Dear readers, I am very embarrassed! Last week, certain events led to me acknowledge that it was an opportune time that I read/wrote on the social function of the newspaper. I thus so enjoyably read the University of Chicago sociologist Robert E. Park’s The Natural History of the Newspaper, the French political historian Alexis De Tocqueville’s chapter ‘Of The Relation Between Public Associations and Newspapers’ in Democracy in America, and a review of American journalist-philosopher Walter Lippmann’s Public Opinion - the first (and, secretly, also the third) of which I highly recommend to anyone working in or intending to work in the newspaper world.

Halfway through the research for another ostentatious (showy) display of social science terminologies, I found myself in the equivalent situation of turning the steering wheel full force when you’re enjoyably going 120 mph at the motorway, having gradually been transported to your favorite musical concert, and you encounter a buffalo posing in the middle of the road. Brake. Screech. Gear change.

You saw it coming - I have finally been called back to Earth and realised that this is a newspaper I’m writing for and not some fantasy blend of a Harvard-Oxford classroom.

The buffalo, in this case, was the animal that is my own research.

“The modern newspaper is.. a form of popular literature.. It is the tribune (defender of rights) of the people; it is the fourth estate (the public press); is the Palladium (safeguard) of our civil liberties.. what the popular teachers did for Athens in the period of Socrates and Plato the press has done in modern times for the common man.” (Park, p. 273; p.275)

The newspaper, as the sociological examination reveals, is not merely democratic in nature – it is a fundamental institution and a pillar of the democratic process altogether.

According to Park’s analysis, as cities grew and people moved from villages, the conventional medium of “personal contact and gossip” that had been relied upon to exert social and political control in village life, such as through the organization of political activities, lost its effectiveness. To maintain the tools, and spirit, of the democratic ethic, newspapers, which Tocqueville asserts work critically to build ‘associations’ amongst the city populace, had to enter the equation. Lippman’s contribution, in the form of the famous debate he had with the American philosopher John Dewey on the social function of journalism, adds the crucial recognition that political life in cities is too complicated for the average citizen to adequately grasp on their own. The newspaper thus acts as a mediator between the political elite and the masses, so that the latter can have access to as much news as they wish to honour the thought of an informed vote.

Okay. Repeat telecast here. Back to the purpose of today’s column.

The significance of this for the scholar is that if the entire purpose of the newspaper is to break down political complexities for the palate of the masses, then it doesn’t quite make sense to be feeding the readers ‘full-cream’ quotes from academic journals that are digestible even to the elites themselves probably only in rare cases!

The sociology of the newspaper, again and again, features ‘public opinion’ as a descriptive term, which the former is instrumental in forming. So, it’s a little ‘oxymoronic’ (just read: moronic) to infuse it wholesale with abstraction notions and social science jargon that, as I elucidated in an earlier column, Daddies and Social Science, are really the monopoly of the propertied, industrialist and high-government class.

On top of that, add this interesting tidbit to the equation:

“..the very simply psychological principle that the ordinary man will read newspaper items in the inverse ratio of their length.. measuring the efficiency of newspapers..the largest number of items was the best paper.” (Park, p.284)

It’s safe to say: the ostentatious scholar does not bring good fortune to the newspaper.

For the adaptable scholar however, all is not lost. Not even nearly. In fact, consider the implications of this:

“If newspapers are to be improved.. we must learn to look at political and social life objectively and cease to think of it wholly in moral terms.. The real reason that the ordinary newspaper accounts of incidents..are so sensational is because we know so little of human life that we are not able to interpret the events.. It is safe to say that when anything shocks us, we do not understand it.” (Park, p.289)

Let me repeat that: “It is safe to say that when anything shocks us, we do not understand it.” Isn’t that just beautiful?

Now, while other columnists are still learning from ‘experience’, I shall leap ahead.

Revamp city.

Coming up, Capitalism has become a dirty word: a short and crisp overview of the very misunderstood concept of capitalism.

The author runs Scholars by Profession, a local research-initiative.

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