Back to Habermas Studies page Habermas and the market for ideas

gary e. davis
May 27, 2007

Habermas’ recent article on the press and the market is a thought-provoking instance of the public intellectual appealing for ensurance of discursive potential for democratic life. (I’ve numbered the paragraphs of the article for the sake of reference below.) His article dramatizes the importance of “discursive vitality” which “quality” newspapers have facilitated. But I argue that the multimedial threat to the newspaper doesn't, unto itself, imply a threat to potentials for discursive vitality in the public sphere. It's more plausible that the vitality is evolving into new media, while the community bases of discursive appeal are the key to ensuring the market value of high quality press. Yet, Habermas’ concerns provide a welcomed chance to think about the cultural economics of discursive vitality (albeit briefly here).

Are new media a threat to editorial integrity?

He notes that “[p]rofits have risen, despite digital competition and changing readership habits” (¶ 4, my emphasis). Whose profits? The companies showing profits are those involving their news holdings in the flourishing digital market, itself a creature of changing readership habits. Presumably, Habermas is speaking about the profits of newspapers, but all of the news sources he mentions are heavily involved with the digital market. Also, that discursivity that he rightly treasures is flourishing digitally, as well as still in the papers (to my experience, as news junkie). It’s healthy that the evolving mix of digital and print, video and audio—the multimediality of the news business—shifts and re-sorts relationships and alliances, relative to an evolving public sphere.

So, what is Habermas’ problem? Firstly, apparently, he sees an “affect...[on] the freedom of editorial desks” (¶ 4). But his passing explication of this is misleading. His note about the Boston Globe is about editorial content, but his note about the Washington Post and New York Times are about the business side, the “streamlining” that happens to be normal business adjustment to changing markets, not obviously related to editorial freedom.

In the case of the Globe, one can see that their world news is currently covered by their own correspondents, as well as carrying stories from other sources, just as my hometown San Francisco Chronicle does. The economics of this is that “foreign” correspondents (a provincial notion anymore) now serve multiple news clients, and news organizations buy each other’s services. Thus, there is plenty of competition (e.g., Associated Press vs. Reuters vs. New York Times vs. Washington Post vs. Bloomberg vs. Scripps-Newhouse vs. Cox News vs. etc., etc.) without each metropolitan paper needing to fund so many of their own reporters. The Globe didn’t “cut all its foreign correspondents” (¶ 5); rather, it cut back it’s volume of correspondents that are on their own payroll. The question is: Did the Globe cut back on world coverage? A look at today’s Globe seems to indicate “No”. Moreover, I can attest (as a somewhat addicted reader of U.S. news) that the NY Times, LA Times, and Washington Post are not representing themselves as at risk of losing editorial freedom. (The situation at the LA Times is complex; it could be very useful to get into details of that.) So, perhaps there’s a great threat to editorial freedom in Germany. If so, then Habermas should focus on that context, and less on making a scapegoat of the U.S. context.

Then last week Die Zeit published a second article, on the “battle of Wall Street financial managers versus the US press.” What lies behind such headlines? (¶ 6).

Well, the situation is not about editorial freedom, as Habermas apparently presumes. There’s no “battle” at the Wall Street Journal; the owners simply rejected Murdoch’s bid. Otherwise, as a general matter (as one AP story seems to accurately put it, May 5):

The media mating dance that broke out this week is part of a mad scramble to find the right mix of technology, business savvy and content to remain relevant and profitable amid the sociological and economic upheaval wrought by the rise of the Web.“ (Michael Liedtke, AP via Hartford Courant, 5/5/0; no longer available there, 9/4/14.)

In other words, it’s normal business among media businesses. (May 29: I’ve just discovered that my view of the news business as such is coincidently corroborated by the researched view of the Center for Excellence in Journalism: “State of the News Media, 2007.”)

Returning to Habermas:

Clearly the fear is that the market in which the national newspapers must compete today will fail to do justice to the twin function that the quality press has fulfilled up to now: satisfying the demand for information and education while securing adequate profits (¶ 6, my emphasis).

So, the “quality press” has outgrown the newspaper, at worst. But I see no problem of quality in the U.S. national press. Could it be that Habermas is tacitly bemoaning that we’re no longer in the 20th century?

Can appeal to broader audiences facilitate discursive appeal?

Habermas poses false dyads with his rhetorical question: “Should [the press] be allowed to impose upon them dry reports instead of infotainment; factual commentary and complex arguments instead of more accessible stories on people and events?” (¶ 7).

Firstly, no business can impose anything on a market; secondly, the market has plenty of room for pluralism. A newspaper can learn to appeal to a broader audience, thereby, perhaps, bringing those lovers of infotainment and accessible stories more often into contact with commentary and arguments that should anyway learn to be less “dry”.

Rather than, as Habermas apparently does, treating cultural and political communication as a “commodity” (¶ 8) and regarding readers as apparently passive consumers of “auto-paternalistic learning process” (¶ 9), let’s give attention to how appeal to a wider audience creates opportunity to bring more people into contact with complex commentary, people who would otherwise not take notice of such opportunity at all, depending on how the media business packages the opportunity, which is no trivial matter in the profession of communication arts. Complexity must be accessibly positioned.


In the course of reading, new preferences, convictions and value orientations may be formed. The meta-preference which guides such a reading is oriented on the advantages expressed in the professional self-image of independent journalism, and which form the basis of the quality press’ reputation (¶ 10).

But the press can’t be the primary basis for orienting meta-preferences, since that’s basically a matter of capability for preference formation, which arises from one’s background individuation, especially via the community basis for reader development, paradigmatically in family orientation to reading and learning; and family and community support for education. The press contributes to the prevalence of those values—valuing difficult reading, let’s say—which in turn creates a market for the media proffering difficult reading, but the broadening of audience for a medium (and diversification of media for a given kind of message) doesn’t threaten the community value of difficult reading!

But Habermas tacitly raises the vitally important issue of preference formation, which we should develop into better appreciation of the opportunities for valuation or value formation in markets for cultural “goods”, including especially how to facilitate broad-based communication about what’s “good” and why. (I would go so far as to argue that appreciating what’s “good” is the basis for appreciating why something is “right,” such that “The Good” [inasmuch as that’s cogent] is the basis for any durably tenable appreciation of “The Right.” The critical issue here would be: How good can inquiry into what’s good generally become, as a matter of discursive appeal and scale of appreciation? Habermas’ work is surely exemplary here, though he’s vehement about the priority of The Right over any sense of The Good. So, this introduces a complex tangent.)

Is "the culture industry" an outdated singularity in highly diversified markets?

In the U.S., there’s broad media diversity, in my view. There’s no alarming danger to “citizens[’s] ... right to participate in culture, observe political events and form their own opinion” (¶ 13). Persistence of mid-20th century fears about a monolithic “culture industry” seems to background Habermas’ comment that “the production and consumption of television programmes could confidently be left to the market” (¶ 11). But what's wrong with there being markets? He must mean: “...confidently be left to the culture industry”?

There’s never been anything “confident” about TV’s relation to its fickle markets (and there’s no monolithic “market” that produces programming, since production is a wild competition among producers to figure out where markets are trending). “The market” is an evolving organon of markets that no one masters (let alone directs) for very long. “The” market is no passive receptacle whereby “media enterprises have...sold their audiences’ attention to advertisers” (¶ 11). Advertisers have always been at immanent risk of losing their audience through bad programming (or tired program formulae), because markets are a creature of many factors, and there is no administrative creation of meaning (as JH emphasized 30+ years ago in Legitimation Crisis). Habermas apparently has a homogenized sense of markets.

There’s no tenable substance to “This” (referring to what’s been quoted in this paragraph) in the statement: “This organisational principle has inflicted political and cultural crop damage...” (¶ 12)—at least as a matter of the U.S. (which is so much on Habermas’ mind). It seems to me that Habermas is exploiting a mistaken sense of markets in order to recommend a welfare program for media in Germany that may have unsustainable business models.

In complement to his worries about U.S. media for his German audience, he might have also related his comments proffering German public funding (¶s 12-14) to the longstanding U.S. experience with publically-funded culture (the Public Broadcasting System, National Public Radio, and the funding of various National Endowments). But evidently, the U.S. only serves as a source of worry. (By the way, Habermas’ mention of an American wisecrack made in 1984—not “at the time of television’s introduction”—about TV as “a toaster with pictures” [¶ 11] injects a triviality about the object commodity—the television—irrelevantly into a discussion about the quality of content or service).

How many ways can discursive vitality be hybridized?

Anyway, I highly admire Habermas’ use of somewhat trumped-up alarm to re-introduce important themes related to deliberative democracy. True, indeed, “the quality press plays the role of the ‘leading media’” (¶ 16), though we may no longer be able to tenably expect that “the press” can be dominantly the newspaper. The traditional paper can't compare to opportunities for discursive vitality that are available through link-salted articles and revisable blogs that are increasingly available media for investigative reporters, essayists, columnists, and specialists writing for newsmedia Web sites.

Rather than subsidizing “‘reasoning’ papers” (¶ 16) that can’t keep readers’ attention (i.e., that have a failing business model), focus on what works better, be it via those traditional papers or by diversifying through new media—which is what is actually happening in the media business. Diversify one’s thinking about the cultural landscape of admirable reasoning! Get creative about communication arts and marketing of well-reasoned ideas! How? That’s the question.

What's the realistic difference between critical alarm and alarmism?

Let’s assume some of these papers come under pressure from financial investors who are out for a quick buck and who plan in unreasonably short intervals. (¶17).

Let’s not assume that. Firstly, one must distinguish the business side of the matter (e.g., pressure to streamline, diversify, upgrade production technology, experiment with audience diversity) and the journalistic side of the matter. Financial investors dare not put the editorial side under pressure, and there’s no alarming evidence that finance capital is trying to do that, especially since the editorial talent is the main asset, and, in the face of pressure, editorial talent will simply leave, since they’re in demand (which means that they don’t have to leave).

Secondly, these days, being “out for a quick buck” is not the trend in investing generally, and certainly not recognized as good business for “turnaround” processes. Habermas is out of touch with business trends by assuming a new degree of pressure from the quarterly-report crowd. It’s just not happening with businesses in turmoil and in retooling cycles.

Of course, “[w]hen reorganisation and cost cutting in this core area [of the reasoning papers] jeopardise accustomed journalistic standards, it hits at the very heart of the political public sphere” (¶ 17). But Habermas provides to reason to be alarmed; he just underestimates the evolving multimedial diversity of the market.

How can the discursive vitality of the public sphere better ensure discursive vitality of public media?

Indeed, ...

...without the flow of information gained through extensive research, and without the stimulation of arguments based on an expertise that doesn’t come cheap, public communication loses its discursive vitality. (¶18).

But the efficacy of “the flow” in “public communication” is only as good as its employment by the public for their developing lives, which of course doesn’t reduce to the counsel of experts in personal and group deliberations. Epistemic efficacy originates through engaged families (supporting time for reading and learning and discussion; inquiring use of the Internet at home!), engaged schools—aggregatedly, engaged communities (vocally supporting libraries, Internet access all around, and access to supported cultural venues) and all forms of media (bookstores! High-speed Internet access across the digital divide), in addition to the press. “The flow” merges into the flow of public life out of its developmental and deliberative bases.

Habermas warns that, without, in short, discursive appeal,...

The public media would then cease to resist populist tendencies, and could no longer fulfil the function it should in the context of a democratic constitutional state.(¶18).

Now, this is odd: We should attend to the need for the public media to resist populist tendencies, for the sake of a democratic state? So, the component of popular sovereignty in democracy is to do what with its populist tendencies?

Habermas’ point, surely, is that a critical and discursively filtering function is vitally served by “the public media,” but the locus of that function is the fullness of “the flow,” which is not primarily to be resisted, but to be appreciated and developed as public good, if you will.

Habermas should need to clarify the partnership that all aspects of “the flow” (hereafter: The Flow) can together enable; and see that diversification of media enables such prospects.

See diversification of The Flow as an opportunity for spreading partnerships in discursive appeal, especially (I would suggest) through “Flow”-wide enabling of the quality—the goodness—of The Flow, via supports for families, communities, and education. By turning the potential of the press more to that, the “quality press” invests in its own future, which, it seems to me, that press already does very well, because there’s a market for this. But the quality media must evolve with their audience—through diversification of media, at least—which also provides opportunity for broader audience.

Yet, the “market” here is no mere matter of commodities, as the market of ideas involves at least the fullness of The Flow indicated above. “The democratic decision-making process....develops a legitimating bonding force” (¶ 19) through The Flow, not outside of it. A democracy is also a market of meaningfulness, such that the conception of market must not be confined to the commodity market of consumerism and commodity capitalism.

But Habermas evidently has little interest here in a “market of ideas” (a notion I take from Bernard Williams’ Truth and Truthfulness), though I’m confident that Habermas loves the notion. Apparently here, he leaves the meaning of ‘market’ to commodities when he writes of democracy (which should seem odd for a communication theorist who surely knows lots about economies of meaning). “[A] more or less discursive atmosphere of conflict of opinion” (¶ 19) belongs to The Flow. “And a discursively vital media is an active participant in this” (¶ 20), but at best in the full locus of The Flow, granting to educational venues and community venues membership in discursive vitality (if only as the question of how to actualize such potential). Therefore, the opportunity locus is not so burdened on the quality press and is more distributed among social venues, as the vitality of discourse is surely about potential for The Flow, not of course about fostering a paternalism of “quality press”.

I know that this is eminently Habermasian—all the more reason to note the lack of attention to larger context in his article (e.g., in terms of reference to particular contexts of his own larger-scale work, which he’s especially well-positioned to suggest, of course).

However, because (evidently) he rather forgets the lifeworld locus of The Flow (his sense of political culture which, by the way, should be seen as primarily cultural and thereby political), he underestimates the potential of “populist tendencies” to be well-informed, thus finding that “demoscopy” (public opinion polling) “merely reflects latent opinions in their raw and dormant state” (¶ 21), though actually polling is quite able to distinguish well-informed opinion from what’s impulsive, and polling’s results (if done validly—as professional polling standardly is done) register the diversity of the real population toward its given issue polled.

Of course, the kind of regulated discussion or consultation that one sees in the law courts or parliamentary committees is prevented by the wild communication exchanges of a public sphere controlled by mass media.(¶22).

Hey, man, nothin’ wrong with wild things. But the discursive vitality that’s called for is not the formality of procedural rationality, rather a high scale of intelligibility in the wilds! Discursive appeal in The Flow enables increased scales of learning and shared deliberation, including more opportunity for processes that need procedural rationalization; but discursive appeal is not primarily a means of rationalization, rather means of enriched inquiry and learning.

Also, discursive vitality is not entirely political, and the value of “quality press” is more than that, too. Granted,“in fact one would not expect such regulated discussion in public life, because political communication is just a link in the chain” (¶ 22), yet political communication is just one dimension of The Flow of public life. In this article, at least, Habermas’ conception of democratic decision-making is insufficiently comprehensive of the scale of The Flow’s potential for discursive vitality that’s relevant to a thriving public sphere.

But, of course, the dynamic of the political dimension of the public sphere deserves all the attention it can gain, and that’s Habermas’ interest. Yet, that’s just part of the good of media, part of the worth of difficult reading that the “quality press” may exemplify. Habermas leaves behind any overtone of appreciating the The Flow of the lifeworld, attending instead to the political public sphere (¶s 22-24).

Fine, but the calling of the quality press—and the diversification of media relative to evolving diversity of audiences—has more at stake than playing Fourth Estate, as The Flow of the public sphere is the basis for a healthy politic that sustains a Fourth Estate (i.e., the Fourth Estate has a “Janus-faced” calling to serve the entirety of The Flow—which Habermas’ article seems to earlier connote, but...).

The market for the Fourth Estate originates from The Flow of public life. It can’t be created by state subsidy; it’s not a utility that is consumed. It is a “resource” sustained, ironically, by its appreciating “consumer,” so state enablement of The Flow is the basic way to ensure health of the Fourth Estate—to “protect the public commodity that is the quality press” (¶ 25)—which helps keep the rest of democracy (the other three “estates” of governing) healthy.

Is Habermas generally averse to cultural economics?

The real question is just the pragmatic one of how that can be done best.(¶25).

Indeed. And Habermas would look everywhere except to the strategy of kindling a market of ideas by attending to the health of The Flow that best sustains a quality press. He certainly contributes to The Flow by his article, not to mention his career.

But what’s the real problem here?

  • Underappreciation of the full locus of discursive vitality in multimedial opportunities?
  • Underappreciation of the way markets work well?
  • Underacknowledgement of the sustaining power of The Flow for ensuring the health of the Fourth Estate?

Back to Habermas:

From a historical point of view, there is something counter-intuitive in the idea of reigning in the market’s role in journalism and the press. The market was the force that created the forum for subversive thoughts to emancipate themselves from state oppression in the first place. Yet the market can fulfil this function only so long as economic principles do not infringe upon the cultural and political content that the market itself serves to spread. (¶ 27-28).

So, economic principles (like “raw...populist tendencies”?) are a potential infringement (yes, they can be that), rather than a valid framework through which genuine value forms (which seems completely missing from his “market”)? What is he talking about, that distinguishes economic principles from the market? Is it a distinction between, on the one hand, value-to-price relations (which he would prefer to have not pertain to cultural and political content) vs., on the other hand, “the forum”? But the forum is the public space in which a market works by economic principles. So, it appears that Habermas is merely resistant to thinking economically about cultural and political value. Perhaps the challenge for further inquiry is to understand cultural economics as genuine domain of the public sphere's genesis of value.

Distrustful observation is called for, because no democracy can allow itself a market failure in this sector. (¶ 28)

So, he wants to avoid a market failure, but apparently independently of economic principles?

I see no cause for alarm, but I do see much need to better appreciate the evolving nature of the market for ideas in economic terms, e.g., that genuine public value can be expressed by the aggregate behavior of citizen/consumer choice, itself a function of cultural and political education and experience prior to opportunities for choice. We cannot expect that there can be a market for ideas without the dimension of price. The development of genuine value must be sustainably priced. A market for quality press is relative to community-enabled valuation, such that media-generated products cannot be expected to escape fair-market-determined price through compensatory subsidization that is insensitive to public valuations through choices.

Habermas provides no suggestion of how subsidizing desired outcomes won’t go the way of statism and socialism, i.e., from a historical point of view: It fosters a paternalism and, eventually, a mediocrity and disconnect with the public, which he obviously wants to avoid.

Actively developing markets is very difficult, of course (though it's what business is about), but the conditions of sustainable value—of publically appreciated, thus sustained, “quality”— are as much a matter of the economic dimension of the “market” for ideas as of the cultural and political background of meaning in the community that actively values through preferences.

Does this discussion show too much discursive vitality toward a newspaper article?

So, to say that his article was thought provoking is understatement. All this is certainly not to imply that no “distrustful observation is called for” regarding the economics of media, given adequately comprehensive observation and appreciation of the economic dimension of public value.

I recognize that I’ve stipulated more expectation from Habermas’ article than one could reasonably expect from a mere article, doing so for the sake of rendering themes I wish to further explore, such as the rationality of business innovation (and potential for political progressivity through business innovation); the locus of market efficacy (and potential for effective discursive appeal through smart marketing) in the variably independent lifeworld formation of preferences; and the multimedial evolution of discursive vitality.

Also: This discussion is associated with the “being in Time” area of