Television and the Public Sphere: Citizenship, Democracy and the Media


Peter Dahlgren

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  • The Media, Culture & Society Series

    Editors: John Corner, Nicholas Garnham, Paddy Scannell, Philip Schlesinger, Colin Sparks, Nancy Wood

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    Capitalism and Communication Global Culture and the Economics of Information

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    Interpreting Audiences The Ethnography of Media Consumption

    Shaun Moores

    Feminist Media Studies

    Liesbet van Zoonen


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    For my mother and the memory of my father


    One of my earliest memories of television journalism was watching the coverage of the J.F. Kennedy assassination and its aftermath. Aside from the solemnity of the occasion, I recall how strongly I was gripped by the idea that not only was I watching this with my parents at home, but I was also watching it with millions of other people at the same time. Unbeknown to me at the time, I had stepped into the public sphere. Habermas' Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere had appeared in German the previous year, but it would be many years before I encountered the full Swedish (1984) and English (1989) translations. But even prior to the availibility of those texts, I had become intrigued by the role of the media in modern societies and their relation to the functioning of democracy. The emergence of the critical paradigm invited a sceptical turn in such reflection, and with the translations of Habermas' book, an overarching critical framework was made available. The concept of the public sphere, as the historically conditioned social space where information, ideas and debate can circulate in society, and where political opinion can be formed, became a central, organizing motive. This framework cast the public sphere as a sociological concept as well as an inspirational vision of something better yet to be attained.

    Despite the impressive scope of Habermas' book, questions remained. Literature from a variety of fields addressed some of the issues, often raising still new questions. With the translation of Habermas' Theory of Communicative Action (1984, 1987), yet another major step had been taken in theoretical clarification of communicative processes and the social order. However, again issues arose, and it seemed that a whole industry of secondary literature emerged, interpreting, summarizing and criticizing Habermas' project. I encountered yet other studies, though not directly engaging with Habermas, charting trajectories relevant for examining the relationships between the public sphere, the media and democracy. There was – and is – still much to learn.

    One of the basic difficulties with the notion of a public sphere is that once one begins to unpack it and examine how the various theoretical and empirical components fit together, it becomes very convoluted. All things are connected (as both Hegel and Buddha would affirm from their respective notions of Enlightenment), and in the case of the public sphere, it becomes difficult to see not only all the interfaces but also the boundaries which demarcate the phenomenon from its environment.

    This book is an essayistic effort to explore some of the connections and boundaries of the public sphere, partly empirically but largely theoretically. It is chiefly a project of clarification, an attempt to ‘sort things out’ at the conceptual level, with the intention of providing a clearer platform for future empirical work. It is in part an encounter with Habermas, because his work is so obviously central here, even if I find difficulties with it. I also draw from a variety of literature within social, cultural and political theory, as well as media studies. I have found inspiration in various strands of feminist theory. I try to highlight some of the more significant debates around key points of contention. While I strive to steer my own course through all this material, it will be evident that in many cases there are no easy answers. I would be misleading the reader if I implied that he or she should anticipate full resolution on all the issues. Indeed, much of the discussion pivots on an encounter between the critical tradition and what I see as the more constructive versions of postmodern theorizing – and much of the message of the latter is that we need to heighten our tolerance for ambiguity.

    Television figures prominently in this study since it has become, for better or worse, the major institution of the public sphere in modern society. I examine television from the horizon of the public sphere and the public sphere is illuminated, in part, with television in mind. I try to elucidate the limits and possibilities – the conditions – for their relationship. Television is evolving rapidly, technologically and structurally. My horizon here incorporates the dominant, ‘mainstream’ public service and commercial television (which I see as now including cable and satellite television as well broadcasting). While some of the newer developments such as the links to computers and telecommunication are of significance and will no doubt continue to grow in their import, I will leave such developments for a future treatment. The concrete examples from television which I use are drawn largely from Sweden and, to some extent, the USA, since it is with these that I am most familiar. However, these illustrations are largely of a generic nature and it is my assumption that any reader familiar with Western television culture will recognize the type of programming to which I am referring in each instance.

    Given that television and other media institutions and their output are vital to the public sphere, the pursuit of progressive media policy remains of utmost importance. Yet to understand the public sphere, we must see the limits of the role that especially television can play, even under the very best of circumstances. Hence, while Chapters 2 and 3 are devoted to discussions of television, the ensuing chapters take up other topics. Social structure, for example, broadly understood, of course plays a major role in defining the character of the public sphere. Also, one of the recurring themes in the text is that we must understand the public sphere in terms of sociocultural interaction among citizens.

    Sociocultural interaction has to do not only with encounters in which people act out their roles as citizens and discuss social and political issues. It also has to do with the more fundamental construction of social reality at the intersubjective level. Society is in part generated, maintained and altered in our ongoing interactions, in a complex interplay with structural and historical factors. Norms, collective frames of reference, even our identities, ultimately derive from sociocultural interaction. In short, it is via such interaction, and the practices it embodies, that we generate our culture. This dimension of interaction constitutes an irreducible component of the public sphere. Not all interaction is a manifestation of the public sphere, but the point is that the functioning of the public sphere is greatly dependent upon the nature of sociocultural interaction. That is why the democratization of civil society – which is a way of conceptualizing the terrain of interaction – is of vital importance for the public sphere.

    Each chapter in the book approaches a certain set of issues and it is my aim that the organization and sequence of the chapters will foster the gradual unfolding of an overall perspective. There are a number of cross-referencing notes scattered throughout the text, concerning topics touched upon but postponed for fuller treatment further on. This is particularly evident in the first chapter, where many topics are introduced to convey an overview of the discussions to come. Some themes, such as the notion of rationality and the tensions around it, appear in several contexts, but I have done my best to avoid repetition.

    Chapter 1 situates the theme of the public sphere in the larger problematics of contemporary democracy, centring on the relationship between state and civil society. I provide a cursory treatment of Habermas' by now rather familiar concept of the public sphere, and go on to discuss some of the critical response to it. The issues which emerge – and to which I return in later chapters – can be organized into four themes; these provide a conceptual framework of four dimensions of the public sphere: social structure, media institutions, media representations, and sociocultural interaction.

    In Chapter 2, I focus my attention on television as a medium, reviewing the literature on television research and on what is sometimes loosely called ‘television theory’. I approach television as an industry, as audio-visual texts, and as sociocultural experience. The industry side includes its political economy, its organization, as well as professional practices. In discussing television as audio-visual text, I emphasize among other things the contingency of meaning, and the significance of its mimetic quality. Also I take up the tension between television as popular culture and public knowledge. Television as sociocultural experience takes us into its ubiquity, its reception, its pleasures, and how its mythic, narrative mode of representation resonates in everyday life. As an institution of the public sphere, television certainly has its liabilities, but we must not ignore its assets.

    I turn in Chapter 3 to a discussion of television journalism, which I organize around the theme of its increasing popularization. The notion of the popular becomes an entry port to a discussion of a number of television journalism's contemporary formats, including talk shows and tele-tabloids. The ‘force field’ between information and story is examined, and I also probe the possibilities of the dialogic dimension in television journalism and its relation to moral sensibility. Popular television journalism includes both promises and pitfalls, but it may not always be evident which is which.

    Chapter 4 represents a shifting of gears, as I attempt to sketch some of the contours of the social and epistemological contingencies of modernity. It is my contention that any serious thinking about the public sphere must come to terms with the dominant dynamics of the historical present, including the multilayered relationship between ‘public’ and ‘private’. In this chapter I thus take up some key aspects of modernization – economic, political, technical and cultural – but I also emphasize the importance of recognizing our current epistemic situation. Our knowledge is expanding exponentially, yet the grounds for knowing seem increasingly unsteady. At the same time, we as individuals, groups and societies have made reflexivity a key feature of modernity. These developments impinge on the conditions of the public sphere.

    Much of Chapter 5 is an engagement with elements of Habermas' theory of communicative action. I underscore both its importance and its limitations, highlighting what I see to be unnecessary restrictions engendered by his rather austere notion of rationality. By exploring the arational, by opening up the discussion to versions of the unconscious and its link to signifying practices – the imaginary and the emancipatory – I indicate a somewhat different theoretical route to communication and intersubjectivity.

    Chapter 6 explores two key themes: civil society and citizenship. As the setting for the interactional dimension of the public sphere, civil society also provides an analytic opening for recontextualizing television reception. I take up recent attempts to theorize civil society and to link it to Habermas' framework, noting both gains and limititations in this effort. The struggle for a viable public sphere must also go via civil society, institutionally securing it and culturally filling it with democratic values. Citizenship has returned to the agenda with a vengeance, and it is apparent that changing historical circumstances are altering its definitions and implications. While political theory and philosophy have much to tell us on this score, so do theories of identity, especially as developed within feminism. Citizenship becomes – or rather, must become – an integrated element of the self if a democratic culture is to thrive. Citizenship has to do with belonging and participating, and again we see how the public sphere is inexorably intertwined with social structural and interactional dimensions.

    There is neither a full summary nor firm conclusions in Chapter 7, but I do synoptically review some of the main points from the previous chapters and probe some of their implications. In particular, I take up the role of television journalism and explore some of the political horizons of civil society. I also offer some reflections which point to media policy, arguing that we need a ‘polyphonic’ public sphere which consists of what I call a common domain and an adversary domain.

    I feel I have incurred massive debts in putting together this book. I would like to express my gratitude to the Humanities Faculty of Stockholm University for a part-time research grant which made the work possible. I began my research in earnest while a visiting scholar at the Department of Film and Media Studies, University of Stirling, during the autumn semester of 1992 and am very grateful for the opportunity. I especially wish to thank Philip Schlesinger for his hospitality and advice. My colleagues and doctoral students at the Department of Journalism, Media and Communication have provided a supportive intellectual environment where these ideas could grow. In particular Johan Fornäs, with whom I recently taught a course on Modern Critical Theory, has offered many helpful insights.

    For helpful conversations at various stages of the project I wish to thank John Corner and Marc Raboy. Louis Quéré provided helpful feedback in the context of the annual summer course of the European Doctoral Network in Communication at the University of Stendhal – Grenoble 3. Simon Frith and Michael Schudson read early drafts; Klaus Bruhn Jensen read several chapters; Veronica Stoehrel and Johan Fornäs read the whole manuscript. My appreciation goes out to them all. They are, of course, all absolved of responsibility for shortcomings in the text.

    I am also grateful for encouragement from the Media, Culture and Society Series editors Paddy Scannell and Colin Sparks, and particularly to Sage editor Stephen Barr for his guidance and patience.

    Finally, warm thanks to Karin, Max and Finn, for tolerance during all the evenings and weekends when work on this project intruded on our private sphere.

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