Lattatudes: Of Walter and John

| October 1, 2009

In the early decades of last century, life in the American democracy began to get increasing modern and at the same time increasingly complicated.

john_lattaThe news media’s role was changing and adapting.

Walter Lippmann saw a world where the public could not keep up; there was too much information that could not be fully understood, and news media were not capable of being a satisfactory interpretative delivery vehicle. Our leaders would have to determine what was to be done and the news media would basically transmit their decisions and actions to the public.

John Dewey and the so-called Chicago School agreed that a period of change at unprecedented pace was upon the country but felt that the public could in
fact be entrusted with managing it. The key was a news media that did not simply transmit information as Lippmann suggested but put it into context and made
it relevant. For Dewey our foundation would be a well-informed and involved public.

Dewey said journalists should be as thorough and neutral as they could be doing this, basic expectations of responsible journalists, because information without context could be both useless and misleading. The various publics, he suggested, needed to know as much about the information they received as they could so that they could understand it and react to it.

The press then had a major responsibility within American democracy. But something is wrong. Conveying vital information in context today still happens but it is a shrinking, increasingly ignored segment of the total ‘news’ pie. The news consumer has been hijacked by purveyors of torrents of information that is attractive to us but of little use to our role in keeping the democratic machinery running. We are in danger of becoming as unaware of the complexity and influence of many core issues in our democratic life as if we were simply receiving Lippmannesque updates.

Dewey and his Chicago School were not the first Americans to think news
media could help build a stable, progressive society. Robert E. Lee, as president of Washington College (Washington and Lee University today) after the Civil War, intended to create a journalism school to produce graduates who could work in the South to help reconciliation and reconstruction succeed using a Dewey-like model. Unfortunately, it never got off the ground.

If reauthorization is anything like reconstruction we’re in for a long hard ride.

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