The Evolution of the Media and the Rise of Public Relations

One mistake many make is to see the problems of the corporate media as accidents caused by poor individual behavior. For instance, we see FOX News’ bastardization of the concept of objectivity as the work of the evil Rupert Murdoch. But the problem of the corporate media is systemic and requires an antidote which must treat the root of the ailment. We all know that the corporate media is skewed. So in this column I want to draw on Marxist social theorist, Jurgen Habermas to explain how this problem has come about. Doing so will give us a much better foundation to talk about how to fix the problem.

According to Habermas, newspapers were initially designed to generate modest profits featuring pure reporting of the news of the day, avoiding political debate. Over time, however, the business of selling people news of the day gave over to the business of dealing in public opinion. Habermas writes that once newspapers turned to literary journalism or dealing in public opinion their commercial purposes became secondary to the political aims. To do so they sacrificed direct profit in terms of sales for a profit that came via power and influence.[1] And eventually, by the turn of the 19th century, editors turned over their entrepreneurial functions to publishers.[2]

The rise of constitutional guarantees of freedom legalized public debate, initially restricted to the rulers of a nation, and allowed the press, run by private individuals, to freely express their ideas and take ideological sides. In the 1830s the press in Great Britain, France, and the United States began working with commercial businesses. Advertisement became part of the business, and the per-copy price of newspapers significantly dropped. As the per-copy price lowered and the number of buyers grew, publishers could make more and more room for advertisements. This began a new phase (the third) in print media which essentially allowed print news to return to the first stage where it was a purely "private commercial enterprise."[3] The difference, however, was that the press continued to deal in public opinion as it had in its previous phase. Except this time around, economic and other interests took precedent over rational-critical debate. "Not only the private economic interests of the individual enterprise gained in importance," writes Habermas, "the newspaper, as it developed into a capitalist undertaking, became enmeshed in a web of interests extraneous to business that sought to exercise influence upon it."[4]

Like the United States’ foreign policy, the press experienced serious strategic entanglement. Instead of promoting rational-critical debate or even promoting a particular line of thought as the Constitutional freedoms allowed, the press became a defensive organism which sought to filter the news and opinions. "The selection of material became more important than the lead article," writes Habermas, "the processing and evaluation of news and its screening and organization more urgent than the advocacy of a ‘line’ through an effective literary presentation."[5] In order to ensure the news was properly filtered, editors were specifically hired with expectations that they would obey the private (that is non-socially concerned) interest of a profit-oriented enterprise.[6] What followed was the homogenization of the press by media monopolies in the United States (Hearst), Great Britain (Northcliffe), and Germany (Ullstein and Mosse). Smaller papers soon followed suite.[7]

The liberal model of the public sphere had institutions such as the Press bolstering rational-critical debate. But in the hands of private individuals the press grew so homogenized that it threatened to drown out critical debate, rather than amplify it. As a result, Europe moved to protect the public sphere from the concentration of power into a small number of hands. Only the United States has allowed the media to subvert its publicist function-the purpose of publicizing a wide-range of ideas and debates-in favor of its capitalistic function-making money.[8]

There is no doubt, explains Habermas, that mass media is more successful in its range of effectiveness than the press of the liberal era. But this success has come at the expense of making what was once a public enterprise into a private exchange of goods. And it has changed the definition of publicity, which once simply referred to freely publicizing of ideas. As the mass media has become more effective in restrictive publicity, it has become increasingly susceptible to certain private interests’ demands. Originally, the press brought a variety of private reflections into the public square to be debated and considered. But now the media manufactures views it wishes to sell private individuals, in the public square.[9] The key here is to differentiate between the "private" or "personal" interests of the wealthy elite and the "private" or "personal" interests of each and every citizen. While the monopolized media gives ample opportunities and space for the empowered and wealthy elite to convey their thoughts and ideas, it systematically ignores those who lack power and influence. In short, the press has become a megaphone bellowing out the narrow interests of a select few in the public, pretending all along to equally take into account the views and ideas of all others.

In the past, business exchanges involved individuals directly engaging other individuals. This allowed individuals to keep personal affairs, such as money making, private. But the public sphere came to be viewed as an arena for money making. And individuals increasingly brought in private economic interests into a space which was at least theoretically purposed for disinterested, rational-critical debate. "The separation of public and private spheres implied that the competition between private interests was in principle left to the market as a regulating force and was kept outside the conflict of opinions," writes Habermas. "However, in the measure that the public sphere became a field for business advertising, private people as owners of private property had a direct effect on private people as the public. In this process…the transformation of the public sphere into a medium of advertising was met halfway by the commercialization of the press."[10]

Thus, we have the birth of "public relations," a term and practice which originates in the United States. Habermas traces "public relations" or "opinion management" to Ivy Lee. Apparently Lee developed publicity techniques in order to deflect social reformers’ criticism of the Standard Oil Company and the Pennsylvania. The problem with a person or a company utilizing "public relations" is not that it aims to publicize its voice or view. It’s when the person or company seeks to rig the game in its favor that we have a democracy-threatening problem. "The sender of the message hides his business intentions in the role of someone interested in the public welfare….," writes Habermas. "The accepted functions of the public sphere are integrated into the competition of organized private interests."[11] Public relations becomes devious when it pretends objectivity while actually promoting a self-interested perspective. And public relations isn’t just about advertising a viewpoint, it uses tools of "promotion" and "exploitation" to invade the "process of ‘public opinion’ by systematically creating news events or exploiting events" that attract attention."[12]

Citing Bernays’ 1955 work, The Engineering of Consent and Steinberg’s The Mass Communicators, Habermas explains that the main aim of public relations is to "engineer consent" rather than engineer debate and individual, critical reflection. The premise of public relations and the engineering of consent is therefore, based upon the illusion of a rational-critical public and the delusion of the citizen who thinks he is contributing "responsibly to public opinion." [13] So while opinion makers and marketers love to analyze and discuss opinion polls, the views expressed in those polls are, in reality, pre-fabricated responses rather than original critical reflections. "For the criteria of rationality are completely lacking in a consensus created by sophisticated opinion-molding services under the aegis of a sham public interest," declares Habermas. We no longer have critical perspectives, we have reflexive opinions. "Intelligent criticism of publicly discussed affairs gives way before a mood of conformity with publicly presented persons or personifications; consent coincides with good will evoked by publicity."[14]

Jeff Nall is a writer and activist. He is a graduate of Rollins College, Master of Liberal Studies (MLS) and is currently pursuing a PhD in Comparative Studies at Florida Atlantic University. His book, Perpetual Revolt: Essays on Peace & Justice and The Shared Values of Secular, Spiritual, and Religious Progressives will be released in June 2008. For more information go to


[1]  Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society (United States: The MIT Press, 1991), 182.

[2] 182-183.

[3] 184-185.

[4] 185.

[5] 185-186.

[6] 186.

[7] 186-187

[8] 188

[9] 188.

[10] 189

[11] 193

[12] 193

[13] 194.

[14] 195