4. Why Today’s Journalism Is Vulnerable

If journalists are to find more appreciative audiences, they might start by breaking three bad habits: the strategy framework, cynicism, and tabloid news. Each encrypts the news so that it is meaningful only to other journalists, insiders, and voyeurs. The citizen is left with little comprehensible information on which to act.

Strategies and Insiders

When the Kettering Foundation conducted focus groups around the United States in 1991, “people talk[ed] as though our political system had been taken over by alien beings,” Kettering Foundation President David Mathews concluded.(34)

To be sure, this alienation isn’t entirely the journalists’ fault. But the news is America’s daily meal of politics and policy information. Instead of informing citizens in ways that might be useful to them, today’s influential reporters often focus on strategy, interpreting political and public policy news as if they were professional wrestling referees. By treating public policymaking as a match that is being conducted—and fixed—by cynical professionals, this approach unwittingly makes citizens feel like spectators or dupes.

Denied a part in the public drama, people “became either consumers or escapists from politics,” Columbia’s James Carey wrote, observing how citizens responded to this kind of news. “It was a journalism of fact without regard to understanding, through which the public was immobilized, demobilized and was merely a ratifier of judgments derived on high. It was, above all, a journalism that justified itself in the public’s name, but in which the public played no role, except as an audience.”(35)

Focusing on strategy at the expense of issues used to be most prevalent during political campaigns, when media attention turned to “horse race” polls and tactical maneuvers. Although many journalists tried to correct this tendency during the 1992 presidential campaign by improving the quantity and quality of “issues” stories, a focus on strategy still applies to much day-to-day news coverage, both locally and nationally.

“Whereas the game was once viewed as the means, it is now the end, while policy problems, issues and the like are mere tokens in the struggle for the presidency,” says Syracuse University Professor Thomas Patterson, who analyzes the impact of press frameworks on politics in his book, Out of Order.(36)

During the recent attempt by Democrats to pass a health care reform plan, many of the nation’s most respected television newscasts and newspapers dedicated nearly two-thirds of their health care coverage to the strategy involved, characterizing the participants as winners or losers. They focused on facts and issues only in the remaining one-third.(37)

Even when journalists cite public opinion polls, they often use them to grade politicians instead of framing questions about the public’s opinions or interests. Policy battles often are described as having only two sides, led by opposing politicians locked in personal combat.(38)

To understand how these habits shape the news, one needs to look no further than NBC’s January 19, 1995 evening news report shortly after the Republican party had won control of both houses of Congress. It was a tour de force of strategy, insider, poll, personality, and conflict coverage.

Correspondent Lisa Myers focused on how Republicans and Democrats were frustrated by each other’s tactics. Her colleague Brian Williams continued the emphasis on tactics and scorekeeping. Showing a silent video clip of President Clinton speaking to an audience, Williams said, “This was all we saw of the President today, a speech to retirees about pensions. But it was a chance for the President to stay above the fray, above the Gingrich-bashing on Capitol Hill, and look presidential. This way he controls the audience and the message. It’s an effort that just might be working.” Finally Williams recounted the results of the latest NBC poll, which showed that Clinton was up and Gingrich was down. “Bill Clinton took the oath of office two years ago tomorrow,” Williams said. “Today the White House released this collection of the President’s accomplishments so far, 37 pages of programs, bar graphs, and numbers, the story the White House says hasn’t been told.”

That story still was not told, although Williams gave us a glimpse of the stack of white paper. Sitting at home, the citizen received no information about Gingrich’s goals or the content of the White House’s 37 pages. This narrow, superficial, pseudo-insider coverage told citizens nothing about their government’s actual activities; it seemed to be aimed instead at an audience of insiders who cared only about keeping score.

Although it is especially common on network television, this kind of coverage hardly is confined to the national news. Local journalists, taking cues from their more prominent colleagues, are likely to ask a political candidate, “You’re behind in the polls. How can you win?” instead of, “Why are you running for this office?”

The Negativity Bias

The press is the living jury of the nation,” said 1830s newspaper editor James Gordon Bennett. Increasingly, it seems to be a hanging jury.

Much has been said in journalism reviews about how negative the news is and how this drives audiences away. Many journalists, from the muckrakers of the last century to the investigative reporters of today, have proved that some bad news is good for us. We need to know the truth about our problems in order to face them effectively.(39) Indeed, the founding fathers established constitutional protections for the press because they understood that leaving the watchdog function to partisan politicians wouldn’t necessarily serve the public interest; both sides have too many incentives to preserve the status quo and ignore problems that elude quick fixes.

Watergate, Vietnam, the Iran-Contra scandal, and dozens of other situations prove that the press’s skepticism certainly is warranted. Citizens need the press, as they need the police, to bear witness to the underside of American life; it would be a mistake to blame either for the crimes they uncover.(40)

However, the critics also have a point, which is gaining new significance in the changing media environment. While the strategy framework omits much of the real news that citizens need to know, other journalistic habits actively poison the atmosphere. Many journalists are biased, not so much by “liberal” or “commercial” viewpoints but by negative assumptions about all institutions.

As former NBC President Lawrence Grossman points out, American journalists have become the exact definition of the ancient Greek chorus: “old citizens full of their proverbial wisdom and hopelessness.”(41) The journalist’s well-intentioned attempt to overcome manipulation by public figures often overcompensates, creating news that is so fundamentally negative, day in and day out, that it distorts the nation’s understanding of itself.(42) Local news, particularly on television, thrives on violent accidents and criminal events that rarely are presented in a meaningful context. Instead of learning what might be done about these tragedies, we become instead a passive audience, watching what one critic calls the pornography of violence. News about crime and violence is cheap and easy to cover; news about ways people might attack such common problems is even more important—and very hard to find.

Our national self-image is as skewed as our local picture. Most political analysts would agree that politicians are no more venal or corrupt now than they ever were.(43) Yet during the past 30 years, the portrayal of politicians has grown sharply more negative, according to several studies.

This negativism exerts a measurable effect on politics. Thomas Patterson determined that low poll ratings for government and political figures closely tracked the increasingly negative coverage. “News that incessantly and unjustifiably labels political leaders as insincere and inept fosters mistrust on the part of the public and makes it harder for those in authority to provide the leadership that is required if government is to work effectively,” Patterson concluded.(44)

Many journalists still shrug off criticism that the news is too negative, observing that they can’t report all of the airplanes that arrive safely each day. “I don’t sit around sucking my thumb about why the public doesn’t like us more,” says Bob Rivard, Managing Editor of the San Antonio Express-News. “We’re contrarians. That’s why we got into this business.”(45)

But while journalists believe they are just telling the truth about what goes on, the public thinks otherwise. A Times Mirror poll in March 1993 found that 64 percent of the public felt that the news media “put too much emphasis on negative news.” James Carey concurs: “In the public’s eyes, the media [have] become the adversary of all institutions, including the public itself.”(46)

Journalists usually assume the worst, explains Michael Lewis of The New Republic. “Do I believe that a lot of people’s motives are base? Yes. If you dig, you usually can find a selfish motive,” he says.(47) Indeed, our piranha press corps seems willing to devour anyone, at any time, for frivolous infractions as well as serious ones.(48)

“You really look like a fool if you take the issues seriously,” New York Newsdaycolumnist Gail Collins confessed to Paul Starobin of the Columbia Journalism Review. Coverage of government has to be especially tough, she said. “Anytime you write something really, really positive about a politician—unless he’s dead—everyone in the community of journalism says, ‘God, did you see how they’re sucking up to that person?’”(49)

Those who try in good faith to serve in government find themselves tarred with the same cynical brush as the miscreants; thus, accountability is moot. Indeed, many respected journalists have expressed their concern about the cynicism that now pervades the American news media, particularly in Washington.(50) “The reporter used to gain status by dining with his subjects; now he gains status by dining on them,” writes Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker, decrying the “casual cruelty of so much of the media.” Instead of highlighting problems in a way that rewards the politicians who try to address them, Gopnik continues, reporters “now relish aggression while still being prevented, by their own self-enforced codes, from letting that aggression have any relation to serious political argument, let alone to grown-up ideas about conduct and morality.”(51)

In a related process, instead of trying to envision what good public policymaking might look like, most journalists simply pick at the pieces of the policymaking process as they develop, comparing each to some purist ideal. American politics is the art of compromise, but Patterson’s content analysis indicates that journalists usually denigrate compromises as hypocrisy or “going back on a promise.”

Instead of proving that journalists are unbiased guardians of the public trust, this perpetual negativity has backfired. The apparently endless flow of scandals and feeding frenzies has damaged, rather than enhanced, journalism’s credibility. The watchdog that barks at everything loses its bite.

“Journalists are now creating the coverage that is going to lead to their own destruction,” says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. “If you cover the world cynically and assume that everybody is Machiavellian and motivated by their own self-interest, you invite your readers and viewers to reject journalism as a mode of communication because it must be cynical too.”(52)

The Closed Door

To be sure, more than simple negativity is at work. After all, Rush Limbaugh, with some 20 million listeners a week,(53) also is profoundly negative. But Limbaugh articulates the anger and frustration that many people are experiencing after decades of negative information. And, significantly, he connects people to politics. He welcomes them in instead of shutting them out.

Limbaugh and other radio talk show hosts fill a vacuum that could be served instead by a better journalism and a more receptive political culture. Unfortunately, they are filling it with material that often is inaccurate.

According to a new study by Kathleen Hall Jamieson, talk radio listeners think they know more than other people but actually answer less accurately on public affairs questions. Jamieson’s research tracked how citizens learned about the health care reform debate over a nine-month period in 1994. “At the end of that period, we took the people who said they relied on talk radio and … asked them how well informed they felt. We had been watching their level of information across the process. Of all the people we watched, they said they were the best informed. And of all the people we watched, they were the least informed. And they were also the most cynical about governance.”(54)

This is the price the nation pays when journalists cede the public policy debate to others who don’t worry about being disinterested, verified, or comprehensive. If verified facts are not part of the public discourse, then there are no reference points for accountability. As Senator Daniel P. Moynihan observed in a debate with his 1994 electoral opponent on WNBC in New York, “You’re entitled to your own opinions. You’re not entitled to your own facts.”

Understandably, the public doesn’t have a clear sense of why Rush Limbaugh isn’t considered a journalist if Sam Donaldson is. As Carl Bernstein once remarked, journalism is “the only institution that remains closed while insisting that all others be open.” Ordinary citizens who seek entrance to the “journalism temple” to learn how it works often are rebuffed.

Today’s news is created, packaged, and delivered by a priesthood of journalists, trained by editors who hired them because they had the right “instincts”; that is, they had the same set of cultural expectations and values as the editors themselves. The news is delivered, take it or leave it, to a passive audience. The public has little ability to add anything to the news agenda or to correct errors of interpretation or omission. Theoretically, both the news production process and the product are protected from outside influence in order to preserve journalists’ ability to tell the truth, without fear or favor. Traditional news organizations seldom offer information about their reporters’ qualifications, how they choose what becomes news, or what citizens can do to affect the news agenda. In fact, inquiries into the political affiliations of journalists are viewed as inappropriate, and many reporters do not disclose even their outside income from interest group speeches.(55)

Journalists believe this closed culture protects them from commercial and ideological pressure, but it also makes it easy for citizens to believe the worst when critics complain. A book like Noam Chomsky’s Manufactured Consent is credible to unsophisticated news consumers, even though it bears no resemblance to the way news actually is created. Do citizens appreciate the fact that most professional journalists try to leach out their own biases, provide alternative views, and get two sources for each fact? If not, isn’t it at least partly because journalists don’t submit to any system of public accountability to monitor their standards?

The Journalist’s Influence

Though journalists consider themselves useful channels for public information, some citizens believe that they just get in the way. Part of the problem is that as journalists struggle to respond to the digital revolution, they still haven’t dealt with the added public responsibilities created by the last wave of new technologies—radio and television.

Political parties, which used to bear the responsibility of connecting citizens to government, have been crippled by democratic reforms and the rise of television as an alternative medium of political information. Today, radio, television and the newspapers that influence television news have become the key link between the public and the politician.(56) As a result, journalists at the major networks and newspapers influence politics in ways that the founding fathers and early newspaper editors never could have imagined. Their influence often is unwitting; in fact, many reputable journalists routinely turn a blind eye to their role, believing that excessive preoccupation with their influence will bias their work.

Acting on their understanding of what makes a good story, they nevertheless can have an inordinate impact on policy, unless political officials respond adequately to the issues that appear, sometimes randomly, in the news. The press does not necessarily set the political agenda, but it can create obstacle courses for officials and citizens who might prefer to take things up at a different pace or frame them in a different way.(57)

This is exactly what happened, for example, one week after the 1992 election, when Thomas Friedman of The New York Times covered President-elect Clinton’s speech to veterans in Arkansas. Clinton’s intent that day was to help heal the wounds caused by his failure to serve in Vietnam. When asked by a pool reporter(58) whether he still planned to allow gays to serve in the military, Clinton said he intended to keep his promise but would “consult with a lot of people” over an indefinite period “about what our options are” for lifting the ban.

Reading the pool report back in his hotel room, Friedman realized that lifting the ban on homosexuals in the military was the hottest topic Clinton had addressed that day. He dismissed the fact that Clinton had made exactly the same promise several times during his presidential campaign. Friedman, in fact, had been a foreign correspondent during the campaign; he was just starting on the White House beat. He persuaded his editors in New York that Clinton’s repetition of his pledge was real news because he was now president-elect, not just a candidate making a campaign promise.(59) The story led The New York Timeson Thursday morning November 12, 1992, with the following headline: “Clinton to Open Military’s Ranks to Homosexuals.” The subhead erroneously characterized this as “His First Move on Policy.”

Neither Clinton nor the gay-rights lobbyists had meant to make opening the military to gays his first policy move; the Friedman headline and story made it so. And the story touched off a firestorm that Clinton, with slight experience in handling the national press, could not contain. Friedman’s page-one, lead-story treatment in the most influential newspaper in the country set off a second round of coverage in the other media, which had not highlighted his comments on lifting the ban in their stories that day because he had told them the same thing before. Analysts have since decried this Clinton “decision” to begin his presidency by lifting the ban as an important strategic mistake. In fact, it was The New York Times that pushed it to the top of Clinton’s political agenda.

This incident is not unique. As the news media’s influence has grown in recent years, so has the public’s dissatisfaction with the way it is handled. Most journalists still believe they are operating in the public interest and should be valued for helping ordinary people understand their world. But increasingly, people see journalists as a special-interest group, like any other, which manipulates them in order to throw its weight around or make a buck.

As Margaret Gordon, Dean of the Graduate School of Public Affairs at the University of Washington, told the Freedom Forum Foundation Center during the 1992 presidential campaign: “Recently my colleagues and I organized two focus groups in the Seattle area on the media’s coverage of the campaign. What we found is that people are incredibly angry at the media. They think that all the media moguls and journalists have access to massive amounts of information that the public doesn’t ever see…. People no longer believe that journalists are operating in the public interest or for the public good. Many of the people we spoke with believe that journalists’ decisions are business-motivated ones.”(60)

Some news organizations unabashedly are seeking the same profit levels they enjoyed in their monopoly days, regardless of the impact on their product. They cite fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders, not ethical responsibility to the public. However, as former FCC Chairman Newton Minow says, “to aim at the bottom line is to aim too low.”(61) In fact, some efforts to squeeze more money out of news actually may backfire in the new media marketplace.

The Tabloid Trend

It grows more difficult every day to describe the differences between news and sheer entertainment or propaganda. This obscuring of the line between news and non-news, together with the cynicism and other bad habits already discussed in this paper, make journalism vulnerable to its less scrupulous competitors in the new media environment. Standards and definitions of news always have varied widely, depending on the era and the news organization. But now even in the most respected newsrooms the traditional standards of verification, objectivity, and relevance become more elusive by the day.

When The New York Times quotes the tabloid National Enquirer as the basis for a news story, when ABC “journalist” John Stossel openly promotes his personal political agenda on the air, when former “Sixty Minutes” veteran Diane Sawyer asks Donald Trump’s mistress, “Was it the best sex you ever had?,” when “Dateline NBC” stages an explosion to “prove” that a certain truck is unsafe, and when, as “CBS Evening News” anchor, Connie Chung, goads the relatives of public officials into name-calling—separating news from entertainment and propaganda is next to impossible.(62)

Instead of protecting their turf, some of the nation’s best news organizations seem to be squandering their credibility just when “brand-name” trustworthiness is most important to their survival. Local television news broadcasts provide ample evidence that local news also doesn’t deliver what it promises. Paul Klite, Director of the Rocky Mountain Media Watch, a citizens’ watchdog group, analyzed 50 local television news shows that ran in 19 cities across America on January 11, 1995. According to Klite, the newscasts were on average 30 percent commercials; 30 percent sports, weather, and chatter; and 30 percent other news. In the 12- to 15-minute window of “real” news, 28 percent was crime; 25 percent was disasters; and 31 percent was fluff, for example, “bears eat Popsicles, girl reunited with dog, how to tango,” and celebrity stories, Klite found. “That leaves less than five minutes in the newscasts to talk about education and the environment, the economy and arts and science, homelessness and poverty, overpopulation, government, health, and all the other important issues of our time,” says Klite, adding that this was a “consistent pattern across the country.”(63)

Many news executives in broadcast and print act as though the tabloid trend is inevitable, and some good journalists feel powerless to save their craft. They believe that the new media technologies have created a marketplace in which everyone is forced to descend to the lowest common denominator. Hesitation to air even unfounded rumors about a politician’s private life is derided as elitist, and any positive news has to fulfill some light-hearted Cinderella cliché—or be dismissed as boring.

Serious journalists working at national newsmagazine shows say that they must use the tabloid stories to attract the mass audience, and then they can slip in some substantive information and serious stories. But this scenario works only if the audience is truly captive, willing to endure the serious along with the titillating. In the multichannel universe, customers who are pressed for time and capable of switching instantly to other options are not likely to sit still for the whole package as the news organization delivers it. If they want tabloid entertainment, they may not accept a hybrid that is half-naughty and half-news.

Public Information

American politics has undergone a related transformation, which is part of the tabloid trend: our common culture has been turned inside out; we have lost the difference between public and private, in both journalism and politics.

Seemingly all private behavior is now deemed relevant, yet much public behavior is ignored. What does a government official do from day to day? What has she sacrificed or gained by being in public life? What are her motives? Do her acts (public and private) serve the country well, or are they doomed to fail? What does the political system actually produce, on the ground? These are not today’s political stories.

Instead, news revelations about the private lives of politicians often shape their public fates, no matter how tenuous the story. The news chain may originate with a partisan “dirty tricks” spin doctor, who leaks to a shameless tabloid. Soon the “serious” news media feel compelled to pick up the story, simply because it’s “out there.” The trend is evident not only in journalism; ordinary citizens’ private eccentricities—publicly revealed on “Oprah” and “Prime Time Live”—replace real talk about common problems. Instead of acting like a nation of citizens, we have become a nation of voyeurs.

Politicians certainly have contributed to this process. Issues that might be considered public or “common to us all,” have been discredited by the current wave of political correctness, which prefers private and individual initiatives. Efforts for a common good, like the right-to-life, abortion rights, environmental, and consumer movements, are denigrated as “special interests” that are indistinguishable from private profiteers.(64)

Simultaneously, the news—which the founding fathers protected as an indispensable source of information and debate about our public life—has become preoccupied with private revelations and isolated tragedies: “A man has barricaded himself with his girlfriend and three children at 4th and H Streets. Let’s go there live!” Today’s news largely consists of discrete events with little intrinsic relevance to our common problems; major public policy choices affecting us all often are treated superficially or omitted altogether.

Coverage of the O.J. Simpson, William Kennedy Smith, Menendez brothers, John Bobbitt, Tonya Harding, Susan Smith, Heidi Fleiss, Joey Buttafuoco, and Jeffrey Dahmer cases is of popular interest and, in some cases, has led to valuable public discussions of such substantive issues as spousal and child abuse, racial discrimination, and the criminal justice system.

Ordinarily, however, common threads are not offered; if these situations involve us, we rarely understand how. As Americans we seem to be amusing ourselves to death, to use Neil Postman’s phrase, instead of facing our common challenges as a nation. Consumers, as citizens, need bread as well as circuses. The health of our democracy depends on it.

“Active citizenship must be based on an understanding of how democracy works,” asserts Washington Post columnist David Broder, the dean of American political journalists.(65) If the news media don’t convey that understanding from day to day, who will? Rush Limbaugh and other talk radio hosts demonstrate that public affairs are of interest to more than 20 million listeners a week, and they are providing that information, with their own perspectives, for better or for worse.(66)

As they conscientiously attempt to offer intelligent and relevant information, even the most experienced journalists often lose track of what news should be about. For example, in January 1995, ABC, CBS, and NBC—which attract about 31 million viewer households a night(67) and thus still serve as our principal source of national news—devoted an average of less than two minutes each per night to the historic changes underway in the new GOP-led Congress.(68)

Nothing illustrates this misguided coverage more graphically than Connie Chung’s much-touted interview with Speaker Newt Gingrich’s mother, during which Mrs. Gingrich described First Lady Hillary Clinton as a “bitch.” The scandal wasn’t that Connie Chung appeared to violate an off-the-record agreement—it was that she considered this news. This was tabloid at its purest: celebrity combat. The real news of the day, shrunk down to make room for the Chung cat fight, was about the plans Mrs. Gingrich’s newly-empowered son was developing for changing the government.(69)

The national newspapers, which many rely on as surer sources for news of politics and government, also are impaired by habits that please fellow journalists but not many others. The New York Times and Washington Post, for instance, failed to say much about what was in Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” until his party won the 1994 elections. Sophisticated Washington journalists had dismissed it as a cynical gimmick, rather than seeing it as a blueprint that some voters actually might want to examine.

As this essay has observed, the strategy, negativity, agenda-setting, and tabloid elements of today’s news often distort journalists’ honest efforts to inform the nation. These ingrained practices, created in part by competitive factors no longer relevant in the new media landscape, distance journalists from the very audiences they believe they’re serving. They corrode the market strength of journalism just when it most needs a loyal following. Fortunately, the new technologies also offer several ways to reverse this downward spiral.(70)