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evolving ecological media culture(s)

More on e-activism & the public sphere

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Since this topic was a popular one, I thought I’d link to an article that usefully contextualizes Habermas’s notion of the public sphere within current research in sociology of media. Many of the issues that came up in our discussion get some nuanced exploration in Rodney Benson’s article.

In particular, Benson offers some correctives to the tendency to think in all-or-nothing terms about whether or not today’s media environment fulfills the function of a public sphere. Drawing on French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu and American “new institutionalist” media sociologists, he points out that there are many levels of influence apart from commercial considerations on media and journalistic practice.

In France, for instance, there is a long tradition of the government (using tax revenues) providing “content-neutral” subsidies to support “ideological diversity.” That’s what has helped to keep alive newspapers not only in the center of the ideological spectrum, but on the left (the Communist L’Humanité, the left-leaning Libération, the left-Catholic La Croix) and right (the National Front’s Présent).

If government subsidies sound too left-wing to Americans today, consider that

through its education, tax, intellectual property, and postal policies, American government helped assure a higher rate of literacy (with the exception of Sweden), more affordable access to a wider range of books and newspapers, greater protections of citizen privacy, and greater transparency in governmental policy-making and administration than existed anywhere in Europe. (p. 189)

That was in the nineteenth century. Since then, things have fallen off somewhat, but Benson cites research that “the U.S. public sphere was arguably a state-driven political project from the start” and that “today contemporary democratic public spheres on both sides of the Atlantic are crucially shaped by government policies” (189). This applies to digital media as well (which this week’s readings get into).

Related to the French and English examples I cited in my comments,

the evidence is growing that it is precisely those media systems that are more closely intertwined with political systems — that is, linked to political parties and other political groupings in society (or in the U.S., the more alternative political media) — that produce the kind of news and commentary that most closely approximate the ideals of deliberative democracy (p. 187)

Contrary to the popular critical view that large media are all monolithically “corporate” and untrustworthy, Benson points out that there are legally-sanctioned media ownership forms that work better to promote democratic goals than others. He asks, rhetorically:

Is it a coincidence [...] that a high proportion of the world’s most respected newspapers have ownership structures that protect them from the most extreme commercial pressures? For instance, the Guardian in the UK, and both the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and Suddeutsche Zeitung in Germany are owned by trusts, Le Monde in France [which, incidentally, is a favorite among alter-globalization activists] is majority owned by its journalists and other employees, and The New York Times and Washington Post are effectively controlled by their founding families via majority ownership structures of the voting stock shares.

These kinds of policy issues are important to keep in mind as we reflect on the kinds of decisions that we, and our governments, ought to be making to shape the architecture of digital media in the future.

In summarizing our discussion, it’s useful to look back to media theorist Mark Poster’s observation in 1995:

contemporary social relations seem to be devoid of a basic level of interactive practice which, in the past, was the matrix of democratizing politics: loci such as the agora, the New England town hall, the village Church, the coffee house, the tavern, the public square, a convenient barn, a union hall, a park, a factory lunchroom, and even a street corner. Many of these places remain but no longer serve as organizing centers for political discussion and action. (Poster, “CyberDemocracy: Internet and the Public Sphere,” 1995)

Lincoln Dahlberg (whose co-authored article we read) has studied the cases of several local e-democracy projects, such as the Minnesota E-Democracy, the United Kingdom Citizens Online Democracy project, and others. Cases like that point to the possibility of creating effective localized experiments in electronic media democracy. “Locative media” experiments are a related use of digital media that signify a shift away from the risks of global homogenization, anonymity, and the “echo chambers” of “digital enclaves.” (See the Center for Locative Media.)

The issues discussed by Benson, on the other hand, point more toward the policy level of debate and action. These two — locative and local e-democracy initiatives, and media policy initiatives — should be considered two of the important prongs for activism around digital media.

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