Democratic National Ritual 2004

By Jay Rosen

My fellow academics in journalism and media studies all know his name; too many journalists (and bloggers for that matter) do not. James W. Carey of Columbia University has had the biggest influence on my work of any writer on the press. For purposes of understanding a political convention, I re-read–for maybe the fiftieth time–his most famous essay, “A Cultural Approach to Communication,” where he identifies two alternative views of what communication is all about.

One he calls a “transmission view,” by far the most common in our culture. Here communication is equated with the delivery of “messages” across distance. Typically, the messages are of an informational sort, and they are assumed to be important for making decisions or controlling action. At the “deepest roots of our thinking,” he observes, “we picture the act of communication as the transmittal of information across space.” In contrast to the transmission model stands the ritual view:

Here, communication is linked to terms such as “sharing,” “participation,” “association,” “fellowship,” and the “possession of a common faith.” This definition exploits the ancient identity and common roots of the terms “commonness,” “communion,” “community,” and “communication.” A ritual view of communication is directed not toward the extension of mesages in space but toward the maintenance of society in time;” not the act of imparting information but the representation of shared beliefs.

Perhaps the simplest example of a ritual act of communication is a church sermon, which typically serves not to “send a message” or convey facts, but to draw the congregation together in the celebration and contemplation of a shared faith.

A transmission perspective sees the newspaper as a vehicle for disseminating news and knowledge. It also leads us to ask about the “effects” of this process on receivers. We see news “as enlightening or obscuring reality, as changing or hardening attitudes, as breeding credibility or doubt.” A ritual view treats news-consumption as a different sort of act, concerned not with the conveyance of facts but with our placement in an imaginative space– one that is interesting, dramatic, satisfying to the imagination. From a ritual perspective:

What is arrayed before the reader is not pure information but a portrayal of contending forces in the world. Moreover, as readers make their way through the paper, they engage in a continual shift of roles or of dramatic focus. A story on the monetary crisis salutes them as American patriots fighting those ancient enemies German and Japan; a story on the meeting of the women’s political caucus casts them into the liberation movement as supporter or opponent… The model here is not that of information acquisition, though such acquisition occurs, but of dramatic action in which the reader joins a world of contending forces as an observer at a play. 

Why do I lay this out now? Because if you try to understand a political ritual with a transmission view in your head, you will miss much of what’s going on. And because at the deepest roots of their thinking, journalists see the transmission of new information as real and important, whereas ritual communication is fake, newsless and ultimately unimportant.

Read — and hear! — Jay Rosen live from the Democratic National Ritual.

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