The Arizona 9/11 Memorial: A Case Study in Public Dissent and Argumentation through Blogs

Article excerpt

Increasingly, the use of digital media technologies by publics to generate support, circulate dissent, and/or disseminate their message has shaped the political process. In the 2004 election, citizen-consumers used their digital media skills to engage in political activism and candidates such as Howard Dean conducted fundraising and other campaign activities online (Jenkins, 2006; Kerbel & Bloom, 2005). The use of digital media increased significantly in the 2008 election cycle. Of note were the YouTube debates, the Barack Obama-inspired Macintosh 1984 mash-up featuring Hillary Clinton as the evil overlord, and the Five Sons Blog of Mitt Romney. During this time, the so-called mainstream broadcast media were supplemented, and in some cases supplanted, by blogs as a primary source for citizens' political information. This evolution in information seeking highlights the growing importance of such alternative forms of access and participation. Participatory forms of media production and circulation also have contested understandings of the citizenry as merely passive receivers of media content and political rhetoric. Rather, citizens are taking an active role in political and public participation through the use of digital media such as websites (McDorman, 2001), internet chat rooms (Weger & Aakus, 2003), and video dissemination sites such as YouTube (Hess, 2009). Therefore, scholars of media and political communication must explore new ways of theorizing the argumentation and deliberation processes in an age of digital media.

In the digital media environment, the arguments constructed and disseminated by news organizations and political elites are opened up to contestation by a wide variety of audiences and constituencies. Non-mainstream, web-based political groups such as bloggers are taking an active role in shaping public opinion-and often, the mainstream news coverage of particular issues or events. This essay analyzes one instance in which bloggers took a leading role in influencing public discourse. Specifically, it addresses the public deliberation and blog-circulated dissent surrounding the controversial Arizona 9/11 Memorial.

The memorial was approved with public input and the consensus of planners, but once erected, it produced an outcry of conservative, blogger-generated opinion against the structure, ultimately forcing significant design modifications. Bloggers also critiqued the mainstream news coverage of the memorial-leading some local and national news organizations to in turn analyze and critique the important contributions of these digital intermediaries. The Arizona 9/11 Memorial controversy demonstrates the impact of a small group of conservative bloggers on the mainstream media, local politicians, and public policy. Conservative bloggers were so effective at creating outrage and digitally disseminating their outrage to networked publics, key news outlets, and local politicians that they were able to reverse the outcome of the institutional public deliberation process. Arguments produced and circulated online engendered offline, embodied participation at the memorial site and through local political activism.

This case study illustrates the growing tension between public participation via technology and public participation through embodied political discourse inherent in traditional Habermasian conceptions of deliberation. Additionally, there is evidence that the mainstream news coverage was impacted by the critiques of bloggers. Such interaction between nonmainstream, web-based news environments and mainstream news organizations offers an opportunity to begin an exploration of argumentation in the digital media age, becoming a site for answering particular questions about new forms of political participation. Does the addition of angry voices of opposition, expressed from the safety and anonymity of a disembodied and distanced medium, help or hinder the flourishing of democracy? …