Present Tense, Past Tense:
The Historical and Philosophical Roots of Civic Journalism

By Mike Dillon, Ph.D.
Department of Communication
Duquesne University

Civic Journalism, an organic conception of news that considers community members to be participants in, rather than objects of, public communication, has aroused both admiration and suspicion since emerging from a number of eclectic sources in the early 1990s. It has been promoted by supporters as a tonic to our well-documented civic malaise and pilloried by critics as a subversive scheme to destroy journalistic independence.

The Pew Center for Civic Journalism claims the new approach can "create and refine better ways of reporting the news that help to re-engage people in civic life"1and is rewarding news organizations willing to undertake stories in this genre with grants. Critic John Merrill, meanwhile, warns that the "communitarian orientation" of Civic Journalism will lead to the "civic co-optation of the editorial prerogative," and ultimately the abdication of editorial autonomy.2

Civic re-engagement is vital not only to journalism, but to public life at large. Fewer people are voting and fewer are finding meaningful connections to public issues that will ultimately affect their lives. "The locus of possible decision-making resides in millions of disconnected and inattentive citizens, who may react to vague impressions of headlines or shrinking sound bites but who have no rational motivation to pay close attention so as to achieve a collective engagement with public problems."3

Library shelves groan under the weight of critiques of the press - the engine of connection - from the left and the right. Depending upon the sensibility of its author, each critique makes a case that bias and corruption taint the press. Each points out the violence done to democracy by a corrupt press - whether that corruption be construed as economic, ideological, or an obsession with what the author considers to be trivial or superfluous.

Whether Civic Journalism will become the new paradigm for the profession remains to be seen. What is certain, however, is that the intense debate it has sparked among practitioners, critics, academics, and readers, has, to date, been largely ahistorical. While proponents of Civic Journalism have posed a critique of modern journalism, they have too often overlooked the rich historical antecedents that might nourish this promising new approach to civic communication.

Some critics and adherents have claimed the Civic Journalism is simply "old wine in a new bottle"4 and can be compared literally with earlier forms of civic-minded journalism. Such generalizations are also ahistorical. Civic Journalism, like its antecedents, is historically located, a product of its times. And so it is simplistic to simply say, "Civic Journalism is the same as New Journalism or Muckraking" and leave it at that. It is not the same, and of course from a historical perspective could not be the same. Such thin comparisons yield little insight into the form. A more interesting and fruitful path of inquiry is to examine the ethos that binds Civic Journalism to past movements in journalism and distinguishes it from others.

As Civic Journalism struggles for a clear definition and mandate, it offers the possibility of re-evaluating roads not taken in the historical development of journalism. A stronger historical frame of reference can provide a deeper view of the challenges and opportunities that confront this approach to journalism. This paper will outline some of the historical contexts in which we might better evaluate, and act on, the assumptions driving Civic Journalism.

In fact, Civic Journalism taps into time-honored values of American journalism that reach back far beyond the Age of Objectivity. The core principle of Civic Journalism -- that journalists have a duty to enhance civic discourse and provide reasoned guidance to the public in civic affairs -- can be found in the words and deeds of Benjamin Franklin, James Gordon Bennett, Horace Greeley, E.W. Scripps, Joseph Pulitzer, William Allen White, Upton Sinclair and other pioneers of the American press. Contemporary news conventions mandating that journalists strictly separate news and opinion, observe a balanced neutrality on public issues, and leave the conclusions to the readers, are relatively recent historical developments.

Civic Journalism projects in Charlotte, Wichita, and elsewhere, for example, have sought to serve as a point of connection between diverse segments of the community - with the ultimate aim of shaping public policy - rather than as mere conduits for information about the community. Such undertakings would not appear strange or improper to, say, Benjamin Franklin. When it became apparent to Franklin that Philadelphia needed a more sophisticated and coordinated system of fire protection and that city officials were not up to the task, he did more than editorialize that someone should undertake the project. Instead, he used his Pennsylvania Gazette as a vehicle to bring together fire officials, citizens and public officials and together they successfully designed and enacted a plan for a city fire department.5 According to Arthur Charity, "journalism ought to make it as easy as possible for citizens to make intelligent decisions about public affairs, and to get them carried out."6(ital. author's) Contemporary mainstream journalism is too often about means without ends; it is vitally concerned that citizens want and be willing to pay for news, but seems to care little about what they do with it. In the words of Finley Peter Dunne (Mr. Dooley), "The press rules be findin' out what th' people want an' if th' don't want annything it tells them what it wants them to want it to tell them. It's against all tyrants but itself an' it has th' boldest if thim crookin th' knee to it."7

Journalists of the Colonial era and the 19th Century - including, one may presume, Mr. Dooley -- saw the fulfillment of social objectives, admittedly for sometimes selfish reasons, as the primary objectives of journalism. Whatever their motives, however, civic-minded journalists of earlier times articulated an ethos for journalism that has largely evaporated in the mainstream press. William Allen White did not quibble about methods or market share when he was asked to describe the essence of journalism: Journalists, he said, should be "a guide in public affairs . . . improve the world and bring about a better state of things."8

Conventional and even market-driven news organizations (which will be discussed in more detail later) lay claim to the public service ideals of journalism. By either setting an agenda for the public to follow, or by following what they perceive to be the public agenda, news organizations claim they are respecting the concept of the marketplace of ideas. It is a rare publisher who does not at least pay lip-service to the Libertarian ideals of journalism. But as legendary New York Herald editor Stanley Walker once pointed out, "The 'liberal spirit' in journalism is about as hard to pin down as a telephone tip from an anonymous drunk."9

Press pioneers of the 19th and early 20th centuries felt no such ambiguity about the public mission of the press. While they differed in temperament, outlook, ideology and methods, the publishers and editors who shaped journalism after the colonial age would probably have agreed that a good newspaper should be an omnibus of human experience. It should be inquisitive, broad and inclusive, autonomous, and willing to use its tremendous social influence to shape public affairs.

Readers and viewers will decide whether the prevailing methods of so-called objective journalism, with its emphasis on discrete facts rather than connected, contextual social narratives, will remain the lingua franca of the profession. But this style of journalism, which has been largely a 20th Century phenomenon, does not have a de-facto claim on the truth, and deserves the same philosophical and historical scrutiny as the styles that would take its place. "Our journalistic assertions . . . often amount to disguised inferences from present evidence -- hardly an epistemological Rock of Gibraltar."10

Journalism, as it has always been and perhaps always should be, is in a state of flux as the millenium approaches. The proliferation of cable news channels, special-interest publications and the Internet has threatened the reach, influence and profitability of the traditional news media. In an attempt to remain relevant, the news media are attempting to transform themselves to increase their attractiveness to potential consumer-citizens. Critics of Civic Journalism and other emergent forms of news do well to warn the profession that faddish shifts will further diminish the influence of mainstream news and do inestimable damage to the integrity of the profession itself. And yet, change it will.

Civic Journalism is one of three recent challenges to mainstream news reporting - which might be described as a set of assumptions, conventions and methods pieced together from the rubble of objectivity. We can be sure we have reached a crisis when it even occurs to us that it might be necessary to append the word Civic to the word Journalism. Each of these three challenges is deeply rooted in the historical development of journalism.

In the 1960s, a New Journalism that harkened back to 19th Century Muckraking embraced subjectivity and advocacy and derided the conceits of traditional "objective" reporting. Slavish devotion to official pronouncements, the veiling of the reporter's presence under the guise of the third person, and the increasing dissonance between what appeared to be happening in the world -- in Watts, in Vietnam, in the White House -- and official descriptions of that world, led New Journalists to reject traditional commandments of newsgathering and presentation.

The New Journalism, in the words of Gay Talese, should be factual but read like fiction. "The New Journalism allows, demands in fact, a more imaginative approach to reporting, and it permits the writer to inject himself into the narrative if he wishes . . ." 11As traditional institutions lost credibility during the course of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement, traditional methods of reporting were viewed with skepticism and even derision by younger reporters and readers. By exploding the conventions of objective journalism, "new journalism thus posed a deliberate and self-conscious challenge to the rhetorical pose of objectivity."12

By the 1960s, New Journalism was frankly grounded in left-wing politics, offering not merely an alternative to mainstream journalism, but a challenge to it, and to the institutions of authority with which mainstream journalism was so tightly intertwined. As practitioners of the New Journalism increasingly became advocates for the sources or social groups they wrote about, however, they ultimately ended up preaching to the choir; the like-minded sought out stories that confirmed their beliefs and ignored those that didn't. John Hersey points out that since perfect objectivity was unattainable, New Journalists concluded that "there is no choice but to go all the way over to absolute subjectivity. The trouble with this is that it soon makes the reporter the center of interest rather than the real world he is supposed to be picturing or interpreting."13

In addition, a certain casual regard for facts on the part of some New Journalists, along with ambiguous techniques like "interior monologues," cast doubt on the suitability of the form for the mass transmission of news. Some of the stylistic devices of the New Journalism have become part of the mainstream; indeed, Talese was writing experimental narratives for the sports sectionof the New York Times as early as 1958; the techniques of New Journalism live on in purer form in a thriving alternative press.

A second challenge to conventional reporting techniques that has gained increasing cachet in the 1990s is market-driven journalism. Market-driven journalism advocates the demolition of the "invisible wall" between business and editorial departments to build news products that are fully-integrated marketing machines and represents a more recent challenge to journalism-as-usual than New Journalism.

Times-Mirror CEO Mark Willes remarked in 1997 that ". . . there has been more than one person who has pointed out the wall between the newsroom and the advertising department. And every time they point it out, I get out a bazooka and tell them if they don't take it down, I'm going to blow it up."14 The need for a newspaper to make a profit to ensure independence from the government is clearly established in the Libertarian tradition of the press, although until the arrival of the Penny Press in the 1830s, most newspapers were subsidized by political parties and government printing contracts.

While journalists are speaking boldly for the first time in years about a "synergy" between the editorial and advertising departments, the tension between profit and public service has long shaped the collection and presentation of news. In the 1830s, Penny Press pioneer James Gordon Bennett was hardly shy about the financial prerogatives of his New York Herald and openly beat the drum in his editorial columns for the products of heavy advertisers.15

Even the more sober Melville Stone, who instructed his reporters and editors at the Chicago Daily News to strive for "accuracy and impartiality," acknowledged that ultimately the financial interests of the paper put a frame around its news columns. "In a certain sense," Stone wrote, "the counting room must have no influence in the matter, and yet in a longer sense it must have everything to do with it."16

Even the unlikely pair of William Allen White and Upton Sinclair found themselves in agreement on the fact that the drive for profits often tainted the public forum newspapers were charged with maintaining. Writing in The Nation, White observed that, "the people have a keen and accurate sense that much of the editorial anxiety about freedom of the press rises out of editorial greed."17 In The Brass Check, Sinclair asserted that, "Journalism in America is the business and practice of presenting the news of the day in the interest of economic privilege."18

Since it opened up its lifestyle sections in the late 1960s, the New York Times has consistently allocated resources for new sections based not on the social importance of their topics but on the tony demographics of potential readers. The latest entry, "Circuits," offers a glut of techno-news that is often indistinguishable from the ads that surround and subsidize it.

The "invisible wall" - as amorphous a construct as objectivity - between news and advertising has often been quite porous; now, some influential publishers and editors are proposing to remove it entirely. In a sense, the malling of America has extended to the press and publications seem to spend as much time trying to be fashionable as they do trying be relevant and informative. The problem is that a genuine public forum must be organic and cannot be imposed as a result of marketing surveys from a relatively few corporate suites whose inhabitants lead far different lives that than the majority of other citizens.

Stylized, formulaic journalism is by nature inorganic, especially when centrally-owned news outlets use an identical template to serve up news and information in cities everywhere, with no consideration of their historical, social and cultural identities (Gannett being the most vivid example). To paraphrase Rousseau, newspapers were born free and everywhere they are in chains.

As Mark Fishman has observed, the economic engine driving journalism shapes content in subtle but profound ways. "News consumers are led to see the world outside their firsthand experience through the eyes of the existing authority structure. Alternative ways of knowing the world are simply not available (in the mainstream press). Ultimately, routine news places bounds on our political consciousness."19

The aim of Civic Journalism, the third challenger to "objective" journalism, is to extend the parameters of what is traditionally considered news by exploring new assumptions about what constitutes significant information and by more openly, through its methods and presentation, foregrounding the purposes of pursuing and publishing certain stories. Mainstream objective papers, of course, do accomplish good through investigative reporting and solid political reporting, but too often the stories are unconnected, and the values and motives that compel these papers to pursue these stories, or the objectives they intend to accomplish, are left unstated.

What is often missing in contemporary journalism is the reader - i.e. he or she is considered the vital end-unit of the production process, but only as a potential consumer. As to the creation of the public discussion, the public is virtually invisible. Traditionally, reporters have decided what questions need answering and then pose those questions to authorities. Civic Journalism collaborates with the public in formulating what questions. A meaningful public forum requires a public, not just an audience. "Strange as it may seem to an era of mass market politics, democracy begins in human conversation."20

While Civic Journalism engenders a challenge to many of the values and methods of contemporary journalism, it does not advocate a wholesale abandonment of those methods and values. Instead, it offers a corrective to conventional news narratives that are typically spun out of the words and deeds of ''the usual suspects" - public officials, corporate spokespeople, pundits. At heart, "newsgathering is normally a matter of the representatives of one bureaucracy picking up prefabricated news items from representatives of another bureaucracy."21 News organizations have an obligation to manage the public forum they constitute, not merely rent it out to a Babel of officials, spokespeople and spin-mongers.

The conventional approach to journalism views public affairs as a fiefdom, a closed circuit that offers entrée’ only to certified newsgatherers. John Merrill, perhaps the most vocal critic of Civic Journalism, asserts that an ideal public forum is one in which a few speak while others remain silent. "Politics may be too important to be left to the politicians . . . but certainly journalism is too important to be left to non-journalists."22

The fact is that every publication stands for something, whether it chooses to publicize that something or not. It may stand for profit. It may stand for maintenance of the economic and social status quo. It may stand for reform, justice and social equity. Whatever it stands for, a news organization should reveal those larger values to the public and then visibly act on them.

Civic Journalism can better establish its credibility and articulate its objectives by reaching back beyond the era of objectivity to other historical periods for instruction, for guidance, for inspiration. The ethos of the idealistic and optimistic journalism of the 19th and early 20th centuries, in particular, can serve as a useful historical model.

E.W. Scripps opened newspapers to inform readers and make money; he quickly shuttered unprofitable newspapers no matter how much social good they might be doing. A forceful public spirit, however, drove all of the newspapers with which he was associated. Scripps was unequivocal in his belief that newspapers should seize the opportunity to act as social levelers - to use the tools of inquiry and the information they yielded to serve a definite political end.

"The business of a Scripps paper is to make it easier for the poor man to get all that he is entitled to and harder for a rich man to more than he needs," Scripps declared in 1910. Scripps advised one prospective editor to, "begin your course as editor of this paper with one object and only one object in view and that is to serve that class of people and only that class of people from whom you cannot even hope to derive any other income than the one cent a day they pay you for your paper."23

Joseph Pulitzer, too, made clear his social and political biases in introducing his St. Louis Post Dispatch to the public in 1875: "The Post and Dispatch will serve no party but the people . . . will oppose all frauds and shams wherever and whatever they are; will advocate principles and ideas rather than prejudice and partisanship."24 His vision of a newspaper's function was clear, and that vision was clearly not aimed at the bloodless relaying of facts and happenings in the world. "The newspaper that is true to its highest mission will concern itself with things that ought to happen tomorrow, or next month, or next year, and have the will to make what ought to be come to pass . . . The highest mission of the press is to render service."25

In Buffalo, new journalism pioneer Edward H. Butler opened the Buffalo News in 1873 with a call for reform in civic affairs and a revolution in journalism. Idealistic and cash-poor (how often they go together) , Butler invited readers to become reporters and writers for the News. As the paper grew in wealth, however, these amateur voices were crowded out.26 (Ironically, but not surprisingly, the News, Buffalo's only remaining daily newspaper, is now owned by Warren Buffett's Blue Chip Stocks company).

Other 19th Century journalists envisioned an important and robust role in American life for their efforts, including some who were proponents of a nascent objectivity. Samuel Bowles, while applauding the demise of partisan journalism, said journalism's new purpose should be, "to enlighten, represent, and lead public opinion, to restrain abuses, to command reforms, to elevate mankind . . ."27

Henry Raymond of the New York Times, who urged proportion and responsibility in a wide-open age of hyperbole and excess (and who promised readers that "we do not mean to write as if we are in a passion, unless that shall really be the case"28) articulated similarly lofty goals for journalism. The purpose of the institution, he declared, is "to elevate and enlighten public sentiment; and to substitute reason for prejudice . . ."29

Manton Marble also called for a grand sense of mission among his peers. "The journalist has in it the trust and stewardship to be the organ mould of public opinion, to express and guide it, and to seek, through all conflicting interests, the public good."30 In the inaugural editorial statement of his New York Tribune, Horace Greeley announced that, "The Tribune, as it's name implies, will labor to advance the interests of the people, and to promote their moral, social and political well being."31 Greeley, Marble and other leaders of 19th Century journalism had no confusion about what news could, and should, mean to reader-citizens.

The style of expression of the 19th Century may appear bombastic at a century's distance, but the journalists who oversaw the most rambunctious public debate -- and in many ways, the most profitable -- in American history spoke with a sense of urgency and public responsibility, even if in the end many fell well short of those goals. The sensationalists and the cooler heads -- like Raymond -- had one vital thing in common: They said, clearly and out loud, what their papers stood for. News outlets today, of course, also stand for something, but they seem reluctant to tell their readers precisely what that might be beyond providing information and advertisements. "All the newsthat's fit to print," hardly inspires civic engagement.

What all three of the recent challenges to contemporary journalism -- Civic Journalism, New Journalism and Market-driven Journalism -- have in common is the notion that journalism cannot be separate from or above the community it covers, no matter how far we move our newspaper plants from the downtown. All urge a more realistic expression not of what journalism should be, but of what it already is -- an institution embedded in the community and therefore subject to its biases, contradictions, divisions. The question is, if we are to acknowledge our deep connections to the community and its civic, cultural and financial institutions, what should the core of our mission be? To merely inform? To serve as guide? To advocate? To prosper first, foremost and always by whatever means necessary?

Proponents of objectivity are particularly vexed about the possibility that news organizations will venture too far into advocacy; the public forum, they seem to argue, is neutral ground. But it is not neutral ground, nor, in the Libertarian scheme of things, is it intended to be. The fact is that by framing public debate within narrow, authority-driven assumptions about economics and politics, assumptions that essentially represent the views of one narrow socio-economic class, conventional journalism acts as an advocate for that class. Albert Einstein, not surprisingly, reduced the problem to its essential principles: "The press, which is mostly controlled by vested interests, has an excessive influence on public opinion."32

Arthur Charity has suggested that civic conflicts are not fundamentally about specific issues, but about more deeply-held values.33 So, too, is the debate over Civic Journalism. And the values at issue -- public service, autonomy, corporate, professional and individual responsibility in the making of news -- have been debated before. At the heart of the debate, then as now, is the idea of objectivity.

Objectivity has been the dominant paradigm in journalism for much of the 20th Century, but is a relative newcomer in the history of American journalism. In the 1830s, penny press pioneers like Bennett and Benjamin Day began to transform journalism from a medium of political interpretation aimed primarily at elites into a medium of information and entertainment accessible and appealing to all. In the pages of the Sun, the Herald and other penny journals can be seen the emerging values of news which would dominate journalism ever-after. News is that which timely, proximate, unusual, dramatic, consequential, and of human interest. In the period after the Civil War, the public's appetite for information increased and facts began to become more important than editorial opinions.34

Throughout the 19th Century, editors increasingly rejected partisanship and embraced a commercial model of the press that would reach broader audiences, free them from the shackles of party dogma, and make newspaper publishing an enterprise worth going into -- in both a political and an economic sense. But as publishers broke free of one style of journalism, they had to declare what it was they would henceforth stand for. Political independence did not mean absolute freedom; instead it meant that commercial institutions, through the medium of advertising, would provide the operating capital and profits.

"Political independence" helped start journalism down the road to objectivity, as did the need to satisfy a broad, multi-partisan constituency of readers. The ascension of the ideal of the objective method in the hard sciences also eventually helped frame the 20th Century mission of the press. Given the financial and social webs in which journalism was suspended, however, objectivity proved a problematic fit. As Michael Schudson has observed, "Objectivity might be an ideal in journalism, but it is one that seemed to disintegrate as soon as it was formulated . . . Objectivity in journalism seems to have been destined to be more of a scapegoat than a belief and more of an awkward defense than a forthright affirmation."35

Others have written treatises on the possibilities or impossibilities of objectivity; this paper is not the appropriate venue for a lengthy review of their efforts. A few cogent points should be made, however, because at root Civic Journalism and other alternative forms of bringing the news to the public find their genesis in a rejection of objectivity.

The shadow of Walter Lippmann hangs over the whole of 20th Century journalism. Like any worthwhile deity, he is open to infinite uses and has been employed as both sword and shield by those in the profession, the academy, and the political system, who have attacked or defended the practices of journalism. His many manifestations in our institutional debates have often obscured or twisted his ideas and the historical context from which they emerged. His perspectives over a half-century of public life were, of course, ever-shifting. Lippmann's legacy includes a staggering array of incisive analysis, useful advice, intemperate pronouncements, and philosophical contradictions.

I make a distinction here between what I will call the "Descriptive Lippmann" and the "Prescriptive Lippmann." As an observer of the interplay between journalism and the civic body, Lippmann is as fresh and as wise today as he was 80 years ago. The Descriptive Lippmann, wizened by his exposure to and participation in state propaganda during World War I, conjures up, in Liberty and the News36 (1920), Public Opinion (1922),37 and The Phantom Public (1925),38 the central crises of civic life in a mass society, crises that remain at the core of our current malaise:

The private citizen of today has come to feel rather like a deaf spectator in the back row, who ought to keep his mind on the mystery off there, but cannot quite manage to keep awake.39

The Descriptive Lippmann might have been sounding a call for a type of Civic Journalism, but the Prescriptive Lippmann had entirely different ideas. If a complex world had become too fast-moving and confusing to find easy accommodation in Libertarian Democracy, reform of democracy, not of social conditions, was the only reasonable way to stave off ignorance, mob rule, manipulation by propagandists. Rather than use the press to restore the possibilities of democracy and re-empower the public, Lippmann put his faith in fellow enlightened elites.

Since it was not possible to truly enlighten the public, the public should be kept from temptation or foolhardiness by a paternal cadre of uber-citizens who, by serving their own enlightened self-interest, would necessarily serve the interests of the public at large. Freedom, for Lippmann, could be preserved only if it were defined and judiciously regulated by clearer heads, the "men on the inside."

The outsider, and every one of us is an outsider to all but a few aspects of modern life, has neither the time nor attention, nor the equip- ment for specific judgement. It is on the men on the inside, working under conditions that are sound, that the daily administrations of science must rest.40

Not for nothing did John Dewey call Public Opinion the most profound indictment of democracy ever written.41 Dewey saw more optimistic possibilities for democracy in the modern age: "The keystone of democracy as a way of life may be expressed, it seems to me, as the necessity for participation of every mature being in the formation of values that regulate the living of men together."42 "Social arrangements which involve fixed subordination," he warned, "are maintained by coercion."43

Perhaps what has saved us from a more effective form of rule by elites in politics and journalism is that Lippmann has been so incessantly misunderstood. The rather small minority of working journalists who are familiar with Lippmann at all connect him rather vaguel y with an idea called "objectivity." Objectivity, as it is articulated by practitioners on the ground floor of journalism - as well as by many in the penthouse - is a much distorted doppelganger of the ethos Lippmann proposed for the management of the public sphere. In common practice, objectivity is a analogous to a Readers Digest version of the Ten Commandments: Reporters shouldn't take sides, personal biases should be kept out of news, interpretation properly belongs on the editorial page; the reader will can make of the news what he will, but with no nudging from the reporter. The final stage of the process of journalism, the reader groping to make sense, is of no concern to the reporter unless a flash poll - the newspaper version of the pop quiz - proves necessary.

Objectivity as it is defined and practiced today more closely resembles the "naive empiricism"44 of the late 19th Century than it does a rational, social-scientific method. Ultimately, observes Schudson, "uncritical faith in 'objective' or 'value free' methods, mechanisms, and measures in social sciences trivialized . . . questions about the human condition."45

The vernacular of objectivity does extreme violence to Lippmann's thesis. It is my contention that both Lippmann's original thesis and the degraded interpretation of it that guides common practice are seriously flawed, one by imperiousness, the other by simplemindedness and expediency. Any critique of objectivity as the reigning paradigm in journalism must take into account both its historical roots and its workaday manifestations. (We must also take into account that Lippmann, like other thinkers, is historically located -- he simply had a better address than most: Harvard, The High Councils of the State, The Center of the Journalistic Power Plant.)

The methods and assumptions of journalism in any era are historically grounded. Objectivity has no greater claim on truth or effectiveness than the reform-minded New Journalism. Carlin Romano has observed that, "The principles that govern (editorial) decisions, while rational, aren't 'scientific' or rationally compelling. No one need accept them, or even deal with them, the way must accept the rules of gravity."46 Therefore, nothing requires the press to cover what it does in the ways that it does. "If journalists understood -- as some philosophers and scientists increasingly do -- that what they present to the reader is not a mirror image of truth, but a coherent narrative of the world that serves some particular purposes, what the press covers could be more flexible and better suited to our needs as readers and writers."47

The fact is, that a set of economically, historically, and culturally rooted mechanisms and assumptions guide objective reporting. "The natural and social world does not consist of objects, forces or events which exist, independently of the observer in a state of their own identity . . . nor is the world 'ready made,' sitting quietly out there waiting to be discovered."48 Stories do not write themselves.

And so journalism is left to grapple with a standard that is not clear, not attainable, not even definable. Abe Rosenthal told his Times' reporters that "pure objectivity may not exist, but you have to strive for it anyway."49 This view, quite common in newsrooms, seems to indicate that in addition to being an amorphous concept, objectivity is a purely negative one, the absence of something - "bias."

Civic Journalism, if it is to have a fruitful turn on the stage, cannot be comprised of a set of abstract dictates nor a set of vague exhortations to do better. Nor can it become, like the Hutchins Commission Report on the Freedom of the Press, the raison d'être of a bureaucratic press council, public or private. Like the news discourse it seeks to foster, Civic Journalism must be organic, elastic, relentlessly self-evaluative. In short, Civic Journalismmust, at heart, constitute and articulate an ethos of community.

By examining historical precedents and enduring civic values that define journalism's purpose in democratic communities, the nascent form called Civic Journalism can find a stronger sense of identity and mission if it acknowledges and makes good use of its rich past.

1 Pew Center for Civic Journalism Mission Statement
2 John Merrill, quoted in Arthur Charity, Doing Civic Journalism, New York: Guilford Press, 1995, p. 54
3 James F. Fishkin, The Voice of the People: Public Opinion and Democracy, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995, p. 23
4 Shelton A. Gunaratne, "Old Wine in a New Bottle: Public Journalism, Developmental Journalism, and Social Responsibility," Communication Yearbook. 1998
5 Benjamin Franklin, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, New York: Carlton House, 1944, p. 113.
6 Charity, Doing Civic Journalism, p. 2
7 Finley Peter Dunne, Mr. Dooley, American Magazine, October, 1906, p. 606
8 William Allen White quoted in Hazel Dicken-Garcia, Journalistic Standards in the Nineteenth Century, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989, p. 164
9 Stanley Walker, City Editor, New York: Frederick A. Stokes Co., 1934, p. 22
10 Carlin Romano, "The Grisly Truth About Bare Facts," in Schudson and Manoff, eds., Reading the News, New York: Pantheon Books, 1987
11 Gay Talese, quoted in Nicholaus Mills, The New Journalism: A Historical Anthology, New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1974, xii
12 Leon V. Sigal, "Sources Make the News," in Reading the News, p. 26
13 John Hersey, "The Legend on the License," Yale Review, Autumn, 1980, p. 23
14 Mark Willes, quoted in "Get Me Rewrite," Utne Reader, Sept-Oct., 1997, p. 46
15 Ben Bagdikian, The Media Monopoly, Boston: Beacon Press, 1997, pp. 152-153
16 Melville Stone, Fifty Years a Journalist: Garden City, N.Y. Toronto: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1921, p. 53
17 Upton Sinclair, The Brass Check, Pasadena: The author, p. 9
18 William Allen White, The Nation, June 18, 1938.
19 Mark Fishman, Manufacturing the News, Austin, Tx.: University of Texas Press, p. 138
20 William Greider, Who Will Tell the People?: The Betrayal of American Democracy, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992, p. 411.
21 Michael Schudson, "Deadlines, Datelines and History," Reading the News, p. 81
22 John C. Merrill and S. Jack O'Dell, Philosophy and Journalism, New York: Longman, 1983, p. 115
23 E.W. Scripps, I Protest: Selected Disquisitions of E. W. Scripps, Oliver Knight, ed., Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1966, p. 225
24 W.A. Swanberg, Pulitzer, New York : Scribner, 1967, p. 96
25 ibid.
26 Michael Dillon, "From Populist to Patrician: Edward H. Butler and the Crisis of Labor, 1877-1892," paper delivered at American Journalism Historians Association, London, Ontario, October 4, 1996
27 Samuel Bowles, Views and Interviews, Charles F. Wingate, ed., New York: F.D. Patterson, 1875, p. 44
28 Ernest Francis Brown, Raymond of the Times, New York: Norton, 1951, p. 100
29 Brown, p. 98
30 Manton Marble, Views and Interviews, Wingate, p. 216
31 Horace Greeley, editorial, New York Tribune, August 10, 1842
32 Albert Einstein, Ideas and Opinions, New York: Modern Library, 1994, p. 6
33 Arthur Charity, Doing Public Journalism, New York: Guilford Press, 1995, p. 5
34 Dicken-Garcia, Journalistic Standards in the Nineteenth Century, pp. 52-53
35 Schudson Origins of the Ideal of Objectivity in the Professions: Studies in the History of American Journalism and American Law, 1830-1940, Garland Publishing, 1990, p. 269
36 Walter Lippmann, Liberty and the News, New York: Harcourt, Brace and Howe, 1920
37 Lippmann, Public Opinion, New York: The MacMillan Co., 1960
38 Lippmann, The Phantom Public, New York: Harcourt and Brace, 1920
39 Lippmann, The Phantom Public, p. 10
40 Lippmann, Public Opinion, p. 400
41 Dewey quoted in James Carey, Communication as Culture, Winchester, Ma.: Unwin Hyman, Inc., 1989, p. 74
42 John Dewey, "Democracy and Educational Administration," address before the National Educational Society, Feb. 2, 1937, published in School and Society, April 3, 1937, p. 257
43 ibid.
44 Schudson, Discovering the News: A Social History of American Newspapers, New York: Basic Books, 1978, p. 6
45 Schudson, Origins . . . p. 2
46 Romano, p. 39
47 Romano, p. 42
48 John Hartley, Understanding the News, London/New York: Metheun, 1982, p. 12
49 Abe Rosenthal quoted in Lawrence Soley, The News Shapers: The Sources Who Explain the News, New York: Praeger, 1992, p. 16

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