I opened my latest issue of Editor & Publisher — the semi-official
trade journal for the semi-official establishment press — to find a
full-page ad promoting civic journalism sponsored by the Pew Center.
“Civic journalism is … About avoiding extremes,” reads the
The ad sports a picture of and short essay by N. Christian Anderson
III, publisher and CEO of the Orange County Register. In less than 300
words, the ad illustrates all that is misguided and wrongheaded about
the mushy trend toward civic journalism in establishment news circles.
Just check this out if you want to understand how insidious civic
“When I was publisher of the Gazette in Colorado Springs, we wrote
about a bond issue in the area’s largest school district,” explains
Anderson. “Voters had not been able to pass a bond issue for 20 years
and when it came up on the ballot again, we decided to look at it
through the eyes of different constituents — students, parents,
opponents, educators. It was a very different take on the election
Notice Anderson says: “Voters had not been able to pass a bond issue
for 20 years. …” In other words, when voters year after year voted
“no” on bond issues, it wasn’t a conscious or informed decision on their
part, they just couldn’t bring themselves to vote “yes.” They needed
help. There was something wrong with them. Perhaps they just weren’t
smart enough to find the “yes” lever.
Isn’t that typical of establishment thinking? That’s the civic
journalism mindset at work. Notice also that the different constituents
surveyed in this creative approach to journalism didn’t include one
obvious one — overburdened taxpayers. Neither did it include those
opposed in principle to the whole idea of government-run schools.
Neither did it include home-schooling kids or parents. I’ll bet no
private-schoolers were interviewed. I’ll bet no one was included in the
survey who was persuaded that government schools are the least effective
way to educate the public. Wow! What an investigation! How enterprising!
“We could have gotten the people who stake out extreme positions —
the teachers union and the anti-tax forces — but we included people who
had mixed feelings. That got us away from this notion of living at the
Here we go again. Anti-tax forces are, in Anderson’s mind,
“extremists.” That is so interesting given his rise to the top of the
Register, a supposedly libertarian paper whose news columns, under
Anderson’s leadership, are as biased toward socialism as those of the
Los Angeles Times.
“Historically, newspapers are not very good at reporting on
ambivalence. But struggling with an issue is far more common than having
everything figured out.”
Perhaps a better way to say this is that, historically, U.S.
newspapers that followed an agenda of moral relativism were unsuccessful
in the marketplace. Civic journalism is trying to change all that — not
by broadening the debate by being more inclusive of viewpoints, but, by
Anderson’s own admission, by narrowing the debate to those who are
“ambivalent,” lack passion, lack clarity in their views.
“I wouldn’t want to take the credit or the blame for the fact that
the bond issue passed. But I will say that series caused people to think
differently about the schools in our community — not simply, ‘Should we
pay more taxes or not?'”
Ah-hah! This different approach to journalism obviously resulted in a
different election outcome. Anderson pretends not to care himself. But
obviously he does — or why mention the fact that the bond issue passed?
Anderson and his civic journalism practitioners can’t stand the idea
that a public debate about more government spending should come down to
whether people want to pay more taxes. But isn’t that precisely what it
“And that’s one of the most important parts of civic journalism. It
brings more than the ‘usual suspects’ into our coverage. It broadens our
coverage and causes us to look differently at people and their
involvement in the community.”
Oh really, by clouding the issues with the ill-informed opinions of
apathetic bystanders, civic journalism pretends to broaden the debate.
That strikes me as a sophisticated ’90s approach to creating
That’s the real agenda of the Pew Center for Civic Journalism —
which has been adopted in whole or part by most major news agencies in
the United States today.