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Democratic Journalism and the Republican Subject: Or, the Real American Dream and What Journalism Educators Can Do About It
By Robert Manoff

At a moment when the American Republic is under attack from enemies without and defenders within, it is prudent and fitting to reaffirm our faith in its creed and to reflect anew on our responsibility, as citizen-journalists, for upholding its values and realizing its promise.

Thinking about journalism education in any other terms quite simply makes no sense to me. For journalism has no meaning apart from the democracy that is its telos — its grounds for being, the end whose achievement demands the pursuit of journalism as an ambitious undertaking in the public sphere.

Both American journalism and American democracy are singular accomplishments. Conservatives tout this idea promiscuously and in doing so debase it. Liberals and progressives, among whom I number myself, are embarrassed or enraged by it, and so do not tout it readily enough.

As I write these very words, journalism is failing us during these pre-war days of stillborn national debate. All too many of the media's legions are now to be found in postures of deference, and occasional abasement, before constituted authority. Nevertheless, it is worth recognizing that although the countdown to Gulf War II has been accompanied by a massive institutional failure on the part of the press, there are journalists who have continued to ply their trade with honor, who have not given up, have not been silenced, have not fallen into line or in other ways packed it in and (with Dan Rather) signed up for the duration.

These souls represent American journalism at its best, and American journalism is at its best precisely in the measure that American democracy is at its best. Each constitutes both the grounds and the achievement of the other: Democracy informs the press, just as surely as the press informs democracy. This mutuality of political practice and textual production exists because both enable and embody a singular historical accomplishment: The creation of what we might call "American personhood" — a modal American character that represented a new type of "collective self" when it emerged early in our history.

The American Dream has most often been understood (even by those dreaming and living it) as having to do with conventional material and social success. But the Real American Dream is somewhat finer and more noble: We Americans are the first people, both as individuals and as a group, to have come to regard ourselves not as the objects but as the subjects of history — to believe that we have transformed ourselves from history's playthings into its authors.

Journalism is failing us during these pre-war days of stillborn national debate. All too many of the media's legions are now to be found in postures of deference, and occasional abasement, before constituted authority.

This is true, of course, first and foremost of the American as homo politicus: We are each of us free citizens with the franchise, and in this measure we are the first to have articulated, if not to have achieved, an inclusionary model of political life in which personhood is coextensive with citizenship, and citizenship confers the right to equal participation in determining the destiny of the polity. Economically, too, at least in theory, the American as homo economicus is a free agent, able to sell labor, purchase goods, and select a "lifestyle" to an extent inconceivable in human history and largely unmatched even today elsewhere on the globe. Culturally, socially, religiously, and in virtually every other realm of human activity, the Real American Dream (unrealized though it may be for all too many of us) is the dream of self-realizing agency, the dream of empowered subjectivity, played out in both the private and the public spheres.

It is to this "American subjectivity" that the news media speak: They address us in all of the dimensions of our subjecthood, appealing to us with political news (facilitating our agency as citizens), business news (as producers), social news (as neighbors), lifestyle news (as consumers), and so on. Indeed, it is in part through the news media that the potential of American personhood comes to be actualized. More specifically, it is in part through the press that the dream of individual political agency can be fulfilled in the public sphere: The news media help make it possible for republican subjecthood (the political expression of American personhood) to be realized through meaningful acts of citizenship. In this sense, journalism belongs to the soul of the polity.

Because the journalist is the handmaiden of the citizen, citizenship must be on the table as we consider the future of journalism and journalism education. To do so we must therefore begin by asking ourselves what kind of citizens we want to become, and what kind of citizens we hope our fellow Americans will become. This question is not optional and is not for extra credit. It is the place where President Bollinger and his Task Force must start. While they are at it, they could do worse than to draw on the work of the many commissions on public life, the public sphere, and social and political engagement that have been empanelled in recent years.

As they do so they should also call upon Michael Schudson, who, in his important book The Good Citizen, recently argued that the concept of citizenship has been transformed multiple times in American history — and along with it the conception of the knowledge necessary for the citizen to perform his republican duty. In the colonial "age of gentlemen," he notes, the citizen needed a working knowledge of social position in order to act in a society characterized by relations of deference; in the succeeding era of emerging majoritarian rule, the effective exercise of citizenship was tied to familiarity with party rhetoric and policy, often obtained through personal contact.

The subsequent professionalization of politics and the bureaucratization of governance in the twentieth century left citizens to their own devices, Schudson argues, and resources such as newspapers thereby became central to the "informational" model of citizenship (a model, incidentally, that we mistakenly impute to the Founding Fathers themselves). Today, he concludes (and not happily), a rights-based model of citizenship makes it incumbent upon citizens to be informed of entitlements and aware of themselves as victims the consequences of whose suffering can be addressed through legal means.


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