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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Is “democratic media” a quaint memory? Let’s talk

When I asked my colleagues what the topic should be for the ethics center’s conference in April, I received an unambiguous reply: media and electoral politics.

The feeling was unambiguous not only because we are in the middle of a presidential campaign. There was another reason. Many citizens are concerned that the idea of fair and free elections, built upon tough but informative campaigns, and analyzed by fair-minded journalists, was not just an idea under pressure. It was an idea in jeopardy.

Here are a few trends to worry the democratic soul.

First, there is an increase in partisan media where a “winner takes all” attitude is taken toward public discussion. For example, a new conservative outlet, the Washington Free Beacon declares that it is in the business of “combat journalism” against the “left.”

When this belligerent attitude exists either on the left or the right, then truth, accuracy and public information suffers. The arena of democratic persuasion becomes a battlefield of propaganda.

Second, in an age of multi-media where everyone is ‘reporting’ at break-neck speed and where political ads twist the facts, whither verified reports and informed commentary? Even the so-called objective “fact-checkers” of candidate statements, proliferating online, may be the subjective opinions of partisan politicos.

Third, take the potential corruption of the political system by Big Money, aided by the Supreme Court’s sorry decision in Citizens United. Now we have gargantuan creatures called SuperPacs — and a dwindling accountability system.

Early in the 1900s, columnist Walter Lippmann began to have his own doubts about the story we tell about American democracy. The story that an intelligent and interested public can make rational decisions on issues and candidates with the help of a media that promotes deliberation. The ideal of the rational democratic public, Lippmann said, was a “phantom.”

Philosopher Michael Walzer defined deliberation as: “a particular way of thinking: quiet, reflective, open to a wide range of evidence, respectful of different views. It is a rational process of weighing the available data, considering alternative possibilities, arguing about relevance and worthiness, and then choosing the best policy or person.” Ask yourself: how much deliberation goes on today in the public sphere?

This blog is not intended to be a counsel of despair. It is personal invitation to come to the conference on April 13 and engage in deliberative discussion on the future of democratic media.

Despite the worrisome trends, many journalists and scholars are not ready to give up on the democratic sphere, or to write off developments in media and public communications.

So, I invite you – whether as an optimist or pessimist – to a stimulating day of taking the pulse of media and elections.


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