Mediaocracy and Infotainment

Most scholarship views the growth of entertainment in news and the unprecedented power of the media in a negative light. Journalist Danny Schechter defined the rise of “mediaocracy” as the expansion of the “rule by the agenda setting power of privately owned media corporations.”[1]  In effect, the mediaocracy utilizes propaganda, feeding viewers an opinion repeated in the news echo chamber without any meaningful discourse. Mediaocracy is also disparagingly referred to as “infotainment,”[2] which generally refers to media content mixed with entertainment to enhance popularity.[3] Studies have shown that although more people are turning to infotainment, such as Oprah and other talk shows, for their political news, there is not a positive association between infotainment and the intent to vote or the desire for interpersonal political discussion.[4]  Matthew Baum noted that soft news and infotainment are not associated with enhanced long-term store of political knowledge.[5]
Most of the scholarly concerns with infotainment deal with its encroachment into the field of news. Neil Postman, as discussed in the introduction, feared that infotainment was preferencing televisual spectacles over critical information.[6] Of course he was not alone; both David Altheide[7] and Doris Graber[8] argued that news was being packaged into emotion-invoking dramas since they made for a more marketable story line.  Part of infortainment and the mediaocracy’s emergence is enabled by a changing media landscape of simultaneous fragmentation and integration. Fragmentation occurs because of the evolving technologies and growing number of channels whereby the public can access its news. Integration is happening on an economic level with ownership of media now in “the hands of a small number of giant corporate conglomerates.“[9] These corporate conglomerates seek to streamline the media process by regurgitating certain media frames, thereby generating revenue and cutting costs.  Robert McChesney and John Nichols concluded that the present-day mediaocracy is the summation of years of commercial media ownership: “[T]he commercial system of journalism that has defined and dominated our discourse for the past 150 years has entered the rapid process of decline that will not be reversed.”[10]
However, not all messages in infotainment dumb down the citizenry, and not all news in the mediaocracy must be classified as propaganda. In his book Entertaining the Citizenry, Liesbet Van Zoonen wrote, “[T]here are good and bad expressions of politics in popular culture. The good ones may achieve a political awareness that other means of communication rarely produce.”[11]Although Zoonen does not specifically identify these types of good expression in popular culture, satirical news programs fit neatly into her description. The importance of pleasure, entertainment, and fun are all regularly ignored when discussing deliberative democracy;[12] hence, the significance of these satirical news shows in relation to deliberative democracy has been similarly overlooked. Popular culture, Zoonen alleged, can encourage deliberation by virtue of it being popular. Shows like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, which bring in audiences of over two million,[13] clearly fit this mold.

The revival of theories on deliberative democracy also has implications for First Amendment theory.  The concept of free speech must be reevaluated as to encourage the spread of opinions and facts.  Since
Hustler Magazine v. Falwell[14] (1988), when Chief Justice William Rehnquist declared that the speech important for the “public discourse” can be outrageous or profoundly invasive of its target, the Supreme Court has continued to evaluate free speech in such a way to encourage diverse opinion and deliberation.[15] This First Amendment jurisprudence has been defined as individualistic by scholar Robert C. Post: “Individuals must be free within public discourse from the enforcement of all civility rules, so as to be able to advocate and to exemplify the creation of new forms of communal life in their speech.” [16] Since the definition of civility changes with the decades, often seemingly outrageous speech is simply ahead of the times. This forward-looking stance is often seen in many types of comedy, including satire. Deliberative democracy looks beyond the aggregation of static majority preferences to the gradual evolution of preferences by way of public discourse.[17] Comedic, outrageous, humorous, and satirical expression thus can be said to be leading the evolution of public discourse.
Additional Links:

               Infotainment Wikipedia Entry
               2006 Blog Entry from Danny Schechter

[1] Danny Schechter, The Death of Media: And the Fight to Save Democracy, (Hoboken: Melville House, 2005).

[2] “Primarily a pejorative term, infotainment is often used to denote the decline of hard news and public affairs discussion programs and the corresponding development of a variety of entertainment shows that mimic the style of news.” See Geoffrey Baym, “Infotainment,” in The International Encyclopedia of Communication, ed. Wolfgang Donsbach, Blackwell Reference Online, accessed November 1, 2010,

[3] David Demers, Dictionary of Mass Communication and Media Research: A Guide for Students, Scholars and Professionals, (Spokane: Marquette, 2005),143.

[4]Patricia Moy, Michael A. Xenos and Verena K. Hess, “Communication and Citizenship: Mapping the Political Effects of Infotainment,” Mass Communication and Society. 8(2) (2005): 111-131, accessed September 25, 2010, doi: 10.1207/s15327825mcs0802_3.

[5] Matthew Baum, “Soft News and Political Knowledge: Evidence of Absence or Absence of Evidence?” Political Communication 20 (2003): 173-190. 

[6]Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death.

[7] See David L. Altheide, “Media Logic and Political Communication,” Political Communication 21 (2004): 293–296.

[8] See Doris A. Graber, “The Infotainment Quotient in Routine Television News,” Discourse and Society 5 (1994): 483–508.

[9] Baym, “Infotainment.”

[10] Robert W. McChesney and Mike Nichols, The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution That Will Begin the World Again, (Philadelphia: Nation Books, 2010), 214.

[11]Liesbet Van Zoonen, Entertaining the Citizen: Where Politics and Popular Culture Converge, (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2005), 149.

[12] Ibid, 148.

[13]Michael Starr, "Jon's Got Game," New York Post, September 25, 2008, accessed February 16, 2010, W09txbCOTBNkO;jsessionid=DAC2419E6AF55EAC32A6717A5F8C3954.

[14]Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell, 485 U.S. 46 (1988).

[15] Robert C. Post, “The Constitutional Concept of Public Discourse: Outrageous Opinion, Democratic Deliberation, and Hustler Magazine v. Falwell,” Harvard Law Review 103, no. 3 (1990): 604.

[16] Ibid., 647.

[17] John Elster, “Introduction” in Deliberative Democracy, ed. John Elster, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 1.