Bringing the media gods down to earth

Will the public journalism movement make the press more responsible -- or even more arrogant?

Published December 30, 1995 9:50AM (EST)

The story James Fallows brings us here has the ring of sad, familiar truth to it. Modern journalism, especially the kind practiced in Washington, is in trouble. The national political press is lazy, hypocritical, elitist, obsessed with controversy and in bed with all the wrong people. Reporters demand full ethical and financial disclosure from candidates but won't provide it themselves. They grow fat collecting speaking fees from groups involved in issues they cover. They prostitute themselves on television. They bear significant responsibility for the abrasive atmosphere around civic life and the alienation many Americans feel from politics and government.

The press is undermining democracy. And, in the process, itself.

Fallows likens the institution of journalism to the American military at the end of the Vietnam war -- dispirited, ineffective, in denial. Journalists' response to the public's complaints -- reflexively invoking the First Amendment or proclaiming their work virtuous -- simply breeds resentment, Fallows claims.

Fallows is not the first to note that, institutionally, the Washington press corps isn't working. But he is one of the smartest and best-placed, working as he does in the belly of the beast. The Washington editor of The Atlantic Monthly, he won the National Book Award (for "National Defense"), is a frequent guest on "The MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour" and "Meet the Press" and a commentator on NPR's "Morning Edition." One of the handful of influential scholar-journalists operating in Washington, he's known for exhaustive research on complicated issues like defense, technology and economics -- things many of his colleagues want no part of, but Americans need to understand.

"Breaking the News" is a concise and dead-on look at how Washington journalism has failed us at the very time we need it most; how reporters have lost any sense of moral purpose; how they recklessly invade privacy, promote divisiveness and encourage public disenchantment with the political process. His step-by-step account of how the press mindlessly helped destroy President Clinton's health care reform package is a frightening look at how journalism works -- or doesn't -- and ought to be forced down the throats of every J-school graduate and Washington media yak-a-thon panelist.

Fallows crackles when he dissects the structural and ethical problems of the Washington press. But "Breaking the News" is only half a brilliant book. His remedies for the ills he identifies so well are fuzzy, problematic and unconvincing.

Fallows endorses a nascent journalistic-academic movement called "public journalism," one of the most interesting and best-intentioned of journalism's shockingly few efforts to reform itself. Public -- sometimes called "civic" -- journalism argues that by the way it presents political issues, the press is damaging democracy itself. Civic life has to prosper for the press to do well, and vice versa. So journalism has a vested interest in helping to promote, rather than break down, healthier civic discourse.

The idea, already bitterly controversial within the press, emerged from meetings promoted by New York University professor Jay Rosen, a respected media critic and scholar. It became a "movement" in l993 when it spread to some daily newspapers and a few broadcast stations. It is being studied or practiced in some form, Fallows says, by more than 170 newspapers.

The proponents of public journalism want to do something about the fact that the agenda of voters is radically different from that of the media or of most politicians, who work together in a symbiotic, self-referential way that has little bearing on what people really care about. This came up again and again during the 1992 presidential campaign, when reporters couldn't stop talking about Bill Clinton's sex life and voters couldn't (but had to) wait to start talking about the economy.

In an effort to point politicians in the proper direction, the Charlotte Observer organized citizen panels and commissioned a poll of more than a thousand residents in l992. The panels were concerned about the environment; candidates weren't planning to talk much about it. The Observer and its citizen panels decided that they should. The paper ran stories on environmental issues and prepared a grid to show candidate's positions on each of the questions the panel had raised.

Another public journalism initiative was launched by the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, which assembled reporters and editors who had been covering schools, city hall, the police and politics into a "public life team." The "mission statement" for the team was, "We will revitalize a democracy that has grown sick with disenchantment. We will lead the community to discover itself and act on what it has learned."

In some ways, this vision of journalism's proper role represents an advance from the cigar-chomping veteran reporter who used to wait at the nearest tavern for the mayor's latest handout, or the preening White House correspondent bellowing questions at the President. But it's troubling in some ways, too. It suggests that journalism, not government, is responsible for maintaining the nation's civic health and that journalists -- not elected officials -- working with the public, should lead. And it eerily echoes all those boosterish old newspaper-Chamber of Commerce partnerships kicked off to spruce up the downtown or lure in a new shopping mall.

While the public journalism advocated by Fallows forces the press to interact more with the public, always a healthy idea, it doesn't radically reform the institution of journalism itself, which is what the institution most needs. Fallows fails to confront a major structural reason for journalism's current decline: the relentless corporatization of media by major companies for whom marketing plans and profit margins are the only ideologies. The continuing homogenization of print and broadcast media by these enormous conglomerates has leeched away individual voices, investigative reporting, courageous commentary or any sense of moral purpose.

If public journalism fails to address fundamental problems, it also gives short shrift to the obvious changes journalism could make to reconnect with the public -- steps it has so far been too lazy or arrogant to take. Like putting reporters' e-mail addresses at the end of stories. Or withdrawing from noxious character policing. Or approaching such political encounters as press conferences with more civility and thoughtfulness and less hostility and pomposity. Or giving more reporters the time and training to do what Fallows does. Or broadening op-ed pages to include more than the usual staple of politicians, academics and lobbyists. Or covering culture well. Or hiring young reporters again. Or relying less on spokespeople and Rolodexes.

The public journalism advocated by Fallows asks journalists to listen more carefully to readers, but without relinquishing any of their own power, the truest measure of real reform. The main idea seems to be getting politicians to relinquish their power.

Fallows is too quick to dismiss concerns about the movement as the rantings of the "old guard." Occasionally, however, even the journalistic establishment is worth listening to.

Among its members is Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie, who worries that public journalism has noble intentions but constitutes an abuse of power waiting to happen.
"Where I am most bothered is when a newspaper uses its news columns -- not its editorial page or its publisher -- to achieve specific outcomes in the community. That is what I think is wrong, and very wrong," states Downie. Telling political candidates that they must attend a newspaper's forum, or that they must discuss certain issues -- "that is very dangerous stuff," in Downie's words.

So it is. Anybody troubled by journalistic intrusions into public figures' privacy should brace for a real nightmare if reporters include in their widening mandate the overruling of politicians who want to talk about different issues than those that show up in newspaper polls. Are politicians always wrong to take individualistic stands on issues, even when polls or citizen panels don't support them? In other contexts, that could be seen as courageous.

Fallows makes a compelling case for the notion that journalism is in serious trouble, and may be helping to degrade our common sense of civic life. But what do we do about that? We'll have to keep looking for the answer.

By Jon Katz


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