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Jay Rosen on making a public

In “What I Think I Know About Journalism,” Jay Rosen’s 25th anniversary reflection on what he’s learned about his field, the fourth point keeps calling me back. I notice the tightly worded section title, where similar phrases represent very different meanings. That means we can’t think our way through the problems of journalism today, which are also society’s problems, without attending to the precise meaning of words. How we say it, how we think it, matters. We’ll need to be at our best to work it through. He begins:

[#4] Making facts public does not a public make; information alone will not inform us.

So, information—facts—made public: we misunderstand how this process works. “Making facts public” seems like putting a few coins on the counter at the store, a simple transaction in which the coins mean about the same thing for one person as for another. They—coins, facts—just move about, and sometimes they are here and sometimes they are somewhere else, and they are simple. But that’s not right, Rosen’s section title suggests. Handing over facts as if we were conducting a simple transaction will not turn a herd made up of consumers into a public made of citizens. Something more transformative must take place.

Perhaps the facts must be tested and transformed as they pass through the digesting intelligence of the citizens; perhaps the citizens must be challenged and transformed by their encounter, if it is deep enough, with the facts; perhaps people must abandon their private lives and risk becoming members of an active community. Rosen’s 4th item suggests that mechanical understandings of journalism and the public sphere fail because they do not reflect how information actually works in a transformative fashion in our lives, when things are going well. It’s not a mechanical process.

It is a challenging one, he suggests in his first two paragraphs (“There’s a reason why … ‘… out of the loop.’”), because a glut of information is difficult for a person to handle, and competing perspectives battle it out for our attention rather than for our understanding. Much of what we see is meant to gather ratings from us rather than inquire into truth with us.

In the third paragraph, the long quotation from Lasch makes a fuller sketch of the process by which people in community actually can, and sometimes do, think and learn together. That’s the goal, but it can’t be achieved through mechanical transactions:

In The Lost Art of Argument, Christopher Lasch said we should invert the usual order of information and debate. “We do not know what we need to know until we ask the right questions, and we can identify the right questions only by subjecting our own ideas about the world to the test of public controversy. Information, usually understood as the precondition of debate, is better understood as its by-product. When we get into arguments that focus and fully engage our attention, we become avid seekers of information. Otherwise, we take in information passively– if we take it in at all.”

In the comments, Bob Calo provides another Lasch quotation, from Revolt of the Elites. Lasch tries to explain the alienation of the citizen, now largely just a consumer, I imagine. If you can’t participate meaningfully, why bother digesting the mass of information?

In the “age of information,” the American people are notoriously ill informed. The explanation of this seeming paradox is obvious, though seldom offered: Having been effectively excluded from public debate on the grounds of their incompetence, most Americans no longer have any use for the information inflicted on them in such large amounts.

If everybody is right here, then the role of our best institutions, such as journalism, higher education, local government, and so forth, should be to help people engage. To engage with people in ways that our fellow citizens would find useful, as Rosen says, so they—we—engage back. I think in an early Rebooting the News Rosen spoke of the role of journalism being to help people participate in their own democracy. That insight is lurking here too.

So “making a public” is an activity far more involving than simply placing a coin on a counter or a newspaper on the doorstep. When we get it right, readers become “the people formerly known as the audience,” and chances are that more and more of those people come to understand why citizenship grows more interesting when it is more than reading the paper and occasionally voting or shooting the breeze in a coffee shop or on a blog. For a member of a healthy public, there is much active and interesting work to be done. Journalism, rightly practiced, helps create a public and get us there.

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