Against the Commercial Impulse
An author argues for journalism being a vital force in democracy.
American democracy is in a state of political depression because the electorate is neither active nor well informed. In addition, according to a recent Pew Center poll, 38 percent of Americans think the media hurt our democracy, while only 45 percent believe they help it. (Of course, there’s a lot of mindless media bashing as well, but that’s another matter.) Let’s put it this way. When it comes to civic matters, the public is not inundated with trenchant reporting, insightful commentary, or truthful, informative political ads. And most eligible Americans don’t bother to vote. These are interconnected problems that journalists, among others, should spend some time thinking about.
When we focus on the media these days, we pay too much attention to the dazzling array of new gadgets and technologies and the wonders of the Internet. Forget all that for a moment. Besides, the actual impact of those marvels is vastly overstated anyway. Let’s concentrate instead on the real business of journalism—educating the public in things civic and otherwise. Through that lens, I’d like to briefly explore the connections of the news media to money, politics and democratic culture.
First of all, the media cannot be understood or judged as an isolated sector of society. In all kinds of ways, media are connected to one another and to other sectors: politics, government, business, popular culture, and education.
Second, there’s enough good journalism around, if one knows where to look for it and wants to find it. All of the problems of our media-industrial-political complex are not the media’s fault. We need to consider demand as well as supply.
But there are problems close to home. There is the increasing economic concentration and the forms of corruption and self censorship that these engender. There is the allure of “infotainment” and the temptation for tabloid treatment of ordinary news. And there are many ways today in which core journalistic values of integrity, fairness, accuracy, full disclosure, and sound news judgment are being tarnished and compromised.
Many of these flaws can be traced to one grand contradiction underlying American (and most other) news media. On one hand, virtually all journalism is commercially based or ultimately market dependent, even in the nonprofit sector. As such, it cannot help being driven by conservative imperatives, which put profits ahead of the public interest.
Yet media in a democracy also have a crucial public function: to promote and inform our essential democratic debate. So even though media are ensconced in the private sector, the journalistic enterprise (not unlike the mission of public libraries and public education) is essentially an egalitarian and even a liberal one. Its function is to empower ordinary citizens by being their constant watchdogs and questioning the powers that be (state, corporate, or otherwise), always digging more deeply and diffusing more information than those powerful institutions would like.
In fact, the quality and credibility of journalism depend directly on its independence from commercial pressures. That is why secure firewalls between the business and editorial sides of news organizations are essential. As the Los Angeles Times discovered recently, this firewall is a load-bearing wall. Removing it collapses journalistic integrity.
Media and Money
In the long run, we need to resolve this contradiction by finding ways to insulate journalists and their practice from such commercial pressures. An enduring trust for public broadcasting, free of the heavy hand of Congress and its lobbyists, would be a good place to start. Another would be a more diverse and competitive environment of media pluralism. Ben Bagdikian and Robert W. McChesney, among others, have written eloquently on this subject. We need anti-trust oversight, too, to diversify our sources of information before we’re reduced to the single voice of Big Mouse.
Any change in the media system affects all of the interconnected parts. Thus, the role and performance of the press cannot be divorced from the issue of financial contributions in politics, or from the most important constitutional question now confronting the American people: What is speech?
In Buckley vs. Valeo (1976), the Supreme Court in effect equated money with speech. Our political system is—to put it delicately—an influence auction, awash in hard and soft money. The Court might now be backing away from that view; Justice John Paul Stevens, arguing for the majority last January in Nixon v. Shrink Missouri Government PAC, expressed the quaint view that “Money is property; it is not speech.”
Many Americans might agree with that formulation. Perhaps writing, speaking, even the boorish fever swamp of talk radio are closer than campaign expenditures to what the Framers envisioned as the jewel in the crown of American liberties. But the question of what constitutes “speech” in the context of our political system ought to be made explicit as part of this election year debate, especially since the next President could appoint the justices who will determine the direction of the court for the next generation.
Media and Politics
There is room in a diverse media environment for outlets of all ideological stripes and also for ostensible neutrality. But news outlets must follow the polestar of being fierce advocates not for the left or right, but for frequent and lively and open debate. Journalists should address their audiences not as though they are commercial or political targets but as citizens, consumers, parents, students and members of our communities.
The objective of journalism, as E.J. Dionne, Jr. writes in his book “They Only Look Dead: Why Progressives Will Dominate the Next Political Era,” should be “to salvage [Walter] Lippmann’s devotion to accuracy and fairness by putting these virtues to the service of the democratic debate that [John] Dewey so valued. This means, in turn, that journalism needs to be concerned with far more than its professional rules and imperatives.”
In this regard, the civic journalism movement has got it at least half right. Of course we need to promote active and informed citizenship. What we don’t need is news driven by surveys, opinion polls, or focus groups. This is less journalism than market research masquerading as democracy. Nor do journalists need to become civic boosters. Their more effective and proper role is that of a questioning watchdog, at times acting contrary to the sway of popular opinion, despite commercial pressures to do otherwise. And it is their business to decide what’s news.
Acting in the best interests of a democratic society, however, does not mean denigrating or sublimating ideology. On the contrary, journalists need to be able to appreciate all shades of reasonable opinion and respect the dignity of ideological argument. Ideology is like the weather: We might not like it, but it isn’t disreputable and it won’t go away.
Television, as a medium, is inherently cynical. That is, by the very nature of its visual orientation it leans toward coverage of the means and gamesmanship of politics, toward stories that depend on emotion more than on the substance of issues or values. It is quick to expose scandals and character flaws, slow to consider deeper motives, intentions, or ideas. TV abhors thoughtful ideological debate. But it is naive to suppose that bipartisan “practical” solutions can be found to important problems. Partisanship is about real differences of power and interest. It isn’t just a fog obscuring the real political terrain, but the terrain itself. Journalism that serves democracy must recognize this and not denigrate intelligent partisanship.
Facts are important too, and gathering and sorting them are essential journalistic functions. But indisputable facts are where our real debates begin—debates about values, causes and principles. It is not where they end.
Media and Education
If facts are where we start from, then journalism schools ought to provide more than vocational training for the harvesting of facts. Good journalists are not just brokers of information but educators of the public. Like all good teachers, journalists should themselves be students of human nature and society. Instead of just teaching people how to produce journalism, we should teach them to be better critics and consumers of journalism. In effect, we need to integrate journalism education into studies in elementary and secondary schools, as media literacy and media education.
Prospective journalists should learn not just to meet a deadline, but to explain, inform and analyze civic debate. More importantly, we need to teach youngsters how to think critically about the enormous amounts of information they can now access and not just hardwire them to the Internet and consider our job done. Real education, Yeats said, is “not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”
Critical thinking applies to journalism too. In part, it means making important distinctions that are too often obscured. A good place to start would be by distinguishing between the public and private lives of public figures. Suggestion: Lose the smarmy rationalizations for tabloid coverage of private matters and just say no.
Journalism that serves democracy also requires some mundane but important things: issue-oriented coverage; head-to-head debates between opposing points of view on the same page or time slot; muckraking and investigative reporting; ombudsman oversight and media criticism; facilitation of public activism. For example, important public meetings in any community should be listed in advance on a public service page or station. (There’s a radical idea.) So should names and Web sites of relevant organizations on all sides of key issues.
Finally, what promotes democratic culture is quality, not just quantity or profits. Among other things, journalists have lost sight of the public purpose of competition within their business; reporters should worry less about getting it first and more about getting it best. Some elements of the media inevitably will—and perhaps should—focus on the impregnation of celebrities by alien visitors. But if “bread and circuses” cannot be dismissed, neither can the need for quality in public information and debate and, conjointly, for public education that produces the demand for it.
Viewing journalism as a form of education is elitist, I’ll admit. Education is the diffusion of knowledge from the elite to the masses. The truly dangerous elite, however, is the one we need most—and the one all good journalism strives to enlarge. This would be an information elite of astute, informed media critics and political activists, with a membership comprising every American citizen.
Jeffrey Scheuer is the author of “The Sound Bite Society: Television and the American Mind” (New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1999), from which this article is adapted.