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.
“The prime condition of a democratically organized public is a kind of knowledge and insight which does not yet exist,” the philosopher John Dewey, patron saint of participatory democracy, wrote in The Public and Its Problems.
The highest and most difficult kind of inquiry and a subtle, delicate, vivid and responsive art of communication must take possession of the physical machinery of transmission and circulation and breath life into it. When the machine age has thus perfected its machinery, it will be a means of life and not its despotic master. Democracy will come into its own, for democracy is a name for a life of free and enriching communion. It had its seer in Walt Whitman. It will have its consummation when free social inquiry is indissolubly wedded to the art of full and moving communication.
This, then, is the goal: a system of news that realizes Dewey’s prescient notion—a framework that combines the participatory value of passionate belief with the participatory value of democratic discourse. The Web, after all, has the power to unite people in groups both minute and immense; at its best, it does both.
Cass Sunstein prescribes, as one mechanism of moving forward, an “architecture of serendipity”—an informational infrastructure that facilitates chance encounters with a wide array of knowledge, ensuring that we don’t lose ourselves in the maze of our own idiosyncrasies. Whether that architecture builds itself up from the civic spaces of sites like Wikipedia, or from national news aggregators, or from collaborative networks of outlets, or from the mini-meritocracies of social media, or from a logic of news consumption that plays out, Pareto-like, in the concentration of the long tail…remains to be seen. The point, for now, is that our democracy requires its construction. “It is hardly possible,” Mill had it, “to overstate the value in the present state of human improvement of placing people in contact with others dissimilar to themselves, and in contact too with modes of thought and action unlike those with which they are familiar.”