The public sphere debate in social theory has been a topic of considerable interest amongst scholars analysing the talk show genre. Habermas attached great importance to the potential of rational critical discussion to create consensus and thereby legitimation in democratic society. He was concerned that the media gave a false impression of engagement in a public sphere while managing rights of access and speech in a manner that was inimical to open public discussion. In contrast, cultural commentators on the talk show genre have been impressed by the richness and spontaneity of interactions on the shows, suggesting that they might have a positive role in public participation despite not meeting Habermas’s criteria for a public sphere. In consequence, the literature is moving away from the public sphere debate and focusing on issues of voice and expression in analyses of talk shows. This article, however, makes the argument that many of Habermas’s concerns are still highly relevant to the genre. This is demonstrated through an analysis of The Jerry Springer Show. On the surface, this show seems to have little to do with rational critical discussion. The analysis reveals a number of parallels between the conception of the rational critical public sphere and The Jerry Springer Show, leading to a revision of the received view of Habermas’s work in the analysis of mediated discussion. A range of implications for the mediation of deliberation, participation and expression are explored.
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