The Trouble With American Journalism

By Scott London
Santa Barbara News-Press, October 18, 1998

1998 has been a dismal year for American journalism. It began with a spate of retractions and embarrassing incidents. Dallas Morning News and Wall Street Journal both withdrew stories based on anonymous and unreliable sources. Stephen Glass, a promising young writer for the New Republic, admitted to fabricating all or part of over two dozen articles. Boston Globe fired one of its most popular columnists for making up characters in her news stories.

Healing the rift between the news media and the public will require work on both ends. The public has to resist the temptation to make the media a whipping-post for every social malady. And journalists need to see the public as partners in a meaningful dialogue about the issues we all care about.

In June, CNN and Time magazine came under intense fire for a questionable report claiming that American troops used nerve gas on defectors during the Vietnam War. In their retraction, the editors confessed that "the facts simply do not support the allegations that were made."

Then, in a highly publicized case involving Chiquita Brands, the Cincinnati Enquirer admitted to "deceitful, unethical, and unlawful conduct" in a series of investigative reports about the company. The paper fired its lead reporter and agreed to pay the company $10 million dollars in damages.

It's tempting to look upon these imbroglios as isolated cases of lapsed ethics or bad judgment on the part of individual journalists. But in fact they are part of a much larger canvas.

By all accounts, 1998 has been a news year dominated by scandal, sex, sleaze, and sensationalism. The news media have been preoccupied, to the point of obsession, with the sordid details of the White House sex scandal — often to the exclusion of far more pressing news.

Even supposedly serious journalists, like CNN's Frank Sesno and MSNBC's Brian Williams, have been reduced to live, blow-by-blow coverage of things like Ken Starr riding in his limo ("Ken Starr, if I may now interrupt, is getting out of the car, putting on his jacket...") or cheap speculations about sex in the White House ("Monica's hiking friend says the President didn't go all the way...").

As we know, the media's fixation with the Clinton-Lewinsky affair is not a new phenomenon. It's merely the latest in a series of episodes which include Princess Diana's fatal car crash, the murder of Jon Benet Ramsey, the sex life of Marv Albert, and the interminable coverage of the O.J. Simpson trials.

Journalists have never been especially popular with Americans. But this year they have sunk to new lows. A recent Times Mirror poll showed that reporters now rank below lawyers (and just a notch or two above labor union leaders) in the contempt they inspire. Another survey found that fully two-thirds of Americans say the press "gets in the way of society solving its problems."

Journalists are usually quick to defend themselves against this sort of criticism. Playing the role of watchdog is a thankless task, they often say, "but somebody has to do it." Or, they point the finger at what they see as a fickle public. "Crime is what the audience wants," as one news director put it. "All of the surveys put crime at the top of the list. Who am I to second-guess the audience?"

But, thankfully, these knee-jerk reactions are beginning to give way to more thoughtful and self-critical responses on the part of the media establishment.

Veteran TV-journalist Marvin Kalb concedes that the news profession has "mysteriously lost its compass — and along with it, its ethical and professional standards." Anchorman Dan Rather worries about the rise of "rumor, innuendo, half-truths, quarter-truths" and what he calls "the leak-o-rama" that characterizes today's journalism. Veteran newspaperman Eugene Patterson complains about "rotting values" in the industry.

These admissions suggest that newspeople are at least beginning to acknowledge some responsibility for what has happened to American public life. They also underscore the wisdom of Thomas Jefferson, John Dewey and others who insisted that good journalism is indispensable in a free society and that bad journalism puts the whole enterprise at risk.

The connection between journalism and democracy may seem far-fetched to many in the media establishment — especially those struggling with more immediate concerns, such as making ends meet in the face of sagging ratings or dwindling circulation figures.

But it's a connection news professionals can no longer afford to ignore. As James Fallows writes in Breaking the News, "the less Americans care about public life, the less they will be interested in journalism in any form." Public-mindedness is not simply an ethical imperative, in other words — it also makes good business sense.

One of the most promising signs of change in the news profession is a movement variously known as "civic" or "public" journalism. Its aims are not simply to improve the presentation of news or to meet the changing demands of newspaper readers, but rather to make journalism more accountable and meaningful to the community.

The movement began as a discussion among a small group of journalists and newspaper editors who realized they had reached an impasse. Many of them were newspaper editors in local communities who had discovered that their best-intentioned efforts to reach out to their readership — through citizen forums, in-depth reports, or new "solutions-oriented" approaches — had little or no effect.

After wrestling with the problem, it began to dawn on them that they adhered to a largely unquestioned set of professional assumptions as journalists. They shared an ethos passed down from their teachers and mentors, and reinforced over coffee, at the water cooler, in meetings.

The public had no real place in this worldview. Readers were commonly viewed as either "a consumer whom we have to please in some way, or an idiot whom we can ignore," in the words of Cole Campbell, editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

The question that began to emerge from their search was: How can the news media connect people — not only to the news organization, but to each other and to the community? Unless journalists could answer that question, they realized, the news media had no real function beyond providing entertainment.

E.B. White said that democracy is a letter to the editor. Public journalists are amending that adage by suggesting that democracy also demands a letter of response. Information has to flow both ways.

Healing the rift between the news media and the public will require work on both ends. The public has to resist the temptation to make the media a whipping-post for every social malady. And journalists need to see the public as partners in a meaningful dialogue about the issues we all care about.

At bottom, what we're talking about is a change of perspective. In the short run, it may lead to better journalism. In the longer run, it will strengthen our communities and enrich public life.

"Media and Democracy" will be the topic of a community forum on Wednesday, October 21 at 7:30 p.m. in the Faulkner Gallery at the Santa Barbara Public Library (40 East Anapamu Street). Scott London, host of the national cultural affairs program "Insight & Outlook," will moderate a discussion between representatives of the local media and members of the community. Panelists will include Allan Parsons, executive editor of the Santa Barbara News-Press; John Palminteri, senior reporter at KEYT-TV; Jane Prettyman, editor of the Real News Page on the Internet; and Peter Bie, program director of 101.7 K-LITE radio. The event is free and open to the public.