Citizens express many frustrations with American democracy, but if for some reason one had to be singled out it would be an easy choice to make: They resent to their core that problems don't ever get solved. In the language of Meaningful Chaos, "People are seeking a sense of possibility - that action might occur on a public concern, and that they might play a personal role in it ... so that discussion on public concerns does not seem so isolated from action." When they find instead that political involvement doesn't get them anywhere, they simply tune out, stop voting, grow cynical or keep their eyes focused close to home, acting on a neighborhood scale where they can make a difference. Journalist E.J. Dionne's best seller makes this point in the plainest possible terms. Why do Americans hate politics? Because politics doesn't work.

So far, this handbook has talked about how journalists can ... give [citizens] the information they need and the opportunities for discussion they want. And this is all well and good. But citizens will lose interest in journalism, too, if it does no better than politics in getting their judgment acted upon. As Jeremy Iggers of the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune phrases it, civic virtue is not its own reward.

Most editors (even public journalists) are reluctant to face what this means. They would like to believe that whoever may be responsible for civic action, it's certainly not the press. So intensely concerned are they about crossing the line into advocacy, they end up stopping well short of it - and rarely consider the impossible expectations they're throwing on citizens as a result. At a recent Project on Public Life and the Press conference, the editor of a major public-journalism daily described where his paper was going to draw the line: He would publish lengthy, in-depth, value-centered coverage on public-agenda issues, collaborate with civic groups to convene forums and report on them as a public service ... then he would step back, wash his hands and "let citizens act." He explained that going any farther would compromise his editorial stance as an independent, unbiased, critical voice, willing to tell things as they are and champion unpopular causes (like free speech or affirmative action) if and when the majority turned against them. Other editors in the room assented. This makes perfect sense from the newspaper's own point of view; it's both ethical and consistent.

But then someone asked exactly how citizens were supposed to act. Put yourself in the shoes of an ordinary man or woman: not Ralph Nader or Kate Michelman, but a busy Los Angeles truck driver or Cincinnati schoolteacher. How would you - a private citizen - bring your neighborhood forum into conversation with the fifty or sixty others in your community? (Alternatively, who would you trust to do it for you?) On what authority would you identify the community's common ground? How would you publicize the "will of the people" you'd heard - make it the standard against which public action would from then on be measured? How would you hold the feet of public officials and other citizens to the fire? The press and public figures talk fast and loose about Americans "sending messages" to Washington or the state capital, but how as a practical matter are they supposed even to put those messages together, without some central, trusted, neutral organization such as a newspaper to help them? (The editor said that this was a good point and, revealingly, one that had never crossed his mind.)

This chapter's premise is a natural extension of the whole premise of public journalism: Acts of citizenship (besides voting) are unnecessarily hard for ordinary Americans to perform, and so, just as one ought to expect, they don't perform them often or well. They don't find common ground, draft clear messages, act in concert to solve their problems. Journalists should always be on the lookout for ways to make those acts easier. The examples on the next several pages demonstrate that there are indeed lines that newspapers can draw - still well this side of bias, advocacy and subjectivity - within which public journalists can do much more to help citizens act. But first it's worthwhile to go back to the test of realism and consider what "acting on the public's judgment" ought to mean.

Chapter One made the case that journalists too often equate action with the things officials do; ordinary people, on the other hand, see problems as too big and intricate for governments, bureaucracies or think tanks alone to solve. People want results, not activity. Congress can pass a wonderful crime bill, but thrown into a vacuum it won't solve the problem of crime. Neighborhoods can set up creative block-watches and anti-drug programs, but without the appropriate laws, policies, budgets and regulations to back them up, their grasp will fall woefully short of their reach. Truly successful action can only mean coordinating the action of groups starting with the family and ending with the state or federal administration. To complicate an already daunting task, Chapters Two and Three insisted that people see such problems as "schools," "drugs," "youth violence," "jobs" and "family" as so interwoven that they must be addressed all at the same time. How can a community - let alone its newspaper - transform something so large and ill-defined into a concrete, practical task (without retreating into the kinds of narrow, partial, Beltway-centered solutions and debates people are so dissatisfied with)? How can it succeed?

The key may be a concept that David Mathews of the Kettering Foundation calls "complementary action." Most social problems are too big to solve all at once, but even so we get less for our efforts than we might just because we so often head in contradictory directions. What schools are doing to help troubled kids doesn't jibe with what the police are doing. Voluntary organizations embrace one solution for urban poverty while city hall embraces its opposite. Employers' family-leave policies don't mesh with Washington's economic, trade or welfare incentives. (And often an unconsulted public balks at policies invented by their elected and unelected bosses.) Activity waters down other activity, and leaves us with less than the sum of the parts. If, on the other hand, a community's varied and independent groups could all work from the same basic credo - a well-defined public judgment on the given issue, broad in scope even if slight in detail - their actions could reinforce each other, leaving us with more than the sum of the parts. Look around for precedents. Religious charities, Alcoholics Anonymous chapters, environment groups, yellow-ribbon campaigns: in each of these cases independent groups enhance each other's work not through explicit co-ordination but simply through a shared understanding of their goals....

The ethics of public journalism

This is a good place to discuss ethics, because helping citizens act is the final straw for many critics of public journalism. They object to the innovations in this handbook not so much on the grounds that they're time-consuming or ineffective but in the belief that they're dangerously unrestrained. If a newspaper starts setting agendas, framing issues, forcing candidates and experts to explain themselves in different ways, promoting forums and spelling out "what the public wants," it may think it's speaking for ordinary citizens but it will really end up speaking only for itself. Journalism's one protection against arrogance - its one claim on the public trust - is its refusal to get involved. Giving that up, it will inevitably careen down the same slippery slope as demagogues and spin doctors. It will end up speaking only for citizens it agrees with, and cheerleading civic action in which it's improperly involved.

Actually, public journalism has a golden rule - an ethical line - every bit as sharp as mainstream journalism's rule, and just as easy to elaborate into a code book of professional norms. "Journalism should advocate democracy without advocating particular solutions." And it isn't so different from the conventional rule as it might seem at first glance.

Newspapers already recognize that certain democratic norms are essential for the news media to play their social role, and they feel no qualm about championing these norms, on the news pages or off. Free speech, for example. No paper would hesitate to advocate the First Amendment, nor think twice about throwing its full resources into the First Amendment's defense. This is because, unlike abortion rights or aid to Russia or presidential candidate X or ballot initiative Y, the First Amendment is a sine qua non of informed public debate. Public journalists, looking at citizens' anger and apparent apathy, have simply asked themselves what other sine qua nons have gone unrecognized and unchampioned so far.

The evidence in this handbook shows that, if the news is truly to help people judge events wisely and exercise control over their government, then a number of things have to happen, both inside the newspaper and out. Candidates have to address the questions citizens want answers to. Expert opinions must speak to citizens' values. People must face the consequences of their choices. They must deliberate across social barriers like race, gender, geography and class. The "public voice" must be the basis for governmental action. Private citizens must be given opportunities to act. And so on. Newspapers ought to advocate the spread of these practices as aggressively and with as little shame as they advocate the spread of free speech and a free press....

To turn the whole question around, public journalists could well argue that the mainstream's rule of non-involvement is the one that realistically threatens the public. In cities such as Huntington, W.Va., and Dayton, Ohio, social problems were going largely unaddressed and citizens were growing ever more frustrated and angry until a newspaper broke tradition to advocate intelligent discourse and democratic process. Editors in such situations often come to see their new way of doing journalism not as an ethical minefield at all, but as far more natural and self-justifying than the old. (One executive editor now says, "I'd rather increase voter turnout than win a Pulitzer.") Which form of journalism is really more flawed and dangerous in a free society: the one that sits passively by while people grow divided, or the one that finds ways of bringing them together?

Sidebar: Managing the marketplace of ideas

David Rubin, dean of Syracuse University's Newhouse School of Communications, came up with a good way of seeing where conventional ethics fall short. He suggests looking at the "marketplace of ideas" as if it were a real thing. He says he can no longer have faith that "if you have an open marketplace, a cacophony, and the left is speaking and the right is speaking and [ordinary] people from Kenosha are in the mix, then everything will come out okay." That may satisfy the ethicists of journalism, but it just isn't how real marketplaces work. Real marketplaces have structure.

Rubin's right. The New York Stock Exchange, for all its capitalist freedoms, tolerates nothing like the anarchy of the marketplace of ideas. It is a thoroughly regulated place, with rules, habits, traditions and penalties to make sure that trading is fair, free and open. An exchange official can tell you the date and time of any sale and all the procedures that were followed. Market failures like insider trading, deals taking place after the closing bell, misleading statistics on prospectuses and volatility that might lead to a crash are nailed down with vigor and corrected with legal rules. Similarly, in the marketplace of science, ideas don't make it past the laboratory door until they're expressed in standardized terms using mathematical language. Peers must review experimental work and be able to duplicate the results. All this rigor is in place because investors and scientists want their markets to work.

If the press wants the market of ideas to function equally well, then it had better be just as relentlessly concrete. Are national debates (as we envision them) taking place? Then name the date, time and place. If you can't, then they're imaginary, and you must help figure out how to make them real. Are "public voices" forming? Then write them down for me. If you can't, then they're imaginary too, and you must go out and find them by listening, help to cobble them together. Is this all somebody else's job? Then tell me whose. If you can't, do the job yourself. You are, for better or worse, the only manager the marketplace of ideas has.

Critics of public journalism may think this logic arrogant, but it's not. A manager is even necessary in groups of 20 or 30 people, gathered all in the same room, according to National Issues Forums veteran Bob Arroyo. Deliberation usually won't take place unless a moderator clears the channels, invites in the silent, chastises the domineering, suggests when to move on - in short, nails down the market failures and corrects them with vigor. A successful moderator, Arroyo says, is always "neutral but not passive." Traditional journalism's sense of objectivity has often led it to be passive; one might argue that public journalism is trying to discover how to be neutral instead.