The concept of public culture refers most broadly to the dynamic negotiation of beliefs, values, and attitudes regarding collective association through media and other social practices that are defined by norms of open access and voluntary response. The concept is a recent innovation and applies primarily to modern societies, where public culture is the envelope of communication practices within which public opinion is formed; those practices can include news, entertainment, the arts, advertising, social media, and many other means for representing and judging any individual, institution, or custom having collective significance. The term “public” emphasizes relatively unrestricted communication across civil society regarding governance and other matters affecting the general welfare. The term “culture” emphasizes that public opinion depends on contextual factors that emerge through multiple media and embodied responsiveness. These considerations provide a basis for analysis of distinctively modern relationships across civil society, media technologies, and political action in a global context.
Christopher J. Gilbert
The editorial cartoon is a touchstone for matters of free expression in the journalistic tradition. Since their early inception in the politically charged engravings of 18th-century pictorial satirist William Hogarth to the present day, editorial cartoons have shone forth as signifiers of comic irreverence and mockery in the face of governmental authority and in the more generalized cultural politics of the times. In democratic nations they have been cast as a pillar of the fourth estate. Nevertheless, they—and the cartoonists, critics, commentators, and citizens who champion them—have also long stood out as relatively easy targets for concerns about where the lines of issues such libel, slander, defamation, and especially blasphemy should be drawn. This goes for Western-style democracies as well as authoritarian regimes. In other words, the editorial cartoon stands at a critical nexus of meaning and public judgment. At issue from one vantage is what it means to promote the disclosure of folly as the foolish conduct of public officials and the stupidity of institutions that are thereby worthy as objects of ridicule. From another vantage, there is the matter of what it is to deplore the comicality in journalistic opinion-making that goes too far. To approach editorial cartoons from the standpoints of free expression and press freedoms is to verge on conflicting values of civil liberty in and around the so-called right to offend. This was true in the age of Hogarth. It was true in the days of famed French printmaker and caricaturist Honoré Daumier, who was imprisoned for six months from 1832 until 1833 after portraying Emperor Louis-Philippe in the L Caricature. It is also particularly true today in a global media age wherein editorial cartoons, whether or not they are syndicated by official newspapers, can traverse geographic and other boundaries with relative ease and efficiency. Furthermore, the 21st century has seen numerous cartoon controversies vis-à-vis what many commentators have referred to as “cartoon wars,” leading to everything from high-profile firings of cartoonists (including in the United States) through bans and imprisonments of artists in Middle Eastern countries to the 2015 shootings of cartoon artists at the headquarters of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Indeed, if the threshold of the free press is the killed cartoon, the limit point of the freedom of expression is the killed cartoonist. Hence the importance of looking beyond any one editorial cartoon or cartoonist in order to contemplate the comic spirit in certain historical moments so as to discover the social, political, and cultural standards of judgment being applied to the carte blanche of journalism and the comic license of those using graphic caricatures to freely editorialize their takes on the world—or not.
Nathan A. Crick
When John Dewey announced that communication was the most wonderful of all affairs, he recognized the centrality of communication within the tradition of American pragmatism. In other traditions of philosophy, such as idealism or empiricism, communication certainly played a role, but usually it was a secondary function of transmitting ideas from one mind to another. In idealism, ideas were discovered through intuitive revelation of the whole and only later expressed through transcendent eloquence, whereas in empiricism, particular data was attained purely by the senses and communication served a kind of documentary function of fact gathering. Pragmatism, however, inverted this traditional hierarchy. By arguing that the meaning of our ideas was only found in their effects and consequences in experience, particularly those consequences brought about through shared experience, pragmatists made communication both the origin and consummation of knowledge—regardless if that knowledge was practical, scientific, aesthetic, or social. Consequently, pragmatists believed that improving the quality of communication practices was central to improving not only the state of knowledge but the quality of our experience living together in a common world.
While the periodizing concept “post-truth” (PT) initially appeared in the United States as a key word of popular politics in the form “post-truth politics” or “post-truth society,” it quickly appeared in many languages. It is now the object of increasing scholarly attention and public debate. Its popular and academic treatments sometimes differ in respect to its meaning, but most associate it with communication forms such as fake or false news, rumors, hoaxes, and political lying. They also identify causes such as polarization and unethical politicians or unregulated social media; shoddy journalism; or simply the inevitable chaos ushered in by digital media technologies. PT is sometimes posited as a social and political condition whereby citizens or audiences and politicians no longer respect truth (e.g., climate science deniers or “birthers”) but simply accept as true what they believe or feel. However, more rigorously, PT is actually a breakdown of social trust, which encompasses what was formerly the major institutional truth-teller or publicist—the news media. What is accepted as popular truth is really a weak form of knowledge, opinion based on trust in those who supposedly know. Critical communication approaches locate its historical legacy in the earliest forms of political persuasion and questions of ethics and epistemology, such as those raised by Plato in the Gorgias. While there are timeless similarities, PT is a 21st-century phenomenon. It is not “after” truth but after a historical period where interlocking elite institutions were discoverers, producers, and gatekeepers of truth, accepted by social trust (the church, science, governments, the school, etc.). Critical scholars have identified a more complex historical set of factors, to which popular proposed solutions have been mostly blind. Modern origins of PT lie in the anxious elite negotiation of mass representative liberal democracy with proposals for organizing and deploying mass communication technologies. These elites consisted of pioneers in the influence or persuasion industries, closely associated with government and political practice and funding, and university research. These influence industries were increasingly accepted not just by business but also by (resource-rich) professional political actors. Their object was not policy education and argument to constituents but, increasingly strategically, emotion and attention management. PT can usefully be understood in the context of its historical emergence, through its popular forms and responses, such as rumors, conspiracies, hoaxes, fake news, fact-checking, and filter bubbles, as well as through its multiple effects—not the least of which the discourse of panic about it.
The public sphere is a social entity with an important function and powerful effects in modern, democratic societies. The idea of the public sphere rests on the conviction that people living in a society, regardless of their age, gender, religion, economic or social status, professional position, sexual orientation, ethnicity, race, or nationality, should be able to publicly express their thoughts, ideas, and opinions about issues that matter to them and impact their lives. This expression should be as free as possible in form and function and should operate through means and methods that people themselves deem suitable, so not via channels that are official or state-sanctioned. The classic Habermasian idea of the public sphere is that it is used by private individuals (not officials or politicians) who should be able to converse with each other in a public-spirited way to develop opinions that impact state or public-body decisions and policies. Also contained within this classic idea is the conviction that public sphere conversations should be rational (i.e., logical, evidence-based, and properly motivated and argued using an acceptable set of rhetorical devices) in order to convince others of the usefulness of a position, statement, or opinion. In commonsensical, political, and journalistic understandings, the public sphere is a critical component of a democracy that enables ordinary citizens to act as interlocutors to those who hold power and thereby hold them to account. As such it is one of the elements whereby democracy as a system is able to claim legitimacy as the “rule of the people.” Journalism’s imbrication in the social imaginary of the public sphere dates back to 17th- and 18th-century Europe when venues like coffee houses, clubs, and private homes, and media like newspapers and newsletters were being used by a mixture of gentry, nobility, and an emerging middle class of traders and merchants and other educated thinkers to disseminate information and express ideas. The conviction that journalism was the key vehicle for the conveyance of information and ideas of public import was then imbedded in the foundations of the practice of modern journalism and in the form exported from Western Europe to the rest of the world. Journalism’s role as a key institution within and vehicle of the public sphere was thus born. Allied to this was the conviction that journalism, via this public sphere role and working on behalf of the public interest (roughly understood as the consensus of opinions formed in the public sphere), should hold political, social, and economic powers to account. Journalists are therefore understood to be crucial proxies for the millions of people in a democracy who cannot easily wield on their own the collective voices that journalism with its institutional bases can produce.