Democracy Won’t Die in Darkness If ‘Purple Project’ Has Anything to Say About It

Adweek spoke with Bob Garfield about the network of media companies, ad agencies and nonprofits

Purple Project for Democracy
The project hopes to bring democracy to the forefront. Purple Project for Democracy

A new coalition across industries aims to educate people on the role (and importance) of democracy and what that type of government could, and should, be. The so-called Purple Project for Democracy has been more than a year in the making.

What started as a phone call 19 months ago among concerned parties about the mindset and understanding of democracy has grown into a full-fledged network of media companies, ad agencies and nonprofits whose goal it is to put democracy at the forefront of the national conversation. The first part of the project rolls out Nov. 1.

In a spin on the line popularized by Mothers Against Drunk Driving, or MADD, that friends don’t let friends drive drunk, the Purple Project for Democracy intends to teach friends not to allow friends to “check out.”

Adweek caught up with Bob Garfield, who in his day job co-hosts the award-winning podcast On the Media, helps organize the Purple Project. Adweek caught up with Garfield ahead of the program’s rollout to find out how it’s gone so far and why this project is especially timely.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Adweek: Tell us a little bit about the project.
Bob Garfield: It was a grandiose idea, an utterly quixotic tilt. And we set a preposterous goal. And, lo and behold, a very significant network of media channels is going to publish various content on democracy themes in November. [This is] content of their own design and reporting and so forth.

To say that there have been false starts and blind alleys and complete fiascos along the way is an understatement. Our original goal of creating a national conversation about democracy and its future seems to be within our grasp. It’s our first goal: to start a national discussion, create a brand for civic participation and be a rising purple tide [referring to the combination of red and blue] that lifts all ships. That includes 200 different NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] that have all been doing very good work for decades but under a cloak of invisibility. We’re trying to make them visible and relevant and resonate.

Take us back to when you first had that initial phone call. What led you to come up with this idea?
I have a colleague, Yoram Wind [Lauder professor emeritus and professor of marketing at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania], and he had been talking to one of his colleagues, Rebecca Winthrop [senior fellow and co-director of Brookings’ Center for Universal Education]. They had seen some data points and survey results from five different surveys, which all got to the same fundamental, horrifying problem, which is that Americans across the board, to a staggering degree, have deemed American democracy a failure and are prepared to consider alternative forms of government, including army rule. We thought that was bad news.

But the only way to do anything about it is to have a national conversation. How do we do that? Because the media are hyper fragmented; people are trapped inside impervious filter bubbles of their own world views. Political polarization has seldom been higher in the history of the republic. How in the world, can you ever have a reasonable, rational conversation about this stuff?

What if we could be in so many places at one time for a finite period where we could command a conversation? And if it were unavoidable, if it were everyplace, it would not be invisible. On the other hand, it would be ubiquitous. And we would have to, as a society, start to talk amongst ourselves, right? That was the idea. And again, in this media ecosystem, borderline insane, but that’s what we’ve been trying to do.

How do you see the media’s role fitting into this broader conversation about democracy?
I’m old school. My instincts are for the media, not to crusade. Because our job is to go out to report, observe and contextualize stuff. That’s journalism. If you’d asked me this question two years ago, I would’ve seen risks to the media collaborating to take on the crest of democracy.

The first risk is that it is a crusade, and it arguably would take us away from the nuts and bolts of reporting, which the public depends on.

The second argument is that it creates a media monolith that is precisely the thing that has been imagined by conspiracy theorists who the media is a single entity, as opposed to a collection of thousands and thousands and thousands of independent publications and broadcasters. It would be a self-fulfilling prophecy for the naysayers. So that’s a concern.

And the third concern is that it’s implicitly in support of if not the government, the framework for our government. As a watchdog for the government, should the media be cheerleading for government in any way, shape or form? Those are the three reasons not to do this.

But the media have other roles as well, and one of them is to warn us about approaching threats, whether it’s Category 5 hurricane or political threats or societal threats and disease and so on. And if something is happening that is attacking the very body politic, it becomes an important thing for us, just like the importance of reporting on climate change and AIDS, and crime.

To report on democracy is to contextualize the environment for which our politics are taking place. And if you’re just reporting on crazy stuff that’s happening in Washington or in state capitals and you’re not contextualizing it by the mood of the electorate, then you’re not fulfilling that responsibility.

For all those reasons and the fact that it’s an emergency, I think the press is responsible for picking up the slack, and not just the press—all media. And so what we attempt to do here is to coalesce a lot of media voices and educational experts.

In this challenged media ecosystem, has it been difficult to get potential partners on board and committed to covering this?
No, not per se. The biggest challenge is completing tasks. This is a mammoth undertaking. The frustration hasn’t been so much recruiting content partners. The ones I can get on the phone generally join and generally, they do so with alacrity. The problem is the limitations of time and space.

The Columbia Journalism Review and The Guardian just led an effort to get media organizations all on board to the Covering Climate Now project. Seeing these grassroots efforts led to getting media on one page. What do you think that this says about where we are as an industry?
The climate week is exactly like [Purple Project] and also exactly not like [it], because the problem was slightly different. The mechanism is the same, but the problem was different. The problem with climate is it is the biggest story for journalism in the history of the world. Because it’s about the end of the world. Right? There will not be, nor has there ever been, a bigger story. But it’s a story that is so slow moving, it’s hard to cover. Journalism tends to cover events. They don’t cover the status quo, they cover change. It’s a structural problem for journalism to continue to report on something where there has been no market change since yesterday, or a month ago, or eight weeks ago.

Our problem was that a lot of people have understood the nature of complacency and distrust and loss of faith and actual antagonism toward the democratic system. And have been working hard on it for four decades, but they’ve becoming decreasingly visible.

Our job was to direct attention not only to the problem but to give resonance to the work that a lot of groups are doing.

We think once we get the conversation started, we can. And once we have a brand for participatory citizenship, civic mindedness, what we call mindful patriotism—once we do that, we can actually change the status quo, not just draw attention to it, but change it. And that is a movement. And we are a movement designed to put pressure on individuals to not check out but to check in.

@SaraJerde Sara Jerde is publishing editor at Adweek, where she covers traditional and digital publishers’ business models. She also oversees political coverage ahead of the 2020 election.