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Daily Howler: Jay Rosen defines the sphere of deviance--and leaves some key things out
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THIS JUST IN–FROM 1986! Jay Rosen defines the sphere of deviance–and leaves some key things out: // link // print // previous // next //

Pete and Woody—and Dr. King: It’s a little hard to believe, but Pete Seeger started out at Harvard, in the same freshman class as Jack Kennedy. But Pete left Harvard, then traveled with Woody. Yesterday, he was spotted in public singing the gentleman’s most famous song.

The song became anthemized long ago, and so can be hard to hear.

But what a transplendent song it is! In our view, it contains the most brilliant short definition of one part of the American experience. (“I roamed and I rambled/I followed my footsteps...”) But as the singer roams and rambles, he—like prophets of the Old Testament—hears voices calling all around him. He hangs between heaven and earth:

I've roamed and rambled,
I've followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts.
And all around me a voice was sounding:
“This land was made for you and me.”

As I was walking a ribbon of highway
I saw above me an endless skyway.
I saw below me a golden valley:
“This land was made for you and me.”

The sun came shining as I was strolling
The wheat fields waving, the dust clouds rolling.
The fog was lifting, a voice come chanting:
“This land was made for you and me.”

The song records ecstatic (secular American) experience. Good luck, then, to President Obama! And by the way: Pete can sometimes seem mildly annoying; our taste runs more to his half-brother, Mike Seeger, our favorite performer of any kind of all time. But last year’s American Masters profile (“The Power of Song”) may be the most insightful profile we’ve ever seen of any performer (just click here). Has anyone ever understood his brief any better than Pete Seeger has? Dr. King would be one such person, of course. He shows up in that profile too, transcending one more of his origins.

This week, many people hear voices calling. Woody wrote it down, way back when. “Some things are just worth singin’ about,” Pete said in another film, years ago.

This just in—from 1986: We were a bit surprised when Glenn Greenwald gushed about this PressThink post by Jay Rosen. (For Glenn’s post, just click here.) We were surprised because Glenn is very smart. In our view, Jay’s piece simply isn’t, not this time—although it’s perfectly accurate.

In our view, Jay presents a highly jargonized account of a numbingly familiar idea—an idea which surely must be old-hat to anyone on the liberal web. But Jay’s piece comes complete with a graphic—and with some catchy language, drawn from a 23-year-old book. In fairness, a catchy phrase will sometimes stick in the mind, hastening the spread of a basic idea and thereby increasing its power. On the other hand, academized accounts of simple ideas will often distract us from real understanding. We find ourselves in pointless debates about the jargon, and perhaps about the graphic. (“Is it better or worse than the Overton Window?”) In the process, the spread of real understanding takes a backseat to pseudo-debates.

What did Jay claim in his post? He refers us to a book by “press scholar Daniel C. Hallin” (just click here); the book appeared in 1986, when its basic ideas may well have been fresh and thought-provoking. You can read Jay’s piece for yourselves. But basically, Hallin argued that journalists of the 1960s and 1970s (!) tended to divide the world of ideas into three separate-but-unequal regions:

1) The sphere of legitimate controversy
2) The sphere of consensus
3) The sphere of deviance

Fight for consciousness as we continue, working our way from the bottom!

According to Hallin (and now Rosen), the “sphere of deviance” represented the realm of ideas mainstream journalists wouldn’t even discuss, so far were they thought to be from the mainstream. (In Hallin’s language, these were “political actors and views which journalists and the political mainstream of society reject as unworthy of being heard.”) In an excellent example, Jay notes that today’s mainstream press simply won’t debate the merits of single-payer health care. Single-payer ain’t worth discussing; it lies beyond the pale. (We all saw this in 2007when Sanjay Gupta played some unfortunate games with Michael Moore’s documentary, Sicko.)

You can probably take it from there. The “sphere of legitimate debate” represents those ideas which the press is willing to discuss. The “sphere of consensus” represents those ideas which are taken to be so bleedingly obvious that everyone agrees they’re correct—“the things on which everyone is thought to agree,” in Jay’s formulation.

In short, the press corps takes some ideas to be obvious; is willing to debate some ideas; and refuses to discuss certain others. At this late date, it’s hard to know how anyone could find such notions intriguing—although they may have been thought-provoking when Hallin presented them, 23 years in the past. In Rosen’s treatment, these ideas are about as fresh as an essay declaring that grass is green. Indeed, the most straightforward reaction Jay got, out of many, was this semi-contradictory post at a semi-eponymous web site:

MOULITSAS (1/13/09): Jay Rosen is still the smartest journalist in the country today. And BTW, another word for the "sphere of consensus" is "conventional wisdom", which plays an important role in my last book, Taking on the System. The person who controls the CW controls the terms of the debate. Modern activism is in large part a battle to capture that CW.

We agree with the part of the passage we’ve highlighted—which makes us wonder why Markos began as he did, with all that oleaginous kissing of keister. Duh! The modern mainstream press corps routinely pimps its “conventional wisdom!” In all candor, that’s all Jay has managed to say in his highly-jargonized post. But then, everyone on the web already knew that—learned it eons ago. Can you even remember a time when that notion seemed new or informative?

We’ll say it again: We think Jay’s post is a jargonized version of something everyone already knows. But even as Jay burns valuable time academizing a simple idea, he drops some key ideas by the wayside. He reduces the things we should know by now as he goes back to the future. Two examples:

Dis- and misinformation: Quite correctly, Jay says that journalists won’t debate ideas that lurk in the “sphere of deviance.” But the problem is actually worse than that: Journalists will actively promote (or tolerate) disinformation about such ideas. It isn’t just that journos won’t respect a person, like Moore, who proposes single-payer; they’ll stand around as hacks present “information” about single-payer systems which is blatantly bogus. (Routinely, Rudy Giuliani was afforded this favor during the last campaign.) This takes us beyond the problem Jay identifies—the one he buried beneath so much perfesser-talk that it struck some people as new.

Standard Group Stories: In the “sphere of consensus,” we find those ideas which journalists take to be obvious. But journalistic conduct has been much worse than that over the past many years. As we have repeatedly noted: Once journalists agree on a Group Idea, they start hatching Accepted Group Stories designed to promote that idea. These Group Stories are often made out of whole cloth—but journalists agree to repeat them anyway. This includes many journalists who know that these stories are counter-factual, illogical or misleading.

These practices take us well beyond the problem Hallin identified back in the dim, distant past. In fact, Jay’s presentation drags us back to the future—returns us to a simpler critique, a critique which no longer captures the depth of the actual problem. But then, as we reach the (probable) end of an era with tomorrow’s inauguration, Jay’s treatment of Hallin’s framework skips over another significant practice—a practice which has helped defined the journalism of the Clinton/Bush era. For sixteen years, Big Dems have been trashed by the mainstream press—and the “liberal press” has agreed not to notice! Alas! Even today, the career liberal press agrees not to discuss some of the most fundamental journalistic practices of the past sixteen years.

As of tomorrow, that era—the era of Big Dem-bashing—has most likely come to an end. But what “sphere of deviance” informs the world in which this era still can’t be discussed? As we near the end of an era, why do its history-changing practices still escape Jay’s critique? Why are we discussing Hallin’s critique of the 1960s instead? What will it take before we stop fleeing what’s recent for what is long past?

Tomorrow: Direct from the liberal world’s sphere of deviance, the shape of a 16-year age.