Between July 10, 2002 and May 25, 2003, The New York Times, under the leadership of editor Howell Raines, published sixty articles (three on page one) and editorials about Augusta National Golf Club’s policy forbidding women members. To me, the lesson of Raines’s Augusta crusade is not that it was an ideal case study—it was, in fact, the kind of personal jeremiad that is exactly what we don’t want from our serious journalists. The lesson is that the stodgy mainstream press is in fact capable of forcing an issue onto the national agenda and keeping it there. One of those front-page pieces carried the headline, “CBS Staying Silent in Debate on Women Joining Augusta.” Why couldn’t our newspapers and TV news outlets have some regular way of reminding the public that President Obama, or House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, or whomever, is refusing to address the mass-transit questions? Or the immigration questions? Or the campaign-finance questions? Perhaps, along the lines of something Matt Miller suggested in these pages in 2003, there could be a box in a lower corner of the front page, or a short recurring on-air editorial: “Day 25: Obama Still Mum on Light-Rail.”
Maybe the mainstream press is at this point too beaten down, too spooked by the prospect of its own demise, to manage such a bold overhaul. It’s true that even in its decades of dominance, the modern American press struggled with how far it was willing to stray beyond the narrow confines of the conventional wisdom that it helped to create. In his 1973 book, Radical Visions & American Dreams, for instance, Richard Pells examined the tortured effort by intellectuals on the left to fundamentally change the national conversation during the Great Depression—to place public welfare above private gain (sound familiar?). Their forum was opinion magazines such as The Nation and The New Republic. Pells barely mentioned the mainstream press.
The Nation and The New Republic are still with us, of course, and some will argue that the mission I describe is more at home in their pages—and in other idea magazines and the proliferation of agenda-driven Web sites and blogs—than in the mainstream newspapers and broadcast outlets. But I would suggest that, while opinion publications do publish deeply reported investigations and analyses, such outlets will not be the birthplace of the kind of wide-ranging, practical, and sustained discourse that we need. Part of the reason is that—like the informational silos of the blogosphere—they too often preach to the converted. But part of it, too, is that the political debate in this country is too polarized to allow it. Rightly or wrongly, there are great swaths of the citizenry who just won’t hear it if it comes from The Nation, and others who won’t hear it if it comes from the National Review. Plenty of people won’t hear it if it comes from The New York Times, either, but the paper’s reach and authority are considerably broader—both at home and abroad—than that of these partisan outlets.
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.