the I and the we: civic insights from Christian theology

Let’s assume that individuals have ethical responsibilities: each of us must strive to do what is right. However, our knowledge, self-discipline, and capacity to influence the world are all severely limited. Therefore, we are obliged to participate in groups that aggregate information, motivate their members, hold them accountable, and obtain collective power. Within groups, our individual responsibility shifts into an obligation to exercise either voice or exit. “Loyalty” means a commitment to the group; but it shades into “complicity” when the group does wrong.

This is a purely secular thesis, but it can draw on religious debates about similar issues. I’ll focus here on Christian views, mainly because I know them better than I know other traditions.

There are startling differences among Christian communities–from storefront charismatic churches and Quaker meeting houses to Orthodox monasteries and the global Catholic Church. However, it is a virtually unanimous Christian view that the soul is individual; it stands before God for separate judgment. Christians reject theories of a shared or universal soul. Thus all Christian theologians believe that it matters what each human person thinks and does.

At the same time, it is essential to Christianity that human beings are cognitively and motivationally limited–“fallen.” Thus all Christians see the benefits of being religious in groups that guide their members and speak and act collectively. Although the papal curia looks very different from a Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall, both are groupings of morally responsible individuals.

Only a caricature of Catholicism portrays it as a papal dictatorship. The papacy has been stronger since Pius IX (1846–1878) than it ever was before, but even in this era of relative centralization, the teachings and actions of the Church result from the whole community; and all Catholics are obliged to exercise voice within the Church. But Catholics have a strong obligation of loyalty and not much of a moral right of exit. That is because mainstream Catholic thought emphasizes the special standing of the Church. It was instituted by Jesus when he called the apostles and gave the keys of the kingdom to Peter.

No one believes that the visible Church is pervasively infallible; it is a human institution. But Catholics hold that our mortal limitations make organization indispensable, and God has selected one organization to mediate for all individuals. (“Catholic” means universal.) Wrecked on a desert island, you should do your best, and God will understand. But if you can, you must participate in the global Church in order to be right with God. If, in your opinion, the Church errs, then your responsibility is to improve it by exercising voice.

Martin Luther broke from the Catholic Church because of his premise that conscience is logically inalienable. It’s not only wrong to try to delegate or share one’s moral responsibility; that is a contradiction. Responsibility always remains fully yours, by definition. In 1520, Luther wrote, “In fact, we are all consecrated priests through Baptism, as St. Peter in 1 Peter 2[:9] says, ‘You are a royal priesthood and a priestly kingdom,’ and Revelation [5:10], ‘Through your blood you have made us into priests and kings.'”

Why then do Lutherans have churches at all? (They even employ people in special garb who, at least in countries like Sweden and Finland, are called “Lutheran priests.”) Lutherans share with Catholics the assumption that the individual human being is too frail to believe or do right, and a group is necessary. They also agree that receiving spiritual help from other people does not negate personal moral responsibility. Their disagreement with Catholics is that they maintain a right of exit in cases of conflict between individual conscience and any particular group. That means that they are pluralists about groups, while Catholics are unitary.

Two other issues that are relevant to secular or “civic” groups are also emphasized in some Christian denominations. One is deliberation: the expression of personal views as part of a group’s search for shared truth. Making deliberation a transcendent value distinguishes Quakers from other Protestants, but it is present in all denominations to various degrees. Erasmus, for example, tried to make the consensus of believers a definitive feature of Catholicism.

The other issue is tradition: loyalty to the values and beliefs that have emerged over time, rather than those that are authored by any nameable human beings. Orthodoxy is particularly deferential to tradition. Whenever possible, the Orthodox prefer to acknowledge practices that have emerged, rather than make discretionary decisions. That practice is consistent with a very strong belief in individual cognitive limitations, combined with some faith in the ability of people to learn from accumulated experience.

All of these ideals–tradition, deliberation, plurality, unity, exit, voice, loyalty, conscience–are also available to secular groups; and often the best arguments for each principle have been developed by theologians.

See also: a typology of denominationssystem, organism, person, organization, institution: some definitionsfrom I to we: an outline of a theoryThe truth in Hayek; and what defines an organization? the case of the global sanghaSt. Margaret of Cortona and medieval populism

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the politics of student debt

When Democratic political candidates are asked about “youth,” often the first issue that comes to their minds is college affordability. For example, when Hillary Clinton was asked during a Democratic primary debate about how she would reach Millennials, her whole answer was about student debt.

I agree that student debt is a problem, but it’s not nearly as widespread as politicians assume. Nearly half of the debt is held by families in the top quartile, and for less advantaged younger Americans, student debt is only one of many challenges. Therefore, a much broader policy agenda is needed to engage the younger generation as a whole.

According to Harvard’s Institute of Politics, 42% of Millennials say that they or anyone else in their household holds student debt. Pew reports that 37% of 18-29s hold student debt in their own names. That is a lot of people, but not a majority.

Forty percent of Millennials do not take any college courses at all (whether in community colleges or four-year institutions). They don’t have college debt, and their immediate economic problems may be quite different: the minimum wage, daycare, job training, GED options.

Another 38 percent enroll in college but don’t attain a BA. They have mixed experiences. Some of them incur debt but don’t hold degrees. However, according to Sandy Baum and Martha Johnson, 60% of graduates of public community colleges hold no student debt. They have Associates Degrees and are debt-free. Most of the people who borrow to obtain a 2-year degree attend for-profit institutions, and that’s a problem unto itself.

[Graph corrected on April 21]

The proportions of all adults who report holding student debt is pretty steady across all income levels. (Source: Caroline Ratcliffe and Signe-Mary McKernan for the Urban Institute.)

But the loans get bigger as you go up the income ladder. Ratcliffe and McKernan report that people in the top quartile are least worried about their ability to repay their debt, yet they hold almost half of the dollars owed.

Similarly, Pew reports, “About two-thirds of young college graduates with student loans (65%) live in families earning at least $50,000, compared with 40% of those without a bachelor’s degree.”

It should not be surprising that the more education you attain, the higher your debt. This also means that the people with the most debt are young adults in white-collar professions. They may be struggling, and I am fully sympathetic to them, but they represent the upper socio-economic stratum.
Median amount of outstanding student debt varies widely by education level

It would therefore be difficult to spend public money reducing debt without channeling most of the resources to upper-income young adults.

More youth regard debt as a problem than personally hold debt. Fifty-seven percent tell Pew that “student debt is a major problem for young people in the United States.” One reason may be that the prospect of debt deters people from pursuing college at all (or keeps them from pursuing more costly four-year and postgraduate degrees). In that case, college affordability and debt would be challenges for more than the 35%-40% of Millennials who actually hold debt.

But it’s a big assumption that the main reason people don’t pursue college degrees is the cost of tuition. About 41% of 31-year olds have no more than a high school diploma. The next step up the SES ladder for them would be an Associates Degree, and 60% of people who graduate from public community colleges have no debt. There may be many reasons 41% of young adults can’t get Associates Degrees–and they may not even want one–but tuition is not likely the main obstacle.

I’d be the last person to criticize reforms that make college more affordable. I just don’t think that this is the Rosetta Stone to the Millennial vote.

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Jan-Werner Müller and Rick Valelly at Tisch College

Join Princeton’s Jan-Werner Müller (author, most recently, of What is Populism? which has been translated into more than 20 languages in two years) and Swarthmore’s Rick Valelly (author of The Two Reconstructions: The Struggle for Black Enfranchisement and many other books) for a discussion at Tisch College on Monday, April 23


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the right to strike

Yesterday, Alexander Gourevitch from Brown University spoke on “The Right to Strike.” I won’t try to summarize (or scoop) the argument of his forthcoming paper, except to say that Gourevitch uses an account of oppression to give a strong defense of the right to strike, and he squarely addresses the hard issue. Successful strikes often require a degree of coercion in the form of picket lines, sit-ins, work-stoppages that close the firm, strong moral pressure on potential scabs, etc. Many liberal political theorists, American jurists, and European social democrats defend unions and acknowledge the right to strike but are squeamish about the coercive aspect. They either deny that coercion occurs or argue that strikes are only acceptable when free of all coercion. Gourevitch defends the coercive aspect of strikes–although not as an absolute right.

I would reach the same destination from a different starting point. I would begin with the premise that human beings have the right to create, design, and govern groups. Among the many types of groups that we design are governments (at all levels and scales), companies (privately held or publicly traded), and unions. Any of these three can allow or prevent an individual from working in a particular job. The government can regulate or legislate against the job or a category of workers, the firm can refuse to hire or fire an employee (or close the whole shop), and the union can strike. I begin with no assumption that any of these acts is more–or less–legitimate than the others. Governments, companies, and unions can be good or bad. They can do the right or the wrong thing. It all depends on the details.

In particular, it depends on how they are organized internally and what effects they have on outsiders (including natural systems as well as people). Assessing their internal structures and their consequences is controversial because it raises all the basic questions of justice.

For example, it you are a participatory democrat, you will value institutions just to the degree that they are internal democracies. Companies seem the least promising candidates, although democratic firms do exist. Both unions and governments range from highly democratic to highly authoritarian. Before you acknowledge the justice of a coercive strike, you will ask whether the union is democratic (and whether it is more or less democratic than the state that seeks to police it). You may embed in the definition of “democratic” some openness to outsiders, such as workers who are not already members of the union.

If, on the other hand, you are libertarian, you will value institutions just to the degree that the reflect individual, voluntary choice. Governments are the least promising, because very few citizens literally and actively consent to be governed. Governments are only legitimate to the degree that they create space for private agreements. Companies and unions are both potentially legitimate, but unions may be less so, to the extent that they coerce. Hayek claimed that unions “are the one institution where government has signally failed in its first task, that of preventing coercion of men by other men–and by coercion I do not mean primarily the coercion of employers but the coercion of workers by their fellow workers.”

For my own part, I am deeply pluralist. I believe in the value of maintaining a diverse set of institutional arrangements as checks against each other and as manifestations of human plurality and creativity. I am happy to see non-democratic institutions (e.g., the Catholic Church), strongly democratic ones, and many other forms. But I am not a relativist. I think that some organizations are better than others, and some combinations are more desirable than others. It’s just that an account of what makes organizations good must be nuanced and pluralist. One size doesn’t fit all.

On these grounds, I would defend unions as human creations that contribute to a pluralist public sphere. And I would accept that they will act coercively–within appropriate limits–when they strike. I am not positively enthusiastic about coercion, but I’d stress that states and companies also coerce. If you want (or need) to work, and a union has closed your workplace, then you have a complaint; but you also have a complaint if the company fires you arbitrarily or the state throws you in jail. Stronger unions make the second two forms of pervasive injustice less likely. A world with states, companies, and unions is more just than a world with just the first two.

See also my “The Legitimacy of Labor Unions” (2001), which is too moderate, China teaches the value of political pluralism, and should all institutions be democratic?

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what if something is not your problem?

I frame a most of my research and teaching around the question, “What should we do?” I’d even define a citizen as someone who asks that question. In academic contexts, I argue that this question is complex and under-theorized: it raises difficult issues of loyalty, complicity, the definition of groups, dynamics within groups, problems of collective action, etc. These issues deserve attention along with the more typical questions of political theory: “What is justice?” and “Why do things happen as they do?” The citizen’s question is also central to our new Civic Studies major at Tufts.

However, insisting on this question may imply that everyone bears primary responsibility for addressing every issue. What if you are the victim of a social injustice that someone else has created or has the best opportunity to remedy? Then it is most important for them to decide what they are obliged to do to improve your situation. Not every problem is your problem.

Nevertheless, “What should we do?” remains an important question for virtually all of us. Even if the main moral responsibility lies with someone else, the only thing we can control is what we do.

We may decide that we should demand justice from another person or group, but making a demand is also a form of action that we choose to take. In fact, making demands on “target authorities” is the characteristic activity of social movements; and social movements are composed of people who ask “What should we do?” It’s just that their goal is to to compel other people to take more responsibility.

Finally, acting is not merely a price we must pay in order to improve the world. It can also be a benefit that we reap, since exercising agency can be an aspect of a good life. Although we should encourage–and sometimes even compel–other people to ask what they should do, it is also worth asking that question on our own behalf, regardless of our circumstances.

See also: a sketch of a theory of social movementswhat should we do?

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agenda for Frontiers of Democracy 2018 is taking shape

There is still room to register and pay to hold a spot for Frontiers of Democracy 2018 (June 21-23 in Boston). Although many slots on the agenda are filled, there is still room for a few more proposals for sessions or presentations. The following is an incomplete list of the confirmed speakers and sessions, with several more in the pipeline for approval.


“Innovating Democracy Reform”
Josh Silver, Founder & Executive Director,

“Activism under Fire: Violence, Poverty and Collective Action in Rio de Janeiro”
Anjuli Fahlberg, Northeastern University

“Fear and Present Danger”
Kelly Greenhill, Tufts University

“The Disenfranchised”
Sekwan R. Merritt, a formerly incarcerated person who advocates for an end to mass incarceration in America

“Overcoming Civic Fragmentation Through Public Work”
Harry Boyte, Augsburg College

“These Words: A Century of Printing, Writing, and Reading in Boston’s Chinese Community”
Susan Chinsen, Managing Director, The Chinese Historical Society of New England

Presentations and Sessions

(The category headings are for information only. Some titles refer to standalone sessions, while others will be combined to create panels. The panels may not be organized along these topical lines.)

Institutions in Communities

“How Can Museums Strengthen a Civil Society?”
Abby Pfisterer, Education Specialist; Magdalena Mieri, National Museum of American History; Rebekah Hardingrharding, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library; Michelle Martz, Lincoln Cottage; Teresita Paniagua, La Casita; Noelle Trent, National Civil Rights Museum; Dory Lerner, National Civil Rights Museum; Abby Kiesa, Director of Impact, CIRCLE, Tisch College

“The Role of Religious Communities in Strengthening Democracy”
Elizabeth Gish, Western Kentucky University, and John Dedrick, Kettering Foundation

“Civic Tinkering as Democratic Practice”
Scott Tate, Virginia Tech

Youth Voice

“The 2016 Boston Student Walkout Movement: Stories, Strategies, and Impacts”
Andrew King, Mark Warren, Mariette Ayala, Sheetal Gowda, Kate Kelly, Jeff Moyer, and Luis Navarro

“Unchaining the Power of Student Voices”
Frank LoMonte, The Brechner Center, and Zack Mezera, Providence Student Union

“Building Agency and Voice in Student Activists”
Pamela Conners and Leila Brammer, Gustavus Adolphus College

Media and Tech

“Data Justice: A Hands-On Workshop”
Libby Falck, MIT

“Civic Entertainment”
Anushka Shah, MIT Media Lab

“Votes that Count and Voters Who Don’t: How Journalists Sideline Electoral Participation”
Sharon Jarvis, University of Texas at Austin and Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life

“If Only Journalists Care about the Future of Journalism, Democracy is in Trouble”
Fiona Morgan, Free Press

“What are the Responsibilities of Civic Technology?”
Erhardt Graeff, MIT Media Lab

“Bridging the US Political Divide Online: What we Learned from Using Big Data”
Kate Mytty, Build Up

Education (K12 and College)

“Civic Learning and Young Citizens: Democratic Engagements in Higher Education “
Ivy Dhar, School of Development Studies, Ambedkar University Delhi (AUD), and Nidhi S. Sabharwal, Centre for Policy Research in Higher Education (CPRHE), National Institute of Educational Planning and Administration (NIEPA), India

“Deliberative Dialogue in Classrooms and Other Settings”
Sharyn Lowenstein and Denny Frey, Lasell College

Connecting the Public and Government

“The Missing Link: Connecting Our Work to The People Who Need It”
Larry Schooler, National Civic League

“State of the Congress: Staff Perspectives on Congressional Capacity”
Kathy Goldschmidt, Congressional Management Foundation

Getting Past Division

“How can we productively talk about divisiveness in a time of polarized public discourse?”         
Elizabeth Gish, Western Kentucky University, and John Dedrick, Kettering Foundation

“Civility In Our Democracy – Collaborating and Rebuilding Bridges of Trust, and Respect”
Cheryl Graeve and Ted Celeste, National Institute for Civil Discourse

State-Wide Strategies

“Democracy in your backyard: Building local and state capacity for participatory public engagement”
Quixada Moore-Vissing, Michele Holt-Shannon, and Bruce Mallory, New Hampshire Listens

“Civic Health in a Changing Landscape: Arizona as a Case Study”
Kristi Tate, Center for the Future of Arizona

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social movements of the sixties, seventies, and today

Fifty years after Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination–as new social movements are again taking to the streets–a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll asked respondents to compare the protests of the late sixties to today. I show responses for all adults and for 18-29s, because I was curious what young adults are learning and thinking about the sixties.

These results are ambiguous, because individuals can have varying opinions of the sixties and of today, but they are only asked to compare the two. A person could think that the protests of the 1968 were terribly violent and extreme, and today’s are worrying but not quite as bad. Or a person might think that the ’60s were violent and it’s great to see some of that righteous rage coming back. Or that neither were violent. By the same token, a person could feel that protesters in the ’60s were well organized, and today’s are even more so, or that both were badly organized. . … And we can multiply the possibilities.

Let’s assume (as a rough approximation) that you are enthusiastic about today’s protests if you think they are organized and effective but not extreme or violent, and that they are at least as good–by those criteria–as the protests of the late 1960s were. So measured, enthusiasm seems reasonably high for all Americans, but higher for youth.

I wouldn’t use these survey results to actually assess the social movements of the sixties vs. our time. I doubt that most people have thought deeply about the wide range of movements in these two rapidly changing periods. For instance, there is an interesting debate about whether the same forms of organization are necessary today as in 1968, but I wouldn’t call random phone numbers to ask the people who answer what comes immediately to mind on this question.

I do find these results interesting as a possible bellwether of support for social movement politics. On the whole, young people seem to perceive the current array of protest movements as reasonably organized, effective, nonviolent, and mainstream. That should encourage them to join.

See also: Why Civil Resistance Works; a sketch of a theory of social movementsthe New Social Movements of the seventies, eighties, and today.

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system, organism, person, organization, institution: some definitions

If you want real expertise on this kind of question, you should attend “Social Ontology 2018, the 11th Biennial Collective Intentionality Conference” from August 22-25, 2018 at Tufts. But in case you want some light musing on the subject …

A system is an assemblage of interacting parts that persists over time. It can change, but a parsimonious description applies over its whole history. (“My Mac could run SPSS once I installed the new software, but it’s still the same system.”)

An organism is a system that no one designed. Instead, it results from the reproduction of similar organisms.

A biological organism is an organism that exhibits the properties of life. This definition implies that there may or could be non-biological organisms.

A sentient organism is one to which we can accurately attribute mental states, such as pain, pleasure, aversion, desire.

A person is a system whose mental states include memory, planning, and decision. Thus the person’s development over time is partly her responsibility, not solely the result of accident and force. Not all persons are organisms. Entities that meet the definition of persons include human beings but also God, angels, devils, space aliens, perhaps other advanced mammals, perhaps some future AI, and organizations–see below.

A human person is a person that is also an organism of the species homo sapiens. A human person is capable of certain specific mental states that are not necessary conditions of personhood in general, e.g., love and suffering.

An institution is a system composed of at least two persons, plus any number of other components (e.g., buildings, legal rights). A market, for example, is an institution that combines many buyers and sellers, their goods, their rights, rules, and so on. Note that a market is not a person because it doesn’t have mental states.

An organization is an institution to which we can attribute memory, planning, and decision. Such attributions are not metaphorical but use exactly the same logic that we apply to human persons. (“I can tell that Tufts intends to educate students from the fact that it expresses this intention on its website and then actually educates.” Tufts doesn’t love, but Tufts does intend and plan. As such, it is a person.)

By these definitions, a social organization is a person; it is simply not a human person. It lacks the rights of a human being. Human beings gain rights not from the mere fact that we are complex systems capable of remembering, planning, and deciding–so are organizations–but from something else. I would attribute our rights to the fact that in addition to being able to remember, plan, and decide, we can also love and suffer.

(I was led to these thoughts by the discussion of Elinor and Vincent Ostrom and their eclectic readings of Daniel Dennett, John Dewey, Douglas North, and others, as summarized in Vlad Tarko, Elinor Ostrom: An Intellectual Biography, pp. 137-43. See also: against methodological individualismwhy social scientists should pay attention to metaphysics; and the legacy of Elinor Ostrom and the Bloomington School.)

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youth in recent protests

A new Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll provides detailed information about participation in current protests and social movements. The Post leads with: “Tens of millions of Americans have joined protests and rallies in the past two years, their activism often driven by admiration or outrage toward President Trump.” Here, I’ve broken out the data for ages 18-29 and separated the questions into categories.

To begin, 17% of 18-29s would call themselves “activists,” just a point below the whole adult population. They are less sure than older people that they will vote in 2018 (only 37% are “absolutely sure”), but more likely to disapprove strongly of Donald Trump. Just under 20 percent actually voted in 2014, the last midterm election. It will make a great deal of difference whether that number rises in 2018.

During the past two years, an outright majority of 18-29s have signed a petition, and many have taken other classic political acts. They are less likely than older Americans to give money, but they come close on most other measures of engagement.

I’ve divided the long list of topics for rallies and protests into right- and left-wing causes. Respondents are asked whether they have personally attended a rally or protest of each type in the past two years.

Under-30s do not appear in detectable numbers in the rallies for Confederate monuments, for oil and gas, or against the Affordable Care Act. About one percent of 18-29s have rallied against abortion, against immigration, or in support of police conduct. Three percent have turned out at physical events for Trump. For right-wing causes, the rates of participation are low for all adults. Most of these are fringe movements.

Young adults have been more active on the other side of the political spectrum. Nine percent have marched or rallied against Trump, the most popular cause. (They have been over-represented in the anti-Trump events.) Marches for LGBT rights and immigration have also been popular for youth, and disproportionately so.

Only one percent have turned out (so far) in support of gun control. However, that could be misleading because students under the age of 19 have played notable leadership roles in the gun-violence movement. I commented on MSNBC about the youth protests against gun violence.

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Sinclair and Bezos: media ownership and media bias

These two stories ran on the same page of the print New York Times on April 2: “Sinclair Videos Renew Debate Over Media Ownership” and “To Trump, It’s the ‘Amazon Washington Post.’ To Its Editor, That’s Baloney.”

Both articles are about possible bias in powerful, for-profit media companies. Donald Trump has opinions on each case. He thinks that Sinclair (which owns 193 local TV stations) is a “far superior” media company that is being smeared by liberals. But he suggests that the “Fake News Washington Post [is] being used as a lobbyist weapon against Congress to keep Politicians from looking into Amazon no-tax monopoly.”

I start with the opposite assumptions: Sinclair is a creepy would-be monopolist, while the Washington Post holds power accountable. I’m no fan of Amazon, but I assume that Jeff Bezos’ investments in the Post strengthen democracy by enabling the newspaper to do more investigative reporting. I see two threats to the First Amendment: Sinclair’s goal of owning more than 200 local TV stations, and a president–who sits atop a regulatory state–threatening the owner of a newspaper.

But imagine that you admired Trump rather than despising him (as I do). You might then reverse the polarity. The biggest threat might seem to be the billionaire with the national newspaper. You might be a little cynical when the Post‘s executive editor, Martin Baron, says, “There isn’t anybody here who is paid by Amazon … Not one penny.” Technically true, but Bezos, who makes his money from Amazon, bought the Post for $250 million, and, “Buoyed by [these] new resources, it has added more than 200 newsroom employees.”

I want to control corporate influence on politics, but when people point out that newspapers also influence politics, and they are corporations (or owned by corporations), I cry “First Amendment!” When Rupert Murdoch builds Fox News, I see a billionaire colonizing the public sphere, but when Bezos expands the Post, I am grateful to him.

It’s important to be principled, not arbitrary or reflexively partisan, in making such judgments.

The economics are complex. You can make money selling news that you don’t agree with, or lose money by selling views you like. (Generations of owners of The New Republic will testify to that.) There is evidence of media effects: news companies change public opinion. But consumers also choose which news to buy and thereby affect the production of news.

The sociology is complex. Sinclair Broadcast Group is a publicly traded company that maximizes returns for its shareholders. It is also an organization with a CEO and other leaders who have leverage over the shareholders. And it employs reporters, who can be understood as members of a profession that is committed to the public good. It would be naive to ignore the corporate structure, but cynical to ignore the professionals. An anonymous anchor interviewed by Maxwell Strachan said,

most of the people who are commenting on this have never even watched our local newscast. … They see that we’re a Sinclair station. They assume what they want to assume about it. But we produce good news here. Sinclair does not tell us what to cover, who to talk to, or what to say in terms of local coverage. Our local news, it doesn’t have bias. If people are looking for it, they won’t find it. So don’t call me a zombie. I do damn good work on a daily basis and anybody in my community would tell you that.

Whether he is right or not, his point that many critics have never watched a Sinclair Station’s local newscast applies to me.

Finally, the politics is complex. I have no doubt that Donald Trump is a terrible leader, but I choose to consume news that mostly reinforces that view, and I rarely delve deeply into the other side. We should make judgments and take a stand. Forming a judgment is not a form of bias. But we must recognize our fallibility.

Ultimately, you can’t render appropriate judgments without taking a closer look at both the products of these companies (Are their stories any good?) and the detailed ways in which they work. I presume that the Post has a strong firewall between its business operations and its newsroom, but that is an empirical assumption that can be tested. I find this kind of language in Sinclair’s employee handbook disturbing: Sinclair “may monitor, intercept, and review, without further notice, every employee’s activities using Company’s electronic resources and communications systems.” But I don’t know whether anything similar applies at the Post.

All of this plays out in a marketplace. We’d like journalists to have market power over their employers. But for newspaper reporters, the market is terrible:

According to a new Knight Foundation report, “In the decade since the last recession hit, newspapers have shed 26,300 newsroom employees — 46.1 percent of total employment. … In contrast, local TV news employment is up 4.9 percent in that same time frame, and most TV newsrooms are at their highest level of staffing ever.” Many stations are hiring former newspaper reporters and editors.

Despite the rising number of employees in broadcast journalism and the generally tight labor market, Sinclair has leverage over its employees, perhaps because there are just a few TV stations in any community. The anonymous Sinclair anchor says,

These jobs? they’re very hard to come by. And if I quit, I owe the company 40 percent of my salary, plus a percentage of the [redacted] years remaining on my contract, plus any bonuses that they’ve paid to me and any reimbursements that they’ve paid to me. And they’re going to take me to court for it. And in the time that I’m in court, I’m not employable.

See also: media literacy and the social discovery of realitydon’t confuse bias and judgment.

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