Daniela Roventa Frumusani
In common with other countries in East and Central Europe, Romania has faced severe challenges to its political and social infrastructure. The transition from totalitarian regime to democratic society has not been easy and is still taking place. To strengthen the role of the mass media in this process, the author of the following article calls for an ‘information ecology’ and an ‘ethical ecology’ to promote quality in place of quantity.
In a synthetic manner, the transition from totalitarianism to democracy could be defined by replacing ontological (matter as a source of human performance), gnoseological (knowledge as a reflection of objective reality), anthropological (human specificity limited to work) and political (political relations as instruments of dominance (Marga, 1994: 10) presumptions with new concepts such as societal changes, reform (democratization and free market economy), autonomy (Sandu, 1996: 255), the emergence of a new post-traditional order, the reconstruction of solidarity through the reconciliation of autonomy and interdependence, and generative politics (‘make things happen’ - Giddens, 1994: 10), and dialogical democracy.
The press played a considerable symbolic role in the transformation of the regime initiated by the December Revolution (euphemistically called ‘the December events’). The paradigmatic example is the tele-revolution, where ‘the map and the territory’ were identical, and semiotic distance was ignored. The correlation mass media/public space (and above all, political communication), reveals three distinct moments:
- ∑ The December explosion of the national anti-Ceausescu consensus, the so-called ‘period of grace’ dominated by utopian ideas, a new Gemeinschaft sentiment, and a re-discovered identity (of a real person, not the fantasy one of the ‘new person’).
- ∑ The period of pessimism 1991-1992.
- ∑ The period of critical, selective mass-media consumption, accompanied by the search for audience loyalty 1992-1997.
- During the first stage, the mass media and especially television had a magical connotation (as an effect of the tele-revolution, but also as they covered the political scene). The tele-revolution signified both a political revolution and a communication revolution. It was a revolution that happened to Romania (and also the other ex-communists countries) simultaneously, not successively (the national television monopoly, birth of commercial television and of regional and local press, traditional forms of publicity with non-conventional means etc.). From the time point of view, we could speak of a press focused on the past: all the suppression rituals of the ex-ceremonies (socialists), demolishing of communist-era statues, concentration on revolution ‘mysteries’, the secret history of the Ceausescu family (their houses, bank accounts and education), etc.
From 1991 onwards, a certain media saturation or indifference appeared due to a freeing up of prices and a general economic crisis. The press oriented itself more towards the present: it tried to explain trends and transition models, and to reflect on its social status (it was the time of debates regarding a press law, and a deontological code of journalists). This period was characterized by the loss of credibility of the print media and of national television which was perceived as submissive to presidential influence.
Starting with 1993, journalists tried to optimize their performance - they tended to shape the future (social and cultural policies). Oleg Manaev (in Jakubowicz, 1996: 39) is of the opinion that the principle explaining the transformation from a communist society to a democratic one is the replacing of unity with diversity (of opinions, parties, mass media etc.). The emancipation of the mass media from State-Party guardianship and its transformation in democracy’s key elements supposes a multiple process of gathering autonomy:
- ∑ in the political sphere by power separation in the state;
- ∑ in the economical sphere by eliminating financial dependence;
- ∑ in the social sphere, by developing audience loyalty (which stops being a captive audience);
- ∑ in the technological sphere, new technologies are integrated;
- ∑ in the professional sphere, an information/opinion division crystallizes.
- The general concept of ‘media transformation’ appears and is correlated with the process of social change, which supposes certain demands: a legislative framework able to offer freedom guarantees and press autonomy (copyright law, anti-monopoly law, etc.); media specialization and differentiation depending on the needs of a differentiated public (ethnical, social, sexual, religious minorities); educating journalists as professionals (through appropriate academic institutions, vocational schools and intensive workshops of professional recycling); and the de-monopolization of the electronic media.
Media under the communists
Under communism, the press in Romania was controlled and subsidized by the state. It was subordinated to a mythology of the party and to the ideology of struggle. (Beyond the war patterns, communist ideology also failed because of an inefficient material paradigm – imperial monuments, heavy industry). ‘Whether it is about merchandise, rockets, statues or palaces of the people or vacuum cleaners, the physical presence of the object plays the role of primordial evidence of brute force. In this respect, society is exclusively materialists, reifying, fetishist.’ (Brossat 1992: 198). The media were monochrome, paternalistic, and relied on a closed system (reduced to the communist camp and separated from the rest of the world by the ‘Iron curtain’).
The media generated a phatic discourse, using terms characterized by Orwellian ‘Newspeak’. They were oriented towards ‘mass education’; distorted by censorship and self-censorship (both positive - ‘what to say’ and negative - ‘what not to say’ practised since 1974). Censorship created three distinct information worlds: an official one, aiming at manipulation and distortion for political, propaganda purposes; an unofficial one, aimed at the interpersonal level of rumour and gossip; and a third one built on Western media sources (‘Free Europe’ and ‘Voice of America’ radio stations, and also the ‘TV sans frontières’ – Bulgarian in the South of the country, Hungarian in the West, Yugoslavian in the South-West.
The definition of journalism was limited to the construction of a meta-reality through: the hypertrophy of the cult of personality; explanations about party politics; mobilization for political, economical purposes; and defence of the ‘revolutionary conquests’ by so-called imperialistic threats (Gross, 1996: 20). The media carried a Manicheistic vision of the world (positive utopia for socialist society; negative utopia for the capitalist one).
Following the collapse of communism, the press was controlled by the market. ‘The end of public subsidies, paper prices rising, as well as production costs, the new savage competition created a new situation. Many ambitious publications disappeared forever from the market. Some others changed their initial orientation and became exclusively commercial’ (Frybes, 1996:69). The media were subordinated to the mythology of the market. New titles are relevant in this respect: ‘Cash’ in Poland and Bulgaria, ‘Capital’ in Romania, ‘Profit’ and ‘Businessman’ in Poland. However, ‘the Western countries should not replace the old communist dogmas with new ones related to capitalist practices’ (Brzezinski, 1995:241), a danger which could be eliminated by the intervention of the market, civil society and state regulation (the BBC model).
The media became polychrome, pluralistic (with an extremely wide spectrum: from the elitist ‘Dilema’, ‘22’ to the yellow press: ‘Evenimentul zilei’, ‘National’. The new transition press was threatened by the Italian danger (Splichal, 1994), who considered characteristic of the Italian system and of the post-communist transition the ‘mixture’ of political and media elites (the Berlusconi model) and the absence of consolidated professional ethics.
The media are characterized by free flow of information and generate a referential discourse euphoric at the beginning, and then pessimistic, critical, in search of their own identity – the Pirandello syndrome. Using the semiotic opposition of language’s representational function vs. its constructive function, there is the referential press (of the news) and the mythological press, the one evoking the great referential moments of Romanian and world culture.
In terms of expression, discourse is partisan, pathetic, hyper-subjective. It is oriented towards entertainment or at least infotainment, within the rapid rhythm of commercials and videos. Media are characterized by an explosion of subjectivity and even intolerance (racism, xenophobia, religious intolerance) to individual and national catharsis. One of the suffocating legacies of communism is hate generalized through an ideology of confronting the other (as in ‘us vs. them’, class enemies). Or, after the collapse of communism, desires for revenge ‘to defy the law in a wild West without sheriff, in a society composed by gangsters’ (Thom, 1996: 242). The social characters of communist society were replaced by new characters related to human, symbolic and material capital, such as the reformer, the conservative and the fundamentalist.
Post-1989 Romanian media faced tremendous technical, economical and managerial challenges and it found itself unprepared to cope with them. The world-vision becomes a pluralistic one, in which everything can be written (Barthes) or produced (Fiske). For Romania, the international media offered a biased, unilateral visio, of dark ages, verbalized in a black rhetoric of corruption, nationalism and xenophobia. The shaping of reality was distorted (referential emblems: homeless kids, thieves and gypsies throughout Eastern Europe).
The journalist as producer of signs
As representatives of the intellectual elite defined by Mannheim as social groups whose mission is to interpret the world to society, journalists are characterized by a certain type of discourse and a legitimate space of their own, though their vision is, sociologically and anthropologically, recognized as symbolic capital. Based on observation, discourse analysis (journalists’ interviews) and corporate documents (deontological codes, debates on the utility of a press law), this is an attempt to re-signify the status pf the journalist:
- - From the journalist as an anonymous cog in the vast propaganda machine, to the mediator between event (factual reality) and information. The journalists’ thematic roles, especially as editors, are those of disseminators (based on an ethics of neutrality) or of announcers (the ethics of getting involved).
- - From the de-personalized, obedient journalist to the agent of change, the watch-dog of civil society, involved in analyzing events but also the global structure of society (general trends).
- - From thematic specialization to multi-media and multiple performance and communication abilities designed to facilitate professional change.
- - From a mechanical perspective of stimulating productive work to a human perspective.
- - From the iconic role of representing existing society to the ‘prophetic’ (the journalist as one who anticipates malfunctions and social conflicts, able to present them before the event.
- - From a closed class, selected from above according to exclusive criteria to a democratic and professional class. The transformation to a professional stage is marked by interdisciplinary education (communication and political sciences and languages), changing mentalities (from the Watergate-type hero to the public service journalist, furnisher of naked information).
- - From a pre-programmed journalist, high-priest of ‘Newspeak’ and of the formulaic style, to a journalist tempted by hyperbole, and excess. The illness of the post-totalitarian press could be called tautism (tautology+autism or redundancies+solitude). The second illness could be the paranoia of failure (most editorials use the metaphorical network of illness, destruction, ruin, combined with just one temporal dimension: the past). The communist schizophrenia defined by Vaclav Havel as ‘to think black and to speak white’ becomes the post-communist monomania (to think black and to speak black).
- Reinforcing the relationship between communication and democracy, mass media can offer solutions or at least attenuate the triple crisis of society in transition: a crisis of credibility, of integration and of participation:
- ∑ functioning as the watch-dog of civil society;
- ∑ facilitating social dialogue between individuals, groups and institutions;
- ∑ offering a real worldview (by stating, like in Andersen’s tale, that ‘the emperor has no clothes’).
- If the tasks of the first quantitative stage of democracy have been accomplished (more means for more people), the qualitative aspects of democracy have not yet been achieved (credible media actors, a real public television, etc). As a consequence, communication must be conceived as cultural ecology, involving two dimensions: an information ecology (able to reduce over-coverage of politics and the under-coverage of social problems: poverty, unemployment, the feminization of poverty, the institutional crisis) and an ethical ecology (a policy of morality as opposed to the immorality of politics, to use Adam Michnick's chiasm).
- Paraphrasing an Ingmar Bergman movie title, ‘Through A Glass Darkly’, based on St. Paul's epistle to Corinthians 1.13, we could call Romanian mass media as an opaque instrument in search of transparency, credibility and balance between the ethos of the transmitter (the journalist and the media institution), the pathos of the receiver (to be won) and the logos of the discourse (to be re-invented).
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Daniela Roventa Frumusani (PhD) is Associate professor at the Department of Cultural Anthropology, Faculty of Journalism and Mass Communication Studies, and vice-dean of the Faculty of Journalism and Mass-Communication Studies, Bucharest University, Romania. She has published books on the Semiotcs of Scientific Discourse and on Semiotics, Society, Culture. She is co-director of CREC (Romanian Centre for Canadian Studies), a member of GROMS (Romanian Group of Semiotics), and a member of the board of the Council for Scientific Activity of Bucharest University.