MC433 - week 2

« Back to MC433

These are my notes from October 05 for MC433 at the London School of Economics for the 2017-2018 school year. I took this module as part of the one-year Inequalities and Social Science MSc program.

The usual disclaimer: all notes are my personal impressions and do not necessarily reflect the view of the lecturer.

Civil Rights and the Press


Rethinking the public sphere by Nancy Fraser

This is a wonderful paper found in the book Habermas and the Public Sphere, edited by Craig J. Calhoun. (You can download a PDF of the paper here.) I was pretty stoked to see something on Habermas in the reading list (I haven’t actually read any of his work yet, but it’s been high up on my list ever since I read Grand Hotel Abyss), and this paper lived up to that promise.

Fraser’s goal here is to dissect Habermas’s concept of the “public sphere” (introduced in his 1962 book, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere and assess its blind spots and limitations. In Habermas’s definition, the (bourgeois) public sphere is a place where “private people can come together as a public”, thus opening a space for citizens that is not part of the state apparatus (and potentially serving as a means of checking authoritarian state behaviour). It should also be separate from the economy, and thus guided by discursive instead of market relations.

The idea of a public sphere in itself may be good, but it comes with lots of assumptions that we need to unpack:

This idea that it’s possible to shed status distinctions within this sphere (with the corollary that inequality in the real world is acceptable for the purposes of the public sphere—i.e., that you don’t need real-world status equiality for a functioning democracy). Rebuttal: of course you can never fully bracket differences, especially when the protocols themselves serve as class distinctions. Bracketing always works to the advantage of the dominant groups. Think all this “I don’t see gender/race” discourse coming from members of the dominant class as a way of dismissing the (very valid) concerns from marginalised people.

That a single sphere is better than multiple. Rebuttal: in a stratified society, with rampant inequality and groups that are dominated by others, you need what Fraser calls subaltern counterpublics. This is true when a society is not stratified, as long as it is heterogeneous—public spheres are important for the forming and enacting of social identities, and so you need multiple such sphers to accommodate different norms (otherwise you end up privileging the dominant group over the others).

The focus on topics relevant to the common good, and not private matters. Rebuttal: what counts as “public” is itself a contentious topic, and different groups will have different opinions on the matter. There are ideas that are initially seen as private concerns (think domestic violence) and are only later seen as public/common concerns, after they’ve been first developed in subaltern communities. There may not be a universal “common” good in a society consisting of groups that dominate/exploit others, and the designation of particular ideas as private has a tendency to benefit the dominant groups (though not always: think Roe v. Wade or Bowers v. Hardwick).

The assumed separation of civil society and the state, which seems to imply the necessity of laissez-faire capitalism and a limited form of government. Rebuttal: Habermas’ definition assumes that participants in the public sphere are not government employees, but this only results in a weak public (i.e., one with no civil servants and thus no civic decision-making power). Distinguished from a strong public (e.g., a sovereign parliament). Having such a sharp division between public/private citizens can be deleterious because then you miss out on potentially important forms of accountability.

Fraser’s conclusion is that we need a postbourgeois conception of the public sphere.

A Free And Responsible Press (pages 79-95)

Also known as the Hutchins report. Published in 1947 by The Commission On Freedom Of The Press. This report is extremely historically significant, and can be seen as partly responsible for the unique role of the American press. The main goal of the report was to clarify the commission’s ideal level of government involvement in the functioning of the press (spoiler: very little). Their whole idea was that the press should find a way to self-regulate, and that it could do that even despite the exigencies of the profit motive.

Proposals for the govt:

  1. include radio & film in freedom of the press
  2. fund more technology and maintain competition via antitrust laws if necessary (but preserve concentration where it’s beneficial to consumers)
  3. alternative to libel (civil action for damage)—we should have a better way for libel victims to get a correction/retraction. I think they’re arguing for more voluntary corrections? not really sure
  4. this is a weird one addressing some technicality w/ freedom of speech and urging the overthrow of the government by force (I think they’re saying: don’t prosecute this unless it’s actually likely to result in violence)
  5. govt should inform the public of policies through existing or new channels if necessary (not entirely sure that their goal with this one is)

Basically they’re saying that the communications industry should remain private, but with the knowledge that it serves the public interest. The Commission hopes that the press will recognise its own responsibility and uphold it so as to avoid the need for government regulation. Optimistically thinks that the profit motive and a good press can coexist (which I tentatively disagree with, because you can get a vicious/virtuous cycle, depending on reception by the public … there’s an aleatory element as well, of course).

Proposals for the press:

  1. Large companies should be responsible but not broken up
  2. Companies should fund new experimental technologies/ventures even if they’re (initially) unprofitable, as long as they serve the public better
  3. Members of the press need to engage in mutual criticism
  4. Improve staff effectiveness (better pay, conditions, education)
  5. Radio: don’t let programming be dictated by advertisers (should be like newspapers in this regard)

The Race Beat by Gene Roberts, Hank Klibanoff (chapters 1-3)

On the role of the press in the civil rights era. Very accessible read & highly engrossing (more journalistic than academic). Seems to be focused on the stories of the white southern editors who helped pave the way for public acceptance of the civil rights movement (partly riding on the work of black journalists who would have otherwise been ignored by white America).



We continued our discussion of the last question from the lecture. No real answer was proposed—I think we all the dangers of relying on self-regulation while at the same time acknowledging that you can’t always rely on the government, either.

Some points raised:

We then got into pairs to summarise key readings to each other (Rawls, Young, Fraser, etc). It then transpired that the point of this exercise was to encourage us to, in the future, better ground our seminar discussions in the texts we’re reading.