Lou Ureneck

The sorry state of civic affairs

By Lou Ureneck
October 12, 2009

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IN THE winter of 1787, while in France as minister for his new country, Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to his fellow Virginian, Edward Carrington.

Carrington was a delegate to the Continental Congress, and the letter, among the thousands that Jefferson wrote, displays the elegantly rounded assertions about government and the press that have made him a secular saint.

In France, the storm clouds of revolution were gathering around the monarchy. At home, the states were hammering out the Constitution in Philadelphia, and Jefferson was thinking through the problems of government that guaranteed freedom and ensured the people’s well-being. (Of white people, anyway.)

His letter to Carrington came not long after the militia had suppressed a rebellion in Western Massachusetts rooted in the economic distress that followed the Revolutionary War. He counseled tolerance of the rebels who had opposed jailing indebted farmers and asserted his views on the importance of an informed public:

“The way to prevent these irregular interpositions of the people is to give them full information of their affairs thro’ the channel of the public papers, and to contrive that those papers should penetrate the whole mass of the people. The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.’’

The letter is remarkable for the faith it expresses in national literacy, the press and public opinion. From today’s vantage, we can only wonder what has gone wrong. For those of us who have lived our lives in either journalism or education, there needs to be serious self-examination of our methods and results.

What accounts for the sorry state of the nation’s civic health and to what extent do the better-or-worse evolution of the media and education share in the problem? I tilt the blame in that direction because our entire system of government rests on the presumption that people with good information make good choices about their governance. To assert otherwise undermines the argument for democratic government.

The problem goes deeper than conspiracy theorists burning up the Internet with rumors about President Obama. It goes back further even than the willingness of so many Americans during the Bush administration to be fooled by the bogus claim that Saddam Hussein was implicated in the 9/11 attacks. It predates the scornful tone of some of what passes for cable-TV and radio news.

In recent surveys, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, a nonprofit educational organization, found that:

■ Fewer than half of Americans can name the three branches of government, and 71 percent failed the institute’s civics test, which asks, for example, which branch of government has the power to declare war.

■ High television watching correlates with low civic knowledge.

■ Only 24 percent of college graduates know the First Amendment prohibits establishing an official religion for the United States.

One wonders what Jefferson would make of this state of affairs. Were he to reappear, he would find that we have become a media-saturated country with a vast network of public and private education but with a citizenry that often is cynical about or disconnected from its government.

As a consequence of the Internet, there is a great reordering of the press now underway. The ways news is reported, presented, distributed, and paid for are changing. This may all be for the good - it certainly is democratizing.

But I’m confident that there is one aspect of the press that should not change, and in fact needs to be reaffirmed as we seek solutions to the problems that riddle civic engagement.

The principal purpose of the press is to provide citizens with information for self-government. In that, we all have a stake, and as journalism evolves on the web, it needs to demonstrate that it is worthy of the mission embedded in the First Amendment.

Lou Ureneck, a guest columnist, is chairman of the journalism department at Boston University.

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