If Oprah Winfrey can start a reading club, why can't I? Oprah has commendably tempted thousands of telecrastinators to shut off the tube in favor of a little reading. With her monthly picks, she has propelled obscure new authors to the top of the bestseller lists. Her taste is good: The Deep End of the Ocean, by Jaccquelyn Mitchard, is a terrific book, I hereby attest.
Our book club should eschew mere fiction, perhaps. On the other hand, In the Lake of the Woods, by Tim O'Brien, certainly deals with issues of politics and government in its compelling treatment of a Vietnam veteran, a perpetrator of the My Lai massacre, and his tortured pursuit of elective office. The book enlightens, darkly, the motivations that sometimes propel people into politics. And Pat Barker's The Ghost Road, the last volume in her fictional trilogy about World War I, vividly explores the tragedy the war inflicted on so many young lives.
But now to a book of more direct bearing on our professional lives-The Electronic Republic, by Lawrence K. Grossman, a former president of the Public Broadcasting Service and of NBC News. The book, produced under the auspices of the Twentieth Century Fund, offers a clearheaded portrayal of the sorry state of our media and our politics, and a vision of where modern communications technology is likely to take us.
A central conclusion is that the public-no longer the media-now constitutes the "fourth estate" of government. The rise of ballot initiatives and referenda in states led by California, the advent of term limits, the growth of powerful ad hoc interest groups and single-issue political movements, and the spread of interactive telecommunications all are giving citizens direct leverage on public policy they never had before. In Congress and other legislatures, moreover, decisions can no longer be made outside the glare of public exposure. These trends have narrowed the options of elected officials and thus, writes Grossman, "a strong case can be made that members of the government's permanent bureaucracy-its agency and departmental officials, civil servants and staff aides to elected officials-who operate essentially outside the range of public scrutiny and accountability-have experienced the greatest increase in actual power and influence."
Many readers may not believe power is flowing their way, but most would surely agree with Grossman that there's increasing demand by "customers," many of whom are ordinary citizens, for a role in governmental decision-making. Agencies, he writes, will have to take far more ambitious steps to engage citizens directly in drafting laws and regulations.
To play a larger role successfully, people should know more than they do about our government. Civics education must come back. And the media-tabloid-driven, full of violence and sleaze, movie stars and other "personalities," and clearly declining as a force for education-must do better. Grossman recommends an enhanced role, and a more secure source of funding, for public television as one promising reform to make "the Electronic Republic" a better place. His book should be high on the list of those interested in the effects of fast-advancing communications technology on our government and politics.