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When Civic Engagement Becomes Precarious Political Action

This article is the first of a series to be published on PA TIMES Online during the month of February under the topic of “Social Media and Civic Engagement.” We are still accepting articles for this topic and all others on the 2012 PA TIMES Online Editorial Calendar. For more information or to see the calendar, click the link at the end of this piece in the Related Articles box.

This is Part 1 of McLennan’s article. Watch for Part 2 this Thursday, February 9th.

Lauren E. McLennan

When we discuss civic engagement as a way to interact with government without getting involved in politics directly, we fall short of recognizing a weakness within civic information sharing. Gabriel A. Almond and Sidney Verba, authors of Political Attitudes and Democracy in Five Nations explain that “primary associations [with civic groups] play an important role in the development of a citizen’s sense of political competence” yet the “availability of his primary groups…gives him intermittent political resource[s]”, creating a “weak link” between the person and polity. This article is a warning to consumers of news media outlets—our “primary” source of civic association—and those who trust in the public debate process taking place on the United States’ House and Senate floors.

Civics in Action
With a brief history on two of America’s most trusted media outlets, The New York Times and The Washington Post, a clear illustration is drawn of the partiality of some of the most influential civic groups in America. Here, this is presented as a problem primarily because of the recent influx of public polling and its legitimization. The problem here is not just that polls are drawing from a small proportion of the nation’s population, but that they are being used in House and Senate floor debates by Congress to legitimize positions and push public policy decisions that is presumed to be “representative” of the “American people”.

For many Americans, major daily news outlets fill the gap that has been growing between United States Representatives and American citizens, whether it be because of location(s), security, or technological advances (where the politician no longer feels they must knock on your door to reach out to you). These news outlets are trusted with the task of developing a civilian’s political competence, bringing the “person and polity” closer together. This reliance—on our fellow citizens as journalists—has developed out of necessity really, and tolerated, as our best secondary source of truth about the country. However, what of newspapers and other media outlets make them legitimate? Liable and Slander laws protect consumers (and victims) from lies, but what of misconceptions? We all know that there is no such thing as the un-biased person, so realizing our political competence through a journalist or television/radio host, in reality, seems illogical.

Yet, escalating trends amongst news media outputs today speak to the contrary. Public polling has become a legitimated source of political information gathering and analysis; and legislators are using the results on House and Senate floors to push their public policy agendas. The question being presented here is, when it comes to representing the American people, should public polling results be tolerated by civilians as the equivalent to true representation in our legislatures? A look at the history of some of these news outlets helps to answer this question.
The Washington Post, known eternally for its (civic) role in breaking the Watergate scandal, epitomizes the threat of civic engagement and information sharing. Within its first years of operation (1877-1888), it bought out its only rival, the Daily Republican, the first of many to be purchased by The Washington Post Company.

By 1889 the paper was sold to a Republican Cabinet member and a former Democratic Congressman who worked together on furthering the newspapers business success. What once was an attempt by former owner Eugene Meyer to provide a newspaper for “the public at large, and not to the private interests of its owners”, had turned into a billion dollar corporation by the late 1900’s, with ownership of ABC and NBC affiliate television stations and magazines, and has bought out countless other rival online news outlets. Today, The Washington Post’s civic following is roughly 1.3 million people.

While The Washington Post was buying up any competition within hear-shot, the New York Times busied themselves with award-winning journalism, information deals with war-time governments, and played a major role in developing colored prints and the telephone. Moreover, they played politics shamelessly. The New York Times regularly endorsed Presidential candidates, were personally thanked by Wilson after his first election, and were regularly slammed by the Herald (owned by the Post) and other newspapers as being “un-American” (for their unbiased international reporting), amongst other insults. According to the Times’ website, it’s civic following today amounts to roughly 2.2 million people.

Watch for Part 2 of this article (When Action Backfires and Why We Should Care) to be posted this Thursday, February 9th.

Lauren E. McLennan is a graduate student of Public Affairs at Indiana University South Bend. She has been a panelist at the 2011 South Eastern Conference on Public Administration and a 2010 guest speaker on Program Planning and Assessment for AmeriCorps, Michigan. She is the president of her student body and is pursuing a career in public policy analysis and writing. Email: [email protected]

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