Popular Marxist ideas plague social theorists in various ways and forms. It is thus not surprising that most of them also seep into the study of mass media and communication through a broad-gauged, anti-capitalist lens. In this essay, I focus exclusively on Indian media and how it acts as a tool that largely sustains capitalism. I argue in favour of the Marxist paradigm, including Theodor Adorno’s views on mass culture and citing appropriate examples of how Indian media performs ideological functions that propagate capitalist ideas.
When Ron Dart declared that the media is like a watchdog that has developed an affection for the burglar, he was asserting the American media’s very apparent subservience to certain powerful economic and political structures. Although intrinsically different, such dynamics have translated over time into the Indian media industry as well. This political economy of communications, which largely claims that mass media is essentially a flawed business model, has its basis in Karl Marx’s critical review of capitalism (Fuchs, 2014). Marx never explicitly theorized the media, yet his definitive stance on how fundamental institutions act as crusaders of capitalism provided solid grounds for developing a more comprehensive view of how mass media upholds a largely untenable, capitalist economy.
Indian media monopoly and its political affiliations have been blamed for notable democratic backsliding (Mohan, 2021). However, very few discuss the consequences of this media bias in giving currency to the capitalist economic system as a whole. Not only does it act as a commodity itself, but it also manipulates the audience into believing the views of the ruling class elite as the entire truth. Indian media, thus, forms an arena in which various ideological battles are fought but the ultimate control lies in the hands of a select few classes that have significant control over economic capital.
Media as Manipulator: The Instrumentalist Approach
The instrumentalist theory of media is a traditional Marxist approach that focuses on the role of media in keeping the audience from criticizing capitalism. It maintains that certain capitalists weaponize media as ideological instruments to serve their own economic interests as well as those of the ruling class in society (Kperogi, 2015).
Aligning with this rationale, Indian media exposes itself as a similar ideological instrument. It wittingly spreads dangerous ideas, one of which is the unceasing ‘myth of meritocracy. The notion of meritocracy claims that socioeconomic inequalities are characterised by individual merit instead of social origins (Appiah, 2018). While seemingly harmless, this idea presents exploitation as natural and inevitable, which disguises the true nature of capitalism as a system that furthers the already rising universal inequalities. In a news report by NDTV, Chandra Bhan Prasad, a Dalit activist claimed that material markers are now replacing social markers. He said, “We are fighting the caste system with capitalism” (Polgreen, 2011). Prasad cannot be blamed for his views, because such reports are terribly common across Indian news sources. Stories about wealthy Dalit businessmen who went from rags to riches are frequently published to manipulate the audience into believing that capitalism allows upward social mobility. Media coverage of reservations is clearly biased, with anti-reservation articles correlating affirmative action with economic disasters (Bhagwati, 2021). Such coverage discourages the audience from critiquing capitalism and masks the inadequate market economy.
One of the most significant aspects of the Marxist media theory is that since a majority of people receive information regarding social structures through mass media, the nature of this information can fundamentally influence how people conceptualize reality. To prevent people from forming a class consciousness, Indian media uses entertainment as a tool that distracts the general public away from critical thinking. In late 2020, all Indian news channels developed an obsession with news regarding the country’s biggest entertainment industry, Bollywood. From glamourized businesses to recreational drug use, the media covered all except for an alarming economic crisis that was affecting the country (Daniyal, 2020). In this case, the news channels facilitated an overwhelming diversion and successfully distracted the audience from critically engaging with a significant piece of news regarding the country’s economy. This is only one of the ways in which media operates to distract people from finding fault with capitalism. Another one of them is commercialization, through which media not only encourages capitalism but also functions as a capitalist entity in itself.
Manufacturing Money: Commodification of Media
In the 1970s, Murdoch and Golding defined the political economy of communication with an explicitly Marxist framework, studying mass media as a commodity produced by capitalist industries (Wasko, 2012). They asserted that media institutions should be seen as economic entities that engage in commercial affairs, such as control, ownership, profit and business. Therefore, any media source is first and foremost a capitalist commodity and it is not to be trusted as being absolutely objective with regard to circulating hard news.
Thus, the Indian media industry is also a corresponding market for advertisers, where the product is the audience itself (Parthasarthi & Athique, 2020). There have been numerous reports of media groups advocating for private treaties. These treaties commercialize news reports by offering discounted ads and favourable coverage in exchange for a stake in the company. Bennett, Coleman & Co Ltd, which owns the Times of India houses many private treaties. For instance, certain headlines like ‘HCC plans Rs50,000 crore investment in Lavasa in a decade’ and ‘Pantaloons Femina Miss India 10 finalists: Lavasa trip’ has been recently published in print. Lavasa of Hindustan Construction Company and Pantaloon Retail (India) Ltd are both private treaty clients for the Times group (Moneylife Digital Team, 2020.
Adding on to this are the Cobrapost allegations of 2018, where the organization conducted a sting operation against giant media houses. According to them, the Times of India group, the Zee group, the India Today group and the Hindustan Times group, all agreed to strike business deals and promote the Hindutva agenda to cause polarization of votes in the coming elections. These instances of sponsored, paid news in India assert the fact that for the most part, media functions not as the fourth pillar of democracy but as a wide, business-oriented consumer market that comes with attached products, advertisements, capital, labour as well as a massive audience.
Mass Media as Culture: Adorno’s Ideas
In the 1930s, critical theorists like Adorno and Horkheimer concluded that false consciousness had penetrated the innermost layers of the working class (Adams et al., 2002). This false consciousness referred to the working class’ inability to recognize injustice and oppression. While they attempted to reformulate traditional Marxist theory to correct this situation, they were largely unsuccessful in bringing about a significant revolution. However, Adorno who was one of the founding members of the Frankfurt School, was instrumental in reconciling the culturalist and the political economy tendencies in media theory using a Marxist framework.
In “The Culture Industry Reconsidered”, Adorno states that “cultural entities are no longer also commodities, they are commodities through and through” (1975). Adorno also confirms Engels’ stance on a dialectical relationship between the economic structure of capitalism and the superstructure of politics and ideology. This ties perceptively to political economy theories, which predict the success of television and newspapers on their ability to attract an audience (Kperogi, 2015). Indian media editorial teams function similarly, trying to rig viewers’ minds to get higher Television Rating points or TRP. Private television channels and bold headlines now choose sensation over informed news, conducting media trials before judicial proceedings. Some such cases have been the Jessica Lal case, Aarushi Talwar’s Murder and the very recent, unfortunate trial of Rhea Chakraborty (Raza, 2022).
Adorno discussed pseudo-individualization in reference to popular music, where consumers are offered an illusion of choice defined by standardized modes of production (Moore, 2012). This can accurately tie into mass media theory as well, especially in terms of Herman and Chomsky’s propaganda model. With over 200 private channels, the Indian audience feels that it has a multitude of choices in regard to where they source their news from. However, most of them are owned and financed by inter-linked conglomerates. Mukesh Ambani, Mahendra Nahata and industrialist Abhey Oswal finance up to 70% of all major news networks including NDTV, India Tv, News Nation, Network 18 and News 24 (The Caravan, 2016). This concentration of media ownership ensures that the news that comes out into the country is packaged in different ways, yet is essentially the same in that it favours its financers. Chomsky’s filter of ownership is thus heavily realized by Indian media outlets.
Over the course of theorizing media, many intellectuals have disregarded the ideas of Manipulative Marxists. One such class is made up of pluralists, who arose from dissatisfaction with the views of the Frankfurt school. Pluralists argue that the media gives access to a wide range of opinions and is not controlled by the ruling class. They assert that the audience is not passive and thus, cannot be easily manipulated. While the criticism seems rational, it lacks significant evidence. It is not to be said that Marxist ideas address the audience as inactive and visceral. In fact, the argument does not place the culpability onto the audience at all. We argue that the media functions excessively and effectively as an institution that has succeeded in leading the audience astray. Journalists do not have autonomy, and news sources are controlled by elites. The Reporters Without Borders’ annual press freedom index ranked India at 142 among 180 countries (Ravi, 2020).
Media capitalism has thus succeeded in creating an ideological hegemony in the country, a form of subjugation that is dominated by religious bigotry, democratic decay and capitalist conventionalities. The tryst to undo the damage now lies upon the audience. Even though we are not to be blamed, we must take upon the duty, principally for others but largely for ourselves.
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