We have a notion that media works as a check against the excesses in government and other monolithic institutions.
But Sheila S. Coronel's "Lords of the Press" (1999) reveals how government leaders have pressured proprietors to tone their newspapers' reports critical of these leaders' actions. To protect their business interests, media owners usually accede to these demands rather than face libel suits or tax audits.
On the other hand, media magnates are also known to use their newspapers to curry favors from the government as well as to influence public opinion towards their and their friends' business interests. While there are media organizations that "are merely mouthpieces of their owners," others enjoy lesser proprietorial intervention because of "the bargaining power of editors." As Coronel puts it (1999: 6-7):
Proprietorial meddling is open-ended and outcomes can vary. Some newsrooms are like marketplaces, where bargaining between journalists and owners occur, and where journalistic principles are often compromised, but sometimes also prevail.
With media operated as a mass-market business, ownership of media companies was limited among those who had the capital to fund newspapers "even if they lose money." After all, the "aim [of media moguls] is not profit but influence." It is no wonder then, as Coronel notes, that "[the] profile of newspaper ownership has therefore tended to follow the changing face of Philippine business" (1999: 8-9).
This reality in media production and distribution may be understood through the political economy of media approach. Paul Long and Tim Wall, in their book Media Studies: Tests, Production and Context, say that the political economy of media approach "concerns in essence [the study of] the nature of production and the conditions under which it takes place." The "political" refers to how economic factors are determined by political forces and other vested interests. They quote Vincent Mosco's definition of political economy as: "the study of the social relations, particularly the power relations, that mutually constitute the production, distribution, and consumption of resources." Long and Wall adds that this approach "[explores] the relationship between the range of meanings available in media and the underpinning economic interests and ownership across the different media spheres" (2009: 139).
Media groups, like those in the Philippines, battle it out under the capitalist system with its free market economy and laissez-faire competition. Media products are subject to the commodity relations determined by the modes of revenue generation [direct sales or advertising] that will ensure profits for the media companies (Long and Wall, 2009: 140).
With advertising as the dominant mode of revenue generation, Long and Wall cites Dallas Smythe's (1981) contention that an audience is the real commodity of media. Smythe contends that media constructs, promotes, and distribute texts for a specific demographic suited for advertisers. Programming is done for a common-denominator mass audience to maximize profits, and with media companies playing around with variations of the common-denominator programming to attract specialist audiences or niche markets (Long and Wall, 2009: 141).
With mass audiences and niche markets having fickle interests, media producers usually resort to branding (of formats, genres, stars, and so on) to ensure predictable consumption. And if audiences are commodities, their continued consumption of media products assures both media producers and advertisers a steady flow of revenue (Long and Wall, 2009: 142).
This may seem understandable, given that media corporations spend a considerable amount to produce media texts. Sometimes, these corporations practice economies of scale ("ways that a corporation can save money through size") that leads to the concentration of control and monopolies or oligopolies in the production and distribution of media products.
And this brings up the question of how media's role as the Fourth Estate, or as a check against the excesses of government and other monolithic institutions. Here's Noam Chomsky's take on how it operates, taking into consideration the political economy of media (Al Jazeera's Listening Post series):
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