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November 23, 2009

how to get better citizens

In the Sunday Times, Tom Friedman lists some of our grievous national problems and concludes:

I agree with that and have staked my whole career on this premise. But how do you get "better citizens"? Probably the most common answer is somehow to send people better messages: broadcast shows, ads, news articles, or speeches that are more accurate, complete, informative, and motivating. Since most actual messages are delivered by the mass media (and most serious observers from across the spectrum hold the mass media in contempt), another prevalent answer is to criticize or--ideally--to reform the media.

I am basically skeptical of this diagnosis and strategy. A large and diverse population can choose among a vast array of media sources, most of which survive by selling advertising. This audience varies a great deal in ideology, and also in knowledge and interest; but the average level of interest in serious public affairs is not high. Inevitably, the media fragment, pursue niche audiences, and provide a great deal more entertainment than news. Even the most ambitious reform proposal--a kind of BBC for the United States, with a nonpartisan board and lots of public money--would have a limited impact on the whole landscape. (The BBC's flagship "News at Ten" draws about 10 percent of the British population.) I know many people who hold Fox News responsible for bad aspects of our politics. But I see that channel less as a cause than an outcome of public tastes and values, plus media fragmentation. Conservatives who are frustrated by the "liberal media" should feel the same way about their least favorite channels.

To put the problem more concretely: I don't think you can send a sufficiently powerful "message" to promote good citizenship (even if your name happens to be Barack Obama), because you'll be competing with far too many other messages in an astoundingly crowded market driven by pre-existing motivations and tastes.

I therefore work on two alternatives:

1. Get them while they're young, receptive, and a captive audience. Build really engaging, unbiased, motivating, and informative civic education into the school curriculum. My blog posts categorized as advocating civic education and a high school civic curriculum are about that.

2. Reform institutions so that hands-on participation by ordinary adults is welcomed and rewarding. The theory is that people who see tangible impact from their own civic engagement (mainly at the local level) will want to be informed and to exchange ideas and perspectives with people different from themselves. My blog posts about deliberation and civic reform are about that.

I welcome Friedman's conclusion but wish he would get behind concrete solutions.

November 23, 2009 12:35 PM | category: none



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