by James Fallows
Why We Hate the Media
(Reprinted with permission by the author and Pantheon Books, a division of Random House, Inc. Copyright © 1996. All rights reserved.)
Why, exactly, has the media establishment become so unpopular with so many people? Here are just a few examples of what provokes American anger. They suggest that the public has good reason to think that the news media are not doing their job.
Washing Their Hands of Responsibility:
In the late 1980s, public television stations aired a talking head series called Ethics in America. For each show, more than a dozen prominent thinkers sat around a horseshoe-shaped table and tried to answer troubling ethical questions posed by a moderator.
From the respectability of the panelists to the super-seriousness of the topics, the series might have seemed a good bet to be paralyzingly dull. But the drama and tension of at least one show made that episode absolutely riveting.
This episode was sponsored by Montclair State College in the fall of 1987. Its title was "Under Orders, Under Fire," and most of the panelists were former soldiers talking about the ethical dilemmas of their work. The moderator was Charles Ogletree, a professor at Harvard Law School, who moved from expert to expert asking increasingly difficult questions in the law school's famous Socratic style.
During the first half of the show Ogletree made the soldiers squirm about ethical tangles on the battlefield. The man getting the roughest treatment was Frederick Downs, a novelist who as a young Army lieutenant in Vietnam had lost his left arm when a mine blew up.
Ogletree asked Downs to imagine that he was a young lieutenant again. He and his platoon were in the nation of "South Kosan," advising South Kosanese troops in their struggle against invaders from "North Kosan." (This scenario was apparently a hybrid of the U.S. role in the wars in Korea and Vietnam.) A North Kosanese unit had captured several of Downs's men alive-but Downs had captured one of the North Kosanese. Downs did not know where his men were being held, but his prisoner did.
And so Ogletree put the question: How far will Downs go to make the prisoner talk? Will he order him tortured? Will he torture the prisoner himself Suppose Downs has a big knife -in his hand. Where will he start cutting the prisoner? When will he make himself stop, if the prisoner just won't talk?
Downs did not shrink from the questions. He wouldn't enjoy it, he told Ogletree. He would have to live with the consequences for the rest of his life. But, yes, he would torture the captive. He would use the knife. He would do the cutting himself. He would listen to the captive scream. He would do whatever was necessary to try to save his own men. While explaining his decisions Downs sometimes gestured with his left hand for emphasis, except that the hand was a metal hook.
Ogletree worked his way through the other military officials, asking all how they reacted to Frederick Downs's choice. Retired general William Westmoreland, who had commanded the whole American force in Vietnam when Downs was serving there, deplored Downs's decision. After all, he said, even war has its rules. An Army chaplain wrestled with what he'd do if Downs came to him privately and confessed what he had done. A Marine Corps officer juggled a related question, of what he'd do if he came across an American soldier who, like Downs in the hypothetical case, was about to torture or execute a bound and unarmed prisoner.
The soldiers disagreed among themselves. Yet in describing their decisions, every one of them used phrases like "I hope I would have the courage to . . ." or "In order to live with myself later I would . . ." The whole exercise may have been set up as a rhetorical game, but Ogletree's questions clearly tapped into serious discussions the soldiers had already had about the consequences of choices they made.
Then Ogletree turned to the two most famous members of the evening's panel, better known than William Westmoreland himself. These were two star TV journalists: Peter Jennings of World News Tonight and ABC, and Mike Wallace of 6o Minutes and CBS.
Ogletree brought them into the same hypothetical war. He asked Jennings to imagine that he worked for a network that had been in contact with the enemy North Kosanese government. After much pleading, the North Kosanese had agreed to let Jennings and his news crew into their country, to film behind the lines and even travel with military units. Would Jennings be willing to go? Of course, Jennings replied. Any reporter would-and in real wars reporters from his network often had.
But while Jennings and his crew are traveling with a North Kosanese unit, to visit the site of an alleged atrocity by American and South Kosanese troops, they unexpectedly
cross the trail of a small group of American and South Kosanese soldiers. With Jennings in their midst, the northern soldiers set up a perfect ambush, which will let them gun down the Americans and Southerners, every one.
What does Jennings do? Ogletree asks. Would he tell his cameramen to "Roll tape!" as the North Kosanese opened fire? What would go through his mind as he watched the North Kosanese prepare to ambush the Americans?
Jennings sat silent for about fifteen seconds after Ogletree asked this question. "Well, I guess I wouldn't," he finally said. "I am going to tell you now what I am feeling, rather than the hypothesis I drew for myself. If I were with a North Kosanese unit that came upon Americans, I think that I personally would do what I could to warn the Americans."
Even if it means losing the story? Ogletree asked.
Even though it would almost certainly mean losing my life, Jennings replied. "But I do not think that I could bring myself to participate in that act. That's purely personal, and other reporters might have a different reaction."
Immediately Mike Wallace spoke up. "I think some other reporters would have a different reaction," he said, obviously referring to himself. "They would regard it simply as a story they were there to cover."
"I am astonished, really," at Jennings's answer, Wallace saida moment later. He turned toward Jennings and began to lecture him:
"You're a reporter. Granted you're an American"-at least for purposes of the fictional example; Jennings has actually retained Canadian citizenship. "I'm a little bit at a loss to understand why, because you're an American, you would not have covered that story."
Ogletree pushed Wallace. Didn't Jennings have some higher duty, either patriotic or human, to do something other than just roll film as soldiers from his own country were being shot?
"No," Wallace said flatly and immediately. "You don't have a higher duty. No. No. You're a reporter!"
Jennings backtracked fast. Wallace was right, he said. "I chickened out." Jennings said that he had gotten so wrapped up in the hypothetical questions that he had lost sight of his journalistic duty to remain detached.
As Jennings said he agreed with Wallace, everyone else in the room seemed to regard the two of them with horror.
Retired Air Force general Brent Scowcroft, who had been Gerald Ford's national security advisor and would soon serve in the same job for George Bush, said it was simply wrong to stand and watch as your side was slaughtered. "What's it worth?" he asked Wallace bitterly. "It's worth thirty seconds on the evening news, as opposed to saving a platoon."
Ogletree turned to Wallace. What about that? Shouldn't the reporter have said something?
Wallace gave his most disarming grin, shrugged his shoulders and spread his palms wide in a "Don't ask me!" gesture, and said, "I don't know." He was mugging to the crowd in such a way that he got a big laugh-the first such moment of the discussion. Wallace paused to enjoy the crowd's reaction. Jennings, however, was all business, and was still concerned about the first answer he had given.
"I wish I had made another decision," Jennings said, as if asking permission to live the last five minutes over again. "I would like to have made his decision"-that is, Wallace's decision to keep on filming.
A few minutes later Ogletree turned to George M. Connell, a Marine colonel in full uniform, jaw muscles flexing in anger, with stress on each word, Connell looked at the TV stars and said, "I feel utter . . . contempt. "
Two days after this hypothetical episode, Connell Jennings or Wallace might be back with the American forces--and could be wounded by stray fire, as combat journalists often had been before. The instant that happened he said, they wouldn't be "just journalists" any more. Then they would drag them back, rather than leaving them to bleed to death on the battlefield.
"We'll do it!" Connell said. "And that is what makes me so contemptuous of them. Marines will die going to get ... a couple of journalists." The last few words dripped with disgust.
Not even Ogletree knew what to say. There was dead silence for several seconds. Then a square-jawed man with neat gray hair and aviator glasses spoke up. It was Newt Gingrich, looking a generation younger and trimmer than when he became Speaker of the House in I995. One thing was clear from this exercise, he said: "The military has done a vastly better 'job of systematically thinking through the ethics of behavior in a violent environment than the journalists have."
That was about the mildest way to put it. Peter Jennings and Mike Wallace are just two individuals, but their reactions spoke volumes about the values of their craft. Jennings was made to feel embarrassed about his natural, decent human impulse. Wallace was completely unembarrassed about feeling no connection to the soldiers in his country's army considering their deaths before his eyes as "simply a story." In other important occupations people sometimes need to do the horrible. Frederick Downs, after all, was willing to torture a man and hear him scream. But had thought through all the consequences and alternatives, and he knew he would live with the horror for the rest of his days. When Mike Wallace said he would do something horrible, he didn't bother to argue a rationale. He did not try to explain the reasons a reporter might feel obliged to remain silent as the attack began--for instance, that in combat reporters must be beyond country, or that they have a duty to bear impartial witness to deaths on either side, or that Jennings had implicitly made a promise not to betray
the North Kosanese when he agreed to accompany them on the hypothetical patrol. The soldiers might or might not have found such arguments convincing, but Wallace didn't even make them. He relied on charm and star power to win acceptance from the crowd.
Mike Wallace on patrol with the North Kosanese, cameras rolling while his countrymen are gunned down, recognizing no "higher duty" to interfere in any way and offering no rationale beyond "I'm with the press"--this is a nice symbol for what Americans hate about their media establishment in our age.
Confusing the Issue: The Talk Shows
A generation ago, political talk programs were sleepy Sunday morning affairs. The secretary of state or the majority leader of the Senate would show up to answer questions from Lawrence Spivak or Bob Clark, and after thirty minutes another stately episode of Meet the Press or Issues and Answers would be history.
Everything in public life is "brighter" and more "interesting" now. Driven by constant competition from the weekday trash-talk shows, anything involving political life has had to liven itself up. Under pressure from the Saturday political-talk shows-The McLaughlin Group and its many disorderly descendant--even the Sunday morning shows have put on rouge and push-up bras.
Meet the Press, moderated by Tim Russert, is probably the meatiest of these programs. High-powered guests discuss serious topics with Russert, who worked for years in politics, and with veteran reporters. Yet the pressure to keep things lively means that squabbling replaces dialogue, as in "discussions" like the one below.
In March I995, the guests on Meet the Press were Laura d'Andrea Tyson, President Clinton's main economic advisor; Representative John Kasich, a Young Turk Republican from Ohio who had just become chairman of the House Budget Committee; and Senator Bill Bradley, a Democrat from New Jersey, who among his other accomplishments had long specialized in tax policy. The reporter joining Russert in asking questions was David Broder of theWashington Post.
More "issues"-minded people than these five would be difficult to find, even in Washington. And yet this is how they ended up talking about the federal deficit, budget cuts, and Medicare:
REP. KASICH: OK. I'm going to show you a chart. If we cut--first of all, in the private sector, health-care costs last year went up by about 3 percent. You know Medicare went up? It's going bankrupt. Did you know Medicare's going bankrupt? Do you know next year it's going to run a deficit? Let me show you. If you are in a position of trying to slow the growth of Medicare to just half the increase, let me show you what you get. Do you think the government can create a program that spends that much more and still provide security to our senior citizens and provide quality? The issue is we're not going to cut Medicare. We're going to slow the growth to keep the system from going bankrupt.
MR. RUSSERT: I'm not-I haven't suggested-all-Dr. Tyson, I beg you to get in here, because the president ...
DR. TYSON: All right. Well ...
P. KASICH: Let's talk about Medicaid. You want to talk out Medicaid?
RUSSERT: This is the president's status quo. And, Senator Bradley, you've called for deficit reductions. The fact is the Democrats and Republicans, unless we deal with Medicare, Medicaid ...
P. KASICH: But we're going to. We're going to. I'm telling you we're going to slow the growth.
DR. TYSON: Excuse me. Can I say something? What we have said-first of all, let me tell you two things about us. Number one, just slowing the growth of Medicare and Medicaid--let's be serious here. If you say, "I'm going to have it
grow at 3 percent between now and 2002," that is equivalent to a 38 percent reduction in spending on Medicare, protected spending, and a 37 percent protected spending increase in Medicaid. There is inflation in both of these programs. There are Increases in beneficiaries in both of these programs.
REP. KASICH: 1.8 percent.
DR. TYSON: Three percent is not enough to cover the rate of inflation, and it's not enough to cover the increase in beneficiaries.
REP. KASICH: Laura, I'm sorry. Those numbers are wrong.
DR. TYSON: So what we have said-they are absolutely ...
REP. KASICH: Make up any numbers you want.
DR. TYSON: They are absolutely not correct. You know what? You should have . . .
REP. KASICH: Caseload goes up 1.8 percent.
DR. TYSON: You should have on this program someone to do fact checking because I'm telling you ...
REP. KASICH: Yeah, we should. That would be a good idea.
DR. TYSON: ... the 3 percent growth per year ...
REP. KASICH: You're right.
SEN. BRADLEY: Just a minute. Just a minute. Let me just...
DR. TYSON: Now let me say something else; second point:
We have said again and again, and let me repeat again so that everybody hears it very clearly, we believe we have made substantial progress on the deficit. We have brought it down significantly. We have cut it in half both absolutely and relative to GDP. But ...
MR. RUSSERT: Doctor ...
REP. KASICH: The deficit's going up $30 billion this year.
DR. TYSON: But-but, but, but we think more should be done. Now, how do we think more should be done?
MR. RUSSERT: But Dr. Tyson, wait. In terms of fact checking ...
DR. TYSON: OK.
MR. RUSSERT: Just a second. Out of the Clinton deficit reduction, over 60 percent was from tax increases, not from spending cuts. Let me finish.
TYSON: Look, the point is the deficit-we're not talking here-you are not talking about what ...
MR. RUSSERT: Your budget plan--excuse me.
REP. KASICH: You need a referee.
MR. RUSSERT: I'm being a fact checker; I'm being a fact checker. The budget you put forward ...
DR. TYSON: You are.
RUSSERT:... puts together $200 billion deficits. David, jump in here about ...
TYSON: We agree. We agree with that.
RUSSERT: Please, David.
TYSON: I agree with that.
DR. TYSON: I did not say that was not true, did I?
MR. RUSSERT: Robert Reich, on this program said...
DR. TYSON: I did not say that was not true.
MR. RUSSERT: . . ."A balanced budget is not his goal."
DR. TYSON: Look, what I said is, we have-are bringing down-look , if you have a company ...
REP. KASICH: Your deficit's going up by $30 billion of your budget, Doctor.
Meet the Press is one of the most thoughtful, "in-depth" talk shows. You can imagine a transcript from Crossfire or The Capital Gang, The discussion shows that are supposed to add to public understanding may actually reduce it, by hammering home the message that "issues" don't matter except as items for politicians to squabble about. Some politicians in Washington may indeed view all issues as mere tools to use against their opponents. But far from offsetting this conception of public life, the national press often encourages it. As Washington-based talk shows have become more popular in the last decade, they have had a trickle-down effect in cities across the country. In Seattle, in Los Angeles, in Boston, in Atlanta journalists become more noticed and influential through regular seats on talk shows-and from those seats they mainly talk about the game of politics.
Who Cares About Real Issues?
What Reporters Want to Know
In the I992 presidential campaign, candidates spent more time answering questions from "ordinary people"--citizens in town hall forums, callers on radio and TV talk shows than in previous years. During and after the campaign, several observers noticed how different these questions were from the ones reporters posed at press conferences. The citizens asked overwhelmingly about the what of politics. What are you going to do about the health care system? What can you do to reduce the cost of welfare? The reporters asked almost exclusively about the how. How are you going to try to take away Perot's constituency? How do you answer charges that you have flip-flopped?
After the I992 campaign, the contrast between the questions from citizens and those from reporters was widely discussed in journalism reviews and postmortems on campaign coverage. Reporters acknowledged that they should try harder to ask questions their readers and viewers seemed to care about-that is, questions about the difference political choices would make in people's lives.
In January 1995, there was a chance to see how well the lesson had sunk in. In the days just before and just after President Clinton delivered his State of the Union address to Republican-controlled Congress, he answered questions in a wide variety of forums in order to explain his plans.
In January 3 I, four days after the speech, the president flew to Boston and took
questions from a group of teenagers. The teenagers asked him seven questions,
nearly all of which concerned the effects of legislation or government programs
on their communities or schools. These were the questions (paraphrased in some cases):
1. "We need stronger laws to punish those people who are caught selling guns to our youth. Basically, what can you do about that?"
2. I noticed that often it's the media that is responsible for the negative portrayal
of young people in our society." What could political leaders do to improve the way young people think of themselves?
3. Apprenticeship programs and other ways to provide job training have been valuable for students not going to college. Can the administration promote more of these programs?
4. Programs designed to keep teenagers away from drugs and gangs often emphasize sports and seem geared mainly to boys. How could such programs be made more attractive to teenaged girls?
5. What is it like at Oxford? (This was from a student who was completing a new alternative-school curriculum in the Boston public schools, and who had been accepted at Oxford.)
6. "We need more police officers that are trained to deal with all the other cultures in our cities." What could the government do about that?
7. "In Boston, Northeastern University has created a model of scholarships and other supports to help innercity kids get to and stay in college. As president, can you urge colleges across the country to do what Northeastern has done?"
Earlier in the month the president had taken questions, in three separate sessions, from the three network news anchors: Peter Jennings of ABC, Dan Rather of CBS, and Tom Brokaw of NBC. There was no overlap whatsoever between the questions the students asked and those raised by the anchors. None of the questions from these news professionals concerned the impact of legislation or politics on people's lives. Nearly all the questions concerned the pure game of politics-the struggle among candidates interested mainly in their own advancement.
Peter Jennings, who met Clinton early in the month as the Gingrich-Dole Congress was getting underway, asked questions centering on the theme that Clinton had been eclipsed as a political leader by these two Republicans. His first question was whether Newt Gingrich had become "the new pivotal figure in American politics," and his last question, based on indications of the president's declining popularity, was, "You don't think you have a deaf ear?"
Dan Rather did interviews through January with prominent politicians-Senators Edward Kennedy, Phil Gramm, and Bob Dole-building up to a long profile of President Clinton on the day of the State of the Union address. Every question he asked was about popularity or political tactics. He asked Phil Gramm to guess whether Colin Powell would enter the race (No) and whether Bill Clinton would be renominated by his party (Yes). He asked Bob Dole what kind of mood the president seemed to be in, and whether Dole and Gingrich were, in effect, the new bosses of Washington. When Edward Kennedy began giving his views about the balanced-budget amendment, Rather steered him back on course:
Senator, you know I'd like to talk about these things the rest of the afternoon, but let's move quickly to politics. Do you expect Bill Clinton to be the Democratic nominee for reelection in 1996?
The CBS Evening News profile of Clinton, which was narrated by Rather and was presented as part of its "Eye on America" series, contained no mention whatsoever of Clinton's economic policy, his tax or budget plans, his failed attempt to pass a health care proposal, his successful attempt ratify NAFTA, his efforts to "reinvent government , or any substantive aspect of his proposals or plans in office. Its subject was exclusively Clinton's "handling" of his office--his "difficulty making decisions," his "waffling" at crucial moments. "The public grew uneasy," Rather said:
Whitewater deepened people's doubts about the presi-
derit. After Vince Foster's suicide, it took the Clinton
administration five months to admit it had removed Whitewater-related papers from Foster's office. Now, it seemed, the president didn't talk straight. He was covering up Criticism intensified.
In wrapping up his analysis, Rather said that the significance of the State of the Union speech was, again, how it would position the president politically: "President Clinton's friends and aides say that he is now, again, reaching deep down inside and is finding anew his character." If Rather or his colleagues had any interest in the content of Clinton's speech, rather than its political effect, none of their questions revealed it.
Tom Brokaw's questions were more substantive, but even he concentrated mainly on the politics of the event.
How did the presi dent feel about a poll showing that 61 percent of the public felt he had no "strong convictions and could be "easily swayed"? What did Bill Clinton think about Newt Gingrich? "Do you think he plays fair?" How did he like it when people kept being arrested for shooting at the White House?
When ordinary citizens have a chance to pose questions to political leaders, they rarely ask about the game of politics. They mainly want to know how the reality of politics will affect them-through taxes, programs, scholarship funds, wars. Journalists justify their intrusiveness and excesses by claiming that they are the public's representatives asking the questions their fellow citizens would ask if they had the privilege of meeting with presidents and senators. In fact they ask questions no one but their fellow professionals cares about. And they often do so with a courtesy and rancor, as at the typical White House news conference, that represents the public's views much less than it reflects the modern journalist's belief that being indepedent boils down to acting hostile.
Reductio ad Electum: The One-Track Mind
The limited curiosity that elite reporters display in their questions is evident in the stories they write once they have received answers. They are interested mainly in pure politics and can be coerced only as a last resort into examining the substance of an issue. The subtle but steady result is a stream of daily messages that the real meaning of public life is the struggle of Bob Dole against Newt Gingrich against Bill Clinton, rather than our collective efforts to solve collective problems. For example:
Through the summer of I995, the Clinton administration edged steadily closer toward restoring diplomatic relations with Vietnam. Since I975, when North Vietnamese troops captured the southern capital of Saigon, the U.S. government had forbidden its citizens or companies to trade with Vietnam. Through the mid-1980s, when Vietnamese troops were occupying Cambodia, a number of Western and Asian governments joined the United States in imposing trade and diplomatic sanctions. But in the late 1980s, as the Vietnamese government withdrew its troops from Cambodia and liberalized its own economy, other nations expanded their commercial, cultural, and political ties with Vietnam. By the time Bill Clinton took office, the United States was alone in its pretense that the existence of modern Vietnam could be ignored. Outside the United States, this seen as an indication that Americans still had not come to terms with their emotions and resentments about
the first months of the Clinton administration, groups, Asia scholars, Vietnamese-American organizations, and even many Vietnam-veterans groups recommended that the new president change the old policy and allow normal dealings with Vietnam. The administration resisted, partly because several small but vocal groups claimed that the Vietnamese government was still concealing the truth about American POWs and MIAs. (Retired general chairman of the joint Chiefs of Staff, John Vessey, former chairman disagreed. Vessey led negotiations with the Vietnamese on this issue, and publicly said that they were cooperating.) The administration's strategists were also aware that the POW groups that opposed the move would be all the more upset if it were enacted by a man who had been at Georgetown and Oxford when their loved ones were being shot down or captured.
Nonetheless, in 1994 the president ordered an end to the trade embargo, and in I995 his administration prepared the groundwork for the inevitable return to normal relations.
On June 26, 1995, a few weeks before the president announced that full diplomatic relations would be restored, the New York Times ran a front-page story about this process. Its headline was, "Clinton on Spot on Vietnam Issue." The subhead said, "He Hesitates on Recognition Despite Urgings of Aides." The story began:
Twenty-six years after he agonized over avoiding service in a war he "opposed and despised," President Clinton is moving toward the end of another agonizing deliberation over Vietnam: how and when to grant the former enemy full diplomatic recognition.
What is unusual about this approach, in which the significance
of the Vietnam decision was reduced to the political problems it created for the president? Very little is the point. The natural instinct of newspapers and TV is to present every public issue as if its "real" meaning were political in the narrowest and most operational sense of that term-the attempt by parties and candidates to gain an advantage over their rivals. Reporters do of course write stories about political life in the broader sense and about the substance of issues-the pluses and minuses of recognizing Vietnam, the difficulties of holding down the Medicare budget, whether immigrants help or hurt the nation's economic base. But when there is a chance to use these issues as props or raw material for a story about pure political tactics, most reporters leap at it. It is sexier and easier to write about Bill Clinton's "positioning" on the Vietnam issue, or how Newt Gingrich is "handling" the need to cut Medicare, than to look into the issues themselves.
Examples of this preference occur so often that they're difficult to notice, like individual grains of sand on the beach. But every morning's newspaper, along with every evening's newscast, reveals this pattern of thought.
*In February I995, when the Democratic president and the Republican Congress were fighting over how much federal money would go to local law enforcement agencies, one network news broadcast showed a clip of Gingrich denouncing Clinton, and another of Clinton standing in front of a sea of uniformed policemen while making a tough-on-crime speech. The correspondent's sign-off line was: "But the White House likes the sound of 'cops on the beat."' That is, the president was pushing the plan because it would sound good in his campaign ads. Whether or not that was Clinton's real motive, nothing in the broadcast gave the slightest hint of where the extra policemen would go, how much they might cost, whether there was reason to think they'd do any good. Everything in the story suggested that the crime bill mattered only as a chapter in the real saga, which was the struggle between Bill and Newt.
*In April 1995, after the explosion at the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City, discussion changed quickly from the event itself to politicians' "handling" of the event.
On the weekend after the blast, President Clinton announced a series of new antiterrorism measures. The next morning, on National Public Radio's Morning Edition, Cokie Roberts was asked about the prospects for his proposals taking effect. "In some ways, it's not even the point," she replied. What mattered was that Clinton "looked good" by taking the tough side of the issue. No one expects Cokie Roberts or other political correspondents to be experts on controlling terrorism, or negotiating with the Syrians, or the other specific measures on which presidents make stands. But all issues are shoehorned into the expertise the most prominent correspondents do have, which is the struggle for one-upmanship among a handful of political leaders.
*When health care reform was the focus of big political battles between Republicans and Democrats, it was on the front page and the evening newscast every day. When the Clinton administration declared defeat in I994 and there were no more battles to be fought, health-care news coverage virtually stopped too-even though the medical system still represented one-seventh of the economy, even though HMOs and corporations and hospitals and pharmaceutical companies were rapidly changing policies in the face of ever-rising costs. Health care was no longer political news, and, therefore it was no longer interesting news.
*After California's voters approved Proposition 187 in the 1994 elections, drastically limiting benefits available to illegal immigrants, the national press ran trickle of stories on what this would mean for California's economy, its school and legal systems, even its relations with Mexico. A flood of stories examined the political impact of the immigration "issue"--how the Republicans might exploit it, how the Democrats might be divided by it, whether it might propel Pete Wilson to the White House.
On August I 5, I 995, Bill B radley announced that after representing New Jersey in the Senate for three terms he would not run for a fourth term, in 1996. In his press statement revealing the decision and the news conferences he conducted afterward, Bradley did his best to talk about the deep problems of public life and economic adjustment that had left him frustrated with the normal political process. Each of the parties had locked itself into rigid positions that kept them from dealing with realistic concerns of ordinary people, he said. American corporations were doing what
they had to do for survival in international competition: they were "downsizing" and
making themselves radically more efficient and productive.
But the result was to leave "decent, hard-working Americans" more vulnerable to layoffs and of their careers, medical coverage, pension rights, and social standing than they had been in decades. Somehow, they said, we had to move past the focus on short-term political maneuvering and determine how to deal with the forces that were leaving Americans frustrated and insecure. That, at least, was what Bill Bradley said. What turned in the press was almost exclusively speculation about what this movement meant for the presidential race of 1996 and party line-up on Capitol Hill. Might Bradley challenge Clinton in the Democratic primaries? If not, was he an independent run? Could the Democrats come up with any other candidate capable of holding onto Bradley's seat? Wasn't this a huge slap in the face for Bill Clinton and the party he purported to lead? In the immediaftermath of Bradley's announcement, leading TV and paper reporters competed to come up with the shrewdest analysis of the political impact of the move. None of the country's major papers or networks used Bradley's announcement as a "news peg" for an analysis of the real issues he had raised.
Two days after his announcement, Bradley was interviewed by Judy Woodruff on the CNN program Inside Politics. Woodruff is a widely respected and knowledgeable reporter, but her interaction with Bradley was like the meeting of two beings from different universes. Every answer Bradley gave concerned the substance of national problems that concerned him. Every question she asked was about short-term political tactics. Woodruff asked about the reaction to this move from Bob Dole, or Newt Gingrich, or Bill Clinton. Bradley replied that it was more important to concentrate on the difficulties both parties had in dealing with real national problems.
Near the end of the interview Bradley gave a long answer about how everyone involved in politics had to get out of the rut of converting every subject or comment into a political "issue," used for partisan advantage. Let's stop talking, Bradley said, about who will win what race and start talking about the challenges we all face.
As soon as he finished, Judy Woodruff asked her next question: "Do you want to be
president?" It was as if she had not heard a word he had been saying--or couldn't
hear it, because the media's language of political analysis is so separate
from the terms in which people describe real problems in their lives.
Every day's paper and every night's broadcast news gives further examples. The habit of emphasizing partisan consequences is so ingrained that it's hard to realize that it's not a law of nature.
What's the harm? This style of coverage implies that there is only one real story behind the many, varied events of each day. That is the story of who has the most political power, as exemplified by who will win the next presidential race. The effect is as flattening and mind-shrinking as if the discussion of every new advance in medicine boiled down to speculation about whether its creator would win the Nobel Prize that year. Regardless of the tone of coverage, medical research will still go on. But a relentless emphasis on the cynical game of politics threatens public life itself, by implying day after day that the political sphere is mainly an arena in which ambitious politicians struggle for dominance, rather than a structure in which citizens can deal with worrisome collective problems.
Pointless Prediction: The Political Experts
On Sunday, November 6, I 994, two days before the congressional elections that would sweep the Republicans to power, the Washington Post published the results of its "Crystal Ball" Fourteen prominent journalists, pollsters, and all-around analysts made their predictions about how many seats each party would win in the House and Senate and how many governorships each would take.
One week later, many of these same experts would be on their talk shows saying that the Republican landslide was "inevitable" and "a long time coming" and "a sign of deep discontent in the heartland." But before the returns were in, how many of the fourteen experts predicted that the Republicans would win both houses of the Congress and that Newt Gingrich would be Speaker? Exactly
three. Morton Kondracke, of Roll Call magazine and the McLaughlin Group talk show; John McLaughlin, of the same show; and Mary Matalin, the Bush camstrategist and host of the Equal Time talk show, all guessed that the Republicans would take the Senate and, by a small margin, the House. (Matalin predicted that the Republicans would have a three-vote majority in the House; McLaughlin, four votes; Kondracke, fourteen votes. The actual margin was twenty-two.) All the other experts predicted that the Democrats would hold onto the House with a reasonable margin-twenty-two seats, according to Eleanor Clift of Newsweek; eighteen seats, according to William Schneider of CNN; ten seats, according to Christopher Matthews of the San Francisco Exami ner.
What is interesting about this event is not that so many experts could be so wrong. Immediately after the election, even Newt Gingrich seemed dazed by the idea that the forty-year reign of the Democrats in the House had actually come to an end. Rather, the episode said something about the futility of political prediction itself, a task to which the big-time press devotes enormous effort and time. Two days before the election, many of the country's most admired analysts had no idea what was about to happen. Yet in a matter of weeks these same people, unfazed, would be writing articles and giving speeches and being quoted about who was ahead" and "behind" in the emerging race for the White House in i996.
As with medieval doctors who applied leeches and trepanned skulls, the practitioners cannot be blamed for the limits of their profession. But we can ask why reporters spend so much time directing our attention toward what is not much more than guesswork on their part. It builds the impression that journalism is about spectacles and diversions-guessing what might or might not happen next month-rather than inquiries that might be useful, such as extracting lessons of success and failure from events that have already occurred. Competing predictions add almost nothing to our ability to solve public problems or make sensible choices among complex alternatives. Yet this useless distraction has become a speciality of the political press. Predictions are easy to produce, they allow the reporters to act as if they possess special inside knowledge, and there is no consequence for being wrong.
Spoon-feeding: The White House Press Corps
In the early spring of 1995, when Newt Gingrich was dominating news from Washington and the O.J. Simpson trial was dominating news as a whole, the Washington Post ran an article about the pathos of the White House pressroom. Nobody wanted to hear what the president was doing. So the people who cover the president could not get on the air. Howard Kurtz, the Post's media writer, described the human cost of this political change:
Brit Hume is in his closet-size White House cubicle, watching Kato Kaelin testify on CNN. Bill Plante, in the adjoining cubicle, has his feet up and is buried in the New York Times. Brian Williams is in the corridor, idling away the time with Jim Miklaszewski. An announcement is made for a bill-signing ceremony. Some of America's highest-paid television correspondents begin ambling toward the pressroom door.
"Are you coming with us?" Williams asks.
"I guess so," says Hume, looking forlorn.
White House spokesman, Mike McCurry, told that there was some benefit to the enforced silence: Hume has now got his crossword puzzle capacity down to record time. And some of the reporters have been out on the lecture circuit."
The deadpan restraint with which Kurtz told this story is admirable. But the question many readers would want to scream at the unfortunate, idle correspondents is: Why don't Iyou go out and do some work?
What might these well-paid, well-trained correspondents have done, while waiting for the O.J. trial to become boring enough that they'd get back on the air? They could have tried to learn something that would be of use to their viewers, when the emergency-of-the-moment went away. Without leaving Washington, without going more than a ten-minute taxi ride from the White House (so they would be on hand, if a sudden press conference were called), they could have prepared themselves to discuss the substance of issues that would affect the public.
For example, two years earlier, Vice President Gore had
announced an ambitious plan to "reinvent" the federal government. Had it made any difference, either in improving the performance of government or in reducing its cost, or was it all for show? Republicans and Democrats were sure to spend the next few months fighting about cuts in the capital gains tax. Capital gains tax rates were higher in some countries and lower in others. What did the experience of these countries show about whether cutting the rates helped an economy grow? The rate of immigration was rising again, and in California and Florida it was becoming an important political issue. What was the latest evidence on the economic and social effect of immigration? Should Americans feel confident or threatened that so many foreigners were trying to make their way in? Soon both political parties would be advancing plans to reform the welfare system.Within a two-mile radius of the White House were plenty of families living on welfare. Why not go see how the system had affected them, and what they would do if it were changed? The federal government had gone further than most private industries in trying to open opportunities to racial minorities and women. The Pentagon had gone the furthest of all. What did people involved in this process--men and women, blacks and whites--think about its successes and failures? What light did their experience shed on the impending "affirmative action" debate?
The list could go on for pages. With a few minutes' effort-about as long as it takes to do a crossword puzzle-the correspondents could have drawn up lists of other subjects they had never "had time" to investigate before. They had the time now. What they lacked was a sense that their responsibility involved something more than their standing up to rehash the day's announcements when there was room for them again on the news.
Journalists Living in Glass Houses:
Half a century ago, reporters knew but didn't say that Franklin Roosevelt was in a wheelchair. A generation ago, many reporters knew but didn't write about John Kennedy's insatiable appetite for women. For several months in the early Clinton era, reporters knew about but didn't disclose Paula Jones's allegation that, as governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton had exposed himself in front of her, in a hotel room to which he'd dragooned her, and said, "Kiss it." Eventually this claim found its way into all major newspapers, thereby proving that there is no longer any such thing as an accusation too embarrassing to be printed, if it seems to bear on a politician's "character."
It is not just the president who has given up his privacy, in the name of the "public right to know." Over the last two decades, officials whose power is tiny compared to the president's have had to reveal embarrassing details about what Americans consider very private matters: their income and wealth. Each of the more than two thousand people appointed by the president to executive branch jobs must reveal previous sources of income and summarize his or her financial holdings. Congressmen have changed their rules to forbid themselves to accept "honoraria" for speaking to interest groups or lobbyists. The money that politicians do raise from individuals and groups must all be disclosed to the Federal Election Commission. The data they disclose is available to the public and appears often in publications, most prominently the Washington Post.
No one even contends that every contribution makes every politician corrupt. But financial disclosure has become commonplace on the "better safe than sorry" principle. If politicians and officials are not corrupt, the reasoning goes, they have nothing to fear in letting their finances be publicized.
And if they are corruptible, public disclosure is a way to stop them before they do too much harm. The process may be embarrassing, but this is the cost of public life.
How different the "better safe than sorry" calculation seems when journalists are involved! Reporters and pundits hold no elected office, but they are obviously public figures. The most prominent TV talk show personalities are better known than all but a handful of congressmen. When politicians and pundits sit alongside each other and trade opinions on Washington talk shows, they underscore the essential similarity of their political roles. The pundits have no vote in Congress, but in overall political impact a word from George Will, Ted Koppel, William Safire, or their colleagues who run the major editorial pages, dwarfs anything a third-term congressman could do. If an interest group did have the choice buying the favor either of one prominent media figure or of two junior congressmen, it wouldn't even have to think about the decision. The pundit is obviously more valuable.
If they were writing about backdoor campaign financing, journalists would instantly see through the fog of legalisms to say: prominent journalists have tremendous
power, and therefore their sources of money are relevant. Yet the analysts who are so clear-eyed in seeing the conflict of interest in Newt Gingrich's book deal or Hillary Clinton's cattle trades claim that they see no reason, none at all, why their own finances might be of public interest.
In I993, Sam Donaldson, of ABC, described himself in an interview as being in touch with the concerns of the average American. "I'm trying to get a little ranching business started in New Mexico," he said. "I've got five people on the payroll. I'm making out those government forms." Thus, he understood the travails of the small businessman and the difficulty of government regulation. Donaldson, whose base pay from ABC is approximately $2 million per year, did not point out that his several ranches in New Mexico together covered some 20,000 acres. When doing a segment attacking farm subsidies on Prime Time Live in I993 he did not point out that "those government forms" allowed him to claim nearly $97,000 in sheep and mohair subsidies over two years. When William Neuman, a reporter for the New York Post, tried to take pictures of Donaldson's ranch house, Donaldson had him thrown off his property. ("In the West, trespassing is a serious offense," he explained.)
Had this behavior involved a politician or even a corporate executive, Donaldson would have felt justified in the aggressive reportorial techniques. When these techniques were turned on him he complained that the reporters were going too far.
In May I995, Donaldson's colleague on This Week With David Brinkley, George Will, wrote a column and delivered comments ridiculing the Clinton administration's impose tariffs on Japanese luxury cars, notably the Lexus. On the Brinkley show he said that the tariffs would be "illegal" and would merely amount to "a subsidy for Mercedes dealerships."
Neither in his column nor on the show did Will disclose that his wife, Marl Maseng, had been paid some $200,000 as a registered foreign agent for the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association, nor that the duty for which she was hired was to get American commentators to criticize the tariff plan. When Will was asked why he had said nothing, he replied that it was "just too silly" to think that his views might have been affected by his wife's contract.
Will had, in fact, espoused such views for years, long before Marl Maseng worked for the JAMA and even before she was married to George Will. Few of his readers would leap to the conclusion that Will was serving as a mouthpiece for his wife's employers. But most would have preferred to have learned this information from Will himself, a disclosure indicating his awareness that journalists have to work to maintain the public's trust.
A third member of the regular Brinkley panel, Cokie Roberts, is, along with Will and Donaldson, a frequent and highly paid speaker to corporate audiences. Like the others she has made a point of not disclosing what interest groups she speaks to, nor for how much money. She has criticized the Clinton administration for its secretive "handling" of controversies surrounding Hillary Clinton's lucrative cattlefuture trades and the Whitewater affair, yet like the other pundits she refuses to acknowledge that secrecy about financial interests undermines journalism's credibility too.
Seeing Ourselves as Others See Us: Term Limits
As soon as the Democrats were routed in the I 994 elections', commentators and TV analysts said it was obvious that the American people were tired of seeing the same
old faces in Washington.
Those who live inside the Beltway forgot what it was like in the rest of the country. They didn't get it. They were out of touch. The only way to jerk the congressional system back to reality was to bring in new blood.
A few days after the new Congress was sworn in, CNN began running an updated series of promotional ads for its Crossfire program. (The previous ads had featured shots of locomotives colliding head-on and rams crashing into each other with their horns, to symbolize the meeting of minds on the show.) Everything has been shaken up in the capital, the ad began. New faces. New names. New people in charge
of all the committees.
"In fact," the announcer said, in a tone meant to indicate whimsy, "only one committee hasn't changed. The welcoming committee.
The camera pulled back to reveal the three hosts of Crossfire--Pat Buchanan, John Sununu, and Michael Kinsley--standing with arms crossed on the steps of the Capitol building, blocking the path of the new arrivals trying to make their way in. "Watch your step," one of the hosts said.
Talk about "not getting it"! The people who put together this ad must have imagined that the popular irritation with "inside the Beltway 11 culture was confined to members of Congress-and not to Members of the Punditocracy, many of whom had held their positions much longer than the typical congressman had. The difference between the "welcoming committee" and the congressional committees headed by fallen Democratic titans like Dan Rostenkowski and Jack Brooks is that the congressmen could be booted out.
'Polls show that both Republicans and Democrats felt about the Congress just after the 1994 elections," a Clinton administration official said in I995. "They had the 'made the monkey jump'-they were able to discipline an institution they didn't like. They could register the fact that they were unhappy. There doesn't seem to be any way to do that with the press, except to stop watching and reading, which more and more people have done."
Out of Touch with America: The State of the Union
On January 24, 1995, Bill Clinton kicked off his dealings with a Republican Congress with his State of the Union address. In the week leading up to a State of the Union address, White House aides always leak word to reporters that this year the speech will be "different." No more long laundry list of all the government's activities, no more boring survey of every potential trouble spot in the world. This time, for a change, the speech is going to be short, punchy, and "thematic." When the actual speech occurs, it is never short, punchy, or "thematic." It is long and detailed, like all its predecessors, because as the deadline nears every part of the government scrambles desperately to have a mention of its activities crammed somewhere into the speech.
In the days before the I995 speech, Bill Clinton's assistants said that, no matter what had happened to all those other presidents, this time the speech really would be short, snappy, and thematic. The president understood the situation, he recognized his altered role, and he saw this as an opportunity to set a new theme for his third and fourth years in office.
That evening, the predictions once again proved wrong. Bill Clinton gave a speech that not only failed to be short and snappy but was also enormously long even by standards of previous State of the Union addresses. The speech had three or four apparent endings, it had ad-libbed inserts, it covered both the details of policy and the president's theories of what had gone wrong with America. One hour and twenty minutes after he took the podium, the president stepped down.
Less than one minute later, the mockery from commentators began.
For instant analysis NBC went to Peggy Noonan, who had been a speechwriter for presidents Reagan and Bush. She grimaced and barely tried to conceal her disdain for such an ungainly, sprawling speech. Other commentators,
soon mentioned that congressmen had been slipping out of the Capitol building before the end of the speech, that Clinton had once more failed to stick to an agenda, that the speech probably would not give the president the new start he sought. The comments were virtually all about the tactics of the speech, and they were virtually all thumbs down.
A day and a half later, the first newspaper columns showed up. They were even more critical. On January 26 theWashington Post's op-ed page consisted mainly of stories about the speech, all of which were witheringly harsh. "All Mush and No Message" was the headline on a column by Richard Cohen. "An Opportunity Missed" was the more statesmanlike judgment from David Broder. Despite the difference in headlines the two columns began with identical complaints. Broder's said:
If self-discipline is the requisite of leadership-and it is-then President Clinton's State of the Union address dramatized his failure. It was a speech about everything, and therefore about nothing. It was a huge missed opportunity-and one he will regret.
Cohen's version was:
Marshall McLuhan said the medium is the message. If so, Bill Clinton's medium was his State of the Union address, and its message was that he still lacks discipline. In an incredible one hour and 20 minutes, he managed to obscure his themes, trample on his rhetorical high spots and weary his audience. Pardon me if Ithought of an awful metaphor: Clinton at a buffet table, eating everything in sight.
What a big fat jerk that Clinton was! How little he understood the obligations of leadership! Yet the news section of the same day's Post had a long article based on discussions with "focus groups" of ordinary citizens around the country who had watched the president's speech. "For these voters, the State of the Union speech was an antidote to weeks of unrelenting criticism of Clinton's presidency," the article said:
"Tonight reminded us of what has been accomplished," said Maureen Prince, who works as the office manager in her husband's business and has raised five children. "We are so busy hearing the negatives all the time, from the time you wake up on your clock radio in the morning ...The group's immediate impressions mirrored the results of several polls conducted immediately after the presi dent's speech.
ABC News found that eight out of 10 approved of the president's speech. CBS News said that 74 percent of those surveyed said they had a "clear idea" of what Clinton stands for, compared with just 41 percent before the speech. A Gallup Poll for USA Today and Cable News Network found that eight in 10 said Clinton is leading the country in the right direction."
Nielsen ratings reported in the same day's paper
showed that the longer the speech went on, the more people tuned in to watch.
The point is not that the pundits are necessarily wrong and the public necessarily right. It is the gulf between the two groups' reactions that is significant. The very aspects of the speech that had seemed so ridiculous to the professional commentators-its detail, its inclusiveness, the hyperearnestness of Clinton's conclusion about the ""common good"-seemed attractive and valuable to most viewers.
"I 'm wondering what so much of the public heard that our highly trained expert analysts completely missed," Carol Cantor, a software consultant from California, posted in a discussion on the WELL, a popular on-line forum, three days after the speech. What they heard was, in fact, the whole speech, which allowed them to draw their own conclusions rather than being forced to accept the expert "analysis" of how the president "handled" the occasion. In most cases the analysis goes unchallenged, since the public has no chance to see the original event the pundits are describing. In this instance, viewers had exactly the same evidence about Clinton's performance as the "experts" did, and from it they drew radically different conclusions. Carol Cantor's comment on the WELL continued:
I never have a greater sense of two Americas than when I'm watching public opinion, the whole possibility of public thought, being swamped by pundit opinion. That other America is very tiny, it has onlv a few inhabitants, they all live in Washington, and they never shut up.
In I992 political professionals had laughed at Ross Perot's "boring" and "complex" charts about the federal budget deficit--until viewers seemed to love them. And for a week or two after this State of the Union speech, there were little jokes on the weekend talk shows about how out-of-step the pundit reaction had been with opinion "out there." But after a polite chuckle at the jokes the talk shifted to how the president and the Speaker and Senator Dole were "handling" their jobs.
"When movie officials come in here to talk about the clues of violence in films, they are no longer in the denial stage," Reed Hundt, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission said early in 1995. "They know there is a problem. The difference with the press is that they still are in denial. When I met [a famous TV reporter], all she could talk about was how much more good news was on the air than ever before."
As with the reaction to President Clinton's State of the Union speech, there is an astonishing gulf between the way journalists--especially the most prominent ones--think about their impact and the way the public does.
"I'd like to dip the McLaughlin Group and the Capitol Hill Gang in cajun-style batter and deep fry them all so I could sell them as Pundit McNuggets," Patrick Lopez, who lives in Austin, Texas, wrote in a WELL on-line discussion group titled "Pundicide" in 1995. "Low on nutrition, but they taste great cuz there's such a high fat content!"
In movies of the I930s, reporters were gritty characters, instinctively siding with the Common Man. In the I970s, Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, starring as Woodward and Bernstein in All the President's Men, were better paid but still gritty reporters not afraid to challenge big power. Even the local news crew featured on The Mary Tyler Moore Show had a certain down-to-earth pluck. Ted Knight, as the pea-brained news anchor Ted Baxter, was a ridiculously pompous figure but not an arrogant one.
Since the early 1980s, the journalists who have shown up in movies have been portrayed, on average, as more loathsome than the lawyers, politicians, or business moguls who are the traditional bad guys in films about the white-collar world. In Absence of Malice, made in 1981, the newspaper reporter (Sally Field) ruined the reputation of a businessman (Paul Newman) by rashly publishing articles accusing him of murder. In Broadcast News, realeased in 1987, the anchorman (William Hurt) is still an airhead, like Ted Knight; but unlike Ted he works in a business that is
systematically hostile to anything except profit and bland good looks. The only sympathetic characters in the movie, an overeducated reporter (Albert Brooks) and a hyperactive and hyperidealistic producer (Holly Hunter), would have triumphed as heroes in a newspaper movie of the I 930s. In this one they are ground down by the philistines at their network.
In the Die Hard series, starting in 1988, a TV journalist (William Atherton) is an unctuous creep who will lie and push helpless people around in order to get on the air. In The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990), the tabloid-writer Peter Fallow (Bruce Willis) is a disheveled British sot who will do anything for a free drink. In Rising Sun (I993), a newspaper reporter known as "Weasel" (Steve Buscemi) is an out-and-out criminal, accepting bribes to influence his coverage. As Antonia Zerbislas pointed out in 1993 in the Toronto Star, movies and TV shows offer almost no illustrations of journalists who are not full of themselves, shallow, and indifferent to the harm that they do. During Operation Desert Storm, Saturday Night Live ridiculed the buffoons from the American press corps asking briefers questions like, "Can you tell us exactly when and where you are going to launch your attack?"
Even real-life members of the Washington pundit corps make their way into movies-Eleanor Clift, Morton Kondracke, the Crossfire hosts in 1990s movies like Dave and Rising Sun. Significantly, their role in the narrative is specifically as buffoons. The joke in each movie is how rapidly they leap to conclusions, how predictable their reactions are, how automatically they polarize the debate without any clear idea of what has really occurred. That real-life journalists are willing to keep appearing in these movies, knowing how they will be cast, says something about the source of self-respect in today's media. Celebrity, on whatever basis, matters more than being taken seriously.
Movies do not necessarily capture reality but they suggest a public mood--in this case, a contrast between the media celebrities' apparent self-satisfaction and the contempt in which its best-known representatives are held by the public. "The news media has a generally positive view of itself in the watchdog role," said the authors of an exhaustive survey of public attitudes toward the press, released in May I995. But "the outside world strongly faults the news media for its negativism.... The public goes so far as to say that the press gets in the way of society solving its problems, an opinion that is even shared by many leaders." According to the survey, "two out of three members of the public had nothing or nothing good to say about the media." As American institutions in general have lost credibility, few have lost it as fully as the press.
The media establishment is beginning to get at least a dim version of this message. Through the last decade, newspaper conventions have been a litany of woes. Fewer readers. Lower "penetration" rates, as a decreasing share of the public pays attention to news. A more and more desperate search for ways to attract the public's interest. In the short run these challenges to credibility are a problem for journalists and journalism. In the longer run they are a problem for democracy.