Can the Social History of Audiences Contribute to Media Reform?

by: Thomas Streeter / University of Vermont

Zephyr Teachout, formerly a staffer for Howard Dean’s Presidential campaign, recently published an open memo to the Democratic Party about using the internet to help rejuvenate the Party at the grassroots. Teachout is intervening in a revival of an old argument: we are once again hearing that technology will save us. In recent years, the Dean campaign used the internet to overturn all the rules for political fundraising, internet bloggers have repeatedly made fools out of professional journalists, and internet downloads have been keeping media moguls awake at night. And so, some suggest, the two-way internet will triumph over one-way TV after all, the new media technology will turn us into a nation of active citizens instead of passive couch potatoes. The argument on the table is this: don’t just try to break up media monopolies or pass fairness doctrine regulations, or otherwise try to change the behavior of the mainstream media institutions in the hopes of forcing them to better serve democracy. No, go straight to the newest technologies and find your democracy there. The internet is the solution.

Many FlowTV readers will be aware of how familiar and generally disappointing the tradition of the technical fix has been: the telegraph was going to unite the peoples of the world, the airplane was going to end war (who would attack a country you could easily fly to?), cable television was going to end alienation and rejuvenate democracy (as was the CB radio), and of course we’ve already watched utopian hopes for the internet soar and crash once before, with the stock bubble.

Teachout’s version of the technical fix, however, is both more nuanced and has a twist: her argument is that the internet should be used to organize local, face-to-face Democratic groups, to create local organizations. Use the internet, not to disintermediate, but to reconnect, not to circumvent the local, but to facilitate local meetings of the like-minded, to find those in your community with whom you share a common interest.

This is the model, which perhaps represents the one true internet innovation of the last several years. Blogs are just a variation on the personal web page, and political discussion lists are as old as email. The “Dean For America” meetups that occurred across the US were something new, however, and to the surprise of both the Dean staff and the rest of the world, they became a crucial part of the campaign. They provided strategic value, like fund-raising, and quick coordination of local with national efforts, but just as importantly they provided people with a uniquely intense, emotional connection to the campaign. There are now tens of thousands of Americans who will remember their experience of the Dean meetups of 2004 for the rest of their lives.

Teachout references Robert Putnam of Bowling Alone fame, but thankfully also Theda Skocpol’s less nostalgic work on the historical twists and turns of the relations of local community formation to political movements. Local groups, Teachout argues, amplify individuals’ sense of power; non-staffed local community building, she points out, has been central to the successes of the National Right to Life Committee, the Christian Coalition, and the National Rifle Association.

So what’s this have to do with the internet? “The internet,” she writes, “lowers the barrier to finding places to host public events, and telling people about them. If political . . . organizations with incentive and opportunity exploit this lowered barrier, the Internet could power a resurgence of a new version of the great American voluntary association.”

Perhaps. One wonders how much the internet can be the locus of much passion outside what Teachout acknowledges are “the prominent political blogs and sites that attract a primarily upper class white audience,” i.e., groups of people who already spend much of their day at the computer keyboard.

Part of what’s wrong with many instances of the technical fix is its naive view of media audiences: Americans, it is assumed, eagerly await clear access to information, and when new technologies give it to them, the scales will fall from their eyes and they will suddenly behave rationally, at the ballot box and elsewhere. The stereotype of the citizen yearning for enlightenment through information is American liberalism’s equivalent of the heroic worker of socialist realist orthodoxy.

This is where students of media and cultural studies have something to contribute: Fiskean simplicities about active audiences aside, a number of sophisticated ethnographic and, particularly, historical studies of audiences-as-communities have appeared in recent years. Focused on the complex relations of TV to communities and social conflicts, all point to a richer way of thinking about the relation of media to publics, polities, and social groupings. To mention just a few: Lynn Spigel, in her study of the introduction of the television set into suburban homes in the 1950s, argued that trends like the suburb or television should be seen not as the decline of community, but contexts for the formation of new types of communities; these new modes of life have their own distinct pressures and structures, but they are communities nonetheless. Kathleen Newman’s history of the intersections of radio with consumer actions like organized boycotts in the 1940s adds to the picture of the ways that media and new social movements can interact. And Steve Classen’s rich study of the relations of TV to Southern civil rights struggles in the 1950s and 1960s provides a vivid example of how legal and political struggles over the control of TV can become a galvanizing part of local organizing.

This work demonstrates neither naive optimism about audiences nor the sugar-coated cynicism of much marketing research. The TV set in the living room, the neighborhood Church, the hunting club, and yes, the internet-connected personal computer all can become, for various people at various times, not just a backdrop for and tools within the rhythms of our everyday lives, but tools that on occasion help crystallize groups into passionate political action. But the occasion for politically positive action is always complicated, involving a rich stew of struggles, cultural trends, and both self- and public-interests.

Michael Curtin, in his last column for Flow, argued that we need to emphasize “the potential of a public commons as a basic condition for modern democracy.” A public commons, though, is perhaps neither just a place nor a technology; it is a social event, a collective passion, something that bubbles up out of the complexities of social life, not a location or structure that is somehow shielded from those complexities. In the heat of the moment, both romances and revolutions seem like their own driving force and explanation. But years later, when we look back on them, we can recognize all the multiple things that came together to create the conditions for the passion. Making sense of the role of media in understanding how communities do and do not become politically energized, I think, is something our field can offer those working to create a more democratic world.


James W. Carey with John Quirk: “The Mythos of the Electronic Revolution,” and “The History of the Future,” in Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Society, Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1989, pp. 113-141 and pp. 173-200.

Steven Douglas Classen, Watching Jim Crow: The Struggles Over Mississippi Television, 1955-1969. Duke UP, 2004.

Kathleen M. Newman, Radio Active : Advertising and Consumer Activism, 1935-1947. U of California P, 2004.

Lynn Spigel, Make Room for TV: Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America. U of Chicago P, 1992.

Tom Streeter on Media Left Out?
Michael Curtin on Murdoch
Frederick Wasser on the Fairness Doctrine
Toby Miller on Fox News
Howard Dean’s Democracy for America

Please feel free to comment.


  • Allison Perlman

    What needs to be added to this discussion is the acknowledgment that the media has engendered the formation of communities on both sides of the political spectrum. While civil rights activists banded together in Mississippi to not only root out a racist television station but also to acquire legal standing in FCC proceedings, conservatives have formed strong and influential communities as well to push a right-leaning agenda of media reform. Arguably, it is these groups of people who share a common interest—- for example James Dobson’s Focus on the Family and Brent Bozell’s the Parents Television Council—-who have most effectively used the media to articulate a common set of assumptions and to mobilize their numbers to exact change. And, arguably, these changes have not facilitated democracy but have served to censor speech and to insinuate a moralistic worldview into the electronic public square. Community mobilization does not necessarily spell out political action friendly to a leftist political agenda.

  • Christopher Lucas

    bloody optimism

    I think, rather than “naive optimism” or “sugar-coated cynicism,” we might see Zephyr Teachout’s memo as “bloody optimism.” Or maybe sugar-coated realism. Neither Streeter nor Teachout would deny the fact that reactionary groups have used media very well to build communities of interest. But, unlike Spigel, Classen, and Newman (whose work is all fascinating by the way), Teachout is a political operative. She is attempting an intervention–or, more accurately, to press a slight advantage in on-line organizing the Dean campaign stumbled upon and was able to exploit, to limited effect. I suspect, like many political types, she knows that the public commons is both a crucial principle and that in practice it operates more like an agreed-on free fire zone. Perhaps both are required as a “condition” for democracy?

  • Heather Hendershot

    Left, Right, and the Local Village

    As Streeter, Teachout, and Perlman note, the right has indeed been very successful at organizing local communities around political issues. One of the best examples was the John Birch Society, which set up small discussion groups all over America throughout the 1960s. When the chapters got too big, they broke off into new groups. They had secret member lists, and little autonomy, as they followed the strict orders of higher ups. The Society’s explicit model for local organizing was the American left of the 1930s, as embodied in the American Communist Party. (Cold War paranoiacs, the Birchers assumed that the American CP continued to function in a similar manner in the 1960s.) Both left and right in the U.S. have long understood the need for local activism, but this local activity has often (though certainly not exclusively!) been carried out under the micro-managing hands of higher-ups. I am most interested, then, to hear Streeter observe that Teachout argues for “non-staffed local community building.” I’d love to hear more about how these “non-staffed” groups interacted with the national Dean campaign, how independent they were, and also whether the local groups cohered after the campaign ended and what they are up to now. Much ink has been spilt lauding the Internet as the newest “global village” builder; what a terrific twist for the Dean campaign to recognize the Internet’s potential to harness the power of the local village.

  • visions of our media future

    it’s interesting to notice the differences between the historical conditions of audience formation in the studies conducted by spigel, newman, and classen. in newman’s case, media played a role in the emerging tensions and contests over consumption and citizenship in the shadow of world war. in spigel’s case, the arrival of television became central to the transformation of the postwar family ideology. and in classen’s case, television was the object of struggle over racial visibility and representation in the heart of the cold war. in each case media provided sites where a “rich stew of struggles” were played out against the backdrop of much larger social forces and they were sites where citizenship was reimagined once again as part of ongoing debates over modernity. few could have imagined in advance that commercial radio, 50s tv, or even worse, the vast wasteland could beome a site for such important deliberations, and likewise today one wonders about the potential provided by blogs, online communities, or cable television. and yet, that’s precisely the point: these struggles are notably significant and they are enriched by competing visions of a collective media future. that’s why it seems so important that we continue to debate the future of media and to delineate exactly what we mean by a better future. even if we never realize such dreams, they function as the resilient strands that help to weave together significant social movements. i worry less about the right having their own phalanx of cells that the left surrendering the terrain of popular media as irredeemably corrupt.

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