The following is a revised version of a dissertation presented in spring 1999 at the School of Humanities, Anglo-American College, Prague, Czech Republic. It will be published in full in the forthcoming Faculty and Student Journal of the Anglo-American College.
Mass Media 101
If God have wanted man to live with TV, he would have put a remote control into his soul.
Direct speech belongs to the strongest forms of expressions of the truth. The spoken word cannot be denied. The angle of a shot and skilful editing nevertheless change its meaning.
(Ivan Vágner, Televizní zprávy, psychický nátlak?)
The mass media help people create their perception of the world. They contribute to an understanding of such long-term issues as the political stability of a country, the character of its laws, the reactions of state authorities, the extent of public security and the probable direction of further political development. Their greatest impact occurs at election time. Political parties use the mass media both as a source of information and as an instrument for the formation of political opinion. The mass media, in turn, create their own image of political parties and have a direct influence on people's perception of politics as a whole.
The mass media are seen as one of the strongest controlling organs of politics, as "the fourth power" in the state. It would seem logical then, if the methods of creating the news were subject to regular analysis and examination. Yet, despite the now well-established field of media studies, much of the vast area and influence of media remains unexamined. Indeed, media create the image that no control of their activity is necessary, because they are able to control themselves.
The position mass media attained after the 1989 revolution in the Czech Republic affords a unique opportunity for making just such an examination. Ten years of post-Communist development of free media present a hotbed of fundamental questions regarding media ownership, political influence, journalistic professionalism and the status of mass media in the state.
Before the thaw
During the Communist period, the state provided the average Czech with a choice of two possible attitudes toward the then existing situation: to either step out of line and express his or her own opinion and consequently get into trouble; or to assimilate with the crowd and not care about politics, which more or less assured him a quiet life. Thus a cloud of fear hung above the heads of people, or rather in their minds, and placed the average Czech citizen into the role of a silent consumer.
The task of the mass media in this Communist state was to closely cooperate with the ruling regime and promote its ideas, in order to "educate" people and steer them in the right direction. As Czech media commentator Jan Čulík points out, "under Communism, the news headlines were dominated by reports about the Communist Party Central Committee [being] in session..." These reports constituted the news of primary importance, and the remaining space was taken up by news of the day, mostly from the agricultural and industrial sectors. Thus, the audience got either bored or became a thoughtless consumer of what was provided by the mass media of that time, which seemed to be following the rule of "repeat it often enough and it becomes true."
After 1989, mass media in the Czech Republic entered a stage of very dynamic development. Organizations that had predominantly served propaganda purposes during the Communist period were suddenly open to new influences, almost over night. Those members of the mass media that had been closely connected with the ruling regime and responsible for forming people's thinking were now supposed to separate themselves from the previous political ideology and take the first steps toward shaping the role of mass media within a democratic society.
In a democratic state, mass media are connected with terms such as independence, freedom of information and objectivity, and part of their role is to investigate and criticize the government's actions. Yet, following the change of regime in 1989, the problem in the field of media was the same as in politics and other sectors: a lack of experience and educated professionals, who would bring in democratic "know how" and participate in creating a stable, democratic foundation.
From the (post-89) beginning, the mass media were the only source of education and information about the new direction of political development in the country. As former Czech TV news director Ivan Kytka wrote in an article for The New Presence monthly, "the Czech Republic has... no tradition of constant, expert analysis of the quality of television news, and unfortunately, the country has no group of people who could act as the necessary reserve of evaluators and specialists."
The first three years after the revolution are key for understanding the further development of the Czech mass media. During this period in particular, mass media were considered to be the "bulwark of truth," and most of the public had the feeling that it was now possible to trust the information coming from the media at last. The mass media were seen as the most efficient source of information, particularly at the time of the first free, democratic elections in 1990.
At that time, a new face of the mass media emerged,
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During these years, the average Czech citizen learned to perceive the reality presented by the mass media as an unquestionable reality, as something that really happens the way reporters tell it. Few people thought about an alternative or the actual process of creating the news, that is the discrepancy between that which is offered to the viewer and its original incarnation.
The boob tube
Many political scientists and sociologists pose the question: What is the mission of TV? Commercial television claims to entertain and, indirectly, to inform. State television claims to inform, entertain and, indirectly, to educate. As Ivan Vágner points out, "the television picture is transient. To succeed means not to shoot a good play, documentary and to inform on time... [but] to get a bigger audience than others, higher ratings, more viewers, and, hence, a bigger profit."
Vágner goes on to provide three models that have shaped the content of TV news in the 20th century :
- 1. Information that supports the society's regime: economic successes, celebrations, anniversaries.
2. Image of the enemy: disturbances, demonstrations, social criticism.
3. Positive and negative patterns of behavior.
- 1. Myself, my family, the house and street I live in and their safety.
2. Everything that concerns my job, the town I live in, friends and relatives and their safety (including politics, religion and healthcare).
3. What fills my spare time and my interests, regions I live in, famous people and events.
4. International relations, cultural and social life, interesting things.
- 1. Imminent wars, coming natural disasters or epidemics, important changes in the regime and the life of the society.
2. Changes within the society and natural environment that do not directly concern me but could do so in the near future.
3. General social and factual knowledge.
4. Interesting or sensationalistic events.
Michael Kunczik, a sociologist studying the principles and methods of mass communication, comments on these models in the following manner:
In all three cases, the rule applies that the most important thing is the method of the most effective and most routine reporting of unexpected events. This does not change the fact that in all three models the reports will enforce the status quo: the area of politics will be revealed as the dealings of influential people; the world will be shown more conflictual then it really is; and the division of the world into states with higher and lower status will be enforced.
Television broadcasting started in Czechoslovakia in 1953. A second channel was added in 1970 and a third in 1990. The privatization of some of these channels began to be discussed for the first time in 1990. In January 1993, in the tender for the license of the former F1 channel the Council for Czech Radio and Television Broadcasting (a supervisory body of external experts appointed by the Chamber of Deputies) decided from among 27 candidates in favor of the CET 21 company. This decision was very surprising, as CET 21, made up of a group of six Czech and Slovak citizens, including one Vladimír Železný, was perceived to be an outsider in the competition for the license. The strongest candidates up to that point had been those associated with the companies of "music millionaires" Michael Kocáb (Art Production) and Martin Kratochvíl (Bonton) and other experienced professionals in the field of public entertainment.
Meanwhile, ČT 1, which had fought off a bid by channel OK3 and its 12 transmitters, stepped up the battle for the third pillar of broadcasting - publicly funded television - which was to be a legal entity different from both commercial and state television in that it would oversee its own property, its main source of income being compulsory user fees, but be subject to public control via an organization that was independent from the state authority. State television, by contrast, is a public institution, financed by the state, with the state appointing the supervisory body that controls and directs it. Commercial television is a completely independent organization financed through advertising.
In February 1994, with the help of American firm Central European Media Enterprises (CME), CET 21 launched the Czech Republic's first successful commercial TV station, TV Nova, under the soon to become notoriously controversial management of Vladimír Železný. TV Nova quickly became the most popular Czech TV station with the highest ratings and thus also with key influence on the majority of the Czech population.
Summing up its "liberal" model approach, a comment by TV Nova's manager Vladimír Železný outlines the station's place in Vágner's three-tiered system:
If I were in Germany, I would be able to think about a more culturally oriented commercial TV. It would collect 4.5 percent of the ratings and still have a chance to survive. But because we are a small country and because we lost the Slovak market, we are also a poor one. 4.5 percent ratings are meaningless here. We must make mass television.
Based on this comment, it would seem that the poorer the country, the more down market its TV needs to be. Although the fact that the liberal style TV Nova defines itself as "down market" is not necessarily a response to market demand but rather reflects the station's own decision. After all, it is the station that bears full responsibility for its actions and level of broadcasting. This fact is further supported by the words of Vladimír Železný:
Television is a synthetic world. It is a world that created an artificial reality, a world which creates a feeling that it is not necessary to step into the outside world, because one has it ready made at home on the TV screen. It is a dangerous toy, a dangerous medium. We have learned to live with it, and now we are not able to live without it very well.
As far as Czech print media are concerned, numerous titles appeared on the newsstands immediately after the revolution. They divided themselves along the left-right political spectrum, but the real sources of their income remained hidden. This fact became one of the first reasons to question the independence of the Czech press. Newspapers became the first arena for political lobbying and party sponsorship, and the direction of their reporting soon came to reflect the position of their financial donors.
It was in this manner that the financial backer of the now defunct newspaper Denní Telegraf became the Civic Democratic Party (ODS),
It is hardly surprising, then, that "obedient" heads of various sections of Denní Telegraf soon launched their own political careers. (Václav Musílek, former editor-in-chief of the Telegraf became a spokesman for the ODS, and Tomáš Chalupa, an editor of the Telegraf's political section, acted as a government spokesman and later launched a career in communal politics, with the aim of getting into Parliament.)
The current spectrum of major Czech dailies includes, among others, Lidové noviny, Hospodářské noviny, Právo, Slovo, the tabloid Blesk and the most widely read paper, Mladá fronta Dnes. There is an on-going fluctuation of staff from one newspaper to the other, as well as from editorial to government office.
In the September 1998 issue of The New Presence, Ondřej Neff, founder and editor of the most popular Czech Internet daily, Neviditelný pes, was asked in an interview whether there was a problem in Czech media with party affiliation or pay-offs for news items about particular political parties. He answered:
Definitely not. Of course, newspapers are composed of people who have certain sympathies. Let us say that Mladá fronta Dnes and Lidové noviny lean to the right, whereas Právo more to the left, but this is not a case of corruption or unlawful political influence.
This statement seems very probable, but, for instance, when Denní Telegraf folded, 80 percent of its staff shifted to Lidové noviny. Some observers from other newspapers noticed that it was at about this same time that the content of articles on the pages of Lidové noviny began, coincidentally, inclining "more to the right" than ever before.
This is but one indication among many over the past ten years that the line between personal and political sympathies and objective reporting within Czech media remains blurred.
Darja Zajícová, revised 1 June 2000
NEXT WEEK: In Part II, we hear from the journalists shaping the Czech mass media and examine two telling examples of Czech media coverage: the 1998 elections and the country's recent NATO membership.
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- Jan Čulík, "News and Current Affairs in Czech TV," The New Presence, September 1998.
- Ivan Kytka, "Czech TV News: Undefined demand," The New Presence, September 1998.
- Ivan Vágner, Televizní zprávy, psychický nátlak?, Nakladatelství Argo, Prague, 1997.
- Michael Kunczik, The Basics of Mass Communication, UK Karolinum, Prague, 1995.
- Ivan Vágner, Televizní zprávy, psychický nátlak?, Nakladatelství Argo, Prague, 1997.