Habermas: A Love/Hate Relationship with the Media?

I found one of the interesting things about The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere were Jurgen Habermas’ thoughts about the media. Habermas says that it was the beginning of the modern capitalist system that brought about the beginning of the bourgeoisie public sphere. Trade depended on continued routes, which led to steady means of communication, which led to the birth of “news”, and what he calls the literary public sphere. This literary public sphere in which people gathered at salons and coffeehouses to discuss art and literature led to discussion of larger social and political issues and this is what led to his public sphere. Habermas says that one of the most critical facets to the development of the public sphere in 18th century Europe was the public use of reason in rational-critical debate. As people debated issues concerning civil society it served as a check against state domination. Habermas says that while the media at this time, meaning mainly newspapers, were first simply news outlets, they too joined in on the debate. All of this is to say that I think Habermas gives a lot of credit to the media for the creation of the public sphere.

On the other hand, Habermas seems to also blame the media for the demise of the public sphere. Well, if not the demise, then at least the media played and continues to play a part in what he seems to think is a more lackadaisical mode of being among people today. He even says that the key feature of the public sphere, rational-critical debate, was replaced by leisure once the state got involved in things like economics and public welfare. The line between state and society became blurred when the state began to pay attention to and address social issues. In my opinion, it would seem like the success of the bourgeoisie of bringing civil issues to the forefront led to the debate being taken out of their hands altogether. So does this mean that their success has led to the failure of the public sphere today? Or did the bourgeoisie simply become the state?

Getting back to Habermas’ thoughts on the modern media, he says that the modern mass media is not so much a forum for public debate, but rather that it attempts to manipulate public opinion and manufacture a consensus. Media became a business itself, and therefore a part of the large economic state. As a business, the media is more of a mouthpiece for the people who are running it, or it is simply for entertainment. According to Habermas, modern people are also perfectly happy to watch television than to read and discuss the issues of the day in newspapers. Considering that Habermas was writing in 1962, I’m sure he’d be appalled about what we even consider “news” in this day and age.

On another shorter note, something that kept troubling me as I read Habermas’ account of the development of the public sphere was how he did not really discuss who was being left out. I first had this thought right at the beginning when he discussed the notions of private and public having roots in Ancient Greece. He seems to praise the polis as the beginning of a forum for public debate, but glosses over the fact that this only included land-owning men. I again had this thought when he was discussing the bourgeoisie, rational-critical debate, etc. Surely, there were some people who could not participate and whose specific issues were not being debated. What about women, the poor, non-whites?

Shall we get some discussion going?