From a press scholar, a rousing vote for the journalist

New media thinker Jay Rosen has been using the work of press scholar Daniel C. Hallin to explain how the Internet has eroded journalists’ traditional power to define what issues are legitimate for proper debate. Hallin wrote that journalists tend to place public issues into three categories: a sphere of consensus, a sphere of legitimate controversy and a sphere of deviance. In a post on his blog, Press Think, Rosen argued that the press has done a lousy, unthinking job of deciding what goes into each category, and that through the Internet American citizens might assume this role for themselves.

But an interesting thing happened. Hallin wrote a long response for the blog, and made it clear he wasn’t exactly on the same page as Rosen. He said there’s plenty of reason to be skeptical that the Internet “is closer to ‘real public opinion’ than what is in the mainstream media.” Further, he said journalists 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.”

It’s a remarkable post, which I’m copying here:

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 carefully 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 wouldn’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 blog-o-sphere. 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.

And here is Jay Rosen’s response:

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.