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The Bush Administration Viewed as a Bolivarian Propaganda Outlet

May 18, 2015

I’m continuing to poke around the WikiLeaks cables (after my last post) and found references to to be of particular interest. The Bush administration’s diplomatic staff in Caracas appeared to take it very seriously as a propaganda outlet for Venezuela’s Bolivarian government.

an excerpt from the May 11, 2004 US Embassy Cable

An unclassified cable from the US Embassy in Caracas, dated May 11, 2004 and titled “The ABCs of the Venezuelan Government’s Political Propaganda Strategy,” includes a section titled “Other Mechanisms” that lists among “numerous sites” dedicated to “Propaganda on Line” [sic].

The site is also mentioned in a confidential cable from the US Embassy in Caracas dated May 31, 2005. Titled “GOV [Government of Venezuela] Holds TIPS [Trafficking in Persons] Hearing in National Assembly,” the cable concludes that “[t]he National Assembly hearing seemed to have been put on for the [US] Embassy’s benefit, as we were the only international or diplomatic representatives present.” The embassy staff clearly believed that the hearing was merely political theater, designed to present the Venezuelan government as proactive on the issue of human trafficking in order to convince the US State Department to change its status in relation to the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000.

The State Department issues an annual report that classifies countries in three tiers. In 2004, Venezuela was reclassified from tier 2 to tier 3, meaning that it was grouped among “[c]ountries whose governments do not fully comply with the minimum standards and are not making significant efforts to do so.” (I’m taking the tier definitions from the 2014 report, as I can’t find them stated in the 2004 or 2005 reports.) The hearing discussed in the cable was perhaps meant to represent “significant effort,” but the embassy wasn’t buying it. (Venezuela remained in tier 3 in the 2005 report, which was released on June 3.)

A section of the cable entitled “Who Attended” notes that “[a] Canadian journalist was reportedly in attendance as were some pro-Chavez media outlets.” Further below, in the final “Comment” section, the cable states that “[p]ro-Chavez media outlet “” published an article May 27 about the hearing, appearing to lay the groundwork for an attack should Venezuela remain Tier 3.”

an excerpt from the May 31, 2005 cable

The article (authored by Jonah Gindin) provides in depth (and, I think, high quality) analysis of Venezuela’s tier ranking within the political context. I don’t see that it set the stage for an “attack”, so much as formed part of a relatively regular series of articles on the subject, all of which seem to reflect the Venezuelan government’s position that the trafficking report has been manipulated by the US in order to gain leverage of Venezuela. did, indeed, publish a story (authored by Sarah Wagner), on the release of the 2005 report, but by that time it had already published at least four articles on the subject (in addition to the May 27 article mentioned above) and it would publish at least three more over the next six years.

The unsurprising take home here is that the Bush administration took a highly confrontational approach to, viewing it not as an autonomous civil society organization contributing to a marketplace of ideas in accordance with classical liberal ideals, but as a propaganda outlet in the service of an authoritarian government. This seemingly contradicts its stance on the status of commercial media outlets in Venezuela, which it held up as legitimate organs of civil society and not propaganda outlets in the service of an oppositional oligarchy.

Full disclosure: In 2011, in anticipation of spending time in Venezuela for my dissertation field research, I unsuccessfully applied for a position as a part-time staff writer with I subsequently contributed three articles, each of which first appeared on this blog and for which I received no compensation.


An additional note: The May 31 cable includes one of the few mentions of “community media” in all of the leaked cables. The Venezuelan government’s presentation of the steps it had taken to prevent human trafficking included “[c]onducting an information campaign through ‘alternative and community media’ sources.” Arguably (and perhaps ironically), this reinforces the idea that the Venezuelan government treats the community media sector as a propaganda tool.


What Can We Learn from the WikiLeaks Cables About US Relations with Latin America?

May 16, 2015

TeleSUR English has posted an interview with Norwegian journalist Eirik Vold that focuses on relations between the US and Latin America, based on information that Vold gleaned from the leaked US diplomatic cables hosted by WikiLeaks. Much of the discussion was related to the media, so I’m going to summarize and comment on some of his remarks.

Eirik Vold on TeleSUR English

I’m happy to see Vold make use of the cables. Though their release and the subsequent legal sagas of Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange made headlines, I’ve felt that the content of the cables hasn’t generated sufficient attention. Vold makes this point, noting that WikiLeaks has provided an extremely user-friendly search interface which has gone underutilized, even though “[t]here’s hardly a conflict in the world where the US isn’t involved and where there isn’t some interesting cable in WikiLeaks that … could shed new light on that conflict that would be interesting for the world public opinion.” [Several years back, I used the cables as the basis of a post on the Alba-1 fiber optic cable linking Venezuela to Cuba that has received more visits than any other post on the blog and was republished in the July 2011 edition of Submarine Telecoms Forum.]

Most of what’s in the cables isn’t shocking or even surprising, since the machinations of US foreign policy are relatively clear to anyone paying attention. As Vold points out, however, “what’s new is that now you have this documented from the wording of the very US diplomacy and intelligence community and that can make a huge impact if it’s communicated to the public opinion [sic] in the different Latin American countries, which hasn’t been the case so far, surprisingly.” I agree and there’s a need for analysis to be translated into and/or conducted in the relevant languages.

The points discussed in the interview that were of particular interest to me:

1) Vold’s general takeaway is that the US government viewed Latin America’s move to the political left, begun with the 1998 election of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and sometimes referred to as the Pink Tide, as the most significant geopolitical shift since the fall of the Berlin Wall. I wonder if that might now have been eclipsed by the Arab Spring and general turmoil in the Mideast, or perhaps Russia’s increasingly confrontational posture, but I can’t think of any more important shift at the time the cables were written.

2) Around 2004-05, the Bush administration shifted from open confrontation with Venezuela to a strategy of cooperation with Brazil and Argentina in an attempt to isolate Venezuela. This was a period when Chávez was particularly strong, having overcome the coup attempt and subsequent economic attacks of 2002-03 and launching the Missions. In fact, I believe it was in January 2005 at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre that he first openly referred to the Bolivarian revolution as socialist in nature. Perhaps the Bush administration had given up beating Chávez on his home turf.

As part of the Bush administration’s attempt to turn Brazil away from Venezuela, it sought to collaborate with a security official who had ties to Brazil’s right-wing military dictatorships of the 70s and 80s. This involved selling the idea that Venezuela’s purchase of 100,000 rifles from Russia represented a threat to Brazil and the region in general. You may recall that this and related scare tactics made a splash in the English language press during that time (including stories from Fox, the The New York Times, and the BBC). Vold points out that neither the US nor Brazilian governments put any faith in those ideas. Backing this up is a cable from April 13, 2005 that summarizes a meeting with Lula’s Chief of Staff, Jose Dirceu:

… Dirceu said the GOB [government of Brazil] does not  believe Chavez’s arms purchase plans indicate external  military designs. A Colombia-Venezuela conflict would be catastrophic for both countries, Dirceu said.  Chavez’s possible purchase of thousands of AK-47 assault rifles appears directed toward his arming of the local militias he is forming, Dirceu said, but he did not elaborate on why Chavez is forming militias except to observe that Chavez “feels threatened.” Dirceu seemed dismissive of the value of conventional arms in South America, asking [the] Ambassador [of the US] and PolCouns [political counsel?] how long they thought Venezuelan F-16s or MIGs (if the GOV purchases them) could stay in the air against a modern foe (read USAF).  Unless a country chooses to have long-range missiles or nuclear devices it has no significant deterrent against a powerful national enemy, Dirceu opined, and hence most conventional weapons — however flashy or costly — are largely toys for appeasing the “artifacts of national militaries”  in developing countries, and not a serious threat to any other state.

3) One late addition to the Pink Tide of left-leaning governments was the Paraguayan administration of Fernando Lugo, a former Catholic priest who took office in August of 2008. The US was clearly wary of Lugo’s links to Chávez, but the cables reveal that the Embassy staff was not particularly alarmed. As Vold put it, “this US cable says the [Paraguayan private] media is … so hysterically anti-Chávez … that it’s almost impossible for Lugo to make any efficient cooperation with Venezuela.” I didn’t find a cable with an explicit articulation of that conclusion, but my guess is that Vold is referring to a cable from January 2009 that discusses Lugo’s media strategy and acknowledges strong opposition by the commercial press.

Vold seems to be exaggerating the Embassy’s conclusions, however, which led TeleSUR’s host, Greg Wilpert, to respond that “the role of the media and the effort to exploit the media seems to be a major kind of theme [in the cables]. So they [the US government] obviously count on the support, essentially, in one way or another, of the [Latin American commercial] media.” While that analysis may be generally valid, the cables themselves don’t bear it out in the Paraguayan case.

The Embassy, in a cable from January 2010 entitled “Paraguay Media Analysis”, recognizes greater variation in the Paraguayan media and singles out ABC Color, the “leading” daily newspaper, as being particularly anti-Chávez, thanks to the views of it’s owner, Aldo “Acero” Zuccolillo-Moscarda, who

also owns a department store chain, a construction company, a finance company, and has extensive real estate holdings.  Zuccolillo strongly dislikes Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and although he supported President Lugo in the 2008 elections, has since taken a strong anti-Lugo line.  He has told us that he fears Lugo is a “Chávez-Marxist” who wants to shut down independent media.

The January 2009 cable, meanwhile, discusses a meeting between the US Ambassador, the Director of USAID, and Zuccolillo, in which the latter expressed his fears that Lugo was “following the same plan the Sandinistas used in Nicaragua (in the 1980s)” and was going to use the national public radio network, as well as community stations, as a propaganda machine. That section of the cable, however, is entitled “Zuccolillo Lays It On Again”, signalling that the Embassy didn’t share his alarm. Moreover, the cable offers this concluding analysis:

It is also clear the entrenched media interests here, like most of the power interests which traditionally have “run” much of Paraguay are “closed shops” lacking genuine competition. And they are not shy about trying to pull us into a Cold War repeat if that’s what it takes to raise the alarm. On balance, however, we see Lugo’s efforts as trying to bring some coherence to his messages, messengers, and communications mediums to combat the sometimes brutal beating he has taken in the press. We do not yet see any evidence of a larger and calibrated plan to muzzle the powerful and partisan media enterprises in Paraguay, as Zuccolillo asserts. But we will keep on the look-out.

In fact, in April of 2009 the Embassy proposed offering the Lugo administration “technical assistance on communications strategy and messaging within the cabinet and outside” in order to counteract a “public image of inaction and indecisiveness.” The proposed assistance packages, which would come through the USAID Office of Transition Initiatives, was outlined as follows:

Initially, the possibility of providing a communications expert(s) who could spend as long as a month working directly with [Communications Minister Augusto] Dos Santos and his team on a diagnostic mission, was discussed.  If Dos Santos liked the results, Post [the embassy?] would seek possible follow-on communications training and technical assistance. Dos Santos responded enthusiastically and had clearly already worked out some good ideas on how to approach the task.  He suggested we pick four ministries to start with, two that have good internal communications (he mentioned the Health Ministry as one), and two that have poor internal communications (specifically the Foreign Ministry and the Agriculture Ministry). We suggested the Interior Ministry as the fourth and he agreed. (NOTE: The Interior Ministry is Paraguay’s most senior ministry, led by a capable and powerful ally of the President. END NOTE).

Granted, this can be understood as nothing more than the Embassy taking advantage of the situation to gain access and influence, especially when the cable concludes by recommending that Washington authorize the aid “in a timely manner, before someone else does.” At the same time, however, the preceding sentence of that cable characterizes the assistance package as “the kind of quick-hit, relatively inexpensive help that could make a difference in the public perceptions of this government.” All in all, this doesn’t sound like the language of a government seeking to exploit Paraguay’s commercial media to hamstring or remove the Lugo administration.

Of course, Lugo was eventually and controversially impeached in 2012, with many observers and some Latin American governments likening the proceedings to the 2009 removal of President Manuel Zelaya from office in Honduras. On that note, a cable from December 2009 concluded that, “[w]hile most political actors tell us that [Lugo’s] impeachment remains only a possibility for now, we are closely monitoring the situation, and are being careful to stay out of this highly charged, domestic political issue.”

4) Vold argues that whereas the US government has strongly and publicly criticized leftist governments in Latin America for limiting press freedom, the leaked cables reveal that the diplomatic corps sees the commercial press as anything but weak. For example, according to a cable from June of 2009, US President Obama called Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa to congratulate him on his reelection and also “express support for a free and independent press.” This call came amid Correa’s public campaign against commercial media outlets that were critical of his policies and the Embassy staff carefully monitored public reactions to a White House press release on Obama’s stance:

Ecuadorian media on June 12 picked up the second half of President Obama’s message to Correa in such headlines as, “Obama advocates for a free press in Ecuador,” and “Obama asks Correa for a free and independent press.” These reports linked President Obama’s message in support of a free and independent press with the GOE’s [government of Ecuador’s] current administrative actions against Teleamazonas, led by CONARTEL [National Radio and Television Council], which could lead to the station’s closing. This reporting placed President Obama’s congratulatory call in the middle of the current debate in Ecuador on press freedom prompted by President Correa’s long-standing, ongoing attacks on the media, which in the case of Teleamazonas could lead to the first outright shutdown of an independent media outlet under Correa.

In the same cable, however, the Embassy acknowledged that:

There is more than a grain of truth to Correa’s observation that the Ecuadorian media play a political role, in this case the role of the opposition. Many media outlet owners come from the elite business class that feels threatened by Correa’s reform agenda, and defend their own economic interests via their outlets.  In addition, Ecuador’s weak political parties have left a political vacuum, which has been filled in part by criticism of Correa by some of the large Ecuadorian TV stations and newspapers.

The implication of Vold’s accusation is that the US government is simply duplicitous, using press freedom to attack leftist governments from one angle while all-too-free oppositional presses attack them from another. Certainly this has been the case, with the most notorious example being CIA support for Chile’s El Mercurio newspaper during the Allende administration.

Without denying that this type of duplicity still goes on, the cables suggest a more nuanced state of affairs in which the diplomatic staff truly believes that the professional model of objective, commercial journalism is the ideal to be attained. This is a problematic position, but it is not the same as outright cynical manipulation of a corrupted press. Here’s a relevant passage from the “Paraguay Media Analysis” cable:

The quality of reporting is poor in Paraguay and ethical and professional standards are often low. In general, reporting is sketchy, fact checking optional, and the line between reporting and editorializing is often blurred. Many media outlets reflect personal, business, or political interests. For example, both ABC Color and La Nacion mirror the conservative political views of the papers’ owners (see below). Both have taken a hard-line against President Lugo and coverage of him and his government is extremely negative in these publications. Paradoxically, the media is still one of the most trusted institutions in Paraguay.

I don’t mean to be entirely exculpatory here. This is the diplomatic corps, not the CIA, and it’s highly significant that the owners of oppositional media conglomerates have relatively frequent meetings with US ambassadors. Also, despite the classified nature of the cables, US diplomats may deliberately frame their relationship to foreign political actors in the best possible light when writing them, knowing that they will or at least could be seen by the public someday. But what these cables don’t seem to offer is smoking gun evidence that the US government was directly manipulating the Latin American commercial press during the 2005 – 10 period.

5) In a related exchange, Wilpert says, “But one of the things that I noticed, and I think in some of your writing you’ve mentioned, is also the effort to exploit certain media biases, for example about Iran’s supposed role in Latin America and its influence that it has in Latin America.” Vold replies by noting how fears of Venezuelan, Brazilian, and Nicaraguan complicity with Iran made headlines in the US press, but that the diplomatic corps didn’t believe it: “It’s not that they’re nervous … or paranoid, it’s that they do not believe in this. And you see in this cable that the US diplomat says, ‘Well, there seems to be nothing to all these accusation about bicycle factories in the Venezuelan llanos region hiding advanced Iranian weapons directed at the US. There’s nothing into it [sic], but it can be exploited to undermine Chávez’s support internationally.'”

I can find no cable that matches Vold’s paraphrasing. I did find support for the claim that the diplomats don’t share the suspicions that made headlines. For example, in 2009 Israel released a report suggesting that Bolivia and Venezuela were supplying uranium ore to Iran for its nuclear program. These reports were certainly played up by ideologues like Roger Noriega (Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs under George W. Bush), found their way into coverage in the mainstream press, and were recently echoed in a thinly sourced report on Fox News Latino.

True to Vold’s claim, the embassy in Caracas wasn’t buying it. Just weeks after the Israeli report came out, the embassy sent a cable titled “Venezuela Incapable Of Substantive Nuclear Cooperation With Iran / Russia”. Here’s the summary:

A plain-spoken nuclear physicist told Econoff that those spreading rumors that Venezuela is helping third countries (i.e. Iran) develop atomic bombs “are full of (expletive).” He said Venezuela is currently unable to provide such assistance particularly as the Chavez administration “does not trust scientists.” He added that Venezuela’s nuclear cooperation agreement with Russia finalized May 4 is pure political theater as Venezuela is incapable of cooperation with Russia on the development, design, construction and operation of nuclear reactors.  Also contrary to the agreement with the Russians, to the knowledge of the scientific community, there is no exploration or exploitation of uranium, ongoing or planned, in Venezuela. The scientist contended that, even if the Venezuelan government used all Cuban scientists, exploring for commercially viable uranium deposits in Venezuela would require a large taskforce and news of such an effort would leak quickly.

The cable does not, however, suggest that the reports should be used to weaken support for the Chávez administration. In fact, it suggests that the Venezuelan government itself may want to play up such reports: “Although rumors that Venezuela is providing Iran with Venezuelan produced uranium may help burnish the government’s revolutionary credentials, there seems to be little basis in reality to the claims.” This point seems prescient, given a New York Times article that appeared several months later under the headline “Venezuela Says Iran Is Helping It Look for Uranium”. In this case, it seems the Venezuelan government may have been “exploiting certain media biases”.

In sum, Vold does good work in mining the WikiLeaks cables for insight into US relations with Latin America. I wouldn’t characterize his conclusions as incorrect, but in the context of an interview on TeleSUR English, they’re unsurprisingly presented without some of the more complicating nuances.

Can Tugg provide new opportunities for cinema as an articulating mechanism of civil society?

April 28, 2012

The LA Times recently covered a new service called Tugg that allows individuals to schedule and promote digital film screenings at their local multiplex. The idea is to provide self-selected audiences with an opportunity to view movies that major theater chains don’t deem commercially viable for extended runs.

The process is relatively simple. The screening’s “organizer” first chooses the movie they want to screen from Tugg’s catalog (which has 433 titles as of this writing). Then:

[t]he organizer selects a local theater, locks in a date and then aggressively promotes the event using Facebook, Twitter or other social media. If people reserve enough tickets — a screening typically requires a minimum of 50 advance ticket purchases — Tugg then books the film in one of the theaters that have signed up for its service. (LA Times)

Tugg is still in beta and the ability to organize a screening is not yet open to the public. I wasn’t able to determine how the catalog is curated, but my hope is that there will be relatively few filters for producers (and other rights managers) who want to make their films available. I’d also like to see smaller (art) theaters be included as potential venues. But the underlying logic of Tugg’s platform is compelling.

Tugg holds potential for producers working in the margins because it adds another avenue of distribution and revenue generation to the mix. But Tugg also offers new possibilities to civil society organizations. In addition to asking individuals to download and view a movie individually, or host a screening in their own home, organizations can bring together larger crowds and make use of the opportunity to host discussions and generate further collaboration in relation to campaigns and other initiatives. Of course, this kind of thing has been happening for decades in schools, libraries, and other public venues, and there may still be advantages to choosing those locations. But Tugg enables a new social viewing space that combines the ease of over-the-top, video-on-demand delivery with the quality, comforts, and convenience of the theater. That mix might help to attract larger and more diverse audiences.

In short, Tugg seems to offer a new set of possibilities for the cinema to serve as an articulating mechanism of civil society. I will be watching to see if community media producers take advantage.

Subsidiarity and Participatory Media: Learning from Paul Ryan’s Mistakes

April 26, 2012

Ninety faculty members and priests at Georgetown University have “skewered” the federal budget proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI). While normally not the kind of thing I would post about on this blog, the exchange between Ryan and the Georgetown group turns on the issue of subsidiarity, which is a vital concept in my vision for participatory media structuration. I became familiar with the concept of subsidiarity through Michael Albert’s writings and interviews on Participatory Economics. For example:

…you should give priority to do things locally, if you can, and if you cannot do them locally, you of course have exchange at a regional, national, continental or even global level. This is called subsidiarity.

In discussions of participatory economics, subsidiarity is linked to a long line of anarchist libertarian thinking.

Ryan, however, has claimed that his budget proposal is predicated on the concept of subsidiarity as it derives from Catholocism:

To me, the principle of subsidiarity, which is really federalism, meaning government closest to the people governs best, having a civil society of the principal of solidarity where we, through our civic organizations, through our churches, through our charities, through all of our different groups where we interact with people as a community, that’s how we advance the common good. By not having big government crowd out civic society, but by having enough space in our communities so that we can interact with each other, and take care of people who are down and out in our communities.

Those principles are very very important, and the preferential option for the poor, which is one of the primary tenants of Catholic social teaching, means don’t keep people poor, don’t make people dependent on government so that they stay stuck at their station in life. Help people get out of poverty out onto life of independence.

I hadn’t been aware, but apparently the Catholic church incorporated subsidiarity into its social teachings throughout the course of the 20th century. Here’s the (very good) definition that appears in the catechism:

…a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to co-ordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good.

Well, apparently the learned folks at Georgetown disagree with Ryan’s interpretation and application. Rather soundly, in fact:

While you often appeal to Catholic teaching on “subsidiarity” as a rationale for gutting government programs, you are profoundly misreading Church teaching. Subsidiarity is not a free pass to dismantle government programs and abandon the poor to their own devices. This often misused Catholic principle cuts both ways. It calls for solutions to be enacted as close to the level of local communities as possible. But it also demands that higher levels of government provide help — “subsidium”– when communities and local governments face problems beyond their means to address such as economic crises, high unemployment, endemic poverty and hunger. According to Pope Benedict XVI: “Subsidiarity must remain closely linked to the principle of solidarity and vice versa.”

Ryan wants to employ the concept as part of an individualistic libertarianism, but Benedict’s emphasis on solidarity derails his attempt. It’s worth noting, in this context, that the definition in the catechism talks of higher- and lower-order communities, without mentioning individuals. It therefore better justifies the interpretations of subsidiarity that inform Christian Anarchism, as practiced within the Catholic Worker Movement, and Liberation Theology (through which participatory communication became an important component of Sandinista policy in Nicaragua). I would say it also justifies the interpretation manifest in Participatory Economics, though you can read a dissenting view here.

So what does all this have to do with participatory media structuration? It means that decision-making for media production should accord with the principal of subsidiarity. To the extent possible, “lower-order” communities should produce their own media. Since we need media to inform us about and comment on phenomena that take place beyond the local level, however, a media system must be scalable and co-ordinated by “higher-order” communities.  Among other things, this framework offers new possibilities for thinking about the question of funding, since instituting subsidiarity is crucial to enabling state funding of media production while maintaining editorial autonomy, a proposition that is often dismissed as impossible in arguments for capitalist control of the media.

Media reform will be more effective to the extent that reformers can offer a vision for what an alternative media system might look like. This is why it’s important to articulate a scalable model of participatory media based on the concept of subsidiarity. If we do so, and if libertarian-minded republicans are already bandying about the term, then it might be possible to hoist them on their own petard. In a best case scenario, we might find unexpected common ground for truly democratic media policy. More likely, they would dig in their heels, but at least some of the contradictions of their rhetoric would be revealed. Either outcome would be positive.

Theater of the Oppressed, Participatory Budgeting, and the Dialectic of Meaning- and Decision-making Public Spheres

April 21, 2012

Public sphere theorists do not properly account for the difference between meaning- and decision-making spheres. As I discussed in my previous post, this distinction was identified by Fraser but has remained underdeveloped. That baffles me, since the dialectic between meaning- and decision-making public spheres is a (if not the) primary axis of democratic practice. It’s what we talk about when we talk about accountability, and it seems like theorists could make better use of the conceptual distinction in order to model democratic practice and structuration.

The difference between these types of public spheres is simple. A public sphere that determines binding and actionable decisions is a decision-making public sphere. Examples include sovereign parliaments, boards of directors, or a conversation among colleagues about where to go for dinner. Meaning-making spheres, on the other hand, may indirectly affect decisions, but they do not produce them. So a public sphere that plays out in the press and other media outlets, as well as lobbying and constituency networks, is a meaning-making sphere that ultimately plays an important role in the decision-making sphere that is a sovereign parliament. Corporate boards of directors also pay attention to meaning-making spheres, especially those constituted by the business press, consumer feedback and opinions, and personal networks comprised of other corporate executives. And those colleagues going for dinner bring knowledge about restaurant options that they’ve perhaps culled from meaning-making spheres including conversations, reviews in the press, online gastronomy fora, etc.

The boundaries of decision-making spheres are, by necessity, much more rigidly constructed than those of meaning-making spheres, which are typically fuzzy and in flux. We can conceive of the latter theoretically, but in most cases can not pin them down in reality. That’s why we must understand public spheres (of both types) within a scalable, modular, and interpenetrated model.

The latest issue of Latin American Perspectives has an article by Ariane Dalla Déa that nicely illustrates the dialectic between meaning- and decision-making spheres, though it doesn’t invoke public sphere theory at all. The article discusses “Representations of Culture in Theater of the Oppressed and Participatory Budgeting in Brazil” and finds that “[b]oth forms claim sociopolitical change as their main objective, and the difference between them is in the possibility of realization of that objective” (54). Participatory budgeting (PB) meetings – as I understand them – are not actually decision-making spheres, but are meaning-making spheres specifically constructed and tightly circumscribed in order to directly inform budgetary decision-making. Here the dialectic of democratic accountability is highlighted and concretely addressed. In Theater of the Oppressed (TO), a meaning-making sphere is constructed from the actors and spectators, and particular emphasis is placed upon their interaction. In most cases, however, it is not tethered to any specific decision-making sphere:

Aside from representations confined to the stage, I have never seen anyone actually acting out a Theater of the Oppressed solution in a community to produce real change. The expression of these experiences seems to be simply an exercise that produces awareness of one’s status in society. Whereas individual experiences in participatory budgeting offer solutions for the community, Theater of the Oppressed works on private issues in isolation from their history and the cultural forces surrounding them and combines an array of individual experiences in ten-minute presentations of fictionalized stories. It is a ritual that carries cultural symbolism. (58)

I’m not sure it’s entirely fair to say that TO is isolated from the history and cultural forces of private issues. I’ve always understood one of the goals of TO to be the elucidation of the links between private issues and historical/cultural/social contexts, with the idea being that participants bring those contexts to the fore through theatrical reproduction (which Dalla Déa discusses as mimesis). So while I’m not as dismissive of TO as Dalla Déa sometimes seems to be (her account is somewhat ambivalent), I agree with her distinction between its role and that of PB:

In the budget meetings, accounts of experiences with lack of services, which tend to carry an emotional load, actually break with a pattern of exclusion in Brazilian society, temporarily eliminating social distance as citizens address their concerns to the agents of power. This is the redressive action of social drama. In participatory budgeting reintegration occurs when the services are delivered to the community. In Theater of the Oppressed there is legitimization when the audience and actors agree that there are possible solutions, but there is no reintegration. One presentation alone does not have the power to take the social drama beyond the stage. (58-9)

This is not to say that TO can not influence decision-making spheres, “but change at this level is slow and may take more than a generation to begin showing its effects at the community level” (59). Agosto Boal, the founder of TO, attempted to speed up this process by more tightly incorporating TO into local governance. “When Boal was elected to the city council in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, he attempted to recreate it by renaming it ‘Legislative Theater’ and attaching it to the new political movement of participatory democracy” (60). Dalla Déa tells us that this attempt was derailed around 2004, when the program was relocated to the city’s communications department, but doesn’t detail how it worked out over the previous decade. I’m not sure that TO is worthy of special treatment, but I can support the impulse to more tightly integrate cultural activity with democratic governance. Without a strong theoretical model for the dialectic interplay of meaning- and decision-making spheres, however, such attempts are likely to be more effective at legitimizing hegemonic structures than effectively channeling citizen participation into decision-making procedures.

Politico Pro as an Exemplar of the Primary Dialectic of Public Sphere Theory?

April 18, 2012

Nancy Fraser’s 1992 essay on “Rethinking the Public Sphere” (a version of which first appeared in 1990) has to be one the most highly cited articles in communications studies, and deservedly so, as her critique of Habermas elucidates several crucial points upon which the continued advancement of public sphere theory depends. Most scholars, however, have focused on her discussion of “counterpublics”. Almost entirely ignored (at least, as far as I know) has been the distinction she makes between “weak” and “strong” public spheres.

A sphere that does not produce binding decisions is weak; one that does is strong. As an example of the latter, Fraser offers a sovereign parliament. I have preferred to refer to these types of spheres as “meaning-making” and “decision-making” spheres, respectively, both to avoid the tacit hierarchization of Fraser’s terms and to emphasize the communicative aspect of the work being accomplished in each.

When communication scholars talk about public (and counterpublic) spheres, they almost always talk about meaning-making spheres, assuming but leaving almost entirely implicit the necessary relation between the two in a democratic society. I find this odd. We spend all our time questioning the way meaning-making takes place, yet frequently act as if the decision-making processes of liberal representative democracy and corporate hierarchies are givens. This is all the stranger considering that the goal of questioning meaning-making is often tied to a very real desire to change the decisions that are being made. Don’t get me wrong – I’m certain that most critical communication scholars have a deep sense of the inadequacies of decision-making in our “actually existing” democratic states. Nonetheless, I find an insufficient emphasis on the dialectic relationship between meaning- and decision-making spheres. The distinction between these two types of spheres needs to lie at the heart of any model that purports to explain the functioning of public sphere deliberation.

I’ve got plenty to say about that, and some of it will come out in the last chapter of my dissertation. I expect that, if I persist with an academic career, my writing will continue to revolve around this issue for a long time to come. How could it not? It is, after all, the core mechanism of democratic practice. For the moment, suffice it to say that I’m backing a scalable, modular model of multiple and interpenetrated public spheres organized according to their meaning- and decision-making functions.

In any case, the Nieman Journalism Lab just posted an article about Politico Pro, which is a premium version of Politico tailored to government officials, congressional staffers, lobbyists, and anybody else who can pony up thousands of dollars a years to receive extremely detailed and lightning fast updates on the minutiae of Washington sausage making. The information they serve up is so finely parsed that subscriptions are sold to only one of four (soon to be five) “verticals” at a time; currently, you can choose from technology, energy, health care, and transportation.

I don’t think I’ve seen a clearer or more focused example of the dialectical interaction between meaning-making and decision-making public spheres and the role that journalism can play therein. Politico Pro is serving as an articulating mechanism for four very specific meaning-making spheres, each of which is tied into the same decision-making sphere (ie. congress). These specific meaning-making spheres also exist within multiple larger meaning-making spheres. The (non-premium) Politico serves (articulates) the next scale of meaning-making – still rather restricted to those who pay close attention to politics, but not close enough to merit shelling out a few grand for even more granular and rapid information. Zoom out to the next scale and the representative press outlet might be the Washington Post or NY Times; one more and it’s perhaps USA Today, at the level of the “national” public sphere, or The Champaign News Gazette (or whichever “hometown” rag), at the level of a “local” public sphere. Or it might be a press release from Free Press, which picked up on a Politico (or some other) article about some nasty new legislation coming down the pipe, in which case the meaning-making sphere is no longer geographically bounded, but determined by a different criteria of identity (in this case, media reform activism). I could go on – in an interpenetrated, modular structure, the examples are truly infinite.

To be clear, I’m not saying – by any means – that Politico Pro represents an ideal for this type of dialectic interaction. In fact, as an exclusive form of commercial journalism that further entrenches the pro-capitalist lobbying structure that has so severely corrupted our already limited “actually existing” liberal democratic state, I find it highly problematic. Commercial journalism is beholden to hierarchical decision-making in a private sector oriented toward commodification and capital accumulation. I’m interested in a non-profit, participatory media apparatus that serves democratic decision-making within an autonomous civil society, and community media is a great place to start building.

I’ve been marinating this public sphere model for a few years now and only now am I starting to feel like I can articulate it in a way that makes some sense and holds some practical potential. Hopefully this post has begun to convince you…

The Right to Information in Mexico

March 28, 2012

The Mexican Senate has recently passed an amendment to the federal constitution that would make crimes against the press subject to federal jurisdiction. The idea, apparently, is to bypass state and local authorities that are prone to corruption. The amendment needs to be ratified by a majority of Mexican states, which Senators expect to happen by June. I’m guessing it will take longer than that, but hopefully it will happen. More journalists were killed in Mexico than any other country and violence against the press tends to go unpunished – Mexico’s impunity rate ranks eighth worldwide and second in Latin America. Keeping journalists safe should fortify and embolden the press, which might just have a salutary effect on Mexican democracy.

I would argue, of course, that Mexico would benefit more from a citizens’ press, anchored in civil society, than from a commercial press oriented toward capital accumulation. That’s why the wording of the amendment, as Danny O’Brien has pointed out, is especially encouraging. The amendment states that the feds will have jurisdiction over any offense “against journalists, people, or outlets that affects, limits, or impinges upon the right to information and freedom of expression and the press” (“contra periodistas, personas o instalaciones que afecten, limiten o menoscaben el derecho a la información o las libertades de expresión o imprenta“). With this wording, enforcement won’t necessarily hinge on a victim’s standing as a journalist, a determination that has proven contentious time and time again (and again), largely because it has been bound up with a nineteenth century model of professional journalism.

Of course, the proof is in the proverbial pudding and, as O’Brien points out: “constitutional amendments are allowed a little more leeway in their language than the laws and court judgments that spell out how they should be enacted. And the effectiveness of Mexico’s press protections will depend far more on the secondary legislation and the vigor of its investigating prosecutors than the letter of the law.” But constitutional recognition of a “right to information” is a definite positive. In other Latin American countries, such as Colombia and Venezuela, similar constitutional guarantees have been used as the basis for legislative frameworks that enable the provision of resources for the creation and maintenance of community media outlets.