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Exploring the complexity of community issues as a community

By Howard B. Owens

Walter Lippmann (1889 to 1974) did damage to American journalism, and possibly to American democracy.

Why does that matter to Batavia? Because one of the philosophies behind The Batavian is to get as far away as possible from Lippmann's brand of journalism.

Lippmann was an influential thinker and writer in the early part of the 20th Century.  He wrote a number of books on the press, politics, society and government.

Lippman was an elitist. He believed that the modern world was too complex for the average citizen to grasp, and that Joe Public probably didn't care anyway. Modern democracy worked best, he argued, if the governing class was comprised of experts and professionals who set the policy and then manufactured public consent. The role of the press in this model was to merely transmit the decisions and actions of the elites  in simple terms, with little questioning or interpretation, aiming to maximize emotional impact.

Eric Alterman put it this way in a recent piece in Atlantic magazine:

Journalism works well, Lippmann wrote, when “it can report the score of a game or a transatlantic flight, or the death of a monarch.” But where the situation is more complicated, “as for example, in the matter of the success of a policy, or the social conditions among a foreign people—that is to say, where the real answer is neither yes or no, but subtle, and a matter of balanced evidence,” journalism “causes no end of derangement, misunderstanding, and even misrepresentation.”

Lippmann likened the average American—or “outsider,” as he tellingly named him—to a “deaf spectator in the back row” at a sporting event: “He does not know what is happening, why it is happening, what ought to happen,” and “he lives in a world which he cannot see, does not understand and is unable to direct.” In a description that may strike a familiar chord with anyone who watches cable news or listens to talk radio today, Lippmann assumed a public that “is slow to be aroused and quickly diverted . . . and is interested only when events have been melodramatized as a conflict.” A committed élitist, Lippmann did not see why anyone should find these conclusions shocking. Average citizens are hardly expected to master particle physics or post-structuralism. Why should we expect them to understand the politics of Congress, much less that of the Middle East?

While the whole of modern American journalism is not all Lippmann, it is too often beset by Lippmann's approach -- the tendency to take what governing officials tell us at face value; the tendency to sensational complex and weighty issues; the tendency to avoid reporting issues in their complexity and nuance.

How is that approach good for democracy?

One of Lippmann's contemporaries was John Dewey (1859 to 1952).  In The Public and its Problems, Dewey argued against Lippmann's approach to journalism and democracy.  Dewey believed that on the whole, the public could grasp complex issues, discuss them, grapple with them and achieve balanced solutions.

Dewey correctly recognized that facts only have meaning within perception, and perception is always subjective. 

While this was a problem for Lippmann, and why reporters should strive to be scientifically objective, Dewey embraced the notion that a conversation around differing perceptions could actually enhance decision-making.

Wikipedia puts it this way:

Dewey also revisioned journalism to fit this model by taking the focus from actions or happenings and changing the structure to focus on choices, consequences, and conditions, in order to foster conversation and improve the generation of knowledge in the community. Journalism would not just produce a static product that told of what had already happened, but the news would be in a constant state of evolution as the community added value by generating knowledge. The audience would disappear, to be replaced by citizens and collaborators who would essentially be users, doing more with the news than simply reading it.

The Web actually makes Dewey's conversational form of journalism much easier. Digital communication allows all members of the public -- the press, the politicians, the government agents and the citizens -- to discuss choices, consequences and conditions as equals.  Reporters need no longer be bound by the limitations of print and present just the so-called objective report, but rather explore, examine, raise and answer questions, and start conversations.

We saw an example of this style of journalism played out last week in The Batavian.  Editor Philip Anselmo interviewed Councilman Bob Bialkowski.  Mr. Bialkowski said that one of the problems facing Batavia is declining neighborhoods.

He says that "entire neighborhoods are a problem — trash all over, abandoned cars in the back yard." Head over to the southside of the city, to Jackson Street, over near Watson and Thorpe streets, State Street, and you'll see what he's talking about.

So, Philip took his advice, drove around those neighborhoods and didn't find a lot of evidence of decline.  Philip, who is well traveled and has covered such small cities as Canandaigua, where there are some pretty sub par neighborhoods, did a follow up post saying he couldn't find the decline.

This prompted a rejoinder post from Council President Charlie Mallow, who wrote:

There have been a few postings about the state of our neighborhoods and people’s opinions of the rate of decline. From someone new to the area or familiar with big city living, some missing paint and a little litter are not anything to be concerned about. People in big cities have had to live with falling property values, absentee landlords and drug activity for years. The obvious question is, why wouldn’t the people of Batavia point to the precursors of decline and pull together to keep the quality of life we have always enjoyed?

Notice a trend here? Same set of facts, different perceptions.  And if you follow the conversation in the comments as well as the related blog posts, a clearer picture emerges of the goals and aspiration of the City Council to clean up the city before things get too far gone.

Traditional, print journalism could never achieve this depth of coverage of a single issue.

By offering a method and manner to discuss choices, consequences and conditions in Batavia, The Batavian hopes to help make Batavia a stronger community.

As the site grows, as more people sign on and get involved, the more meaningful the conversations will become, the more benefitial to all of Batavia.

We hope you will participate often yourself, tell your friends and neighbors about The Batavian and help us reach our goal of enabling a better-informed, more involved community.

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