The idea of a high-level commission to examine the information needs of 21st Century American citizens and communities originated at an Aspen Institute forum in the summer of 2007. Participants in that discussion noted both the spread of digital technology and that, in a democracy, information is a core community need. There was also a sense that people with digital tools and skills have distinct political, social and economic advantage over those without them, as do the roughly 60 percent of Americans who have broadband access over those in rural areas or the poor who do not.
Finally, we were beginning to realize that people with digital access have a new attitude toward information. Instead of passively receiving it, digital users expect to own the information, actively engaging with it, responding, connecting. In sum, they expect to be able to act on and with it in an instant.
The thesis evolved that technology was changing attitudes toward information in basic, critically important ways, but that free flow of all sorts of information continued to be as critical as ever to the core of democracy. We proposed a commission to inquire into the nature of this change and suggest a way, or ways, forward.
In April of 2008, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Aspen Institute announced the formation of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy. Rather than on media, the Knight Commission would focus on communities, in the places where people live and work. The Commission was given a deceptively simple charge:
1. Articulate the information needs of a community in a democracy,
2. Describe the state of things in the United States, and
3. Propose public policy directions that would help lead us from where we are today to where we ought to be.
The result is not standard fare and we are delighted. This report focuses on the information people actually need, and works back from there, suggesting ways that the flow of information and its uses may be enhanced. That is a fundamentally different approach from traditional media policy that sought to promote or regulate existing media. Since the current pace of information technology change is rapid to the point of defying regularization or regulation, the Commission’s approach is to steer to the true north of what is constant, the need for the free flow of information in a democracy.
Nothing in this report is meant to be prescriptive. Everything in this report is meant to propose and encourage debate.
Nevertheless, vision emanates from core values and it seems to us axiomatic that access to information is essential, while definition of what is valuable information is open to debate. Therefore, if there is no access to information, there is a denial to citizens of an element required for participation in the life of the community. That is as real politically (in denying voters information about candidates and issues) as it is socially (consider digital social networks) and economically (in a world where entry level job applications at MacDonald’s or Wal-Mart must be made online, denial of digital access equals denial of opportunity).
What is a government to do? We think there is a lesson in the administrations of Dwight D. Eisenhower and Abraham Lincoln. They understood the need to connect the nation and did it, using the latest, popular technology. In the middle of the Civil War, the nation embarked on the construction of the transcontinental railroad, linking east and west for commerce and development. Post-World War II, Eisenhower caused to be built the United States Interstate Highway System, allowing the connection of the entire nation by car and truck.
Lincoln did not ask if people traveled for pleasure or commerce. Eisenhower did not care whether you drove a Cadillac or Ford. They cared that the nation be connected and that is our lesson. In the area of communications today, there is no greater role for public bodies, whether White House, Congress or state and local legislatures, than to invest in the creation of universal broadband access for all Americans, regardless of wealth or age, no matter that they live in rural or urban communities. Enabling the building of a national, digital broadband infrastructure and ensuring universal access is a great and proper role for government.
The Knight Commission further proposes that we take as national policy the strengthening of the capacity of individuals to engage with that information. Access is the beginning; education and training, public engagement and government transparency logically follow. Many variations on these themes are suggested here as the beginning of a national debate.
A final note: journalism matters. While the Knight Commission did not set out to “save” journalism, and its focus is on communications more generally, there is a clear understanding that we must find sustainable models that will support the kind of journalism that has informed Americans. The fair, accurate, contextual search for truth is a value worth preserving.
In constructing the Knight Commission, we purposely did not choose a panel of “experts.” While we sought diversity of views, the size of the group meant that we would not have full representation from every corner, though we tried to correct for that through a wide range of witnesses at hearings. We are grateful to them and to the staff because what we got is what we wanted: an insightful report by a panel of 15 thoughtful Americans that we hope will generate healthy debate for the benefit of our democracy.
President and CEO
John S. and James L. Knight Foundation
President and CEO
The Aspen Institute
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