For the Pomona Politics Senior Exam, we are to write three papers synthesizing the arguments of the works and then defend them in oral argument before the Pomona Politics faculty. Each paper represents a sub-category of the full argument. Mine are: historical examples, dsytopic technologies, and the American problem.In this post, I’ll summarize my understanding to the first sub-section, historical examples, which include four works of journalistic theory spanning the past century. I’ll try to lay a foundation for the other two sub-categories as well. By establishing a baseline, I can both contextualize current works in history and track how my beliefs at the end of the project have changed from where they are now.

Public Opinion

Lippmann, Walter. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Company, 1922.

Walter Lippmann’s book is perhaps most famous for formalizing the definition of the word stereotype. But just by flipping through the chapters, its easy to tell the work covers far more: censorship, the deep state, political theory — just to name a few.

Lippmann’s book seems more pessimistic than I would have initially thought. He concludes the book with the frighteningly prescient criticism that “news and truth are not the same thing.” That doesn’t necessarily put Lippmann in the Trumpian camp of “all news is fake news.” It does, however, complicate the refrain that we have only recently entered the post-truth era. Lippmann could never have imagined Facebook, Fox News, or the Internet Research Agency. At the time Public Opinion was published, the television did not even exist.

Which in fact may prove that all the technological advances of recent are not even the root cause of the crisis in journalism today. The relationship between a free press and American democracy has been fraught for nearly a century, and more likely, since the very beginning.

Manufacturing Consent

Chomsky, Noam and Edward Herman. New York: Pantheon Books, 1988.

Chomsky and Herman’s work was, in some ways, based off of Lippmann’s. In fact, the title is a direct reference to another of Lippmann’s works, Liberty and The News, in which he wondered “whether government by consent can survive in a time when the manufacture of consent is an unregulated private enterprise.” Lippmann was reflecting on propaganda in the aftermath of World War I. Herman and Chomsky pick up that question, by developing their own propaganda model for the late 20th century, based on five “editorial filters:”

  1. Profit orientation of the dominant mass-media firms
  2. Advertising as the primary income source of the mass media
  3. Reliance on sourcing information from the same government, business, and experts being reported on
  4. “Flak”, i.e. negative response as a means of disciplining the media
  5. Anti-communism as a national religion and control mechanism (since updated to anti-terrorism)

By reading both Public Opinion and Manufacturing Consent in tandem, I hope to continue the work of thinking through the politics of information transfer in the current day.

Understanding Media

McLuhan, Marshall. New York: McGraw-Hill 1964.

Understanding Media is famous for producing the line “The Medium is the Message.” Apparently, when the first edition was printed, the type-setters misprinted the section as “The Medium is the Massage.” McLuhan loved it, feeling it proved his point perfectly. What is the point? His foundational claim is that there is no distinction between content and the medium by which it is provided. In fact, he writes that “the content of any medium is always another medium.” One such sequence is:

Speech ⇨ Words ⇨ Print ⇨ Telegraph

By this, he means the telegraph contains printed material, which itself contains words, which is the vehicle for speech. Words allow for speech to be immortalized; the printing press expands degree to which words are spread; and the telegraph eliminates any barrier of time or space. At each step, he points out, there is a “change in scale, pace, or pattern.” Aside from that, however, nothing is different; the content itself is of no import.

While beginning to read Understanding Media, the concept that keeps coming to mind is one I learned in computer science: recursion, or the idea that a thing can only be understood when defined in terms of itself. Remember, to McLuhan, any medium’s content is just another medium (tellingly, the word
media is the plural of medium, analogous to data/datum). This produces a kind of “onion peel” layering effect that goes all the way down. What’s at the center (or to return to the computer science metaphor “the base case”)? Well it’s in the title of the book: Understanding Media, The Extensions of Man.

Four Theories of The Press

Siebert, Fred, Theodore Peterson, and Wilbur Schramm. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1956.

The four “theories of the press” are really just two, each with their own modification by more contemporary authors. The original two theories were created by Fred S. Siebert, former director of The University Illinois journalism school. He considered the historical and political origins of journalistic ecosystems, focusing specifically on the distinctions between liberal models and authoritarian models, showing how each system’s manifestation of journalism reflects deeper political concepts: the individual, the state, and conceptions of knowledge.

The book is normative in its aims, trying to figure out what journalism can and should be. It rests on the thesis that “the press always takes the form and coloration of the social and political structures within which it operates.” The authors see journalism as a direct reflection of politics, the “system of social control whereby the relations of individuals and institutions are adjusted.” If I am to make the argument that journalism is an inherently political topic, Four Theories is the evidence to cite. I am also intrigued by the possibility of adding two more theories, to see if corollaries of the libertarian/authoritarian dichotomy still make sense for the digital age.