Barack Obama was ushered into office as a president who “got it,” who understood that many of our systems were in need of fundamental change. But already there are signs that he may not have the stomach for the conflict such change requires: his failure to address the skewed incentives at various levels of our financial system that helped to produce the current crisis; the timid cost-containment strategies in his health-care agenda; the lack of a bold vision on infrastructure, etc. Time will tell.

Meanwhile, American journalism, too, is in a protracted moment of painful change. Both its business model and its sense of mission are in full retreat. Much experimentation is under way, with different financial-support structures, narrower editorial missions, collaborative projects, etc. There is an urgency, a humility, at news outlets about the need to rethink things that is long overdue.

So the press needs a new mission, and the nation needs someone to help initiate and lead the discussion of what kind of place America will be in the twenty-first century. It is not at all clear that our best news outlets have the will to become true arbiters of our public discourse, but given the increasing inadequacy of the journalistic status quo, and the nature of the challenges facing the country, such a mission shift could offer a crucial way forward for both the press and the public.

A Different Dissent

For the press to lead that discussion will require that it make a form of dissent more central to its mission. Not the tedious dissent of partisan rhetoric, but rather dissent in the sense of refusing to accept that the range of possible solutions to the nation’s problems must necessarily come from the centers of power and influence—the White House, Congress, the think tanks, corporate America. As we have seen time and again—on issues like campaign finance, health care, agricultural policy, and social welfare—these institutions are too wedded to the status quo to lead a discussion that is broad and fearless enough to challenge the systems and assumptions that shape America’s politics, its economics, and its civic and social life.

Such a mission would mean radically realigning a newsroom’s resources and priorities toward the goal of broadening the discourse on important issues—even if it required narrowing the scope of what it covers. The press would have to pay less attention, for instance, to breaking, event-driven news and more to sustained coverage of ideas and—crucially—solutions. It would have to stop reflexively marginalizing ideas and voices that come from the fringes simply because no one “official” is embracing them. It would have to rekindle the notion that journalism is not just a check on power, but, when necessary, its adversary. It would have to crusade for some things, and denounce others. News outlets would have to explain themselves and their decisions, and be clear about what they stand for and what they stand against.

In short, they would need to convince the public, by words and deeds, that they are on its side.

Not every news outlet would aspire to help lead the national conversation—or the various regional and local conversations—but some would. Such an effort could be a way for our most ambitious news outlets to distinguish themselves in an increasingly cacophonous and uneven information culture.

Take mass transit, as just one example. During the public debate over the auto-industry bailout—and in the protracted effort to pass the stimulus package—precious little was said about what role public transportation might play in our future, even though it was an elephant in the room. Among the circumstances that make this issue so difficult for the press—and the politicians—is that it taps into our national mythology: modern America was built around the automobile, and the car is central, for better and for worse, to our sense of ourselves as a nation of free agents. But the reality is that we have less than 5 percent of the world’s population and yet we are the second-largest producer of carbon dioxide behind China—and our automobile culture is at the center of that unwholesome picture.

Brent Cunningham is CJR’s managing editor.