Return to Syllabus   Dr. Andrew Wood
Office: HGH 210; phone: (408) 924-5378

Wahl-Jorgensen, K. (2001). Letters to the editor as a forum for public deliberation: Modes of publicity and democratic debate. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 18(3), 303-320.

Note: These comments are not designed to "summarize" the reading. Rather, they are available to highlight key ideas that will emerge in our classroom discussion. As always, it's best to read the original text to gain full value from the course.

Wahl-Jorgensen writes about letters to the editor, a component of newspaper production that reflects a longstanding site of American public discourse. In this piece, she focuses her attention on the ways in which editors select certain letters for printing, and upon the social implications of those choices. She argues that editors “privilege individual expression over the expression of activist groups [and that they] invite the forging of emotional bonds between readers and writers” through the selection of charged language (p. 304). This matters to her because of the ways in which letters to the editor devalue the “creation of social solidarity” (p. 304). Wahl-Jorgensen’s essay argues that the letters section represents a larger transformation of American democracy.

Her essay focuses on three types of letter writing that may be termed dialogist, activist, and exhibitionist. In this context, dialogue emphasizes the deliberative process through which people engage multiple opinions before helping to craft a consensus of social policy: “By discursively taking into consideration the views of all those concerned about particular political issues . . . we can reach the most just decisions and bring about a truly informed ‘consent of the governed.’” (p. 305). This dialogue separates the public from the crowd (p. 306), and it can be illustrated by Jürgen Habermas’s notion of the ideal public sphere [also see DeLuca and Peeples]. In contrast, activism emphasizes the emergence of counter-publics, organized groups who resist the dominant discourse. To Wahl-Jorgensen, “The notion of the counterpublic allows us to conceive of the public in the plural” (p. 307). The resulting focus on activist groups emphasizes how letters to the editor may contain contesting values of relatively homogeneous groups - not differing approaches to the same vision of public life. Wahl-Jorgensen defines a third type of letter writing as exhibitionist. Here, the public becomes a site of “display of individual identities and opinions” (p. 308). In this setting, individuals struggle to highlight their individuality, even as they ceremonially perform acts of public service.

Following this framework, Wahl-Jorgensen analyzes the results of her interviews with editors, exploring their choices of letters. Here, she emphasizes of editors do not reflect the public but rather construct the public “by picking which letters they publish” (p. 310). Noting that editors tend to focus on individual letters over those written on behalf of activist groups, Wahl-Jorgensen states, “The letters section becomes not a site for the contestation of competing versions of reality, or for debate of the issues, but a ‘bulletin board’ for posting personalized grievances or stories” (p. 312). This stance reflects, to the author, a privileging of exhibitionism. To Wahl-Jorgensen, this approach emphasizes emotion over logic and the heart over the head. Moreover, editors who are drawn to exhibitionism publish letters that reflect self-interest over public interest. After all “self interest makes for better letters because they tend to be more expressive, and more sincere” (p. 314). Wahl-Jorgensen concludes her essay with a discussion of how this manner of discourse implies a transformation of democracy from public good to private association in which we can no longer argue - we can only “relate.”

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