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The truth about civic journalism

The public hasn’t heard much about it, but the news media establishment has been engaged in huge debate over how to save its skin.

Daily newspapers are, with a few exceptions, losing circulation and market share. Markets with competing newspapers are a thing of the past. Network television, particularly the evening news shows, are far from the powerhouses they once were. The Associated Press, a cooperative of most of the nation’s daily newspapers, is a virtual monopoly — controlling the tone and agenda for the America’s news editors more effectively than the official censors in Beijing.

So what have the professional news managers come up with as an answer? Many of them are convinced the best solution lies in something called “civic journalism.”

What is “civic journalism”? Actually, it’s a little vague — a little esoteric. But here’s the official definition of the Pew Center for Civic Journalism, a foundation that throws money at newspapers and news people willing to chant the mantra: “Civic journalism is an effort by print and broadcast journalists to reach out to the public more aggressively in the reporting process, to listen to how citizens frame their problems and what citizens see as solutions to those problems. And then to use that information to enrich their newspaper or broadcast report. It is being practiced by newspapers and television stations in many cities, big and small.”

Does that tell you anything? Me neither. So I decided to do a little research into what this was all about. I’ve read the articles Pew highlights as great examples of civic journalism — one from the leftist Nation, another by the Nashua, New Hampshire, Telegraph about pro-abortion citizens challenging Pat Buchanan’s pro-life stance, and lastly, a story by the Boston Globe bemoaning budget cuts for the public schools in the small town of Derry, New Hampshire. Suffice it to say that all three examples promote a subtle and narrow ideological viewpoint. It’s hardly what you would call traditional reporting that strives for balance, if not objectivity.

So why are newspapers big and small flocking to Pew for advice? Money. The parent foundation, Pew Charitable Trusts, is the third largest foundation in the country — one that hands out $180 million a year. In the last few years, the Pew Center has doled out more than $20 million to various media enterprises, most of it for civic journalism projects.

The force behind Pew’s thrust into the world of journalism is the 45-year-old president, Rebecca Rimel, a former emergency room nurse and assistant professor of neurology at the University of Virginia, who now earns $318,213 a year for handing out checks. She has described herself as a sixties liberal who wanted to recall the spirit of the times. What better way than to get involved with the media? Rimel has also turned the once conservative Pew Charitable Trusts into one of the most politically correct foundations in the world, supporting mostly government-empowering global environmental and “family planning” initiatives.

But don’t think for a minute that civic journalism is Rimel’s brainchild — or even a notion conceived on a slow news day by professional journalists. In fact, civic journalism is just a component of a much broader political agenda called the New Citizenship movement — a movement defined by a document called the Civic Declaration, written by unrepentant sixties radical Harry C. Boyte.

Boyte founded a Congress on Racial Equality chapter in 1963, then moved on to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He was a community organizer for Operation Breakthrough in Durham, North Carolina, and edited the newspaper ACTION. In the early seventies he served as founder of the National Interim Committee of the New American Movement and later on the national board and executive committee of the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee. Those two organizations later merged to form the Democratic Socialists of America.

The Civic Declaration claims credit for introducing the idea of “civic journalism.” It is, Boyte explains, “aimed at bringing citizens into public discussions of politics and policy in a far more active fashion” and to “reconnect” journalists “to the communities they serve.” That kind of gobbledygook sounds good to many journalists — even well-intentioned ones. But it is a recipe for more advocacy, more activism and more agitating.

After having read many thousands of words written by Boyte, I can only conclude that he is a master of the euphemism. I would say he is even gifted in this area. That’s why, I’m sure, he was chosen just last year to participate in a forum organized by Boston Review called “Strategies for Rebuilding the Left.”

That’s exactly what civic journalism is, after all — a euphemism for the kind of propaganda that will help rebuild the statist, collectivist, widely discredited American left, a movement that wouldn’t recognize a community-based solution if it tripped over it.

The real problem with journalism today is that it has become a public-relations tool for big government, promoting solutions to problems, real and imagined. Civic journalism is the codification of this new bastard role for an American institution whose primary and historic mission has been to serve as a watchdog on government. Civic journalism will only create a new class of civic agitators — not civic watchdogs.