Media scholarship has commonly regarded newspapers as an essential element of strong democratic societies: a forum that structures public debate, providing engaged citizens with coherent frameworks to identify, interpret and tackle complex issues. Despite general agreement on the merits of this goal, there is little empirical evidence suggesting it approximates the democratic role historically played by newspapers. We examined three decades of newspaper coverage of chicken meat production in the UK to find evidence relevant to the normative expectations of the democratic role of newspapers as forum for public debate, by means of a two-stage framing analysis of 766 relevant articles from seven outlets. We found mutually disconnected episodic coverage of specific issues whose aggregate effect is consistent with the diffusion rather than the structuring of public debate. Newspapers here afforded polemic rather than the systemic contestation expected. The polemic contestation we found, with diffusion of public debate as an emergent political effect, troubles the assumptions subsequent to which it is possible to argue for the democratic role of newspapers.