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Explain The Concept Of The Public Sphere Media Essay

The public sphere is a concept which in the framework of today's society points to the issues of how and to what extent the mass media, particularly in their journalistic role, can help citizens learn in relation to the world, debate their responses to it and reach informed decisions regarding what courses of action to take on.

Some account of what we have come to call the public sphere has for all time existed as an addition to democratic theory. As the idea of democracy has evolved traditionally, so has the view of the desirability as well as feasibility of fora where the ruled can develop and articulate their political will to the rulers. And evidently the view among rulers and ruled has often been at likelihood. The development of mass-based democracy in the west corresponded historically with the appearance of the mass media as the leading institutions of the public sphere. As the political as well as cultural significance of traditional and localized arenas continue to retreat in the wake of social transformations as well as media developments, the idea of the public sphere moves to the fore and takes on a predominantly normative valence. It becomes a focal point of our yearning for the good society, the institutional sites where popular political will should take form and citizens should be able to comprise themselves as active agents in the political process. How well the public sphere functions becomes a concrete demonstration of society's democratic character and consequently in a sense the most instantly visible indicator of our admittedly flawed democracies (Hallin, Daniel C, 1994).

The notion of the public sphere can be used in a very general as well as common-sense manner, as, for instance, a synonym for the processes of public view or for the news media themselves. In its more ambitious appearance, however, as it was developed by Jürgen Habermas (1993), the public sphere ought to be understood as an analytic class, a conceptual device which, while pointing to a definite social occurrence can also help us in analyzing and researching the experience. For Habermas, the idea of the bourgeois public sphere indicates a specific social space, which arose under the development of capitalism in Western Europe. The transforming adjective is not an appellation but points rather to the particular historical circumstances as well as class character of the phenomenon. As an analytic category, the bourgeois public sphere comprises a vibrant nexus which links various actors, factors as well as contexts together in a consistent theoretic framework. It is this configurational quality, with its stress on institutional as well as discursive contingencies, which gives the idea its analytical power. Habermas's analysis incorporates, among other things, theoretical viewpoints on history, social structure, politics, media sociology, in addition to the nature of opinion, to give some sense of the notion's entwinement.

Why should anyone still believe in a role for journalism in the furtherance of democratic ideals? After all, several generations of irascible media theorists, from Horkheimer and Adorno to Herman and Chomsky, have insisted that the news is more likely the means to hegemonic power than democratic empowerment. And now a new generation of besotted media consumers seems to insist that the news ought to be, well, just less trouble. So why should we listen to a philosopher, even one so distinguished as Richard Rorty, who still believes in a democratic role for journalism— at least, why should we listen in any frame of mind other than one of ironic knowingness about the fate of philosophy in the real world? (Hall, 1982)

“I think that contemporary liberal society already contains the institutions for its own improvement,” Rorty wrote in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. “Indeed, my hunch is that Western social and political thought may have had the last conceptual revolution it needs.” For Rorty the proper task of government now is “optimizing the balance between leaving people's private lives alone and preventing suffering” while “discoveries about who is being made to suffer can be left to the workings of a free press, free universities, and enlightened public opinion.”

Why, moreover, shouldn't we dismiss in an especially derisive tone of ironic knowingness any such vision of intellectual history at its end? Rorty, it turns out, has anticipated and subverted our irony with irony of his own. Indeed, he has claimed for himself the role of ultimate ironist. An ultimate ironist, according to Rorty, knows that even if liberal democracy has had the last conceptual revolution it needs, it has not had the last revolution possible. That is because a world in which democracy is fully realized is a world constituted and maintained by a particular language—a language that enables its citizens to articulate their loathing of injustice as well as their love of liberty. The ultimate ironist also knows that such a world can never be entirely secure because its language is a contingent rather than necessary development in human history. Anything, including both suffering and freedom, can be “made to look good or bad, important or unimportant, useful or useless, by being redescribed.” 3 Thus the ultimate ironist lives with the terrible realization that, whenever language hostile to justice or liberty is spoken by the adversaries of democratic values, no ultimate philosophical weapon—no knowledge of what is fundamentally real and no vision of what is truly human—is available to the defenders of democratic values. The defenders can only exercise, and strive to enhance, the descriptive and persuasive powers of their moral language (Glasser, 1998).

Rorty's position on the constitutive yet contingent character of language coincides with the position taken by sophisticated observers of that peculiar language game known as journalism. News, as James Carey wrote, “sizes up situations, names their elements and names them in a way that contains an attitude toward them” and thereby “brings a world into existence.” To insist on this position, however, is not to argue that the concept of truth has no meaning in journalism and beyond.

Listening to lots of different people is essential for Rorty because that is what we must do—and all we can do—to try to build good lives together. No philosophical foundations, no insights into what is eternally true, can secure the democratic community. We can only enlarge and strengthen our sense of solidarity, one with another, as we listen to lots of different people tell their stories. These stories do not reveal some essential bond between us all but simply make us more reluctant to inflict suffering on one another. For this reason telling the stories of those who suffer pain or injustice is especially important. “The liberal novelist, poet, or journalist is good at that,” Rorty concluded. “The liberal theorist is not.”

This vision of a role for journalism in ongoing discussions about what is true and good provides a point of departure for a study of the language by which journalism brings a world into existence. Specifically, our concern is the vocabulary used by journalism when, in the form of investigative reporting, it earnestly tries to enact the role that Rorty assigned: telling stories about people who suffer injustice and the villains who work that injustice. The language of this storytelling terms drawn from the law as well as ethical codes, professional standards, and expert judgments. Such terms for the description of misconduct transform moral claims into claims that seem to be entirely empirical and allow journalists to maintain their pretense of dealing in facts but not values. Often, however, such technical terms as illegal, unethical, or unprofessional seem insufficient to engage the public's interest in the misconduct that has been uncovered. Then journalists may turn to a rhetoric of irony that reveals the misconduct to be not only technically wrong but terribly wrong—a true moral outrage. The great value of irony to journalism is that it can moralize without appearing to sermonize. It allows investigative reporters to elevate the illegal, the unethical, and even the merely improper to the outrageous and yet retain the formal features of objective reporting. “The rhetoric of irony,” as Thomas Rosteck argued of Edward R. Murrow's See It Now report on Senator Joseph McCarthy, “saturates the objective discourse of journalism with meanings, while, at the same time, it disguises this connection.” But more than that, irony does not merely operate within the constraints imposed by the conventions of journalistic objectivity; it transfigures those conventions into a moralistic vocabulary for condemnation of the villains to whom we have foolishly entrusted our public affairs.

For journalists who must honor objectivity yet evoke outrage, ironist rhetoric holds great stylistic appeal, but as the ultimate ironist understood, such rhetoric also holds moral peril. Although Rorty was able to come to personal terms with what he took to be the ultimate irony—the need to construct a life with meaning and values but without philosophically certain foundations—he worried about the ability of society as a whole do so. “I cannot go on to claim that there could or ought to be cul ture whose public rhetoric is ironist,” he wrote. “I cannot imagine a culture which socializes its youth in such a way as to make them continually dubious about their own process of socialization.” (Glasser, & Ettema, 1993) Private life is the proper domain of ironist rhetoric, Rorty concluded, for there it can remind all of us that we could be other than what we are and so motivate each of us to enrich the “final vocabulary” that constitutes the individual self. Public life, on the other hand, must be protected from the potential of ironist rhetoric to degenerate into a vocabulary of morally corrosive cynicism.

Any public discussion about what is true or good is subject to irony's simultaneous appeal and peril. Irony's great appeal to historians, for example, is that “characterizations of the world cast in the Ironic mode are often regarded as intrinsically sophisticated and realistic,” according to historiographer Hayden White. 9 Such characterizations are so regarded because they acknowledge the constitutive and contingent character of language. “Irony thus represents a stage of consciousness in which the problematical nature of language itself has become recognized,” White argued. “It points to the potential foolishness of all linguistic characterizations of reality as much as to the absurdity of the beliefs it parodies”. But therein lies irony's peril for historians.

Even as irony promises to be a mode of thought that is genuinely enlightened, it casts doubt on any effort to capture the truth of things in language. “As the basis of a world view,” White concluded, “irony tends to dissolve all belief in the possibility of positive political actions … and to inspire a Mandarin-like disdain for those seeking to grasp the nature of social reality in either science or art”. A compelling example is Edward Gibbon who, in his account of Rome's decline and fall, produced “the greatest achievement of sustained Irony in the history of historical literature,” by White's estimation, but who eventually succumbed to “debilitating skepticism about reason itself”. Although historians seem to be the sort of ultimate ironist-intellectuals envisioned by Rorty, they do not necessarily escape irony's threat to their public discourse— nor perhaps even to their own final vocabularies.

Far from ultimate ironists, investigative reporters are probably best described as earnestly moralistic ironists. They may use irony to parody the villain's self-serving characterizations of reality but never to call into question their journalistic characterizations of reality—which they take to be the really real. They use irony to lend an aura of sophistication and realism to their language even as it disguises the moral basis of their entire language game. For these journalists irony seems to threaten neither their final vocabularies with debilitating skepticism nor their public discourse with corrosive cynicism. To disregard peril, however, is not to escape it, and—as we will argue—irony's simultaneous appeal and peril persist in journalists' attempts to contribute to public discussions about what is true and good (Anderson, Dardene, & Killenberg, 1994).

A common strategy of investigative journalism is to hoist public officials on the petard of their own words, but hypocrisy alone is not ironic. Barlett and Steele's story, however, is about much more than mere hypocrisy. Their story is not simply that officials have misled the public, nor even that the revised tax code is unfair. Their story is that the “self-styled reformers” who promised to fix the tax code in fact have made it worse. “It is ironic when we meet what we set out to avoid,” as Muecke noted in his catalogue of ironies, “especially when the means we take to avoid something turns out to be the very means of bringing about what we sought to avoid.” The situation uncovered by Barlett and Steele is outrageous for exactly this reason: a promise of justice has yielded further injustice.

This juxtaposition of word and deed—the abridgment of hope for reform by the actions of the reformers—is a motif that the reporters used throughout the series to introduce the specific results of their investigation.

In these masterworks of investigative journalism, as in the literature of warfare, experience is emplotted and thereby given meaning by irony's fundamental story line: the dynamics of hope abridged. Unlike many wartime memoirs, however, this journalism does not intend to speak in the terms of a cosmic irony that would describe all hope as forever abridged. Rather, it intends to speak in the terms of particular irony that corrects naive expectations by revealing the true state of affairs. Moreover, it intends to speak in terms of stable irony that effectively undermines one position—the villain's—while unequivocally supporting another—the wised-up victim's. Irony can work as a corrective, however, only when writer and reader share a clearly articulated moral vocabulary. Journalistic irony, as a force for civic reform, depends on such key terms in the vocabulary of democratic ideals as fairness in public policy and honesty in public service.

(Ettema, & Glasser, 1994)

But even as Richard Rorty celebrated the historical success of the vocabulary of democratic ideals, other observers began to sense that this vocabulary had begun to lose its coherence and expressive power. With a certain Gallic flamboyance the French sociologist Jean Baudrillard captured a sense of decay in both public discourse and public purpose with the argument that, in an era of unrelenting “hyperinformation,” the public has fallen silent—in fact, disappeared—as a meaningful entity. The will for collective political action has been supplanted by “radical uncertainty as to our own desire, our own choice, our own opinion, our own will,” he wrote. Thus the public has collapsed into merely an aggregation of irritated and confused media consumers who, in response to their sense of uncertainty, “take their revenge by allowing themselves the theatrical representation of the political scene.”

Even as media audiences consume politics as theater, Baudrillard argued, they sabotage the efforts of politicians as well as journalists, pollsters, and social scientists to tell meaningful stories either to them or about them. “Where the whole population of analysts and expert observers believe that they capture [these audiencesThrough the theatrics of derision, reversal, and parody the audiences disappear into “those simulative devices which are designed to capture them,” and in doing so audiences come to realize “that they do not have to make a decision about themselves and the world; that they do not have to wish; that they do not have to know; that they do not have to desire.” (Baker, 1992)

Even if the public-as-audience has not yet fallen completely silent or entirely disappeared, many individuals in the audience are reduced to the inchoate mutterings recorded by Nina Eliasoph in her study of the styles adopted by ordinary citizens for presentation of their political self-image. Eliasoph identified a number of presentational modes and found them all to incorporate a note of derisive irony. The mode that she labeled “cynical chic,” for example, is a strategy for presentation of the self by which “speakers capitalize on ignorance and powerlessness, making them seem intentional.” The mode of cynical chic suggests that speakers “have not been fooled into wasting their time on something that they cannot influence, and cannot be held responsible for whatever happens.” Here is one of Eliasoph's examples of cynical chic-speak concerning public officials: “We hear them contradicting so much, we contradict ourselves, and that's just what they want: keep us confused and not really knowing what's happening,” said one such speaker concerning the Iran-Contra hearings. “Otherwise, they couldn't be doing the things they're doing.”

Perhaps Baudrillard's superheated prose is not necessary to explain why Eliasoph's respondents present themselves as they do; perhaps the more traditional terms of apathy or alienation or just plain fed up will suffice. 53 Nonetheless, in the encounter with these withered political personae we can hear the vocabulary of democratic ideals, with its terms of public virtue, giving way to the language of cynicism with terms that Baudrillard would readily recognize as those of “derision, reversal and parody.”

Are those the terms in which investigative reporting will be understood by more and more of its audience? If so, it's easy to imagine how the ironies of victimization and villainy could be reinterpreted—or, in Rorty's term, “redescribed”—to transform them from moral outrages to cynical jokes. The tenuous ironies of the city council story, for example, concocted as they are from a gold-filled desk set and a limousine ride to the ball park, can be easily redescribed as Baudrillardian parody. Indeed, these purported outrages are already only parodies of outrages—mere shenanigans. And these villains can easily be reversed, if not into heroes at least into mere rascals—guys about whom a cynical chic audience might even be, well, “googy.” (Barber, 1984)

The paradigmatic ironies of the tax reform story, on the other hand, constructed as they are from a more potent mix of official hypocrisy with taxpayer self-interest, seem more stable and thus less easily redescribed as parody. These outrages nonetheless could be reversed into the most deeply cynical of political jokes. The victims of these ironies are, of course, the taxpayers who are victimized, not only by the alleged unfairness of the tax code but also by the infuriatingly ironic joke that produced the code—or, rather, the victims are those confidently unaware taxpayers so naive as to believe that the process of “reform” really would produce a simple and fair tax code. Cynical chic taxpayers would not be so naive. They would already know that the promise of a simple and fair tax code is an ironic joke that is going to be on them. The object (that is to say, ultimate target) of these ironies is not merely a particular attempt at tax reform but the whole idea of reform. And to a cynical chic audience, moreover, the object is not merely the idea of reform but the very possibility of fair treatment at the hand of government—a possibility already widely in doubt.

The understated ironies of the mortgage lending story, coaxed as they are not only from the stories of victims and villains but from the weighty materials of federal regulations and bank lending records, also seem stable. We can imagine that these outrages might be redescribed as parody precisely because they have been so painstakingly constructed around suspects who are so very usual: big banksters cast in the role of sneering villains and downtrodden minorities in the role of sympathetic victims. A media savvy, cynical chic audience might, then, see through the transparently moralistic “simulative devices” designed to capture them. Possibly. However, the outrages against racial equality presented in “The Color of Money” depend the least heavily on the devices of irony. They are outrages made real to the audience not only in the stories of victims and villains but also in the quantitative documentation and systematic explanation of bias in lending. In this story, as compared to the others, irony seems least threatening to belief in the possibility of justice; yet in this story irony still amplifies indignation at the reality of injustice.

Precisely because it eludes the irony of irony-in-journalism more successfully than the others, “The Color of Money” directs our attention back to Rorty's warning about the line between irony and cynicism in public discourse. Dedman has walked a narrow line more sure-footedly than others, but his balance still seems precarious. Irony has been important in the moral vocabulary of investigative reporting because it adapts so handily to the constraints of objectivity, and it seems so sophisticated and realistic in its descriptions of the cruel world. Now, however, the morally earnest ironies of investigative journalism must compete with a variety of mass-mediated ironies that cultivate the mode of cynical chic: delusional rantings on drive-time radio, paranoid fantasies on prime-time television, smirking monologues on late-night television, snide political commentary in the next morning's paper, and glib assurances about the future in the company newsletter. How much longer will the audience try or care to distinguish investigative journalism's moral earnestness from— “Yeah, right!”—a cynical chic knowingness?

The ultimate ironist knows that the language of politics can change— and not necessarily for the better. The historian also knows. In a somber conclusion to a study of the origins of political reporting Thomas Leonard argued that, through stories about the decay of party politics, the muckrakers of the Progressive Era effectively eroded what had been taken to be the proper basis for political action. By turning the virtue of party loyalty into a vice, they undermined the rituals of political participation, leaving their readers disengaged and disaffected. “Overall political participation declined in America as this reporting gained strength,” Leonard concluded. “For all the new constituencies we may credit to the progressives, for all their skill in mobilizing protest, it remains true that this age of reform was an age of voter apathy.” So progressive journalism presents the irony of a more enlightened yet less active electorate. In Leonard's conclusion about the consequences of journalism in the Progressive Era—yet another argument about the irony of journalism—we find precedent for a melancholy irony of journalism in an era now emerging (Barber, 1984).

In the absence of a larger and more diverse vocabulary for describing right and wrong, journalism's moral descriptions now seem vulnerable to derisive redescription. The stable and particular irony that has been an essential feature of journalistic language threatens to destabilize and universalize—to go cosmic in a blaze of hyper-information—and thence to condense and harden into a cynicism that holds all hope forever abridged. When, at last, the ironies of victims and villains can generate no indignation but only derision, investigative journalism will have no vocabulary with which to discuss the true and the good or to express human solidarity. Then any possibility for a role in the defense of democratic values will be at an end.

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