For Rosen, it’s a power play the media needs to make to serve its audiences. “The thing about the Citizen’s Agenda that I think some people don’t get,” he said, “is that it’s not a high-minded device to get more ‘eat your vegetables’ news into the mix. It’s a power move.” He says that by stepping off the bus or plane, and by forcing candidates to engage with the issues most important to citizens, you wrest back power from the campaign apparatuses that seek to drive the narrative. It has been done before, most notably by The Charlotte Observer under editor Richard Oppel in the early 1990s. Rosen quotes Oppel in his book, What Are Journalists For?:
Voters were intensely interested in the environment…. So our reporters went out to senatorial candidates and said, “here are the voters’ questions.” Terry Sanford, the incumbent senator, called me up from Washington and said, “Rich, I have these questions from your reporter and I’m not going to answer them because we are not going to talk about the environment until after the general election.” This was the primary. I said, “Well, the voters want to know about the environment now, Terry.” He said, “Well, that’s not the way I have my campaign structured.” I said, “Fine, I will run the questions and leave a space under it for you to answer. If you choose not to, we will just say ‘would not respond’ or we will leave it blank.” We ended the conversation. In about ten days he sent the answers down.
That’s a tasty anecdote. One for the team! And yet the Citizen’s Agenda proposal would require a massive readjustment of resources and a change in direction at a time when the few media organizations that are thriving are very much in the horse-race mode. Sadly, it’s an ideal more than a forthcoming reality.
“Will journalists agree to do it?” Rosen asks. “That’s a different story.” He suggests that the horse-race is ingrained for a number of reasons—among them the journalist’s fear of leaving the pack, of doing something different. “But the biggest advantage of horse-race journalism is that it permits reporters and pundits to ‘play up their detachment,’” Rosen has written. “Focusing on the race advertises the political innocence of the press because ‘who’s gonna win?’ is not an ideological question. By asking it you reaffirm that yours is not an ideological profession.” In our chat he added, “Deep down, the refusal to give up the horse race is a refusal to give up THAT. And you can see how difficult a leap it is. But those who make the leap would, I think, find they had more power, not less.”
One thing I think might be missing, or lacking emphasis, in Rosen’s analysis of the horse-race, and in his proposed alternative, is the audience. Does it actually want to know about the issues, or is it happy with its trackside view? It seems audiences are drawn to the polls, the ups-and-downs, the sound bites, the strategies, the savvy, fluffy, airy, meaningless analysis, just as gamblers are drawn to the horse track. I am as guilty as anyone. Few pieces have been as purely focused on the political and strategic as today’s New York Times cover story on Sharron Angle, but I had a good time reading it this morning. With Morning Joe playing in the background. And, as a voting Australian, I confess to checking in every few days to see who is “leading” the election down there.
Which is not to say we shouldn’t move away from this kind of thing. We should. At least, we should move toward a greater emphasis on issues coverage. And the Citizen’s Agenda is a nice practical model for that. It might not be built just to put more vegetables in our diet, but we could still use the vegetables. Making the move, though, would require some very brave souls. On both sides of the equator.