Heinen: Support the work of citizens

The important challenge in America today.
Heinen: Support the work of citizens
Graphic by Carol Shufro

At the risk of confusing a fair number of you–oh, what the heck, I’ve been confusing a fair number of you for close to 30 years now, no point in holding back now–I’d like to go into greater detail about an item on the 2017 editorial agenda I’ve helped put together with the WISC-TV editorial board. As many of you know, Madison Magazine and WISC-TV and Channel3000.com are among the Morgan Murphy Media company properties owned by Elizabeth Murphy Burns, whose father, Morgan Murphy, started WISC-TV in 1956. To varying degrees, I work for all three entities of Morgan Murphy Media.

I need to be clear: The editorials I write for WISC are separated from the news side by a well-defined, not-to-be-crossed bright red line. They are opinions that represent the views of company management, and editorial board members include top station and company managers. Madison Magazine publisher Mike Kornemann and editor Karen Lincoln Michel are among those managers, and many of the editorials I write have to do with issues about which this magazine is also concerned. One of those is the individual and collective well-being of each and every resident of this community and then, by extension, the health and well-being of the community at large.

For the last 20 years or so, I have had a connection with the Kettering Foundation in Dayton, Ohio–“a nonprofit operating foundation rooted in the American tradition of cooperative research.” Kettering’s primary research seeks to answer the question: “What does it take to make democracy work as it should?” Kettering describes its research as “distinctive because it is conducted from the perspective of citizens and focuses on what people can do collectively to address problems affecting their lives, their communities and their nation.” I am arguing, editorially, there is no more important challenge in America today than supporting the work of citizens. And I believe “the media”–the maligned, distrusted, “opposition party” media–is critical to that work, especially local media like Madison Magazine, WISC-TV and Channel3000.com.

I also need to point out a critical motivational component of this editorial focus on the work of citizens, and that’s bridging the divides in our community, our state, our nation and our world. Right now, with historically dysfunctional government at the state and national levels, with persistent racial disparities and income inequality, and with diminished confidence and trust in civic institutions, the best way I can think of to reweave the civic threads into the fabric of democracy is to support citizens in democratic practices that give them the power to solve shared problems.

Those democratic practices include the naming and framing of issues, deliberating and making decisions, identifying available resources, organizing actions and learning together. It’s a thoughtful if not usually linear process. What’s important is to recognize these practices as we engage in them, and to understand how we engage in them. My friend and colleague David Holwerk is communications director and resident scholar at Kettering, and he is developing some helpful contextual definitions. For example, we are only citizens if there are two or more of us. Citizens exist in relation to other citizens. Community, in the context of democratic practices, is not a geographic location; it is where citizens do their work.

In these very uncertain times, we have a remarkable opportunity to consider the values we share, the common problems we face, and the power we have ONLY if we work together. Lincoln Michel’s column this month on page 12 illustrates one example. There are many others. We’ll find them. In our editorials and in this magazine we will name and frame issues, support organizing and deliberation, suggest resources and acknowledge public learning. It’s Morgan Murphy Media’s contribution to the work of citizens.