At a time when the best selling book is Howard Stern’s salacious exhibitionism, the most talked about television show is Beavis and Butthead and the most well-known physician is Dr. Kevorkian, it is a refreshing contrast to learn about the 1993 awards for innovations in state and local government from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. Not that such awards merited a news story across the country by a media addicted to avoiding superior civic or governmental performances. Television producers and newspaper editors, by and large, believe that you are bored by good news, by solutions to problems in one community that other similarly beleaguered communities have not solved. Producers of the daytime national talkshows also believe that you find subjects, that do not fit the formulae of sex, violence and/or addiction, tedious to watch.
Publishers are not far from that attitude as well. When they go against the ennui party line, as Atheneum Publishers did this month in releasing Jonathan Freedman’s “From Cradle to Grave: The Human Face of Poverty,” — about citizens who had overcome severe problems through social programs that work at the local level (schools, job training centers, hospices and nursing homes), few people learn about it. A Washington press conference on the book and its Pulitzer Prize-winning author was an attendance flop.
But what if the Washington Post and the New York Times, among others, showed up and wrote stories? Would readers have skipped to the funnies or sports pages? Many would. But the media is not just for the lowest common denominator of appeal. People come in all shades of interests and even a small number of readers can leverage this story to wider discussion and emulation. Appealing to such viewers and readers should be possible, given all the pages of newspapers who serve narrow audiences such as the fishing column, the household hints column, the chess game column and the crossword puzzles. With dozens (and soon hundreds) of cable channels available, why not a 24 hour channel or two devoted to brilliant social innovations that we can all learn from to improve our community and nation?
Examples, you ask for? Well, here is a partial list of the Kennedy School of Government’s award winners:
— Info/California — computer-equipped kiosks in public places provide 24-hour access to information about government services;
— Central Park East Secondary School where at-risk youth succeed in record numbers at this “reinvested” inner-city public high school;
— Vendor information program — a fully automated public purchasing system in Oregon has changed the state’s procurement process, saving $17 million;
— Seattle community voice mail for phoneless/homeless persons to help them stay in contact with potential employers;
— LAMP, community housing groups, and local lenders cooperate in West Virginia to help low-income families buy homes. (More information on the Innovations Awards program can be obtained by writing to the A. Alfred Taubman Center, 79 J.F. Kennedy Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 02138).
We need to tell the media producers that we define news to include what is succeeding in politics, government and citizen activity. Night after night of local evening television news on street crimes, while ignoring what else is going on in the towns and cities, can demoralize even the most irrepressible of people.
What is worst is the savagely skewed view of our society that conveys itself days after day on Sallie Jesse, Oprah, Geraldo and the televised news. As the media moguls like to tell us -perception can become reality.