Iowa Alumni Magazine | October 2006 | Features

Between The Lines: The Democratic Media

By Carol Harker
Does all the news that's not fit to print weaken our country?

Carol Harker Editor-in-Chief

Rarely do I stay up late enough to watch Jay Leno, but on occasion I've caught snippets of his Tonight Show and a segment where he's out on the street in Los Angeles asking people about current events, American history, and the like. The conversations are always good for a laugh, but so shallow and outrageous that I wonder if they're sincere.

Once he asked, for instance, what it is that we celebrate on July 4, Independence Day. "Freedom from the Catholic Church?" one of the leggy young women replied with a giggle and flutter. Ha! Everyone laughed.

At least, I hope everyone laughed. How many people might have instead been thinking, frantically, "Well, what are all these fireworks and parades for? Maybe it's freedom from slavery or the end of the military draft."

Jennifer Hemmingsen's cover story in this issue addresses the state of the media today, while touching on the role that it has played throughout the birth, formation, and life of the democracy in which we live. She explores civic journalism and the effect it can have on public debate, the consolidation of news sources, an increasingly lean corps of professionally trained journalists, what we're often getting under the headline of news, and what we need journalists to deliver.

She also points out how easy it is for even the brightest people—university students, for instance—to be ignorant of issues and actions that affect their lives today and in the future. These students are competent at many things—multitasking with iPods and cell phones while able to rattle off to their friends how every Iowa touchdown was made in last week's game.

When they don't know about world events, though, when their view of the truth is shaped by news personalities with narrow opinions from either end of the political spectrum, when even the newshounds among them must search for trustworthy sources of in-depth analyses, that puts our form of government at risk.

As one of Hemmingsen's sources says, "The natural outcome of it [the diminished number of reliable voices out there] is that we're going to have a citizenry that, for the most part, isn't going to know and isn't really going to care. It will be unchecked leadership under the name of democracy."

It's ironic that, while we can get news in many formats 24 hours a day, we are probably less broadly informed about our world than we were before the Internet.

I'm always struck by how much more news about Africa, Asia, and South America is available in Europe. Maybe it's because we're relatively isolated geographically or because we've never amassed an empire on which the sun never sets. Or maybe we're not demanding enough as consumers of news.

In a democracy, we generally get what the majority want. If that's Paris Hilton rather than Walter Cronkite, the future seems pretty dim.