A Watchdog’s Burial. A Contribution to Cynological Media Theory

Jan KŘEČEK
Faculty of Social Sciencies, Charles University in Prague
krecek@fsv.cuni.cz

 

Abstract:

Terms like lapdog, watchdog (of democracy), or mad-dog are often used – even by media theorists –  to describe various types of political journalism, or even for a general description of the media’s role in democratic societies. The proposed article is based on a strong belief in the metaphors‘ role in the (potentially ideological) construction of meaning. It therefore goes further – elements of qualitative analysis are used to categorize the large amount of pre-collected ‘dog proverbs‘. As a result, other metaphorical descriptions of the relationship between media and society (especially the role of traditional, mainstream media in contemporary political communication) are offered, including graphic expression of mutual positions of these relationships.
This analysis is placed in the specific framework of the past quarter century in the Czech Republic (i.e. all the ‘post-communist‘ countries of Central and Eastern Europe) and results in some modest normative recommendations.

Keywords: watchdog, lapdog, political journalism, media-society relations 

 

The metaphor (and not only one)

When today we look a quater of a century back, we cannot help ourselves but to feel moved. It was an intoxicating period. Ideals and myths were not scarce back then. And thus the ushering of the brand new era was also accompanied by the metaphor of the media as the watchdog of democracy. I vividly remember how sure we were back then that it was a hitherto rare (endangered, extinct or even unknown) species in the East. We were almost uncritically excited about it and perhaps that is also why it escaped our attention that already back then the dog ideal was not so unambiguous even in the West.

It was actually in the same time that Larry Sabato (Sabato: 1991) described the evolution of political journalism from a lap-dog to a watchdog all the way to a junkyard- or an attack-dog. Steven Barnett (Barnet: 2002) put these genetic mutations in the relation with the changes of the entire Western political communication, i.e. with the three ages of political communication according to Blumler and Kavanagh (Blumler and Kavanagh: 1999).

In the Czech (and probably in all of the Central- and Eastern European) environment, we had to experience these mutations on our own and up until today, we have very few data about them. If we accept the not-so-bold assertion that the Czech media landscape generally corresponds to the third age of political communication – notwithstanding the divergent occurrence of the previous two stages – we can see a broad field opening up to us as well as a great task for Czech Political Communication Studies.

Yet already today, we can, for example, sense that the lap-dog designation can be adequately used to describe the majority of Czech media in the early 1990s due to their servility to the Civic Party, to Václav Klaus, and to the program of building plain-spoken capitalism. Of course, we did encounter several watchdogs. However, as one of the studies of the transformation of the Czech media states, in about the mid-1990s the Czech public reached a position of “uneasiness about the self-evident power of the media” and, later on, a position of “a resigned belief in the media’s dominance.” (Jirák, 2006) According to this study, one of the allegedly typical aspects is supposed to be the fact that the Czech junkyard/attack-dogs even outdid the Western ones: “In the Czech media setting, it is possible to reach a significant position already in the young age, without the needed experience, without wisdom gained throughout life, and without subtlety. This results in a tendency for emotionally militant expressions of extreme and one-sided attitudes; a tendency for improper language with many words on the edge of propriety and decency, with overall communicational crudeness.”

Over the whole twenty-years long period evidence has been accumulating to testify that the dog was in no way an ideal. To a linguist this comes as no surprise, after all, for in Czech the dog figure is bound with a metaphorical paradox. A dog can be “a man’s best friend” and synonymous with loyalty, but in the same time, a “dog” is also a negative determination. Let’s just recall such expressions as leading a dog’s life, being in dog’s mood, it is raining cats and dogs (it is raining heavily), or something goes to the dogs (something goes to hell).

In the Czech discourse on media over the past twenty years words began to appear, often firstly in the specialist and later on in the general discourse, such as mainstream and mainstreaming (One barking dog sets the street barking), popular culture, entertainment, infotainment and tabloidization (A dog returns to its vomit), narcotisation (Drunk as a dog)… The conviction about their own indispensability and irreplaceable public function has become the professional ideology of the journalists that has been flaunted on every occasion (A dog sitting by a hay mow says: “What a big shadow I am casting!”). At first, an initially heretic opinion gained legitimacy claiming that free market environment is not the best one for free communication, because it promotes favoritism (The better the dog, the more it obeys its master) and competition among dogs for control of the territory – domination in the market, convergence and efforts at monopolization (The stronger dog f*cks). In the market, the public communication runs according to media logic (A dog does not bark for the village, but for itself). Yet, the optimists and the practitioners assure us that this is logical indeed and that the basic law of supply and demand simply applies when the media are just fulfilling our order (A dog couldn’t if the bitch wouldn’t). Please, accept my apologies for this undignified role.

At this point, however, you have probably noticed several things.

Firstly, I collect dog proverbs. With my students, we have gathered about one hundred of those – traditional folk ones as well as popularized sayings from literature, films or even police records of tapped phone calls, which were published in the media and made into a theatre play. About one hundred of these proverbs made the first data set for my analytical experiment.

Secondly, I try to articulate these proverbs with the reflection on the media reality. The second set thus comprises texts about the transformation of the Czech media. The texts were of academic or specialist provenance, but some more popular ones were included as well, as long as they made use of a dog metaphor.

Thirdly, the theory behind my article rests on the power of metaphor to bridge meanings. The method then consisted of the following qualitative-analytical experiment.

First step: qualitative categorization of the set two (reflection on media) into several categories.

Second step: finding meaningful links with the elements of the set one (reflection on dogs).

Third step: placing the elements of the set one into the matrix of the set two.

Fourth and final step: bringing to being for the first time a range of new metaphors about media as dogs.

I hope that this does not need to be just a game. Metaphor is a strong ideological instrument. And the number of sayings ready-made to become media-dog metaphors is more or less limited. The choices made in the language use usually are not arbitrary.

I will not pretend that I am presenting some accomplished, new and stunning findings. I would, however, consider the goal of my paper reached if my directed generation of new media-dog metaphors offered you a new perspective, a new angle for contemplation of the media performance and their role in society.

 

Matrix of expectations (four basic fields)

 

The basic structure of Media and Society relationships that I found to follow in the upcoming part of the work is characterized by two dimensions (see  Graph 1).

 1
Graph 1

 

The first one is depicted vertically on the graph and its extreme positions – optimism and pessimism – express the scale of the perceived impact/effect of the media’s function in society.

The second dimension is depicted horizontally and its extreme positions – stability and change – emphasize perceived possibility of a change of the media’s performance (according to expectations in society).

Four basic fields thus emerge and could be considered as the highest categories of our qualitative experiment. In the field A the optimistic perspective on the role of media in society and the conviction about the stability and endurance of known media action patterns, constitute a Complacency category.  In the field B, optimism and change (in the sense of rectifying minor media dysfunctions) combine in a category of Hope. In the field C the stability and pessimism result in Resignation. Finally, in the field D, the perceived possibilities of change together with the pessimistic perspective on the role of media fall into a category of Resentfulness.

Of course, these fields form relationships – for example the field A (Complacency) is the opposite of the field D (Resentfulness) and the same relationship develops along the diagonal line between B-C (Resignation-Hope). Symbolic relationships should operate as well between the neighboring fields and, above all, between the metaphors that are placed within the fields as linguistic realizations of the basic categories.

Obviously, all the proverbs cannot be placed in the four fields – and this too counts as a significant finding. The hierarchical structure is constructed in such a way that provides space for any theoretical reflection of the relationship between Media and Society. This presupposes an entering hypothesis that there is something to be solved about this relationship. The perspectives on the Media-Society relationship that do not attempt to solve anything about it, or rather, those that do not see the relationship as a problem, cannot be accommodated in the structure. In a similar fashion, the metaphors that do not propose any problem about the Dog-Man relationship and consider it flawless and, in so doing, venerate dogs, also do not belong here. Such metaphors can be used at the most as a hyperintegrated introduction to the structure: for example, A poor man’s dog won’t leave his master upon seeing a rich one, or A good dog doesn’t leave his master when poverty strikes him. I would also dare to include here For every dog a different master, since its meaning could also be read as a variety of the classical liberal-pluralistic view of the media: Individual media (the dogs) may on occasion act with self-interest, bias or partisanship; nonetheless, their sheer number eventually balances everything out. The dogs/media do not live solely for themselves, as each dog needs its master (audience, advertisers) and each master (social interest, voice) has its dog.

 2
Graph 2

 

On the contrary, I place in the very center of the outlined graph (see Graph 2), in the point of intersection of both axes, the metaphor that states A dog is a reflection of its master, or, respectively, A master is a reflection of its dog. Unlike the previous metaphor (and in accordance with the others), this one perceives all the media as single complex – one dog. The relationship between media and society thus appears to be entirely interdependent and open to the notion of stability as well as change, while it leaves unanswered the question about the nature of this relationship and its effects (on the scale of positive and negative). The metaphor thus reaches out to all four fields.

In the field A, which is reserved for the complacent discourses about the Media-Society relationships, we can find, for example, the conviction that A bad dog growls, a worse one stays silent. This does not entirely displace the possibility of a negative outlook on the media performance, but the crux of the matter is that a world would be a worse place without the media barking. Likewise, the saying that A river doesn’t become worse when dogs drink from it exculpates the media from a potential contamination of the societal environment. As a key metaphor for this field I selected a proverbial dictum that is similar in meaning but far more notorious: These are dog fleas, they don’t go for a human.

The field C concentrates potentially pessimistic utterances about the media performance, but since we still find ourselves in the zone of stability/immutability, the critique here takes a form of a statement that leads to no action or solution. A typically resigned metaphor comes with the classical idiom You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. A less traditional, as well as less decent is the appeal to abstention from action – Dog sh*ts on that, which translates as A dog couldn’t care less. I emphasize a pretended bewilderment as the key metaphor here: Whoever said you can’t buy happiness forgot about puppies! Although the moment of resignation is pushed into the background (basically, it comes down to the fact that not everyone can afford to buy a puppy), it illuminates better than other cases one of the most common reasons for resignation: That which we would expect not to have a value expressible in financial terms (and there are indeed countless numbers of such values in the sphere of public communication!) has become an ordinary commodity. Denis McQuail has quite a point when he remarks that the critical political economy of media has a great explanatory potential (it can describe in one hundred and one ways how A dog licks the hand that feeds it), but it does not offer many ways to a solution (other than Judge the master rather than the dog) (McQuail, 1999).

After categorizing the field B as the field of Hope, it is clear that we have advanced on the horizontal scale to the area where a change (of the media performance according to social demands) is expected and understood as possible in principle (hence the optimism). We are thus located in the zone of ideas rooted in the normative theory of the media where expectations are converted into norms; it is a zone of reforms and regulations. The belief in the power of the latter is well rendered by such metaphors as: Command the dog, the dog will command the tail – When the dog lies down, its tail won’t move around. However, I picked another metaphor as the key one: If you wish the dog to follow you, feed him. There are two reasons for this choice. Firstly, it makes for an appropriate opposition to the field C. Secondly, it sees hope not only in the orders and restrictions from above (from the society onto the media/dogs), but it also touches upon the semantic field of cooperation on voluntary basis. It is thus an adequate metaphor for those reflections on the Media-Society relationship that accentuate, for example, the role of the journalists’ training or the education of their audiences.

Finally, the field D opens up through skepticism or even disbelief about such efforts. The underlying assumption is that the media have gained immense autonomy in modern societies and abound in power that cannot be restricted. Here, the following proverb could be placed: In one village a dog will often bite the others, but they all will fight a wolf like brothers. Yet in order to provide a better variant on the field B, another metaphor appears to be more suitable: Try to straighten a dog’s tail and you’ll get bitten. As an opposite to the field A, I assign the following proverb here: Those who sleep with dogs will rise with fleas. The combination of the conviction that the media infest society with fleas and that they cannot be changed results in the only imaginable “solution”: Dogs deserve the dogs’ death!

 

Conclusions (two and normative)

 

While I am not going to hide the fact that I would personally place myself in the field D and my view of the contemporary media, at least the traditional mass media, is very critical, I will not allow for such morbid and nihilistic ending. That is why I will take recourse in the common two-stage conclusion, the reformist and the radical.

The former returns us to the field C, the field of hope. It is especially up to us, the mediologists, not only to unveil, analyze, and describe particular media dysfunctions, but also to propose and test solutions that would make the public media communication more free, equal, accessible, responsible, and democratic. It should come as no surprise to us that our media dogs resist the taming and defleaing. They will compare almost any attempt to correct their behavior to muzzling. Just the same, we should not resign just because the imposed reforms and regulations often end up in failure, for A dog that was led to forest by force won’t drive the squirrel out.

A somewhat more radical solution goes more widely: Let‘s become dogs ourselves! Lets take part in the media communication, or better yet, lets become the media. Many a man fights like a dog in order to live like a human. Indeed, becoming media is demanding, more demanding than mere reception and relying on media to take care of communication for us. Although history cautions us against excessive techno-optimism, the media technology today, more than ever before, allows every one of us to communicate directly, quickly, non-hierarchically and without censorship.

The last suggestion for a solution is only seemingly contradictory. Let‘s become humans ourselves! A dog barks, because it cannot speak. If dogs could speak, we would probably get along with them as badly as with people. The solution inheres in the realization that dogs and people will never truly understand each other. Dogs live in their own world and if we are interested in the human world, it is better to place confidence in the communication with people. Thus, one should not rely upon the media and instead learn (again) how to communicate even outside of them.

 

References

BARNETT, Steven, 2002, „Will a crisis in journalism provoke a crisis in democracy?“, Political Quarterly, 73 (4), p. 400-408.

BLUMLER, Jay G., KAVANAGH, Dennis, 1999, „The Third Age of Political Communication: Influences and Features“, Political Communication, 16 (3), p. 209-230

EBR Vráťa, SUCHÁNEK Jaroslav, 2007, Nejen bonmoty a citáty o psech, páníčkách a paničkách, Prague, Euromedia Group

JIRÁK, Jan, 2006, Masová média a česká společnost. Masová média jako problém posttransformační společnosti. Disertační práce, Prague, FSV UK

McQUAIL, Denis, 1999, Úvod do teorie masové komunikace, Prague, Portál

SABATO, Larry J., 1991, Feeding Frenzy: How Attack Journalism has Transformed American Politics, New York, Free Press

SABATO, Larry J., STENCEL, Mark, LICHTER, Robert S., 2000, Peepshow: Media and Politics in the Age of Scandal, Oxford, Rowman & Littlefield