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Commercial Media As A Hegemonic Ideology

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Media
Wordcount: 3093 words Published: 24th Apr 2017

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In this capitalistic twentieth-century, we cannot ignore the role established by the mass media as a principal and crucial tool in shaping the cultural sphere of our society. ‘Pubic information, intercommunication and exchange’ of the ‘social knowledge’ in society now solely depends upon mass media (Hall, 1977:340). Its role rests on the information that it provides which stimulates political ideas, social action, public policy agenda and priorities and further more (Khuori, 1999). Hence, what media imparts as information to the public becomes very important, for as mentioned earlier, this information is what produces the values in cultural sphere that drives the world today. In order to understand the mass cultural process one needs to examine how media industries function (Gottdiener, 1985: 980). So, in this essay we examine and dissect mass media through the concept of hegemony, to understand its role. How hegemony exists in the media system, in corporate decision making process and how ‘ideological hegemony’ is deep-seated in the very ‘intellectuals’ responsible for providing information to the general public will be discussed. We firstly will understand the concept of hegemony before analysing the media system and also talk about counter-hegemony to shed light on how media can sometimes go against the existing dominant hegemonic ideology in a society. Lastly we will talk about the limitations of hegemony in arriving at an understanding of the role media plays with in the society.

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Theoretical Background:

Hegemony is a concept that was first posed by an Italian Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) in his notebooks; while he was imprisoned. He was attempting to understand why after World War I, there was no working class uprising over fascism in Northern Italy during the regime of Mussolini (Gitlin, 2003: 252). An ardent follower of Marxism he witnessed the failure of the Marxist theory – the process by which masses (proletariats) should overthrow oppressive capitalist bourgeoisie systems, to move towards a less oppressive economic system (Marx and Engels, 2002: 10-12). Gramsci built upon Marxism to conceptualize hegemony focusing more on the ideological independence and ‘human subjectivity’ rather than economy (Daniel, 2000). One of the limitations of Marxist theory was the fact that ‘superstructure’ .i.e. ‘cultural and political institutions’ were seen as being dependent on the ‘economic base’; Gramsci tried to highlight the autonomy of such ‘superstructure’ away from the ‘base’ (Stevenson, 1995:15).

Hegemony according to Gramsci centres on ‘cultural and ideological means’ through which the dominant or the ruling class retain their dominance on ‘subordinate classes’ by building ‘spontaneous’ mass ‘consent’ (Strinati, 1995: 165; Gitlin 2003: 253). Stevenson (1995:16), suggests that hegemony is a continuous battleground where the ‘bourgeoisie and the working class construct economic, political and cultural alliances with other social groups’ and that ‘ideology is represented as the social cement that binds together different class alliances’. He further adds that the ideology works only when it is able to relate to the ‘common sense’ of the people and influence them for change. Hence, Gramsci’s hegemonic ideology is based on the fact that the ‘dominant social group in a society have the capacity to exercise intellectual and moral direction over society at large and to build a new system of social alliances to support its aims’ (Thussu, 2000:68). Military force might not always be the best possible way to gain power; in fact it is achieved not with ‘legal and legitimate compulsion’ but by ‘winning active consent’ of the subordinate class (Hall, 1982: 85). The dominant class develops and upholds its hegemony in ‘civil society’, i.e. by generating ‘cultural and political consensus’ through unions, political parties, schools, media, the church, and other voluntary associations which is where hegemony is exercised by the dominant class over allied classes and social groups (Thussu, 2000:68).

There is still a question as to why people would indisputably consent to let the dominant class control them, why would they agree to cultural and political consensus. Gramsci answers this by suggesting that the subordinate group is not ‘ideologically indoctrinated’ but accepts the values and leadership of the dominant class since it also reflects their own interests (Strinati, 1995: 166; Hall, 1982:85; Gitlin, 2003: 253). As Strinati suggests (1995: 167), ‘if we accept that hegemony is also about the battle for ideas, and the consent to dominant ideas, then it might be argued that it also includes concessions to the ideas and values of subordinate groups’. However, we can also disagree by saying that perhaps it is merely a false consciousness created by gradually shifting the ‘public interests and perception’ towards the dominant class without the public consciously realizing it (Stevenson, 1995:16). Regardless, Gramsci is able to explain precisely what the earlier Marxist were not able to that is the ‘”free consent” of the governed to the leadership of the governing classes under capitalism’ (Hall, 1982:85).

Hegemony and the media:

Gramsci highlights the importance of certain institutions in particular mass media, as the ‘subject to production, reproduction and transformation of hegemony’ (Strinati, 1995: 168). Gramsci therefore points out the fact that it is important to analyse the role of media in the context of hegemony (Strinati, 1995: 169). Media is no doubt a powerful tool that affects not only individuals, but other institutions including society and culture (McQuail, 1997: 90). In Hall’s word (1982: 86) media are the institutions that ‘not only reflected and sustained the consensus’ but ‘helped produce consensus and manufactured consent’, acting as an important tool to establish hegemony. Hall analyses the media through a hegemonic framework, he starts by saying that public trust media because ideologically they projects independence and impartiality from the political or economic interests of the state. However, media existing within a state are obliged to follow the ‘formal protocols of broadcasting’ and depend on ‘the form of state and political system which licenses them’ (Hall, 1982: 86-87). Hence the question of their operation being state driven is very likely. Hall (1982: 88) mentions media as being an ‘ideological state apparatus’ used to mediate social conflicts.

An interesting example of this state driven hegemonic ideology is the one given by Curran who compares the modern media with the medieval church showing how media is still used for social control by different dominant players. According to Curran (1982: 227) like the medieval churches media bind different people together by promoting collective values and social solidarity; back then it was the Christian faith while now it is consumerism and nationalism through international sporting contests and consumer features. He specially focuses on British media and how they promote collective identity through monarchy just like the Church. Cannadine (1983) gives an example of how the BBC in 1932 helped create a fascination for British royal family and helped project an image of British as one ‘whole’ by broadcasting an image of the fatherly figure of George V (cited in Stevenson, 1995:17). Here we can easily see the BBC supporting the British regime in other words the state to build a common consensus while supporting hegemonic ideology. Curran (1982: 227) also adds that just like the medieval churches, media now also gives attention to the ‘outsiders’, earlier it was witches and warlords now its youth gangs, terrorist, drug addicts, militants etc. The role of mass media says Curran (1982: 227) ‘is interpreting and making sense of the world to the mass public’; and while doing that they tend to reproduce the hegemonic ideology.

Production of hegemonic ideology can best be explained in regard to the professional communicators, like journalists, who are very important to ‘amplify systems of representation that legitimize the social system’ (ibid). Journalists can be termed as ‘intellectuals’, who according to Gramsci are responsible for ‘production and dissemination of ideas and knowledge’ (Strinati, 1995:171). We also need to understand that Journalists though thought to be autonomous are bounded by the hegemonic system, they unconsciously frame the news that is in keeping with the ‘institutional arrangement of the society’ (Gitlin, 2003: 269), or in other words the hegemonic ideology and though they do not do it intentionally, it stems from the way they make news decisions, the way they have been trained and socialized from childhood (Gitlin, 2003: 257). They unknowingly have a tendency to promote the ideology of the political and economic elite by simply doing their job.

According to Ben Bagdikian, there are three stages of selection for the news. First the editor decides that a certain site or event needs to be investigated for news; second a reporter decides what to look for at the site and lastly the editors decide on how to pitch the story to public (cited in Gitlin, 2003: 258). However, these are just the three processes; behind this there are various other aspects governing what news to cover and why. There is the ‘institutional structure of the media, managers who set the corporate policy’, then the budget. Further, the owners of the media who fall into the elite class want to respect the political economic system in order to gain their own political and economic advantages (Gitlin, 2003: 258). Since legitimacy in media organisations is what attracts audience, the top media managers make sure that their news operations are carried out in the way that this is projected, ‘their forms of social control must be indirect, subtle, and not at all necessarily conscious’ (Gitlin, 2003: 259). We see here that there are lot of ideological forces that shape the news. Media that acts as a window to the world and a provider of social knowledge are in reality controlled by corporate and political elites who, by controlling ideological space, are making the public think what the dominant class want them to so that they remain in power. So, basically hegemony is enclosed in the news or programs, which helps maintain the dominant ideology.

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Commercial media as a hegemonic ideology:

While discussing about hegemony in respect to media, we also need to talk about the commercial media. According to Gitlin (2000) commercial media have slowly through ‘format and formula’ influenced people to think and behave in a certain way (cited in Murphy, 2003:59). Today people who are not consumers they might be regarded as an outsiders, such is the trend created by the media. It has instilled a feeling that each one of us must become a consumer or aspire to be one in order to be in the ‘norm’ of the society. With the help of media and through the expansion of consent, ‘slow but powerful ideological process began to shape both moral order and common sense, aligning the cultural practice of consumption with freedom, individuality, civil liberties, etc’ (ibid). Stevenson, (1995:146) gives an example of a Levi jeans advertisement and how by watching just the advertisement a consumer is addressed with a ‘unique’ sense of craving, the ideology has an effect on the consciousness of the consumer without him/her realising that they are in reality a social class exploited by a hegemonic ideological process. The way media operates now is exactly what Gramsci proclaimed about hegemony, it is about one class’s struggle over another by creating values that the dominated class must follow.

Counter hegemony:

Gitlin argues that by controlling what the media feeds the public (the dominated class), the ruling elites are infusing a false consciousness among them, which limits them in acting for change. However, Williams who follows in the footsteps of Gramsci differs by suggesting that there can be room for change with counter-hegemony (Stevenson, 1995:17). According to him hegemony is not constant and is always changing by challenging, resisting and reaffirming the ‘dominant hegemony’ (ibid). William states that ‘traditions, institutions and formations’ are the three cultural processes for hegemony, where in the traditions are always ‘invented and reinvented by the national state’ and these newly formed traditions rely on institutions such as mass media and education for transmission in order to establish a ‘dominant consensus in contemporary society’ (ibid). For example media can be said to promote counter-hegemonic ideology if it shows a program or a report that questions the government involvement in war. We all know about the invasion of Afghanistan by the USA on 2001 after the 9-11 attack. During that period, the USA media was more concentrated on sending messages about the war on terror and Al-Qaeda, hence no one questioned the invasion of Afghanistan and as a result the elite group in this case Bush received consensus from the public for the invasion (Rall, 2002). If the war on Afghanistan by the USA had been questioned at the point when the war was beginning then the media would have acted against the hegemonic ideology of the US government led by Bush. Hence according to Williams, the concept of hegemony does provide space for critical reasoning, so that a new class may challenge the existing ideology and resist change from the hegemonic ideology (Stevenson, 1995:181). Another example of counter-hegemonic ideology could be the 30 November, 1999, Battle of Seattle, where tens of thousands people took to the streets to protest at the launch of new millennial round of trade negotiations at the World Trade Organizations Ministerial Meeting. This can be said to be against an existing hegemonic ideology, consequently a counter hegemonic approach.

However, we have to understand as recognised by Schiller (2003) the importance of ‘informational and cultural power’ as being a key factor in governance and that these are no less important than the army and the police, to achieve social control (cited in Stevenson, 1995: 5). Also it is difficult to challenge the elite hegemonic ideology reinforced by the media because it ‘collides head on with the fundamental interest’ of the dominant class and since they are the ones who have control over the ‘informational apparatus’ and ‘the cultural institutions that influence, if not determine, social thinking, the idea of challenging’ them becomes hard (ibid).


Hegemony cannot always explain the role played by the media in a society. According to Gottdiener (1985: 982), since hegemony suggests that the dominant class controls the class consciousness in a society, it neglects the fact that people are different and people have a different reflective thought capacity and that there are no ‘homogeneous human subjects’. Further, when hegemonisst talk about false consciousness they neglect the fact that consciousness and ideology are two separate entities for ‘ideology is not consciousness it is the representation of ‘imaginary” (Gottdiener, 1985: 983). That is why he suggests a semiotic analysis of mass culture in the society because the ‘users of mass culture are more active and more creative than previously thought’ (Gottdiener, 1985: 978). He thereby modifies the concept of hegemony one step further through a semiotic approach because it is a fact that ideology cannot be controlled fully and that the struggle to control it will always continues (Gottdiener, 1985: 978). Another research done by Johnstone et al. (1976) ‘on the background, orientation, and ideology of journalists found that homogeneity in background or orientation is not the rule. For example, those who had a journalism education tended to think it was not necessary, while those who lacked it thought it would be worthwhile. There were important regional differences in regard to prestige, reliability, and whether a journalist would use stories from other media in his/her own reports’ (cited in Altheide, 1984:481) Thereby concluding that news or information selection in mass media might not necessarily be inflicted by hegemonic ideology and that journalists are not always socialized to dominant ideology.


Though the concept of hegemony has its own limitations it has proved worthwhile in understanding the media organisation and the information they impart against a broader background (Altheide, 1984:486); which helps create a mass culture that in turn influences attitude and behaviour in the society. It has equally contributed to an understanding of the relationship between media and power. By using the hegemony concept and analysing how the media industry functions we were able to understand the role that the media plays in mass culture, and how this role reinforces hegemony. This essay tries to cover the concept of hegemony drawing arguments from various researchers and at the same time also sheds light on its limitations. We discussed how media itself works in a hegemonic framework and how managers try hard to project impartiality. We also briefly discussed the relationship between the political elite and media owners and how ‘intellectuals’ working for the media,http://palv.files.wordpress.com/2011/01/man.jpg?w=640are conditioned to bolster hegemony in the society. As a result, an important institution such as the media that plays a vital role in the society if, in itself, is influenced by hegemony, the role that it might play in the society is unquestionably influenced by hegemonic ideology.


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