There is a way to lead the conversation without being politically partisan—to initiate the debate, shepherd it, report out the various positions, ideas, and arguments; to reach conclusions based on the understanding and expertise that are developed in this process, about what ideas and policies make the most sense for the collective good. Then make those ideas and policies, and the assumptions that support them, dominant narratives in the day-to-day coverage. Through it all, let the public see how those conclusions were reached.

Our best bet for such a process is via a professional press that strives (even as it repeatedly fails) to adhere to an ideology that is more reformist and progressive than politically partisan. Plenty of people have attempted to define this journalistic ideology. In his 1979 book Deciding What’s News, sociologist Herbert Gans described a series of “enduring values”—such as “altruistic democracy” and “responsible capitalism”—that unconsciously shape what we think of as news judgment. In his memoir, Somebody’s Gotta Tell It, Jack Newfield put it in more plainspoken terms than Gans:

Pick an issue. Study it. Make yourself an expert so you won’t make any stupid factual mistakes. Figure out who the decision makers you want to influence are. Name the guilty men. Make alliances with experts. Combine activism with the writing. Create a constituency for reform. And don’t stop till you have achieved some progress or positive results.

People of good faith can have dramatically different definitions of what constitutes, say, “responsible capitalism.” But the point is that there is an important set of values between feckless attempts at objectivity and unbridled political partisanship.

The values of such a reformist mission are very much alive in many of the journalists who inhabit our mainstream newsrooms, if not in the newsrooms themselves. And it is crucial that the DNA of investigative, public service journalism be central to the experimentation going on both within and outside the mainstream. It’s not a coincidence that some of the most ambitious experiments designed to revive a muckraking posture in the press right now are in the hands of refugees from the mainstream: Paul Steiger (former editor of The Wall Street Journal) and his crew at ProPublica; Charles Lewis (60 Minutes) and his Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University; Andy Hall (Wisconsin State Journal, Arizona Republic) at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism; Joe Bergantino (ABC News) at the New England Center for Investigative Reporting—even Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo began in the tar pits of old media, writing for magazines, including this one.

Of the People

Yet the mainstream press seems far removed from this ideal. Public ownership has proven incapable of supporting public-interest journalism—let alone adversarial journalism—as the press’s central purpose, and the pursuit of objectivity has become a trap that sets the best-intentioned reporters and editors up for the failures of false balance and he said-she said story frames. Furthermore, it allows demagogues on the right and the left to dismiss the press as hopelessly biased when it fails to achieve “objectivity.” The homogeneity of the mostly white, middle- and upper-middle-class decision-makers in our newsrooms, meanwhile, coupled with the offend-no-one ethos of their corporate managers, have smothered (publicly, at least) the kind of outrage that one should expect in the face of betrayals of public trust—such as the one on display in our current financial crisis.

Even if the will to assume a leadership role in our public discourse existed, and we had owners who encouraged it and accepted its costs, financial and otherwise, it seems unlikely that the press could execute this new mission alone. Much of the experimentation under way envisions some sort of collaboration, either with other news outlets or with the public, or both. The press needs help; it needs the people. It needs to engage with the public broadly and persistently—to be on the public’s side in an obvious and fundamental way.

In the early years of this country, the press and the public were organically connected—the press literally emerged from the conversation in the public houses and squares. “The ‘public,’ ” wrote the late media scholar Jim Carey, “is the God term of the press, the term without which the press does not make any sense.”

Brent Cunningham is CJR’s managing editor.