What Are Journalists For?
As Democracy Goes, So Goes the Press
The Roots of Public Journalism
I gave my first talk to journalists in 1989. The platform was the Associated Press Managing Editors convention, a yearly gathering of several hundred editors from around the country, held that year in Des Moines, Iowa. At the time I was an assistant professor of journalism with a Ph.D., but journalism as a craft was mostly foreign territory. What I knew of it came through the ideas in my dissertation, which had examined something scholars called the problem of the public. Roughly speaking, it asked whether the public of democratic theory resembled the public of actual practice, and if the answer was "no" — as many thought it was — what should be made of that fact. The question mattered because certain ideas about the press follow from the view of the public they contain. If the public is assumed to be "out there," more or less intact, then the job of the press is easy to state: to inform people about what goes on in their name and their midst. But suppose the public leads a more broken existence. At times it may be alert and engaged, but just as often it struggles against other pressures — including itself — that can win out in the end. Inattention to public matters is perhaps the simplest of these, atomization of society one of the more intricate. Money speaks louder than the public, problems overwhelm it, fatigue sets in, attention falters, cynicism swells. A public that leads this more fragile kind of existence suggests a different task for the press: not just to inform a public that may or may not emerge, but to improve the chances that it will emerge.
John Dewey, an early hero of mine, had suggested something like this in his 1927 book, The Public and Its Problems. I decided to try out a version of his ideas on the editors in Des Moines. The key passage read like this:
The newspaper of the future will have to rethink its relationship to all the institutions that nourish public life, from libraries to universities to cafes. It will have to do more than "cover" these institutions when they happen to make news. It will have to do more than print their advertisements. The newspaper must see that its own health is dependent on the health of dozens of other agencies which pull people out of their private worlds. For the greater the pull of public life, the greater the need for the newspaper. Empty streets are bad for editors, despite the wealth of crime news they may generate. The emptier the streets, the emptier the newspaper will seem to readers barricaded in their private homes....
Every town board session people attend, every public discussion they join, every PTA event, every local political club, every rally, every gathering of’ citizens for whatever cause is important to the newspaper‑not only as something to cover, but as the kind of event that makes news matter to citizens.
In delivering these remarks, I was "parachuting in," as journalists call it. I knew little about trends in the newspaper industry, and beyond a summer internship at the Buffalo Courier Express I had scant knowledge of newsroom life. So I was a bit startled when the Des Moines talk drew an enthusiastic response from some of those present. Engaging with journalists on their terms wasn’t part of my rather limited repertoire. These people intimidated me, in the way that all occupational cultures intimidate the outsider. An academic on foreign turf, I thought my assignment was to be "interesting” and then depart. Which is exactly what I did.
But over the next few years I got more and more engaged with the sort of journalist I first met in Des Moines. As I came to understand, they and their co‑workers were then living through what my academic colleagues and I were trying to think our way through — namely, what becomes of the press when the public's constitution alters or weakens? Some journalists were discovering what happens: a public was not always there for them to inform, a troubling development that caused them to think hard about what they were doing and why.
The more I grasped this, the more it involved me with people who were beginning to wrestle with some difficult problems: fewer readers for their best work, a rising disgust with Politics and journalism, and a growing feeling that the craft was misfiring as it attempted to interest people in the news of the day. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that a better way to “do” ideas about the press was to interest the press in the germ of an idea: that journalism's purpose was to see the public into fuller existence. Informing people followed from that.
By 1993 this idea would have a name, public journalism, or equally often, civic journalism, terms that also described a small movement of people trying to discover what these names meant. Possible answers came from two directions. Beginning around 1989, a few daring editors had begun to experiment in their newspapers, while other thoughtful minds asked themselves whether serious journalism could survive without a stronger public climate around it. The other source for public journalism was a scholarly debate that reached back to the 1920s and remained alive in the 1930s. It asked about the nature of the modern public and current prospects for what Professors typically called the public sphere. Academic work on these subjects was sophisticated and lively, but it rarely reached beyond the campus.
Given the ferment in the press and a related debate among scholars, an opportunity presented itself: to join the two discussions, turning them into one. For as some in journalism started to think about their contribution to a healthier democracy, and as they connected these thoughts to the survival of their craft, they started to ask the question that had interested me and others in the academy: What does it take to make democracy work and what should be asked of the press?
Public journalism tried to address this question, but not in an academic way. Instead, working journalists were enlisted in the inquiry and a small reform movement grew up around their struggles and experiments. Without People who were willing to call themselves public or civic journalists, there would have been no point in developing an idea with those names. But it turned out that there were such people, and what they were trying to do could not be done well unless the principles behind it were explained to journalists' satisfaction — which meant in a language they could share. That became a worthy test for academic thought, concerned as it was about the public sphere, but confined in most of its movements to the university.
A few months after my talk in Des Moines, 1 was asked to join another gathering of editors, this one from the Knight‑Ridder newspaper chain, which had its headquarters in Miami at the time. The background to the invitation involved the views of the company’s president, James K. Batten, a former reporter and editor who had worked his way to the top of the nation’s second largest newspaper chain. An unusually gifted leader, Batten was admired by most of the journalists who made Knight‑Ridder their home. Like all managers of newspaper companies, he was worried about the steady erosion of readership, a lengthy trend that had begun to threaten the bottom line. Newspapers were still quite profitable by the standards of other industries, but for a publicly traded company like Knight‑Ridder any downward slide was sure to be judged harshly by Wall Street analysts and the apostles of shareholder value.
Of course, their opinion was not the only one that counted. Communities might judge harshly a newspaper that delivered a thinned‑out product to boost profits. So too would the journalists on board, who were not businesspeople by training or temperament. Paradoxically, this is what made them valuable to the business. The pursuit of truth, fairness, accuracy, and public service helped maintain a precious asset, commonly called credibility. A business philosophy that contravened those values would risk wasting the asset while demoralizing the staff. Equally troublesome, however, was a journalism that satisfied journalists but allowed the community to drift away. As Jack Fuller, publisher of the Chicago Tribune, put it, "A newspaper that pleases its writers and editors but is not a vital part of the community’s life will be a commercial failure because it is a rhetorical failure."
This was the tricky terrain Batten entered in 1989, the year he took over as head of Knight‑Ridder. In an address at Riverside, California, he argued that newspapers would have to change their ways. Consider, he said, the declining percentage of Americans who kept up with the daily newspaper. In 1967, some 73 percent of adults reported that they read the paper every day; in 1988 that figure was down to 51 percent. "When I was a young reporter on the Charlotte Observer in the 1950s and 1960s, it never occurred to me to feel any concern about the financial health of my newspaper — or about its acceptance in the marketplace," Batten recalled. "My newsroom friends and I knew that was all foreordained."
Financial strength translated into political confidence, Batten said. "We prided ourselves on our ability to tell the critics to go to hell. We were, after all, 'the press,' beholden to no one." Succeeding in the business was so easy that one of Batten’s acquaintances got into it in middle age because he heard that you could succeed "even if you are brain‑dead," as the friend put it. All this belonged to the past, said Batten. "The days when we could do newspapering our way and tell the world to go to hell if it didn't like the results, are gone forever."
Given declining readership and the heated competition for people's time, newspapers needed a more "customer‑driven" approach, meaning ease of service for readers and advertisers. Batten said he wanted to see newspapers that were "warm and caring and funny and human, not just honest and professional and informative." Changes were also due in the culture of the press, so accustomed to glorifying the journalist's habit of defiance. Telling Richard Nixon to go to hell was one thing; it had led to the American press’s finest hour during the Watergate crisis. Taking the same attitude toward anyone dissatisfied with the news was a dangerous habit, for there were threats to journalism's vitality that no spirit of defiance could address.
The daily press was imperiled "by the very same forces that seem to erode the civic health of our cities and our nation: an inclination to withdraw into narrow, personal concerns and behave with indifference to our neighbors today and our communities tomorrow," Batten argued. "From the days of Mr. Jefferson ... our system has operated on the principle that the American people, given sufficient information, are capable of making wise decisions," Batten remarked. "But as public issues become more complex, as our private lives become ever busier, as our appetites for self‑indulgence grow seemingly without limit, one wonders some days who is really caring Aout the public's business. And who is willing to read about it. And act on what they read."
What does it take to make democracy work and what should be asked of the press? This was Batten's theme. His answers were speculative. Newspapers had to "earn their keep on behalf of this democratic society" by refusing to accept a depressing state of affairs. They should "tackle head‑on the American disgrace of pathetically low voter turnout" and stop pretending that printing a few "dull op‑ed pieces" was a serious effort to stimulate debate. By sponsoring public forums, bringing contending parties together to talk, and making politics so vivid it was "tough to ignore," journalists could start recalling the public to the "public's important business." Batten urged journalists not to "wait for important issues to struggle to the surface, often in blurry form, then fail to get the crisp debate and resolution they deserve."
In a lecture he gave on a similar theme in 1990, Batten advanced the belief — confirmed, he said, by the company's research — that those "who feel a real sense of connection to the places they live" are more likely to become newspaper readers. But "millions of our fellow citizens" have come to "feel little interest in — or responsibility for — their communities” and are choosing to avoid, not only the newspaper, but the whole sphere of' politics and civic life.”
Batten had set himself a difficult task, for journalists were trained to regard any intrusion of business matters as illegitimate on its face. News could only be compromised by fads like "customer obsession," which were sure to mean less attention to serious stories of public import and more attempts to brighten the atmosphere with some of the happy talk and visual flair that marked the aesthetic of television news. The Gannett Company's colorful USA Today had gone this route; and for a time it stood as an icon of dread in every newsroom where management began talking about lost readers.
But Batten said there was another loss to be reckoned with. Even if it were true that declining readership was someone else’s concern — a risky attitude, but common enough —what about the problem of a disappearing public? Or people's disinclination to think of themselves as citizens, with a stake in the community’s affairs? Could journalists honestly say they had no stake in that? This is the rhetorical space that opened up when Batten moved from customer talk to his observations about citizens and communities. Here he was asking journalists to concern themselves, not with the share price of the company, but with the share of the citizenry that felt engaged in public life. "Newspapers grew up on the premise that people were connected to their communities and wanted to know what was going on, wanted to be involved, in many cases wanted to make a contribution," Batten wrote. "Somehow that seems less true in the 1990s.”
Several years later the scholar Robert Putnam would bring forward an intriguing body of work that supported much of Batten's argument. In a widely discussed essay called "Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital," Putnam began to document a long‑term drop in civic participation. The title of the article originated in his whimsical finding that Americans were bowling more than ever, but they were doing it alone or with their families, not in leagues that involved them in a wider social circle. In itself the fact meant nothing, but Putnam saw it as part of a larger pattern of withdrawal from what he described as "norms and networks of civic engagement," the array of clubs, associations and informal meeting grounds that had always been a distinctive feature of the American scene.
In Putnam's view a rich civic life produced such assets as social trust, reciprocal respect, mutual engagement, and political participation. These he called social capital, analogous to the human capital represented by an educated workforce. Among his bits of evidence for social capital’s decline from 1973 to 1993, the number of Americans who said they had "attended a public meeting on town or school affairs" in the past year dropped from 22 percent to 13 percent. From 1964 to 1982 the number involved in parent-teacher associations (PTAs) dropped from 12 million to barely 5 million, recovering to 7 million in the 1990s.The League of Women Voters, the Boy Scouts, the Red Cross all reported big declines. Certainly there were contrary trends, but overall the picture was a disturbing one, Putnam said. "High on America's agenda should be the question of how to reverse these adverse trends in social connectedness, thus restoring civic engagement and trust.”
Putnam's work drew critics, who disputed the evidence of a decline in civic involvement. But if he and Batten were even partly right, then journalists had reason to think, for a key premise of their work was in doubt: that people were naturally connected to the polity, whose affairs they would naturally regard as their own. If Americans saw their business in increasingly private terms, if they came to the conclusion that politics was the property of a remote class, if participating as a citizen was less and less important (or simply impractical), then the press had a problem: how to puzzle through t fie evidence of civic withdrawal and its many implications for their work.
This was not something journalists could easily address from within. They were accustomed to covering the news, not rebuilding the logic on which the news was based. Here, then, was the reason for my invitation from Knight‑Ridder in early 1990. My remarks in Des Moines struck the same note Batten was hitting in his own speeches, and he wanted minds other than his at work on the issues involved. Still a novice in speaking to journalists, I said little at that first meeting. But I was impressed by the spirited tone of the discussion, the editors' willingness to engage one another in argument, and the sense of purpose they showed in tackling the often fuzzy topic of "community."
As a scholar of the media, I was also aware that this discussion was not supposed to be happening at all. Academics who grouped themselves on the political left (and this meant most of them) tended to view media corporations in one way: as maximizers of their profits, monopolizers of their markets, and threats to all forms of craft and culture that came under their relentlessly expanding domains. The notion that corporations themselves had cultures, some portion of which might be "public" — that is, devoted to a vital civic purpose — would have struck most of my academic colleagues as spectacularly naive. The corporation was evil, or, if this was too strong, it was plainly one‑dimensional: a profit machine that would tolerate within its borders only those activities that extended its reach or enriched its shareholders. A media company was to be regarded with suspicion, broken only by occasional awe at the havoc it could wreak. Assuming that there was a genuine culture of debate within the corporation, or any deep commitment to public service, marked you as a knave or, worse, an apologist for "late capitalist" society.
Well, I was not a learned student of capitalism, early or late. But as I sat in Miami listening to these editors struggle with the decay of community life, I began to get interested in their experience, which seemed to me reasonably complicated. On one hand, they were employees of a profit-maximizing company worried about its future revenues; Batten left no doubt about that. On the other hand, they were professionals concerned about the survival of something they loved. While they often called journalism a business (as in "I got into the business when you didn't need a college degree"), what they loved about it wasn’t the money you could make, or the stock options you could earn, but the chance to tell stories, fight for justice, and feel close to the action when important events unfolded.
They had a public identity that they took seriously, no less seriously because it was assumed under the heading of a private company. In fact, they were proud of that company, if wary of its ability to turn against their values, which were in the main public values, expressed through their membership in the fraternity of journalists. Knight‑Ridder, in the degree that it gave its newsrooms space to operate, was a public company in a different sense than Wall Street understood. It employed the practitioners of a public art, provided the plant and equipment they needed, and allowed the pursuit of a high calling: telling the truth about the events of our time.
"Within limits," academics on the left would be quick to say, with a knowing grin. "Only the truths that don't offend the powerful interests. " Denizens of the political right spoke with similar confidence about the "bias" of reporters and editors, gatekeepers who let only liberal assumptions through. Both critiques had much to recommend them. There were limits on what the mainstream press took seriously, and it was sometimes useful to see them in ideological terms. Certainly the daily news columns did not contain many critiques of late capitalism. The business pages, to take just one example, were written about and for the business classes, political news was heavily dependent on official authority. Advertising dollars, on which the enterprise depended, hardly left the press unfettered. Exposes of department stores and automobile dealers were a rare sight in daily newspapers, and everyone knew why.
Meanwhile, it was hard to deny that newsrooms were citadels of secularism, and thus inclined to regard, say, religious conservatives with a mix of ignorance and contempt. There were always critiques like this to be made, but in making them consistently — at times, reflexively — critics on the left and the right seemed bent on reducing journalism to a shadow of ideology: the ideology of big business and official authority from one perspective, liberal ideology, permissive and pro‑government, according to the other.
Getting simultaneously bashed from the left and the right is oddly comforting for journalists; it seems to suggest that they're steering right down the middle, which is a territory they associate with balance and truth. But the deeper defect of an ideological critique is that it fails to address the belief system of the American press as its members experience it. Journalists don’t see themselves as tools of the corporation or defenders of the liberal faith. But they do regard their craft as a public service, and the way they understand this service matters. The daily rituals and peer culture of journalism advance a host of assumptions about politics, power, people, public opinion, and democracy. How could it be otherwise? Journalists need ideas and convictions to guide their search for news; these form the common sense of the profession, or, to put it another way, its soul.
But the soul of the craft can itself be crafted. This is what Batten was recognizing, in his speeches and by calling his editors to Miami. Different times call for different approaches, and different ideas to justify them. As I listened to the Knight‑Ridder editors deliberate, the phrase "freedom of the press" took on fresh meaning. Perhaps the commercial press couldn't break free of the profit motive. But journalism could alter its established creed, learn again what made it valuable to democracy. It had some room to maneuver within the boundaries that made it a business and a professional code that honored neutrality over commitment.
These speculations deepened when I learned that some of Batten's editors had taken him up on his ideas. Of particular interest were the efforts of the Columbus Ledger-Inquirer, in a sleepy Georgia town with its own charged history of' race, poverty, and power. The editor in 1998-90 was Jack Swift, a Vietnam veteran and former columnist who was something of a local celebrity. Swift and some of his staff were then engaged iln an unusual attempt to help bring people into politics through the agency of the newspaper
Columbus, Georgia, a small city about one hundred miles southwest of Atlanta, did not share in the economic boom that came to much of the South in the 1970s and 1980s. Its economy, long dominated by the textile industry and a nearby military base, had been slow in shifting to a new pattern. More service industries were moving to Columbus, but it was unclear whether the schools could provide the educated workforce needed for a high‑wage service economy. More middle‑class people were arriving, but the city lacked the amenities and civic improvements that would hold these newcomers.
Blacks were a majority in the city schools and a third of all registered voters, but the political system had been slow in adjusting to these facts. There was still time to preserve an integrated school system, but the community was missing the leadership that might gradually shift power to the black majority while also preventing white flight. New highway links were on the horizon, but the local roads that fed into these highways would have to be improved, and the tax money was unavailable. In 1982 the voters had sent a hostile message to local government. A referendum was passed placing a dollar‑amount ceiling on the municipal budget. It was later thrown out by the courts, but the hostility endured. In short, a familiar picture could be seen in Columbus: deep‑set problems, lack of vigorous leadership, and scant political will.
In 1987, the Ledger‑Enquirer decided to do something. The editors planned a series of articles that would examine the future of the city and the issues it needed to confront. The paper surveyed local residents about their ties to Columbus and their vision of what they wanted it to become. A team of reporters conducted in‑depth interviews with residents in their homes, while other correspondents spoke to experts and influential figures in town. The research was assembled in an eight‑part series, called "Columbus: Beyond 2000," published in the spring of 1988. The report showed that most residents of Columbus liked their city and wanted to remain there. But it warned of a host of difficulties, including transportation bottlenecks, a history of low wages in the local economy, lack of nightlife in the city, a faltering school system, and the perception that a local elite dominated city politics to the exclusion of others.
If the journalists at the Ledger‑Enquirer had stopped there, they could have congratulated themselves. They had produced a thorough portrait of the city and its problems. After the series was published, the editors waited for the responses. They got a brief period of chatter, followed by silence and inaction. It was easy to see why. The problems the newspaper had identified were serious, but they had the defect of being gradual. They could be ignored for another day, month, or year; they involved difficult choices. The Ledger-Inquirer tried to exert pressure through its reporting and some strongly worded editorials. But these measures emerged into a kind of vacuum. The community lacked organization, leadership, lively debate. It had a government but a weak public sphere, a politics not enough people were willing to join.
Having uncovered a need for discussion, but seeing no broad discussion at hand, the editors took a further step. They organized a public meeting where residents could discuss the future of their city. The aim was to offer a venue for what the paper suspected was a widespread sentiment: there was plenty to do in Columbus, and plenty of people who wanted to see something done. Three hundred citizens showed up for six hours of talk. They came from diverse backgrounds, and many had never participated in public life before. Journalists helped to run the meeting, but they rarely spoke. They tried to provide a forum for citizens to speak about their concerns for the future of their city and the way it was run.
Shortly after the town meeting, Jack Swift organized a barbecue at his home for seventy‑five interested citizens. Out of that gathering came a new civicorganization, which called itself United Beyond 2000. The group was headed by a thirteen‑member steering committee, of which Swift was a leading member. In the person of the editor came a direct and visible tie between the newspaper and this new community group. As participants understood it, their goal was not to lobby for this or that policy but to encourage average citizens as well as influential people to meet and engage wit h some of the choices the city faced. A number of task forces sprang up to sponsor discussion on key issues. These included recreation needs, child care, race relations, and the special problems of teenagers in Columbus. All were staffed by citizen volunteers.
Among the changes Columbus needed, in the view of many, was a new climate for race relations, which were still affected by a past history of segregation and the memory of brutal violence. Swift, the white newspaper editor had earlier made friends with a black state court judge named John Allen. The two friends decided that they could do something about the race problem in Columbus. They began to hold backyard barbecues at their homes, to which each man would invite a dozen or so friends. There was no agenda at these meetings. They simply brought together people of different races who ordinarily would not meet, in the hope that they would discover common interests or at least a mutual respect. At each barbecue, a small number of newcomers were invited so that the group would gradually expand. This "friendship network," as it was called, grew to some 250 members, from white bank executives to black barbershop owners. "Several participants said it was the first time black and white leaders had ever met in the city in a social setting," wrote one journalist who was involved in the project.
The Beyond 2000 group went on to sponsor other public events, including a town meeting for teenagers that drew four hundred young people to a local mail for a discussion of their common concerns. The teenagers later organized their own mayoral forum, the first debate ever held between candidates for mayor in Columbus. Meanwhile, the newspaper continued to report the city's failure to come up with a clear agenda for the future. It explained how other cities of a similar size were trying to think about the long term. It continued to do enterprising journalism in the service of its declared aim: to keep the "Beyond 2000" discussion going.
As I learned of these events and discussed them with Jack Swift, I started thinking the thoughts of an outsider. Maybe this is what I meant in telling the editors in Des Moines that "the newspaper of the future must do everything it can to encourage a more active public life." Perhaps the Columbus case illuminated what John Dewey was talking about in The Public and Its Problems. In a cryptic passage that closed the book, he stressed the imperative of public talk at the local level. Publishing the news remains incomplete, the public is left "only partially informed and formed," until what is published is actually discussed by citizens. What gives reality to public opinion, Dewey wrote, is the circulation of news and other knowledge "from one to another in the communications of the local community." While an "immense intelligence" greets and surrounds us as citizens of the modern world, "that intelligence is dormant and its communications are broken, inarticulate and faint until it possesses the local community as its medium.”
These words seemed to apply in Columbus. Citizens followed up on the newspaper's reporting with public talk about the implications. This talk became the medium through which news was made into fully formed public opinion, with the newspaper assisting in the process. Jack Swift and his colleagues tried to redraw the journalist's position within politics. Instead of standing outside the community and reporting on its pathologies, they took up residence within its borders. Journalists often fear that leaving the sidelines will cost them their credibility. But as the 1,edger‑Enquirer's publisher, Billy Watson, later observed, "'['he biggest credibility problem we have is that we're viewed as arrogant, negative and detached from the community, as tearing the community down." The Beyond 2000 project "did more to enhance the credibility and reputation of the newspaper than anything we've done," he argued.
Still, there were plenty who saw danger in the experiment. On a visit to Columbus in 1991, I interviewed some of them. I asked Jim Houston, an editor at the Ledger‑Enquirer, if he thought the newspaper had a duty to create public discussion if serious problems were going unaddressed. He paused for a moment before saying:
I think it has to be the exception. To do that every day would make the newspaper and its pages suspect in everyone's minds — reporters as well as people in the street. But to do it under exceptional circumstances and state what you're doing — yes, I think there's a place for it. The danger is in continuous involvement: when does motivation of a community become dictation? We brought people together at the original town meeting to tell them you don’t have to do things in the traditional way — there are other ways. And it did motivate certain people, who got some things done.
The danger he cites is real. "Motivation" could indeed turn to dictating the proper course, especially for a community group so dependent on the newspaper. Was it a risk worth taking? Houston's answer came not from his profession’s values but from his feel for Columbus as a longtime resident. Those at the Ledger‑Enquirer who were new to Columbus might not see why the newspaper should take such an unorthodox step, Houston said. "You had to live in the community," as he had for some twenty years.
As the Columbus experiment became known within the newspaper industry, a variety of other suspicions were raised. During a panel discussion at the American Society of Newspaper Editors conference in 1992, Howard Schneider, managing editor at Newsday, spoke out. "I think what Columbus did was bad," Schneider said. "I think the potential for mischief is great. I do not mean only that they had to report on what their editor was doing, but [alsol buying into the idea that they are now a part of the community, and the community’s agenda is the newspaper's agenda, and suddenly we have to make the community feel good. This may be a temptation to sugarcoat some of the realities of the city."" This kind of 'criticism would flare repeatedly in the years ahead as others in the news business decided to "leap across the chasm that normally separates journalism from community," as Swift put it, while many of their colleagues learned of these leaps and drew back in disgust. "Getting involved" became one of the flashpoints for the controversy that surrounded public journalism when it surfaced as a movement after 1993.
In 1990, I was more interested in the existential moment that preceded Swift's leap. When their series on the future of the city drew no visible response, the editors had to interpret this non‑event. They could have felt perversely vindicated, confirmed in the dreary view that those in power merely have their eye on the next election, while the people at home are ill informed or lost in their own affairs. Or the editors might have said to themselves, "Why should Columbus jump when we say jump?" A third possibility was to see the lack of response as itself a valid response: "Look, we tried, but people don't feel this is important. So be it." All these reactions would have been supported by the common sense of the profession; none would have brought any censure or alarm.
But a fourth reaction was the one Swift and others at the newspaper chose: to be disturbed when an outstanding public challenge goes unmet. Here, they showed a certain confidence in their own reporting, and in their concern for a community that could not afford to remain complacent and inert. Behind the Ledger‑Enquirer's initiative was also a moral proposition: that it is wrong for communities to drift without direction when the future is closing in on them. In a democracy, the remedy for this wrong is politics, undertaken by citizens prepared to deliberate and to act. To get this kind of activity going was the cause the newspaper took up.
Taking up causes had a long and fascinating history in the American press, but it was not a history from which contemporary journalists took comfort or inspiration. To them it smacked of advocacy, an abuse of the newspaper's power for partisan purpose, which violated the professional ideal of an objective press. Journalists were constantly being accused of allowing partisan or personal bias to color the news. They were often chagrined by these complaints because they worked hard to keep the most obvious forms of bias out of their reports, harder than many of the loudest critics knew. A separation between the news pages, where facts reigned, and the editorial pages, where opinion was allowed, was widely observed in the mainstream press. Newspeople equated these efforts with the reservoir of trust that sustained them — their credibility. Objectivity, accuracy, fairness, and credibility were common watchwords for a profession that depended in unusual measure on public support.
Swift’s experiment fit awkwardly within this vocabulary. The leap he talked about was toward a different ethic that could only be described using different words: democracy, community, citizenship, deliberation, public life. As I conversed with Swift and studied his actions, I found myself taking on a new role: friendly interpreter of a promising venture. From 1990 to 1992 I began to speak and write about the Ledger-Inquirer, addressing myself to journalists and their imaginations. The aim was not to duplicate the Columbus case; it was to get journalists curious about an alternative goal: seeing the public into fuller existence.
While I was testing out this approach, swift’s efforts were being promoted within Knight-Ridder. Batten named him the company's editor of the year, praising the Ledger‑Enquirer’s determination "to build closer relations between the town's citizens, its government, and its newspaper." He then added a further point: many newspapers were unable to cultivate what he called community-connectedness because "they themselves are basically disconnected from their communities." Newsrooms had become "over‑stocked with journalistic transients who care little about the town of the moment." With their gaze fixed on "the next (and bigger) town," these newsroom gypsies "know little about their community's past and make no effort to make their byline files a little more glittering at the expense of people they will never see again.”
Here he hiked the stakes. In praising Swift, Batten had already sanctioned a leap into the unknown; he went on to question the mounting costs of the adversarial mentality. This is the one area where American journalism got political: its description of itself as a standing check on official authority, a kind of addition to the balance of powers laid down in the Constitution. Journalists were supposed to be quasi‑official doubters of what government said and did; through aggressive reporting and probing questions they would hold public institutions and elected officials up to public scrutiny. Much of the glory of the profession was bound up in this view. But so were certain problems. Batten noted one of them: journalists passing through on their way to New York and Washington might overvalue the destruction of public facades and undervalue an ethic of care, in which the press tried to strengthen the community's resources for coming to grips with public problems.
The image of the press as a professional antagonist drew its considerable strength from historic events. At the national level, the litany of government lying during Vietnam, the showdown with the White House over the Pentagon Papers, and the triumph of the Washington Post during Watergate convinced a generation of journalists that official authority was not to be trusted. From there it was a short step to concluding that their own authority rested on rituals of mistrust. Any criticism of those rituals could be seen as a demand to "soften" the news, a deadly epithet, for to go soft was to lose your commitment to truth and thus all your credentials
This was not an irrational fear. At the local level a long history of civic boosterism, of newspapers seeing no evil in towns where the publisher was part of the power structure, gave weight to the newsroom's culture of suspicion. Here the relevant acts of heroism predated Vietnam and Watergate. They involved newspapers in the South that had defied majority opinion about civil rights during the epic struggles of the 1950s and early 1960s. In the mythology of press performance during this era, a racist community was plainly hostile to the journalist's truth‑telling mission. It had been that way once and it could be that way again, many in the press felt. If truth was to be told on a daily basis, the community and its official representatives had to be resisted, their complaints put to one side. The same was true of customers — readers, viewers, or advertisers — whose demands could only lead to a softening of the news.
James Squires, who later became editor of the Chicago Tribune, began his career at the Nashville Tennessean in 1962. In his memoir he describes what made journalism a heroic pursuit to his generation: "My role models were the editors and publishers who stood up to the government, who told the truth when it was not popular or profitable to do so, the people who had seen journalism as a tool with which to abolish slavery, to stand up to Fascism and racism. The greater the risks they took, the more consistent and persistent their stands, they taller they stood in my eyes."
To tell the truth you needed a tough hide. Confirmation of this view came from journalists' everyday experience: the endless complaints about "negative" news when their reporting was even mildly critical, the instinct to stonewall, as Nixon had done, when legitimate questions were raised, the sheer volume of lying and calculated deceit that came their way as journalists fenced with spokespeople, tried to pin down politicians, and asked everyone in public life the rude but necessary questions in which they specialized. A kind of cult of toughness grew from these experiences. Journalists had to steel themselves for their daily battle against the truth‑shaders, stonewallers, and sentimentalizers. The cult bestowed no peer penalty for excessive mistrust or outsized aggression, while it granted almost immediate censure to anyone who appeared to be going soft.
Given these impressive fortifications, and the high moral ground on which it stood, adversarial journalism was exceedingly difficult to reach with any sort of intelligent critique. One of the first to try was Mike O'Neill, former editor of the New York Daily News, who in 1982 gave a prescient speech the American Society of Newspaper Editors. He began by noting the astonishing growth in the power of the news media, which had come about without “any corresponding increase in responsibility." Journalism’s influence had become mixed up with and multiplied by television's, to the point where the communications revolution, as O'Neill called it, had "altered the basic terms of reference between the press and American democracy."
Political parties had been weakened, direct links to the audience strengthened, and the interval between action and reaction dramatically shortened. The result was that "issues and events are often shaped as much to serve the media’s demands as to promote the general welfare." Public actors turn to "creating controversy on demand, turning away from debate and petition in favor of protest and demonstration." The daily outputs of politics and journalism — what O’Neill called the raw materials of public deliberation — were now a "confusing mixture of the real and unreal, important and irrelevant.
Glamorized by television and the captive attention of the press, the presidency was generating unreal expectations, "inviting the same kind of premature disappointment that destroys so many TV stars." The whole process was spinning faster, generating more conflict, more spectacle, more hype — and less attention to serious problems. The press was not a neutral bystander in these developments. "No longer are we just the messengers, observers on the sidelines, witch's mirrors faithfully telling society how it looks," O'Neill said. "Now we are deeply embedded in the democratic process itself, as principal actors rather than bit players or mere audience.
O’Neill recommended a number of seismic shifts in the culture of the newsroom: and to relentless negativity, abandonment of "the false premise that attack is the best way to flush out the truth," more tolerance of "the frailty of human institutions and their leaders," greater care in the treatment of public officials, a deeper aversion to hype, and "an openness of mind that encourages both self‑criticism and outside criticism." Most of all, journalism needs "a generous spirit, infused with human warmth, as ready to see good as to suspect wrong, to find hope as well as cynicism"‑a journalism finally concerned that "society has a chance to solve its problems."
Although O'Neill's critique of the adversarial reflex was sure to draw the quickest objections (he even suggested that reporters should "make peace with the government," as if to invite jeers), his most challenging move was to deny his peers the comfort of the press box. By continuing to see themselves as outsiders, journalists fell victim to some dangerous illusions: that they had no investment in the health of the political system, that they could continue to watch the craziness — and feed it — without substantial cost, that their intention to be in no one's pocket meant that they were free of politics, when the reality was they were implicated in everything politics had become.
All this was sure to grate on the ears of those whose heroes "stood up to the government" and told unpopular truths, as Squires put it. Michael Gartner, a former editor at the Wall Street Journal (later to become president of NBC News), reacted to O'Neill's speech by denying its central claim: that journalists are actors, rather than professional onlookers, and that they rather enjoy their rising influence. To Gartner this was "hogwash." Reporting the news was quite enough excitement for him and his colleagues; they didn’t need, want, or have the status O'Neill gave them. "We just happen to have jobs that are very, very nice jobs," Gartner said. To O'Neill's contention that the "good of the country" was being overlooked in the breathless pace of the adversarial climate, Gartner replied: "That's marvelous language, but what is good for the country? Who knows what's good for the country? What's good for the country is truth and openness and aggressiveness and reporting what the news is. What is bad for the country is a press that becomes a handmaiden of government. Conspiratorial secrecy is what is bad for the country."
This was the cult of toughness in action. O'Neill' s point was that the press was already handmaiden to a cyclical process that was making a mockery of politics. This was bad for the nation, he reasoned. No, said Gartner, "what is bad for the country is backroom deals, papers working hand‑in hand with the government." The message was clear: O'Neill is going soft, and he wants to take the rest of us down with him. Gartner's tone spoke for many in his profession, but events were slowly working in O'Neill's favor. As the pattern he described etched itself further in, thoughtful journalists found it hard to deny their role as players in the system. This perception reached a painful peak with the 1988 presidential campaign, widely considered one of the worst in modern memory.
The contest pitting Michael Dukakis against George Bush came at a turning point in United States history. With the Cold War winding down, Americans were about to enter a new and far more uncertain landscape. It was reasonable to expect from the campaign some semblance of a debate about the meaning of this and other large events — such as the looming savings and loan scandal, the biggest ever involving public funds. What the nation got instead was a series of manufactured issues that flowed directly from the downward spiral O'Neill had described. The Washington Post was among the newspapers that declined to endorse either candidate. The race, it editorialized, "was not just a domestic disappointment but an international embarrassment . . . a screamingly tiresome, trivial, point‑missing contest between two candidates who do not seem to be running for president so much as they seem to be having one of those headache‑making fights that children are so good at staging in the back seat of the family car when everyone's nerves are pretty much gone anyway. "
Image seemed to be the entire territory on which the campaign was conducted, with flag burning, prison furloughs for rapists, and the Pledge of Allegiance as flashpoints used by Bush and his supporters to generate controversy and discredit the opposition. Struggling to respond, Dukakis came up with his own manipulative ploys, like climbing aboard an M-1 tank to demonstrate his readiness as would‑be commander of the military. All this activity incorporated the news media, as a host of scholarly studies documented. "' The candidates did what they (I I (I based in part on their knowlrilgc of newsroom routines. They played to their constituencies and the television cameras. But they also played to the assumptions of reporters and editors about what constitutes the campaign's "story."
For much of the press, the story was interesting as a contest, an opportunity for one candidate to outmaneuver the other by demonstrating a superior grasp of the electioneering process. But the process had gained a false objectivity in the journalists' eyes. It seemed to he the way things worked, but since it was partly based on an understanding of the way journalists work, the process was often an artifact of news conventions and the ideas embedded in them. The writer and cultural observer Joan Didion wrote of this circularity in a dispatch from the campaign trail, "Insider Baseball," in 1988. Didion pointed to the campaign’s "remoteness from the actual life of the country," and found part of the explanation in the behavior of journalists who "tend to speak a language common in Washington" but foreign to the rest of us. "They talk about the 'story,' and how it will 'play.' They speak of a candidate's performance, by which they usually mean his skill at circumventing questions, not as citizens but as professional insiders, attuned to signals pitched beyond the range of normal hearing: 'I hear he did all right this afternoon,' they were saying in the press section of the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans on the evening Dan Quayle was or was not to be nominated for the vice‑presidency. 'I hear he did OK with Brinkley."
This is how politics sounds when it is being emptied of public purpose. Journalists trying to combat the emptiness wound up adding to it, as another critic, Todd Gitlin, noted. After years of complaints about covering only the "horse race," journalists by 1988 were determined to "take the audience backstage, behind the horse race, into the paddocks, the stables, the clubhouse, and the bookie joints," Gitlin wrote. Thus, "horse‑race coverage was joined by handicapping coverage — stories about campaign tactics, what the handlers were up to, how the reporters felt about being handled: in short, How are the candidates trying to do it to us, and how are they doing at it?"
One September afternoon in 1988, Michael Dukakis took a ride on a new tank at a General Dynamics plant in Sterling, Michigan. Wearing a generously sized helmet and clutching a machine gun, he proudly toured the grounds as music from the movie Patton played over the sound system. "So what did you think," he shouted to reporters who were watching. "Did I look like I belonged up there?" Almost no one thought he did. Television and newspapers presented an absurd picture: the candidate as Snoopy, playing soldier. With its cartoonish imagery and hopelessly dim logic — that a tank ride could somehow establish military credentials — the episode was an immediate embarrassment, not only to the Dukakis campaign, but to the reporters in attendance who had to shape "news" from this event.
What could be said about a stunt so transparent? On CBS that evening, Bruce Morton reported: "Biff, bang powee! It's not a bird, it's not a plane. It's presidential candidate Michael Dukakis in an M‑1 tank as staff and reporters whoop it up." As Morton went on to explain, "Pictures are symbols that tell the voter important things about the candidate. If your candidate is seen in the polls as weak on defense, put him in a tank." In Gitlin's analysis, journalists like Morton were trying to ingratiate themselves, with tile audience by showing "that they were immune from the ministrations of campaign professionals.” Eager to separate themselves from a degrading spectacle that was just as eager to incorporate them, they were urging citizens to become "cognoscenti of their bamboozlement," which was not the most useful task they could perform."
Scholar Kathleen Hall Jamieson analyzed a similar cycle in her book Dirty Politics, noting how television news had by 1988 became distinctly “adlike." News reports were built around short word bursts, vivid images, and a simple story line with emotional oomph — the very features political consultants built into the television ads they regarded as the centerpiece of the lic campaign. Clips from the ads made their way into televised news reports. Meanwhile, other forms of campaign discourse — "candidate speeches, press conferences, one‑to‑one interviews, and debate answers" — were "increasingly tailored with a view toward getting adlike news coverage."
The whole cycle was reinforced when the rest of the press, not bound by the rigid formats of television news, adopted "strategy" and "process" as the themes of the most sophisticated campaign coverage. As Jamieson wrote, this way of knowing locked the entire system into place. It doubled back on journalists to debase what O'Neill had called the raw materials of public deliberation. Jamieson concluded that campaign discourse was "failing the body politic in the United States," but not because it was negative or embodied in paid ads. Rather, campaigning now relied on "genres of candidate and press discourse" that minimized any attempt at argument and encouraged the mounting of phony claims.
Following the disturbing spectacle of 1988, journalists "engaged in more than the usual self‑criticism," as Tom Rosenstiel, then of the Los Angeles Times, put it. Speaking for many of her colleagues, Gloria Borger, an editor at U.S. News and World Report, said, "We looked back at the last campaign and asked what prison furloughs and flags had to do with the real world." Frustrated or disgusted by the emptiness of the campaign, some of the brightest reporters quit covering politics." Others began to consider how the degrading cycle could be ended.
One was the nation's most respected political reporter, David Broder of The Washington Post, who in early 1990 began to address his colleagues on the subject. "We cannot allow the [November] elections to be another exercise in public disillusionment and political cynicism," Broder wrote. This was a startling sentence, for it saw journalists as answerable, not only for the reports they produce, but for the realities they report. "It is time for those of its in the world’s freest press to become activists, not on behalf of a particular party or politician, but on behalf of the process of self‑government," he argued. The campaign must be rescued from "the electronic demagoguery favored by too many hired‑gun political consultants" who merely "collect their fees and go off to another campaign in another state." Broder continued: "That means that we must be far more assertive than in the past on the public's right to hear its concerns discussed by the candidates — in ads, debates and speeches — and far more conscientious in reporting those discussions when they take place. We have to help reconnect politics and government —what happens in the campaign and what happens afterward in public policy — if we are to have accountability by our elected officials and genuine democracy in this country.”
A key influence on Broder's thinking was a pamphlet published in 1991 by the Kettering Foundation, a small think tank based in Dayton, Ohio. Kettering had also been involved in Jack Swift’s adventure in Columbus when the newspaper had needed help in planning public forums. Part of the foundation's work sustained thousands of such forums around the country, where citizens got together on their own initiative to discuss issues in a deliberative setting, with discussion guides and trained moderators to help them get somewhere. The National Issues Forums, as they were called, were one attempt to experiment on conditions that others were simply decrying the absence of serious reflection in politics, the country's inability to discuss issues in depth.
Broder was familiar with the foundation's work, and he discovered in a report it had published in 1991, Citizens and Politics, a way of imagining the public that fit his own conclusions. Citizens and Politics was the work of Richard Harwood, a researcher Kettering had hired to conduct conversations with small groups of Americans about their views on the political system. Harwood shared with Broder a belief that citizens were worth listening to in depth, if you knew what to listen for. All wisdom did not reside in the people, but there was wisdom there that polling and election results could not convey. For years Broder had tried to tap it himself by trooping to the homes of voters for living‑room discussions, the results of which worked their way into his reporting. More journalists admired this method than copied it, but every election season he and some of his colleagues at the Post rang doorbells in key precincts to ask people about politics.
Harwood used the focus‑group method: strangers around a table engaged in a discussion. There were limits to this approach, as with any attempt to map the collective mind, but among its advantages was the chance to reveal the depth of feeling beneath people's disappointment and the connections they made among issues treated as separate in the press. Americans were not apathetic or immature, Harwood said. They were angry. “They argue that politics has been taken away from them — that they have been pushed out of the political process." Citizens saw themselves as squeezed out by a system more responsive to lobbyists, political action committees, special interest groups, and the news media. Public officials reacted to this system, not to the public at large. Harwood said it was a "fervent belief among Americans" that the average citizen is no longer heard or even spoken to, that many, if not most, public issues are talked about by policy and opinion leaders, the media, and others in ways that neither connect with the concerns of citizens nor make any sense to them."
Beneath this sense of frustration and impotence, Harwood uncovered a foundation for a healthier democracy. It was hard to find, difficult to phrase properly, but it was there. Part of it lay in Americans' understanding that no one was able to fix politics for them, and that blaming one villain or another was too easy. Talk to them long enough and citizens "recognize that they need better to understand policy issues in order to participate in political debate; they acknowledge that public officials face political constraints and pressures that are beyond their control; and they realize they must work hard to make their voice heard." People were also willing to get involved when there is the possibility of having a say; the possibility of creating and seeing change.” Absent these conditions, his report warned, such measures as campaign finance reform, term limits, ethics codes, and voter registration drives would not address the core problem, which involved "reconnecting citizens and politics."
Broder read Harwood's report with interest, and shortly afterward he gave a lecture at Riverside, California, in the same series that had earlier featured James Batten. He opened by describing a bleak political landscape in which citizens "tell us that they are disgusted by the campaigns they are offered in this country." Public confidence in politics and politicians was reaching dangerous lows. Journalists were not the cause of this development, and it was important not to overstate their role. But the widespread "disillusionment about the heart of politics — the election process — is something in which we play a part," Broder said."
Along with political consultants, whose power was rising in the new system, journalists had become “a permanent part of the establishment.” Both groups characteristically denied “any responsibility for the consequences of elections." This was disingenuous at best, dishonest at worst, for the fact was that "we have colluded with the campaign consultants to produce the kind of politics which is turning off the American people.” What can I do? Broder asked himself: "My answer is tentative and expressed without any great confidence. But if we are going to change the pattern, we in the press have to try deliberately to reposition ourselves in the process. We have to try to distance ourselves from the people we write about‑the politicians and their political consultants‑and move ourselves closer to the people that we write for‑the voters and potential voters."52
The time had come to rethink a fundamental assumption of political journalism: "that the campaign and its contents are the property of the candidate." Journalists should treat the campaign as part of a longer drama, ("embracing both elections and government") that revolves around the American people rather than the candidates and their advisers. The campaign was the property of voters, a time when they "have a right to have their concerns addressed and their questions answered by the people who are seeking to exercise power." More time would have to be spent with citizens, uncovering the issues they wanted the candidates to address. "Let their agenda drive our agenda," as Broder put it. Why do all this? Because the situation was not beyond remedy. Like Harwood, Broder held to a belief that the American people were not apathetic or unconcerned, nor were they selfish or indifferent. They were simply tired of seeing politics treated as a "sport for a relative handful of political insiders." He closed on a personal note. "I would like to leave some better legacy than that behind when I get out of this business."
Broder’s argument challenged a view popular among journalists: that while many in the country might long for a more serious politics, the American people had time and again shown their culpability in current trends. They had increasingly short attention spans, a limited tolerance for complex arguments, and a weakness for the attack style of campaigning, which worked only because voters allowed it to work. A skeptical view of the average citizen — bordering on contempt — was an article of common sense for many in the press. An illustrative example is this observation from Katharine Seelye, a reporter for the New York Times, who noted how calls for a more serious discourse were in the air. "But for all their longing for civility," she wrote, "voters respond to negative campaigning the way children respond to Power Rangers: they love to watch politicians punch and blow one another to smithereens. The voters can't help themselves. They see a negative ad, they respond."
Seelye’s is an ironist's perspective, an emotional style as much as an empirical conclusion. The ironist is constantly noting those surprising or depressing facts that put the lie to noble sentiments like democracy as self‑government. In Seelye’s treatment the American peoples will inevitably show their Pavlovian nature, their essential childishness. ("The voters can't help themselves.”) They may say they want serious discourse but prove unequal to the task of demanding it. Observing such ironies is the journalist's route to truth, for only those unclouded by the dreamy rhetoric of democracy can see how the system really works.
Placed next to Broder's more hopeful perspective, Seelye's ironic and skeptical stance illuminated a critical choice for the press: when confronted with dismal facts about the state of democracy, do we take them in or try to take them on. In choosing the second option, Broder advanced a cogent analysis of the press as a player in the system. He declared his faith in the average citizen's capacity, and put aside irony as a preferred style of knowing — without however, surrendering the native realism of the experienced reporter. This was an intriguing series of rhetorical moves by a man of the top of the professional pyramid. If David Broder of the Washington Post was thinking revolutionary thoughts ("It is time for those of us in the world's freest press to become activists"), could others be far behind?
As it happened, some in the mainstream press were already moving ahead, without waiting for a nod from the likes of Broder. Out in the plains of Kansas, Davis Merritt, editor of the Wichita Eagle, had begun refashioning his newspaper’s approach to political coverage. Merritt, known by the nickname "Buzz," was a thirty‑five‑year veteran of the newspaper world. Almost all of it was with Knight‑Ridder. Despite his long association with the company and his personal affection for James Batten, Merritt had grown nervous about the customer talk he was hearing, While he admired Jack Swift’s courage in the Columbus experiment, Merritt felt the Ledger‑Enquirer had gone too far: nothing but trouble could come from Swift’s personal leadership in a citizens' group. To allow himself or the Eagle to become so involved was unimaginable to Merritt, and lie had a hard time seeing the Columbus case as inspirational."
But as he examined his own paper's role in politics, Merritt began to think hard about other possible reforms. Shortly after the 1988 election, he wrote a column calling for "a total rearranging of the contract between the candidates and journalists." The existing arrangement, a "mutual bond of expediency," was satisfying only to the campaign professionals who had learned how to profit from it. In the 1990 gubernatorial campaign in Kansas, the Eagle would try something different. Sensing a repeat of the prevailing pattern — a campaign of phony charges and countercharges with only minimal attention to important issues — Merritt announced a break with tradition in a Sunday column headlined, "Up Front, Here's Our Election Bias."
The headline was itself noteworthy: a news organization shares its plans with the public by announcing the "bias" it will bring to campaign coverage. Of course the particular slant Merritt had in mind was hardly controversial: "We believe the voters are entitled to have the candidates talk about the issues in depth." Few would dare to challenge that. But making good on this pledge involved a shift in thinking. The notion of covering the campaign was effectively replaced by a new principle: making the campaign cover what mattered to citizens. The Eagle vowed to give readers "the opportunity to understand in great detail the candidates' positions on every major issue Kansas faces."
Merritt's pledge meant that the point of departure for the Eagle would no longer be the daily events along the campaign trail or what the candidates were doing to win votes. It would be the needs of citizens who had a "right to know what the candidates intend to do once in office." Campaign coverage could then approach the candidates with this priority in mind. This was new only because it departed from what had become the norm; but it could also be seen as a return to fundamentals. Elections are self‑government in action, and journalism should serve that end.
If the Eagle was going to focus on every major issue Kansas faced, then defining those issues would have to become the newspaper's responsibility. In effect, the Eagle was planning to argue with the candidates over what the campaign should be about. Merritt was betting on his staff's knowledge of Kansas politics, along with their judgment about the importance of various issues. They had polling data to help them, but this data still had to be interpreted, raising the question: what were the grounds for determining the key issues in the campaign?
For a campaign adviser, the grounds are clear. A good issue solidifies a base of support, motivates new recruits, weakens an opponent's coalition, or targets an important subgroup — typically, undecided voters. A bad issue is one that angers supporters, alienates potential recruits, or exposes a weakness in the candidate’s record. The image of a wedge issue — one that divides the electorate to one side’s advantage — suggests the values at work when campaign professionals do the naming and framing of issues.
One way a journalist can counter those values is to expose the candidate’s strategy, by writing about the wedge and how it works, for example. But how does this help citizens form a sound judgment about the Kansas governor’s race? Should they vote for the candidate with the better strategy? Reporters who expose the machinations of politicians and handlers feel they are striking a blow for truth. And they are, in a "buyer beware" manner typical of consumer reporting. But Merritt wanted the Eagle's journalism to be more than a prophylactic, more than a series of signs reading "Beware of manipulation by candidates trying to win." Picture two ways of telling the story of the governor's race: one assumes that a campaign has its own reality, which journalists ought to decipher for us; the other assumes that the campaign becomes decipherable by us when it addresses the realities facing the electorate. The Eagle chose the second course, striking its own blow for truth with the proposition that "voters are entitled to have the candidates talk about the issues in depth."
The paper focused its coverage on ten key concerns: education, economic development, the environment, agriculture, social services, abortion, crime, health care, taxes, and state spending. Each was the subject of a long background piece in the Sunday paper. Each issue was also charted in “Where They Stand," a weekly feature that gave a brief description of what was at stake, a summary of the two gubernatorial candidates' positions, and then a report on what, if anything, was said that week. For example, the section on the environment noted that Kansas faced new demands on its water supply as current sources dried up. The newspaper treated the positions ofv the two candidates, Democrat Joan Finney and incumbent Republican Mike Hayden, as follows.
Would increase the state's role in recycling. Has no specific plan. Has not discussed the water issue.
This week: Restated her position.
Helped pass state water plan to manage resources. Wants private lands more accessible for public recreation. Encourages dryland farming research to reduce demand for water. Wants to research drilling wells into geological formations deeper than that Ogaliala aquifer.
This week: Repeated his position.
Under the heading 'Agriculture" the Eagle wrote about the Democrat:
Wants agriculture secretary elected by all voters. No other stated position on agricultural matters.
This week: Did not talk about it.
When news was made under this format it tended to be about positions taken, or views clarified. Under "taxes," the Eagle wrote:
Now is proposing that $460 million be raised by placing a 1 percent surcharge tax on up to 52 categories of goods and services now exempt from sales taxes. Finney would use the money to provide for a 30 percent reduction in property taxes.
This week: Substantially changed her tax proposal Tuesday. Originally had proposed raising $800 million in new tax dollars by placing a 1 percent surcharge tax on up to 52 categories of goods and services now exempt from sales tax. On Tuesday, she lowered that amount to $460 million. Would not say before the election which categories would be taxed. Would use the money to provide for 30 percent reduction in property taxes. Would no longer raise $180 million for state programs — money she has said was necessary to deal with a possible state revenue shortfall.
Several things are worth noting about this scheme. First, any responsible newspaper would report a major change in a candidate's position on taxes. In this sense the Eagle's coverage was entirely conventional. What was different was the conscious display of issues and positions as the major theme of the campaign story. The Eagle's goal was to allow the proper concerns of politics (issues in depth) to shine though in the space provided. Time was also reimagined. "This week: Did not talk about it," is a fact generated by a particular way of sensing political time: as the weekly process by which the choices facing the state are (or are not) clarified by the candidates. The "strategy" approach contains its own conception of time: how the candidates are shaping their images, responding to the latest charges from their opponent's camp, struggling to win as the race winds down.
"Where They Stand" was thus more than a handy voter's guide, although it was also that. Fundamentally, it was an argument for what politics is supposed to he about: public concerns and public debate. It was a powerful use of news space, especially with the threat of a blank appearing under a candidate’s name. Deploying this threat was the way of being "tough" on the candidates. Toughness, however, doesn't become an end in itself A candidate can avoid the penalty of white space by cooperating in a dialogue that will help voters make up their minds. The system is publicly announced and the rules are clear: say something meaningful about the key issues, and we’ll report it and keep reporting it.
This scheme tried to correct for both the excesses of the adversarial pose, in which a contemptuous dismissal of all public statements is assumed to serve some public good, and the limitations of "balance," in which equal quotation of opposite sides meets the desired norm. The Eagle's approach made a different argument: political talk should address important public concerns, and the press can help. In a post‑election survey financed by Knight‑Ridder, readers said that the most useful features were the "Where They Stand" box and the in‑depth explorations of issues. Horse‑race coverage, often touted by journalists as a way to make the story exciting, ranked far down the list.
A further (and more radical) experiment in connectedness came two years later, when the Eagle launched the "People Project.” If Americans Increasingly disdained politics because it didn't seem real to them, then journalism had to start revising its view of what the whole thing was about. Ignoring government and the maneuvering of major players was no answer but neither could the press avoid the widespread frustration with politics as usual, or the growing conviction that some issues are beyond the system’s current capacity. The People Project tried to respond to these facts. It was an experiment with a self‑conscious and rather idealistic premise: that journalism could "empower people to take back control of their lives," as Merritt's initial planning memo read. The project began with 192 two‑hour interviews with Wichita‑area residents, who were asked to speak about their lives and troubles, along with their perceptions of the political process. From these interviews, and from the Eagle's own observations, the following premises energed, as outlined in Merritt's memo.
1. People feel alienated from many of the processes that affect their lives. The political process, the education system, the justice system are seen as incapable of' resolving anything.
2. People see thesc issues as interrelated, inseparable and, perhaps, unsolvable.
3. [Their] response is to fall into frustration and anger, to drop out of the processes, to abandon community in a self‑protective response, rather than seek solutions which they very much doubt exist.
The idea that average citizens can take back control of institutional structures and social forces may seem naive, even dangerously so. It can lead to a kind of mythmaking, in which the realities of unequal influence are obscured by the charged rhetoric of "empowerment." But from another perspective, journalists have every reason to emphasize the citizen's ability to act, to take seriously the notion of self‑government. A story so realistic that it sees through everything risks convincing people that politics is a farce, government a joke, rhetoric a sham, leadership an illusion, change a mirage. This is a journalism that by succeeding becomes defeatist and self‑canceling‑in a word absurd. For if all these things are true we dorA need journalists and their daily reports. In fact, we don't need politics at all because the system is clearly beyond our control.
Merritt was searching for a way to address this sense of despair without adding to it, on one hand, or whitewashing reality, on the other. In trying to counter public hopelessness, the People Project was not a utopian exercise at all but an open‑ended probe for some way to restore journalism's relevance. Merritt outlined the aims of his project as follows:
1. Recognize the frustrations and explain the reasons for them, including the core, often competing values that stand in the way of solutions.
2. Give readers hundreds of places where they can get a handle on problems through the existing, non‑government mechanisms.
3. Elicit from readers, and print, their ideas for other mechanisms and solutions.
4. Summarize it all and produce a ... reprint that would be distributed to non‑subscribers through various devices....
5. Encourage, or, with a partner, actively cause continued involvement at various levels.
The People Project became a ten‑week package of articles, service features, community events, and "idea exchanges" sponsored by the Eagle and several broadcast partners. In a front‑page column Merritt announced a "collaborative effort to give shape and momentum to your voices and ideas, with the goal of reasserting personal power and responsibility for what goes on around us. "Thus the subtitle of the project: "Solving It Ourselves." For ten weeks, Merritt wrote, the Eagle and its two partners, KSNW‑TV and KNSS radio, would make the space and time available for "an informed community discussion of critical issues" from which "ideas about solutions can arise, as well as the commitment to carry out the solutions."
The critical issues included faltering schools, crime and the lure of political gridlock, and the stresses that built up on families and individuals trying to cope with competing demands. Each was the subject of a package of features in the Eagle, the bulk of them written by veteran reporter and longtime Wichita resident Jon Roe. Roe outlined the problem and what residents said about it in interviews; then he examined why the issue was so difficult to address, attempting to cut through the surface of conflict to what the paper called competing "core values." By encouraging readers to examine their deepest beliefs (which may of course conflict), the paper hoped to "encourage a search for solutions among people with different ideas," as Merritt put it.
For each of the major issues under discussion, the Eagle published a comprehensive list called "Places to Start," with the names, addresses, and phone numbers of agencies working on the problem — like keeping kids out of gangs. Repeated invitations were made to phone, write, fax, or deliver in person comments and suggestions for change. A series of "idea exchanges" was held at various sites where concerned residents could connect with others like themselves and meet with representatives of community and volunteer groups. A regular feature called "Success Stories" focused on individuals who took the initiative and were making a difference. The paper's broadcast partners produced parallel reports during the ten‑week run of the project and provided on‑air forums.
The People Project was political journalism in a different key. The aim was to connect people to public life and its full range of civic organizations. Visiting the United States in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville called these groups "associations." He saw them as a distinctive strength of American democracy because they drew people into public causes and gave them a stake in the outcome. The People Project thus drew on a long tradition of political thought, usually called civic republicanism, in which the ideal citizen is engaged with others through a rich web of voluntary associations.
"At the heart of republicanism," writes E. J. Dionne of the Washington Post, "is the belief that self government is not a drab necessity but a joy to be treasured. It is the view that politics is not simply a grubby confrontation of competing interests in which citizens can learn from each other and discover “an enlightened self interest in common.” By showing residents of Wichita their opportunities for mutual engagement, the Eagle made use of a power rarely visible in discussions of the pres: to render the public landscape in a particular way. In this case, it became an open space for concerned citizens willing to learn from each other and get involved.
What were the results? As Merritt later wrote, “Kansas was not free of crime or health care problems and the schools did not visibly improve — nor had we anticipated any of that.” There were a few hopeful signs: volunteerism in Wichita schools was up 37 when the school year opened. The newspaper’s circulation remained flat, but no jump had been expected. In an annual survey by Knight-Ridder, reader satisfaction rose 10 percent, the highest increase in the chain.
Both Wichita projects recognize that beyond information, the press sends us an invitation to experience public life in one manner or another. Reflecting on what the invitation should say was the innovation pioneered by Merritt and his colleagues. The experience should be participatory, the Eagle argued. It should propose and deliver a useful dialogue about issues. It should address people in their capacity as citizens, in the hope of strengthening that capacity. It should try ot make public life go well, in the sense of making good on democracy’s promise. These “shoulds” would eventually form the core of public journalism as a philosophy. As Merritt wrote about the 1990 voter project:
Something intriguing and promising had happened. We had deliberately broken out of the passive and increasingly detrimental conventions of election coverage. We had, in effect, left the press box and gotten down on the field, not as a contestant but as a fair-minded participant with an open and expressed in interest in the process going well. . . . It was also a liberating moment, for me and the journalists at the Eagle. We no longer had to be the victims, along with the public, of a politics gone sour. We had a new purposefulness: revitalizing a moribund public process.
In the fall of 1992, this new purposefulness was taken further by the Charlotte Observer during its own experiment in election coverage. Like others in journalism, then executive editor Rich Oppel was dissatisfied with press performance in past campaigns, particularly with horse-race polling, which had miscalled a bitter Senate race between Jesse Helms and Harvey Gantt in 1990. The weaknesses of horse-race coverage were well known; now its biggest strength, the ability to predict the winner, was also suspect.
Oppel and publisher Rolfe Neill were determined to try something different. Meanwhile, the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, which has an educational mission within journalism, was looking to demonstrate that a revised approach was possible. Aware of the progress that had been made in Wichita, the two institutions agreed to cooperate, adding as a partner WSOC-TV in Charlotte. The Observer set out to amplify and extend the “new political contract” outlined two years earlier by Merritt and described in strikingly similar language by Broder. In a front-page column titled “We’ll Help You Regain Control of the Issues,” Oppel announced his intentions.
David Broder of the Washington Post has said voters see no "connection between their concerns in their daily lives and what they hear talked about and see reported by the press in most political campaigns."
We think this is dangerous....
We will seek to reduce the coverage of campaign strategy and candidates’ manipulations, and increase the focus on voters' concerns. We will seek to distinguish between issues that merely influence an election's outcome, and those of governance that will be relevant after the election. We will link our coverage to the voters' agenda, and initiate more questions on behalf of the voters.
Oppel’s column came clean about the choices involved in campaign reporting. He admitted that politics as strategy ws a narrative device that could be drastically reduced. His alternative: a renewed focus on voters’ concerns. Oppel acknowledged that the temporal frame — the definition of political time — in campaign reporting was too narrow because it favored “issues that merely influence an election’s outcome.” He then announced the choice of a new frame: matters of governance that will be relevant after the election. Moving on, he conceded that asking questions is an art that can be performed in several different ways. The one the Observer chose was to initiate more questions on behalf of the voters. In the same passage, Oppel implied that covering politics and having an agenda are not mutually exclusive. Thus, "We will link our coverage to the voters' agenda,” Finally, he said that a newspaper was entitled to have convictions about politics and that news coverage could follow from those convictions (“We’ll help you regain control of the issues”).
The search for a “citizen’s agenda” began in January 1992 with a poll of one thousand adults (not necessarily readers) conducted by a Knight‑Ridder subsidiary and jointly sponsored by WSOC-TV. The poll asked residents not who they would vote for, or what they wanted to read, but what they were concerned about and wanted the candidates to discuss in the upcoming election. Six broad areas of concern emerged: the economy and taxes, crime and drugs, health care, education, the environment, and a general sense that support structures and value systems in family and community life were weakening. These became the citizen's agenda. Five hundred of the poll's respondents agreed to serve on a citizen's panel to help the Observer keep its focus on the public's concerns, rather than the machinations of the candidates or the weekly flux of campaign events.
Issues from the citizen's agenda dominated the coverage, with the ernphasis on answering questions, explaining the candidates' positions, and exploring possible solutions. Queries from citizens were regularly put to the candidates and campaign staffi; polls and strategy stories were downplayed. Stories were told through the eyes and lives of citizens, relying heavily on readers' phoned‑in comments and questions from the citi 's
the citizen's agenda rather than campaign tactics driving the coverage, reporters specializing in business, education, health, and religion were recruited to write political stories. Profiles of the candidates were accompanied by grids comparing their statements and records against the voter's agenda. Campaign speeches were "mapped" against the agenda so that reports focused on not only what was said, or the strategy behind saying it, but what it meant for the problems on people's minds.
Voters emerged as participants in the campaign. Reporters on the campaign trail would ask questions from readers; replies would be published under a regular heading, 'Ask the Candidates." Before the state primary, Pat Buchanan was interviewed by eight members of the citizen's panel. Three panel members questioned gubernatorial candidates at a debate on school reform. For three Sunday evenings in October, WSOC‑TV featured a televised conversation among citizens, keyed to issues explored in the Sunday paper.
These events reveal another dimension of press power that ordinarily goes unnoticed: journalists determine who counts as a player in politics. By revising its use of this power, the Observer crafted a different story about the 1992 election: a tale of citizens, candidates, and public concerns connecting with one another — or failing to connect. Before the initiative began, Oppel said, "If we do campaign coverage this way, it will change the way we do everything here.” That remark illuminates the change in thinking in Wichita and Charlotte. By making the citizen’s experience the primary reference point, the two papers began to alter the way journalists experienced the political drama as well. The newspapers’ quest for politics — their sense of what was worth knowing and why — underwent a shift. The best illustration of it is a story told by Oppel from the 1992 campaign:
Voters were intensely interested in the environment.... So our reporters went out to senatorial candidates and said, "here are the voters’ questions. Terry Sanford, the incumbent senator, called me up from Washington and said, "Rich, I have these questions from your reporter and I'm not going to answer them because we are not going to talk about the environment until the general election." This was the primary. I said, "Well, the voters want to know about the environment now, Terry." He said, "Well, that's not the way I have my campaign structured." I said, "Fine, I will run the questions and I will leave a space under it for you to answer. If you choose not to, we will just say 'Would not respond' or we will leave it blank." We ended the conversation. In about ten days he sent the answers down.
Seen here are the intricate relations between power and authority in journalism. Clearly, Oppel was deploying the power of his newspaper with his threat to leave a blank space under Sanford's name. But he had another weapon: the renewed authority that came from the paper's inquiry into citizens' interests, and its attempt to make the campaign dialogue address them. These put teeth in the journalist's claim to be "representing" citizens. While the claim is always to some degree rhetorical, it became more and more empirical as the Observer found ways to uncover and employ a citizen's agenda. All of which helped make the paper's power play an instance of fair play.
When Terry Sanford explained that his campaign strategy did not include talking about the environment yet, Oppel did not say, "Oh, really? Tell me your thinking on that." This is the dark path that strategy stories enter down. Curiosity is aroused by the insinuation of a clever move, the effectiveness of which can only be appreciated by a savvy reporter. "That's not the way I have my campaign structured" was a subtle invitation to Oppel to enter the universe of handlers and pollsters. By declinng this invitation, Oppel stayed within the universe of the citizen. He told Sanford how the Observer would be structuring the campaign: as a dialogue on public issues.
By 1992 the seeds of a strongcr public philosophy were scattered around in the American press. A critique of press performance was brought forward by the depressing events of 1988. It saw the press as a player, caught up in a system that was making a mockery of politics. Changes were called for, and for, and some big names were doing the calling. David Broder grasped that if journalists are to be seen as actors, it is reasonable to expect from them a kind of agenda, a desired outcome of their actions. Not only should they acknowledge an agenda, they should be able to persuade others — media owners, politicians, critics, the public — that their agenda is a proper one. But what should it be? How can they justify it to wider audiences? What sort of rhetoric should they employ?
These questions confound the profession’s normal view of itself. Journalists tend to see themselves as observers; their job is to tell the truth, not to bring new truths into being. Almost all the key tenets in their ethical code emphasize detachment rather than participation: the maligned but still influential doctrine of objectivity, the related emphasis on fairness and balance, the separation between the news columns and the editorial page, the treasured watchdog role, the adversarial stance, the injunction to "let the chips fall where they may." None of these ideas offers guidance to the people Broder tried to address: professionals willing to acknowledge their influence in politics and to use it on behalf of "genuine democracy."
Nor was it journalists alone who declined this challenge. The entire political culture, preoccupied with media "bias," made it perilous to even ask about agendas and outcomes in journalism. Far safer to do as Michael Gartner had done: cling to the observer's position, or contend that the adversarial stance was the only political role the press could play. But there were mounting costs to these attitudes. How long before public confidence in the press evaporated? How long before election campaigns transmuted into something so little resembling democratic choice that nothing journalists did would matter? How long before the entire enterprise of political reporting would come to feel pointless, an exercise in futility, a song for the cynical? Broder knew the clock was ticking: as politics went, so went the press.
Meanwhile, a similar range of problems appeared at the local level. Readers were disappearing. Many of the ties that bind people to their communities were loosening, which meant a looser connection to journalism. Batten caught the essence of it with his awkward phrase "community-connectedness." But here Jack Swift and Buzz Merritt had gone Broder one better; they were experimenting with changes in practice.
If these early gropings were to continue, a lot of work lay ahead. Some of it was practical: how to keep the experiment going among a wider group. Much of it was conceptual: how to find a convincing alternative to the journalist's favorite self‑image — the professional bystander, watching politics and public life roll by. This description placed the press outside the action, which was a safe position, but also a weak one, in that it couldn't account for all the ways in which journalism had been incorporated into the system.
In the same article in which she remarked on the immaturity of the American voter, Katharine Seelye of the New York Times went on to say: “Modern American culture is loud and adversarial, and politics reflects the culture. And the ever‑adversarial, conflict‑seeking press helps shape the politics.” Trying to be an honest observer, Seelye wound up describing her colleagues as players, people who help shape the scene they also survey. Which left hanging a question: If the press shapes the politics we have, then how can it shape the politics we need?
One thing public journalism became was a reply to that question.