Democracy Dies in the Light

When the nation’s representatives pass sweeping tax legislation that the majority of voters do not want and that will in the long-run harm most citizens — helping instead corporations, a small, rich elite (including donors), and the politicians themselves — there can be only one interpretation:

Our representatives no longer represent the public; they do not care to. American democracy has died.

Democracy didn’t die in darkness. It died in the light.

The full glare of journalism was turned on this legislation, its impact and motives, but that didn’t matter to those who had the power to go ahead anyway. Journalism, then, proved to be an ineffective protector of democracy, just as it is proving ineffective against every other attack on democracy’s institutions by this gang. Fox News was right to declare a coup, wrong about the source. The coup already happened. The junta is in power. In fact,

News led it. We have an administration and Congress that are tearing down government institutions — law enforcement, the courts, the State Department and foreign relations, safety nets, consumer protection, environmental protection — and society’s institutions, starting with the press and science, not to mention truth itself. The junta is, collaborative or independently, doing the bidding of a foreign power whose aim is to get democracy to destroy itself. Journalism, apparently, was powerless to stop any of this.

I don’t mean to say that journalism is solely to blame. But journalism is far from blameless. I have sat in conferences listening to panels of journalists who blame the public they serve. These days, I watch journalists blame Facebook, as if the sickness in American democracy is only a decade old and could be turned on by a machine. I believe that journalism must engage in its own truth and reconciliation process to learn what we have done wronghow our business models encourage discord and reduction of any complexity to the absurdhow we concentrate on prediction over information and education;how we waste journalistic resource on repetition; how we lately have used ourfalse god of balance to elevate the venal to the normal; how we are redlining quality journalism as a product for the elite. I don’t believe we can fix journalism until we recognize its faults. But I’ll save that for another day. Now I want to ask a more urgent question given the state of democracy.

What should journalism do? Better: What should journalism be? It is obviously insufficient to merely say “this happened today” or “this could happen tomorrow.”

What should journalism’s measures of value be? A stronger democracy? An informed public conversation? Civil discourse? We fail at all those measures now. How can journalism change to succeed at them? What can it do to strengthen — to rescue — democracy? That is the question that consumes me now.

I will start here. We must learn to listen and help the public listen to itself. We in media were never good at listening — not really — but in our defense our media, print and broadcast, were designed for speaking. The internet intervened and enabled everyone to speak but helped no one listen. So now we live in amid ceaseless dissonance: all mouths, no ears. I am coming to see that civility — through listening, understanding, and empathy — is a necessary precondition to learning, to accepting facts and understanding other positions, to changing one’s mind and finding common ground. Thus I have changed my own definition of journalism.

My definition used to be: Helping communities organize their knowledge to better organize themselves. That was conveniently broad enough to fit most any entrepreneurial journalism students’ ideas. It was information based, for that was my presumption — the accepted wisdom — about journalism: It lives to inform. Now I have a new definition of journalism:

To convene communities into civil, informed, and productive conversation.

Journalism — and, I’d argue, Facebook and internet platforms — share this imperative to reduce the polarization we all helped cause by helping citizens find common ground.

This is the philosophy behind our Social Journalism program at CUNY. It is why we at the News Integrity Initiative invested in Spaceship Media’s work, to convene communities in conflict into meaningful conversation. But that is just the beginning.

Clearly, journalism must devote more of its resources to investigation, to making sure that the powerful know they are watched, whether they give a damn or not. Journalism must understand its role as an educator and measure its success or failure based on whether the public is more informed. Journalism and the platforms need to provide the tools for communities to organize and act in collaborative, constructive ways. I will leave this exploration, too, for another day.

We are in a crisis of democracy and its institutions, including journalism. The solutions will not be easy or quick. We cannot get there if we assume what we are living through is a new normal or worse if we make it seem normal. We cannot succeed if we assume our old ways are sufficient for a new reality. We must explore new goals, new paths, new tools, new measures of our work.

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