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The Spirals of History: Latin American and Caribbean Dialogues on the Responsibilities of Social Communicators
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The image of spirals evokes advancement through back and forth movements. The plurality of spirals in the image invoked helps us to visualize social change as complex and multidimensional rather than lineal and unidimensional. This is precisely the sense that I want to portray through the comparison of reflections of Latin American and Caribbean thinkers on the social responsibility of media. Such a reflection is, I believe, one of the paths we must travel in order to systematically address the issues raised by the Conference theme: professional education for the media.

My point of departure, the moment representing the past in the spirals I have invoked, is a short essay by an influential 19th Century thinker, Eugenio María de Hostos. Born in Puerto Rico, Hostos traveled and lived throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, making multiple contributions, particularly in the area of public education, in the countries where he lived. His essays and books on philosophy, law, education, sociology, journalism, and politics are amply recognized for their depth and originality, and his heroic efforts to integrate the islands of the Caribbean and the countries of Latin America have earned him the epithet of “Citizen of America” (Here, America refers to Latin America, not to the United States). Hostos’ reflections on the power of the press, then serve as the counterpoint for an analysis of various contemporary Latin American and Caribbean authors who reflect on the relationship between media and democracy and the consequent responsibilities for communication programs.

Hostos and the power of the written press

In an essay—Morality and Journalism--written at the end of the 19th century, in the period of infancy of mass journalism, Hostos made some remarkable observations regarding the social power of this, the first mass medium. The first notable point is the power that he attributes to the newspapers of that period:

Mass journalism’s voice has the power of a hundred voices. Its reason has the weight of collective reason. Its demands impose themselves as if they came from the collective consciousness…The only occasions in which we can know with certainty what public opinion is, other than in times of extraordinary social upheaval, is when we can see in the pages of the newspaper the representation of these social forces ... Simultaneously, it can be the servant of all industries, of all professions, of all talents, of all inventions, of all discoveries, of all science, of art…of work, of the worker, of the capitalist, of property, of the dispossessed, of the homeless, of those who are happy, of those who are unfortunate, of welfare… of the wealthy and of the poor, of towns and town dwellers, of civilizations and civilizers, of the good and the bad, of beauty, of truth, of justice, of the large, of the serious, of happiness, of pleasure, of victories, of ovations, of war, of peace, of uproar, of calm, of life, of sickness and of death (Hostos, 2000, p. 399)

I have quoted extensively because there are various extraordinary notions introduced in this paragraph. The first and most evident is the conflation of public opinion with what the press publishes, a notion commonly associated exclusively with public opinion regarding political matters. If we accept this notion, then Hostos had recognized the political power of mass journalism, when it was just in its infancy, especially in the case of Latin America and the Caribbean. But by enumerating at length the multifarious ways in which the press constructs public opinion, Hostos goes beyond political power. By including subjects such as art, esthetics, pleasure, peace, life and death, Hostos amplifies the power of the press beyond the sphere of politics into the sphere of culture. As if to clarify any doubt regarding his views on the extension of the power of the press, Hostos follows his long list of social spheres of its influence with the terse and bold affirmation: “It has the capacity to influence everything” (Ibid., p. 400). From his perspective, the power of the press transcends the power to influence decisions regarding who governs and how to govern and extends to the most private aspects of our individual lives.

Thus, several decades before the Frankfurt School theoreticians had coined the phrase “cultural industries”, Hostos had recognized the immense cultural power wielded by the press . It is in the context of this affirmation regarding the extraordinary cultural power of the press to influence the most intimate dimensions of our lives, that one should interpret Hostos’ famous dictum regarding the journalism profession as a religious vocation carrying great social responsibility:
There is no higher priesthood than that of the journalist; but, by the same logic, no other priesthood imposes greater duties, and no other priesthood is so likely to be carried out as reprehensibly . (Ibid., p. 404).

By recognizing Hostos’ conflation of the power of the mass press with public opinion over cultural matters such as happiness, art, life and death, one can understand that the priesthood metaphor is not simply a rhetorical whim. What some may consider a flowery dictum is a logical conclusion of his analysis regarding the vast cultural and political power of the press.

Continuing his analysis, Hostos defines two potential dangers that emanate from the cultural and political power of the press. The first of these dangers is the subordination of the press to political power; the second is the subordination of the press to economic power. Both dangers, in his analysis, can lead to a fragmentation or disintegration of society. In those cases in which the press subordinates itself to political power, it becomes:

A daily lesson… of intellectual immorality, which is one of the worst forms of immorality, and of lack of character, which is the worst example of immorality. Since its objective is power, its criteria become capricious. And since it operates over a mass of people, which is not only that mass formed by the political party…or by the government it serves, but is also that mass of countless readers to whom it presents a ready-made opinion, affecting their reason, their judgment and their common sense (ibid., p. 401).

In those cases in which the press subordinates itself to economic power, there is a similar process of social disintegration:
It is also a continuous lesson of immorality of the will; it debases the civic sentiments because it constantly advocates all affluence and frequently derides all generous sentiments. It debases the social will because it channels it towards the acquisition of goods and away from confronting the moral ills of society. (ibid., p. 401).

Although he does not elaborate more on the consequences of these twin dangers that confront the press, Hostos’ analysis suggests that the subordination to economic power is a more pernicious peril than the subordination to political power. Economic power, in the guise of the promise of individual affluence, co-opts collective opposition to social inequities .
In his analysis, in spite of some serious inconsistencies, Hostos designates society as the main custodian of the power of the press and gives journalists a secondary but essential role in this responsibility. And it is this designation of society-at-large or citizens as the guardians of the political and cultural power of the press that provides a direct link with contemporary reflections and practices in Latin America and the Caribbean on the need to democratize mass media and social communication.

Hostos’ essay can be read as a general map for a great deal of the reflection, research and publication that takes place today in Latin America and the Caribbean communication theorists. This proposal is not meant to foreclose or reduce the interpretations of the contributions of these contemporary thinkers, but to highlight the continuities between the observations of this 19th Century figure and present day scholars. It is also not meant to belittle the enormous differences between social life at the end of the 19th Century and that of the 21st Century. Indeed, much of the reflections produced by Latin American and Caribbean authors in the last decade has had as its purpose the definition of the contours of our age, a period of overwhelming social change.

Perhaps no other author among contemporary theorists in Latin America and the Caribbean can better formulate these contours than Jesus Martin Barbero:

At the Porto Alegre World Social Forum, communication was defined as a space for a dual perversion and dual opportunities. The first perversion comes from the creation of megacorporations at the global level—there are now just seven that dominate the world market: AOL-Time Warner, Disney, Sony, News Corporation, Viacom and Bertelsmann—whose economic concentration is translated into an unparalleled power of fusion of content and distribution. This fusion creates the capacity for the control of world public opinion and the imposition of esthetic models. The second perversion, introduced by the events of September 11, is the controls and threats imposed on the freedoms of information and expression to the point of putting at risk the most elemental civil rights. But communication was defined in Porto Alegre as the space for two strategic opportunities.

The first one is the opportunity provided by digital technology for putting into a common language the data, texts, sounds, images, videos that debilitate the rationalist hegemony of that dualism that up until now had opposed the intelligent to the sensitive and emotional, reason to imagination, science to art, and also culture to technique, and books to audiovisual media. The second opportunity is the configuration of a new public sphere and a new citizenship in and from the networks of social movements and community media, that public sphere and citizenship that has made the World Forum possible, that maintains and defines it. It is obvious that we are speaking of embryonic forms of new citizenship and new public sphere, constituted by an enormous plurality of actors and critical interpretations that converge in a commitment of emancipation and a political culture in which resistance is simultaneously a creator of alternatives (2002, pp. 10-11; emphasis in the original).

In this view, reflective of much of the thought on communication in Latin America and the Caribbean today, culture and politics have intertwined, and much of the space of their fusion is that of the media or media related. Consequently, media have assumed central roles in all dimensions of social life. The hard distinctions Hostos made between the political and the cultural are no longer as relevant. What is relevant, and in augmented form, is the power of media to influence the course of social life.

Regarding the role media plays in politics, Roncagliolo (2003) describes the transformation of citizens into consumers and the consequences that has had for democracy:

The universal deterioration of democracy in the last decades consists of a process…through which citizens have been turned into consumers, to be seduced and persuaded. Competition among ideas has thus become a commercial competition between or among advertising mechanisms. No longer is the content (electoral options) important. What matters is the form (the appearance of the candidate, the modulations of the voice, the political ad, etc.). The responsibility of the political leader is displaced by that of the actor. The joint effect of videopolitics and opinion surveys (the determinants of political options) has contributed to produce an electoral game characterized by the absence of ideas, by localism, and by the privatization of public spaces. This road leads to the opposite of the objectives of representative democracy. Elections, one of its forms, are maintained, but at the expense of all of its foundational principles (p. 16).

This appraisal does not lead to pessimism. If media have played a part in the erosion of the fundamental principles of justice and equality in electoral democracies, communication and media are central parts of any effort towards the democratization of our societies:

The re-foundation of politics as a form of definition and construction of the future by a collectivity is based on communication structures and dynamics that can promote and make possible democracy as that form of social and political order that is most compatible with civilized sociability (León Maya, 2000, pp. 40-41).

Yet the democratization of politics requires the simultaneous democratization of other spheres of culture, and particularly the spaces for the promotion of interculturality. In this sense, Reguillo (2002) points out that media and the cultural industries are the principal purveyors of our representations of the other, understood as those of different social class, ethnicity, nationality, gender identification or age. According to Reguillo, our contemporary period, heavily tainted by the events of September 11, is characterized by fear of the other:

Television, the press and the film industry provide this new order founded on the exploitation of fear of the other with the rhetoric, the example and the pretext for the erosion of the base which sustains, in precarious form, human rights: ‘they killed him; they beat him, but they were illegal immigrants; they were just foreigners, others who are not like us, so it is not very important…If the media can be thought of principally as sophisticated mechanisms for the production of visibility, then we can conclude that we emergent mechanisms for the production, accumulation and distribution of a new classificatory knowledge that translates into a power with the capability of reconfiguring our thought of the other (p. 66).

These views on the importance of media and social communication for the democratization of politics and culture have their consequences for the education of media professionals. In terms of reconceptualizing communication, an elementary but essential task in the revision of curricula, Fuentes Navarro (1999) calls for a broad and complex redefinition, arguing that we need to:

Substitute the predominant concept that identifies communication with the transmission and social circulation of ‘messages’ for a more complex conceptual framework in which communication is considered a basic socio-cultural process, that is to say, as the production of meaning (p. 59).

In terms of defining the qualities of the professional communicator—the student who completes a communication degree—Martín Barbero (1990) stresses the ability to perform complex social analysis combined with the ability to communicate such analysis:
This constitutes the basic task of the intellectual: to struggle against the weight of the immediate and the fetishism of the new by providing historical context, depth and a critical distance that will allow him/her to understand and make others understand the meaning and value of the transformations that we are living through (pp. 8-9).

Both the expanded conceptualization of communication and the specification of a new type of communication professional place an enormous responsibility on communication curricula. In this context, Villalobos (2001) calls for a dynamic conception of curricula so that their basic objectives are intimately interrelated: a professional practice; research; pedagogical practices; and curricular renovation or revision. The interrelation of these four objectives is guided by a conception of educational commitment to historical development, that is to say a conception of the curriculum as a structure for transformations defined historically in relationship to social practice.

Much has changed since Hostos wrote his essay on morality and journalism. Many of the social transformations—the movements of historical spirals-- f the 20th Century were in place in embryonic forms at the time of his analysis. The press became media. In turn, media, in their interplay with political-economic power and culture, became central forces in the production and reproduction of social meanings, in the creation of our symbolic reality. Yet the forms in which these transformations have happened and continue to evolve are profoundly complex. In Latin America and the Caribbean, communication theorists have grappled to understand these transformations and their consequences for communication education. What is eminently clear is that the challenge university communication programs face in the preparation of media professionals is ultimately an ethical one: what type of social futures do we want to begin to construct? In other words, how and in what directions do we want the spirals of history to develop?


I have translated this and all quotations in which the original is in Spanish.

My observation is not meant to belittle the significant and multiple contributions of the Frankfurt School scholars to our understanding of society; nor is it meant to imply that Hostos had a theoretical understanding of the press comparable to that of the views elaborated by the representatives of the Frankfurt School ( On the contrary, he exhibits great naivete in his conclusions about the press). My observation is made in order to highlight the ability of this great thinker to prefigure eminent schools of social thought.

Max Weber (quoted in Bisbal, 2001, p. 10) makes a comparable observation, noting that journalists are the most important social representatives; yet they are viewed as social pariahs, as one of the sectors possessing the lowest moral values.

This is precisely the point made by Marcuse in One-dimensional Man and elaborated by Habermas (1989), Feenberg (1991, 1995, 1995a), and Borgmann (1984 and 1992).


Barbero, J.M. (1990). Comunicación, campo cultural y proyecto mediador [Communication, cultural camp and mediation project] in Diálogos de la comunicación. 26, 8-18.

-----. (2002). Tecnicidades, identidades, alteridades: des-ubicaciones y opacidades de la comunicación en el nuevo siglo [technicities, identities and altereties: mis-placements and opacities of communication in the new century] in Diálogos de la comunicación. 64, 8-25.

Bisbal, M. (2001). La nueva escena y el comunicador social [The new stage and the social communicator] in Diálogos de la Comunicación. 62, 8-25.

Borgmann, A. (1984). Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

-----. (1992). Crossing the postmodern divide. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Feenberg, A. (1991). Critical Theory of Technology. New York: Oxford University Press.

-----. (1995). Subversive Rationalization in A. Feenberg & A. Hannay (Eds.) The Politics of Knowledge. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press.

-----. (1995a). Alternative Modernity. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Fuentes Navarro, R. (1999). La investigación de la comunicación en América Latina: condiciones y perspectivas para el siglo XXI [ Communication research in Latin America: conditions and perspectives for the 21st Century] in Diálogos de la comunicación. 56, 52-68.

Habermas, J. (1989). Technology and Science as "Ideology" in S. Seidman (Ed.) Jurgen Habermas on Society and Politics. Boston: Beacon Press.

Hostos, E. M. de (2000). Tratado Moral (Obras completas Vol. IX) [Moral Treatise in Complete Works Vol. IX]. Río Piedras, Puerto Rico: Editorial de la Universidad de Puerto Rico.

León Maya, A. (2000). Voces ciudadanas: una opción de periodismo público y ciudadanización democrática [voices of citizenship: the option of public journalism and democratic civics] in Diálogos de la comunicación. 57, 38-48.

Content Language English
Publication year 11-05-2005


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