The Idea of Public Journalism

Theodore Glasser

This collection of essays, gathered from a symposium held at Stanford University in 1996, offers a comprehensive and intelligent discussion of issues raised by public, or civic, journalism. An ambitious reform movement born simultaneously in the minds of academics and in American newsrooms, public journalism aims to revitalize democracy through a new, more active role for the press. Rather than simply providing information to citizens, the public journalist is an activist for public life, a community-minded arbiter of social deliberation.

Much has been said in various forums, both academic and professional, of the experiments in public journalism conducted in American media, mostly daily newspapers outside large metropolitan areas. Criticism has focused on the techniques used in such projects (notably the televised town hall meeting as democratic deliberation), the attack on traditional journalistic values such as objectivity, the failure of similar reforms in the past, and the suspicion that public journalism may be a mere fad or a marketing tool disguised as promoting democracy.

This book does not discuss directly the application of public journalism, but rather, as its title indicates, its conceptual, normative, and historical foundations-as well as its limitations. In this sense, it provides a useful resource not only for those interested in the movement itself, but also for scholars grappling with the ideals of democracy and public communication faced with both classic and contemporary obstacles.

As for journalists themselves, Jay Rosen, one of the movement's leading advocates, recommends against reading Jürgen Habermas' writings on the public sphere, fearing its complex language might turn them off philosophy altogether. To its credit, The Idea of Public Journalism tackles complex issues in a readable style, making it accessible to a fairly wide audience. James Fallows' Breaking the News (1996) gave a good dose of professional credibility to the movement; this book clearly aims to give it substance.

The foreword, by news editor Cole Campbell, supplies a journalist's testimony of his "conversion" to public journalism and its values. Theodore Glasser's introduction is followed by eight chapters divided in two sections: the challenge of public journalism, or "the questions [it] raises and the answers it provides"; and the challenge for public journalism, or "the questions [it] fails to raise or...leaves unanswered" (p. xxxii). Three appendices respectively discuss the evaluation of public journalism projects, review books on or about public journalism, and provide an extensive annotated bibliography. Public journalism's lack of a clear definition, specific goals, and prescriptions, justified by Jay Rosen as attributes of a work-in-progress, are seen by others, notably Barbie Zelizer and Theodore Glasser, as conceptually problematic. It has become a truism to say that journalism is an untheorized practice, but a reform movement that claims to follow in pragmatist philosopher John Dewey's footsteps needs some solid ground to stand on.

Several authors cite the interpretation of Dewey and journalist Walter Lippmann's exchange on public life as an example of public journalism's limitations. Michael Schudson and John Durham Peters accuse the movement of siding too quickly with Dewey, overlooking flaws in the philosopher's conception of deliberative democracy and the lucidity of Lippmann's position concerning institutions and the press. Another point made by more than one contributor is that advocates of public journalism tend to exaggerate the role and power of journalists, which neither Lippmann nor Dewey identify as a central actor for social change (Schudson, p. 124).

The liberal/communitarian debate is also brought up frequently in The Idea of Public Journalism. For Clifford Christians, the kinship between public journalism and communitarianism provides a means to justify philosophically the notion of common good as a guiding principle of news media. Yet the values espoused by communitarians are often associated with conservative groups and an idealized view of past forms of society, and are thus non-pluralistic and non-realistic. Public journalism posits, however, that a moral stance is a necessary evil for journalists: better to have a tormented soul than none at all.

Another critique of public journalism is what Zelizer describes as "historical myopism," or failure to assess the present state of public life and the press in a long-term perspective. Peters proposes an interpretation of the democratic project as inherently flawed. A movement that claims to renew democracy must then heed the classic obstacles of scale and human nature, as well as the more contemporary challenges of a complex social structure and loss of faith in the ideal itself. A poor understanding of history and structural factors may also account for public journalism's naïve confidence in journalists' individual control and influence on their everyday practices, according to Zelizer and Hanno Hardt. John J. Pauly adopts a similar position in favour of recognizing the social aspects of newswork.

These discussions, however stimulating they may be, hint at irreconcilable differences between (some) journalists and (some) academics. While the former tend to shrink from self-examination, the latter shun public journalism on the basis that it does not rest on a coherent normative theory. That Jay Rosen, Davis Merritt, and others have even partially bridged this gap seems quite an accomplishment.

One might also be tempted to criticize the "cultural myopism" of this symposium. Although public journalism is certainly an American creation, similar efforts in community- or citizen-oriented journalism have been undertaken in other contexts and deserve attention, if only to put the American experience in perspective.

Whether public journalism has a future in its actual form remains to be seen. Yet its very existence bespeaks profound changes in the nature of journalism and its influence in contemporary society. The Idea of Public Journalism offers a new twist on an old debate, that of the realization of democracy in an increasingly complex world.

References

Fallows, James. (1996). Breaking the news: How the media undermine American democracy. New York: Pantheon.



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We wish to acknowledge the financial support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council for their financial support through theAid to Scholarly Journals Program.

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