The Wealth of Networks:
How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom
by Yochai Benkler, Yale University Press

© Copyright 2006, Yochai Benkler.

Chapter 6
Political Freedom Part 1: The Trouble with Mass Media

This online version has been created under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial ShareAlike license - see - and has been reformatted and designated as recommended reading - with an accompanying Moodle course - for the NGO Committee on Education of CONGO - the Conference Of Non-Governmental Organizations in Consultative Relationship with the United Nations - in conjunction with the Committee's commitment to the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development, the International Decade for a Culture of Peace and Non-violence for the Children of the World and related international Decades, agreements, conventions and treaties.


"Human nature is not a machine to be built after a model, and set to do exactly the work prescribed for it, but a tree, which requires to grow and develop itself on all sides, according to the tendency of the inward forces which make it a living thing."

"Such are the differences among human beings in their sources of pleasure, their susceptibilities of pain, and the operation on them of different physical and moral agencies, that unless there is a corresponding diversity in their modes of life, they neither obtain their fair share of happiness, nor grow up to the mental, moral, and aesthetic stature of which their nature is capable."

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (1859)

Chapter 6
Political Freedom Part 1: The Trouble with Mass Media

Modern democracies and mass media have coevolved throughout the twentieth century.

The claim that the Internet democratizes is hardly new.

For purposes of considering political freedom, I adopt a very limited definition of "public sphere."

The practices that define the public sphere are structured by an interaction of culture, organization, institutions, economics, and technical communications infrastructure.

Mass media structured the public sphere of the twentieth century in all advanced modern societies.

The economic structure was typified by high-cost hubs and cheap, ubiquitous, reception-only systems at the ends.

The Internet's effect on the public sphere is different in different societies, depending on what salient structuring components of the existing public sphere its introduction perturbs.

Design Characteristics of a Communications Platform for a Liberal Public Platform or a Liberal Public Sphere

How is private opinion about matters of collective, formal, public action formed?

Understood in this way, the public sphere describes a social communication process.

In order to consider the relative advantages and failures of various platforms for a public sphere, we need to define a minimal set of desiderata that such a platform must possess.

Universal Intake.

Filtering for Potential Political Relevance.

Filtering for Accreditation.

Synthesis of "Public Opinion.

Independence from Government Control.

The Emergence of the Commercial Mass-Media Platform for the Public Sphere

Throughout the twentieth century, the mass media have played a fundamental constitutive role in the construction of the public sphere in liberal democracies.

The roots of the contemporary industrial structure of mass media presage both the attractive and unattractive aspects of the media we see today.

This widespread development of small-circulation, mostly local, competitive commercial press that carried highly political and associational news and opinion came under pressure not from government, but from the economies of scale of the mechanical press, the telegraph, and the ever-expanding political and economic communities brought together by rail and industrialization.

figure 6.1

Figure 6.1: Start-up Costs of a Daily Newspaper, 1835-1850 (in 2005 dollars)

James Gordon Bennett founded the Herald in 1835, with an investment of five hundred dollars, equal to a little more than $10,400 in 2005 dollars.

The introduction of radio was the next and only serious potential inflection point, prior to the emergence of the Internet, at which some portion of the public sphere could have developed away from the advertiser-supported mass-media model.

Although this development had its roots in the industrial structure of radio production as it emerged from the first two decades of innovation and businesses in the twentieth century, it was shaped significantly by political-regulatory choices during the 1920s.

Radio stations, however, were not dominated by the equipment manufacturers, or by anyone else for that matter, in the first few years.

Herbert Hoover, then secretary of commerce, played a pivotal role in this development.

Over the course of this period, tensions also began to emerge within the patent alliance.

The alliance members now threatened each other: AT&T threatened to enter into receiver manufacturing and broadcast, and the RCA alliance, with its powerful stations, threatened to adopt "toll broadcasting," or advertiser-supported radio.

By the middle of 1926, then, the institutional and organizational elements that became the American broadcast system were, to a great extent, in place.

Basic Critiques of Mass Media

The cluster of practices that form the mass-media model was highly conducive to social control in authoritarian countries.

In liberal democracies, the same technical and economic cost characteristics resulted in a very different pattern of communications practices.

Three primary defenses or advantages have also been seen in these media: first is their independence from government, party, or upper-class largesse, particularly against the background of the state-owned media in authoritarian regimes, and given the high cost of production and communication, commercial mass media have been seen as necessary to create a public sphere grounded outside government.

Mass Media as a Platform for the Public Sphere

The structure of mass media as a mode of communications imposes a certain set of basic characteristics on the kind of public conversation it makes possible.

Media Concentration: The Power of Ownership and Money

The Sinclair Broadcast Group is one of the largest owners of television broadcast stations in the United States.

The basic point is not, of course, to trace the particular politics of one programming decision or another.

The power of the commercial mass media depends on the degree of concentration in mass-media markets.

If one thinks that commercial firms operating in a market will always "give the audience what it wants" and that what the audience wants is a fully representative cross-section of all observations and opinions relevant to public discourse, then the antitrust sense would be the only one that mattered.

The degree of concentration in media markets supports the proposition that owners of media can either exercise power over the programming they provide or what they write, or sell their power over programming to those who would like to shape opinions.

The actual cultural practice of mass-media production and consumption is more complex than either the view of "efficient media markets" across the board or the general case against media concentration and commercialism.

Commercialism, Journalism, and Political Inertness

The second cluster of concerns about the commercial mass media is the degree to which their commercialism undermines their will and capacity to provide a platform for public, politically oriented discourse.

The basic drive behind programming choices in advertising-supported mass media was explored in the context of the problem of "program diversity" and competition.

Table 6.1: Distribution of Channels Hypothetical

No. of channels column spacer Programming Available (in thousands of viewers)
sitcom (1000)
sitcom (1000), sports (750)
sitcom (1000 or 500), sports (750), indifferent between sitcoms and local news (500)
sitcom (500), sports (750), sitcom (500), local news (500)
sitcom (500), sports (375), sitcom (500), local news (500), sports (375)
sitcom (333), sports (375), sitcom (333), local news (500), sports (375), sitcom (333)
sitcom (333), sports (375), sitcom (333), local news (500), sports (375), sitcom (333), action movies (250)
sitcom (333), sports (375), sitcom (333), local news (250), sports (375), sitcom (333), action movies (250), local news (250)
sitcom (250), sports (375), sitcom (250), local news (250), sports (375), sitcom (250), action movies (250), local news (250), sitcom (250)
* * *
* * *
100 channels of sitcom (10); 75 channels of sports (10); 50 channels of local news (10); 25 channels of action movies (10)
100 channels of sitcom (10); 75 channels of sports (10); 50 channels of local news (10); 25 channels of action movies (10); 1 foreign film channel (9.99)
100 channels of sitcom (10); 75 channels of sports (10); 50 channels of local news (10); 25 channels of action movies (10); 1 foreign film channel (9.99); 1 gardening channel (9.98)

While this work was developed in the context of analyzing media diversity of offerings, it provides a foundation for understanding the programming choices of all advertiser-supported mass media, including the press, in domains relevant to the role they play as a platform for the public sphere.

The mass-media model as a whole, with the same caveat for niche markets, does not lend itself well to in-depth discussion and dialog.

The two basic critiques of commercial mass media coalesce on the conflict between journalistic ethics and the necessities of commercialism.

As we turn now to consider the advantages of the introduction of Internet communications, we shall see how this new model can complement the mass media and alleviate its worst weaknesses.


1. Jurgen Habermas, Between Facts and Norms, Contributions to Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996).

2. Elizabeth Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979); Jeremey Popkin, News and Politics in the Age of Revolution: Jean Luzac's Gazzette de Leyde (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1989).

3. Paul Starr, The Creation of the Media: Political Origins of Modern Communications (New York: Basic Books, 2004), 33-46.

4. Starr, Creation of the Media, 48-62, 86-87.

5. Starr, Creation of the Media, 131-133.

6. Starr, Creation of the Media, 135.

7. The following discussion of the birth of radio is adapted from Yochai Benkler, "Overcoming Agoraphobia: Building the Commons of the Digitally Networked Environment," Harvard Journal of Law and Technology 11 (Winter 1997-1998): 287.

8. Robert Waterman McChesney, Telecommunications, Mass Media, and Democracy: The Battle for the Control of U.S. Broadcasting, 1928-1935 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).

9. "Names of U.S. Dead Read on Nightline," Associated Press Report, May 1, 2004,

10. The numbers given here are taken from The Center for Responsive Politics,, and are based on information released by the Federal Elections Commission.

11. A careful catalog of these makes up the first part of C. Edwin Baker, Media, Markets, and Democracy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

12. Ben H. Bagdikian, The Media Monopoly, 5th ed. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1997), 118.

13. Peter O. Steiner, "Program Patterns and Preferences, and the Workability of Competition in Radio Broadcasting," The Quarterly Journal of Economics 66 (1952): 194.