This isn’t to romanticize that deliberation. Nor is it to suggest that the rigor of republicanism is wholly reliant on journalism. Representative democracy thrived in the United States long before the advent of a coherent system of news. “Between 1856 and 1888, when most newspapers were crap and controlled by, or beholden to, a political party, voter turnout hovered around 80 percent for presidential elections,” Jack Shafer points out. Michael Schudson sums it up perfectly: “That journalism is crucial to modern democracy seems clear; that it is not by any means sufficient to democracy seems equally clear; that journalism does not by itself produce or provide democracy seems likewise apparent.”
Knowledge united the country—not by whitewashing differences, but rather by giving the fledgling nation a baseline of shared information and discourse.
The crucial concern isn’t so much news-and-democracy; rather, it’s a matter of news and the more foundational element of both America’s journalism and its political system: the public. “The press justifies itself in the name of the public,” the press scholar James Carey wrote. “It exists—or so it is regularly said—to inform the public, to serve as the extended eyes and ears of the public, to protect the public’s right to know, to serve the public interest.”
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.”)