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.

On January 5, The New York Times published a short editorial, “A Pitch for Mass Transit,” that urged President Obama to “give mass transit—trains, buses, commuter rails—the priority it deserves and the full financial and technological help it needs and has long been denied.”

That just isn’t enough from our most important news outlet on such a crucial and complicated issue. Why not a crusade for mass transit? Why not an ongoing narrative—in the news columns and on the editorial page—that attempts to force the issue, in all its complexity, into the national consciousness and onto the national agenda? The kind of thing that newspapers do so well in projects and series—the stories that win awards—but with regular installments over months and years, however long it takes for the nation to figure out the best and most thoroughly considered course of action on mass transit. It wouldn’t work perfectly, but it could work.

The crusade could introduce us to the most creative thinking from the rest of the world on how to design and execute communities around pedestrian traffic and public transit. Even though French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s ambitious (some would say fantastical) notion to re-imagine Paris and its suburbs as “Le Grand Paris,” an integrated, sustainable city knitted together by green space and mass transit, has shrunk in the face of political and financial roadblocks, the very boldness of it is instructive in light of the baby steps being contemplated in the U.S.

Brent Cunningham is CJR’s managing editor.