The role of the media during Pinochet´s military government: An assessment of ‘The Media in the Transition to Democracy in Chile’

by Eugenio Tironi et al., and ‘Media Dependency and Political Perceptions in an Authoritarian Political System’ by Pablo Halpern

by Cristobal Florenzano Phd Candidate, Faculty of Social and Political Sciences University of Cambridge




Although the role that the media play in contemporary democracies has been the object of intense scrutiny within several social science disciplines in recent years (Gunther & Mughan, 2000), not much attention has been paid to the study of the role that the national media played in the restoration of democracy in countries under authoritarian rule. Both of the articles that I will assess in this paper deal with the relationship between the media and political power in the particular case of Chile , a country which regained democracy in 1990, after 17 years of authoritarian government. Even though these articles approach the problem from very different angles, ask themselves very different questions, and use very different research tools to answer them, both of them are concerned with the impact that the Chilean media had on political perceptions of citizenship during the last years of the military government led by General Pinochet[1] . The reason why I have chosen to assess not just one of them but both at the same time is very specific. I think that the juxtaposition of their contrasting approaches allows us to see their respective strengths and shortcomings in a much clearer way. While one of them develops an original, and suggestive, interpretation of the political impact of the media during the period, but is very weak in supporting the argument with solid empirical evidence, the other does exactly the opposite, paying close attention to the empirical verification of the hypothesis constructed, but failing to draw relevant conclusions and interpret the social context of the research in an adequate and illuminating way. First I’ll discuss the structure and the main arguments of the first article and then I’ll comment on what I consider to be its main methodological problems. Then I will do the same with the second article. Finally, I will end with a short conclusion which identifies a common problem in both works and argues in favor of an improved approach which would combine their respective strengths and avoid their respective weaknesses.


2. “The Modernization of Communications…” by Eugenio Tironi and Guillermo Sunkel. The central aim of Tironi and Sunkel´s article is to evaluate the type and degree of responsibility that the Chilean media had in the process of restoring democracy after 17 years of authoritarian government. The central hypothesis that the authors present and try to prove empirically in the article is that the deregulation reforms approved[2] by the military regime exposed TV stations, for the first time, to the reality of open market competition, and forced them to develop an independent stance towards events, which was ever more distant from the official propaganda, and which ended by eroding the regime’s legitimacy and contributing to its defeat in the 1988 plebiscite. The article is divided into three parts. In the first part, the authors reconstruct the path of media deregulation followed by the military government, which cancelled all existing restrictions on commercial advertising on TV, and allowed the private sector to enter the medium. In the second part, the authors develop their hypothesis and argue that deregulatory reforms forced broadcasters to operate according to the logic imposed by a new competitive open market environment and to take a progressive distance[3] from the incongruities of a regime that had radically liberalized the economy, but which maintained harsh restrictions in the realm of politics. In the third part, the authors try to prove their hypothesis empirically discussing the development of two emblematic media events which occurred on the eve of the crucial 1988 plebiscite that drove Pinochet from power. The first one is the visit of Pope John Paul II, in April 1987, which stimulated massive public interest and received exhaustive media coverage. Particularly important in terms of its impact was the coverage provided by Channel 13, owned by the Catholic Church’s University, which received the largest share of the audience. According to the authors, Channel 13 would have tried to “take advantage of the papal visit to create an apertura[4] towards moderate pluralism…”(Tironi et al, 2000:180) inviting, for the first time since democratic breakdown had occurred in 1973, opposition leaders to share the screen with government officials, to comment on the events of the day on TV panels. As a result of these broadcasts, the argument concludes, the political atmosphere of the country changed, causing “Chileans to see themselves as a community capable of eschewing violence, living

in peace, and replacing the previous skepticism with hope for the future” (Tironi et al, 2000: 181). The second case that is analyzed is the 1998 TV campaign that the military government had to agree with the opposition in order to ensure the fairness and legitimacy of the plebiscite. According to the authors, the campaign turned out to be crucial because it tilted the balance towards the No option in what was, until then, a very close electoral race. Invoking the evidence of several campaign surveys (Hirmas 1989, Mendez et al. 1989), the authors show how the No campaign was overwhelmingly better perceived by audiences than the one that was organized by government officials. While the Yes TV broadcasts[5] chose an aggressive and terrorizing strategy, which insisted that a No victory would drown the country in a maelstrom of chaos and anarchy, the No campaign presented itself as embodying a much more positive outlook. The effects of both these media events combined (the broadcasts originated by the papal visit in Channel 13 and the plebiscite campaign) positioned the opposition forces “as having the ability to initiate a substantial change in Chile while reestablishing social cohesion” (Tironi et al, 184). The subsequent victory of the No alternative, the authors conclude, can be to an important extent explained as a result of the influence that the media exerted over the political field during the years that preceded democratic restoration in Chile . 2.1 Critical assessment Communications…” of “The Modernization of

Tironi and Sunkel´s article is, in my opinion, a good example of a piece of research which develops a very acute and plausible hypothesis about a social phenomenon, but which manifestly fails in empirically testing it, and which therefore ends up by drawing illegitimate conclusions with no evident support from social reality. I think it is possible to criticize the article on three different grounds. By far the most serious problem comes from the severe dissociation that exists between the explanatory hypothesis proposed and the character of the cases by which the hypothesis is supposedly tested. The hypothesis put forward by the authors consists of the idea that it was the influence of open market dynamics on the editorial lines of Chile ’s main TV

stations that aborted Pinochet´s project of staying in power for another eight years. The sample cases by which the hypothesis is supposed to be tested should thus be cases in which the influence of the free market over editorial decisions is clearly observable. But that is, precisely, what is not the case with the two events that are used as samples. The first of them, the moderate glasnost that was provoked by the Pope´s visit in 1987, may indeed be an important element in the history of Chile ’s democratic reconstruction. It is very difficult to see, however, in what way the exhaustive coverage of the papal visit, organized by a Church owned TV station, can be considered to be an example of editorial liberalization induced by the influence of the market. It may, instead, be seen as an example of exactly the opposite: of how strong and active the loyalties between a particular TV station and an institution that has very little to do with the market[6], i.e. the Church, still were back in 1987. A very similar thing happens with the other case that is scrutinized. The anachronistic and somber outlook that was publicized by the Yes option campaign most probably affected the final outcome of the 1988 plebiscite, but it is difficult to see what sort of relationship the campaign broadcasts maintained with the commercialization of TV contents that had occurred during the previous years. The relationship between the hypothesized claim and the empirical evidence is not explicitly explained and is left by the authors in disconcerting obscurity. A second problematic aspect of the articles comes from the fact that, even though it not explicitly stated by the authors, there is an implicit assumption that changes in the political economy of the industry will translate immediately into linear and equivalent transformations in the realm of audience opinions and perceptions. There is abundant media research available (Livingstone, 1997) which undermines the validity of such an assumption. The process of the reception of the media contents is diverse and complex and it cannot be assumed that the deregulation of broadcasting sources of finance will automatically produce a liberalization of political opinions[7] in the audience. A third problem with the article is related to the distribution of its structure, to the relative emphasis it assigns to the different parts of the research. While great importance is

given to the contextual description of the deregulation process in Chile, to prove that the market transformed the editorial criteria inside TV broadcasting, very little attention is devoted to proving what the political impact of those changes were, inside each of the cases that are used as evidence. Persuasion, therefore, is supposed to come from the theoretical consistency of the argument, from the plausibility of the hypothesis proposed, and not from the force of the evidence provided by the cases. The hypothesis proposed is not tested against the cases, but is supposed to be accepted uncritically, and for its own sake, and then merely illustrated by the cases discussed. 3. “Media Dependency and Political Perceptions in Authoritarian Political System” by Pablo Halpern. an

The second article to be examined also addresses the relationship between the political context and the media during the last years of military government in Chile . The aim of the research is to assess whether, and to what degree, the political opinions of individuals are conditioned by the contents of an ideologically monopolized press. More specifically, it seeks to assess whether the political opinions of leftist individuals, during the period, were conditioned by their exposure to a media environment which at the time was overwhelmingly aligned with the opinions of the right wing government. The theoretical framework of the research is provided by the Ball-Rokeach and De Fleur model of mass media effects (BallRokeach and De Fleur, 1976, 1979). The model proposes that “the impact of media messages on audience perceptions will be a function of the degree of dependence on mass media sources for information” (Halpern, 1994:40). This dependence is determined, amongst a complex set of variables which include level of education and interest in political issues, by the number of alternative media sources that are available. An authoritarian context, where non official versions of social reality are, if not directly censored, at least harassed by the government, provides, therefore, an excellent testing ground for the theory. If the mass dependency model theory is right, a highly restricted and ideologically monopolized media environment, like the one that existed in Chile during the 1980’s, should affect the political opinions of the individuals who are dependent on it, even of those who, because of their political

identity, are not spontaneously inclined to agree with the ideological bias of the predominant political outlook. The research hypothesis proposed by the author was that “the greater the dependency on pro- government mass media sources for political information, the more rightist their opinions on political issues and the more rightist their perceptions of the climate of opinion” (Halpern, 1994 : 43). 3.1 Research Design of “Media Dependency….”

The author conducted a self-administered survey[8] in Santiago , Chile , during November 1989. The survey inquired about the respondents’ patterns of media dependency, as an independent variable, and about their views on political issues and their perceptions of the climate of opinion, as dependent variables. The survey was conducted after developing a Likert scale which sought to assess the degree to which respondents’ views on political issues were rightist or leftist[9]. Another scale was developed to measure the perception that each respondent had about the climate of opinion after observing the environment through the media. The survey inquired about the potential dependency of three types of media in the respondents: pro–government media, legal oppositional media and clandestine media. Three types of information were accounted for in the analysis of each type of dependency: media use, exclusive media use and interest in politics. A media–use scale was developed which assigned the maximum score to the respondent who looked for political information from a maximum number of sources of a specific type of media[10], with maximum frequency. The information gathered was analyzed as a set of variables integrated in a path analysis[11]. Three were main the results established by the path analysis operation, according to the author. First, the hypothesized causal link between pro government media use and rightism in political opinions was confirmed. Second, a direct causal link between illegal media use and less rightism in political opinions was confirmed. Third, no relevant causal connection was found between legal oppositional media use and less rightism in political opinions. The author draws two relevant conclusions from the statistical analysis of the data collected in the survey. The first one is that,

however damaged the credibility of a press that was aligned with an authoritarian government might have been, the political opinions of dissenters from the regime appear nonetheless to be affected by the views promoted by pro-government media. On a more general basis, the evidence seems to support the argument proposed by the general theory of media dependency which affirms that “as long as individuals are dependent on dominant media for information their perceptions of political reality will reflect it” (Halpern, 1994 : 48). The second relevant conclusion that the author draws from the results of the path model constructed is that, in the case of Chile , legal oppositional media “did not provide the left with information that could support their vision of the world” (Halpern, 1994:50). Despite what superficial appearances may show, the author argues, legal oppositional media constructed their discourse within the communicative parameters imposed by officialdom and was in no position to provide alternative versions of political reality. 3.2 Critical assessment of “Media Dependency and…”

It seems to me that the research design of “Media Dependency…” is problematic on three different grounds. The first and most serious of them is the appropriateness of the time period chosen to conduct a survey about media dependency patterns in an authoritarian context. The problem comes from the fact that at the time that the survey was conducted, in November 1989, the whole machinery of censorship and harassment that the military government had inflicted on the media during the previous years had already been almost completely dismantled. The government had lost the plebiscite the previous year and was no longer the fearsome and omnipresent threat that it had been during the time of its long mandate. A basic assumption, then, about the context in which the survey was going to be conducted is, from my point of view, mistaken. Chile , in November 1989, was no longer a good case for studying the applicability of the media dependency theory within authoritarian contexts, because, at the time, there were plenty of “functional alternatives”[12] available for left wing individuals to get informed.


A second problematic aspect of the research is related to the first one, but is different. It deals with the validity of the conclusion drawn by the author after the path analysis showed no significant correlation between the use of legal oppositional media and less rightism in political opinions. The author explains what he calls the apparent inconsistency of the results of his research by arguing that only the clandestine press provided a real alternative to the dominant descriptions and that the legal oppositional press was just an “echo of authority”. Leaving aside the problem of the real magnitude of the illegal oppositional media during this period[13], there is a much better contextual explanation for the degree of rightism shown by leftwing individuals. At the time of the survey, Chile was immersed in an electoral campaign (a rather important fact that the author, strangely, doesn’t mention) and the opposition forces were making extreme efforts to convince the voters of their future moderation as a government. The legal oppositional media were not openly confronting the dictator because they were under his ideological spell. They were not confronting him for a very simple reason: the dictator had already been defeated. Instead, they were actively trying to convince frightened voters, that is center and center–right voters, that if the opposition took hold of power the country would not go back to socialist entropy (Tironi, 1990). It seems to me that this is a much more plausible explanation for the absence of leftism in the consumers of legal oppositional media than the one provided by the author. The third, and final, problematic aspect is the attribute of causality assigned by the author (Halpern, 1994:p.48) to the results of the path analysis in his conclusion. It is problematic because path analysis does not prove causality, as it deals with correlation, not causation of variables (Walsh, 1990; Bryman & Cramer, 1990). Path models are indeed constructed hypothesizing sequences of causation. It is assumed that some variables are causally related, and a hypothesized causal scheme is tested using the path analysis technique. But, even if the propositions are supported, it does not prove that the causal assumptions are correct, because different models could have been constructed consistently with the same given dataset. Path analysis merely illuminates which of two or more alternative models, derived from theory, is most consistent with the pattern of correlations found in the data. No conclusive causality should therefore be invoked, as the author does, but merely evidence of correlation within a hypothetical model of causation.

4. Conclusion: The two articles examined represent very different approaches to the study of the impact of the media in authoritarian societies. Even though both articles provide some insight into the phenomenon studied, the overall results are, in my opinion, equally problematic because of significant flaws at the stages of finding pertinent cases with which their respective hypothesis could be adequately tested. The first article chooses two examples which have no observable connection with the hypothesis proposed and can therefore neither confirm nor refute its validity. The second article pays much more attention to the empirical testing of the research hypothesis, but chooses a sample which, at the time, was no longer representative of the conditions which the whole research aims to illuminate: i.e. media dependency in authoritarian contexts. Beyond the problems of verification which, although for very different reasons, both works share, it is important to comment on what I consider to be the underlying cause of their respective failures. Both works fail to combine in a well-balanced manner general interpretative frameworks and empirical research in an adequate way. The first article places so much emphasis on the theoretical description of the social context within which the claimed market – media – politics relationship supposedly occurred, that it forgets to design a research device which can adequately prove that the hypothesized linkage actually occurred in the claimed manner. The second article, on the contrary, gives so much relative attention to the construction of a quantitative research tool that would be able to prove empirically the existence of media dependency patterns in authoritarian contexts, that it forgets to ask itself a previous, and more basic, question about the actual adequacy of the social context researched with the theoretical conditions that qualify it as a relevant research subject. Both articles, in synthesis, place an excessive, unbalanced, emphasis on just one of the dimensions which a sound and relevant piece of research should have (Ragin, 1994). It is therefore possible to think of a piece of research that would manage to combine an original interpretative hypothesis, like the one that the first article elaborates, with the careful construction of a research model on which the research hypothesis can be

adequately tested, like the one the that second article at least tries to build. That research would be in a much better position to illuminate convincingly an issue which these articles have left, to a very large extent, submerged in obscurity.


Primary References: - Halpern, P. (1994) ‘Media dependency and political perceptions in an authoritarian political system’ Journal of Communication; Autumn 1994; Vol 44, No. 4; p39 – 52. - Tironi, E. and Sunkel, G. (2000) “The Modernizarion of Communications: The Media in the Transition to Democracy on Chile ” In Richard Gunther and Anthony Mughan eds. Democracy and the Media. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press. Secondary References: - Ball – Rokeach, S. and De Fleur, M. (1976) ‘A dependency model of mass media effects’. Communications Research. Vol 3. No. 1. p3-21. - Ball – Rokeach, S. and De Fleur, M. (1979) “A dependency model of mass media effects”. In Gary Gumpert ed, Inter/Media p81-96. New York : Oxford University Press. - Bryman, A. and Cramer, D (1990) Quantitative Data Analysis for Social Scientists. London : Routledge. - Buckman, R. (1996) “Birth, Death and Resurrection of Press Freedom in Chile ”. In Communication in Latin America, Richard Cole ed. Wilmington : Jaguar Books. - Diamond, L. (1992) ‘Reconsideration of the Nexus between Economic Development and Democracy’, Estudios Publicos, N.49. p39-84. - Richard G. and Mughan, A. (2000) “The Media in Democratic and Non Democratic Regimes: A Multilevel Perspective” In Richard Gunther and Anthony Mughan eds. Democracy and the Media. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press. -Hirmas, M. et al. (1988) Televisión chilena: Censura o libertad. El caso de la visita de Juan Pablo II. Santiago de Chile: Editorial Pehuén.


- Livingstone, S. (1997) “The work of Elihu Katz”. In J. Corner, P. Schlesinger, and R. Silverstone, (Eds.), International Handbook of Media Research. London : Routledge. - Méndez, R. et al (1989) ‘¿Por qué ganó el NO?’. Estudios Públicos, 33. p83 – 131. - Ragin, C. (1994) Constructing Social Research. Forge Press. London : Pine

- Rubin, A. (1986) “Uses, Gratifications, and Media Effects Research”. In Perspectives on Media Effects, Bryant, J. & Zillmann, D. eds. New Jersey : L. Erlbaum Associates. - Tironi, Eugenio. 1990 La invisible victoria. Campañas electorales y democracia en Chile. Santiago de Chile: Ediciones Sur. - Walsh, A. (1990) Statistics for the Social Sciences. New York : Harper & Row Publishers.


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