Via Atrios, Jay Rosen has an interesting piece about how elite media determine what constitutes the “the sphere of legitimate debate”, how they do so while pretending they don’t, and how blogs and other new media are beginning to undermine elite media’s ability to make this determination unilaterally.
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.)
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.[….]
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.
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.
Now, the problem here, for me at least, is not that the media is completely undemocratic. There are plenty of undemocratic institutions which seem to function well (the military is one example, universities are another). Nor is the problem that the elite media tends to focus on superficial, personal issues the public professes little interest in. The public also claims to be interested in making informed decisions about the products it buys, yet is influenced by catchy advertising campaigns.
The problem is that our current, elite-dominated media system produces bad outcomes. Most Villagers believe that the Bush presidency has been a complete failure (Broder has said this explicitly, though I can’t find a link right now). Many would even agree that the three interrelated disasters of the Iraq War, the destruction of federal bureaucracy by Bush (which encompasses the FEMA fiascoes, the politicization of the DoJ, etc.), and the financial crisis are unprecedented in modern American history.
Yet, there can be little doubt that their lack of interest in questioning pre-war propaganda, bureaucratic shennanigans, and the Bush fiscal policy contributed to these remarkable failures. And, looking back on the 2000 election — given that Bush was clearly a mediocrity and that the country was happy with the general state of the sate under Clinton — its clear that the nation “chose” Bush because they’d rather have a beer with him or some such. And only a fool would deny that the media’s anti-Gore, anti-Clinton jihad encouraged this attitude.
The trouble with our media elites isn’t that they’re arrogant, isolated, and disinterested in the public’s opinions. History is filled with arrogant successes. The trouble is that their particular brand of isolation produces such horrible effects. We should always remember that.