To what extent is the media responsible for the spread of distrust in the system in late modern democratic societies? Why do we distrust the media and how can we defend ourselves against this distrust? The third panel of the Age of Distrust conference, organized by the journal Presence, was devoted to the media. And from as many different sides as possible.
The head of the New Media Studies at the Faculty of Philosophy of Charles University, semiotician Josef Šlerka, does not consider the Czech media scene to be broken. Rather, he believes it is very balanced and varied. “The best news about the Czech media scene is its plurality, the possibility to choose. And in this respect we are better off than in a number of countries in Europe,” Šlerka said. Just look at the distribution of the offer according to traditional political science standards, left-wing and right-wing, conservative and liberal. “And in each quadrant,” explained Josef Šlerka, “you can choose very well.”
The risk of a concentrated selection of preferred opinion media is to enclose the readership in convinced ideological bubbles that then don’t communicate much with others. All they need is the conviction of their truth, self-reference, which they then share again only with those of the same conviction. “The problem is that these groups or communities are then unwilling to discuss with other opinions and remain closed in their opinion media,” argued Petr Orálek, director of the Foundation for Independent Journalism and a longtime journalist.
“The risk is there,” agreed Lenka Zlámalová, a columnist for Echo24, but she said the problem is not that opinion media are increasingly emerging, but that this is a good thing. “The problem is not that we have strong opinions from completely opposite spectrums, based on different values, but that we don’t want to discuss with each other. I’m a big promoter of getting over it, which is why I go to these debates when they happen, though often as an exotic in the context of positive discrimination.”
Of course, the debate also turned to the public service media, which Lenka Zlámalová, for example, considers a key issue. That is, not the media themselves, but the way in which editors behave in them, among other things, when choosing debate guests and topics. “There has been a lot of glamorisation of the guests they invite, it should be an open arena, and that’s just not happening.” According to commentator Zlámalová, the public service media is dominated by left-liberal views. The media analyst, Josef Šlerka, refuted this with surveys in which, on the contrary, Czech journalists have long shown themselves to vote predominantly right-of-centre. “The reason why we don’t talk across the board, in my opinion, is also because we have strangely arbitrated the terms left, centre-right, conservative and liberal,” Šlerka judged.
What is it then, are public media still a place where public debate is actually taking place and something like “public” is emerging, or are they no longer able to withstand today’s pressure of fragmentation of opinion, which goes against the personal opinions of media editors? “I think they are still able to withstand it,” Petr Orálek replied, but he also had his criticisms of the public service media. “I have to agree with Lenka to a large extent. It’s a disease of Czech journalism, and it’s not a matter of a few years that the opinions of editors are reflected in the media work itself, so that, for example, news merges with commentary,” Orálek explained. According to him, this is manifested in the work with words and their order, in headlines, in the choice of guests.
Moderator Petr Fischer asked the question in another way: if the media today construct reality, and do nothing else, based on their own opinion preferences, it may happen that we end up disagreeing on even basic facts. Then, of course, any debate is pointless. “This is the absolute essence of everything,” agreed Lenka Zlámalová. “But the most important thing is the choice of topics to report on. Their relevance. I think that the world view often distorts their relevance. The job of the media, according to the Echo24 commentator, is to “separate the important from the unimportant”, it is even the main mission of the media. “The failure of the media and the distrust of the media is built here. People are often presented with a world they don’t encounter at all.” Instead of the living standards issues that people are most interested in, they are presented with the “bizarreness of the culture wars”, such as gender issues.
“The reality is that what has broken down is the consistency of public interest and public space. But what Lenka Zlámalová considers to be bullshit, such as gender issues, is extremely important for the upcoming generation, such as the climate,” Josef Šlerka recalled, adding: “Polemos, that is, a public social dispute, should now be fought over what is public and common. And whether we need such a thing at all.”
In the end, people who grossly disagree with each other found several key connecting points in the discussion of Presence at the Age of Distrust conference. Here they are:
First: we all need to talk to each other, all the time; closing ourselves off into self-referential bubbles is not only the death of democracy, but of society as a whole. Second: the best place for this wide-ranging exchange of views is the public service media, after all, that is what society has set itself up to do, as the relevant laws say. Third: if we agree that we primarily construct the world (even the media one, because often there is no other shared experience available) and that it is not the world as it is, but only an image of it, we must agree on something in common on which it will stand or what (what elements, procedures, methods) it will use for its construction. Otherwise we will create parallel images and we will never understand each other, even if we disagree, let alone trust each other in such a situation.
For an hour-long debate at a small conference in the centre of Prague, this is actually not so little…
Watch an abridged recording of the Time of Distrust conference held in the Topic Salon on November 9, 2022.
This article was translated from the original published at online revue Přítomnost.
published: 12. 12. 2022