Gains and (Huge) Losses

In age of internet, I worry that it is no longer possible to have a truly national conversation.

The ability of social media platforms to target recipients for advertising and other information based upon sophisticated analyses of individual preferences threatens the very existence of a genuinely public sphere in which a true First Amendment marketplace of ideas might operate. As one scholar of the media despairingly asked, “How can you cure the effects of ‘bad’ speech with more speech when you have no means to target the same audience that received the original message?”

We are clearly in uncharted waters.

As regular readers of this blog know, I teach a course in Media and Public Affairs. It used to be titled “Mass Media and Public Affairs;”  the name change reflects a change in the reality of our methods of communication: there’s no truly “mass” media anymore.

Subject-matter covered in the course has morphed along with the media it studies. When then-Dean of Journalism Jim Brown and I began team teaching it more than a decade ago, our goal was relatively simple–introduce Journalism students to policy formation (so they would better understand how coverage of government affects policy), and help public affairs students understand the difference between what journalists consider “news” and thus worthy of coverage, and garden-variety policy argumentation.

Over the years, the media environment has fragmented and dramatically changed, and so has the course. Today, it focuses on the role of media in a democratic society, beginning with the assumption that the ability of citizens to participate in the democratic process on the basis of informed decisions is heavily dependent upon the quality, factual accuracy, objectivity and completeness of the information available to them. We examine the responsibility of the “fourth estate” to the public it serves, and the role of media in the American political system.

We look at the legal and ethical constraints that should apply to a free press, the business pressures that affect reporting, the impact of technology and social media, the role of political pundits, the challenges of issue framing, the impact of American diversity on the profession of journalism and–with increasing urgency– how to assess the credibility of the innumerable “news” resources available to us.

We also consider the dramatic collapse of what has come to be called “legacy journalism,”  and the consequences of the current information environment for democratic and accountable governance.

Throughout the class, I keep coming back to that one core issue: how the incommensurate realities and filter bubbles we inhabit (thanks to both confirmation bias and the wildly different sources of information that are available to us) make it increasingly impossible to have a genuinely public discussion.

I think it was media historian Paul Starr who said that a public is different from an audience. An audience is fine for entertainment; a democratic polity, however, requires a public, and I’m not sure we have one anymore.

There is so much that is wonderful about the Internet; the technology has made unlimited information immediately available to us. It has allowed in-depth explorations, introduced dramatically diverse people to each other, made the arts accessible, allowed the human imagination to soar. (It has also made shopping infinitely more convenient…)

On the other hand, it has destroyed the business model that sustained most local newspapers–a grievous loss for multiple reasons, including the way that loss has influenced trust in media generally. As Michelle Goldberg recently wrote in the New York Times,

In general, people trust local papers more than the national media; when stories are about your immediate community, you can see they’re not fake news. Without a trusted news source, people are more vulnerable to the atmosphere of disinformation, cynicism and wild conspiracy theories in which fascism — and Trumpism — flourishes. Politico found that “Voters in so-called news deserts — places with minimal newspaper subscriptions, print or online,” voted for Trump in higher-than-expected numbers, even accounting for employment and education.

We live in a world of Kardashians and clickbait, Infowars and propagandists, cute kittens and adorable babies and weird cookie recipes–a world of inadequate coverage of local governments and overwhelmingly partisan coverages of national issues. In that world we inhabit, the American public has devolved into a variety of audiences–and lost most of the common ground necessary to exist as a public.

No wonder we’re polarized.


  1. Trump brought out so much division, hatred and ugliness in this country. He gave permission to his supporters to spew hatred and bigotry. Those of us who are against bigotry and racism fought back. There has been so much damage done between friends and within families that it may never be repaired.

  2. Those who have for years been daily newspaper readers are aware of the difference between a “reporter” and a “journalist” and easily recognize the “paparazzi” as the bastard child of all media reporting.

    The as yet fully unresolved news issue between Jim Acosta of CNN and our Chief Fool In Charge is an excellent example of an attempt to silence the media by turning it into a personal issue (on Trump’s side only) and a journalist asking a question which still needs to be answered.

    “I think it was media historian Paul Starr who said that a public is different from an audience. An audience is fine for entertainment; a democratic polity, however, requires a public, and I’m not sure we have one anymore.”

    Trump’s supporters are easily recognized as an “audience”; we do still have a “public”; probably in lesser numbers due to the inundation of 24/7 reports feeding the frenzy of Trump’s “audience”. Money, sex and blood have always drawn a larger “audience” by those who ignore actual news. Are we becoming immune to being appalled by the daily killings? Three more killed yesterday at a Chicago hospital including a doctor, a pharmaceutical assistant and a Chicago police officer; news still reporting Trump’s sure-cure for California wild fires by raking our forests. Now, we are being inundated with Ivanka Trump’s (notice she is more often referred to as “Trump” than her married name Kushner) personal E-mail usage for White House business which has reawakened Trump’s repeated Hillary accusations and those still screaming “Lock her up!” Where are those immigrant children who were taken from their parents, what is the status of Social Security and Medicaid/Medicare at this time, what are North Korea, Iran and Russia up to and how deeply is Trump involved in all of it? We will never have the truth about the where, how, why or who regarding the killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

    “In age of internet, I worry that it is no longer possible to have a truly national conversation.”

    We can also say that it is no longer possible to have a truly RATIONAL conversation.

    “No wonder we’re polarized.”

  3. I strongly disagree with Michelle’s assessment of trusting the local news. One of the reasons I jumped into the media industry was because of our local Gannett owned newspaper and it’s extremely poor coverage of local news.

    It consists of resource bias (lack of coverage) and intellectual bias (the stories are as only as good as the reporters on the ground). When revenues start declining, the media is negatively impacted because they cannot provide sufficient coverage and the better reporters tend to flock toward larger markets where they can get paid more.

    Who fills in the gaps?

    My vision is the people/public become citizen journalists. I got a kick out of parents who would complain that there was NO coverage of Bobby’s and Kim’s sports. I would go to the events and all the parents in the crowd had smartphones and were on them during the event.

    Harvard was working on a similar project in MA and they discovered the same future. Not only are we consumers of media, but producers as well. This is what we’re seeing in social media. Individuals, through sharing what they find interesting, are now producing media for other consumers.

    When I shared my vision, the Chamber saw the vision but was scared of the democratic prospects. Do you know how much it costs to set up a smartphone in a government meeting or basketball game connected to a Facebook page?

    Almost nothing.

    However, what I didn’t rely on as the main obstacle are those who want to control the production of media because of the existing business/profit model. Markets are restricted/protected. Why don’t you see a more successful newspaper in Ft. Wayne expand into ECI?

    This is where Noam Chomsky’s media filters come into play.

    We the people have more power at our fingertips then we even know but we’re not being taught how to use to OUR advantage because the markets are controlled. What is it today, 85% of all media is owned by five companies?

    Do you think these five media companies want to teach us how to replace them? LOL

    The technology is already there. When I would pitch folks about this idea, I could literally watch their minds expanding but then their wallets got scared.

    This is why Twitter is more advanced than Facebook for news consumers because producers and consumers are the same most of the time. It’s like a global consciousness or classroom. Every day I learn something new which expands my level of consciousness or adds to my knowledge.

    Technology or progress replaces the old models but those people/institutions who rely on the old models resist change for a variety of reasons.

    One of the major reasons I discovered in my small little market is CONTROL. So I pose this question, who is scared of the people becoming more democratized? Both political sides of the aisle want us to vote but why isn’t there mandatory voting? Why don’t we have more than two political parties? Does anybody believe that all our beliefs are served by two political parties?

    Once you start answering those questions, you’ll understand just how rigged our economy/society really is in this country. You’ll also understand how oppressed we are and why populism has exploded outside the two parties.

    Don’t you think there are old Republican conservatives who wish their party would split up and let the racists go off on their own? All of these old guards wish it could happen so why didn’t those in power break up the two parties into say five parties? 😉

    Have a great morning!

  4. Thank you Sheila for a very thought provoking piece. But we have been in uncharted waters for a long, long time and right now we’re bumping up against the Sargasso Sea, the most uncharted waters of all. We are overwhelmed across the board in virtually every facet of American life today made even more so through the intervention of aggressive attacks by foreign powers into the substance of our daily conversations and the information and we need to make intelligent incredible decisions regarding this country both now and for the future. A lot of this is going on where we are basically oblivious to it and are having to think in ways that we’re not accustomed to as a nation to protect the clarity and the uniqueness of what this country is and is all about.

    If, somehow, we can reestablish a modicum of civility and common ground in regard to our political discourse and once again think of this nation as one not two or three we have a good chance of recovering from the damage that we and others have inflicted upon this country of ours. I am an optimist and I remain an optimist although at times it is a grave struggle to remain so. Sometimes my education in all the various things that I ever read over the years regarding the rise and fall of other countries around the world gets in the way and also the thought that we are not immune from all the forces that lead to those outcomes and the growing and gnawing realization that we never were.

  5. Todd; “One of the reasons I jumped into the media industry was because of our local Gannett owned newspaper and it’s extremely poor coverage of local news.” “Who fills in the gaps?” Not you; you are a small town reporter, not a journalist and you are too biased to provide a “truly national conversation.”

    I would still like the answer to my question two days ago if Gannett is killing off daily newspaper subscribers in other cities as it is doing here in Indianapolis. Two months ago my monthly Indianapolis Star bill jumped from $37 monthly to $47 monthly; plus that month’s additional charges for unsolicited inserts, raising that bill to over $50. I only know OF one other person who still subscribes; a friend of a friend here on the blog. We are living in an SNL nation at this time and the rest of the world is watching and laughing. As difficult as it is to continue watching reports on MSNBC and CNN, it is vital to clench my teeth and keep tuning in; how else will we know what is being done to us by the current pseudo-Republican government? We get little if any national and international news on our local newscasts or in our one failing daily newspaper.

  6. Meanwhile, back at the ranch… er White House, the Liar in Chief uses Twitter to distract the media and the public from the immense damage he and his cronies are doing to our country. Our media could do us all a favor by not covering him, not interviewing him, and not mentioning his tweets. I am thanking God right now that at least a couple of his judicial appointees actually seem to be familiar with the law.

  7. In one of her essays, Ursula LeGuin distinguished between hearing and listening. Hearing involves passive reception. Listening involves evaluating what is presented to you.

    Modern technology, with its “streaming” characteristics, favors hearing, unfortunately.

  8. you know that jingle that Brad Paisley and Payton Manning do… then think of the Wayfarer ad… now tell me: is the media to inform? Or to program you to buy? – where is the freedom in that? slave…

  9. Pascal; in what might have been President Obama’s first public appearance on TV after he left the White House, he was working with a group of young students involved in a program he had initiated. One 18 year old young woman stated wisely, “There are two types of listening; listening to come up with your response and listening to learn.” I often have to struggle with that myself…lol

  10. Todd’s contribution today was a good one. I think we are in the process of transitioning into the Information Age and, as transitions between the old and the new (See Dickens and Marx in the transition to an Industrial Age) always involve friction between the old and the new, so it is now, with finger-pointing now (as then) to the culprits. I do not believe that more information via social media is in the long term bad; I do believe that educational curricula should emphasize more critical thinking and less MBA-ready coursework that computers can manage. I also (and this will be a radical thought for some) that it may be time to scrap a Constitution that by its political interpretation and reinterpretation gave us Dred Scott through Roe through Janus through Citizens United, adopt a new Constitution to suit the times (social, economic, political), adopt a parliamentary form of governance that is more responsive to solution of issues of the day etc.

    We are not helpless in the face of currently practiced greed, ignorance and rule by narrow interests, but we must persuade the voting public to vote for change to mirror those that are going on in other areas at breakneck pace, and quickly, if we are not to suffer the transitional disorder of the 19th century Europe of Dickens and Marx which led to our first Gilded Age. Government (collective action) is not manna falling down from heaven; it is an agreed means of doing things (or not) that are deemed to be in the public interest, and when the public interest is hijacked by special interests not representative of the common good, our task is clear. Win the next election, the one after that, the one after. . . .

  11. im going back here to late 70s early 80s there were wars being fought,and little was being said,afganistan,nicauagua. mainly, i was reading little stories from independant journalists,and its countries own journalists. time,newsweek,world news,and more hid them well,but it was obvious,there was news,and it wasnt being shown on t.v. i followed the drug culture,i lived in los angeles,and was able to score what was availble,like a seasonal fruit. pot was damn near non existant near end of 70s, except near harvest,why? because we had a influx of hashish,(from afganistan,duh)everywhere,cheap,and plentiful. (colt and rugar made some serious money here)as the war in central america heated up, (1979)then it was cocaine. (i dont do that,just not my wine) seems reagan didnt like communists,but our hands were tied in funding the contras. but,along comes the cartels,wth a plan,if they can unload the coke in panama,,(noriega) then head CIA!william casey will take the radar down for your plane to return to u.s. airspace,without notice,bring cash. yes it was a funnel of money for the contras,and the cartels were happy with it,due,the war also,hurt thier intrests too. (hey ollie remember when the money was given to those mercinaries who wanted to be paid?) anyway, the movie ,killing the messenger,was a real behind the scene journalist who bet it all,and lost. Gary Webb is a casuilty of big media. they killed him.. not with a gun,but with denial,(the la times,ny times and wa,post denied gary could have such a real story)and like a doctor,your record as a journalist,is like a doctors,one screw up,and your done.. (gary webb killed himself)todays journalists and news people,know who Gary is,and why he was his lifes work to have America know what the goverment will do to support a war,even importing coke,to supply the money to keep a war going.. no,diffrent than any other nations use of diamonds,drugs,gold,or food.when these journalists risk life and harm to them selves for you,to get the facts,that will, you vote,live,or your families future,rememebr,where it came from. fake news has no merit,and has no place in any society. remove it,delete it,laugh at it. but never,put your responsability down to cover your neighbors ass when its needed. i read everyday, and since i was 10, ive read beyond headlines,and scanned the paper,for something that didnt make the page 4 either. im no book nerd,but when my countries fate is depended upon my need to knows,i dont need some ass,,,republican party head from colombia county ohio to inform me gods work is why californians died. seriously,leave this cheap drivel in some sewer rats life.thanks Shiela, this was a real life need for me,to be able to sort the chaf from the grain..


    Print the truth and it will set the country free, or something to that effect, is now a silly aphorism. Today, I could disseminate one thousand absolute truths on the Internet, and tomorrow no one among the rest of you could find them because instantly they had been snowed under by billions of lies.

    I think it is time for a new — additional — journalism model to be developed. Something like news feeds, but not tailored to your or my interests, rather tailored as if Truth itself were the reader. It would report the important daily assertions on the Internet, but only the ones that are truthful. It would look and operate like a newspaper but its beat would be the Internet and nothing else. It would not print its laborious story about how it determined the truth; it would simply sift the Internet and print only those stories it could verify were true. It would find the truths that are now lost in the blizzard of lies.

  13. I would some what disagree that we are in uncharted water. We have been sorting ourselves, perhaps since we first urbanized into towns and cities. The printing press, radio, TV and now the Internet have allowed this sorting to continue forward, beyond our neighborhood.

    Marshall McLuhan prophesied the web technology seen today as early as 1962:

    The next medium, whatever it is—it may be the extension of consciousness—will include television as its content, not as its environment, and will transform television into an art form. A computer as a research and communication instrument could enhance retrieval, obsolesce mass library organization, retrieve the individual’s encyclopedic function and flip into a private line to speedily tailored data of a saleable kind.

    Amplifying on this Neil Postman wrote in Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, Postman argued that by expressing ideas through visual imagery, television reduces politics, news, history, and other serious topics to entertainment. He worried that culture would decline if the people became an audience and their public business a “vaudeville act.” Postman also argued that television is destroying the “serious and rational public conversation” that was sustained for centuries by the printing press.

    Because commercial television is programmed according to ratings, its content is determined by commercial feasibility, not critical acumen. Television in its present state, he says, does not satisfy the conditions for honest intellectual involvement and rational argument.

    He repeatedly states that the eighteenth century, the “Age of Reason”, was the pinnacle for rational argument. Only in the printed word, he states, could complicated truths be rationally conveyed.
    The waters were charted, we were warned about what lay ahead. Today, the major news networks, FOX, CNN and MSDNC have sorted themselves into silos of entertainment masquerading as “News”, at their core, profit is the over riding goal. It is in their commercial interests to highlight and double down on the message they deliver and preserve Market Share.

    Thus, it should come as no surprise that the quick sound byte aired on TV by various candidates for elected office would come to dominate the air waves, rather than rigorous examination based on policies and positions. If a candidate does not have the money to afford TV ads, they are not heard. Commercial TV has no obligation to provide free time for candidates to express themselves.

    President Agent Orange with his endless tweets understands these commercial aspects of our for profit McMega-Media. President Agent Orange is with a high degree of probability the most intellectually vacant President we have ever had.

    President Agent Orange has an instinctive grasp and knowledge of publicity. He knows given the McMega-Media’s quest for ratings/profits he can tweet and say the most outlandish lies and insults and count on 24/7/365 coverage.

    The Internet can circumvent this commercial sorting by the McMega-Media, which is why it is vital for the Big Corporate Media Monsters to gain control of it.

  14. Sheila; “In age of internet, I worry that it is no longer possible to have a truly national conversation.”

    Theresa Bowers 8:30 am: “Just what would a “truly national conversation” look like? Anyone?”

    The term “national conversation” seemed familiar to me; it was the “internet” reference that took me a while to remember prior to the inundation – or in some cases – infestation of the Internet today that took me awhile to come up with what, to me, was a “national conversation”. We came together as a nation after 9/11; the decades of believing we would never be attacked on our home ground by any other nation, government or organization was shattered one beautiful September morning and almost 3,000 died that day…more died later as a result of responding to that attack. It was news programs, primarily with Rudy Giuliani keeping us informed day and night and encouraging us to have faith and to remain strong in our trust in this government, not all had access to the Internet to post or go to to seek answers. Those outside our borders attacked us literally out of the blue with a vengeance and and brought us together as a nation with one aim in mind; survival of this country against all enemies.

    Today we are divided from within by our own government and, not since the Civil War have we been so divided; now, as then, it wasn’t so much political divide as it was and now is a humanitarian, civil and human rights division.

    Nancy at 6:51 am describes it best; “Trump brought out so much division, hatred and ugliness in this country. He gave permission to his supporters to spew hatred and bigotry. Those of us who are against bigotry and racism fought back. There has been so much damage done between friends and within families that it may never be repaired.”

    In the words of President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War; “A House divided against itself cannot stand.”

    Currently out (Huge) losses outnumber our gains.

  15. Perhaps the perfect storm was the pervasiveness of cable news at the end of the last century that created the politics of anger, hate and fear culture followed by the internet silos of this century to coalesce the tribes into solid cults.

  16. A National Conversation??? A good start would be Maslow’s hierarchy of needs:

    1.) Physiological needs, including, Food, Water, Shelter.
    2.) Safety needs, including, Personal security, Emotional security, Financial security, Health and well-being.
    3.) Social belonging including, Friendships, Intimacy, Family
    4.) Esteem, including, Most humans have a need to feel respected, People develop a concern with getting recognition, status, importance, and respect from others.
    5.) Self-actualization, This level of need refers to what a person’s full potential is and the realization of that potential. Maslow describes this level as the desire to accomplish everything that one can, to become the most that one can be.

    All humans fit into Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The challenge is for our elected political officials to recognize this and deliver policies that best allow people to live their lives to fullest. Single Payer-Universal Health Care, living wage and Free Higher Education and Trade Schools would be a start.

  17. I am reminded of what my old sociology prof, Jesse Pitts, said about undergraduate education. He said it had but one purpose – teaching “crap detection”. I think we need this now, more than ever.

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