Almost 16 years ago – a lifetime by today’s pace of change – I wrote in a book about journalism and democracy:
“Jointly deciding about things, which is the purpose of democracy…requires three fundamentals: 1. Shared, relevant information; 2. A method or place for deliberation about the application of that information…; 3. Shared values on which to base decisions….
“If any one of these is missing, democratic decision making cannot occur and the democratic community cannot progress…values (become) mere shibboleths that are likely to define and perpetuate differences rather than take advantage of commonalities.”
I claim no prescience for those thoughts, and in fact they were intended as more hypothetical than predictive. But here we are, a gridlocked democracy in which our hardened values do in fact define and perpetuate differences and fail to take advantage of commonalities.
The theme of that book, “Public Journalism and Public Life,” was that newspaper journalism was crucial to the three-step process and that many newspaper journalists were not fulfilling their obligations to it.
For two centuries, U.S. newspapers provided the shared information and the place for deliberation. At mid-20th century, the average American family read more than one newspaper daily, meaning that in a given community most people had access to the same information. Even though that information was almost always incomplete and was sometimes inaccurate, at least people started at the same place in their effort to answer democracy’s core question: What shall we do? Today, half of the nation’s households read no newspaper at all. The traditional agora where people gathered to apply their values to the shared information has dissolved, the essential public square is emptying.
Certainly a new and much larger public square merged – the digital one. But its vastness and complexity render nearly meaningless the concept of shared information, for no two people clicking through the digital world arrive at the same set of places to get information. And much of the “information” they do reach can be provided by anyone with an Internet connection, without regard for that person’s objectivity, judgment, wisdom and motivation.
Personal values, which once were routinely tested against other persons’ differing values in the marketplace of ideas, now can be constantly reinforced and hardened in a narrow marketplace of one’s own choosing, without the intellectual inconvenience of facing competing values. People on the left can get only “news” provided by people like them and tailored to their beliefs from thousands of places that people on the right never see, and vice versa.
That is a recipe for democratic disaster, and we are now choking on the result. Our values have in fact become mere shibboleths that define and perpetuate differences and fail to take advantage of commonalities. We see that daily in the uncompromising attitudes and stubborn, willful ignorance that dominate our political discourse.
Without some shared values, democracy cannot move toward resolving the deep problems we face. When people with sharply different values will not talk earnestly with those holding competing values, no common decisions are possible.
We fret constantly about needing better politicians, more “honest” news, higher-quality information. What we actually need is a harder-working, more open-minded class of citizens willing to engage in serious conversation and to demand from their politicians and information sources reciprocating willingness to seek solutions.