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Phantom Conflict: Lippmann, Dewey, and the Fate of the Public in Modern Society

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Contrary to the prevailing view in media and cultural studies, philosopher John Dewey and journalist Walter Lippmann did not represent different schools of thought. They were not adversaries in a great public debate about the fate of the public in modern democracies in the 1920s. Rather, their exchange about the “phantom” public was reframed as a conflict in the early 1980s, a reframing which has achieved broad interdisciplinary acceptance even though its rests on a casual rhetorical trope, not historical documentation. The reframing provides a salutary but inaccurate origin story for American media and cultural studies, illustrates the hazards of relying on secondary interpretations of historical sources, and deflects attention away from realistic assessment of the problems confronting democracy today. Dismantling this disciplinary folklore is essential to the integrity of the emerging “new history” of media and communication.

Keywords: Butterfly Effect; Democracy; New History; Pragmatism; Public; Realism

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: September 1, 2009


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