Style of Substance? Media Perceptions of Clinton's Economic and Timber Summits

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ABSTRACT

Many scholars have called for a redefining of the role of public officials to emphasize their obligation to foster public discourse on important policy questions. Clinton's economic and timber summits are presented as two attempts by an elected official to put this new approach to leadership into practice. This article concludes that officials who engage in activities of this kind will confront three difficulties: the media's skepticism about the integrity of deliberations that are organized and led by public officials; its doubt about the usefulness of public discourse as a means of overcoming differences of opinions; and its inability to find any metaphor to describe events such as the economic and timber summits that is congenial to the goal of fostering public discourse.

INTRODUCTION

A growing number of political scientists have expressed concern about the poverty of public discourse on current issues in the United States. Some have argued that the "crisis of legitimacy" (Mansbridge, 1980) confronting American government may be rooted in the declining quality of public deliberation on government policy. If citizens are unable to engage one another in conversation about current issues, these commentators argue, they will be less likely to reach agreement about appropriate policies and less likely to concede the reasonableness of policies with which they disagree.

Proponents of this view have concluded that it requires a reconceptualization of the role of political executives. They reject the conventional definition of the leadership function, sometimes characterized as the "decisionist" perspective, in which the work of political executives is conceived as that of making calculated choices about the best way of responding to a policy problem (Shklar, 1964; Majone, 1989). Instead, they argue for a broader conception which Barber (1984:238-239; Landy, 1991:59) calls "facilitating leadership" in which political executives assume responsibility for fostering and managing deliberation on contentious issues. The argument in favor of this view is, in part, prudential. It is expected to make the job of governing easier by producing clearer mandates for governmental action and by persuading the public that policy goals have been chosen through a "fair process of deliberation" (Moore, 1983:19).

Advocates of this new view propose a variety of devices for improving public discourse on important issues. These include proposals for more extensive use of public consultive processes as well as the use of "citizen juries" (Crosby et al., 1986); electronic town meetings (Barber, 1984); national issues forums (Yankelovich, 1991; deliberative opinion polls (Fishkin, 1991); and neighborhood or workplace assemblies (Mamsbridge, 1980; Barber, 1984). However, many of these proposals remain untested and there is skepticism about their effectiveness in shaping public opinion and legitimating governmental policy decisions (Lascher, 1994; Roberts, 1994; Denver and Hands, 1993.

An important obstacle confronting proponents of these various schemes may be the unwillingness of print and electronic media to take them seriously. In many instances, these events are intended to generate extensive media coverage, thus spurring wider debate about the issue at hand and demonstrating to the broader public that policies have been chosen after a fair and open discussion.

However, these goals are unlikely to be achieved if media representatives downplay the significance of these events, cast doubt on the fairness with which the deliberations have been carried on, or decline to convey the substance of the discussions. Unfortunately, there is good reason to believe that media representatives will do this. Studies suggest that media coverage of political activities is tainted by disdain toward events which are perceived to be manufactured for media coverage (Levy, 1981; Boorstin, 1987), cynicism about the motives of political executives (Starobin, 1995), and a tendency to prefer stories about political "gamesmanship" over those which provide substantive analysis of issues (Patterson, 1994). …