Dropping Knowledge

by | Mar 25, 2008

Eric Alterman writing in The New Yorker looks at the tumult being felt in newsrooms around the nation. The historical context he provides is particularly illuminating.

The tensions between the leaders of the mainstream media and the challengers from the Web were presaged by one of the most instructive and heated intellectual debates of the American twentieth century.

Between 1920 and 1925, the young Walter Lippmann published three books investigating the theoretical relationship between democracy and the press, including “Public Opinion” (1922), which is credited with inspiring both the public-relations profession and the academic field of media studies. Lippmann identified a fundamental gap between what we naturally expect from democracy and what we know to be true about people. Democratic theory demands that citizens be knowledgeable about issues and familiar with the individuals put forward to lead them. And, while these assumptions may have been reasonable for the white, male, property-owning classes of James Franklin’s Colonial Boston, contemporary capitalist society had, in Lippmann’s view, grown too big and complex for crucial events to be mastered by the average citizen.

Journalism works well, Lippmann wrote, when “it can report the score of a game or a transatlantic flight, or the death of a monarch.” But where the situation is more complicated, “as for example, in the matter of the success of a policy, or the social conditions among a foreign people—that is to say, where the real answer is neither yes or no, but subtle, and a matter of balanced evidence,” journalism “causes no end of derangement, misunderstanding, and even misrepresentation.”

Lippmann likened the average American—or “outsider,” as he tellingly named him—to a “deaf spectator in the back row” at a sporting event: “He does not know what is happening, why it is happening, what ought to happen,” and “he lives in a world which he cannot see, does not understand and is unable to direct.” In a description that may strike a familiar chord with anyone who watches cable news or listens to talk radio today, Lippmann assumed a public that “is slow to be aroused and quickly diverted . . . and is interested only when events have been melodramatized as a conflict.” A committed élitist, Lippmann did not see why anyone should find these conclusions shocking. Average citizens are hardly expected to master particle physics or post-structuralism. Why should we expect them to understand the politics of Congress, much less that of the Middle East?

John Dewey took the populist point-of-view, arguing that Lippmann’s critique had merit, but that the solution could be found in education. The central concept of John Dewey’s view of education was that greater emphasis should be placed on the broadening of intellect and development of problem solving and critical thinking skills, rather than simply on the memorization of lessons.

What does Dewey vs. Lippmann have to do with the rapidly shifting mediascape today? The old guard, of which mainstream media institutions are part, is working to uphold the standards that have guided the news business for more than a century, all while inviting the customer into the so-called “conversation.” It’s a delicate balance, but one newspapers need to get right.

There’s so much focus on the vehicles–print vs. digital. But that’s not what any of this is about. What this is about is freeing media from authoritarian top-down control by a few key corporate bodies–something needed just as badly as well-considered, fact-checked journalism. Ultimately, it’s about more voices and more voices requires more work. Our informed citizens have more data to process than ever before. Thus, the need for the critical skills Dewey called for.