For many reasons, readers are no longer as willing to let this happen. Rather, they are empowered as never before to define community manners and standards themselves—and to reject any heavy-handed efforts to influence those definitions. In attempting to “teach a lesson” to a commenter who had overstepped the boundaries, Greenbaum misinterpreted those boundaries himself—and miscalculated the extent to which he was authorized to set them.

In a follow-up blog post addressing the comment controversy, Greenbaum admitted that, before deciding to call the school about the vulgar comment, he probably should have “walked the idea around the newsroom.” While that move wouldn’t have hurt, it still presumes that the newsroom is the ultimate authority in setting community boundaries. What he really should have done is walked the idea around the Internet.


In his book My Pilgrim’s Progress, the critic George W.S. Trow explained how the media both defines and dominates the communities it serves. Trow wrote about what he called the Dominant Mind—the subtext of any given society; the primary ethic around which a community is oriented. For readers of The Wall Street Journal, the dominant mind is Wall Street. For the mid-twentieth-century Chicago Tribune, the dominant mind was prosperous Main Street conservatism.

A news outlet identifies and defines its community’s dominant mind, and then filters its news through that definition. This isn’t a matter of editorial-page bias so much as the sorts of stories that an outlet covers, and how those stories are reported and edited. The Journal doesn’t limit itself to reporting on mergers and acquisitions. But its coverage of other issues generally assumes that its core readership is steeped in the Wall Street perspective. The New York Post doesn’t just write about sex scandals and the politics of resentment. But its work is generally filtered through a dominant ethic of working-class prurience and reactionary populism.

As I wrote in a previous piece, there are myriad perspectives on any given news event. The news outlet’s role is to “sort all these competing perspectives and, for better or for worse, assert the dominant one.” It is through asserting the dominant perspective, then, that a news outlet sets the boundaries of acceptable discourse in the communities it serves. Communities, in general, trusted news outlets to do this because they presumed that the outlet’s staffers knew more about the subject than did the readers—that the staffers had better information, or more experience, or were otherwise mainlined into the Zeitgeist. And thus a paper could tell its readers: “This is what you’re interested in, and this is what you need to know about it,” and the readers would generally accept the paper’s authority.

This is a process that inevitably leads to the exclusion of disjunctive viewpoints, perspectives, and terminology. For a magazine like BusinessWeek, for instance, business news consists of lionizing executive culture, not investigative reporting on corporate malfeasance. A paper like the Post-Dispatch serves a mild, centrist world where one can brag about eating venison, but not about eating “a part of a woman’s anatomy.”

Previously, if your interests weren’t being served by your chosen source, you essentially had one option: Deal with it. Sure, you could go elsewhere for your news, but easily accessible alternatives were often few; easily accessible alternatives in your particular interest area were fewer still. If you belonged to the Wall Street culture, but you disliked the Journal’s editorial page, you likely still weren’t going to give the paper up—for all its flaws, it was still the only major source that served your dominant mind.

Justin Peters is editor-at-large of the Columbia Journalism Review.