Pop Pop Pop
Public Opinion, Public Sphere, Public Relations
Jim Carey has traced the blood draining from
the body politic as the public discourse of strangers, face to
face, partisan papers in hand, elides into a neutral arena of
technicians and officials seeking to solve problems and serve
interests, until finally the body politic emerges as passionate
puppet, a petulant Chucky pushed and pulled by market researched
propaganda that serves the often common if at times conflicted
interests of the powerful.
Journalism, the watchdog; journalism, the
dispassionate historian of the present, is gone. The two step
flow became the three step flow, public relations providing the
faxed factsheets and theme music for the media before they even
begin to reach the few who read or view critically, if it is
possible to stay consciously alert in the fog of soft features
and melodramatizing of issues into soap opera.
This degenerate phylogeny is encapsulated
in the corrupt ontogeny of the think tank, from the Rockefeller
antecedents of Brookings that must have inspired young Walter
Lippmann, through the nihilistic programmatic scenarios of RAND
and Hudson, to the fraudulent sideshows produced by Heritage
and AEI, with noble efforts like the Economic Policy Institute
and Institute for Policy Studies and World Policy Institute impoverished
blips on the screen of public attention.
But perhaps there is another quarter and a
recent technological potential that may offer some hope, not
only for a public, but for the harbingers, at least, of a global
public. The pathetic victims of the Seattle and D.C. stormtroopers
were facile dismissed by the media - what else - but they may
be the nose of an unexpectedly welcome camel.
I refer to the Non Governmental Agencies that
are Public Interest Groups, from the Union of Concerned Scientists
to Common Cause to Amnesty to Greenpeace to the widely dispersed
and still effective families of Nader's Raiders
The WTO, World Bank, IMF and Nuclear Proliferation
issues have galvanized so many disparate groups with their own
pet issues into something that Lippmann could not have foreseen,
because he did not believe it necessary or desirable: Expertise
with a human face, research with heart, intellectuals with political
programs and realistic strategies.
As a citizen, I reach for the honestly partisan
research of Amnesty, Common Cause, Institute for Policy Research
and surf among the hundreds of emerging fact finders with a social
These entities are in one sense, of course,
interest groups. Most of them are focused on a single issue or
at least an affine cluster of issues. If they were not so focused,
they would be ineffective and dissipated, like the general mass
spectator public Jim and the rest of us decry. But the web has
made possible, even inevitable, the hot linking of these groups
from which emerges a new multiple public interest. The homeless
mind of the fragmented modern finds a common underlying theme
of justice and equity among all these specialized contexts.
For the last century, powerful and selfish
interests have realized that our eighteenth century government,
which bases representation on territory in physical space, is
a poor fit for the modern technological world of nationally,
now globally, dispersed interests. The Congressional Committee
and the Federal Agency have evolved to deal with these realities,
the high-tech descendants of the Interstate Commerce Commission.
So the chairmen and commissioners and their lieutenants are the
sources and targets of public relations lobbying. Access is specialized
and knowledge is arcane - the territorial public is excluded.
But now a new non-territorial meta-public
of linked public interest groups and non-governmental agencies,
with specialized knowledge and a new kind of peer pressure, is
accelerating into effective life on the new media technologies
that have for so long favored the hierarchies of oligopoly.
What do we call this cauldron of hot links?
It is somethng like a town hall, something like a coffee house,
something like a church, something like a library, something
like a printing press, something like a tv screen, something
like a page, something like a megaphone. It is too big for mere
civil Civic Journalism, something like a town meeting, something
like a rally, something like a religious service, something like
a library, something like a stadium.
The New Public Sphere?
Well, Jim, am I falling for the latest technological
sublime? Is Karl Marx sitting up while Leo Marx makes gestures
of exasperated despair?
Time will tell and I wish we both had a lot
more of it.