Salon Radio: Jay Rosen on the media's control of political debates

How do journalists decide which viewpoints enjoy consensus status, which ones are legitimately debatable, and which ones need not be heard?

Published January 16, 2009 2:46PM (EST)

[updated below (w/transcript) - Update II - Update III]

This week, Jay Rosen -- the NYU Journalism Professor and author of the PressThink blog -- wrote one of the best and most insightful pieces yet on how the American media artificially limits the range of political debate.  I recommend as highly as possible that the entire piece be read -- here.  

Rosen begins by citing a chart from the 1986 book, The Uncensored War, by Daniel Hallin, which defined the three categories of arguments that the media employed during the Vietnam War:  (1) those within the "Sphere of Consensus" (ideas deemed so plainly true that they required no debate or examination); (2) those within the "Sphere of Legitimate Controversy" (ideas deemed reasonable enough to be debated and disputed within mainstream discussion); and (3) those within the "Sphere of Deviance" (ideas so plainly wrong, radical and fringe that they deserved no hearing at all):

According to Rosen, the diagram depicting these three spheres is "easily the most useful diagram [] found for understanding the practice of journalism in the United States, and the hidden politics of that practice."  Rosen argues -- quite persuasively -- that American journalists, usually unthinkingly (i.e., without even realizing that they do it), control and restrict political discussions by using these categories for virtually every political issue of any significance.  No theory regarding how the media controls political debate is complete without reference to Manufacturing Consent, but Rosen's explanation is quite compatible with it and, standing alone, has great value.

He's my guest on Salon Radio today to discuss his critique and several related issues, including the ability of political figures to move ideas from"deviance" status to the realm of the legitimate; how supporters of those political figures often excuse their failure to do so by accepting artificial (and false) claims about what is and is not "practical" or "doable"; and the role of the Internet in eroding the media's power to define these categories. 

It is, in my view, easily one of the most interesting interviews I've done, and I recommend it highly.  It is roughly 25 minutes in length, and can be heard by clicking PLAY on the recorder below.  A transcript is will be posted very shortly.


UPDATE:  The transcript is here.  And, as a reminder, all podcasts can be downloaded as mp3's (here) or ITunes (here).


UPDATE II:  The third and final installment of my Los Angeles Times discussion with Jim Antle, regarding the final days of the Bush administration, is here.  The second installment is here, and the first one is here.


UPDATE III:  I have an article in the new issue of The American Conservative regarding the homogeneity of opinion among our political and media elites when it comes to Israel and U.S. policy towards that country.  The article can be read here.  

I prepared a quiz to accompany the article, which appears at the bottom of the page of the online version ("Who said what?"), designed to underscore the point.  I'm genuinely interested in how well people are able to answer that quiz (it's on the same page as the article itself).  Other articles in this issue on Israel/Gaza include ones by Daniel Levy, Avi Shlaim and John Mearsheimer.

To listen to this interview, click PLAY on the recorder below:

Glenn Greenwald: my guest on Salon Radio is Jay Rosen, who is a journalism professor at NYU, and also the author of the blog, the media criticism blog PressThink. And I actually also believe that you're the first -- or, if not the first, certainly one of the very first -- return guests on Salon Radio, so congratulations on that important achievement as well.

Jay Rosen: That's pretty cool, thanks for having me on.

GG: My pleasure. I wanted to talk to you because you had written a piece I guess earlier this week that received a lot of attention, deservedly so, concerning ways in which the press, the media, controls the spheres of political debates, and also, and in doing so creates this conventional wisdom, and decides without really knowing that they're deciding what types of ideas should be heard from and shouldn't be, and ways in which blogs and Internet commentary may be eroding the authority of the press to maintain that stranglehold on our public discourse.

I'm going to link to the piece and urge everybody to read it, but I just want to go over several of the primary themes in it, and ask you about a couple of them, beginning with this graph that you identify as being, in essence, in some sense, all you need to know about how the press maintains a control over our political debates, and it's from a 1986 book called The Uncensored War by Daniel Hallin; could you just sort of walk us through what that chart is and why you found it so compelling, I think that'd be a great way to begin.

JR: Well, I said, you could make it yourself, you just take a piece of paper, you draw a big circle in the middle, draw another smaller circle to make a doughnut shape, call the inner circle the sphere of consensus, the doughnut itself we call of sphere of legitimate debate, and everything outside that is the sphere of deviance. And that's the model that Daniel Hallin wrote about to account for the media coverage of the Vietnam War, but what I think is, it gives people a handle on the narrow range of possibilities that the national press usually treats as realistic. And it just provides a different way of thinking about the influence of the press.

The sphere of consensus, in the middle, is everything that's so obvious that we don't have to argue for it. It's already established. It's our way of life. And the sphere of deviance is, things are just too crazy or unlikely or radical or upsetting to be taken seriously on the Washington talk shows, and what journalists try to do is keep things in the middle there, because the sphere of consensus is a kind of silence, and the people in the deviant sphere are of course supposed to be silent. That's what I like about this model; it gives us a way to think about the press that's a little more nuanced that left-right or pro-amateur, inaccurate or accurate. That's the model.

GG: Let me ask you this, because the way that you describe this model, is as an instrument for excluding certain ideas that may actually be, if not a majority view, something with a substantial following, and yet nonetheless gets demonized as being so radical that it gets relegated to this sphere of deviance and is never heard from. One example you give, citing Atrios, is the idea that during the Clinton scandals, when majorities of Americans overwhelmingly believed that that scandal was nowhere near as serious as the press was taking it, and it certainly didn't warrant impeachment, that you could almost never hear, if you turned on the television set, from somebody who was just saying, "this is completely insane and stupid, that we're impeaching a popular president over something like this." That was really relegated to the sphere of deviance.

But let's for a moment look at the abstract model, and let me as you this. On some level, isn't it really necessary to have a model that has those three stages? In other words, if you're a producer of a cable news show or a talk show or an editor of a newspaper, don't you in some sense need to make judgments about what ideas are just so widespread and accepted that they don't really need to be covered, and on the other hanged, what ideas are just so fact-free and baseless, you know, wild conspiracy theories and the like, that they don't deserve attention, and try and figure out what the truly important and debatable topics really are that belong within the sphere of debate? I mean, isn't that model -- independent of how it's applied -- something that on some level is inevitable and maybe even desirable?

JR: Yeah. I think it's a model really for how any social group operates. You have to have things on which you agree to create your people, create your tribe, create your community. And then there are things that are completely against what you believe. So, in a way, it's taking a model of social life, and mapping it on to how news works. But, what's important is that you can't determine what the range of legitimate debate is for the political community as a whole by substituting your impression from an insider class, and this is what I end up criticizing in my piece, is that, where the press gets its sense of what legitimate debate is, is too narrow, because it relies on the Washington establishment and the perpetuation of that establishment for its sense of the real. It's vulnerable in a situation where the insiders themselves are behaving sur-really, where they themselves are out of touch, and that's what happened with the Clinton impeachment, but it happened in a bigger way under Bush.

So, it's vulnerable, the model is vulnerable, if you are not aware of where you're getting your sense of consensus, of where you're getting your sense of a legitimate debate, and who's judgment ends up demonizing some as outside that circle. And the problem with the press is not that it makes these decisions - you have to make such decisions - it's that it denies its own faculty of judgment. It doesn't know where it's getting these ideas from; it's too narrow in who it's consulting. And it minimizes the risk it wants to take in its own story-telling.

GG: Now, one of the points you made is that, I think might be known to people, I think on some level I've given some thought to it before, but you articulated it in a way that I think was unusually clear and therefore illuminated the observation really well, was that: it isn't just that the press is deriving their sense of what consensus is and what legitimate debate is from too narrow of a range of input. I mean, that is true. They tend to be very insular; they are part of the Washington establishment, that's all they know, and therefore what they believe is legitimate to debate or is a consensus, derives from that very narrow and often distorted range. That is true.

But even beyond that, it's not only that they don't know where they're getting it from either, I mean if you said to the average journalist, "you're deriving your sense of what a consensus is and what legitimate debate is only from your insular sphere," that would be something that they would disagree with and take offense to, and try and argue with in all sorts of ways, but you actually go further and say that they don't even realize that they're engaging in this activity at all. That part of what they're doing is defining certain parts of the debate as being so off limits and other parts as being so accepted, and that therefore it's an unthinking activity and because of that, you can't really get at, when talking to them, what they're doing and what they're doing wrong, because they don't even realize that they're doing it. Is that, did I summarize that fairly well, and what's the danger in that?

JR: I compared it to trying to complain about the values your kid is learning in school when your teachers' view is that the school doesn't teach any values. It's like the conversations don't connect.

And, in the case of our professional journalists, what they I think would say is, "we don't marginalize people, Glenn and Jay, that's your description, that's not what we do. But it's our job to report on what's realistically going to happen in politics -- not what we would like, and not what you think is a good idea" -- and it's through the very application of what their sense of realism is, that these judgments become not judgments, but simply assessments of the real.

And that's why I go, an earlier piece which also talked about in your column, about savviness being the kind of real ideology of Washington journalism -- it's not liberal or conservative or even power-worshipping. It's savviness, it's this notion that that might be a good argument, but that's not what the committee is going to do, you know? And this kind of religion of - I call it a religion because it's a faith - that if you're savvy, that you are realistic, and again, you are vulnerable to irresponsible elites when you do that. You can cut yourself off from your naturally constituency which isn't them, but an informed and engaged public.

GG: One of the examples you cite in your piece, and you actually linked to something I wrote about this recently was David Gregory -- before getting the Meet the Press job, in the wake of the Scott McClellan book, which accused the press of being insufficiently skeptical of the Bush administration claims before the Iraq War -- he went on TV, David Gregory did, and said, "oh, I think this critique is just wrong. I think we did the right thing, and we asked the hard questions, and to the extent that we didn't report on certain questions that were being asked, you know, the country should think about why, and the Democrats and the opposition party weren't raising them, and therefore we weren't including them,"

And Tim Russert actually, in the, I don't know if you saw it, you probably did, Bill Moyers' documentary on the run-up to the Iraq War, when Moyers confronted him about why the press didn't do a better job in challenging these administration claims, Tim Russert explicitly said that their job is to describe the debate that's taking place, and if Democrats aren't calling them up and saying, "hey what the Bush administration is saying is a lie," what is it you expect journalists to do?

So, how did, how does that mentality and the behavior of the press in the pre-eminent example of their failures, which is the Iraq War, how does that fit into the critique that you're making?

JR: Well, on that particular issue, Glenn, I think the press suffered a default of responsibility so large, the magnitude of the failure to adjust to what was happening was so huge, that it's almost like asking somebody from a very neurotic family about an uncle nobody talks about. It's almost like, you have to go to notions of psychology, I think, almost...

GG: Right.

JR: understand what's going on with somebody like Gregory saying that. I mean, I think that only referent for his comments I could figure out, is that he thinks he stood up at a press conference or two and asked the confrontational questions, as if that had anything to do with the real question here, which is, did the press look into the case for war and find people who were capable of doubting it?

And this is where the notion of deviance comes in, because if you believe in your own mind, that the only people who were really make any contrary argument were the hippies in the streets, then you'd overlook your own failure to go to people in the government who had doubts, and who had information for you, which is what Knight Ridder -- later McClatchy -- did. See, they went to the people outside the circle of the White House, who started to raise these questions, and that current of doubt was there in the Bush years from the beginning, from insiders. The people who talked to Ron Suskind, before the '04 election, were Republicans who had begun to see that there was a retreat from empiricism, from rational decision making, throughout the government. So, anyway, I believe that these kinds of maneuvers are covering over a default in responsibility that is so large and shattering to the watchdog press's self-image, that they're almost like neurotic symptoms at this point, these kind of eruptions.

GG: Right. Now, you see this model being applied all the time -- I think currently right now, for instance, what has been relegated to the sphere of deviance is the idea that there ought to be criminal investigations and prosecutions of Bush officials for the laws that they broke, and even as you have things like yesterday, a high Bush official saying detainees at Guantanamo were tortured, and she used that word, and today Eric Holder saying that, techniques that the President himself admits to authorizing were in fact torture, which, if you put those simple propositions together, it means that high crimes were committed by the admissions of our top leaders, that the idea that they should be prosecuted, held accountable under the law, is something that you almost never hear in our mainstream discourse.

You don't hear things like, questioning about the role that the US plays in blindly supporting Israel, all kinds of examples on the most significant questions. So, do you think that the sphere of deviance ends up being vastly larger than it should be? Or is the problem that it's just sort of marginally bigger and some things end up within it that probably should be moved into the realm of legitimate debate?

JR: Here's what I think. Journalists can decide, with a certain amount of discretion, to widen or narrow the sphere of legitimate debate. And, I think it's never easy to determine who should be on the show, on the stage, quoted in your story. We shouldn't make light of it - it's a hard thing to know how wide the range of views should be.

But, we know they're not going to do it well if they can't take responsibility for that framing. And I think what happens in Washington journalism is that they need to display themselves as uninvolved in these decisions. And so the default position is to say not what should be a legitimate debate about torture and prosecution, but what's likely to happen. What's in the end going to be the decision that is made? What do the insiders think is realistic, is probable? And because that seems to them to be a non-ideological way of framing debate, they go with it. So what you really have here is the demand for an innocent press is what keeps us from having a responsible and politically intelligent press. And, Charlie Savage, you know who he is, he's now with The New York Times...

GG: Yep.

JR: ...pointed the way when he insisted on interviewing all the candidates for president in detail about their positions on the expansions of Executive power, as a way of pushing this issue into the campaign. But we don't have a press that sees its job as pushing the issues into plausibility, into consensus as part of the sphere of legitimate debate, because that would be behaving politically, and the religion says you can't. So that's how you end up in these default positions of 'but, realistically, Glenn -- you might have a good argument, but realistically, Glenn" -- that's the voice, right there. That's the action I'm talking about. That is where those spheres begin to take hold.

GG: Right, so then, what ends up happening, in essence, is that the status quo ends up being venerated. I mean, I guess in some sense what you're describing as savviness is revering the position that is likely to prevail, who is likely to win in the game.

JR: Yeah, in a probabilistic universe, right.

GG: Right, and so what that ends up doing, is it ends up, it takes the journalists completely away from the idea of being adversarial to the power system or to political power, and it makes the journalists just an amplifier for it. As you say, there's no Charlie Savage-like effort to change the nature of the debate or to take issues and shine light on them. Instead, it's just a way of refracting what they're being told by political insiders.

JR: Do you remember when Karl Rove said to Matt Cooper, "don't get too far out in front on this story."

GG: Right, as part of the Libby trial.

JR: Yeah. If we drill down into that moment, I think a lot of what I'm trying to say is in that anecdote: What did Rove mean? What he means is: you don't want to edge too close, toward a kind of deviant, conspiratorial argument, right? Because he knows that for a journalist, that is the worst thing -- not to be probabilistic enough, to sound like one of the hippies. To sound like somebody who's outside of Washington. "Don't get too far out in front." He knows what the fear of this class is, and that's what he was appealing to in his phone call.

GG: Now, part of what you allude to in your piece, and you talk about this at the end, is what you call audience atomization overcome, and...

JR: Yes.

GG: ...specifically, the ways in which the power of the press to maintain these rigid divisions is being eroded by alternative voices, the Internet specifically. What do you think is, where are we in that process, and how does that erosion work?

JR: It's not so much alternative voices. The voices arise to meet another condition which is what I'm trying to point out here. In a way, you have to start, Glenn, with trying to imagine how people were arranged physically in space in the age of mass media when we were on the receiving end of this one-to-many, one-way communication system. Well, they were in a condition of atomization, right? You're connected to the media, but you're not connected horizontally to other people watching at the same time. And that's just a condition, that's just the nature of the system, under an age of mass media.

So what I said is the 'Net fundamentally changes that, not just because it introduces more voices into the published arena. That's part of it. But really that, it connects us to other people who feel the same way when they're watching the news, who have said to themselves: "wait, that's not the range of debate. Oh, wait a minute, that doesn't sound such a deviant idea to me, I know you're portraying it that way."

In the past, I think, it was hard to find others who felt that way. And this is one of the most common political awakening moments there are. It's always like that. Hey, there's more of me than I thought. We're not alone, right? So, it's that kind of a thing. It's that sharing of attitude towards the news that creates the common feeling that I think bloggers and alternative voices come in and tap into, and give a place to, give a home to. And pretty soon, the bloggers realize that they can go out and gather information to inform that, and it grows. That's how you get a Firedoglake at the Libby trials, right? So, that's what I meant, is that first, we get the atomizing, then the bloggers come, and tap into that.

GG: Yeah. If you look at the mythology that most bloggers embrace as far as why political blogs exploded, is, it's rooted in exactly what you just described. This first episode being the Lewinsky scandal where the media, to turn it on, you would have thought that this was the gravest scandal ever, and then followed into the 2000 recount where there was this prevailing media sense that Al Gore had the obligation to concede as quickly as possible, so the country can move on and be harmonious -- irrespective of whether the recount would have altered the outcome, and then of course probably the most accelerating event, was the post-9/11 Bush climate where very few people were questioning anything that he said and particularly not questioning the reporting on the need for invading and attacking Iraq, and that really blogs grew out of, as you say, this unfulfilled demand where there were so many people whose perspectives were being, not just demonized, but really silenced and excluded by the media in that way, and it really gave a voice.

So, in terms of what blogs are doing in that regard, does that undermine in a meaningful way, the media's hold on dominant public discourse? Does it affect what they're doing, or is it just providing a different place to go if you want to see the spheres arranged differently?

JR: I introduce this model in my post because it's backward pointing -- that's the way the system was before the 'Net. I think now what's happening is that the authority to define the sphere of legitimate debate has weakened in the establishment press. It's a much more open game than it was, and more and more I think journalists are influenced by actors who would have been silent in the sphere of deviance before, and now have a lot more tools at their disposal, and journalists themselves, at least some of the smarter ones, are readers of the blogosphere, and they themselves use it to correct the narrative they get from the press, and it's simply a messier but more interesting and varied world now. And that's part of what makes it a good time to be a critic, and a journalist, and a blogger.

GG: Absolutely. Last question, and I think I could spend a long time talking about your essay and especially as your elaborating on it now, and again, I would really encourage people to go read it carefully. It's really worth the time. But let me ask you this last question: A lot of times, people will make excuses for their favorite politician, or for their political party when their politician or party takes a position that is different from the one they wish the party would take. And what they'll say is, well you have to understand they need to be politically pragmatic, and I would like them to be able to take this position, but the reality is that the media would attack them, and the public would be unreceptive or hostile to it, and so I'm going to give them leeway, and I'm going to be understanding and I realize that they can't really take this position, in essence because the position is deemed to be within the sphere of deviance, and therefore not something that is legitimate to adopt or express.

And yet one of the points you make is that it's not just journalists who define what these spheres encompass. That politicians, political actors can change what's included in these spheres based on the positions that they take. And in some sense, you could even say that that's kind of what leadership is -- not just articulating what already is within the realm of consensus, which anyone can do, but taking ideas that are marginalized or within the sphere of deviance and bringing them into the sphere of legitimacy. How does that process work? How do political actors change those spheres?

JR: Well, that's exactly what leadership is. And I think it's crippling sometimes to our own sense of efficacy in politics and media, if we assume that the media has all of the power to frame the debate and decide what consensus is, and consign things to deviant status. That's not really true. That's true under conditions of political immobilization, leadership default, a rage for normalcy, but in ordinary political life, leaders, by talking about things, make them legitimate. Parties, by pushing for things, make them part of the sphere of debate. Important and visible people can question consensus, and all of the sudden bracket it. There spheres are malleable; it's the conversation of democracy is alive and if you make your leaders talk about things, it becomes valid to talk about them.

And I really do think there's a self-victimization that sometimes goes on, but to go back to the beginning of your question, there's something else going on, which is the ability to infect us with notions of what's realistic is one of the most potent powers press and political elites have. Whenever we make that kind of decision -- "well it's pragmatic, let's be realistic" -- what we're really doing is we're speculating about other Americans, our fellow citizens, and what they're likely to accept or what works on them or what stimuli they respond to. And that way of seeing other Americans, fellow citizens, is in fact something the media has taught us; that is one of the deepest lessons we've learned from the media even if we are skeptics of the MSM.

And one of the things I see on the left that really bothers me is the ease with which people skeptical of the media will talk about what the masses believe and how the masses will be led and moved in this way that shows me that the mass media tutors them on how to see their fellow citizens. And here the 'Net again has at least some potential. 'Cause we don't have to guess what those other Americans think. We can encounter them ourselves, and thereby reshape our sense of what they think. I think every time people make that judgment about what's realistic, what they're really doing is they're imagining what the rest of the country would accept, and how other people think, and they get those ideas from the media.

GG: Yeah, and they accept limitations on what can be achieved that may very well be completely artificial, and as you say it becomes defeatist because they get convinced in advance that even trying, that it's just going be futile, and that's a very powerful tool as you say for political elites to wield, to be able convince citizens ahead of time that there's no point in even trying because they're destined to fail because there are certain limits on what they're able to convince people of that they're never going to be able to transcend. I think that's a really important way of thinking about that and looking at it and again, let me say, I think you wrote a really important and thought-provoking piece and I really appreciate your taking the time to talk to me about.

JR: Glenn, thanks so much, I really appreciate it.


[Transcript courtesy of Thames Valley Transcribe]

By Glenn Greenwald

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