Monthly Archives: October 2004

three paths to civic renewal

Right now, my email inbox contains announcements of three important civic initiatives:

  • AmericaSpeaks has put together a document that explains how one could organize a deliberation involving one million Americans. Using large face-to-face meetings, small informal gatherings, and online forums, citizens would simultaneously discuss a single topic, reach conclusions that would be transmitted to policymakers, and then turn into an active constituency to support their recommendations. In 2002, Senators Hatch and Wyden introduced a bill that would authorize a national discussion of health care reform. That idea prompted AmericaSpeaks to convene a group of experts to work out a fairly detailed blueprint for coordinated deliberations on any topic of national importance. (The AmericaSpeaks document is not yet online, but I will forward a copy of the .pdf on request.)
  • Nancy Kranich, a former president of the American Library Association and a friend of mine, has written a comprehensive report about the “Information Commons.” It is now on the Brennan Center website in an attractive format. Nancy notes that the Internet could allow a vast expansion of the fundamental ideal traditionally championed by public libraries: free, shared information. But digital media also create the risk that intellectual property will be over-protected and restricted. She documents ways that libraries are protecting open access and building “information commons” for the digital era. These commons are not only storehouses of knowledge; they also support communities and social networks and thus enhance civil society. She concludes with policy recommendations to enhance the commons.
  • My colleagues at J-Lab, the Institute for Interactive Journalism at the University of Maryland, have announced $1 million in grants for “community news ventures.” Nonprofits and educational institutions may apply for funding to “help create new types of self-sustaining community media projects.” The source of J-Lab’s funds is the Knight Foundation, also a major benefactor of the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, in which I’m heavily involved.
  • Community news services housed in local nonprofits, “information commons” based in libraries, large-scale deliberations on important issues … this could be the beginning of a true civic revival.

    a powerful argument for civics

    Excellent education in history and civics is necessary to achieve the reading goals of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). That was a theme in today’s discussions of the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, which I chaired. The argument goes like this:

    1. You can prepare kids to achieve “basic” levels on the fourth grade reading assessment by teaching them skills such as phonics and decoding. But you cannot get them past “basic” at fourth grade, or to any level of competence at the eighth and twelfth grade, without giving them lots of good texts to read and comprehend. They need experience in comprehension. And they need a store of knowledge derived from reading–in other words, some form of “cultural literacy.”

    2. Therefore, achieving the reading goals of NCLB requires high-quality instruction in such fields as literature, natural science, history, social science, and current events. Indeed, it requires high-quality instruction in all of those areas, because a narrow curriculum will generate readers with narrow competence.

    People who like NCLB should agree with this argument, but so should people who think that NCLB is too much of an unfunded mandate or that it puts too much emphasis on high-stakes tests. These critics also want students to read.

    Philosophically, one might argue that teaching civics in order to enhance reading skills is putting the cart before the horse. Public schools were founded with a civic mission, and teaching history and social studies requires no justification other than a civic one. I suppose I agree with this, but I’m a practical person who just happens to hold a philosophy Ph.D. I see an enormous practical opportunity here for people who are concerned about the future of our democracy.

    Policymakers want kids to read. They measure reading with the NAEP reading assessment (which I believe to be a good instrument). Students will score at “proficient” levels on the NAEP only if they learn to comprehend historical and social texts. So we’d better invest time and effort in teaching history and social studies. As a crucial side-effect, we will produce more capable political and civic agents for the future.

    the Internet and youth civic engagement

    The Summit Collaborative’s Marc Osten and Katrin Verclas have written an important new paper entitled “The Power of the Internet to Engage a Generation.”

    The paper provides a bold vision for how to use digital networks to encourage civic participation–although the authors note that “technology alone will most often not motivate young people to become deeply engaged. Any initiative that relies upon technology as a tool for engagement requires complementary offline components as well.”

    Many young people have grown up online and “staked out the Internet as an alternative space for socializing, communicating, and information sharing–away from the eyes of parents and other adults.” The voluntary network of the Net fits many young people’s “anti-institutional” ideals. In some ways, their values are new (radically libertarian), but in other ways, their “ideas are a return to earlier concepts of grassroots politics. … David Weinberger suggests, ‘That is why the web, for all its technological newsness and oddness, feels so familiar to us. And that is why it feels like a return even though it is the newest of the new. The web is a return to the values that have been with us from the beginning.”

    However, the potential of the Web for reinvigorating citizens’ networks is partly unfulfilled. Various advocacy groups use data mining and tailored messages to mobilize people, but these techniques (even when entirely well-intentioned) can be manipulative and can segment people into narrow, unreflective groups. There are tools for “augmented social networks” that give users more flexibility and discretion to find others with similar–or different–views and to develop reputations for tustworthiness. However, these tools tend to be proprietary, which means that they don’t work together and they cannot be adapted for new social uses.

    Thus Osten and Verclas call for a new suite of open-source tools for strengthening diverse networks among young people. These tools would help youth to create discussion spaces and self-publish; to identify other people by interest; to contribute to large stores of data (such as maps); and to meet one another offline. Osten and Verclas also discuss the need to identify and support youth who are serving as leaders or “network nodes.”

    A longer paper could go into much more concrete detail, but this is a great outline for further discussion.

    bias at the Times

    Last Friday, Daniel Okrent, the “public editor” of The New York Times, asked a conservative and a lefty to address charges of bias at his newspaper (link). From the left, Todd Gitlin argued that The Times is biased against Kerry because it insists on treating Republicans and Democrats as if they were equally dishonest and corrupt. Gitlin thinks that the Bush Administration is far worse, and the apparent even-handedness of the coverage actually gives the incumbents a free pass and encourages bad behavior: “The Times‘s decorous approach to the news has often helped President Bush in three significant ways: by equating his gross deceptions with Mr. Kerry’s minor lapses; by omitting or burying news of administration activities and their consequences; and by missing the deep pattern of Mr. Bush’s prejudices and malfeasances.”

    From the right, Bob Kohn argued that The Times is biased against Bush because its news coverage assumes the liberal answer to social issues. Kohn lists “same-sex marriage, abortion, stem-cell research, gun control, environmental regulation, capital punishment and faith-based initiatives” as topics on which news stories in The Times always assume the liberal perspective. For example, Okrent had earlier described the tone of news articles on same-sex marriage as “cheerleading.” But Republicans are strongly against same-sex marriage. Thus “the president’s views fly in the face of what are being presented as objective facts. No technique of bias is more powerful–more useful as a means of influence–than presenting a candidate’s unadulterated views through a prism of advocacy passed off as hard news.”

    A blog is for sharing what its author thinks, so here are some of my responses:

  • As I argued in an earlier post, the Bush campaign has behaved worse than the Kerry campaign, but Kerry and Edwards could have avoided headlines of the “both-sides-twist-the-truth” variety if they had been scrupulously accurate.
  • However, the bigger problem is not spurious even-handedness. It’s a relentless focus on the behavior of candidates on the campaign trail. We have plenty of ways, nowadays, to find out what candidates are saying, how they look in the field, what strategies they’re using, who is funding them, and who’s currently ahead. These issues are of limited importance to citizens. It would be much more useful for a well-staffed and well-funded institution like The Times to give us information about issues and policies. What does the federal budget consist of? If one wanted to cut it, what could be cut? What is the empirical evidence about the effectiveness of gun control? What would likely happen if the minimum wage went up? In what ways does the federal government currently regulate industry to preserve the environment? Which of these ways are thought to work? What ideas have been proposed for addressing the loss of manufacturing jobs? If reporters concentrated on these questions, they would not have to be referees in the campaign scrum.
  • Bob Kohn is correct that The Times’ news coverage often presumes a positive attitude toward gay marriage, gun control, and environmental protection, and a negative attitude toward Christian fundamentalism. This “bias” (if you want to call it that) probably reflects the attitudes of the social class that reads The Times (see yesterday on social class and tolerance for homosexuality). Likewise, The Times’ news coverage assumes that GNP growth is intrinsically good; that the business of America is business; and that people should consume lots of expensive items, including foreign travel and electrical gadgets. Compared to the huge amount of space that The Times devotes to Wall Street, it hardly covers labor unions. Thus its “bias” is consistent with upper-income, urban, East-coast liberalism, and inconsistent both with religious conservatism and with radical leftism.
  • But I don’t think it’s helpful to shout “bias.” One could strive for even-handedness on every issue, but to what purpose? Who said that The New York Times should to represent the median voter’s opinion on every topic? I think a complaint about bad coverage should always be accompanied by a moral argument about the issue being covered. For example, assuming that The Times really is a “cheerleader” for same-sex marriage, the issue is not whether this represents “bias.” The issue is whether same-sex marriage is good or bad. Since I think it’s good, I have no problem with The Times’ coverage. If someone wants me to object to the coverage, he will have to argue that same-sex marriage is wrong.
  • social class and tolerance for gays


    was wondering whether people who are more educated and wealthier are more tolerant

    of homosexuality. According to the General Social Survey, the answer is yes.

    I guess this result is intuitive, but I always like to check.

    Education and income each correlate with tolerance. I don’t have the time right

    now to figure out whether the real driver is education (which may increase both

    income and tolerance). There could be a third factor underlying the relationship,

    such as urbanicity, age, religious denomination, or region. But just to dramatize

    the basic situation, here is a graph that contrasts upper-middle-class people

    who have college degrees (in blue) and lower-income people with no more than

    high school (in red). The difference in attitudes toward gays is pretty stark.