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.
Now, more than ever, the news consumer doesn’t have to let a newspaper set the boundaries of discourse, or settle for a source that doesn’t reflect his or her attitudes. No longer do single sources monopolize the dominant mind. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch is still around—but there are also sources like the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, and the St. Louis Beacon, the Saint Louis Front Page, and the STL Syndicate. As Syracuse professor R. David Lankes writes, “There are simply more choices in whom to trust, and market forces have not come into play to limit choices. While this is true for virtually all media venues to some degree, the scale of choice on the internet make the internet particularly affected by shifts in authority.”
In his paper “Credibility on the internet: shifting from authority to reliability,” Lankes draws a distinction between authoritarianism and authoritativeness. Broadly, an authoritative source, when making a point, will say, “This is how it is—but don’t take my word for it, ask all these other sources who will confirm what I’m saying.” An authoritarian source, when making a point, will say, “This is how it is—because I say so.”
But in a communicative environment like the Internet, says Lankes, authoritarianism doesn’t work, because it implies that readers don’t have any other choice, or are unable to do their own research to come to their own conclusions on a subject. Online, it is harder to assert unilaterally the parameters of a dominant mind—to define a community and its (best) interests—because the community itself expects to play a substantial role in the defining. Online, it is insufficient to explain a controversial editorial decision with a casual “this is how it is, and this is what we did, and we’re not responsible to anyone else out there—what’re you gonna do about it?”