In this way the public, in Carey’s enduring phrase, is “the god term of journalism.” (Count, for example, the number of times it is used in the opening lines of “The Journalist’s Creed,” which doubles as a de facto code of ethics for the National Press Club: “I believe in the profession of journalism. I believe that the public journal is a public trust; that all connected with it are, to the full measure of their responsibility, trustees for the public; that acceptance of a lesser service than public service is a betrayal of that trust.”) News serves the public not only by feeding it information; it also fosters, in the phrase of the sociologist C. Wright Mills, the “sociological imagination”—the habit of mind required to connect one’s private concerns to the “public issues” that give rise to them. News itself is thus a self-fulfilling prophecy. In learning about our fellow citizens, we come to see their lives as they are: inextricably linked to ours. News begets empathy—and, in that, social capital. Connection is key: as Robert Putnam notes, “a society of many virtuous but isolated individuals is not necessarily rich in social capital.”
And yet, crucially, the press exists not merely to serve the public. It exists, also, to cultivate a public in the first place: to take the logic of the First Amendment—which, in mingling the freedom to gather in public spaces with the freedom of the press, suggests a core similarity between the two—and translate it to the particular and evolving needs of a far-flung citizenry. As the sociologist and journalism scholar Todd Gitlin observes, mapping Habermas’s notion of the “public sphere” to the concerns of contemporary journalism,
Perhaps the great genius of the newspaper was not simply in the invention of reporting but in the paper’s ability to serve as the great aggregator, so that something of a public sliver or even a polygon if not a sphere was created by the sum of all papers, as incidental readers accumulated into functional publics.
The founders themselves envisioned a nation comprised precisely of such functional publics—fostered by shared public spaces that, in turn, fostered discourse. These included not merely town squares and meeting halls and “publick houses,” but also the psychic space represented by the news media of the time: pamphlets and papers. (Indeed, the U.S. Post Office, created in 1775 and codified as a cabinet department in 1792, was founded not merely to enable interpersonal communications throughout the colonies and then the states, but also to circulate media products. Paul Starr sums up its efficacy in The Creation of the Media: “Postal networks supported the creation of news networks.”)
The “news” in question was heavily partisan, to be sure, and often colored by the rhetorical vitriol that was just as present during the Enlightenment as it has been at every other stage of human communication—but still it was, in the broadest sense, public. Even “the backwoodsman,” Alexis de Tocqueville observed in Democracy in America, “talks the language of a town; he is aware of the past, curious about the future, and ready to argue about the present.” He is “a very civilized man prepared for a time to face life in the forest, plunging into the wilderness of the New World with his Bible, ax, and newspapers.”
That spirit of discursive inclusivity—if you can read, you can participate—was a key contributor, most scholars agree, to the political and economic success of the fledgling democracy. “Whatever else may be said of those immigrants who came to settle in New England,” Neil Postman writes, “it is a paramount fact that they and their heirs were dedicated and skillful readers whose religious sensibilities, political ideas, and social life were embedded in the medium of typography.” Mediated knowledge, in other words, united the country. Not by whitewashing differences among its consumers, but rather by giving those consumers a baseline of shared information and discourse that, eventually, transformed an awkward amalgam of loosely connected states—the experiment—into the United States. The nation.
The conundrum we face now is in many ways a contemporary corollary to the challenges faced by the founders: to determine a system—of news, rather than government—that will balance majority and minority, ensuring that the diversity of our informational outlets complements, rather than counters, the broader diversity of our national discourse. A system that will unite micro-communities and macro- into a coherent public. “The unruliness of a decentralized and multi-voiced informational system may be among democracy’s greatest assets,” Michael Schudson notes. But so is a system that is, in the broadest sense, unitary. The challenge, as we navigate the chasm between old ways and new, is to find a way to mingle the productive properties of commotion with the enduring value of community.