Annenberg Distinguished Lecture

October 26, 2004 - Annenberg Distinguished Lecture

Deliberation in Education and the Media: Rising to the Challenge?

It is only fitting to begin my talk this afternoon by publicly thanking Vice President Dick Cheney, on behalf of the University of Pennsylvania, for recognizing the inestimable public service provided by the Annenberg Public Policy Center through its FactCheck-dot-org website.

As a TV commercial might put it: A mention on national television in the middle of a presidential debate - priceless!

So what if the Vice President called it "FactCheck-dot-com" instead of "dot-org"?

FactCheck-dot-org had eight million online "hits" later - in just one day - from some 370,000 individual visitors. I'm sure that I speak for everyone here at Penn when I say that we are all happy to forgive Vice President Cheney this minor mistake.

After all, he got the name of our great University right!

Seriously, I cannot think of a time in my lifetime that fact-checking and independent monitoring of campaign rhetoric has been more important.

Every time we think that political discourse can't get any more heated, inaccurate, and ineffective in enlightening an electorate, our media and political candidates prove us wrong.

Every time we think we might finally get a real presidential debate - one in which candidates actually engage each other and the voters, one in which they are forced actually to answer the questions they are asked, one in which the political parties and campaign strategists can't conspire to ensure that their candidates are protected by rigid formats and unintelligible rules - every time we think the issues are serious enough to bring out the best in American political debate - we seem to get far less than a vibrant democracy needs or deserves.

Now, I am not among those who see this phenomenon as a sign of irreversible cultural decay.

In fact, we are returning to an earlier norm in American political life, a style of robust, highly partisan, intensely personal, and sometimes ideological, political rhetoric that can be traced as far back through our history as the colonial period.

The period from World War Two through the Vietnam War was unusually restrained in its political style.

One effect of modern mass media technologies has been to amplify the most dramatic, most negative, and most intense forms of political conflict.

For those of us who watched the second presidential debate closely, we saw something that was even more important:

Real citizens, asking their own questions, and clearly eager to go beyond the candidates' practiced recitations of stock phrases.

If only they'd been allowed a follow-up question!

This is important because, bad as much of our political debate may be, we are only that one step away from real engagement, real deliberation, and the political enlightenment that real deliberation can bring.

All it will take is one debate moderator and one candidate, who effectively play out the following scenario: "You must answer the question I asked or I won't relent - and nobody will stop me."

One follow-up on a candidate's implausible answer with: "Where did you get your numbers? Why do you insist on repeating this inaccuracy when FactCheck-dot-org, a non-partisan watchdog on accuracy, reports that your numbers - and your spin on the story - is misleading?"

The second debate, with its town meeting style of citizen questioning, and the third Bush-Gore debate in 2000, where the candidates strained not to engage each other, gave us a glimpse of what debates could be if only someone insisted they be real debates.

Certainly, most thoughtful citizens are eager to break out of the rigid rhetorical straight-jacket we've gotten ourselves into.

The candidate who takes that risk - and responds well to questioning - has a good chance of being suitably rewarded by the American people.

Universities bear a special responsibility to prepare the citizens and leaders who will one day take that risk, and begin to truly deliberate with truly informative and enlightening - democratic discourse.

My ideal of such a state of society - a truly "deliberative democracy" - does not trip easily off the tongue.

But nobody ever said democracy is an easy ideal to realize.

Some people think democracy is simply a matter of majority rule.

But no major democratic thinker - past or present - has ever held such a simplistic view of democracy.

Any democracy worth defending must be more than mere majority rule.

It must protect minority rights, free speech, freedom of religion, and offer both the freedom and the effective opportunities for individuals to deliberate about their differences.

Deliberation is difficult.

And when it's done badly - it can be boring and unproductive.

When it's done well, it stands as the most practical refutation of cynicism possible.

People who deliberate well are engaged in constructive reasoning for practical purposes.

They do not simply accuse one another of ulterior motives and pursue power simply for its own sake.

No wonder so much of the media refuses to take deliberation seriously.

But the most important fact about deliberation for our present concern is that deliberation is dangerous. Dangerous in a good democratic way.

It opens the door to the unexpected, the unpredictable and the uncontrollable.

No wonder it is anathema to the short-sighted political strategist.

Deliberation is inherently revelatory.

It exposes candidates' core beliefs and reasoning processes to public scrutiny and criticism.

It is, in short, the most daring of political acts.

Which may be why ordinary candidates and their ordinary handlers adamantly avoid it.

For them, the upside potential is small and the downside risk large.

To do deliberation well requires education, experience, and an ability to speak clearly and effectively to diverse audiences, not merely preach to the choir.

When we're preaching to the choir, we are unlikely to be pushed to give reasons for what we believe.

And giving reasons to those with whom we disagree is the heart and soul of deliberation.

Without engaging the reasons for our differing beliefs and opinions, politics becomes nothing but a game of money, power, and media influence.

So "deliberative democracy" is about the role of reasons - and engagement with each others' reasons - for our differing views and opinions.

That kind of engagement is central to an effective democracy in a diverse society, just as it is to education in a diverse university community.

In a democracy, everyone who wields public power has a responsibility to give reasons for his or her decisions.

The ideal of deliberative responsibility is as old as our republic:

The Declaration of Independence was written to present the reasons that impelled the colonies to separate themselves from Great Britain.

What the Founders called a "decent respect to the opinions of mankind" required no less.

And when the Constitution was proposed for ratification, what we now call The Federalist Papers were published as a series of anonymous letters in New York City's newspapers to interpret and argue the merits of the provisions of the new document.

We must not forget that the arguments of James Madison, John Jay, and Alexander Hamilton stimulated counter-arguments and real debate in the form of opposition letters that appeared in newspapers throughout the colonies.

Anti-Federalist patriots, such as Patrick Henry, George Mason, and John DeWitt, feared the impact of a strong central government on individual liberty and the power of the individual states.

The Anti-Federalists deliberatively engaged the arguments of those who supported the idea of a strong national government embodied in the new Constitution.

And the Federalists replied.

All in an appropriately spirited - indeed, feisty - fashion.

American democracy began as a deeply deliberative political tradition.

And a successful deliberation at that!

The ultimate test of deliberation is whether the views of the participants are listened to and taken into account by policy makers - not whether their views carry the day.

By this measure, deliberation in the public sphere today is sorely lacking.

Nobody seems to be listening to anybody, let alone taking the views of their opponents into account in formulating their own positions.

Deliberation is lacking in the presidential debates, in entertainment programming like Crossfire, and in most televised news interviews - by correspondents who answer their own questions and interviewees who answer none.

There is ubiquitous denial of complexity in almost every discussion of serious public issues.

There is a simplistic presumption - which I call the "cynical cop-out" - that the only way to cover the news is to reveal that every politician's motive is to win at any cost - if they can get away with it.

Politicians, the media tells us day in and day out, know the price of everything and the value of nothing, but their own re-election.

So what's the cause of our deliberative deficit?

Most likely, it is the product of a complex interaction of forces, from the development of new technological capabilities, to changes in lifestyle, mobility, and employment patterns, to campaign financing arrangements, and sophisticated political strategies.

I would welcome a more comprehensive causal analysis.

But, the more important theoretical and practical question is "what can we do about our deliberative deficit?"

Can higher education and the media - together or separately - rise to the challenge of creating a more deliberative democratic polity?

You will not be surprised to hear that I think we can.

With will and wisdom there is a deliberate way. Rising to the challenge of creating a more deliberative democracy requires creativity and commitment from both the educational community and the media.

Ultimately, it will require leadership and risk-taking by individual candidates and media professionals who are willing to take a chance and break the restrictive mold of our political discourse.

For our part, colleges and universities are fully capable of preparing leaders and citizens for deliberative modes of democratic participation:

Deliberation is modeled by our best faculty members - in the classroom, on campus, and (arguably) in their own scholarly discourse.

We thrive on constructive disputation and disagreement.

Putative knowledge untested by criticism is merely information.

Deliberation - publicly giving reasons and defending them - is what turns mere information and opinion into knowledge and understanding.

Such deliberation is the heart and soul of academic life, at its best - in our research, in our classrooms, and in university governance.

Preparing students for life in a democracy means preparing them to engage in and understand this kind of public deliberation about important issues.

This requires: practice, practice, and more practice.

It also requires that we teach by example - and that we teach our students to lead by example in their own careers.

This is very much what we are doing here at Penn, today, and Penn will do even more as we move forward.

Penn has created a remarkably deliberative campus culture that fosters productive collaborations, the integration of knowledge, and collaborative engagement with communities near and far.

Our students have been exemplary in engaging in constructive debates over the widest range of issues - and putting their conclusions into practice as civic leaders, both locally and globally.

Our service-learning courses are models of deliberatively putting theory into practice.

Yet, as good as we get at teaching deliberation - and we intend to get even better - higher education cannot create a deliberative society by itself.

We must partner with other social, political, and cultural institutions to put deliberation into practice in the world beyond our campus.

The most important of the partners with whom we must collaborate are the mass media.

Mass media pose three fundamental problems from the standpoint of fostering deliberative democracy:

First, their mass audience orientation leads most media to seek the lowest common denominator across the widest possible audience.

Denying this is like pretending the Phillies/Yankees will win this year's World Series!

Second, the media provide easy, relatively passive gratification and entertainment.

There is nothing inherently wrong with passive gratification.

The problem is that television and the Internet foster short attention spans and reinforce overly simplistic presentations of complex public issues.

Third, and most important, the mass media tend to exclude discussions of fundamental values and reasons for holding various positions. Reason-giving and exploring competing values is the essence of deliberation.

What can be done?

Left to their own devices, the media are unlikely to solve this problem on their own.

They are too deeply enmeshed in the combination of forces that perpetuate the race to the bottom.

Look, for example, at what happened to the idea of exchanging ideological viewpoints on television.

We have traveled a long way - but not in the right direction - from the "Point/Counterpoint" feature on 60 Minutes in the 1970's, to the quasi-deliberative exchange of arguments on the Sunday talk shows, led by David Brinkley's This Week on ABC in the 1980's and Meet the Press on NBC, to the current, purely entertainment-oriented shouting matches of CNN's Crossfire, Chris Matthews' Hardball, and The McLaughlin Group.

A once good idea now gone quite bad.

Can our political leaders change it?

It is unlikely that any ordinary politician will do anything to change this situation - not, at least, for the better.

Ordinary politicians are too subject to the control of their "handlers" - who instinctively fear this sort of deliberative exchange - and rightly so, because it is likely to redound to the disadvantage of an ordinary politician.

Yet, this situation actually creates an enormous opportunity for a true political leader - for someone who is willing to take a chance and break out of the constraints to score a major success.

What American democracy needs today is a true leader who is, first of all, capable of real deliberative engagement, such as a John McCain or a Bill Bradley. Someone who is also an excellent speaker.

We need wise leaders who understand that their own ability to engage in effective public deliberation is one of their main political assets.

Higher education must take a major responsibility in preparing future political and civic leaders for their deliberative role.

But we cannot force anyone to choose the higher road, or what Robert Frost called "the path less traveled by."

Individual leadership always makes a difference.

A great university like Penn, however, can provide the education, the practical experience, and the exemplars that will help future leaders recognize our deliberative deficit and this opportunity to reverse it.

The Annenberg School and the Annenberg Public Policy Center both play major roles in fulfilling this responsibility here at Penn - as FactCheck-dot-org, Justice Talking, Student Voices, Justice Learning and many other extraordinary projects attest.

But we are not resting on our laurels.

Quite the contrary, we are committed to doing more.

Throughout the educational experience, and in every curriculum on this campus, we can model good deliberation.

We can give students a sense of the realistic possibility of making their society more deliberative, and of their own ability to stimulate and participate in present and future deliberations to good effect.

This potential here at Penn is one reason why I am thrilled to continue this lecture with an important news flash. I am delighted to announce today - here and now - that the University of Pennsylvania has received a thirty million dollar gift from the Honorable Leonore Annenberg, the Annenberg Foundation, and the Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands to house an expanded Annenberg Public Policy Center.

The building also will house a deliberative forum for the entire University.

This extraordinary gift demonstrates Lee Annenberg's deep understanding of the important role that substantive dialogue and debate play in maintaining a strong and engaged democracy.

The new building, which will be constructed on 36th Street Walk, where the "old Hillel" building now stands, is scheduled to be completed in 2008.

It will provide opportunities for scholars who are working on some of the most important issues of our day to collaborate with colleagues at other schools and centers at Penn and elsewhere.

The new building will do two things that are both very important and very closely linked:

First, the new Annenberg building will provide a new and more adequate home for the Annenberg Public Policy Center, which under Kathleen Jamieson's inspired leadership, fosters a truly deliberative culture in American politics and mass media.

Second, the new building will bring together in a single location the Policy Center's programs in media and the developing child; political and health communication; and information and society.

In addition, the new building will provide a deliberative forum for use by our entire campus, giving concrete embodiment to the energetic and engaged deliberative culture that has taken such strong root at Penn.

Our new Annenberg building will feature a large first floor forum space, where the University community can gather for lectures, conferences, public debates, and deliberations.

Lee, your gift and the facilities it will provide could not be a more fitting tribute to your - and Walter's - support for democratic deliberation.

This gift is as important as any Penn has received in recent years.

This $30-million gift marks the joint commitment of Lee Annenberg, The Annenberg Foundation and The Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands, the Annenberg School for Communication and the Annenberg Public Policy Center, and the University to ensure that an experience of robust and deliberative civic engagement is a central part of the Penn experience - for faculty, students, staff, and alumni alike.

With this new facility we will have the means to make the deliberative vision that we share more of a reality than it is today.

In this way, the University of Pennsylvania is, indeed, at this very moment, rising to the challenge of creating a deliberative educational environment for our students, community partners, faculty, alumni, and staff.

We are also positioning Penn to be an ever more forceful leader in opening up the narrow and unimaginative culture of the American media.

When push comes to shove, higher education and the mass media are part and parcel of the same endeavor.

Working together, we can create new models, such as Justice Talking, program formats that are both informative and entertaining.

Working together, with Penn-educated leaders - and ideally, a Penn-educated President of the United States! - we can demonstrate the practicality of breaking the strictures that limit the media's sense of what is possible and permissible.

All of us can play a leadership role in this process.

As part of our Penn Compact to foster the integration of knowledge, to train engaged professionals, and to engage ourselves with communities locally and globally, we must prepare our students to become courageous leaders of a more deliberative democracy.

Our world needs serious and sustained deliberation.

The University of Pennsylvania, with our great Annenberg School and Public Policy Center, is ready to take the lead, and to educate future leaders.

Let us all collaborate - at Penn and far beyond - to reverse our deliberative decline.

Deliberating together, our university and society shall rise, as together we serve.

Thank you.