Mmmm….donuts….

…or, The Intersection of Media and Politics, and How The Internet Is Changing Both. (see, I told you “Mmmm….donuts….” was a catchier title).

Chocolate-glazed, sprinkle-covered donut
Mmmm....donuts

Anyhoo. Most of us who are politically literate often find ourselves frustrated with what even Sarah “Not The Sharpest Moose In The Shed” Palin calls the “lamestream media.” It’s a frustration borne of seemingly a number of different causes, but it’s become an astonishingly common phenomenon in recent years to find oneself shouting at the TV news – especially cable news, but also the broadcast channels – due to some glaring oversight in their coverage of an issue or sometimes, even their flat-out refusal to cover the news in a way which seems stone-obvious to the viewer. An example would be the current, partially FOX-inspired mania for “horse-race” journalism, and its corollary, the whole “two sides to every question, so let’s give them equal time and equal weight” disease which currently bedevils the media coverage of far too many previously-settled questions. Some yahoo tent-preacher in Bumblefart, FL claims that there are questions about evolution, and it’s given the same “weight” as a panel of expert (but publicly unknown) biologists who’ve spent their entire careers studying the subject diligently. You get the picture – heck, you already know it.

But today, I ran across an article which was genuinely useful in shedding some light on it and fleshing out some of the reasons for why this exists. Also, fortunately, it explains why there is a giant chocolate-glazed, sprinkle-covered donut depicted in this post in what otherwise might seem to be an excessively gratuitous fashion.

The article is by NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen, and if you’re not already following him in one medium or another, and stuff like the following article interests you at all, I suggest you start. He’s at the forefront of the pushback against laziness and ineptitude in our media, especially as it relates to political journalism. He’s also one of the best people to turn to for the reasons why and the ways in which our media culture is currently so poor.

The main idea is from a 1986 book by Daniel C. Hallin called The Uncensored War, and it outlines three regions, or “spheres” in which the American press operates, illustrated by the donut, above. Label the donut hole in the middle the “sphere of consensus,” the donut itself, the “sphere of legitimate debate,” and everything – literally, the entire world – outside the donut, the “sphere of deviance.”

The basic notion is that the press believes it operates (though, frequently, it does not) in the “sphere of legitimate debate.” This is the arena where the issues of the day are hashed out, battled over, and ultimately decided (sometimes). But, crucially, it’s also where those issues are determined. In other words, there are editorial – and sometimes repertorial – decisions made about what issues are legitimate, both to discuss in the media and for the actual powers that be to debate and act upon. It’s this last point – that the media themselves (along with input from other sources, sometimes) makes decisions about what it is relevant or even admissible to discuss – that’s so startling and helpful about Rosen’s post.

The inner sphere, the “sphere of consensus” contains the things about which no legitimate debate is heard because “everyone agrees.” Some examples would be: (as Rosen puts it): the constitution’s principles, the fact that Abraham Lincoln was a great President, the notion that anyone can succeed in America, etc. Rosen points out that within this sphere, the media actually abandon objectivity entirely in service of reinforcing the notion (should it be necessary) that “everyone agrees that….” And the final “sphere” is everything outside of the donut, the “sphere of deviance,” which is the complementary opposite of the sphere of consensus: those ideas and proposals which “sensible people” agree are either insane, impossibly unworkable or just plain not to be discussed for a variety of reasons – which are almost always undisclosed.

Read Rosen’s article, it goes into more detail regarding both how these spheres operate (or, more particularly, have operated in the past) and how they are beginning to change in the internet age. Then, keeping the ideas in mind, go watch Chris Matthews’ interview with Alan Grayson on the reconciliation process during the health care debate if you need an example of this stuff in action. This was almost five months ago on Hardball, before the Senate leadership began to publicly push the reconciliation option for health care reform. Prior to that, everyone from Harry Reid to Rahm Emanuel to every political pundit agreed that the senate had to have 60 votes to accomplish anything. But a curious thing happened on the way to health care’s defeat: Democrats in both the senate and the White House realized that they’d spent so much time highlighting the health care issue that it would now cost the Democrats much, MUCH more to come this far and be seen as having failed than it would to engage in previously “untouchable” practices like reconciliation.

This Matthews/Grayson interview is lodged delightfully right in the sweet spot between the time that Democratic leadership had come to the realization that they were going to have to throw the usual rules out the window (a rare event), and the time they were pushing that fact actively on national TV. Grayson, having sat in the meetings, knows pretty well what’s coming. But Matthews, ever the smug insider who (as he mentions several times in an obnoxious, bald attempt to bully Grayson or punish him for straying from the “agreed-upon reality”) used to work in the Senate, hasn’t yet gotten the memo that the rules have changed. So he dutifully does the bidding of the conventional wisdom and tries to marginalize, ridicule and shut up (or shut down) Grayson, who turned out to be exactly right. Watch Matthews work the donut (and keep in mind, as you do, that this is a guy whom not only his colleagues in the press, but pretty much everyone else, has mentally labeled a “liberal”):