Audience atomization overcome: why the Internet weakens the authority of the press

by Jay Rosen, PressThink

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.”

article originally published at

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey