Matt Miller's horrible 2 percent idea.

Media criticism.
Sept. 19 2003 8:10 PM

All the News That's Fit To Preach

Matt Miller's horrible 2 percent idea.

The journalistic priesthood abhors advice, but it reserves special scorn for those who would counsel them to rejigger coverage in a way to "improve" society. This do-gooder school of journalism, which answered to the names of "public journalism" and "civic journalism" in the '90s, received funding and promotion from the moneybags at the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Poynter Institute, spawned laudatory books by James Fallows (Breaking the News) and Jay Rosen (What Are Journalists For?), and picked up a few adherents at the dailies in Wichita, Kan.; Charlotte, N.C.; and Norfolk, Va.; before groaning to a halt under the weight of its own pretension. *

The public journalism movement exhorted reporters, editors, and producers to make journalism part of a new "civic exploration" and report the news in a fashion that would "serve democracy" and "improve citizenship." The crusade collapsed because public journalism—like other allegedly healthful diets—wasn't so patently good for you that it justified the awful taste going down. But it also bombed because few reporters—even the opinionated ones who season their work with ideology or vote a straight ticket—view themselves as catalysts of change, social engineers, or builders of political cadre. They care most about discovering new information and beating the competition. Plus, on the demand side, readers tend to cringe if preached to from a pulpit, no matter how well-meaning the sermon might be. Who wants to have an agenda spooned down his throat with his Wheaties?

But never underestimate the power of a bad idea. Policy entrepreneur Matthew Miller resurrects the idea of public journalism in the "Will the Press Step Up?" chapter of his just published New Democrat manifesto, The Two Percent Solution. In a nutshell, Miller would have the federal government increase domestic spending by 2 percent of the GDP ($200 billion) and spend it on health care, education, and "living wage" programs (welfare for workers). And it's not like we can't afford it, Miller writes. Such an increase would return the government share of GDP to Reagan-era levels.

Setting aside the wisdom of Miller's $200 billion proposal, he believes newspapers should raise awareness of America's unmet health, education, and income needs with a daily feature called "Still True Today." Bannered across the bottom inch of Page One (just 2 percent of a standard broadsheet!), "Still True Today" would "institutionalize regular attention for things that are important even though there's not 'news' in them," Miller writes. One day the feature would explain, "42 million Americans are uninsured—80 percent in families with a full-time worker," another it would say "2 million teachers need to be recruited in the next decade, while the average teacher salary is $40,000." (See accompanying graphic adapted from Miller's book.)

Adapted book page

The Burma Shave messages would change daily, with health promoted on Monday, education on Tuesday, and the working poor on Wednesday. Miller writes, "The exercise would require our top papers to put forward what they think are the most important things citizens need to remain aware of even as the news changes each day. It might help set the agenda for the papers' in-depth reporting projects. The art department could make sure this recurring feature was fun and lively."

When Miller approached Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. to pitch "Still True" in the summer of 2002, he did it knowing he couldn't have picked a less likely recruit. Downie is a declared policy agnostic. Like a tantric master, he prohibits his brain from forming opinions on the issues of the day and enjoins his fingers from voting. Keeping such a radically open mind allows him more options in covering the news, Downie says.

Downie waved off Miller's first request for a meeting because as an agnostic, he couldn't be for or against Miller's 2 percent solution. Policy agenda promoters should go to the editorial page, he explained. But Downie, who is extraordinarily accessible considering how busy he is, agreed to a meeting to discuss the Post'sPage One news judgment, during which Miller offered the "Still True" proposal for consideration.

Miller doesn't record Downie's agnostic vertebra stiffening and cracking, but one can imagine the noise. The idea "verges on the editorial," Downie says, sussing out Miller's public journalism motivations if not calling them such. "By definition, this is information people already know but you want to keep repeating until they do something about it, right?" Downie says. Miller concedes his political motivation but thinks the idea of bannering important and allegedly overlooked topics would improve our culture, even if newspapers stressed conservative facts that ran against his vision—such as, taxes are too high.

The Miller-Downie meeting ends in a stalemate, as anybody who has argued with the affable and unstoppable Miller would predict. (I've had the pleasure: Matt's a friend, and he's contributed to Slate.) And how could it end any other way? Downie rejects overt advocacy on Page One, and Miller insists that the press, which exercises power over its readers anyway, might as well "regularize attention" to important matters whether or not they're in the news. Miller, like the public journalism advocates, believes that a newspaper should be something that is "good" for society, builds consensus, helps solve problems, and fosters citizenship rather than the shifting intersection of what people want to read and what editors want to publish.

One would think that the political parties, think tanks, and special interest groups—designed from the bottom up as partisan bodies—would be the logical object of Miller's lobbying to get "important" and "uncovered" issues that matter to him into the news, and not the non-partisan press. Surely it would be easier to persuade the Democratic Party or the Greens to embrace the 2 percent solution than to arrange its sale to Downie, Bill Keller, John Carroll, and Paul Steiger. But no, says Miller. The responsibility falls to the press because the parties aren't "addressing these issues seriously."

In other words, newspapers should become more like political parties because the political parties have become more like the nonpartisan—and by implication, responsibility-evading—newspapers. One can almost smell the steam rising out of Len Downie's ears.

Public journalism failed to catch root with readers or reporters because it's more a New Age exercise in "empowerment" than it is news-gathering, recasting reporters as mediators or public therapists guiding the citizenry on their happy path to storybook consensus and closure. But Miller and the public journalism avatars not only overestimate the desire of daily newspapers to push and drive the public in the direction of "social justice," they overestimate the willingness of the reader to be led. Only the intellectually sheltered could think of readers as passive serfs awaiting the prodding of the philosopher kings on the bottom of Page One.

******

I read 2 percent of my e-mail at pressbox@hotmail.com (E-mail may be quoted unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)

Correction, Sept. 22, 2003:Due to a copy-editing error, this piece originally and incorrectly said that Charlotte was in Virginia. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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