February 25, 2004
the press and respect for democracy
Jay Rosen has posted a brilliant and comprehensive essay about the poverty of political coverage in America. He ends with a long list of proposals for different attitudes and methods that reporters might adopt. Along similar lines, I've been asking myself, "What would happen if reporters showed more respect for our democratic institutions?"
There's a big debate about whether reporters are too solicitous, or too critical, of various major figures, especially the President of the United States. But that's not what I mean. In fact, to respect democratic institutions might mean paying less attention to individuals and their motives and fortunes. For example, who cares whether George W. Bush supports the anti-gay-marriage amendment in order to appease his conservative base, as the Times explains in its front page "news analysis" today? (By the way, we can't know his motives, and the only people who possibly have insight are Administration insiders, who aren't trustworthy sources.) Imagine, instead, that the Times explained that a struggle between majoritarian institutions and courts has arisen because the fourteenth amendment requires "equal protection under the law," yet many voters see marriage as a sacrament that can only apply to heterosexual couples. Citizens need to wrestle with what the fourteenth amendment means and how it can coexist with one-person, one-vote. Respectful coverage might demonstrate that this is not an easy issue--not for those of us who strongly favor gay marriage but also believe in democracy; not for those who oppose gay marriage but also believe in equality. Hence those decision-makers in Washington are not just playing games for political advantage. They are in a tough spot morally and they are doing their jobs.
The 14th amendment is a "civic ed" kind of issue--perhaps too dry and procedural. But respect for democratic institutions would mean more frequent and illuminating coverage of a wide range of organizations: not just courts and the Congress, but also unions, evangelical churches that are politically engaged, state legislatures, military units, regulatory agencies, community meetings. It would mean attending and observing these institutions day-to-day, not just when a scandal is unfolding.