Earlier this morning, I had a final exam, a rather unconventional one, that is presenting what we had found in a month-long research about media and politics in the United States. More specifically, we embarked on research regarding the nature of coverage of American print media in respect to Vietnam War - its biases, slants, agenda setting, etc.
Shazani, Abby, and Brooke representing the research team (Rebecca and Leila were absent from the picture)
From the research, we had concluded some findings that are rather surprising especially for me who are relatively unfamiliar with American media. Some of the findings are:
1. Depiction of gory pictures in American media then are common, as opposed to contemporary norms.
2. The sub-humanization of the North Vietnamese Armies (NVAs): the diminution of their military capabilities and their reference to a particular politically-adverse connotation to an ideology.
3. The progress of American media: from being sympathetic to US Government and US Army, into being sympathetic to war protesters and the Vietnamese.
For me, none surprise me more except for the third factor: the change of American media's attitude as the war progresses. Before, I thought American media was 'free' and 'unbiased'. It was not until embarking deep into the research - into the news articles themselves during the 1960s that I discovered that American media had also undergone a process of evolution. Even during the earlier part of Vietnam War, the one-sided propaganda was rife - it was not until during the Tet Offensive to the Battle of Hamburger Hill period that the American media was really 'adverse' against the US government (this period is called the 'adversarial period' in US media history).
Now, allow me bring this discussion into the context of Malaysian media. I believe that Malaysian media is also undergoing the process of change as the American media had about fourty years ago. With the advent of new media such as the blogs and YouTube, the definition of 'media' is being radically redefined especially in the case for Malaysia. It is well known today that the dominance of mainstream American media is shattering (Althaus); this also stands true for Malaysian media when we had witnessed the 'political tsunami' that had denied the Ruling Party the 2/3 majority for the first time in the modern history of Malaysia, arguably partly because of the influence of the new media.
Is the media revolution good or bad for the future development of Malaysian media? Well, let me lay the ground for the two major contending arguments regarding the development. 1) It is bad because the new media is not mediated - people are too free to speak whatever they want including specious and seditious claims. 2) It is good because it promotes space for Democracy and advancing it to a higher level. Now, allow me to elaborate on the first argument.
Perhaps the first argument, in context of Malaysian media, could be explained by Daniel Hallin's Three Spheres Model. According to Hallin, there are three spheres in defining 'fair reporting' namely the Sphere of Consensus, the Sphere of Legitimate Controversy, and the Sphere of Deviance. The first sphere, the Sphere of Consensus, encircles uncontroversial issues agreed by the majority in the society. For example, in context of the American society, capitalism is legitimate, communism is bad, and there is nothing against that. The Sphere of Legitimate Controversy encompasses gray issues where the debates between two-party is equal, or almost equal, in strength. For example, in the United States, the issue recreational drugs - some are for it, others are not. Last but not least, The Sphere of Deviance covers the issues that the society itself as unworthy to be heard. For example, in American society, Marxism is worthless.
Now, in context of Malaysian society, to 'jaga air muka' is very important, especially for the Malays. Unlike other cultures who can 'just fire 'em up' while making condemnations and giving advice, the Malays prefer the subtle way of 'sindiran', 'jangan cakap depan orang', and 'cakap one-on-one' should the need for condemnation and advice arises. The 'jaga air muka' value is so ingrained in the society, or least according to a majority of a society, or a defining power that maintains it, that everything that goes against the norms fall into the Sphere of Deviance. Thus, even the notion of creation blog(a blog by itself is neutral), but if it is associated with the notion of 'menjatuhkan air muka', must be rejected by the society and the dissenters should be punished, and so the argument says.
Now let me bring you to the second argument, that the new media (the blogs, You Tube etc.) spurs Democracy. For this, allow me to utilize the Trustee Model and the Republicanism approach to the understanding of Democracy - this is the model envisioned by America's founding fathers to create a 'just' and 'equal' society based on the constant participation of the people in the matters of national governance and politics. This model requires that there is a need for the people to be constantly informed about the problems in a society so that they could formulate arguments, and the argument will be discussed through a forum, where the best argument prevails. In this context, blogs can be likened as a space for the forum and the cyberspace as the Parliament where arguments can be traded. Because of the lack of space in conventional media that ultimately stifles Democracy because it prevents the right of free-speech, this argument says, the new media provides a ground for those who are unable to get their voice out in the mainstream media to sell their ideas in the cyberspace, the Virtual Parliament.
In respect to the last General Election's result, as far as my faculty of thoughts could offer, I think that the latter argument seems to win more supporters than the former. Although the causal effect (at least an academic research that verifies it, as far as my knowledge goes) is yet to be determined whether or not the new media is the direct cause of the 'political tsunami' in Malaysia, it is obvious that the social activists and politicians are utilizing them to disseminate their ideas to the public - short-circuiting the mainstream media. Secondly, the receivers - the new generation, whom many are computer-literate and whom at least had received the secondary-level of education, are not buying unilateral arguments given the variety of arguments available for them in the Virtual Parliament, the internet. In fact, they can indeed be one of the Virtual MPs themselves by presenting their own arguments in their own blogs and "vote" by making their stand on particular issues.
Now does that mean that the first argument should be debunked? Not in totality because it also has its point - that the space should be conducive for everybody to have meaningful debates and deliberations. If in actual Parliment we have 'Peraturan Mesyuarat' (Point of Order), in Virtual Parliament, we should have similar orders as well. Thus, malicious, blind accusations, vulgar languages and similar misbehavior should not be tolerated by the fellow Virtual MPs, the bloggers. Then can the virtual MPs be credible, respected by other fellow virtual MPs and the virtual rakyats watching them.
Therefore, where to go from now? Is there a chance for mainstream media coalesce with new media given the current situation in Malaysian context. There is a chance, given the will of the people and the acceptance that change is happening over time - forcing the classic model of media understanding, the Hypodermic Needle Model, obsolete. With the advent of new media, everybody who has access to the internet now has a chance to speak - an whoever speak with most substance are supported by the majority, wins!
Althaus, Scott L. "Free Falls, High Dives, and the Future of Democratic Accountability". The Politics of News The News of Politics. 2nd ed. 2008. CQ Press:Washington D.C. 5 May 2008.