Lawrence K. Grossman

Reshaping Democracy in the Information Age

VTR Date: October 30, 1996

Guest: Grossman, Lawrence K.


Guest: Lawrence K. Grossman
Title: “Reshaping Democracy in the Information Age”
VTR: 10/30/96

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And though I’ve many times felt constrained to deny it, I suppose that philosophically, psychologically, whichever, whatever, I really something of a Luddite. Surely I’ve long enough thought of modern electronic means of mass communications as being or becoming ever more the medium of our discontent. Ironic too that I should share so much by way of professional and particularly intellectual background with my guest today and so much admire him and his totally compelling recent book on reshaping democracy in the Information Age without in the least sharing what seems to be his extraordinary optimism about “The Electronic Republic”, as he titles his book.

Lawrence K. Grossman writes from the perspective both of an intellect “homme fine” at Columbia College, and of impressive media experience culminating in the presidencies of, first, PBS, the Public Broadcasting Service, and then NBC News.

Now, in his chapter on The Age of Media Power, my guest sort of makes fun a bit of how critics and pundits make of media our times’ whipping boy of choice. Now he writes, “Television is blamed for almost all of society’s man-made ills, musing ourselves to death, depriving us of our sense of place, turning us into couch potatoes, destroying our individuality, corrupting our moral values, saturating us with sex and violence, glamorizing crime, debasing the political process, creating a nation of insatiable consumers, ignoring our responsibilities as citizens, diminishing our sense of community, warping our perspective of the world, vulgarizing our arts, coarsening our culture, shortening our attention span, eroding our educational standards, undermining our religious faith, and distracting us from pressing social and economic issues. The plug-in drug”.

And then, my guest concedes, “Buried somewhere in all the hyperbole is a good deal of truth”. Better, however, and much more accurate had he written, ‘Buried somewhere in all that truth there is some hyperbole”, which, of course, is my way of asking Larry Grossman how such an experienced, media-savvy guy can be so sanguine about the shape democracy will take in the Information Age. That’s really putting it to you, Larry.

GROSSMAN: Well, of course, that description of television all referred to Open Mind…

HEFFNER: [Laughter] Good for you!

GROSSMAN: . ..the longest-running and most civilized program on television. But the fact is that “The Electronic Republic’ as I have termed it, is coming like a force of nature. And it’s got great peril, and it’s got great promise. Here in this age when so many people are turned off government, indeed, turned off representative government, the sense of frustration and cynicism, a drop out of politics, anger at politicians and at politics. Here we have an opportunity for the public to participate in the major decision-making of government at the same time. And so what we’ve got to do is start working on it and cultivating it the way the Ancient Greeks in Ancient Athens cultivated their citizenship role for direct democracy. The last time, by the way, we had direct democracy. And if we don’t start doing anything about it and not just relying on television, that great entertainment medium, for the entire health and all the information that we get about our democracy, we’re going to be in very deep trouble, and your Luddite feelings will be reinforced.

HEFFNER: You say “reinforced.” Your assumption is that they needn’t be. Your assumption is that there’s going to be something that you can do with this inexorable force that’s going to make it serve us well. What?

GROSSMAN: Well, we’ve got to start focusing on citizenship. Right now we’re doing the stupidest of all things, which is to rely entirely on television, which is essentially a medium of entertainment. You know, all the money is in entertainment. And television is in the hands of major companies whose first obligation is to stockholders and worried about the bottom line. And here our entire political future is resting in the hands of what kind of stuff we get out of television. All the polls indicate that people rely on television most of all to find out what’s going on in the world and in this country. And so it’s time that we started addressing our civic-education needs, it’s time that we started seriously looking, as Congress did 100 years ago when they designed the Land Grant Colleges Act for free higher education, it’s time we started looking at the educational aspects of television, it’s time we started using the Library of Congress to inform citizens and not just congressmen and their staffs. Because what’s happening is that the public is now becoming the fourth branch of government. No decision of any consequence is made by any government without first taking the public’s temperature. So that the public is now not just a citizen once every four years when they have to be cultivated for voting; but it has to act as responsible citizens all throughout the years between elections.

HEFFNER: But, Larry, you’re assuming that that’s the force of nature, and that we cannot, as a democratic republic –never mind the electronic republic – but as a republic that has long believed in representative government, that you’re assuming that we have no means by which we can maintain our traditional republic in the face of Perot-ish plebiscites.

GROSSMAN: No, it’s not… What the electronic republic will be, in my judgment, is a hybrid: a cross between representative government. We still elect officials to make decisions for us, but the public now is participating in the decision making process in an active and very integrated way. And our political system is not equipped to deal with that. And that’s been brought about largely because of not just television but the confluence of television and computer and radio and telephone and satellite, which means that people can communicate with people all over the country through their computers and through their television sets, generating little political upheavals, you know, on things that of special interest to them, and becoming terribly influential in the way policy is made.

HEFFNER: But what you’re writing here in The Electronic Republic, it seems to me you state so, if I may, so brilliantly, so well…

GROSSMAN: You certainly may. [Laughter]

HEFFNER: …what the past has been, and what the intellectual context of democracy, of our democratic republic is, and then you go on to make a concession. You don’t, in a sense, make the concession in the book; you make it right here. This force of nature. You’re going to put your stamp of approval, the former president of PBS, the former president of NBC News, a man to whom we look for guidance, you’re putting your seal of approval upon this governance by plebiscite, by electronic plebiscite.

GROSSMAN: Oh, yes. I think that it has great possibilities, as a matter of fact. In Switzerland, the longest democracy in many ways, we do have an example of a government by plebiscite. The public has the right through plebiscite to overrule or veto any law that they do not like that’s passed by their legislature, to propose laws that legislators are refusing to address, and then have them passed. There are models that we can follow. We are seeing it in states. In a state like California today, more major political decisions are made in the voting booth through the ballot initiative and referenda than are being made by the state legislature.

HEFFNER: And you and I both know that the decisions that are being made in those plebiscites are decisions that are formed not by knowledge, not by distance, but by ignorance in many instances, and by pressure groups that are — and I’ll put quotes around the word — “educating” or “spin-controlling”…

GROSSMAN: Manipulating.

HEFFNER: …manipulating the American public. How can this please you?

GROSSMAN: Well, that part of it, of course, doesn’t please me, any more than in representative government the fact that political interests end up buying the votes of congressmen and congressional leaders and chairmen. You know, we instituted in the early Twentieth Century the whole idea of initiatives and referenda to overcome the fact that state legislatures were bought and sold, our representatives, by selfish interests.

HEFFNER: And now we’re bought and sold.

GROSSMAN: And the theory was that the general public could not be bought and sold. You know, you can always buy a couple of legislators; you can’t buy the whole population. Now we’re seeing that only those with the money can afford to try to influence the whole population. But, you know, ironically, with all of that — and therefore we need campaign finance reform and so forth — with all of that, every single study of the results of both national surveys on national issues, and referenda and initiatives, have found, have concluded that the people make decisions at least as rational and often more sensible in their own interests than the decisions of the so- called experts.

HEFFNER: Well, Larry, you and I were brought up to believe that, not that the voice of the people is the voice of God, but that in a free and open encounter, when people can hear all sides and people can be presented in town-meeting fora with the facts of the matter, that, by and large, you and I are going to vote for their judgment, we’re going to put our bets on their judgments rather than on the judgments of an elite. Yes, but we’re no longer talking about free and open encounters; we’re talking about the Information Age. You talk about reshaping democracy in the Information Age, but this Information Age in which we live is so frequently a misinformation age and you’re not denying that.

GROSSMAN: No, of course not. There is plenty of misinformation. But, at the same time, for all of the corruption of the information that’s going on, this is the first time in history that people can see their leaders first-hand, you know. And that’s why they’re, in effect, saying as they watch the debates and as they watch Clinton and Dole and other leaders throughout the years, they’re saying to the journalists, “Get out of the way”. You know? “I’ll conclude for myself. I don’t have to rely on political party bosses to tell me what to think any longer, nor do I even have to rely on reporters. Nor do I have to rely on the experts. I may listen to them, I may pay attention to what they have to say…” But we have great new opportunities to inform the people, and all I’m arguing is that we really have to take advantage of those opportunities.

HEFFNER: But, Larry, when you say, “to inform the people,” setting the candidates to say what they will before the people, permitting me, as an advocate of gun control or of the NRA’s position, before the people as often as I can afford, that does not necessarily educate the people. It is an educated people that makes the right decision.

GROSSMAN: That’s right. And that’s why we have to start worrying a lot about the quality of our education. Civics education in particular, if we’re talking about citizenship. Not just front-loaded for kids in school (and we lost civics), but on a continuing basis throughout all of our adult lives. The Ancient Greeks went to great and very sophisticated lengths to make sure that their citizens were informed before they had to make their decisions at the assemblies. They had one out of every 60 citizens charged and paid for the responsibility of informing citizens and answering their questions and staying in the marketplace before the assemblies in which the decisions were made.


GROSSMAN: There are ways of dealing with this.

HEFFNER: But how can you be so sanguine and to push the notion of “The Electronic Republic” when you know that that is not, in the past generation, that is not the direction that the American people are taking. That’s not the direction; that’s Larry Grossman’s hope and Dick Heffner’s hope, but it is not the direction that we have taken. Real education, public education, has suffered.

GROSSMAN: But I think it’s time to turn it around. And I think that people themselves, the very sort of sense of cynicism about government, the very sense that self-government does not, it’s not enough for self-government just to be wooed every four years to go into a ballot box, particularly now in this age when you’re voting every day and with keypad democracy. You know, in Oregon there’s no more ballot boxes; you vote at home by mail. And soon you’ll be voting, you know, “Press A to vote for Candidate #1, press B to vote for Candidate #2, press 3 if you want to go to war.” We’re going to have to work very hard at educating our citizens, and we do nothing to deal with it at present.

HEFFNER: Okay. Let me use your “Press 3 if you want to go to war”. I’ll remember that, Larry, because [ Laugher] that, to me, will be the best statement of the electronic republic. I know that you want the electronic republic under girded with education, with information. You’re not just talking about “Let public opinion prevail,” but an educated and informed opinion. But, once again, that is not what we have. And I suspect the founders, in building all of the checks and balances were well aware. They couldn’t dream up these things around us today, these cameras, but they could understand that in the long history of mankind one had better have checks and balances upon this will of the people. Do you want to move in a different direction?

GROSSMAN: Well, we’re in big danger with these checks and balances. You know, the founders, first of all, did not trust the people, which is why they put all the checks and balances in. And secondly, operated at a time when information was almost impossible to come by. When anybody went to Washington he totally lost contact with his constituents. Today that is no longer the case. We know more about our officials in Washington than we do about members of our own family, as we keep them under constant surveillance. And as long as we’re moving in the direction… And it’s an age-old issue, you know: Does a representative vote according to the will of his constituents, or to according to what he thinks is right?

HEFFNER: What’s your answer, by the way, to that?

GROSSMAN: Oh, the answer is: People expect to be listened to, but in the end they expect their leaders to cast ballots, cast votes for policies that they believe as right. The worst politician is one who seems to waver in the wind.

HEFFNER: Then are you suggesting the electronic republic is made up of advisories only? That we’re going to push 1, or push 2, or push 3, go to war, on an advisory basis only?

GROSSMAN: Well, it could well be. And 1 think there’s no question. You know, when Jefferson bought, doubled the size of the country by buying the Louisiana Purchase in the early 1800’s, he didn’t tell a soul about it for over a year. Now, that’s unthinkable today. And the country was much smaller then. Today, if Clinton wants to send 15,000 troops into Bosnia he’s got to work very hard to persuade not just the Congress but the public. So we’ve got very much of a changed situation here.

HEFFNER: But, Larry, it seems to me, and I guess because we’re such old friends I feel that I can take this role of advocate here with you. You’ll forgive me. It’s not usual. It seems to me that that’s just exactly what the basis is of your book here. You talk about the responsibility. You talk about Clinton’s obligation — his need; forget the obligation. It sounds moral. Not that it’s amoral – his need to convince the public and their representatives, but that’s putting it back the other way. As I read this book, what you’re doing is talking about power in the hands of the public. Perhaps educated public along some lines. But, by and large, we have to assume an uneducated public. Rather than the responsibility of leadership to educate the public. And before we get to that point not to have instruments, dangerous instruments lying around the house that uneducated kids can pick up and blow us away with. That’s what it seems to me that the machinery that you’re positing here is dangerous in the hands of an uneducated public.

GROSSMAN: Oh, of course it’s dangerous. Just as the machinery is dangerous in the hands of a runaway elite or a selfish leadership. You know, just three very quick points. You talk about the concern about plebiscite as to whether we should go to war or not. After World War I, when there was a big peace movement, every president of every major university advocated a constitutional amendment that said, in effect, “We do not go to war without the vote of the public unless we’re attacked.” And it was narrowly defeated. But narrowly defeated. But at one point all of the sort of intellectuals and academic community thought this would be a greater protection for peace than to allow a few people to lead us to war. There’s a wonderful phrase, a wonderful passage in the ‘Book of Daniel” in the Old Testament called Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream, who talked about the fourth kingdom, the final kingdom, which is, I think, a perfect metaphor for where we’re going. It’s a kingdom, Nebuchadnezzar dreamt, a kingdom of “Iron mixed with common clay’. The iron of representative government with the common clay of the people. And he said, ‘That will be a very strong kingdom, but a brutal kingdom, because iron and common clay do not mix very well”. That’s the kind of situation we’re heading into in the 21st Century through telecommunications, interactive telecommunications and the Internet. And all I’m suggesting is we have to start developing policies and means of making sure that when the two mix we have a firm democracy in the century ahead.

HEFFNER: I think that’s beautifully put and quite persuasive. I may be a Luddite, but I’m not a damned fool. And I’m not willing not to be prepared for the flood, as I would describe it, and for that bright new future, as you describe it. How do you then go about harnessing this instrument of… Democracy? No, because we think of, what we think of a democracy is something different. But of majoritarianism, of mob rule perhaps. Let me call it, pejoratively, ‘mob rule.’ How do we protect ourselves?

GROSSMAN: Well, you know, the Greeks ran their government in the ancient democracy of Athens, admittedly a very few citizens were… But that’s the way it was in this country as well in the beginning: only ten percent of the citizens. Much more akin to the way we run our jury trials. There was a sense that you did not need a special expertise or background. They picked their leaders by rote, not by election. By lot. And they did not give them… They gave them limited terms. Everybody had to serve. And it was thought that, if they deliberated and thought about the issues, that they would come out with sensible decisions. That’s the way we run our jury trials. In juries we don’t expect jurors to have special background. In fact, we exclude jurors who do. And yet we think if they hear the case on both sides they’ll come out with a better decision than a judge or an expert will come out with. We’re not willing to do that in our government; and I think that’s a big mistake.

HEFFNER: Well, two points, Larry, after all: It was that jury that gave the cup of hemlock to our friend, Socrates; and it is that jury system that has come under such attack and so much criticism in our own time, that very point. Could it be that we want people who are totally ignorant to make the judgments about our property, about our lives, about our purses? Many people feel that this is not the best way to run a judicial system.

GROSSMAN: Certainly not ignorant people. But, you know, I’ll never forget, you talked about our Columbia upbringing and education. In my very first week at Columbia there was a wonderful professor, Henry Steele Commidger, one of the great historians, who looked at of us young kids coming into college and said, “Just remember this,” he said, and I’ve never forgotten those words, “The well- educated, the rich, and the well-born have been on the wrong side of every public issue since the beginning of history. Don’t discount the ability of people to operate in their own self-interest. But we have an obligation as citizens not just to rely on entertainment media to provide that information that will help them make these decisions; we have to develop it ourselves. We rest much too much on our media and take not enough blame for ourselves for the policies that we have in the way we carry out our democracy”.

HEFFNER: One thing particularly interests me here. I could debate this question about Henry Steele Commidger, but this isn’t the place. Why do you assume that the dollar-determined, traditional media will not be matched by dollar-determined, newer electronic media?

GROSSMAN: Oh, it will. It will. That’s the big danger, isn’t it? That for all of the promise of cable and of direct broadcast via satellite and of the Internet where we have so many more accessible points, that what we’re seeing is an excess of sameness. Everybody’s going for where the money is, which is entertainment. And that’s why we have a public responsibility to begin to provide programs like this, the opportunity… You can’t force people to educate themselves, but you sure can offer them the opportunity to do that.

HEFFNER: Yes, but, you see, when you and I were boys, in this medium anyway, there was such a thing as a Federal Communications Commission that perhaps didn’t have teeth that were very, very impressive, but they hadn’t all been pulled as yet.

GROSSMAN: Well, it had pretty soft gums.

HEFFNER: All right. But as I understand your feeling about this, you won’t even return to the regulationism of our youth.

GROSSMAN; Oh no, I totally agree that that would be a terrible mistake. First of all, it’s not…

HEFFNER: No, no, excuse me. You’re agreeing with yourself. I don’t agree with that.

GROSSMAN: You have characterized my views accurately. First of all, it impossible. We no longer have three or five television stations that a government agency is supposed to oversee and decide whether it operates in the public interest, which it never did properly even when there were only three or five television stations in the market. Now we have hundreds, and soon we’ll have thousands in the digital age. And there’s no government agency that’s going to be able to supervise every radio, every television, every direct broadcast via satellite, every cable channel. Nor, in my judgment, should any government agency have that responsibility…

HEFFNER: Which is more to the point.

GROSSMAN: …of directly controlling content. Both on a practical and on a theoretical, if you will, basis. But I think we need a different kind of policy for the new generation of telecommunications, and that is a policy that says we need an alternative to the pure, commercial, marketplace-driven entertainment media that we have. We have a responsibility to set up, just as we’ve set up a public-education facility, we have the opportunity set up now, as we did with higher education, a great superhighway, a public telecommunication superhighway that will educate, that can provide information to inform, that can provide printouts and CD-ROMs, interconnect every home and school and library and museum — and it can be done by simply auctioning off the airwaves, the equivalent of the frontier land of a century ago — and start providing those avenues that we need for the information superstructure which is already characterizing our economy, that the industrial superstructure did before.

HEFFNER: Larry, at the end of our program here I really still scratch my head and wonder how two guys who started off more or less in the same place and had parallel experiences feel, come to conclude and feel and think so differently. Your enthusiasm… I hope you’re right, because if you’re right it’s going to be a lot easier. But I think what you’re saying is impossible. I say has to be. And what I say is impossible, you say has to be. Anyway, thank you so much for joining me today. I think The Electronic Republic is a fascinating book, now out in paperback, and hope everyone reads it, and votes, not the third choice, going to war, but votes against a little more responsibility, a lot more responsibility in the media even in The Electronic Republic. Thanks again.

GROSSMAN: Thank you. I certainly share that view.

HEFFNER: And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4 in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150.

Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck.”