Who Owns the Fourth Estate?
Still, What Are Journalists For? surprises with the weight of its anecdotal reportage, its repetitive citation of war stories from the front, its flattering of the foundations--Kettering, Pew and Knight--funding the movement's work and its dwelling on the many seminars and interviews that came Rosen's way. At times, Rosen's perspective seems plainly affected ("In 1989, the same year as my Des Moines talk and Batten's speech on community life, a lot of exciting things happened. The Berlin Wall fell, democracy returned to a part of Eastern Europe...").
Ironically, in light of Rosen's view that only a press "that consciously puts itself in the philosophy business" can do its job in the modern era, the book's chief weaknesses turn out to be philosophical: paltry argument, undeveloped principles for dividing public from private, a failure to assess journalism comparatively, a reluctance to probe public journalism's logical paradoxes. Instead, Rosen resolutely trains his attention on the twin worlds of actual and think-tank journalism--the latter being America's network of foundation-funded institutes, seminars, retreats and fellowship programs in which ex-journalists, leave-of-absence journalists and communications theorists mull over how to build a better mousetrap.
In that sphere, What Are Journalists For? accomplishes multiple tasks with grace and smoothness, authoritatively outlining public journalism's origins, ideological context and uncertainties. Rosen first describes how public journalism, as currently conceived, emerged around 1989 from converging worries of communications theorists about the "depressed civic climate"--the decline of our deliberative public space--and those of press leaders such as Knight-Ridder's James Batten over newspapers' decline in circulation and their connection to readers. (In the case of some papers, the former had dropped from 80 percent to 55 percent penetration of local households.)
Wichita Eagle editor Davis Merritt, an early activist in the movement, saw a need for papers to emphasize citizens' perspectives on issues, not the mechanics of campaign process favored by political operatives. The Washington Post's David Broder bemoaned the poverty of political reporting, and Rosen himself grew fascinated with the leadership of Georgia's Columbus Ledger-Enquirer, which galvanized citizens of its town into meetings and formation of a citizens' group, United Beyond 2000, that strategized about the town's future.
Rosen next places those early palpitations of public journalism within the growing academic interest at the time in issues of public deliberation, and he elaborates on the views of important theorists of communication like Dewey, Lippmann, Habermas and James Carey. In some ways, Rosen argues, public journalism recapitulates the twenties debate between Dewey and Lippmann over whether the public (Dewey's choice) or experts (Lippmann's) should run democracy. Here, Rosen tends to align journalists and readers with Dewey's and Lippmann's models rather than analyze the fit. In any event, public journalism began to jell within a few years, and Rosen spends several chapters reporting the experiences of seven newspapers that attempted to practice it.
Examples include the Dayton Daily News taking charge of local debates on plant closings; the Akron Beacon Journal following a yearlong series devoted to citizen opinion on race with a regional planning organization called Coming Together; the San Jose Mercury News's decision to supplement editorials with public forums and discussion guides; the Colorado Springs Gazette's move to make its reporters engage in "public listening" and its editors frame stories from a number of perspectives; and the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot's whole-hog "intellectual journey" into public journalism.