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The Marxist Instrumentalist Theory of Media

Marxist Instrumentalist theory holds that media owners control media content, and that the media performs ideological functions. The primary role of the media is to keep a largely passive audience from criticizing capitalism and thus maintain the status quo.

Marxist Instrumentalist Theory is also known as the Traditional Marxist or Manipulative Approach to the media.

This post is primarily written for students of A-level sociology, studying the AQA 2019 specification.

Marxist media sociology

Media owners control media content 

Media owners are part of the ruling class elite and they consciously manipulate media content to transmit a conservative ideology to control the wider population and maintain their wealth and privilege.

The content of the media is thus narrow and biased and reflects the opinions of the ruling class generally and the media owners in particular.

The government does not effectively regulate media content because the political elite are also part of the ruling class like the media owners.

The media performs ideological functions 

According to Instrumentalist Marxists, the primary role of the media is to spread ruling class ideology and maintain the status quo, keeping the current unequal capitalist system in place.

The media performs ideological functions in many ways:

  1. We see many favourable representations of (rather than critical commentary on) the wealthy – for example Royalty, millionaires on Cribs, and middle class lifestyles more generally in all of those hideous programmes about spending £500K on a house in the country.
  2. It spreads the ‘myth of meritocracy’ – Dragons Den and The Apprentice are two wonderful contemporary examples of this.
  3. The News often dismisses radical view points as extremist, dangerous or silly, and a conservative (ruling class) view of the world as normal.
  4. Negative portrayals of ethnic minorities and immigrants serve to divide the ruling class and discourages criticisms of the ruling class.
  5. Entertainment distracts the public from thinking critically about important political issues.

The audience are passive 

Marxist instrumentalists see the audience as a mass of unthinking robots who are passive and easily manipulate. They essentially take what they see in the media at face value, and believe what they see without questioning it.

Supporting evidence 

Curran (2003) suggests that there is a lot of historical evidence of media owners manipulating media content. He carried out a historical analysis of UK media, broken down into four historical periods.

Control by owners was most obvious in the era of the Press Barons in the early part of the 20th century, when some even said that they used their newspapers to consciously spread their political views.

Rupert Murdoch’s control of his News Corporation since the 1970s is another good example of an owner controlling media content. All of his newspapers have a strong right wing point of view, which reflects his values.

A specific example of Murdoch’s control is that all of his news outlets supported the Iraq War in 2003, a war which he personally supported. It’s unlikely that all the editors of all his newspapers globally shared this view.

Criticisms 

Pluralists are the biggest critics of Manipulative Marxists.

It is impractical for media owners of large corporations to control all output on a day to day basis. At some point they have to trust editors.

Pluralists argue that media owners are primarily motivated by making a profit and thus would rather provide audiences with the diverse content they want rather than use their media companies to spread their own narrow view of the world.

The previous criticism follows on from the Pluralist view that audiences are not just passive and unthinking, they are active and critical, and thus not easily manipulated: they can easily choose to switch off if they don’t like what they see.

The rise of the New Media especially undermines the Manipulative approach – New Media encourage audiences to be more active and allow for a greater range of people to produce and share media content. It’s simply not possible for owners to control such content.

Sources 

Modified from…

  • Ken Browne (2016) Sociology for AQA Volume 2
  • Chapman (2016) Sociology AQQ A-Level Year 2
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The pluralist view of the media

Pluralists argue that power in democratic, free market societies is spread out among diverse competing interest groups, and not concentrated in the hands of a minority economic elite, as Marxists suggests. According to pluralists, no one group has a monopoly on power. Their view of the media reflects their view of power in society more generally.

Pluralism media sociology.png

Media content driven by profit

Pluralists argue that in democratic, free market economies different media companies must compete for customers, and so they must provide the kind of content those customers want in order to make a profit and survive. If a company fails to provide the kind of news and entertainment that people need and want, customers will simply stop buying their media products and go elsewhere, forcing that company out of business.

It follows that control over media content ultimately lies with consumers, not the owners of media, because the owners need to adapt their content to fit the demands of the consumers.

Media owners primarily want to make money and so they would rather adapt their media content to be more diverse and keep money coming in, rather than use their media channels to publish their own narrower subjective views and opinions.

Media content thus doesn’t reflect the biased, one sided views of media owners, it reflects the diverse opinions of the general public who ultimately pay for that media content. The public (being diverse!) generally don’t want one-sided, biased media!

Consumers determine content

From the pluralist perspective audiences are active rather than passive and not easily manipulated. They are free to select, reject and re-interpret a wide range of media content, and they increasingly take advantage of new technologies and new media to produce their own content.

It is thus ultimately the consumers of media/ the wider audience who determine media content rather than the media owners.

Journalists not controlled by owners

Finally, pluralists point out that on a purely practical level media owners of large global corporations cannot personally determine the content of all their media products, there are too many products and too many global-level management issues to keep them occupied. Thus producers, editors and journalists have considerable freedom to shape media content, free from the control of the big bosses.

Criticisms of Pluralism

  1. Ultimately it is still owners who have the power the hire and fire journalists and they do have the power to select high level editors who have similar views to themselves, which may subtly influence the media agenda.
  2. It still requires a lot of money to establish a large media company, and ownership remains very concentrated. There is relatively little journalism which is both independent and widely consumed.
  3. Owners, editors and most journalists share an upper middle-class background and a conservative worldview.
  4. The pressure to maintain profits has led to narrowing of media content – more towards uncritical, sensationalist entertainment and less likely to be critical and independent.