January 12, 2009
Audience Atomization Overcome: Why the Internet Weakens the Authority of the Press
In the age of mass media, the press was able to define the sphere of legitimate debate with relative ease because the people on the receiving end were atomized-- connected "up" to Big Media but not across to each other. And now that authority is eroding. I will try to explain why.
It’s easily the most useful diagram I’ve found for understanding the practice of journalism in the United States, and the hidden politics of that practice. You can draw it by hand right now. Take a sheet of paper and make a big circle in the middle. In the center of that circle draw a smaller one to create a doughnut shape. Label the doughnut hole “sphere of consensus.” Call the middle region “sphere of legitimate debate,” and the outer region “sphere of deviance.”
That’s the entire model. Now you have a way to understand why it’s so unproductive to argue with journalists about the deep politics of their work. They don’t know about this freakin’ diagram! Here it is in its original form, from the 1986 book The Uncensored War by press scholar Daniel C. Hallin. Hallin felt he needed something more supple—and truthful—than calcified notions like objectivity and “opinions are confined to the editorial page.” So he came up with this diagram.
Let’s look more carefully at his three regions.
1.) The sphere of legitimate debate is the one journalists recognize as real, normal, everyday terrain. They think of their work as taking place almost exclusively within this space. (It doesn’t, but they think so.) Hallin: “This is the region of electoral contests and legislative debates, of issues recognized as such by the major established actors of the American political process.”
Here the two-party system reigns, and the news agenda is what the people in power are likely to have on their agenda. Perhaps the purest expression of this sphere is Washington Week on PBS, where journalists discuss what the two-party system defines as “the issues.” Objectivity and balance are “the supreme journalistic virtues” for the panelists on Washington Week because when there is legitimate debate it’s hard to know where the truth lies. There are risks in saying that truth lies with one faction in the debate, as against another— even when it does. He said, she said journalism is like the bad seed of this sphere, but also a logical outcome of it.
2. ) The sphere of consensus is the “motherhood and apple pie” of politics, the things on which everyone is thought to agree. Propositions that are seen as uncontroversial to the point of boring, true to the point of self-evident, or so widely-held that they’re almost universal lie within this sphere. Here, Hallin writes, “journalists do not feel compelled either to present opposing views or to remain disinterested observers.” (Which means that anyone whose basic views lie outside the sphere of consensus will experience the press not just as biased but savagely so.)
Consensus in American politics begins, of course, with the United States Constitution, but it includes other propositions too, like “Lincoln was a great president,” and “it doesn’t matter where you come from, you can succeed in America.” Whereas journalists equate ideology with the clash of programs and parties in the debate sphere, academics know that the consensus or background sphere is almost pure ideology: the American creed.
3.) In the sphere of deviance we find “political actors and views which journalists and the political mainstream of society reject as unworthy of being heard.” As in the sphere of consensus, neutrality isn’t the watchword here; journalists maintain order by either keeping the deviant out of the news entirely or identifying it within the news frame as unacceptable, radical, or just plain impossible. The press “plays the role of exposing, condemning, or excluding from the public agenda” the deviant view, says Hallin. It “marks out and defends the limits of acceptable political conduct.”
Anyone whose views lie within the sphere of deviance—as defined by journalists—will experience the press as an opponent in the struggle for recognition. If you don’t think separation of church and state is such a good idea; if you do think a single payer system is the way to go; if you dissent from the “lockstep behavior of both major American political parties when it comes to Israel” (Glenn Greenwald) chances are you will never find your views reflected in the news. It’s not that there’s a one-sided debate; there’s no debate.
Complications to keep in mind.
The three spheres are not really separate; they create one another, like the public and private do. The boundaries between regions are semi-porous and impermanent. Things can move out of one sphere and into another—that’s what political and cultural change is, if you think about it—but when they do shift there is often no announcement. One day David Brody of Christian Broadcasting Network shows up on Meet the Press, but Amy Goodman of Democracy Now never does.
This can be confusing. Of course, the producers of Meet the Press could say in a press release, “We decided that Pat Robertson’s CBN is now to be placed within the sphere of legitimate debate because… ” but then they would have to complete the “because” in a plausible way and very often they cannot. (“Amy Goodman, we decided, does not qualify for this show because…”) This gap between what journalists actually do as they arrange the scene of politics, and the portion they can explain or defend publicly—the difference between making news and making sense—is responsible for a lot of the anger and bad feeling projected at the political press by various constituencies that notice these moves and question them.
Within the sphere of legitimate debate there is some variance. Journalists behave differently if the issue is closer to the doughnut hole than they do when it is nearer the edge. The closer they think they are to the unquestioned core of consensus, the more plausible it is to present a single view as the only view, which is a variant on the old saw about American foreign policy: “Politics stops at the water’s edge.” (Atrios: “I’ve long noticed a tendency of the American press to take the side of official US policy when covering foreign affairs.”)
Another complication: Journalists aren’t the only actors here. Elections have a great deal to do with what gets entered into legitimate debate. Candidates—especially candidates for president—can legitimize an issue just by talking about it. Political parties can expand their agenda, and journalists will cover that. Powerful and visible people can start questioning a consensus belief and remove it from the “everyone agrees” category. And of course public opinion and social behavior do change over time.
Some implications of Daniel Hallin’s model.
That journalists affirm and enforce the sphere of consensus, consign ideas and actors to the sphere of deviance, and decide when the shift is made from one to another— none of this is in their official job description. You won’t find it taught in J-school, either. It’s an intrinsic part of what they do, but not a natural part of how they think or talk about their job. Which means they often do it badly. Their “sphere placement” decisions can be arbitrary, automatic, inflected with fear, or excessively narrow-minded. Worse than that, these decisions are often invisible to the people making them, and so we cannot argue with those people. It’s like trying to complain to your kid’s teacher about the values the child is learning in school when the teacher insists that the school does not teach values.
When (with some exceptions) political journalists failed properly to examine George W. Bush’s case for war in Iraq, they were making a category mistake. They treated Bush’s plan as part of the sphere of consensus. But even when Congress supports it, a case for war can never be removed from legitimate debate. That’s just a bad idea. Mentally placing the war’s opponents in the sphere of deviance was another category error. In politics, when people screw up like that, we can replace them: throw the bums out! we say. But the First Amendment says we cannot do that to people in the press. The bums stay. And later they are free to say: we didn’t screw up at all, as David Gregory, now host of Meet the Press, did say to his enduring shame.
“We are not allowing ourselves to think politically.”
Deciding what does and does not legitimately belong within the national debate is—no way around it—a political act. And yet a pervasive belief within the press is that journalists do not engage in such action, for to do so would be against their principles. As Len Downie, former editor of the Washington Post once said about why things make the front page, “We think it’s important informationally. We are not allowing ourselves to think politically.” I think he’s right. The press does not permit itself to think politically. But it does engage in political acts. Ergo, it is an unthinking actor, which is not good. When it is criticized for this it will reject the criticism out of hand, which is also not good.
Atrios, the economist and liberal blogger with a big following, has a more colorful phrase for “maintaining boundaries around the sphere of legitimate debate.” He often writes about the “dirty f*cking hippies,” by which he means the out-of-power or online left, and the way this group is marginalized by Washington journalists, who sometimes seem to define themselves against it. “In the late 90s, the dirty f*cking hippies were the crazy people who thought that Bill Clinton should neither resign nor be impeached,” he writes. “In the great wasteland of our mainstream media there was almost no place one could turn to find someone expressing the majority view of the American public, that this whole thing was insane.” Sometimes the people the press thinks of as deviant types are closer to the sphere of consensus than the journalists who are classifying those same people as “fringe.”
How can that happen? Well, one of the problems with our political press is that its reference group for establishing the “ground” of consensus is the insiders: the professional political class in Washington. It then offers that consensus to the country as if it were the country’s own, when it’s not, necessarily. This erodes confidence in a way that may be invisible to journalists behaving as insiders themselves. And it gives the opening to Jon Stewart and his kind to exploit that gap I talked about between making news and making sense.
“Echo chamber” or counter-sphere?
Now we can see why blogging and the Net matter so greatly in political journalism. In the age of mass media, the press was able to define the sphere of legitimate debate with relative ease because the people on the receiving end were atomized— meaning they were connected “up” to Big Media but not across to each other. But today one of the biggest factors changing our world is the falling cost for like-minded people to locate each other, share information, trade impressions and realize their number. Among the first things they may do is establish that the “sphere of legitimate debate” as defined by journalists doesn’t match up with their own definition.
In the past there was nowhere for this kind of sentiment to go. Now it collects, solidifies and expresses itself online. Bloggers tap into it to gain a following and serve demand. Journalists call this the “echo chamber,” which is their way of downgrading it as a reliable source. But what’s really happening is that the authority of the press to assume consensus, define deviance and set the terms for legitimate debate is weaker when people can connect horizontally around and about the news.
Which is how I got to my three word formlua for understanding the Internet’s effects in politics and media: “audience atomization overcome.”
* * *
After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…
Daniel C. Hallin writes in with a response. I urge you to read it. He says there has been a “de-centering” of the mass media since the Vietnam War era. He also thinks the echo chamber is a plausible outcome of that process:
Many of those who posted seem to believe that what is on the internet is closer to “real public opinion” than what is in the mainstream media, but I’m not sure we really know this. Some of the posts seem based on the assumption that “the people” are always wise, but I would question this, and also point to Alexis deToqueville’s old observation that the greatest barrier to real freedom of thought in America is often not top-down control but public opinion itself.
More Hallin: “I think journalists often play an important role as an independent source of information, and in many ways I’d like to see them playing a stronger role, not a weaker one, in shaping the public sphere.” Me too! My reply:
I think a strong, independent press can be undermined by thoughtless press bashing, phony populism and culture war excess. Definitely. I also think a strong independent press is undermined when the professionals in it fail to recognize that there’s a politics to what they do, which can go wrong, fall out of alignment, or even implode, failing the country.
David Westphal, former head of McClatchy Newspapers Washington bureau and now a journalism professor at USC, cheers Hallin on in the comments. “The role of the independent press needs to be strengthened, not brought down in victory-lap celebration.”
Glenn Greenwald did a Salon Radio podcast with me about this piece and the arguments behind it. Here’s his post introducing it. (About a 25-minute listen. There’s also a transcript.) Sample:
The ability to infect us with notions of what’s realistic is one of the most potent powers press and political elites have. Whenever we make that kind of decision — “well it’s pragmatic, let’s be realistic” — what we’re really doing is we’re speculating about other Americans, our fellow citizens, and what they’re likely to accept or what works on them or what stimuli they respond to. And that way of seeing other Americans, fellow citizens, is in fact something the media has taught us; that is one of the deepest lessons we’ve learned from the media even if we are skeptics.
Always remember what Raymond Williams said, “There are in fact no masses; there are only ways of seeing people as masses.” During the age of mass media, these ways of seeing sunk deeply into us. It’s harder to get them out than you think. I speak to that in the podcast with Glenn.
So far no comment, reaction, link or other gesture from journalists in the national press. This after I told Chris Cillizza, who does The Fix blog for the Washington Post, “I wrote this for you, especially you. When you have a moment, give it a gander.” (That was on Twitter.) Of course we are exchanging presidents in DC this week so maybe they have other things to do :-)
You can follow me on Twitter, if you’re on Twitter. It’s like PressThink for the live web.
“This just in—from 1986.” Bob Somerby at the Daily Howler didn’t think much of my post. Old news, overly jargonized, not very illuminating, he says.
In the comments: the return of lefty blogging legend Billmon, who is posting at Daily Kos again…
The established media—particularly the Washington-based political media—are not passive agents here. They have an overt bias for consensus and against “deviancy”, which means they want the doughnut hole to be as big as possible and they want to exclude as much “deviancy” as possible from admission to the sphere of “legitimate” debate.
The result is that the doughnut itself keeps getting thinner. Issues, particularly big issues, tend to migrate inward, into the sphere of conventional wisdom (the intelligence proves there are WMDs in Iraq; financial deregulation promotes economic growth; the Social Security system is going bankrupt) while alternative—or even worse, radical—points of view, which might enliven the sphere of “legitimate” debate are consistently excluded.
Who is Billmon? I met him once. Cool guy.
Investigative reporter John McQuaid says at his blog that “it’s good to have a million voices calling BS on big media’s persistent, strange, Reagan-era take on American politics.”
Obviously, you can’t turn back the clock. You can’t leverage authority that no longer exists. A new configuration of old/new media is still taking shape. So: will a vastly more diverse but also more diffuse media ecosystem still have the ability (via individual media outlet, or via a swarm) to bring pressure to bear on the upper levels of government?
Atrios—who has a speaking part in this post—reacts at Eschaton. “I think the most fascinating thing is how willfully blind many journalists are about this stuff. I don’t know if they really can’t see it, or if it’s in their interest to pretend not to see it.”
Longtime PressThink reader Tim Schmoyer collected some good pointers to writers and scholars who define the news media as a political institution, as I do. Many of the problems discussed in this piece and the podcast with Glenn Greenwald originate in the professional journalist’s felt need to deny this basic observation. That’s why it’s an important observation.
The controls have been loosened, says Jane Hamsher at Firedoglake:
I’m heartened by Bob Fertik’s efforts and the transparency of the Obama administration that allowed 70,000 people to show up and demand a Special Prosecutor on the change.gov site. It’s the kind of “critical mass” event that defies the ability of a few people to limit the sphere of debate as easily as they have in the past, and shifts the power of defining “consensus” even if slightly in favor people willing to connect and speak up.
“Warning: This post has nothing to do with beer.” Brookston Beer Bulletin out of San Francisco picks up on this post; tells suds-seeking readers he’s going off topic. The presentation is cleaner than my own.
“I think you nailed it in your explanation of the spheres,” says Daniel Weintraub, political reporter and columnist for the Sacramento Bee. “But when you use the Iraq war run-up as an example where the press supposedly defined opposition as outside the sphere of legitimate debate, you contribute to what I think is a flawed conventional wisdom.” Read the rest.
The discussion of this post at Metafilter is amusing, at times enlightening and at times a lot of jeering.
Over at Daily Kos, Markos Moulitsas—Kos—says that “another word for the ‘sphere of consensus’ is ‘conventional wisdom,’ which plays an important role in my last book, Taking on the System. The person who controls the CW controls the terms of the debate. Modern activism is in large part a battle to capture that CW.”
Some people think the right model for that battle is The Overton Window. Typically, they mention it.
In The Refs (Jan. 24) Digby says the problem with political journalists is “their own lack of self-awareness and inability to either see or fight the pressures to conform.”
An example of a view confined to the sphere of deviance that might have helped the press over the last seven years is my own opinion (shared with a few) that President George W. Bush was a radical, not a conservative or traditional Republican. The press never took it seriously; in my view, that was a bad decision— if we can call it that.
The analysis in the last three paragraphs of this post tracks with what Peter Daou wrote in The Revolution of the Online Commentariat: Daou worked in Hillary Clinton’s Internet operation during the 2008 campaign.
Ideas and opinions flow from the ground up, insights and inferences, speculation and extrapolation are put forth, then looped and re-looped on a previously unimaginable scale, conventional wisdom created in hours and minutes. This wasn’t the case during the last presidential election — the venues and the voices populating them hadn’t reached critical mass. They have now.
Other reactions of note:
- Rumproast, a blog new to me, extends the analysis here to an urgent matter. Investigating Bush is a Must! <> Deviant opinion or sphere of legitimate debate?
Click here to return to the top of After Matter.
Posted by Jay Rosen at January 12, 2009 12:02 AM
"Journalism" professionals STILL can not Identify their competition.
If you have an automotive engineer who writes an insightful three page description of an engine his team is developing every three years, that used to not be a problem. Even though it was just as well written as someone with a journalism or English degree might write.
It was one article every three years that only the man's friends were likely to see. If they shared it, well a few xerox copies mailed around still don't reach that many people even if it pyramids out seven times and by the time the last group gets it it will be a month later if they were being mailed.
Fast foreword to now.
There are thousands of engineers. Every 1095 of them writing once every three years equal one story a day. Written, generally, for free. As in costs no money. As in they are writing for their own vanity.
And on the web, writing in interest forums, or having those forums available as a place their friends might send the article - it will be seen.
Extend this out to other interests, because it carries over across the board.
Journalists keep looking at the picture trying to figure out how content producers are going to be paid in the new media.
The stopper is that they have to compete with people who write about any given subject as well or better than they possibly can WHO DON'T EXPECT TO BE PAID.
When the internet arrived and provided a means for people to disseminate their writings, this became inevitable. I saw it, Drudge saw it, hundreds and hundreds of people saw and have been discussing it for over a decade.
The dinosaur media is late to the party.
Long meandering monologues are good for showboating your vocabulary, but they fail to change reality.
Jay's doughnut analogy accurately describes the mechanics of how consensus is manufactured, but I don't think it really captures the intentionality in the process.
The established media -- particularly the Washington-based political media -- are not passive agents here. They have an overt bias for consensus and against "deviancy", which means they want the doughnut hole to be as big as possible and they want to exclude as much "deviancy" as possible from admission to the sphere of "legitimate" debate.
The result is that the doughnut itself keeps getting thinner. Issues, particularly big issues, tend to migrate inward, into the sphere of conventional wisdom (the intelligence proves there are WMDs in Iraq; financial deregulation promotes economic growth; the Social Security system is going bankrupt) while alternative -- or even worse, radical -- points of view, which might enliven the sphere of "legitimate" debate are consistently excluded.
But the gatekeepers are hardly value neutral. As Jay notes, they largely reflect the biases of their sources -- but they also tend to share those same biases, the common denominator of which is the need to preserve the power and privilege of the status quo, of which the gatekeepers are themselves a part, and not a trivial one.
Even the exceptions to the rule tend to prove the larger point. Based solely on the evidence, for example, the issue of global climate change should have long since migrated inward to the sphere of consensus. But the establishment media, by and large, stubbornly preserves the fiction that there is a legitimate scientific debate -- much as an earlier generation of journalists (their salaries partially funded by the Marborough Man) helped drag out the "debate" over the health hazards of smoking.
It's hard to overlook the pattern here: Issues or ideas that pose a threat to powerful interest groups (sometimes based on voting power, as in Jay's example of David Brody being admitted to the Meet the Press charmed circle, but more often based on financial or bureacratic power) get treated one way by the gatekeepers; issues or ideas that benefit those same groups are handled another way.
I know it sounds shrill, but instead of a doughnut I'm sort of reminded of Hannah Arendt's totalitarian onion, in which each layer shields the one underneath from contact with external reality, creating a perfectly self-contained pseudoreality in which the party (and/or The Leader) can always be right.
Fortunately, we don't live in a totalitarian society, so there are inherent limits on the gatekeepers' ability to follow their own biases to such extreme ends (one of those limits, thank God, being the rise of interconnected media). Still, Big Media had its dysfunctional way in the public forum for many years, the result being that we now find ourselves and our democracy (such as it is) in a pretty big hole.
Tim: Yes, first graphic ever. Thanks to Terry Heaton.
Ryan Sholin, way back in the thread. The process by which things move from the sphere of deviance into "legitimate debate" is murky, half-conscious, inconsistent. I'm not sure the example you cited (Huffington as candidate, Huffington today) helps much because the marginality of a candidate for office is directly related to the political journalist's estimate that she can win. Deviant ideas that are at 45 percent in the polls would get covered.
I don't think its Goodman's presentation that keeps her off Meet the Press; fundamentally, it's what she would say, and the light it would cast backward on the press narrative that defined her narrative as "deviant."
Billmon: welcome back to PressThink, and thanks for those observations. When you talk to science journalists, they would tell you that a.) they fought this battle; b.) they were losing at first to the hunger for narrative innocence--a major factor I didn't discuss here, aka the balance bias--which expressed itself as "...but skeptics say," then c.) they fought this to a draw and d.) more recently they feel they are winning and a "consensus on climate" is finally being brought home as a kind of newsy insistence. Here's a piece that gets at some of it, from CJR. Of course, not all would agree.
However, I think you chose an excellent example for further unfolding the analysis I present here.
Atrios linked to this post with this: Consensus and Deviancy
Jay Rosen discusses the conventional wisdom generation and status quo perpetuation machine that is our elite political-media industrial complex.
I think the most fascinating thing is how willfully blind many journalists are about this stuff. I don't know if they really can't see it, or if it's in their interest to pretend to not to see it. Either way.
I don't know about that.
But I think the people who do know and can explain it are ex-reporters who have withdrawn from the culture of daily newswork and retain affection for journalism. But they have no stake in the perpetuation of certain fictions that seem, when you're in the middle of it, to be really important ground to "hold." That's my guess. They know.
Dan Weintraub, who commented here, might know more. He covers politics in Sacramento.
Daniel Weintraub nails it. The notion that the press was some single-minded beast pushing for the Iraq War, or even simply "allowing" it to happen with little complaint, is a deeply flawed piece of conventional wisdom. It's so wildly offbase, it's gotten to the point of being bizarre. It's almost as if people became so embarrassed by the war, they needed to create a culprit. And hence "the complicit press" was born.
Whitehall wrote: "Frankly, I no longer spend much on traditional journalism (no newspaper, no TV, few magazines) since the internet serves almost all my needs." This sort of proud proclamation never fails to amuse me. Good: The Internet serves your needs. But where do you think "the Internet" gets its news from?
Phogg wrote: "Fast foreword to now. There are thousands of engineers. Every 1095 of them writing once every three years equal one story a day. Written, generally, for free. As in costs no money. As in they are writing for their own vanity."
That's great. But I'm not interested enough in automobile engines -- nor properly equipped to digest all the technical details -- to seek out 1,095 three-page essays about them. I want someone else to do that, and cull the info that is likely relevant to me, and -- this is really important -- prioritize it against all the other gazillion pieces of information in the world, and present it to me in a digestible, standardized form.
I want it in context. A thousand essays floating around the web, part of an infinite array of stuff that exists in the world, is not context for me. I'm happy for someone else to do that heavy lifting. For years I paid 50 cents a day and endured some print ads to receive that effort; now, for the time being, I'm getting it for free, leeching off the remaining folks who still pay the 50 cents and endure the ads.
That's not going to last, though. I realize it's all on the verge of going away, because there are too many freeloaders like me at this point. But there's no way it's going away forever.
See, here's the thing: Debates like this, in threads like this, on sites like this, are themselves disproportionately one-sided. By definition, we're all Internet aficionados here. We're all information geeks. The idea of a world whose narrative is provided by the 1,095 auto-engine essays and the like isn't daunting to us. But it would be daunting to my mom. It would be daunting to my girlfriend. It would be daunting to my buddies. They're not like us. While they'd never even be able to express it like this, they want somebody collating all this stuff, helping them understand what's important, placing it all in context. They want a quick understanding of what other people understand about the world.
Whether that role is undertaken by the current crop of people we call "journalists," or by some new group of people doing basically the same thing, I'm pretty sure that when all is said and done, the market is going to make sure it exists. Because there is absolutely a demand for it, even if most folks can't actually articulate their desire for it.
Daniel Weintraub nails it. The notion that the press was some single-minded beast pushing for the Iraq War, or even simply "allowing" it to happen with little complaint, is a deeply flawed piece of conventional wisdom
I don't know where you are getting your conventional stuff, but you should try the hand made wisdom I'm trying to put down here. I said two things about war coverage.
1.) It was a huge failure not to examine critically enough Bush's case for war, and part of the reason was: they stamped "consensus" on it, in error.
At this point that is an uncontroversial opinion in journalism itself.
2.) "Mentally placing the war’s opponents in the sphere of deviance was another category error," I said, which contributed to the failures listed in 1.)
I didn't say the press pushed for war. I didn't say the press refused to cover demonstrations.
Here's my sense: Washington journalists thought the "serious people" (as Atrios calls 'em) did not have radical doubts and therefore there were no radical doubts necessary to have, if you were in the press. The people who had the radical doubts were the radicals, the dirty f*cking hippies, the sufficiently deviant group. This was the illusion. It was not true, but it held forth.
"Don't get too far out in front on this thing..." Do you remember those words? (Hint: Matt Cooper was on the other end of the phone.) The man who spoke them was speaking to a fear factor that's real in Washington: "too far out in front" means you're getting beyond the sphere of legitimate debate. Do you want to go there?
It's downright insidious.
The rest of your comment, Christopher M, I pretty much endorse. Thanks.
"The news media believe 'the system works.' ”
You believe the system should. I'm arguing it can't; not because of the Israel/Palestine debate but because your model of "cleaning up" is still a model of cleanliness. And cleanliness like humility, as Oscar Wilde would say, is false.
The point of my Gaza references was not the M.E. itself; I thought my references to trade-craft made that clear. My point is this, I'll say it again and I'm out:
There is no such thing as objectivity. There is only engaged intelligence. We all owe a debt of gratitude to Rupert Murdoch for returning vulgarity to the news business. His vulgar advocacy journalism spawned serious intelligent advocacy journalism, honest about its biases. I don't even like TPM, but I take it more seriously than most newspapers.
And don't forget who gave us the Simpsons.
Your response to me bringing up the Middle East was tellingly passive, and it's the passivity that's the problem. I'd have been happier if you'd started screaming like an enraged Likudnik. I would known what you believed and where you stood and I would have been able to judge for myself and engage you. As it is I know nothing about your response to the biggest news of the new year. But considering your silence and your vocal response to other issues I can guess.
I shouldn't have to guess at all.
I read my news on the web because I get it mostly from academics, scholars and activists, in the US, Europe, and the Middle East who are experts in the fields that journalists pretend to know about, and are fluent in the languages that journalists pretend to read. I read historians before I read theoreticians of the present [cf."Media Studies"]. I read Reidar Visser before and after I read any journalist on Iraq. I read the webpages of people who would otherwise be publishing op-eds, in other countries if not this one. They're the ones who filter the news for me, more than reporters do. And I don't read legal reporters when I can read lawyers.
Journalists are grunts. They shouldn't stop trying to be intellectuals, but they should stop assuming that's what they are.
Intellectuals are always biased, it's their job.
It's my lawyer's job to be biased. I'd fire him if he weren't. Why would I ever trust someone who claimed to be objective about the most intellectually and emotionally complex issues of the day?
Atrios' silence on Gaza is strategic. He's trying to stay out of trouble with his audience. That's not "reality based" journalism, that's the realism of a political operative. Accept it for what it is.
There are two kinds of corruption in any social network: the corruption of idiots who support each other out of friendship, who back each other up and help each other up the ladder; and the corruption of intelligent and imaginative people with curious minds who support each other out of friendship, back each other up, and help each other up the ladder.
You can't get rid of corruption, but you can try to minimize stupidity. Honesty's a good start.
Daniel C. Hallin responds to my post and to some of what he read in the comments:
Jay did a great job explaining my argument about the three spheres, and it's great to see so much response. There's so much of it that I can't respond carfully to very much of it. But here are a few thoughts about the central question of how the internet affects the process by which the boundaries of legitimate controversy are set. It's probably true that this process is more de-centered now than it once was. In the period I was writing about, the 60s and 70s, a small number of elite news organizations, taking their cues mainly from political elites in Washington, defined these boundaries at the national level. The process has been de-centered, to a significant degree, not just by the internet, but by the rise of talk radio, cable television and various forms of "infotainment," from television talk shows to The Daily Show and the like. (More on this in my article "The Passing of the 'High Modernism' of American Journalism Reconsidered".)
These media differ from the old ones in several ways--they reach smaller, "niche" audiences, they are often more market-driven, and they are sometimes more interactive. This probably does make it harder for elites, both inside and outside the "mainstream media" to control the process of political communication--though I woudn't go too far with that argument. The process we saw with public opinion on the war in Iraq looked awfully similar to me to the process I had written about in the case of Vietnam!
I think it's really valuable that people have the ability to exchange ideas directly with one another on the internet, and among other things to use the internet as a forum for media criticism. But I'm niether a "cyber-utopian" nor a populist, so I do want to caution against an overly-simple view that the internet means democracy. Partly what has happened with the decentering of communication is that the public has segmented by politics and life-style. So you have different sets of spheres, in a sense, for different audience segments: Fox has one and MSNBC has one, and similarly, though of course more loosely with different segments of the blogphere. It's possible that in this process many people are exposed to less diversity of opinion than they would have been in an earlier era. A large part of the public is not actively engaged with on-line political discussion, and as the evening news has declined and newspapers have shrunk, they may know less about what's going on in the world of politics.
Many of those who posted seem to believe that what is on the internet is closer to "real public opinion" than what is in the mainstream media, but I'm not sure we really know this. Some of the posts seem based on the assumption that "the people" are always wise, but I would question this, and also point to Alexis deToqueville's old observation that the greatest barrier to real freedom of thought in America is often not top-down control but public opinion itself. Certainly if you look at what happened with the media and Iraq, there is good reason to criticize the journalists' lack of imagination and their cowardice in ignoring critical views. But one of the most powerful forces enforcing the boundaries was their--or their bosses'--fear of public opinion. In fact I think the internet has the potential to be used by partisan actors to intimidate journalists who might stray out of the bounds of legitimate controversy.
This brings me to one final thought. A lot of the posts are pretty hostile to journalists. I understand this of course, since my own work is often a critique of journalism. But--and I'd be curious to hear what Jay has to say about this--I think journalists often play an important role as an independent source of information, and in many ways I'd like to see them playing a stronger role, not a weaker one, in shaping the public sphere. I'd like to see them play that role in a more independent and thoughtful way than they often do, but I would not like to see them vanish from the political scene--which to some extent is actually happening as media companies cut newsroom budgets.
I worry that the rhetoric about how terrible journalists are actually plays into the hands of other powers, partisan, corporate, and government powers-- who would love to marginalize journalists as much as they could. We should remember that populist rhetoric about "the media elite" and how they don't represent "the people" really goes back to Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew, and it was intended as a means by which they could intimidate and control the media. It's a bit like the populist rhetoric that portrays government as always corrupt, inefficient, oppressive. This rhetoric is presented as a dissenting, grass-roots resistance to those in power. But really it has been part of the dominant ideology, well-entrenched in the sphere of consensus for almost 30 years, and in many ways it serves the interests of powerful groups.
Thanks very much, Dan. I agree that the role of the independent press needs to be strengthened, and I do not look forward in the least to any withering away of that capacity. The reasons why it might are multiple and interactive with another. Right now the attention is focused on a collapsing business model, but there's also the problem of collapsing trust and declining authority.
I think a strong, independent press can be undermined by thoughtless press bashing, phony populism and culture war excess. Definitely. I also think a strong independent press is undermined when the professionals in it fail to recognize that there's a politics to what they do, which can go wrong, fall out of alignment, or even implode, failing the country.
I look forward to what others have to say.
Here's another good example of "treetops propaganda" relevant to this story. Greg Mitchell did an analysis of a widely reported story purporting that the small donor, who had such an impact in Obama's election, was a "myth." This was an important message for certain parties to make into conventional wisdom, because the small internet-enabled donor really changes the game:
The Campaign Finance Institute (CFI) study disclosing that Barack Obama actually raised most of his campaign money from "larger" not "small" donors has gained wide, approving, coverage in recent days, from USA Today to the New York Times and Los Angeles Times and countless web sites, even making Huffington Post at least twice, including as a top link. Inevitably the headlines refer to the "myth" of Obama riding a wave of small donations to victory. That study's author himself uses it.
But the "myth" is actually in the spinning of the report, including by its author, Michael Malbin, a former speechwriter for Dick Cheney, when he was Pentagon chief, and a resident fellow at The American Enterprise Institute from 1977 to 1986.
As usual in these cases, it's not that the numbers are wrong, it's the analysis and how the interpretation is being played by the media. Because, buried in the report, are all the figures and arguments for showing that the CFI's "myth" is actually a myth.
Let us count the ways...
1. Did many in the media actually allege that most of Obama's total funding was coming from small donors -- or just that he was being helped along significantly by them and that the number of new and smaller donors was unprecedented? All of that, in fact, is true, based on the study. In fact, even accepting the CFI's tight definition of "small," these people donated more than half of what McCain was able to raise in total...
I'd encourage you to read the rest of what Greg Mitchell is saying. But suffice it to say the statistics were skewed in some clear ways to suggest the conclusion that Michael Malbin wanted, when a common sense interpretation would say just the opposite.
So why are they worried enough to promulgate this kind of misleading story? Just why are they telling this bedtime story to the beltway press and others? It's because small donors are a gamechanger. This is Peter Daou, an Internet strategist for Hillary Clinton:
The pyramid of Internet political functions consists of message (communications), money (fundraising) and mobilization. Atop that pyramid sits communications. Message drives money and triggers mobilization. Devoid of a compelling message to spur their use, the most advanced web tools will lie fallow. The impetus to use technology is always external to the technology; the impulse to connect and contribute begins with the inspiration to do so and the inspiration derives from the message.
Notwithstanding that hierarchy, the wave of Internet acclamation in the aftermath of the 2008 election has been focused primarily on mobilization and money, on networking tools and techniques, their effect on governance, and on the medium's capacity to generate eye-popping revenue. Less noted is the impact of the ever-growing online commentariat whose pointed opinions shape our worldview and whose influence on the 2008 election was nothing short of decretive...
It's hard to know how many members of the online commentariat participated in other political activities this cycle, how many formed or joined networks, canvassed, phone-banked, organized and donated using the web. It stands to reason that many did. But while the latter activities are justly heralded as evidence of a political/technological coming of age, the true revolution goes largely unmentioned, namely, that the sheer magnitude of publicly expressed opinions is changing the way we see the world - and as such, changing the world itself.
For the first time, we are thinking aloud unfettered and unfiltered by mass media gatekeepers. Events, information, words and deeds that a decade ago were discussed and contextualized statically in print or through the controlled funnel of television and radio, are now subjected to instantaneous interpretation...
How does this affect the triangle of media, political establishment, and online community? For the press and punditry, an important reversal: their agenda-setting role is eroded and they are now compelled to partner with the online commentariat for validation and legitimation. For the political establishment, the standard methodology - where strategists and pollsters conjure and test messages to be disseminated by media teams and press shops through traditional channels - is inadequate. Politicians and public officials must now contend with higher levels of risk and uncertainty that confound traditional communications strategies. They must posses the awareness and agility to navigate a churning ocean of opinion where every word, every press release, every policy paper, every speech, every document, every surrogate remark is recorded, magnified and repurposed by the online community. Image making and message crafting, enduring political arts once the back-room purview of a select few, are now in the public domain.