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How to save the quality press?

Philosopher Jürgen Habermas argues for state support for quality newspapers.

Three weeks ago the business desk of Die Zeit newspaper startled readers with the headline "Will the fourth power come under the hammer?" The article was prompted by the alarming news that the fate of the Süddeutsche Zeitung is up in the air because a majority of stockholders want to sell their shares.

If it should come to a sale, one of the two best national newspapers in the Federal Republic could fall into the hands of financial investors, listed companies or media giants. Some will say: business as usual, what's so alarming about shareholders making use of their right to sell their shares, for whatever reason?

Like other newspapers, the Süddeutsche Zeitung has now overcome the crisis triggered at the start of 2002 by the collapse in the advertising market. The families now wishing to divest - and who own over 62.5 percent of the shares - have chosen a propitious moment.

Profits have risen, despite digital competition and changing readership habits. Apart from the current economic upturn, this can mainly be put down to rationalisation measures that affect performance levels and the freedom of editorial desks. News from the American newspaper sector confirms this trend.

The Boston Globe, for instance, one of the few left-liberal papers in the country, has had to cut all its foreign correspondents. The battleships of the national press such as The Washington Post and The New York Times fear takeovers by companies or funds which seek to "streamline" demanding media with unreasonable ideas of profit. And at The Los Angeles Times, the takeover is already in the works.

Then last week Die Zeit published a second article, on the "battle of Wall Street financial managers versus the US press." What lies behind such headlines? Clearly the fear that the market on which the national newspapers must compete today will fail to do justice to the twin function that the quality press has fulfilled up to now: satisfying the demand for information and education while securing adequate profits.

But are higher profits not a confirmation that "streamlined" newspaper businesses better satisfy the wishes of their readers? Don't vague terms like "professional", "demanding" and "serious" simply camouflage a paternalistic attitude toward consumers who know perfectly well what they want? Under the pretence of "quality", should the press be allowed to circumcise its readership's freedom to chose? Should it be allowed to impose upon them dry reports instead of infotainment, factual commentary and complex arguments instead of more accessible stories on people and events?

At the base of the objection implicit in these questions lies the controversial assumption that customers decide independently according to their preferences. This outdated piece of schoolbook wisdom is certainly misleading, bearing in mind the special character of the commodity "cultural and political communication." Because this commodity also tests and transforms the preferences of its consumers.

Readers, listeners and viewers are certainly directed by various preferences in using the media. They want to be entertained or distracted, they want to be informed about certain topics and events, or participate in public discussions. But as soon as they assent to cultural or political programmes, for example by reading a daily paper, Hegel's 'realistic morning prayer,' they expose themselves to what is in a manner of speaking an auto-paternalistic learning process with an undetermined outcome.

In the course of reading, new preferences, convictions and value orientations may be formed. The meta-preference which guides such a reading is oriented on the advantages expressed in the professional self-image of independent journalism, and which form the basis of the quality press' reputation.

A slogan that made the rounds at the time of television's introduction in the USA characterises the dispute over the special character of the commodities of education and information: the TV, it was said, is just "a toaster with pictures." By this was meant that the production and consumption of television programmes could confidently be left to the market. Since then, media enterprises have produced programmes for viewers and sold their audiences' attention to advertisers.

This organisational principle has inflicted political and cultural crop damage wherever it has been introduced systematically. The German "dual" television system is an attempt to limit this damage. The media laws of the German states, the relevant judgements of the Federal Constitutional Court and the programming guidelines of the public broadcasters all reflect the idea that the electronic mass media should not only satisfy customers' more marketable needs for entertainment and distraction.

Radio and television audiences are not just consumers, that is market participants, but also citizens with a right to participate in culture, observe political events and form their own opinion. On the basis of this legal entitlement, programmes assuring part of the population's "basic supply" may not be made dependent on their advertisement effectiveness or sponsoring.

At the same time, the politically-determined public licence fees that finance this basic supply are also independent of states' budgetary situations, that is of the ups and downs of the economy. This argument is rightfully being used by the broadcasting corporations in proceedings between them and the state governments now pending in the German Constitutional Court.

Now public legal status may be all very well and good for the electronic media. But can it be an example for the way "serious" newspapers and magazines like the Süddeutsche Zeitung or the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Die Zeit or the Spiegel - perhaps even for the quality monthly magazines - are organised?

Studies carried out by communication scientists are of interest here. At least in the area of political communication - that is for the reader as citizen - the quality press plays the role of the "leading media." In their political reporting and commenting, radio, television and the other newspapers are largely dependent on the topics and stories advanced by the "reasoning" papers.

Let's assume some of these papers come under pressure from financial investors who are out for a quick buck and who plan in unreasonably short intervals. When reorganisation and cost cutting in this core area jeopardise accustomed journalistic standards, it hits at the very heart of the political public sphere.

Because without the flow of information gained through extensive research, and without the stimulation of arguments based on an expertise that doesn't come cheap, public communication loses its discursive vitality. The public media would then cease to resist populist tendencies, and could no longer fulfil the function it should in the context of a democratic constitutional state.

We live in pluralistic societies. The democratic decision-making process can only overcome deep philosophical differences as long as it develops a legitimating bonding force. This must be convincing to all citizens and combine inclusion, that is the equal participation of all citizens, with a more or less discursive atmosphere of conflict of opinion.

We go on the assumption that in the long run, the democratic procedure will have more or less reasonable results. But this assumption is founded in turn by deliberative conflicts. Democratic opinion-making has an epistemic dimension, because it is at the same time involved with the criticism of false allegations and appraisals. And a discursively vital media is an active participant in this.

This can be intuitively understood in the difference that exists between competing "public opinions" and publications showing the repartition of opinions gathered through demoscopy, or public opinion research. For all their dissonance, public opinions that have been created through discussion and polemic have already been filtered through the relevant information and argumentation. Demoscopy, on the other hand, merely reflects latent opinions in their raw and dormant state.

Of course, the kind of regulated discussion or consultation that one sees in the law courts or parliamentary committees is prevented by the wild communication exchanges of a public sphere controlled by mass media. But in fact one would not expect such regulated discussion in public life, because political communication is just a link in the chain. It mediates between institutionalised discourses and negotiations taking place in the state arenas on the one hand, and the episodic and informal daily talk of potential voters on the other.

The public sphere does its part in democratically legitimatising state action by selecting objects relevant for political decision-making, forming them into issues and bundling them into competing public opinions with more or less well-informed and reasoned arguments.

In this way, public communication is a force that stimulates and orients citizens' opinions and desires, while at the same time forcing the political system to adjust and become more transparent. Without the impulse of an opinion-forming press, one that informs reliably and comments diligently, the public sphere will lose this special type of energy. When gas, electricity or water are at stake, the state must guarantee the energy supply for the population.

Shouldn't it do likewise when this other type of 'energy' is at risk - the absence of which will cause disruptions that harm the state? It is not a 'system failure' when the state tries to protect the public commodity that is the quality press. The real question is just the pragmatic one of how that can be done best.

In the past, the Hessian state government has helped out the Frankfurter Rundschau with a loan - to no avail. One-off subsidies are only one possibility. Others are foundations with public participation, or tax breaks for family holdings in this sector. These experiments already exist elsewhere, and none of them are unproblematic. But the first step is getting used to the very idea of subsidising newspapers and magazines.

From a historical point of view, there is something counter-intuitive in the idea of reigning in the market's role in journalism and the press. The market was the force that created the forum for subversive thoughts to emancipate themselves from state oppression in the first place.

Yet the market can fulfil this function only so long as economic principles do not infringe upon the cultural and political content that the market itself serves to spread. This is still the kernel of truth at the core of Adorno's criticism of the cultural industry. Distrustful observation is called for, because no democracy can allow itself a market failure in this sector.


The article originally appeared in German in the Süddeutsche Zeitung on May 16, 2007.

Jürgen Habermas, born in 1929, is one of Germany's foremost intellectual figures. A philosopher and sociologist, he is professor emeritus at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt and the leading representative of the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory. His works include "Legitimation Crisis", "Knowledge and Human Interests", "Theory of Communicative Action" and "The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity."

Translation: jab. - let's talk european