APRIL 26, 1996
David Gergen, editor-at-large of "U.S. News & World Report," engages reporter David Shaw, media critic for the "Los Angeles Times," author of a recent series of articles on the cynicism of the media.
DAVID GERGEN, U.S. News & World Report: David, when you set out to do this series on cynicism in the press, you seemed to get an ear full of criticisms about the media, many coming from journalists, themselves? Now Peter Jennings at ABC told you that the general tendency in the press to treat all public figures as suspect was a greater threat to the republic than even gutter or tabloid journalism. The former head of CBS News, Van Gordon Sauter, said the smug, cynical attitudes of many journalists badly undermined the capacity of our elected leaders to lead and to have moral suasion. How worried did you become about the state of journalism and the role that journalists now play in our democracy?
DAVID SHAW, Los Angeles Times: Well, I was somewhat concerned when I started the story, which was why I started it, but by the time I was through, I was more than worried. I mean, I'm extremely concerned, anxious, frightened, whatever you want to call it, that because the media have become so relentlessly negative, because we've become kind of knee-jerk hostile adversaries to everybody in power, and automatically impute people in leadership with the worst possible motives, that we wind up not only undermining confidence in ourselves as an institution but far more important and far worse undermining confidence in the very institutions that we are supposed to be covering and if we assume that the press is the best source of information for people, if people turn off the press or come to think that the press only provides this kind of cynical look at everything, then people will stop getting the kind of information they need to become informed citizens in a democracy.
MR. GERGEN: I have been disconcerted by the 1996 Presidential campaign. You wrote about that. After the 1992 campaign many in the press promised that 1996 would be different, more, more substance, more balance, less negativity, and yet, according to what you wrote, it's just the same, if not worse.
DAVID SHAW: Well, you may remember that they also promised after the 1988 campaign with the Gary Hart, Donna Rice fiasco that they would be more serious of purpose in the 1992 campaign. Uh, the next thing we knew was Bill Clinton and Gennifer Flowers, and then they pledged anew in 1996. Now, maybe because Bob Dole and Elizabeth are happily married and they've already exhausted Hillary and Bob--or Hillary and Bill--umm, we've been spared sexual talk this time, but certainly the studies that I've seen, particularly in terms of network television news, say that the emphasis has been even more than in 1992 on horse race, who's ahead, tactics, strategy, rather than substance, and that it has been even more negative and cynical than it was in '92, and--
MR. GERGEN: Go ahead. I'm sorry.
DAVID SHAW: --the interesting thing is the press, of course, says, well, all we're doing is covering what's out there. There are negative campaigns, and we're covering them. The fact is that the studies at least through the first three months of the campaign, which is through the California primary, show that the media coverage was much more negative than the candidates' own statements, speeches, and even ads.
MR. GERGEN: And the sound bites which we talked about in the past as shrinking from forty-two seconds down to like nine--
DAVID SHAW: Seven seconds.
MR. GERGEN: Down to seven seconds this year, and the correspondents have gotten more than six times as much air time as candidates, themselves, on the evening news.
DAVID SHAW: Yeah. What winds up happening is it used to be that a network news reporter would say a few things either to introduce a statement from a politician or to summarize what a politician had said. The emphasis, the focus would be on the politician's words. Now it is completely reversed. Now the reporter wants to tell you what he thinks or what she thinks about the issue, and then have a tiny snippet from the politician to illustrate the reporter's point, which is a total reversal of what used to be covered.
MR. GERGEN: Did the change come after Vietnam and Watergate? I was struck by the comments of Meg Greenfield, the editorial page editor of the "Washington Post" in your--one of your pieces. She said, you know, there's been real change since Vietnam and Watergate, and the attitude is that journalists have, themselves, about the worst thing that they can do.
DAVID SHAW: You know, I think that Vietnam and Watergate were watershed events. First of all, it did show political leaders lying to us about major substantive issues, and that did change the mind set of most reporters, who then decided that because these two Presidents lied, all politicians were liars, but in particular, the point that Meg is making--and I agree with you that it's very interesting and valid--is that a basic sense of fair play, as well as the effect of the McCarthy years' experience of unfair, inaccurate accusations made reporters of that era feel that the worst thing that you could do as a reporter would be to falsely accuse somebody of something. What happened after Vietnam and Watergate and the cynicism that developed from it was the sense among many, if not most reporters, that the worst thing you could do would be to be taken, to be too soft on a political figure, to fail to accuse somebody who should be accused.
MR. GERGEN: Right. Well, you identified television as the major cause of the changes that have occurred in journalism overall, and I wondered, is it the nature of television and what it brings into our living room, the violence and the kind of stories that just by sort of nature it has to cover and change the family conversation, or is it the fact that television, itself, has changed, that it's gone down markedly in a more competitive world, it's turned into the more sensational, it's turned into the personalities, and the gossip, and the scandals?l
DAVID SHAW: Well, it's not only what television is in and of itself. It's the effect that television then has on the rest of the media. I mean, it used to be that there were, you know, one or two or three gatekeepers in the nation's news media, you know, the executive editor of the "New York Times" and maybe the anchors at ABC, NBC, and CBS. Now, with all the tabloid TV shows and the talk shows and the tabloid newspapers and the speed with which everything happens, there are either 65 gatekeepers or there are no gatekeepers. I mean, remember when Gennifer Flowers sold her story to the Star--
MR. GERGEN: Right.
DAVID SHAW: --if all that happened was that story appeared in the Star, it never would have made the mainstream. We now have CNN. Bill Clinton calls a press conference, denies it. CNN covers it live, and I remember Peter Jennings telling me that he did not want to go with that story that night, but it was made clear to him that the affiliates around the country would say, what the hell is wrong with Jennings, doesn't he know a news story?
MR. GERGEN: Right.
DAVID SHAW: And he couldn't afford to wait to let the ABC reporters check it out for themselves; they had to go live with it that night.
MR. GERGEN: How much of this is the--cynicism you see in the press is a reflection of the culture itself?
DAVID SHAW: One of the studies that I quoted in the piece said that by and large, the general public was even more cynical than newspapers about the motives of the people in power, and there's no question that (a) the news media reflect the views of the larger society, and (b) people who are in the media, after all, are drawn from that larger society. So I don't think that the news media creates the cynicism, but there's no question that we accelerate it, we exacerbate it, and one of the reasons that people are more cynical is because they read what we say, and they hear what we say, and they see what we say in the news media.
MR. GERGEN: So that we, ourselves, are not unrelentingly negative about the subject we're talking about, the press. What do you think the press does well?
DAVID SHAW: I think that when there is a major event, the Gulf War, a Presidential election, an assassination, an earthquake, I think the media do a marvelous job by conveying the full range of experience and emotion and the immediacy and the impact of it. I think the media do a very good job at talking about personality, at bringing people into your living room, and we have a much greater sense of our leaders than people in previous generations ever did. I mean, I don't want to get back to the negative, that does also feed the cynicism, because when you bring somebody on a small screen into your bathroom, it's pretty hard to put that person up on a pedestal, but I do think that--you know, and there are some--the serious--I don't want to condemn everybody--the serious publications, you know, whether it's MacNeil/Lehrer or the "New York Times" or the "LA Times," or, you know, certain intellectual and journals of opinion, certainly do a very good job of discussing the issues and doing so in a meaningful, nuanced way, complete with both sides of it. But in the case of a political campaign in particular, early in the campaign, when nobody's paying attention, the better news organizations do wonderful profiles of the candidates, analyses of the key issues, but then the reporters cover it and they get bored because that doesn't change. And what changes is the strategy, the tactics, and the poll standings, who's up and who's down, and that comes to dominate the coverage even in those news publications and news programs that continue to provide good coverage of the issues.
MR. GERGEN: I have felt in addressing the cynicism and the negativity that the main responsibility ought to be with the editors of these publications and the people who run the television networks. They have to set the tone, and then the reporters, the correspondents, and so forth will, in effect, comply with that.
DAVID SHAW: Well, I agree. I mean, reporters do not put stories in newspapers. Editors put them in. Editors in newspapers and news directors on television make the decisions specifically about what goes in on a given day but more important is your suggestion, they set the tone. If we have an increasingly and glib smart-ass approach to the news, which you see in the chat and shout shows on, on television on the weekend from Washington that look more like journalistic food fights than policy debates and if you have that bleeding into the mainstream print media, and if you have editors wanting to get their reporters on these shows and, therefore, wanting them to be ever more smart-ass in print and on the air, you're not going to get the kind of serious, sober, substantive, and I'm not saying boring--you can have an edge, you can be provocative, and still be responsible, but there's a tendency when editors create a climate that encourages edge and cynicism, what you wind up getting is cheap edge and cheap cynicism.
MR. GERGEN: Okay. Well, thank you very much.
DAVID SHAW: Thank you, David.