Tuning in to TV, tuning out civic life Society: A study by a Maryland-based panel sees a distressing decline in community activism and offers solutions.

June 25, 1998|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Americans distrust their leaders, watch too much TV and aren't active enough in their communities, churches and schools. As a result, the moral condition of American society has declined steeply over the past quarter-century.

Those are the conclusions of a new study of civic life in America, the latest entry in a growing national debate over citizenship. It was released yesterday by a privately funded commission that operates out of the University of Maryland, College Park.

"What we're trying to do is respond to the cynicism [in America] and give people a reason to get back involved," said former Education Secretary William J. Bennett, who co-chaired the panel's 18-month study with former Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia.

Many people say they don't have enough time to devote to their community or their children's schools, but "we found that Americans have more leisure time than ever," Bennett said. "It's just how they spend it."

Noting that Americans watch an average of 28 hours of television a week, Bennett added: "There's something wrong in a country [where] 40 to 45 percent of leisure time is consumed by television."

The new report sketches a bleak profile of civic life at the close of the 20th century. Despite an economic boom and recent evidence that some of the most troubling trends of recent decades are being reversed -- crime rates are down, trust in government is up slightly, the divorce rate appears to have bottomed out -- too many Americans remain passive and disengaged members of society, it says.

"In a time that cries out for civic action, we are in danger of becoming a nation of spectators," the report concludes.

Funded by a $1.1 million foundation grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts, the National Commission on Civic Renewal is based at Maryland's School of Public Affairs. It is directed by William A. Galston, a former domestic policy adviser to President Clinton.

Commission members, who included corporate and foundation executives, academics and religious and civic leaders from around the country, could not agree on at least one issue -- whether to call for increased choice in elementary and secondary education.

10-point plan

But they did approve a 10-point plan designed to spur civic action. Included are some familiar recommendations -- greater participation in neighborhood crime watches, a renewed commitment to the two-parent family, improved teacher training and greater responsibility by students for maintaining discipline at school -- and some less conventional ones as well.

Identifying television as "an increasingly dominant and destructive force in our society," the commission suggested that local TV stations enter into pacts with each other to reduce an overemphasis on crime, violence and outrageous conduct in their newscasts.

The report also advised citizens to bring pressure on corporations whose advertising support violent and sexually explicit TV shows.

"We must hold the entertainment industry as accountable for civic harm as we do the tobacco industry for physical harm," the panel said. "We believe that a sense of shame still exists at the highest reaches of corporate America and in the entertainment industry. We intend to appeal to it, and we urge other Americans to do the same."

Taking issue

Taking issue with the report's conclusions, the head of a Massachusetts think tank said that "elite discussions" of civic involvement are overlooking a surge in local activity.

"There needs to be less finger-wagging at and more listening to the people," said Pam Solo of the nonprofit Institute for Civil Society, which funds grass-roots community initiatives. "Americans are not spectators, as the title of the report suggests. They are simply participating differently and in many cases are ahead of the politicians."

The commission acknowledges an increase in volunteerism, especially at the local level. But it contrasted that with the decline in political participation, as measured by voter turnout, and the growth of "check-writing" organizations, such as the National Rifle Association or the Children's Defense Fund, which ask for money, rather than donations of time and energy.

To illustrate its findings, the panel released a new Index of National Civic Health. The index combines 22 components covering such diverse social indicators as trust in government, political activism, the strength of the family, church membership, charitable contributions and fear of crime.

When placed on a time line, the nation's civic condition declined steeply in the quarter-century that began in the early 1970s.

There was a brief blip up in 1984, as trust in government rebounded in response to President Ronald Reagan's upbeat PTC "morning in America" re-election campaign.

Peter Levine, the commission's deputy director, said the major components responsible for the decline were the steady drop in voter turnout, increased fear of crime and polls that showed a continued loss of trust in government.

In addition to updating the index each year, the commission plans to follow its report with task forces to encourage civics education in each state, seek voluntary agreements from local TV stations to increase their coverage of civic activity and an entertainment project that will release an annual "10 Worst" list of movies, music and TV programs.

Pub Date: 6/25/98

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