Media And Democracy Essay, Research Paper
Americans have never been truly fond of their press. Through the last decade, however, their disdain for the media establishment has reached new levels. Americans believe that the media have become too arrogant, cynical, scandal-minded, and destructive. Public hostility shows up in opinion polls, through comments on talk shows, in waning support for news organizations in their showdowns with government officials, and in many other ways. The most important sign of public unhappiness may be a quiet consumers’ boycott of the press. Year by year, a smaller proportion of Americans goes to the trouble of reading newspapers or watching news broadcasts on TV. This is a loss not only for the news media but also for the public as a whole. Ignoring the news leaves people with no way to prepare for trends they don’t happen to observe themselves, no sense of what is happening in other countries or even other parts of their own town, no tools with which to make decisions about public leaders or policies. Evidently many people feel that these losses represent a smaller sacrifice than being exposed to what the news offers.
The big American institutions that have failed in the recent past often wasted years blaming others for their problems. The U.S. military was near collapse in the immediate aftermath of the Vietnam war. Many members of the military felt stabbed in the back and blamed their problems on weak political leaders and ungrateful fellow citizens. The Big Three auto makers of Detroit, with their dinosaur-like vehicles, were unprepared in the 1970s for the sudden rise in world oil prices or for competition from Japan. They complained about the unfairness of oil producers in the Middle East, regulators in Washington, and car makers in Japan.
There was some truth in such complaints. But the larger truth is that these institutions reversed their decline only when they recognized and corrected defects in their own internal values. In the early 1970s, control of the auto companies had passed from “car men,” who had been trained to design and build automobiles, to “money men,” who knew all about quarterly profits and stock options but very little about making cars. In the face of Japanese competition, the Big Three floundered until they put “car men” back in charge. The American military of the same era was damaged by an ethic of careerism directly at odds with its older tradition of service. Officers bucked for promotion by being yes-men to their superiors and helping get defense contracts approved. In the field in Vietnam, enlisted men tried mainly to survive their 365 days “in country” and officers tried mainly to get a combat-command ticket punched. Then, during the decade after Vietnam, the military examined its ethics more deeply and honestly than any other American institution, and it corrected much of what was wrong.
The media establishment is still in the denial stage. Many of today’s journalists are all too aware of the pressures pushing their profession in a direction they don’t want to go. But they have not been able to deal with outside complaints honestly enough to begin the process of reform. In response to suggestions that the press has failed to meet its public responsibilities, the first instinct of many journalists is to cry “First Amendment!”, which is like the military’s reflexive use of “national security” to rebut any criticism of how it does its work.
Criticize reporters or editors for their negativity, and you will be told that they are merely reflecting the world as it is. Objecting to news coverage, they say, is merely “blaming the messenger”; the press claims no responsibility for the world that it displays. Accuse a publication of left-wing bias, and its editors will reply that they are often accused of being right-wing, too–or of being pro-black, or anti-black, or pro-business, or nuttily pro-environment, or of being biased in every other conceivable way. If people are complaining from all sides, the editors reason, it must mean that they’ve got the balance just about right. Say that coverage is shallow or sensationalistic, and reporters will reply that they are already serving up more extensive, thoughtful news analysis than a lazy public will bother to read. If they don’t feature crime and gore on the local TV news or run celebrity profiles in the paper, they’ll lose their audience to competitors that do. Complain that reporters are insulated and elitist, being more committed to the values of the powerful politicians they cover than to the interests of the audience they supposedly serve, and journalists will say that even if the charge were accurate it would be irrelevant. They are “insulated,” they feel, only in the sense that research scientists are, devoting all their effort to understanding an exotic subject. They can better serve the public by getting a close-up view of power than by artificially keeping their sources at arm’s length.
There is some truth in journalism’s complaints and excuses. But the larger truth is that the most influential parts of the media establishment have lost sight of or have been pushed away from their central values. This book is an attempt to explain why the values of journalists have changed, how their current practices undermine the credibility of the press, and how they affect the future prospects of every American by distorting the processes by which we choose our leaders and resolve our public problems. Many journalists have noted the crisis in their profession, and a number of them have begun reform efforts. This book describes the efforts they have made.
Everyone knows that big-time journalists have become powerful and prominent. We see them shouting at presidents during White House press conferences. We hear them offering instant thumbs-up/thumbs-down verdicts a few seconds after a politician completes a speech. We know that they swarm from one hot news event to the next–from a press conference by Gennifer Flowers, to a riot site in Los Angeles, to Congressional hearings on a Supreme Court nominee, to the arraignment of Tonya Harding.
Yet from outside the business it may be hard to understand the mixture of financial, social, and professional incentives that have produced this self-aggrandizing behavior. Some of the changes have been underway for decades, and others have taken effect in the last three or four years. Together they have turned the internal values of elite journalism upside-down.
Any organization works best when the behavior that helps an individual get ahead is also the behavior that benefits the organization as a whole. Any organization suffers when what is good for the individual is bad for the group. As journalism has become more star-oriented, individual journalists have gained the potential to command power, riches, and prestige that few of their predecessors could have hoped for. Yet this new personal success involves a terrible bargain. The more prominent today’s star journalists become, the more they are forced to give up the essence of real journalism, which is the search for new information of use to the public. The effects of this trade-off are greatest at the top of the occupational pyramid, which is why they are so destructive. The best-known and best-paid people in journalism now set an example that erodes the quality of the news we receive and threatens journalism’s claim on public respect.
The harm actually goes much farther than that, to threaten the long-term health of our political system. Step by step, mainstream journalism has fallen into the habit of portraying public life in America as a race to the bottom, in which one group of conniving, insincere politicians ceaselessly tries to outmaneuver another. The great problem for American democracy in the 1990s is that people barely trust elected leaders or the entire legislative system to accomplish anything of value. The politicians seem untrustworthy while they’re running, and they disappoint even their supporters soon after they take office. By the time they leave office they’re making excuses for what they couldn’t do.
Deep forces in America’s political and economic structure account for most of the frustration of today’s politics, but the media’s attitudes have played a surprisingly important and destructive role. Issues that affect the collective interests of Americans–crime, health care, education, economic growth–are presented mainly as arenas in which politicians can fight. The press is often referred to as the “Fourth Branch of Government,” which means that it should provide the information we need so as to make sense of public problems. But far from making it easier to cope with public challenges, the press often makes it harder. By choosing to present public life as a contest among scheming political leaders, all of whom the public should view with suspicion, the press helps bring about that very result.
While creating new obstacles for American politics, the today’s media has also put itself in an impossible position. It increasingly presents public life mainly as a depressing spectacle, rather than as a vital activity in which citizens can and should be engaged. The implied message of this approach is that people will pay attention to public affairs only if politics can be made as interesting as the other entertainment options available to them, from celebrity scandals to the human melodramas featured on daytime talk programs. In attempting to compete head-to-head with pure entertainment programs, the “serious” news media locks itself into a competition it cannot win. Worse, it increases the chances of its own eventual extinction. In the long run, people will pay attention to journalism only if they think it tells them something they must know. The less that Americans care about public life, they less they will be interested in journalism of any form.
This book mainly describes the media from the outside, assessing the way journalists’ behavior affects our public life. But since I have spent more than 20 years as a reporter, it naturally also reflects my own concerns about the institution of which I am a part.
I got into journalism by accident and stayed because I liked it. I liked many of the incidental aspects of the business–the craftsmanship required to tell a story in limited space with limited time, the thousands of decisions and feats of teamwork necessary to make a newspaper appear each morning or a broadcast begin on time. I enjoyed the chance to learn about a variety of subjects without having to tie myself permanently to any one of them.
I also believed that journalism mattered. Journalists have rarely been loved, but their work has often been valued. Through what they find out, they give other people tools for understanding the world beyond their immediate experience. Few Americans know first-hand about China or Bosnia, about the conditions in Mexico that affect immigration or those in Japan that affect trade policy. Few know about life on aircraft carriers or life inside the White House or even life on the far side of their own town. Yet Americans are asked to have opinions on these subjects, or at least to choose among potential officeholders with opinions. As much or as little as we know about these subjects most often depends on what journalists tell us.
Tremendous potential power comes with being a reporter. You have the negative power to say things about other people, in public, to which they can never really respond in kind. You have the positive power to expand other people’s understanding of reality by bringing new parts of the world to their notice. Taking this power seriously means taking your calling seriously, which in turn means recognizing the impact of the tool or weapon in your hands.
Like teachers, soldiers, nurses, or parents, journalists perform a job whose full value cannot be recognized by their pay. When they do their jobs well, many people benefit. When they do their jobs poorly, when they are irresponsible about their power, the damage spreads farther than they can see.
The institution of journalism is not doing its job well now. It is irresponsible with its power. The damage has spread to the public life Americans all share. The damage can be corrected, but not until journalism comes to terms with what it has l