This is an archive, please visit for current posts.
PressThink: Ghost of Democracy in the Media Machine
Recent Entries
Like PressThink? More from the same pen:

Read about Jay Rosen's book, What Are Journalists For?

Excerpt from Chapter One of What Are Journalists For? "As Democracy Goes, So Goes the Press."

Essay in Columbia Journalism Review on the changing terms of authority in the press, brought on in part by the blog's individual--and interactive--style of journalism. It argues that, after Jayson Blair, authority is not the same at the New York Times, either.

"Web Users Open the Gates." My take on ten years of Internet journalism, at

Read: Q & As

Jay Rosen, interviewed about his work and ideas by journalist Richard Poynder

Achtung! Interview in German with a leading German newspaper about the future of newspapers and the Net.

Audio: Have a Listen

Listen to an audio interview with Jay Rosen conducted by journalist Christopher Lydon, October 2003. It's about the transformation of the journalism world by the Web.

Five years later, Chris Lydon interviews Jay Rosen again on "the transformation." (March 2008, 71 minutes.)

Interview with host Brooke Gladstone on NPR's "On the Media." (Dec. 2003) Listen here.

Presentation to the Berkman Center at Harvard University on open source journalism and NewAssignment.Net. Downloadable mp3, 70 minutes, with Q and A. Nov. 2006.

Video: Have A Look

Half hour video interview with Robert Mills of the American Microphone series. On blogging, journalism, NewAssignment.Net and distributed reporting.

Jay Rosen explains the Web's "ethic of the link" in this four-minute YouTube clip.

"The Web is people." Jay Rosen speaking on the origins of the World Wide Web. (2:38)

One hour video Q & A on why the press is "between business models" (June 2008)

Recommended by PressThink:

Town square for press critics, industry observers, and participants in the news machine: Romenesko, published by the Poynter Institute.

Town square for weblogs: InstaPundit from Glenn Reynolds, who is an original. Very busy. Very good. To the Right, but not in all things. A good place to find voices in diaolgue with each other and the news.

Town square for the online Left. The Daily Kos. Huge traffic. The comments section can be highly informative. One of the most successful communities on the Net.

Rants, links, blog news, and breaking wisdom from Jeff Jarvis, former editor, magazine launcher, TV critic, now a J-professor at CUNY. Always on top of new media things. Prolific, fast, frequently dead on, and a pal of mine.

Eschaton by Atrios (pen name of Duncan B;ack) is one of the most well established political weblogs, with big traffic and very active comment threads. Left-liberal.

Terry Teachout is a cultural critic coming from the Right at his weblog, About Last Night. Elegantly written and designed. Plus he has lots to say about art and culture today.

Dave Winer is the software wiz who wrote the program that created the modern weblog. He's also one of the best practicioners of the form. Scripting News is said to be the oldest living weblog. Read it over time and find out why it's one of the best.

If someone were to ask me, "what's the right way to do a weblog?" I would point them to Doc Searls, a tech writer and sage who has been doing it right for a long time.

Ed Cone writes one of the most useful weblogs by a journalist. He keeps track of the Internet's influence on politics, as well developments in his native North Carolina. Always on top of things.

Rebecca's Pocket by Rebecca Blood is a weblog by an exemplary practitioner of the form, who has also written some critically important essays on its history and development, and a handbook on how to blog.

Dan Gillmor used to be the tech columnist and blogger for the San Jose Mercury News. He now heads a center for citizen media. This is his blog about it.

A former senior editor at Pantheon, Tom Englehardt solicits and edits commentary pieces that he publishes in blog form at TomDispatches. High-quality political writing and cultural analysis.

Chris Nolan's Spot On is political writing at a high level from Nolan and her band of left-to-right contributors. Her notion of blogger as a "stand alone journalist" is a key concept; and Nolan is an exemplar of it.

Barista of Bloomfield Avenue is journalist Debbie Galant's nifty experiment in hyper-local blogging in several New Jersey towns. Hers is one to watch if there's to be a future for the weblog as news medium.

The Editor's Log, by John Robinson, is the only real life honest-to-goodness weblog by a newspaper's top editor. Robinson is the blogging boss of the Greensboro News-Record and he knows what he's doing.

Fishbowl DC is about the world of Washington journalism. Gossip, controversies, rituals, personalities-- and criticism. Good way to keep track of the press tribe in DC

PJ Net Today is written by Leonard Witt and colleagues. It's the weblog of the Public Journalisn Network (I am a founding member of that group) and it follows developments in citizen-centered journalism.

Here's Simon Waldman's blog. He's the Director of Digital Publishing for The Guardian in the UK, the world's most Web-savvy newspaper. What he says counts.

Novelist, columnist, NPR commentator, Iraq War vet, Colonel in the Army Reserve, with a PhD in literature. How many bloggers are there like that? One: Austin Bay.

Betsy Newmark's weblog she describes as "comments and Links from a history and civics teacher in Raleigh, NC." An intelligent and newsy guide to blogs on the Right side of the sphere. I go there to get links and comment, like the teacher said.

Rhetoric is language working to persuade. Professor Andrew Cline's Rhetorica shows what a good lens this is on politics and the press.

Davos Newbies is a "year-round Davos of the mind," written from London by Lance Knobel. He has a cosmopolitan sensibility and a sharp eye for things on the Web that are just... interesting. This is the hardest kind of weblog to do well. Knobel does it well.

Susan Crawford, a law professor, writes about democracy, technology, intellectual property and the law. She has an elegant weblog about those themes.

Kevin Roderick's LA Observed is everything a weblog about the local scene should be. And there's a lot to observe in Los Angeles.

Joe Gandelman's The Moderate Voice is by a political independent with an irrevant style and great journalistic instincts. A link-filled and consistently interesting group blog.

Ryan Sholin's Invisible Inkling is about the future of newspapers, online news and journalism education. He's the founder of and a self-taught Web developer and designer.

H20town by Lisa Williams is about the life and times of Watertown, Massachusetts, and it covers that town better than any local newspaper. Williams is funny, she has style, and she loves her town.

Dan Froomkin's White House Briefing at is a daily review of the best reporting and commentary on the presidency. Read it daily and you'll be extremely well informed.

Rebecca MacKinnon, former correspondent for CNN, has immersed herself in the world of new media and she's seen the light (great linker too.)

Micro Persuasion is Steve Rubel's weblog. It's about how blogs and participatory journalism are changing the business of persuasion. Rubel always has the latest study or article.

Susan Mernit's blog is "writing and news about digital media, ecommerce, social networks, blogs, search, online classifieds, publishing and pop culture from a consultant, writer, and sometime entrepeneur." Connected.

Group Blogs

CJR Daily is Columbia Journalism Review's weblog about the press and its problems, edited by Steve Lovelady, formerly of the Philadelpia Inquirer.

Lost Remote is a very newsy weblog about television and its future, founded by Cory Bergman, executive producer at KING-TV in Seattle. Truly on top of things, with many short posts a day that take an inside look at the industry.

Editors Weblog is from the World Editors Fourm, an international group of newspaper editors. It's about trends and challenges facing editors worldwide. keeps track of developments from the British side of the Atlantic. Very strong on online journalism.

Digests & Round-ups:

Memeorandum: Single best way I know of to keep track of both the news and the political blogosphere. Top news stories and posts that people are blogging about, automatically updated.

Daily Briefing: A categorized digest of press news from the Project on Excellence in Journalism.

Press Notes is a round-up of today's top press stories from the Society of Professional Journalists.

Richard Prince does a link-rich thrice-weekly digest called "Journalisms" (plural), sponsored by the Maynard Institute, which believes in pluralism in the press.

Newsblog is a daily digest from Online Journalism Review.

E-Media Tidbits from the Poynter Institute is group blog by some of the sharper writers about online journalism and publishing. A good way to keep up

Syndicate this site:

XML Summaries

XML Full Posts

January 28, 2004

I am Not Optimistic But I Do Have Hope

A lecture I gave in 1993 distinguishes between optimism and hope, journalism and The Media. Those are apt for today. Also appearing: Tabitha Soren of MTV, Octavio Paz of Mexico, Leonard Downie, Dan Rather, Max Weber, Jefferson & Hamilton, Bill Clinton, Major League Baseball, the Charlotte Observer, democracy and Christopher Lasch.

This is the text of a speech I gave eleven years ago. I had not heard of the Internet then. Bill Clinton was still trying to pass his health care plan.

I publish it here because a.) now it’s online and added to the public record, and b.) it distingishes between optimism and hope, journalism and The Media. Those are apt terms for today. The speech also has my basic philosophy in it. So some of the DNA for PressThink is here. Warning, though: it’s kinda long, which is why I post it on a Sunday. (I’m counter-programming against the Super Bowl.) A writer can easily misjudge this kind of thing, but I believe it has something to say to the political moment.

This was given in the Cowles Lecture Series at NYU in April of 1993, and it is mostly my attempt to excavate the philosophical ground below journalism and its practices. Of course I was then engaged in a kind of movement within journalism that was struggling with its identity (“civic journalism”) and trying to do something about the disconnect between the public and the press.

But that was a practical effort. This talk is about puzzles that arise when you try to imagine the press as a legitimate actor in a democracy that works, and a republic that endures. This means doing press philosophy, one of the things I do. As my friend James Carey says, “the practices of journalism are not self-justifying.” Thus they have to be justified another way, by reference to goods in the world outside the press.

Democracy, freedom, justice, fairness, politics, openness, culture and ideas of the good life have to be involved if the problem—a philosophical one—is how to legitimate acts of journalism. To legitimate is a dry academic term. It asks: where’s the demonstrable public good in the journalism we are getting? How is it articulated and explained? Or, as I wrote in the title of my book, (published six years after this speech) What Are Journalists For, anyway?

I Am Not Optimistic But I Do Have Hope:
The Future of Journalism in A Media Age

originally given as the Cowles Lecture
New York University, April 8, 1993

Re-published online Feb. 1, 2004

Jay Rosen

About a year ago at this time, I happened to be sitting at home watching the CBS Evening News, and I heard Dan Rather close the broadcast in the following way: He said, “And that’s part of our world tonight. I’m Dan Rather, for all of us here at CBS News, good night.”

In a small panic, I reached for a pencil and wrote down the words I had just heard. Then I looked at what I had written to see if it could be true. It was. Rather had described the news as (and I quote) “part of our world.”

My head started spinning with questions: Part of our world? Part of our world? Now you tell us! Well, which part is it? And who selected this part? Based on what principles? Based on what values? If the news is “part of our world,” wouldn’t that mean it was partial? Partial to whom? Partial to what?

I felt then—and I must say I feel today—that Rather had, without realizing it, undone the entire ideological apparatus of American journalism, which is grounded in the claim that the news presents, not part of our world, but the whole world— or, as our hometown paper puts it, “All the News That’s Fit to Print.” Consider some other familiar slogans:

  • “And that’s the way it is,” Walter Cronkite’s famous closer at CBS.
  • “ABC News: Uniquely qualified to bring you the world.”
  • “Headline News: Around the world in thirty minutes.”
  • And, of course, the attractive bargain offered by 1010 WINS: “You give us 22 minutes, we give you”— not part of the world, not 22 percent, the whole world.

I tuned in the next night to Dan Rather. You know he said it again.

Of course, what Rather had said was merely the truth. And this particular truth led to some exciting questions. Suppose the news is a “part of our world.” Which part should it be? Suppose we acknowledge what everyone knows— that the news is made, rather than found. How should it be made? According to what plan? Suppose it’s the case that journalists bring us a vision of the world, rather than the world itself. What should that vision be?

Leonard Downie does not vote— on principle

I will try answer to these questions. But first I want to describe another startling encounter with a prominent journalist. One day during the ‘92 campaign I was reading the Washington Post, and I came across an op-ed column by the new executive editor of the paper, Leonard Downie. Downie wanted to assure readers that the Post’s recent endorsement of Bill Clinton would have no effect on its coverage of the campaign. Indeed, said Downie, he felt so strongly about the matter that as an editor of the news section he himself refused to vote in national elections.

Immediately I reached for my scissors. This was a column to clip and save. For there was something bizzarre about Downie’s policy— bizzarre to the point of amusing. I began to imagine other editors at the Post trying to follow his example. Think about it: the head of the foreign desk renounces his citizenship to demonstrate that the Post’s international coverage doesn’t favor one country or another. Or consider the plight of the Post’s food editor, renouncing food in order to guarantee the intergrity of her section. No, Downie’s policy—although principled—could not withstand scrutiny. Voting and editing do not amount to a conflict of interest.

Part of the problem was that Downie had supplied an assurance for which there was no demand. It’s difficult to imagine even the most faithful critic of the Post’s liberal bias adding in an letter to the editor, “Have you guys been voting again? Now, I warned you about that.”

But there’s a deeper and more serious difficulty here. Suppose your child’s teacher announced that he feels strongly about not imposing values on the kids he teaches— so strongly, in fact, that he’s decided not to teach his own child any values at all. Would this give you confidence in a teacher? I think not, for you would rightly suspect that this teacher understood little about values in the first place.

Does it give you confidence to know that the dominant newspaper in the capital is edited by a man who refuses to vote? Or would you prefer that Downie, after struggling to be fair-minded in his own judgments, also struggled with his own choice for president?

Whether an editor votes or not may be a small matter (and indeed, most journalists do not follow Downie’s example.) But it opens up some very large questions: What is the proper relationship between journalism and citizenship? What kind of citizen should a journalist be, if not a citizen in suspension, as Downie proposed? Good journalists are often described as political junkies. Let’s instead call them political creatures. What sort of politics should these creatures practice when they tell stories, ask questions, edit newspapers?

The Media vs. journalism

I promise to return to those questions. But first I need the language in which they can find answer. When discussion turns to the media’s future, two languages tend to predominate. One is technology talk, in which we learn, for example, that we’ll soon have 500 channels to choose from. Or we hear that computers, phone systems and video screens are converging to form some new medium that will change the way we do everything.

The other language we hear in discussions of the future is corporate talk. There, we learn about the expansion and global reach of mega-companies like Sony, Time-Warner or Turner Broadcasting. We hear about the coming battle between phone companies and cable companies for control of the “information highway” of the future.

I will speak in neither of these dialects tonight, for my subject is not the future of media, but the future of journalism. And these are very different things. The media is what results from the marraige of communication technology and consumer capitalism. It is a key feature of an open society, and since it’s difficult these days to keep any society closed, we can say that we live in a media age.

As an industry, the media specializes in the worldwide production of audiences. The artifacts of this industry have become our common culture, and this is why we worry about the effects of the media. Journalism is something different. It is a social practice essential to a democracy— and democracy is more than mere openness. What journalism produces is not an audience, but a public, and we should worry when journalism fails to have this effect on us.

It’s no surprise that the nations of Eastern Europe found that they had to invent journalism if they were going to have publics— and they wanted publics because they wanted democracy. So they looked to the United Sates for models of what journalism could be, and many Americans editors have made the trip to Prague and Budapest.

At the same time, of course, media moguls moved into Eastern Europe looking for investment opportunities. The two movements took place simultaneously, but they are not the same thing. One involves the introduction of a social practice called journalism, the other the spread of a global industry— the media. One is essential to the body politic, the other is a prominent feature of an open society and a commercial—that is, capitalist—one.

What’s confusing is that both the media and journalism have an interest in news. But the media sees news as low-cost material— a cheap way to engage us in the moment. The purpose of journalism is to engage us, not in the moment, but in the present— especially the political present. Journalism falters when it loses its authority over the present, it’s ability to engage us in the public world as it presently stands.

The distinction between journalism and the media may still seem elusive. So let me offer a comparison. We sometimes say, often with a note of regret, that baseball is a business. A big business, with big salaries and big TV contracts. But we know that this sentence—“baseball is a business”—isn’t really true. At least it’s not the whole truth. Baseball, as we often say, is an American institution. It connects to our way of life at a thousand entry points, one of which, by the way, is memory. Although rich men own teams, nobody owns baseball.

The trouble, though, with saying “baseball is a business” is not that it’s untrue. It’s that the sentence may become true if we don’t watch out— if we don’t understand baseball, preserve baseball, and demand that others respect baseball. Journalism is in a similar position. It is not a business. But it may become a business, nothing more than a department within the media, if we don’t understand it, cultivate it— and I would say, reinvent it.

So, in my discussion of journalism’s future I will not focus on 500-channel systems or information highways. I will instead suggest what journalism must become to avoid turning into something else— the media.

Our two visions of freedom and happiness

Let me begin, then, with an observation about American history. Whatever else this country is, it is still a republic, and since the beginning of the republic, two visions of equality, two notions of freedom, and two concepts of happiness have competed for influence. In one vision—let’s call it Hamilton’s—equality means the equal opportunity to pursue private gain. Freedom is the right to be left alone for that pursuit. And happiness means the quiet enjoyment of material comfort.

In the other vision—we can call it Jefferson’s—equality means equal standing in the public arena, freedom means the right to participate in politics and public affairs, and happiness is a state of public harmony, in which politics approximates the common good.

Both visions express part of what Americans mean by the word democracy— democracy as the chance to get ahead, democracy as the right to participate. But the first vision, Hamilton’s, worries more about the protection of private life, while the second, Jefferson’s, sees public life as the heart of the matter.

Neither of these visions describes a life that is wholly worth living. So we should not want either to triumph over the other. But in thinking about the task of the journalist, there is no need to be so cautious. The media generally stands for the first of these visions—the equal right to get rich and enjoy.

I think journalism stands more for the second vision— democracy as participation in public life. This is one mission of journalism: to place us in a public world, where public things matter. The future of journalism will depend, I believe, on its success in defending and strengthening our commitment to lead public, as well as private, lives.

I think it is fair to say that we all feel this commitment— at some level. Why do many of us set our clock radios to wake up to the news? Part of the reason, I think, is that while sleeping, while dreaming, we’re “away,” off in a private universe. Waking up to the news resets our daily horizon to a point “out there” somewhere. The news, in other words, provides daily passage into a public world.

Behind this routine is a subtle but important moral proposition: that what is out of sight should not remain of mind. Much of the ethical power of journalism follows from this aim: to bring what is out sight into mind. Most of us long ago accepted this as part of what it means to be an adult. We created a mental map that includes the region of the public world, but we probably forgot the precise moment in childhood when our maps changed and we realized, as the saying goes, that “it’s a big world out there.”

Journalism as “search for the present”

Someone who did not forget is the accomplished Mexican poet Octavio Paz. Paz delivered a wonderful lecture several years ago upon winning the Nobel Prize. In it, he recalls the shattering effect that a particular news photograph had upon him as a child growing in the 1940s. Paz lived in a large house in Mexico City with a library full of picture books and a big garden planted with fig trees.

Together the library and garden created a happy universe, where faraway lands and heroic battles could be conjured up at will. The branches of a fig tree swayed like a pirate’s ship, the roof of a neighbor’s house became the ridge of a distant mountain range. The child had a vivid sense of near, a vivid sense of far. But his grasp of these notions was still connected to a world he could see and touch. As Paz puts it, “The beyond was here.”

One fateful day he was shown a photograph of some soldiers returning from World War II. The photo disturbed him greatly. For he now knew that somewhere, far away, a war had ended, and he could barely get over the news. From his picture books he knew something about wars. But he had not known about this war, which was undeniably real, and yet strangely unavailable.

The photograph, says Paz, refuted the reality of his childhood world. He felt dislodged from the present, expelled from his garden. The experience was repeated again and again as some item of news proved the existence of this other, public world. In his daily life there was now a horizon that was beyond his garden’s horizon, and this forced on Paz the uncomfortable feeling that he did not inhabit the real present, that he did not live in the real world.

Eventually, he says, he accepted the inevitable, rearranging his mental map to include the region from which that first photograph had arrived. He began his adult life, which he describes as a “search for the present.”

What he means by this is that he sought some way to live as a man of his time, to belong to the twentieth century. He found it in literature and poetry—he became a writer—but his “search for the present” began because of an early encounter with the news.

What this story illustrates, I think, is the special power that journalism has to enlarge our sense of the present so that it includes the public world. Journalism becomes a powerful force in the culture when it gains a kind of authority over the present, perusading us that what is happening “out there” is happening to us. When it works, journalism refutes an existence that has grown too private.

But for journalism to have this effect we must do as Paz did— we must place ourselves in a wider universe, become creatures of our time. There is another way to put this: journalism stands for a certain sort of membership in society. When we turn our attention to a public drama that concerns everyone—as we did, for example, during the Clarence Thomas hearings—then we experience the sort of membership I have in mind.

It follows, then, that the most fundamental task of the journalist is not to provide us with information, or to get the story, but to encourage in us the expression of a certain identity, our common identity as citizens. This identity is real—each of us is a citizen—but we don’t always feel that way. Often we feel like spectators, horrified or fascinated at a distance, engaged somehow in the moment, but not in the present. Perhaps that is when the media is triumphing over journalism.

Journalists should make politics more inhabitable

Now, from this perspective, the most impressive performance during the recent campaign was turned in by Tabitha Soren and her producers at MTV. MTV, as everyone knows, is a cable channel that plays music videos. But this is actually a poor description of what the network is all about.

It is better to think of MTV as the youth channel, a space in the television landscape marked off for young people, an environment where they can see themselves—or a commercial version of themselves—displayed. This space was once defined by videos, but MTV has gradually introduced other elements of the TV curriculum. There are MTV concerts, MTV game shows, an MTV soap opera and, of course, MTV News.

Originally, news on MTV meant news of the music world. Politics figured in only when rock stars did benefit concerts. But early in the ‘92 campaign, the network sensed a political shift in the wind. The change was apparent to anyone who taught undergraduates at NYU. In my own estimation, the turning point came during the Gulf War, which engaged many young people in a dramatic public event that also got them thinking about their country and their leaders.

To put it another way, the Gulf War encouraged young people to think of themselves as creatures of their time— it engaged them in the present. Trends in music and pop style also cooperated in making politics cool again, and MTV easily detected this shift.

The result was that MTV decided to make politics a major theme in ‘92. There was MTV at the Democratic and Republican conventions. There was MTV undertaking a “choose or lose” campaign encouraging young people to vote. There was MTV landing Bill Clinton and Al Gore for interviews in front of a live audience. There was MTV complaining that George Bush had snubbed the network. And finally, in the last week of the campaign, there was MTV interviewing a reluctant Bush, who finally decided he could not ignore the youth vote— as represented by MTV.

The key person in all this was Tabitha Soren, a 25 year-old graduate of NYU who hosted all the major events and quizzed the candidates. What Tabitha Soren provided was a link between MTV’s traditional franchise—the trendy display of youth culture—and its new role as the televised expression of a renewed interest in politics among the young.

Soren—and this is important—had credibility in both worlds. She looked and sounded the part of a young person for whom music and style are matters of the soul. At the same time, she was comfortable and quite competent in discussing politics with major candidates for president. Nothing in her demeanor worked to separate her from the everyday concerns of the audience.

At the same time, however, she was further along in her knowledge of politics than most of the people watching her. But this did not make her an expert, and she was carefully never to present herself that way. Her performance was subtle but highly effective. She managed to model for viewers a dual identity— a way to be reasonably serious and resonably cool at the same time.

If we compare MTV’s approach to the traditions of network news, we can see where things may be heading. In the old system—the system of NBC, ABC and CBS—you defined a space in the TV curriculm called “news.” Then you invited everyone into it at 7:00 pm. In the new system, represented by MTV, you define a space in the TV landscape called “youth,” and then you invite everything that concerns youth into that space.

n 1992, the concerns widened to include politics, and that naturally caused MTV to turn to journalism. For it is through the rituals of journalism—reports, questions, interviews—that politics becomes inhabitable for others. To make the public world inhabitable for others is what journalists are for, and in the future this may require the invention of new forms of journalism.

The form invented by MTV and Tabitha Soren could be described as “identity journalism.” As an identity journalist, Soren had to exhibit her membership in two worlds: the world of youth and popular culture, and the world of politics and public affairs. Her goal as a journalist was to widen the space where these worlds overlap, and this is exactly what MTV achieved with its political coverage.

Television is the ideal medium for identity journalism because it presents the journalist as a flesh-and-blood figure, a person with whom we can identify. The trick, however, is to get the audience to identify not with you, personally, not with your celebrity, but with your enagement and interest in the public world. In this sense, the journalist should be a kind of model citizen— a woman of her time, assisting others in the struggle to make sense of public things.

Character cops and the gotcha game

In April of last year, during the New York primary, Bill Clinton made an appearance on the Phil Donahue show. Donahue opened with a barrage of accusations about Gennifer Flowers, Clinton’s marriage, and the draft. The audience booed and Clinton tried to protest, but Donahue persisted.

After 30 minutes of interrogation, Donahue ventured into the audience for questions. The first to stand up was Melissa Roth, a 25 year-old Republican. Here is what she said: “Given the pathetic state of the United States at this point—Medicare, education, everything else—I can’t believe you spent half an hour of air time attacking this man’s character. I’m not even a Bill Clinton supporter, but I think this is ridiculous.” And the audience burst into applause.

It’s true that Donahue is not really considered a journalist, but a media personality. However, in this case he was doing exactly what the press was doing at every campaign stop during the New York primary— asking “tough” questions about character issues. So he represented the figure of the journalist even though he’s not a member of that club. It turned out that people were more interested in the economy than Gennifer Flowers. They were ready to listen to the candidates and judge what they had to say.

What Donahue offered them was a different identity— they could be thrill-seeking spectators, character cops, mini-prosecutors with Donahue as their leader. Those gathered in Donahue’s studio didn’t want this identity, and he lost credibility with them by assuming that they did.

Two weeks ago, Clinton held his first news conference. It came after a long series of complaints from the press that the White House appeared to be abandoning the ritual. The first question, as always, came from Helen Thomas of UPI, the senior correspondent in the capital. I will read you verbatim what she said, and I ask that you listen carefully.

This is Helen Thomas, of UPI: “Mr. President, would you be willing to hold the summitt in Moscow if it would be best for President Yeltsin’s political health. And don’t you think that if you did go to Moscow it would engage the U.S. too closely in the power struggle in the capital?”

The intent of the Gotcha question is clear. It is designed to suggest that whatever Clinton does he’s wrong. Either he fails to help Yeltsin by not going to Moscow, or he invests too much in Yeltsin by going to Moscow. Thomas gives Clinton his choice of mistakes. This kind of behavior has become routine in Washington. Helen Thomas achieves a temporary but meaningless jolt of power by putting the president on the defensive before he speaks.

Thomas believes she is promoting candor with her “tough” question, but the more enduring message is that political discourse is a meaningless sparring match, in which hostile parties try to score points off each other. Certainly a better question would have been, “Mr, President, could you explain to us your thinking on Russian aid?”

But this question would put the spotlight on the president, rather the press, and that—I’m afraid—is why it doesn’t get asked. In fact, the next week Clinton gave a fine speech to newspaper editors that explained his thinking on Russia. I have read the speech, and I recommend it to you as an exemplary act of public reasoning. This is what journalists should really care about— whether public discourse is working the way it should, not whether they get to star as public prosecutors.

Changing election coverage in Charlotte, 1992

There are signs that some people in journalism understand this problem, and they’re doing something about it. I refer you to a very daring experiment at the Charlotte Observer last year. The Observer, a daily newspaper, decided to ground its political coverage in the concerns of voters, rather than the tactics of spin doctors.

First, it commissioned a study of local residents to discover, not who they were voting for, but what they wanted the candidates to talk about. Out of this research came what the paper called a “voters agenda,” a list of concerns that were on people’s minds. These were basic things like jobs, schools, crime, the disintegration of families, etc.

Then the Observer asked the people who participated in the study if they’d be willing to serve on readers panels throughout the campaign. Five hundred readers agreed to provide feedback and advice to the newspaper as it approached the 1992 campaign.

Instead of reporting what the candidates did and said that day, the Observer focused its coverage on the voters agenda, trying to give readers a deeper understanding of the problems, and a sense of where the candidates stood. Using the readers panels, the paper generated a pool of questions that voters wanted to ask, and these questions were then put to the candidates.

When George Bush scheduled an appearance in North Carolina, the Observer sent the campaign a list of 40 questions readers wanted to ask the President. The Bush operatives chose not to respond to the list. So, when the president came to the state the Observer ran a photo of Bush playing softball at a barbeque. Around the photo they printed the 40 questions from readers with blank spaces for answers— as I said, a rather daring act.

The Observer abandoned what we usually call “horse-race” coverage. It ran far fewer polls. It underplayed the Gennifer Flowers story, confident that it knew what readers wanted. It also cooperated with a local television station to sponsor public forums with statewide candidates. What resulted from all this was an approach to political coverage that helped the newspaper recover its authority in the community.

What I mean is this: It would not have been possible for the Observer to print a photograph of President Bush, and then around the photograph a list of 40 questions from journalists that Bush failed to answer. For the truth is that journalists themselves don’t have confidence that what concerns them concerns most citizens. This can mean a loss of cultural authority. The routines of a Helen Thomas are contributing to that loss. The experiment at the Charlote Observer was intended to reverse that loss.

Equally important was the moral claim behind the Observer’s approach. The newspaper stood for the proposition that politics should and could address people’s true concerns. It tried to make this proposition come true, and in doing so engaged in a kind of political action, which nonetheless is not “partisan.”

Public happiness and the press

The philosopher Michael Sandel has written a beautiful sentence on this point. “When politics goes well, “he writes, “we can know a good in common that we cannot know alone.” This is the kind of knowledge the political sphere ought to produce. Remember Rodney King’s question: “Can we all get along?” This is a not a question you can answer, or I can answer. No one of us can answer it alone. There is only way to learn whether “we” can get along, and that is publicly— through dialogue, discussion and public action.

I would suggest, then, that the task of the journalist is not only to cover politics, but to try to make politics go well, so that we can “know in common what we cannot know alone.” If political life cannot produce this knowledge, it cannot make a convincing claim on our time and attention.

Private life will seem more real to us, more worthy of investment. Whenever we draw that conclusion, we narrow the space in which journalism can be practiced. Tabitha Soren, as I suggested earlier, widened (a little bit) the space in which journalism can be practiced. So did the Charlotte Observer. We should look forward to other journalists doing the same in the years ahead.

The Declaration of Independence speaks of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We tend to give these words a private reading. That is, we assume that the happiness Jefferson had in mind was personal, individual happiness— whatever makes you happy. But there is another kind of happiness that is essential in a democracy— and that is public happiness.

By public happiness I do not mean a world where all’s well. I mean the state of affairs a political community reaches when it understands itself, its troubles, its place in time, and when it reaches this understanding publicly— through a process of discussion and exchange that all can join in. Journalism’s mission is to contribute to public happiness. That is the “part of our world” that journalists must understand and convey.

During the long interval of the cold war, we learned to judge the strength of a nation by its military might. Then we realized that economic power was just as important. Now we’re adding an educated workforce to the measures of national strength. In the future—and this is my one and only prediction—we will come to see that the health of a nation’s political community is as crucial to its prosperity as any other factor. To put it in simpler terms, some publics will be able to perform in the years ahead, and others won’t.

Right now, for example, the American political community is facing a severe test over the health care issue. Either the public will perform—in the sense of coming to grips with the issue—or the country will continue its slow deterioration. We’ll continue to have the best medicine and the worst health in the developed world.

It is by no means clear that the American public can perform on this issue— we will see in the months and years ahead. The press, unfortunately, is focusing its coverage on Bill and Hillary’s plan. It is all set to show us how this plan is going to fail.

What it also needs to show us, however, (in the interests of balance) is how a political community might succeed at such an immense task— what we need to talk about when we talk about health care, the sort of language we need to find to begin knowing in common what we cannot know alone. The press needs to dream of a better conversation, and report on how this dream might become real.

Hope vs. optimism

One final thought as I conclude: Someone once asked Max Weber, the sociologist, why he continued to study modern society when the conclusions he came to were so pessimistic. Weber’s reply was: “I want to see how much I can stand.”

At one time I considered Weber’s motto a sound statement of purpose for a critic or writer— especially one whose subject is the media. What better way is there to endure—indeed, enjoy—the various spectacles of excess the media present to us? And how else to achieve that stance of the best social critics, who take everything in, but get taken in by nothing.

So Weber was my guide for several years as a media critic. Eventually, however, I became disillusioned with his brand of disillusionment. For there is something a bit frightening in Weber’s remark. What’s frightening, I think, is the prospect of doing intellectual work in the absence of hope. By hope I do not mean the same thing as optimism.

Christopher Lasch, one of our ablest social critics, has taught us to distinguish between the two. Optimism is the sunny belief that things will somehow get better. As an ideology it goes by the name of progress, which Lasch has criticized at some length in his most recent book.

Hope is a declaration of the human heart that begins with the recognition of tragedy, and ends with an affirmation of life. When Scarlett O’Hara swore that she would never be hungry again this was not an optimistic statement. But it was a hopeful one. Hope, then, is not a prediction about the world but a certain orientation to it. It involves a decision to live a certain way, as if what we do makes a difference.

No teacher, no writer, no critic is under any obligation to be optimistic. But to operate in the field of the mind without hope is to defoliate the field for others. I discovered this in the simplest way when some of my students, especially those who wanted to find work in the media, reacted cooly to my invitation that together we see how much we can stand.

They were right. I had offered them an ironic and knowing stance toward the media, but from this stance there was little they could do to make a difference. So a few years ago I began to change my approach. I started to search for a way of knowing about the media that was more than mere knowingness. Rather than trying to seeing how much I could stand, I decided to stand somewhere, and see how much I could see.

Now I am aware that my treatment of journalism is somewhat artificial. I have chosen to consider journalism as a kind of creature in itself— a “thing” with a life of its own. To ask about the meaning of this creature’s life—as I have done here—is to pose a rather lofty, philosophical question. It is rather like asking: what is art? But that, after all, is what we do in the university, and I thank you for your patience in letting me do what we do at some length.

Can journalism, gripped as it is by the media, actually put into practice the task I have suggested tonight? All I can say is: I’m not optimistic, but I do have hope.

Posted by Jay Rosen at January 28, 2004 9:39 AM   Print

From the Intro