Democracy, Inc.: The Press and Law in the Corporate Rationalization of the Public Sphere/Communicating Politics: Engaging the Public in Democratic Life

By Greer, Jennifer | Journalism & Mass Communication Educator, Autumn 2006 | Go to article overview

Democracy, Inc.: The Press and Law in the Corporate Rationalization of the Public Sphere/Communicating Politics: Engaging the Public in Democratic Life


Greer, Jennifer, Journalism & Mass Communication Educator


* Allen, David S. (2005). Democracy, Inc.: The Press and Law in the Corporate Rationalization of the Public Sphere. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, pp. 200.

* McKinney, Mitchell S., LyndaLee Kaid, Dianne G. Bystrom, and Diana B. Carlin, eds. (2005). Communicating Politics: Engaging the Public in Democratic Life. New York: Peter Lang. pp. 315.

Government officials, journalists, legal experts, and scholars continue to debate what role the press should play in engaging citizens in a democratic society. Most agree that news media play an important role in our societybut often disagree on what that role should be.

In recent decades, this debate has centered on whether news media should actively lead the charge of encouraging citizen involvement through public journalism, civic journalism, community-building journalism, or a number of other concepts. Or, should media simply inform while allowing citizens to set their own course of action and their own level of involvement?

The Public Journalism Network Charter (pjnet.org) states:

We believe journalism and democracy work best when news helps people function as political actors and not just as political consumers. We believe journalists should stand apart in making sound professional judgments about how to cover communities, but cannot stand apart in learning about and understanding these communities.

Dissenters counter that newsrooms use the "civic journalism" label to disguise coverage fueled by marketdriven pressures, and that projects pushing a cause are little more than public relations. In 2001, the president of the Society of American Business Editors and Writers explained why her organization would not participate in civic journalism projects. "If we feed the public a diet of information that we think is 'in their best interest,' we have robbed them of the right to weigh the facts and judge their own interest on their own," wrote Kathy Kristof on the sabew.org Web site. "We may create a public that is no longer able to make their own decisions because they have become hypnotized by our propaganda."

Two recent books of interest to journalism educators take a hard look at media's role in fostering an engaged public, but both volumes go beyond the black-and-white debate presented above. Democracy, Inc., by David S.

Alien, and Communicating Politics: Engaging the Public in Democratic Life, edited by Mitchell S. McKinney, Lynda Lee Kaid, Dianne G. Bystrom, and Diana B. Carlin, share a theoretical approach, but the books differ in their format, approach, and ultimately their outlook. Regardless, both push the debate in new directions.

Allen's Democracy, Inc. essentially is a long essay, broken into seven chapters, outlining his premise that corporate values-winning, efficiency, and profitability, for example-have seeped into all aspects of life in the United States, severely damaging public discourse. The press and law have become victims of this "corporate rationalization" and both have played keys role in the loss of public life, he argues.

Using critical theory, Alien adopts a discourse model of democracy stemming from the work of Habermas. In Alien's view, public life is "broken," and a status-quo press system or legal system is unlikely to repair it.

He starts with a historical look at the roots of corporate rationalization, the rise of corporations, and how professionalization of the press and legal systems has separated them from the public sphere. The over-reliance on expertise and scientific reasoning, Alien contends, has transmitted corporate-liberal values to an increasingly inert public. Further, the professionalization of the press, which emphasizes objectivity and the media's watchdog role, has led to the press serving as a surrogate for an inactive public sphere. "The press presents stories not as something to be acted on but as events that have already been completed," Alien writes (p. …

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