Martin Marinos is a postdoctoral research scholar working on a book project, “Free to Hate: The Liberalization of Socialist Mass Media in post-1989 Bulgaria,” examining how the liberalization of Eastern European socialist media facilitated the growth of far-right political movements.
I met with Martin at the Harriman Institute on April 9, 2019. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Tell me about your background.
I grew up in Bulgaria, in a town called Pernik—a former industrial mining town—about 30 minutes south of Sofia. I came to the U.S. to study at the Binghamton University just a little before September 11th, I was only 18. It was a challenging time, both because of the political situation in the U.S., and financially for me. But it turned out to be a really great experience.
Initially, the idea was to study dentistry, but by my second year I realized I wasn’t interested at looking into people’s mouths. I was much more interested in the humanities and the social sciences. As someone who just came to the U.S., I was really amazed at how people talked about the collapse of Yugoslavia, which had just happened.
What do you mean?
People talked about it as if the whole Balkan peninsula was fighting, I was pretty certain that wasn’t the case because I grew up in Bulgaria, and there was no war. There was no war in Greece, Turkey, Romania and Albania, either. I became interested in the media representations of the war, and wrote my history honors thesis on the representations of the conflict in Serbia, Croatia, and also in the U.S.
Though I majored in history, when it came time to pursue my graduate studies I realized my interests were contemporary. My advisor at the time said why don’t you try media studies. That’s how I ended up getting my master’s at Florida Atlantic University’s School of Communications and Media, and then pursued a doctorate at the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of Communication. But history has always informed my research.
What was your dissertation about?
My dissertation, which I defended in the summer of 2016 and have pretty much dismantled since, was about the transformation of media in Bulgaria. I focused on two big processes: the history of socialist television in Bulgaria since the 1960s and how it participated in all the cultural and social changes taking place after Stalin’s death—in the efforts of de-Stalinization and the spread of “socialist humanism”; and the changes after 1989, and how the commercialization of the media—mostly TV media—became a vehicle for the spread of right-wing populist discourse and political parties in Bulgaria.
Since I started writing, this trend has become a global phenomenon. I’ve revised the dissertation substantially, and, for my book manuscript, am expanding the question of radical right-wing populist political parties and actors and their connection to the media.
What has surprised you in your research?
Nothing has been that surprising, but what went beyond the scope I expected, was how much the monopolization of the Bulgarian media market by Western media companies, such as Murdoch’s News Corporation and the German newspaper giant WAZ [Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung], damaged the media system.
I argue that these companies bear significant responsibility for the rise of far-right discourse in Bulgaria. This is because they both stifled any criticism of capitalism and allowed extreme nationalists to appear on their media platforms, creating the ideal environment for right-wing populists to thrive.
What is your central argument in the book?
Contrary to expectations, the turn toward the free market and commercial media after 1989 did not reduce extremism and extreme nationalism, but ended up enforcing it and helping it thrive.
What are some misconceptions about how right-wing populists use the media?
There are many misconceptions. One I learned about from doing lots of interviews and ethnographic work—for the project I interviewed about 80 journalists, politicians, and media professionals—was that there is a substantial number of journalists working for far-right outlets who aren’t zealots and extremists; they are just regular journalists navigating an environment where it’s difficult to finds jobs. In Bulgaria, all far-right parties have their own television stations and newspapers. Some of these journalists don’t necessarily believe in the ideas these outlets are spreading, but getting a job with them meant being employed.
What’s most rewarding for you about studying media?
It’s such a current phenomenon. Developing an understanding about this connection between commercial media and populism, and the damage that commercial media can cause to the public sphere, has the potential for impact beyond academia.
What are you working on at Columbia?
Mostly, on turning my dissertation into a book. I’ve also been working on an article that looks at the ’89 revolutions as largely mediatized events. For instance, the Romanian revolution is considered to be the first televised revolution—it was broadcast live, and the media shaped the events to an extreme level. Also, I was invited to edit a special issue of an East European journal that examines what has happened to media in the region in the last 30 years.
When you started working on the topic did you expect the trends you describe in your book to spread to the West?
I wasn’t fully surprised what happened here, there were signs. I was surprised that a lot of people weren’t seeing them, including academics. For example, in 2013 I submitted an article about the connection between right-wing populists and mainstream media to a big communications journal and the editor rejected it the same day, saying that this was just a marginal phenomenon I was making “a big deal of.” This was only a few years before Trump and Brexit. I probably didn’t expect it to get to such a big scale, but definitely the signs were there. The “positive” thing is that earlier many thought that this was just some sort of Eastern European thing, but now people understand that’s not the case.
What’s your favorite aspect of being at the Harriman Institute?
There are so many! I come from a discipline that isn’t focused on Eastern Europe or the former Soviet space. Communications and media departments, and even history departments, are much broader in scope and when you talk about Eastern Europe in these places you have to contextualize a lot, to explain a lot, to prove why it matters to the rest of the world. Here I can talk about it without explaining or proving that it’s relevant for an American audience. It’s a nice break.
I also really enjoy the support I’ve received here, and the resources for developing my work. Also, I like the Sherry Hours.
What classes have you taught during your time here?
This is the second time I’m teaching a class on global media in the socialist and postsocialist context. We focus on things from Marx and Lenin’s writings on media and communications to current discussions about social media in Eastern Europe. I also try to place media into a postcolonial context, as well as examine societies, like China or Venezuela, that are in one way or another experimenting with socialism. It’s been a truly rewarding experience for me, and hopefully for my students, too.