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Roberto Suro, looking backwards to understand the future of media

Professor Roberto Suro is a veteran print journalist, formerly with the Chicago Sun Times, the Chicago Tribune, New York Times, Washington Post and other major publications. He’s our resident journalist, asked to frame
journalism’s role in democracy for the Media Re:public conversation.

He reminds us that we should separate journalism’s social role from its business reality. “The decline of journalism as a business is portrayed as decline in social role,” and it’s not clear that that’s true. He also offers a distinction between “participatory journalism” – places where people comment and interact around the news – and “the journalism of participation”, journalism that fosters more effective participation in the civic space.

This latter form of journalism sometimes uses new tools, but can happen in old-fashioned one to many media. “In weighing journalism’s social role, we need to pay more attention to its impact than to its means.” We should ask what are the outcomes of participation in journalism, and whether journalism makes engagement in democracy more representative.

To explain the shifts in our understanding of journalism, Suro invites us to travel backwards to the journalistic feud between Philip Freneau and Benjamin Franklin Bache. The two men edited rival newspapers, which represented the Federalist and Republican parties. The papers “pushed the limits of the technology available in the day, promoting discussion with readers, organizing readers into networks.” The papers had a watchdog role, examning government responses to foreign policy and domestic issues. And they both slung mud, engaging in truly nasty personal attacks against each other.

We’d fire either of these editors immediately for being overly partisan. But it’s worth remembering that their patrons were Madison and Jefferson, on one side, Adams and Hamilton on the other side. Certainly the work these men did was fundamental to the American notion of democracy. And it’s hard to argue with their dedication – when yellow fever struck Philadephia, both men refused to leave the city unless the other left first. They both died, four days apart from one another, from yellow fever.

The debate between the two men was basically a debate about whether the press’s role was to inform the elites, or whether it should inform the broadest swath of citizenry. This debate is with us today – in some ways, it’s the professional versus citizen media debate.

We’re seeing a pivotal moment in the evolution of journalism. There’s a resurgence of partisan news organizations. In Europe, these organizations tend to be explicitly aligned with political parties, which actually helps keep them fairly moderate. It’s more factional in the US, where partisan media tends to cluster at the ends of the political spectrum – they’re capable of criticizing their own movements for being insufficiently conservative or progressive. This leads to a greater polarization in government, and probably to a less effective government. Suro has studied the US debates over immigration closely, and believes that citizen media was effectively used to polarize the debate to the point where compromise and reform was impossible. The new medium doesn’t guarantee more productive debate.