the public sphere and working the refs

In Citizen Speak I noted, among other things, that Americans often “think with” a version of the Habermasian public sphere as their implicit ideal. That is, even though we know the idealized public sphere is a fiction, many Americans understand it as a productive fiction, even a heuristic.

How should social scientific scholars of the public sphere deal with the media environment in this election?

Lots of commentators have noted the McCain campaign’s masterful tactic of “working the refs.” Essentially, they complain that flaccid media coverage is biased against them, get the media to believe it, and generate even limper coverage. The most obscure, problematic vice presidential nominee in recent memory has refused to be interviewed by members of the media without coaching time. While Fox News keeps blanket permission to maintain and promote an acknowledgedly right-wing approach, the mainstream media use the fiction of objectivity to demote relatively liberal commentators. Scandals about media bias are manufactured out of thin air as political tactics.

As a media scholar, I would have a very hard time making a case that this activity is bad for reasons of “objectivity,” which is a pretty bankrupt concept anyway. But it seems bad to me for a very different reason: because it poisons the best shot we have at a serious public sphere, that is, at a space where most actors can be included, gain insight into the reasons for others’ views, and exchange concerns, ideas, interests, etc.

This is distinct from the common fact-checkers that the media put out on campaign ads, which have to do with how true each ad or claim is. These are useful, particularly given that the Republicans are willing to pursue outright lies as cynical political tactics. But much more important is that the independent press, such as it is, ought to be allowed, nay encouraged, to call out any and all political practitioners on the values, claims, attacks, and visions they articulate. Working the refs isn’t just unpleasant, it’s positively anti-democratic.

Author: andrewperrin

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

One thought on “the public sphere and working the refs”

  1. I’m surprised the Democrats don’t skewer the Republicans for their constant complaining about the media. The Republicans portray themselves as the party of masculinity and toughness — tough enough to wage war, to go it alone against the opinion of all other countries in the world, tough enough to torture and be tortured (I’m blogging about the torture thing today, btw). But when it comes to a few stories they don’t like in the media, they turn into crybabies whining about unfairness. If GOP is going to engage in the kind of 13-year-old-boy name-calling that they gave us at the convention, why don’t the Democrats return fire on this one?

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