Who decides the public interest? This question haunts the media. Without the public interest, the media has a limited role in society. The question also haunts politics. Without the support of the public interest, the government’s legitimacy is destabilized. Both rely upon the public interest but in different ways. How the media and government use the public interest shapes the public opinion and how the public understand the common good. What is at stake in this question is the regime’s soul.
How the media uses the public interest reflects a democratic deficit. On the surface this means the media are not elected. That surface understanding is not enough. Beneath it, we find a deeper problem. Traditionally, the media acted in the public interest. They used the public interest to justify their stories. The public interest was supposed to guide the way they shaped public opinion. In a liberal democracy, the media acts as a check on the government on the public’s behalf. They serve democracy by serving the public interest. The relationship, though, has changed.
The relationship, while combative, was never adversarial. The media challenge was a sign of a healthy democracy. The government had to justify itself to public opinion. Both sides respected the common good and the democratic mandate. However, Watergate and the Vietnam War marked a turning point in that relationship. The new media model accelerates, intensifies and transforms the changed relationship between the press and the government. The new media model sees itself as an opposition force to the government. They act in their own interest and not as a check on the government’s power on behalf of the public’s interest. Their use of the public interest weakens democracy by changing the way the public understands the government. The approach questions the government’s role and its legitimacy because the journalist and media have a different role.
The blogger as journalist is now a political activist. They use the public interest privilege as a substitute for, and challenge to, the democratic mandate. They claim to protect the public by challenging the government’s claim to act in the common good. As a result, the public become confused because the public interest is being used against the democratic process. Buffeted by the conflict over legitimacy and the common good, the public are encouraged to be sceptical, they become fearful, and the result is that they distrust the government. The political consequences of this change are catastrophic. By sowing fear of the government, the media encourage the public to believe the media’s interest is the public interest. By flattering the public, they shape public opinion to promote what is popular. The electoral process becomes suspect and public opinion replaces democratic accountability. The result is that journalism has now become demagogic by design.