Volunteers: The Best of America (Miami Herald OpEd
April 25, 1997Volunteers: The Best of America
By Mark D. Gearan
Last week was National Service Week as proclaimed by President Clinton. My guess is that you didn't read one word about it.
Admittedly, some of the weeks that Congress regularly proclaims—National Artichoke Awareness Week or Cholesterol Appreciation Day—may not resonate. National Service Week should. But it didn't because it was not prominently covered.
Why? Journalists tell me: Good news isn't covered. It's a "dog bites man" story. If it bleeds, it leads.
It's the shocking, celebrity-driven coverage that's driving many serious reporters out of journalism.
From my days as White House communications director, I am familiar with the challenges of "breaking through" the news clutter. So I am particularly sympathetic to the communications challenge faced by the volunteer and service groups. Millions of Americans serve the common good quietly and, regrettably, anonymously. For the most part, it is not until conflict, tragedy or mismanagement occurs that we even read of their good work. Indeed, the media didn't take much notice of the President's AmeriCorps initiative until some in Congress opposed it.
A database search of "Peace Corps" last week generated references in stories on UFOs and cults. Is this fair to the nearly 7,000 Americans serving today as Peace Corps volunteers in the world's poorest countries? I think not.
Americans deserve better. We need national news coverage that enhances our ability to contribute as citizens. We need to know the good, the bad and the ugly about our democracy. Isn't it relevant that a 1996 study found that Americans volunteer 20 billion hours of their time? And isn't it relevant that 3,500 sandwiches will be served today by volunteers at Martha's Table in Washington?
In fairness, there are notable exceptions: ABC World News Tonight's "Solutions" segment, Newsweek's "Commitments to Service" column, and a respectable amount of local TV news.
Clearly we need to do more to spotlight citizen service and volunteerism. Organizations need help in bolstering such service. And all of us can do our part—policy makers and the media. Highlighting volunteerism inspires us all, and it challenges us to do more. Fortunately a big event looms that can alter the dynamic. From April 27-29, 3,500 delegates representing service and volunteer organizations from 50 states will convene in Philadelphia with Presidents Clinton, Bush, Carter and Ford for the Presidents' Summit for America's Future. The summit is a historic opportunity to harness the best of America to promote service. It's also an opportunity for the media to focus on the good things happening around the country.
It will take restraint on everyone's part. Politicians need to check their partisan rhetoric at the door. Journalists need to save their political analysis and various "plays of the week" or "outrages of the week" for another forum. And service groups and private-sector partners need to make good on their commitments.
All the wheels are in motion to recognize that the ethic of service is a vital part of American society. The possibilities are endless. And, God knows, our country needs it.
Mark D. Gearan is the director of the Peace Corps. He served as President Clinton's communications director from 1993-95.