Once, the media could unilaterally shape the political debate – a legacy of the (short-lived) postwar political consensus and the media’s monolithic dominance of airwaves, newsprint, etc. Jay Rosen has mapped out the arbitrary ways this consensus-generating machine worked, and why it’s now breaking down:

Now we can see why blogging and the Net matter so greatly in political journalism. In the age of mass media, the press was able to define the sphere of legitimate debate with relative ease because the people on the receiving end were atomized— meaning they were connected “up” to Big Media but not across to each other. But today one of the biggest factors changing our world is the falling cost for like-minded people to locate each other, share information, trade impressions and realize their number. Among the first things they may do is establish that the “sphere of legitimate debate” as defined by journalists doesn’t match up with their own definition.

It’s good to have a million voices calling BS on big media’s persistent, strange, Reagan-era take on American politics. I wonder, though, what effects the combination of declining cultural relevance and the implosion of the media business will have on the relationship between media and government. One virtue of having big media institutions is that, sometimes, their clout and claim to represent a consensus view could be brought to bear on serious government transgressions – the classic examples being Watergate and the Pentagon Papers, and more recently, the New York Times’s exposure of the Bush warrantless eavesdropping program.

Obviously, you can’t turn back the clock. You can’t leverage authority that no longer exists. A new configuration of old/new media is still taking shape. So: will a vastly more diverse but also more diffuse media ecosystem still have the ability (via individual media outlet, or via a swarm) to bring pressure to bear on the upper levels of government?

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