We usually attack political and religious dictatorships, but hardly mention a far more sinister one; the media dictatorship. Most mass media the world over practice some kind of tyranny, even if it looks less flagrant than political despotism. Doesn’t the media usually manipulate the minds of people almost everywhere in the world? Doesn’t it form their likes and dislikes? Isn’t it the media that sets cultural, social, artistic and political norms whether you like them or not? Who imposes certain orientations on the people other than the media? Isn’t the media the worst dictator ever? Wasn’t Herbert Irving Schiller quite right when he called the media “the Mind Managers”?
Why do we rage against despots when they impose their own political and world views on their people, and hardly attack the media when it does something just as bad if not worse, but in a crooked manner? Media dictatorship, in actual fact, is more difficult to combat than political dictatorship. Whereas the latter is as clear and noticeable as a boil on the face, the former is like cancerous cells which can hardly be noticed or identified by the ordinary man. And since many Arab people have been living under horrible dictatorships for ages, they seem less able to handle the new media wave which has engulfed the Arab world lately. It is true that the “open skies” age has liberated the media everywhere in the world and put it in the hands of the public, but it hardly made the media less despotic. In actual fact, the media made use of the information revolution to consolidate its grip on people’s minds.
Of course, everybody has the right to launch media channels representing his or her orientations, inclinations and interests. And there is no doubt about the fact that this could be seen as the golden age of the media, but it seems that dictatorship is rooted in human nature. Although the Arab media space, for instance, is open for all sorts of television channels, sadly it has been mainly filled with trashy channels which smack of flagrant media despotism. We have hardly utilised the new media democracy. It is true that we have launched hundreds of television channels and websites, but sadly we remain orbiting tyranny. Media pluralism has always been shy in this part of the world. We certainly have a couple of news and enlightenment channels, but on the other hand, we have hundreds of music and cheap entertainment channels imposed on the Arab public day and night.
Some might argue that even in Western democracies trashy channels dominate the media arena, which is true. But there is a huge difference between them and us. They have achieved their renaissance in almost all walks of life, whereas we are still living in the pre-industrial era. And instead of emulating the west technologically, we have taken the worst part of its culture, i.e. the cheap pop media.
It is not true at all that Western media is democratic, because it tends to impose on the public certain prototypes of its own choice and making. Isn’t it horribly dictatorial to focus on singers, actors, athletes and silly personalities, and ignore thinkers, people of letters, inventors and great writers for instance? Some might argue that the media is offering the public exactly what it is looking for, but this is hardly the case. In actual fact, the media is forcing its agenda on the public for its own ends. And so, it is not a good idea at all that the Arab media is imitating the Western one.
Even if the public has become used to, and happy with certain prototypes imposed on it by the mass media, that doesn’t mean it is democratic. In actual fact, the public is almost like a computer which works by the familiar formula, “rubbish in, rubbish out”, with a few exceptions of course.
Just as we suffered from “the one and only” dictator for decades, we are sadly suffering now from the dominance of one prototype propagated by the mass media almost everywhere in the world, including of course our Arab world. One could hardly differentiate these days between one female singer and another, as the media has set for them a unified image, which hardly conforms to the essence of democracy or freedom of choice, for that matter. All young girls almost everywhere want to be a copy of this or that actress or singer. Most of our youth want to be singers, actors or athletes, because the media has made of them models to be aped willy-nilly.
It is true that almost all people of the world have now the freedom of choice to follow whatever they want on television or the internet, but that does not negate the fact that the mass media in the age of globalisation has become, with its mythical budgets and agenda, even more dictatorial, if not tyrannical in its own way.
Dr Faisal Al Qasim is a Syrian journalist based in Doha.