American Democracy: How Fragmented Publics Might Work
In Andrew Perrin’s American Democracy, he argues that the media have become the “weakest link” in his otherwise optimistic view of the social and cultural bases of democracy. He says the media have traditionally helped create publics in societies where people can’t deliberate in person; however, since 1990, the practices and publics from new media technologies have eliminated the cross-cutting public discourse required to support democracy. He blames the fragmentation of audiences on three key factors: technological innovations, the fact that media outlets are owned by for-profit companies, and the cultural and psychological tendencies of people to prefer news sources that express and validate their views.
While Perrin thinks each of these factors are the result of new media and are responsible for audience fragmentation, each of them can also be seen as creating more cohesive, interconnected audiences among these deeply divided, individualistic small publics.
Consider technological innovations since the early 1990s. The digital age has introduced a wide variety of venues for people in different publics to interact. From email, chat rooms, online forums and the age of social media, people possess more ways than ever to communicate with others they never had previous access to. Yes, many individuals are streamlining their content and usually remain rather consistent in their views; however, they are still exposed to an incredible amount of disagreeing audiences and utilize technology as a forum for public discourse.
Additionally, Perrin thinks the “news business model” is responsible for creating fragmented audiences; however, the opposite could also be argued. In 1983, 90 percent of American media was owned by 50 companies. In 2011, 90 percent was controlled by six companies: GE (now Comcast), News-Corp, Disney, Viacom, Time Warner and CBS (Lutz). Perrin says this causes most media outlets to target niche audiences. While this might be true, and fragmentation might exist here, these audiences are inevitably linked by something greater than where they get their news. While media consolidation has its downfalls, it can certainly work towards creating more cohesive audiences, among the fragmented publics.
Finally, Perrin thinks audience fragmentation is caused by the cultural and psychological tendencies to prefer a news source that validates individuals’ own beliefs. While this might be true, it certainly isn’t a new phenomena that arose with new media – it’s just that these different venues now exist to fuel this desire. However, if everyone has a place they genuinely prefer to get their news, and not just feel like a member of a mass audience, isn’t that a step towards creating more cohesive audiences? The content of the news can transcend above the way it’s packaged by various media outlets, and actually unite fragmented publics, because at least they’re paying attention.
Taking a look at these arguments, Perrin would probably say these practices of united fragmented publics isn’t how democracy best functions. But, like Habermas, he might have an aged view of how public discourse best operates and supports democracy.
Lutz, Ashley. “These 6 Corporations Control 90% Of The Media In America.” Business Insider. Business Insider, Inc, 14 June 2012. Web. 16 Apr. 2015. <http://www.businessinsider.com/these-6-corporations-control-90-of-the-media-in-america-2012-6>.
Perrin, Andrew J. (2014). American Democracy: From Tocqueville to Town Halls to Twitter. New York: Polity Press.