7. What the Public Misses: Success Stories

Most journalists would rather uncover something than cover it. Secret information takes on importance it may not deserve, simply because it has been secret. News often is colored by the framework established by a leaker whose personal agenda remains hidden.

The late I.F. Stone was admired for his exclusives, but few journalists today copy his methods. He found them by poring over government documents that were available to the public. “The White House press corps knows more than I do,” he once remarked. “The problem is, most of it isn’t true.”

Journalists are constantly presented with story opportunities that they cannot use because they don’t have a “peg.” Positive, openly available news is very hard to peg in today’s news culture. As they search for outrages to unveil, both the contemporary press and the radio talk show commentators often overlook much of what is actually going on in American politics today.

Genuine success stories may be harder to find than problems, but efforts to solve problems are evident everywhere. If talk radio is the “stealth medium,”(103) civic action is the “stealth politics” that remains an invisible but vital part of America at all levels.

“America has a secret political life,” observes David Mathews, President of the Kettering Foundation, which has helped to nurture civic involvement around the country. His foundation and others like the National Civic League, Amitai Etzioni’s Communitarian Network, the Civic Forum, the Ford Foundation’s Innovations project, and the Rockefeller Foundation’s The Common Enterprise initiative, offer numerous “success stories” that describe citizens working together to solve community problems, with some evidence of success. But most Americans, who take their view of American political life from downbeat national news and cynical campaign ads, do not see enough of these stories. They often are not aware that someone out there is making a difference. Even more remote is the possibility that they, too, might find a way to engage positively in finding resolutions to such problems as crime, unwed parenthood, pollution, welfare abuse, and corruption.(104)

Indeed, the traditional habits developed to foster journalistic “objectivity” prevent most journalists from providing information in their news stories about how citizens can help or even evaluate possible solutions to the problems being covered (with one exception: they often list relief agencies after a major disaster). When citizen successes are chronicled, they usually are individual “hero” stories, which sometimes hamper, rather than help, group efforts to overcome community divisions.

Some journalists, recognizing the corrosive effects of negativity on their communities—and their own relationships with their customers—have actively redirected their coverage. “ABC News” began a trend with the networks when it initiated a nightly “American Agenda” feature that often includes problem solvers and success stories; the Akron Beacon Journal won a Pulitzer Prize in 1994 for covering race in a way that engaged local citizens; and Newsweekdevoted a special issue, May 29, 1995, to “Everyday Heroes.”(105)