Why Should the Public Trust Journalists?
A long-time journalist looks outside his practice for answers.
Janeway writes about “a culture of suspicion” and quotes Washington Post columnist James Broder, who observed that this pervasive attitude “saps people’s confidence in politics and public officials…. If the assumption is that nothing is on the level, nothing is what it seems, then citizenship becomes a game for fools and there is no point in trying to stay informed.”
It is this presumption that now makes much of journalism (and citizenship) seem a fool’s sport. It is what pushed me to leave a 17-year career at NBC News. The first day I returned to work after my Nieman year, I walked into an NBC edit room and found tacked to its wall a New York Post front-page headline: “NBC Breaks Story—Monica Had Sex with Bill.”
A queasy stomach became my first visceral reaction. At that moment I realized that we, in the news business, would be blitzed with the ghoulishly recurring shot of Monica in her beret, receiving the President’s arm on her shoulder in public with all the savory deception that image evokes. And then it hit me that I was part of the machine perpetuating these sensationalistic icons, masquerading as news. Prior to that moment, I’d hung on to the conviction that the small victories I eked out broadcasting stories which were unnoticed by the other networks made it worthwhile to stay at this work. Suddenly I felt engulfed by the sense that news being fed into this machine was being homogenized by new imperatives. To me, it seemed as though television news was subsuming content into a new paradigm of soap opera escapism. A similar dynamic appears to make my 12-year-old daughter reject articles I cut from respectable newspapers for her to read. She tells me “newspapers are evil,” and she categorically defines all news as bad news, something to be avoided at all costs.
How can I nurture the belief that what happens in the world around her has the potential to create good, as well as wreak havoc, in the lives of us, as citizens? Part of the journalist’s mandate is to be the public’s watchdog. When did we become bloodhounds, with apparently no detail considered off-limits and the presumption of guilt too often present at the starting line?
Janeway suggests journalists seek understanding by reflecting on the broader cultural shifts. “Writ large,” Janeway writes, “the story is about the sobering awakening from the postwar American dream. Of the fading of American command of its own destiny and of the free world’s…. Of disintegration of a culture of assurance and consensus, one that embraced near universal concepts of sacrifice and duty—including military service, wartime rationing, broad-based sense of participation in the course of a national destiny—into a culture of separatism, self-preoccupied materialism, and doubt.”
The intertwining of journalism, politics and social attitudes cannot be disentangled from the larger American narrative. During the late 1960’s, dissolution of a national heroism and optimism began with a series of shock waves to our democratic identity. Janeway buttresses his argument with contributions of political scientists and scholars, such as Harvard’s Michael J. Sandel, whom he quotes: “At home and abroad, events spun out of control, and government seemed helpless to respond.”
Janeway marks this period as a pivotal transition. Prior to the 1960’s, politicians such as Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill knew that democratic leaders not only had to be accessible, but “that direct communication with the public was an opportunity, not a burden…. Thus, media and democracy seemed to have become productively intertwined, a modern, open marriage of free access between the information marketplace and the political arena.”
Then journalists began uncovering lie after lie, from politicians withholding information for “the good of the nation.” After President Kennedy’s assassination, conspiracy theories surfaced. Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam strategies weakened public trust, as did the violence used against anti-war protesters at the Democratic convention in 1968 and the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy. Watergate then destroyed it. “The party in power had lost control of the issues of war and peace, and law and order, along with that of race,” Janeway writes. “The Democratic Party—the party that from Jefferson to Johnson by way of Roosevelt had defined, redefined and fought for the aspirations of the American common man—set about reforming itself. But it never recovered from the events of 1968.”
As both parties faltered, wrote political scientist Thomas Patterson, reformers “established a nominating process that is essentially a free-for-all between self-generated candidates,” and television took over “the task of bringing the candidates and voters together.” The arena of candidate selection, Patterson contends, shifted from a political party structure in an engaged civil society to “a media system that was built for other purposes.”
Janeway develops that theme. “Television’s currency and forms were images, acting skills, management of the moment, fast cutting in and out of a fragmented visual environment—and entertainment. These supplanted the forms of the old order of national, state and local politics: radio sound and printed word of landmark speeches, the bustle of handshaking, grassroots, ‘retail’ politics…. Political content on television was more and more framed in the only format that appeared to arouse a response (albeit a diminishing one): the reductive, vitriolic distortions of the negative advertisement.”
What had once been the machinations of the American political process became the purview of electronic journalists. In this way, active civic responsibility was forfeited to a handful of talking heads who controlled access to candidates (by whom they decide to cover and how they choose to cover them.) Thus TV news acquired a power it never had before, certainly one unanticipated in the Constitution.
Enter into this mix the technology explosion and proliferation of cable stations, and what occurs is a further splintering of the news audience. Soon newspapers as well as TV stations appeared willing to allow some of their standards to slip if would mean selling more papers (or creating “a buzz”) and gaining audience share.
News continues to be sensationalized to attract audiences. Concurrently, the public becomes even more disaffected, sated with untruth and tragedy. Of course, this transformation is more complex than any short overview can embrace. But a central question regarding journalism remains: How do journalists return to the province of watchdog reporting, with the objective of providing the kind of information citizens need to meaningfully participate in their democratic institutions?
Certainly we should not use as our roadmap some of the questionable “news” practices of recent times. CBS News recreates its logo in virtual space and places its venerable anchor Dan Rather in front of it, thereby deceiving its viewers as to what is real. Or as Hillary Rodham Clinton prepares to announce her senate candidacy she avoids interviews with journalists, deciding instead to face pre-screened questions from David Letterman. Or the announcement of the merger of Ralph Lauren and NBC “in a new media company that will promote the designer’s products online and on-the-air,” which the New York Times predicted will “further blur the line between content and commerce at traditional media companies.”
Janeway maintains that the true fall from grace for American journalism came when the machinations of political process left local communities and became the purview of a select group of television correspondents. The question remains of how political power is returned to ordinary citizens and a renewed sense of pride and engagement in our (once cherished) democratic process is engendered. To accomplish this, do journalists need to—and will they be willing to—forfeit the power they have assumed and return to the province of respected watchdog of those who hold power? These are questions that no one—not journalists, publishers, politicians or scholars—can answer with any measure of certainty.
Cara DeVito is a 1998 Nieman Fellow. She edited and produced stories for NBC News from 1981 to 1998, then formed her own production company, “Hey Hey Pictures,” in Rhinebeck, New York.
Today many journalists lament compromises in their practice that they feel pressured to make due to bottom-line imperatives. In his book, “Republic of Denial,” long-time journalist Michael Janeway (The Atlantic Monthly and The Boston Globe) connects the contemporary slippage in standards of journalism to the broader context of America’s social history. In analyzing the sorry state of journalism, Janeway skillfully links the circumstances of this situation with what is and has been happening in politics and civic engagement during the past 50 years.