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The Donut Theory

Warning: this post has nothing to do with beer. It’s about the media, politics, economics and other mundane stuff that makes the world work the way it does. Those are all subjects I revel in but usually try to restrict to talking about only if they have some relation to beer. But occasionally I stray. This is one of those times, because I found this too interesting not to share. If this isn’t something you’re interested in, please feel free to ignore it. We will return to our regularly scheduled beer posts again shortly.

If you’re a regular reader here you know I’m skeptical that the mainstream media has our best interests at heart or is making any real effort to inform the populace in an honestly open manner. Big media is itself big business and so they tend to report in such as way that serves those same interests. I think the model of how this works, as described in the book Manufacturing Consent, by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, is largely correct. But Glen Greenwald, writing on Salon, brought to light another very interesting way of looking at how the media functions. It originally came from a book examining how the media covered the Vietnam War. That book, by Daniel C. Hallin, was titled Uncensored War: The Media and Vietnam. In it, at Page 117, is the Holy Grail, or in this case the Holy Doughnut. Using a very simple diagram, Hallin neatly describes a continuum with three spheres of public opinion and how they affect public debate, especially by the media. Jay Rosen, a professor at NYU’s Journalism School, has written a wonderful analysis of Hallin’s model at his blog PressThink. Entitled Audience Atomization Overcome: Why the Internet Weakens the Authority of the Press. I highly recommend it. It’s slightly different than, but entirely compatible with, Manufacturing Consent. In a nutshell, here’s Rosen’s description.

It’s easily the most useful diagram I’ve found for understanding the practice of journalism in the United States, and the hidden politics of that practice. You can draw it by hand right now. Take a sheet of paper and make a big circle in the middle. In the center of that circle draw a smaller one to create a doughnut shape. Label the doughnut hole “sphere of consensus.” Call the middle region “sphere of legitimate debate,” and the outer region “sphere of deviance.”



Here’s how Rosen explains each of the three spheres.

1. The Donut Hole or Sphere of Consensus

The sphere of consensus is the “motherhood and apple pie” of politics, the things on which everyone is thought to agree. Propositions that are seen as uncontroversial to the point of boring, true to the point of self-evident, or so widely-held that they’re almost universal lie within this sphere. Here, Hallin writes, “journalists do not feel compelled either to present opposing views or to remain disinterested observers.” (Which means that anyone whose basic views lie outside the sphere of consensus will experience the press not just as biased but savagely so.)

Consensus in American politics begins, of course, with the United States Constitution, but it includes other propositions too, like “Lincoln was a great president,” and “it doesn’t matter where you come from, you can succeed in America.” Whereas journalists equate ideology with the clash of programs and parties in the debate sphere, academics know that the consensus or background sphere is almost pure ideology: the American creed.

1. The Donut or Sphere of Legitimate Debate

The sphere of legitimate debate is the one journalists recognize as real, normal, everyday terrain. They think of their work as taking place almost exclusively within this space. (It doesn’t, but they think so.) Hallin: “This is the region of electoral contests and legislative debates, of issues recognized as such by the major established actors of the American political process.”

Here the two-party system reigns, and the news agenda is what the people in power are likely to have on their agenda. Perhaps the purest expression of this sphere is Washington Week on PBS, where journalists discuss what the two-party system defines as “the issues.” Objectivity and balance are “the supreme journalistic virtues” for the panelists on Washington Week because when there is legitimate debate it’s hard to know where the truth lies. There are risks in saying that truth lies with one faction in the debate, as against another— even when it does. He said, she said journalism is like the bad seed of this sphere, but also a logical outcome of it.

3. Off the Donut or Sphere of Deviance

In the sphere of deviance we find “political actors and views which journalists and the political mainstream of society reject as unworthy of being heard.” As in the sphere of consensus, neutrality isn’t the watchword here; journalists maintain order by either keeping the deviant out of the news entirely or identifying it within the news frame as unacceptable, radical, or just plain impossible. The press “plays the role of exposing, condemning, or excluding from the public agenda” the deviant view, says Hallin. It “marks out and defends the limits of acceptable political conduct.”

To me, this is catnip, fascinating stuff to think about and talk about. The Rosen piece is long, and has plenty of interesting ancillary bits, like the original author, Hallin chiming in with his own thoughts, along with plenty of interesting comments from journalists and academia.

Greenwald, which is where I originally read about this also interviews Rosen on the radio, and there’s a transcript of it if you want to read it. It’s also quite interesting. I know where I am on the donut, nibbling on its outer crust. Off the grid, as usual.

There you are, read on if you like. Otherwise, back to the beer.


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