Media Circus

The supposedly hard-boiled press decries public cynicism. It ought to embrace it.

Published April 14, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

we media professionals are most at ease when the public, spurred by our urgings and exhortations, rallies to public-spirited causes with the brisk reliability of a well-oiled weather vane. But now something is definitely out of whack. In only the latest in a series of surveys bearing bad news for sober tribunes of the Fourth Estate, a New York Times/CBS News poll released earlier this week disclosed that the American people understand the current batch of Clinton campaign finance scandals all too well. But they have astonishingly little faith that anything can, or even should, be done about them.

Some 75 percent of respondents agreed that "many public officials make or change policy decisions as a direct result of money received from major contributors," and a combined 89 percent responded that the campaign finance system needs either "fundamental changes" or "to be completely rebuilt." But one of the most promising measures to curb the influence of money in politics, publicly financed national campaigns, was scotched by a resounding 79 percent of respondents, who saw it as too expensive. And our cherubic chief executive, who is all but dripping greenbacks these days, commands a 56 percent approval rating, down only a little from his post-inaugural high of 60 percent.

Fortunately, we in the media also have a glib explanation for this sagging public interest in public virtue: We're the ones making Americans cynical. Over the last year or so, spurred in part by the publication of James Fallows' civic-journalism manifesto "Breaking the News," reporters and pundits have embarked on a delirious bout of anxious self-examination.

Over and over again, one hears that reflexive "gotcha" coverage -- the procedure of catching candidates, leaders and other public figures in small, ostensible hypocrisies -- has coarsened the fabric of American democracy.

In fact, all press protestations to the contrary, the American public is almost twice as cynical as the media: According to a 1995 survey by the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press (now the Pew Center for the People and the Press), some 77 percent of the public rated the honesty and ethics of Washington officials as low. Only 40 percent of national journalists held this admittedly cynical view.

With this curious juxtaposition in view, perhaps it's time to take a fresh, and more open-minded, appraisal of the virtues of public cynicism. Sure, a certain kind of petulant, knee-jerk cynicism among citizens can translate into a lowest-common-denominator, "what's-in-it-for-me?" view of politics. But wouldn't it be infinitely more disturbing if the public hadn't responded to the swelling nexus of finance scandals issuing from the White House with cynicism? After all, cynicism, strictly speaking, is nothing more than the view that self-interest governs most human affairs -- and the Clinton campaign finance scandals certainly bear abundant testimony to that proposition.

Moreover, cynicism also has a considerable upside: an honorable philosophical pedigree and a demonstrated usefulness in the struggle to reclaim democracy. Diogenes, the original cynic, after all, wasn't a glib forerunner of Beavis and Butt-head, looking for quick debunking opportunities. He sought out an honest man, and ultimately found more palatable company among the dogs (the term cynic, indeed, stems from the Greek word for "dog"). And in latter-day authoritarian regimes, we've had plenty of avowed cynics rally impressively to the daunting, draining work of civic reform and reclamation. Nelson Mandela, Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel, to name just three prominent examples, have all been practicing cynics, brandishing in spades the very traits that seem to worry the American pundit class: an open distrust of their government, a refusal to believe that official spokespeople were telling the truth or serving anything other than their own interests, even, in some cases, a disarming ability to question their own reform-minded motives. These are all qualities that democracies would do well to cultivate.

Yet none of this ever seems to occur to the tribunes of American political debate, who resolutely cling to the conviction that the minds of most Americans are made of sealing wax, and that a more or less perfect correspondence obtains between the attitudes encoded in national press coverage and the outlook of the public.

A frank acknowledgment of the true scope of public cynicism would force journalists to give up the flattering notion of their own world-historical influence. "I think if we become more cynical about our institutions here, we also risk people around the world becoming more cynical about the true power and values of the American society," Time editor Walter Isaacson told the Los Angeles Times last year. The power of the American ideal, he explained, "comes basically from the authority and credibility we have as journalists."

The notion that the American people are easily manipulated -- conned into either civic engagement or corrosive cynicism -- helps to propel a politics concerned principally with impression-management, which downgrades citizens into consumers. Dick Morris, the Clinton advisor whose poll-driven campaign initiatives created the bottomless demand for cash behind the current scandal, was of course the epitome of this style, methodically downsizing so-called values questions into bite-sized morsels of cosmetic moralizing -- all with the explicit aim of stealing salable issues from the opposition party.

Of course, since the campaign finance scandal has broken, the cynical impulses of Clintonism have been lurching out of control. Clinton himself has given up the passive-voice diction of the trained bureaucrat ("the Lincoln bedroom was not sold") and has begun to explain his meetings with donors as an honorable sort of checkbook populism. Likewise, the president has tried to dismiss his all-too-visible hand in procuring a $400,000-a-year job for Whitewater crony Webster Hubbell as but another helpful turn for a friend in distress.

Clinton's now-trademark doublespeak is far more corrosive of public trust than anything an embittered journalist or citizen could dream up -- yet Clinton, if anything, gets praise for his delivery of such prevarications. After one recent press conference on the campaign scandals, the New York Times -- which is widely, and mistakenly, viewed as one of the most prominent public organs belaboring the Clinton scandals and badgering his administration -- characterized Clinton's bearing as "casual," "genial" and "cool." No less than three articles in the same edition of the Times referred to the fact that Clinton's right hand was in his suit-jacket. Evidently auctioning off political access is OK if in the course of denying what you've done you comport yourself as though you're at a cocktail party.

Heretical though it may be, it's worth entertaining the notion that real civic journalism should embrace rather than bemoan the cynicism of the public -- and treat the performances of the powerful with withering, cynical scorn rather than herd-like connoiseurship. Interestingly enough, a 1994 New York Times/CBS News poll found more than half of its respondents identified the Democrats as "the party of the rich." Perhaps if the media took the cynicism of the public more seriously -- and imagined it as something other than their own creation -- they could find their way to a "civic" journalism more in tune with the people they claim to represent.

By Chris Lehmann

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