The Space of Opinion: Media Intellectuals and the Public Sphere

The Space of Opinion: Media Intellectuals and the Public Sphere

The Space of Opinion: Media Intellectuals and the Public Sphere

The Space of Opinion: Media Intellectuals and the Public Sphere


While the newspaper op-ed page, the Sunday morning political talk shows on television, and the evening cable-news television lineup have an obvious and growing influence in American politics and political communication, social scientists and media scholars tend to be broadly critical of the rise of organized punditry during the 20th century without ever providing a close empirical analysis. What is the nature of the contemporary space of opinion? How has it developed historically? What kinds of people speak in this space? What styles of writing and speech do they use? What types of authority and expertise do they draw on? And what impact do their commentaries have on public debate?

To describe and analyze this complex space of news media, Ronald Jacobs and Eleanor Townsley rely on enormous samples of opinion collected from newspapers and television shows during the first years of the last two Presidential administrations. They also employ biographical data on authors of opinion to connect specific argument styles to specific types of authors, and examine the distribution of authors and argument types across different formats. The result is a close mapping that reveals a massive expansion and differentiation of the opinion space. It tells a complex story of shifting intersections between journalism, politics, the academy, and the new sector of think tanks. It also reveals a proliferation of genres and forms of opinion; not only have the people who speak within the space of opinion become more diverse over time, but the formats of opinion-claims to authority, styles of speech, and modes of addressing publics-have also become more varied. Though Jacobs and Townsley find many changes, they also find continuities. Despite public anxieties, the project of objective journalism is alive and well, thriving in the older, more traditional formats, and if anything, the proliferation of newer formats has resulted in an intensified commitment (by some) to core journalistic values as clear points of difference that offer competing logics of distinction and professional justification. But the current moment does represent a real challenge as more and different shows compete to narrate politics in the most compelling, authoritative, and influential manner.

By providing the first systematic study of media opinion and news commentary,The Space of Opinionwill fill an important gap on research about media, politics, and the civil society and will attract readers in a number of disciplines, including sociology, communication, media studies, and political science.


On July 6, 2003, the New York Times published an op-ed by Joseph Wilson, titled “What I Didn’t Find in Africa.” in that column—slightly longer than the typical op-ed piece, at 1,441 words—Wilson charged President Bush and his administration with manipulating intelligence about Saddam Hussein’s weapons program in order to justify going to war with Iraq. After asserting this charge, Wilson was careful to lay out his expert credentials. He was a career foreign service officer and ambassador, the last American diplomat to meet with Saddam Hussein, and the person who had been asked by Vice President Cheney’s office to explore a possible sale of uranium yellowcake from Niger to Iraq. Wilson described his visit to Niger in some detail, recounted conversations with embassy staff there who reported that the Niger-Iraq link had been debunked several times in reports to Washington, detailed why it would be so difficult and improbable for Niger to transfer uranium to Iraq, and described the briefings he had made to that effect to the cia and the State Department. Wilson concluded:

The question now is how that answer was or was not used by our political leader
ship. If my information was deemed inaccurate, I understand (though I would be
very interested to know why). If, however, the information was ignored because it
did not fit certain preconceptions about Iraq, then a legitimate argument can be
made that we went to war under false pretenses. (It’s worth remembering that in his
March “Meet the Press” appearance, Mr. Cheney said that Saddam Hussein was

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.