In liberal capitalist democracies, the media is generally accepted as having a watchdog role in mediating between the state and all facets of civil society. Hence, they are accorded the status of a fourth estate, i.e., a coequal branch of government that provides the check and balance without which governments cannot be effective in conducting the people’s business.

In what appears to be an article of faith about the centrality of a free press in a democratic society, Thomas Jefferson, one of the founding fathers of the American Republic and its third President, reiterated this in a letter he wrote to Edward Carrington in 1787. By the time Jefferson was a Minister to France representing the government of a nascent American Republic. Edward Carrington was a fellow Virginian whom Jefferson had appointed to represent the State of Virginia at the Continental Congress. In this letter written from Paris, Jefferson noted the following: “The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers [media] or newspapers [media] without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter…”

As Jefferson was writing on the eve of the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789, his letter was partly precipitated by his critical observation of the nature of European governments. His appraisal was that the European governments of the time had divided the nation into two contending classes where the governments were considered the predator, and their people as prey. Jefferson was in essence warning Carrington that all governments, even the new American government unless checked, would inevitably become a predator; and he thought that the role of a free press in keeping government power in check was so important that he would prefer “newspapers without government” to “government without newspapers.” Such a Jeffersonian ideal of a free press in a democratic society has often become one of the principal organizing principles in explaining the relationship between media and democracy in journalism schools.

The ideal vs. the practice

Theoretically or in principle, the media’s watchdog role over the functioning of a democratic government is not confined to their national borders but would span beyond their territorial boundaries. However, we oftentimes observe when such ideals are at odds with the experiences of the Western media, especially when they deal with issues beyond their national borders. Then, we would often begin to struggle as to how to account for such apparent ‘mismatch.’ Out of sheer disillusionment, we would direct our anger against the perceived double standard of the Western media.

What we need to understand

The perceived ‘mismatch’ between the ideal and the practice, and the resultant frustration or anger emanates partly out of a lack of understanding as to how the liberal media operate on the ground. In a liberal capitalist democracy, elite dissent versus elite consensus often guides the media’s behavior. When elite opinion is divided over a policy issue, the media will cover the conflict among the elites, serving as a platform for robust democratic discussions. However, when elite opinion is unified over a policy issue, the media will reflect and amplify the consensus. This is even more so when it is a foreign policy issue. If officials or elites agree about foreign policy, the media cover that unity, and public opinion tends to agree with that official consensus. If officials or elites are in conflict about foreign policy, the media cover that conflict among foreign policy elites, and public opinion becomes more split over foreign policy options. Thus, the media can communicate and amplify the existing unity or disunity, creating openings for foreign policy shifts or closing ranks around the existing policy.

Media’s interaction with the politico-economic environment

One would be tempted to ask why this is so. A convenient argument is that the media cannot be outside of the politico-economic environment in which they have their abode. In any society, media exist in a particular socio-economic and political arrangement. Media institutions often interact with socio-economic and political institutions where one shapes and influences the other, i.e., they have a constitutive relationship. Liberal capitalist free-market democracy constitutes the politico-economic system of the liberal West, and the media are its stakeholders. As such, they defend such a system with tooth and nail.

In a seminal scholarly study conducted on American mainstream television’s relationship to foreign policy, the principal author noted, “perhaps the most striking overall pattern in network television‘s coverage of international news is its congruence with the foreign policy priorities of the U.S. government…Television,like other major media, gives heavy coverage to… nations that somehow directly involve American interests.” In the same study, the author quoted the former ABC reporter Bill Blakemore as saying the following: “We most often follow what Washington and, in particular, the President and the State Department say is important…We rarely have an adversarial or even critical relationship with Washington.”

Does this mean that there is a grand conspiracy between the Western media and the governing elites? There answer to this question is a categorical ‘no.’’ If so, how could one make sense of such a convergence? Well, the convergence is the outcome of neither conspiracy nor coercion; rather it is a matter of common or shared interest. As noted earlier, the liberal capitalist free-market democracy constitutes the politico-economic system of the liberal West. The foreign policy priorities set by the government are believed to advance their national interests. Such national interests are also the interests of the media conglomerates, whose end goal is profit maximization. Hence, they see it in their best interest to defend their government’s foreign policy priorities.

Implications for Ethiopia

What does all this mean to us? If the argument above makes sense, then we ought to put the current behavior of the Western media in the right perspective. We need to understand that there is nothing out of the ordinary in their current behavior surrounding the armed conflict between the central government of Ethiopia and the TPLF. They are acting consistently with their government’s foreign policy priorities in the region. Such foreign policy priorities, among others, include containing the influence of China in the region and seeking leadership that would be responsive to such priorities.

They are acting consistently with their government’s foreign policy priorities in the region. Such foreign policy priorities, among others, include containing the influence of China in the region and seeking leadership that would be responsive to such priorities.

Such an understanding would help us to carefully think about how we should respond effectively. Trying to maintain a confrontational posture and venting anger at the West would not do the trick. Rather, it would drain us of productive energy. We need to try to recalibrate our engagement with the West and spend more time on clearly articulating our national interests, and demonstrate how such national interest priorities could be achieved in a manner that does not threaten their interests. In the interdependent world we live in, national interests should not be seen as mutually exclusive. There should always be mutually beneficial outcomes, which we should strive for. But for this to bear the desired fruit, it is imperative that we engage in strategic communication and astute diplomatic endeavor.