What Are Journalists For?

Works discussed in this essay:

What Are Journalists For? by Jay Rosen. Yale University Press; 338 pages.

Jay Rosen chronicling the so-called public journalism movement in 1999 is a little like Gloria Steinem doing the same for women's liberation in 1969. As a key intellectual architect of the movement, Rosen can hardly be expected to be even-handed. Nevertheless, Rosen's new book What Are Journalists For? is a significant contribution, although perhaps not exactly in the way he intended it to be.

Public journalism and civic journalism are the two labels most often attached to a 1990s movement (or, as Rosen says, an argument, a debate, an adventure, and an experiment as well) in U.S. journalism circles. The movement seeped into broader consciousness among the chattering classes on the coasts and among real people in the communities where the deepest experiments took place and left their mark.

If we take it on its own terms, or on Rosen's terms, public journalism begins with the assumption that U.S. democracy is not working well. In particular, the kind of conversation on which self-government is based--let's call it democratic deliberation--has disappeared. Assumption two is that journalists are part of the problem or at least are in a position to contribute to the solution. It follows that they have moral and practical stakes in improving democracy.

These assumptions are not new. They undergird the arguments in the many books and essays that have been flowing regularly from journalists and academics during the past decade. The democracy-is-falling-apart thesis has been given life by historians (e.g., Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.), other academics (Michael Sandel, Theodore Lowi, Robert Putnam), and journalists (E.J. Dionne, William Greider). The role of the press has drawn commentary, as well (from academics Thomas Patterson and Larry Sabato, from journalists James Fallows and David Broder, and from journalists-now-in-academia such as Michael Janeway).

Buy the diagnosis and you're in the market for Rosen's prescriptions. First, he proposes, we should reconnect public affairs journalism to citizens, principally by starting with what they are interested in rather than following the agenda set by the politicians and policy makers and interest groups (and journalists, for that matter). Second, we should use the newspaper or the airwaves as a kind of analogue to the Greek agora, where citizens come together to discuss and debate the great issues of the day with a shared stake in arriving at solutions.

The public journalism movement began with journalists looking back at the 1988 Bush-Dukakis presidential election, which (the theory goes) hit new lows, not only in quality of coverage but in voter turnout as well. Journalistic heavyweights like Broder and Ted Koppel and foundation heavyweights like Pew, Knight, and Kettering weighed in. Rosen and Davis "Buzz" Merritt, editor of The Wichita Eagle in Kansas and a practitioner of public journalism before it had a name, issued the movement's manifesto in 1994, entitled "Public Journalism: Theory and Practice."

The synergies among public journalism and the communitarian and civic-renewal movements were obvious and mutually reinforcing. There were also important synergies between public journalism and the more mundane worries of owners of small and medium-size daily newspapers, who were seeing circulation dwindle and were looking for new ways to attract disaffected readers. By the mid-1990s, the debate was heated and the experiments were in full swing.

The most extensive entry into public journalism is a continuing project at the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot. Beginning in 1994, the newspaper made a broad commitment to changing its news and political coverage with the goal of stimulating the public conversation on issues the community identified as important. For example, reporters held conversations with citizens about crime, spurred by the governor's call for the abolition of parole. What they heard went beyond the usual liberal/conservative hardened positions. It was a more nuanced view, which connected punishment with prevention; that view thereby altered the paper's coverage of the governor's initiative. Three times a week, The Virginian-Pilot devotes a full page to a public dialogue: about crime and public safety, politics and public affairs, and finally, education. The pages mix traditional reporting with features, charts, or explanatory material designed to respond to the question "What do people need to know to enable them to participate more fully in the public conversation?" A column entitled "Neighborhood Exchange" is conceived of as a public space in which citizens can discuss and exchange ideas about local problems. The commitment to public journalism has changed the way the newspaper defines what is worth publishing and the way reporters see their jobs.

At the end of the decade, "the movement" is less a movement than disparate footprints, mostly in the hinterlands, infrequently using the language of public journalism to explain changes in orientation and coverage. Not surprisingly, citizen-driven coverage seems to have worked best, and survived longest, in small communities rather than large ones, and has worked better with community concerns than with elections. But to say that public journalism is dead or that the movement was a failure would miss some important lessons that make Rosen's struggle, and his book, worth the effort.

For one thing, the movement took the cloak of detachment off the emperor. Some press icons finally acknowledged what politicians and bureaucrats and interest groups and citizens have long understood--namely, that the media are players in the game of public affairs, not disinterested observers. What they do and how they do it has consequences, whether they want to take responsibility for them or not.

Journalists had been clinging desperately to the Werner Von Braun view of their role: "I send the bombs up; where they come down is someone else's business." It's understandable why hanging onto this foolish notion has been so important to reporters. It relieves them of responsibility. If they had wanted to be players, they would have become politicians or activists. But reporters' presence--and their reports--change reality as much as other actions do. As Marshall McLuhan put it, "There are no passengers on Spaceship Earth. Everybody's crew."

The challenge posed by Rosen and his colleagues was straightforward enough. How can journalists claim detachment? They are partisans, for the First Amendment if nothing else. That being so, don't they have to be partisans for the democratic process, which is what the First Amendment exists to nurture?

Rosen dissects the myth of journalistic detachment. Every story, every decision about what to cover, is based on some (usually unspoken) assumption about how the world is supposed to work. Rosen is surely right when he says that all forms of political journalism rest on a mental picture of how politics and democracy should function. There is nothing detached about it. (It must also be the case that assessments of the state of American democracy, including his own, similarly rest on a mental picture of democratic ideals.) A story about income inequality, for example, is only a story if there exists in the newsroom a perspective that inequality is bad. That a campaign looks more like a sporting event than an Oxford-Cambridge debate is a cause for hand-wringing only if you think that campaigns were once--or at least should now be--decorous.

The debate over public journalism did force reporters and their editors out of their smug, complacent, well-protected foxholes. It made some of them think about the impact of what they were doing. And it raised important points about how rigid adherence to a set of reporting and writing conventions based on a myth of neutrality can sometimes allow a reporter to be played like a Stradivarius: Just because a reporter poses as a disinterested party doesn't mean the people feeding him information are.

Pray that such self-scrutiny by the Fourth Estate lasts. The most we can hope for is that reporters and editors will make explicit their decisions, agonize over the tough ones, learn from experience, constantly rethink their practices, and reflect on the consequences. If the public journalism dialogue in the 1990s helped push the business toward a more realistic understanding of hidden assumptions, it will have been a major accomplishment. The gap between pretense and reality is one factor that has undermined journalistic credibility. The public journalism debate may have restored a little of that lost public trust.

Beyond that, there is an interesting lesson from this sagebrush rebellion, in my view, that has to do with democratic leadership. The very results of the movement challenge the assumption that democracy is broken and you can't have good democratic deliberation anymore. Rosen's book is a celebration of a terrific democratic conversation among a large and disparate community, not just among journalists but among citizens in communities where experiments have been carried out. As such, the efforts are a powerful refutation of the idea that our self-centered, free-market oriented, fast-paced society can't engage in such collective thinking.

Rosen's ideas were not new. They had antecedents in John Dewey's response to Walter Lippmann in the first quarter of the twentieth century. Lippmann had questioned the ability of ordinary citizens to be objective enough to exercise their democratic responsibilities; Dewey had more faith in their collective judgment and insisted that democracy can't be left to the elites. A more recent progenitor is James Carey, a former journalism dean and current professor at Columbia University who had been talking and writing about the loss of connection with readers for years. What made Rosen, Merritt, and their fellow travelers different is that they brought the ideas into a wider conversation where they had a chance of being heard and discussed. They did just what they were complaining about not being able to do anymore: namely, to have public deliberation about a difficult, provocative, important question. In that sense, they showed that democratic deliberation is not dead--just that in a complicated, busy, information-overloaded world, the challenge of stimulating constructive dialogue is hard work. It requires skills not often possessed by glib polemicists: openness to learning, strategic thinking, listening, humility, and patience.

My Kennedy School colleague, leadership guru Ronald Heifetz, would call the civic journalism effort of the 1990s "leading without authority." In the increasingly horizontal world in which we function, anyone seeking to exercise leadership must affect those over whom he or she has no authority. That's what Rosen did. And the great value of this book is that Rosen documents his journey so that other people with new, challenging ideas, who have the energy and commitment to get them discussed in this fragmented, frantic twenty-first century version of community we live in, can learn from his example.