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.

Daniel C. Hallin's Spheres of Consensus, Controversy and Deviance

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 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?

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