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Tribute to James Carey
University of Pittsburgh Communication Conference
Spring 2000

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Public Opinion, Public Sphere, Public Relations


Jim Carey has traced the blood draining from the body politic as the public discourse of strangers, face to face, partisan papers in hand, elides into a neutral arena of technicians and officials seeking to solve problems and serve interests, until finally the body politic emerges as passionate puppet, a petulant Chucky pushed and pulled by market researched propaganda that serves the often common if at times conflicted interests of the powerful.

Journalism, the watchdog; journalism, the dispassionate historian of the present, is gone. The two step flow became the three step flow, public relations providing the faxed factsheets and theme music for the media before they even begin to reach the few who read or view critically, if it is possible to stay consciously alert in the fog of soft features and melodramatizing of issues into soap opera.

This degenerate phylogeny is encapsulated in the corrupt ontogeny of the think tank, from the Rockefeller antecedents of Brookings that must have inspired young Walter Lippmann, through the nihilistic programmatic scenarios of RAND and Hudson, to the fraudulent sideshows produced by Heritage and AEI, with noble efforts like the Economic Policy Institute and Institute for Policy Studies and World Policy Institute impoverished blips on the screen of public attention.

But perhaps there is another quarter and a recent technological potential that may offer some hope, not only for a public, but for the harbingers, at least, of a global public. The pathetic victims of the Seattle and D.C. stormtroopers were facile dismissed by the media - what else - but they may be the nose of an unexpectedly welcome camel.

I refer to the Non Governmental Agencies that are Public Interest Groups, from the Union of Concerned Scientists to Common Cause to Amnesty to Greenpeace to the widely dispersed and still effective families of Nader's Raiders

The WTO, World Bank, IMF and Nuclear Proliferation issues have galvanized so many disparate groups with their own pet issues into something that Lippmann could not have foreseen, because he did not believe it necessary or desirable: Expertise with a human face, research with heart, intellectuals with political programs and realistic strategies.

As a citizen, I reach for the honestly partisan research of Amnesty, Common Cause, Institute for Policy Research and surf among the hundreds of emerging fact finders with a social conscience.

These entities are in one sense, of course, interest groups. Most of them are focused on a single issue or at least an affine cluster of issues. If they were not so focused, they would be ineffective and dissipated, like the general mass spectator public Jim and the rest of us decry. But the web has made possible, even inevitable, the hot linking of these groups from which emerges a new multiple public interest. The homeless mind of the fragmented modern finds a common underlying theme of justice and equity among all these specialized contexts.

For the last century, powerful and selfish interests have realized that our eighteenth century government, which bases representation on territory in physical space, is a poor fit for the modern technological world of nationally, now globally, dispersed interests. The Congressional Committee and the Federal Agency have evolved to deal with these realities, the high-tech descendants of the Interstate Commerce Commission. So the chairmen and commissioners and their lieutenants are the sources and targets of public relations lobbying. Access is specialized and knowledge is arcane - the territorial public is excluded.

But now a new non-territorial meta-public of linked public interest groups and non-governmental agencies, with specialized knowledge and a new kind of peer pressure, is accelerating into effective life on the new media technologies that have for so long favored the hierarchies of oligopoly.

What do we call this cauldron of hot links? It is somethng like a town hall, something like a coffee house, something like a church, something like a library, something like a printing press, something like a tv screen, something like a page, something like a megaphone. It is too big for mere civil Civic Journalism, something like a town meeting, something like a rally, something like a religious service, something like a library, something like a stadium.

The New Public Sphere?

Well, Jim, am I falling for the latest technological sublime? Is Karl Marx sitting up while Leo Marx makes gestures of exasperated despair?

Time will tell and I wish we both had a lot more of it.



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