Should Journalists Advocate for Democracy?

Oct 10, 2019

When did support for democracy get so complicated?

One factor is whether that support is part and parcel of news programming.  Should news organizations be so objective, so detached, so agnostic that they can’t favor democracy itself?

A good example of how this is playing out is with the Purple Project for Democracy, set to launch with some fanfare next month. One of its founders is Bob Garfield, co-host of WNYC’s “On the Media.”

Purple Project for Democracy

Purple bills itself as a “non-partisan coalition, campaign and movement to rediscover and recommit to democratic values and institutions.” It will begin with a wide-ranging media and education campaign. It aims to teach U.S. citizens about elements of democracy that have fallen out of school curricula, displaced by an emphasis on STEM skills and standardized test prep. Next steps are to construct a civic engagement platform.

In addition to corralling scores of nonprofits, Purple has reached out to news organizations, in particular public media, to participate with whatever content pubcasters think is appropriate. Other news organizations will also participate. The Washington Post, for example, will create videos.

“It is time for the media – most crucially, public media – to devote time and resources to telling the democracy story,” Garfield urged in commentary published August 2 in the trade publication Current. “We have talk shows. We have music shows. We have culture shows and game shows and many podcasts and so-called verticals …  We can produce programs that teach the basic functions of the three branches of the U.S. government and explain the creation, enforcement and adjudication of law – basic civics, in other words.”

Purple’s website cites many data points to document what Garfield and his co-founders see as democracy in crisis:

  • In 2018 only 33% of the general population expressed trust for government.
  • Among 1,400 young adults asked about the importance of democracy, only 39% said “absolutely important.”
  • 39% of Americans say U.S. democracy is “in crisis,” and 42% say it is facing serious challenges.
  • More than 29% of the public recently expressed support for either a “strong leader” or “army rule.”

“When a slice of public sentiment has devolved to the sorry state of contemplating the benefits of military rule, public broadcasters cannot shrink from our duty,” Garfield wrote, citing public media’s core mission of education.

Yet Purple, as a campaign and movement, strikes right in the squirm zone of many news outlets that prefer to steer clear of anything that begins with a Scarlett Letter A – as in advocacy. 

There are other barriers, too, Garfield noted. Public media outlets are very cautious about the risks and appearances of their affiliations. Some journalists are skeptical about whether Purple is a front for some cause, liberal or conservative, backed by the likes of George Soros or Charles Koch. Newsrooms are already juggling tight resources. There is some concern about anything that might portray the media as monolithic, an assertion of some critics, Garfield said in a phone interview. 

And, of course, there is “a sort of a cult of aversion to anything that looks like crusading,” he said.

“I am disappointed in some organizations that I believe have done a very human thing – not looking for reasons to say yes, but reasons to say no,” he said.

Still there will be many public radio stations airing 30-second public service announcements next month. WNYC’s “Brian Lehrer Show” will host a national call-in. Other participants noted on Purple’s website include New Hampshire Public Radio with its Civics 101 podcast project, KPCC, “The Takeaway” and “1A.”

In “1A’s” lineup is a November 4 conversation with the working title “The State We’re In,” said executive producer Rupert Allman. Its blurb suggests the show has figured out how to create content around democracy in crisis:

“The First Amendment sets out the rules of the road for our democracy, it protects free speech & a free press. 1A is a champion for both but, as we head into 2020, the choice facing voters seems clear: Whether to put their trust in one version of democracy or another.

“One is the direct, populist version. The leader’s vision and will are paramount. Strength is projected and respected. The other is a representative system, where each branch of government is restricted by checks and balances, scrutinized by free media and held accountable by an independent judiciary charged with upholding the rule of law.

“Polls suggest it is the former that is gaining popularity, particularly with those under the age of 30.  It is a debate that seems fundamental to more than just the outcome of the next election – it challenges what we understand to be 'American' values and America’s right to call itself the leader of the free world. That seems to be a needed and necessary conversation.”

Little did Purple’s founders expect, when the launch dates were set, that the nation would be awash in an impeachment inquiry that heightened the need for understanding the democratic processes involved.

“Purple is not about our contemporary politics, period, except for the fact that our contemporary politics is one of the factors in widespread mistrust in our institutions,” Garfield said.

“When citizens don’t have knowledge of what governments are supposed to do, of what courts are supposed to do … and Congress, I believe it’s incumbent on the media to fill in those blanks,” Garfield said.

Writing in the July Columbia Journalism Review, Garfield asked: “Do we stand, journalistically disinterested, at some safe critical distance and merely record the outcome? Or do we rush headlong into the danger? The answer must be the latter.”

In the case of Purple, “our original goal was absolute ubiquity,” Garfield said, when the Purple project was conceived a year and a half ago. “We won’t have absolute ubiquity, but we will be hard to ignore.”

I hope both citizens – and journalists – take notice.

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