Freedom and Democracy

In an era of democracy, informative function of the media is no longer sufficient. Citizens do not merely need information. More importantly, they need adequate knowledge to comprehend the information, how to respond to it, what is their responsibility and the consequence of receiving that information, how their voices and opinions be heard through the help of media, how to respect other voices and opinions which are different from theirs, and so on.

Following Brian McNair discussion on the media and the democratic process , there are five functions of the media in ‘ideal-type’ democratic societies: 1) to inform citizens of what is happening around them, 2) to educate as to the meaning and significance of the ‘facts’, 3) to provide a platform for public political discourse, 4) to give publicity to governmental and political institutions (the ‘watchdog’ role of journalism), 5) to serve as a channel for the advocacy of political viewpoints.

Mass media, whether it is print or broadcast, is usually dominated by the voices of elite groups. They are the sources: politicians, government officials, public figures, religious leaders, corporate owners, and the advertisers. So, where is the place for the public opinion in the media? Presumably, all editors would say, “There is a ‘Letters to the Editor’ forum”. Indeed, ‘Letters to the Editor’ is, as stated by New York Times editor R.A. Barzilay in 1990, among ‘the most democratic forum in the world’. It provides a ‘balanced forum’. Through letters to the editor a position is presented, which is the position of ordinary citizens, the voice of the voiceless, or the reply of those who feel attacked by the media or the sources in the media.

But no matter how democratic is the Letters to the Editor, or the Interactive program in broadcast media, the space and time is always limited, which limitation is done under various agenda. A person who is calling and giving his comment in a radio program live on air, may be disappointed when his comment is cut to allow main presenter to talk or advertisers to advertise. One might be disappointed when his letter to the editor is edited in such a way it looses its point.

It is important to notice that if public opinions are confined to the topics and options suggested by elites and conveyed by the media, public power is limited. The real power-holders are those who shape opinions. There are some polls conducted by the media, as answer to the challenge of public voice. But the issues, the questions, and the people surveyed are constructed by a certain group of people with their own agenda unknown to public. The result is usually quite predictable.

Media often complain about the censor by other elite power outside themselves. But actually, the worst censorship came not from the military but from the press itself, in its one-sided and ideologically loaded coverage and commentary. News organizations punished those few who deviated from the official line. NBC president Michael Gartner suppressed footage on the destruction of Basra (a town in Iraq) and forbade John Alpert, a twelve-year stringer for NBC who shot the film, from ever working for the network again. San Fransisco Examiner columnist Warren Hincle was suspended for three months for being too critical of Bush’s war.

Raising the question of whether media is supportive of democracy or not sounds irrelevant, since the media were born to deliver people’s voice, and have been trying hard enough to maintain that fundamental function. However, people in the United States of America perceive the media’s democratic function as unpromising. They think that the media are too preoccupied with their struggle to maintain freedom of speech and freedom of the press (the 1st Amendment of the Constitution), they ignore their main function to serve the public.

A research by Freedom Forum in 1999 resulted in a phenomenon that 53% people surveyed said that the media held too much freedom (a 15% increase from 1997’s rate of people saying the same). On the question of whether media protect democracy, there was a decrease from the 1985’s rate (54% people saying media protects democracy), with only 45% in 1999 saying so. Even 38% of people surveyed said the media harmed democracy, and 65% suggested licensing of mass media publishing companies.

This phenomenon, in a liberal democratic country with the most free press system in the world, shows us that consumers/citizens are fed up with information full of agenda settings. They are bored of listening politicians campaigning to gain their votes. They want their voices to be heard too. If the media cannot provide them with opportunity, they could and would ignore whatever the media feed them. This is not good for the running of an orderly society, because sometimes the government does have an important policy to introduce, politicians do have interesting programs to deliver, and the media do have something meaningful for citizens’ lives.

The media is also an ideal arena for politicians and other elite groups to compete with each other, in a positive sense. This competition would give citizens choices. If elites do not compete by offering diverse ideas that connect with ordinary citizens, we cannot expect citizens to sort through media-provided information and arrive at well-informed policy preferences. If media and other elites stand together against the public, for whatever reasons –elite’s own class positions, or two-party collusion to protect themselves and their investors, or monopoly government control of foreign-policy information –there is a serious danger that the public will be misled and that democracy will not work properly.

The media should keep their balance in giving opportunity to sources to express their ideas, and more importantly, stay objective with the content of the message delivered by the sources. Often, the media give freedom to sources to speak whatever they like, because the journalists are lack of knowledge and get carried away by the sources, or the media institution is basically partisan. Granting elites substantial control over the content, emphases, and flow of public opinion, media practices diminish the public’s power. The more elites can dominate the perceptions and preferences developed by the rest of society, the less autonomy the public will have.


It is not easy to conclude this discussion in a single and clear statement. One of the most important views to point after the above discussion is that mass media, like any other institution or entity, shall be regulated. It is also necessary to question that if the American people who believe in their constitution have already lost their trust in their own media and even question the over-exposed 1st Amendment, why people in other countries, which have different background, imitate or adopt this principle?

Also interesting to add here is that mass media is, actually, not having an absolute power. Media consumers, as consumers of other products, have the rights and freedom to consume or not what is provided and presented to them. Nicholas Garnham notes an argument in his essay, ‘The Media and the Public Sphere’, that the media, through the market, are driven by the satisfaction of individual consumer choice. It is the individual consumer who dictates what the media shall or shall not publish or broadcast, it is the economic/market drive. As Stuart Hall mentions, the ordinary citizens do have power, even though limited and rather reduced. They have the power of sovereign consumers –to buy or not to buy, to listen or to switch off.

Jean Seaton also presents an idea that the media are not a force in themselves. She writes that editors and producers –in Britain as elsewhere- are blamed for many things: from race riots to dress fashions, from football hooliganism to the fall of governments. But this spacegoating generally mistakes a catalyst, or even a symptom, for a cause investing the media with a magical importance they do not posses.

There are many journalists or media practitioners who would say that they do not hold any power and that their main duty is just to get the story and report. It may sound like a self-defense. But when scholars like Garnham and Seaton emphasize this fact, it is worth noting that perhaps the power of the media is just an illusion, or a fear by non-media society. However, to function well in its role of mediating, informing, educating, and voicing citizens, media practitioners should stand on their professional standard, among other things, of objectivity and accuracy. According to McNair (1995), a further criticism of the media’s democratic role focuses on the professional journalistic ethic of objectivity.

May 2002


Perihal LKM Media Watch
Mass media are watchdogs. But who watch the media? Let's do it together. Watch this very powerful entity, for better journalism, better Indonesia, better world.

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