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Politico Pro as an Exemplar of the Primary Dialectic of Public Sphere Theory?

April 18, 2012

Nancy Fraser’s 1992 essay on “Rethinking the Public Sphere” (a version of which first appeared in 1990) has to be one the most highly cited articles in communications studies, and deservedly so, as her critique of Habermas elucidates several crucial points upon which the continued advancement of public sphere theory depends. Most scholars, however, have focused on her discussion of “counterpublics”. Almost entirely ignored (at least, as far as I know) has been the distinction she makes between “weak” and “strong” public spheres.

A sphere that does not produce binding decisions is weak; one that does is strong. As an example of the latter, Fraser offers a sovereign parliament. I have preferred to refer to these types of spheres as “meaning-making” and “decision-making” spheres, respectively, both to avoid the tacit hierarchization of Fraser’s terms and to emphasize the communicative aspect of the work being accomplished in each.

When communication scholars talk about public (and counterpublic) spheres, they almost always talk about meaning-making spheres, assuming but leaving almost entirely implicit the necessary relation between the two in a democratic society. I find this odd. We spend all our time questioning the way meaning-making takes place, yet frequently act as if the decision-making processes of liberal representative democracy and corporate hierarchies are givens. This is all the stranger considering that the goal of questioning meaning-making is often tied to a very real desire to change the decisions that are being made. Don’t get me wrong – I’m certain that most critical communication scholars have a deep sense of the inadequacies of decision-making in our “actually existing” democratic states. Nonetheless, I find an insufficient emphasis on the dialectic relationship between meaning- and decision-making spheres. The distinction between these two types of spheres needs to lie at the heart of any model that purports to explain the functioning of public sphere deliberation.

I’ve got plenty to say about that, and some of it will come out in the last chapter of my dissertation. I expect that, if I persist with an academic career, my writing will continue to revolve around this issue for a long time to come. How could it not? It is, after all, the core mechanism of democratic practice. For the moment, suffice it to say that I’m backing a scalable, modular model of multiple and interpenetrated public spheres organized according to their meaning- and decision-making functions.

In any case, the Nieman Journalism Lab just posted an article about Politico Pro, which is a premium version of Politico tailored to government officials, congressional staffers, lobbyists, and anybody else who can pony up thousands of dollars a years to receive extremely detailed and lightning fast updates on the minutiae of Washington sausage making. The information they serve up is so finely parsed that subscriptions are sold to only one of four (soon to be five) “verticals” at a time; currently, you can choose from technology, energy, health care, and transportation.

I don’t think I’ve seen a clearer or more focused example of the dialectical interaction between meaning-making and decision-making public spheres and the role that journalism can play therein. Politico Pro is serving as an articulating mechanism for four very specific meaning-making spheres, each of which is tied into the same decision-making sphere (ie. congress). These specific meaning-making spheres also exist within multiple larger meaning-making spheres. The (non-premium) Politico serves (articulates) the next scale of meaning-making – still rather restricted to those who pay close attention to politics, but not close enough to merit shelling out a few grand for even more granular and rapid information. Zoom out to the next scale and the representative press outlet might be the Washington Post or NY Times; one more and it’s perhaps USA Today, at the level of the “national” public sphere, or The Champaign News Gazette (or whichever “hometown” rag), at the level of a “local” public sphere. Or it might be a press release from Free Press, which picked up on a Politico (or some other) article about some nasty new legislation coming down the pipe, in which case the meaning-making sphere is no longer geographically bounded, but determined by a different criteria of identity (in this case, media reform activism). I could go on – in an interpenetrated, modular structure, the examples are truly infinite.

To be clear, I’m not saying – by any means – that Politico Pro represents an ideal for this type of dialectic interaction. In fact, as an exclusive form of commercial journalism that further entrenches the pro-capitalist lobbying structure that has so severely corrupted our already limited “actually existing” liberal democratic state, I find it highly problematic. Commercial journalism is beholden to hierarchical decision-making in a private sector oriented toward commodification and capital accumulation. I’m interested in a non-profit, participatory media apparatus that serves democratic decision-making within an autonomous civil society, and community media is a great place to start building.

I’ve been marinating this public sphere model for a few years now and only now am I starting to feel like I can articulate it in a way that makes some sense and holds some practical potential. Hopefully this post has begun to convince you…

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