1983: Press Performance: Enough Is Too Little
Encouraging words on a new and healthy phenomenon—the press is taking a hard look inward and examining itself.
This article originally appeared in the Winter 1983 issue of Nieman Reports.]
…I bring encouraging word of a relatively new and very healthy phenomenon: The press is taking a hard look inward and actually examining itself. The supposedly arrogant, heedless, nattering nabobs of negativism are engaged in a searching review of their practices, if not their consciences.
The argument isn’t bringing much agreement, thank heaven.…
I wonder if the general public is aware of the depth of this debate that is going on within the press. Television has reduced so much of human discourse to superficial scripts of conflict and flickering entertainments that this quiet and critical debate, one editor to another, may not have been adequately noted in the last year or so.
Every editor could see and discount the many weaknesses in Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s arguments in his 1978 commencement address at Harvard. But few could or did miss the uncomfortable closeness to truth in Solzhenitsyn’s observation that “hastiness and superficiality—these are the psychic diseases of the 20th Century, and more than anywhere else this is manifested in the press.” The pitiless Russian went on: “In-depth analysis of a problem is anathema to the [U.S] press; it is contrary to its nature. The press merely picks out sensational formulas…fashionable trends of thought and ideas are fastidiously separated from those that are unfashionable, and the latter…have little chance of finding their way into periodicals or books or being heard in colleges.
“Your scholars are free in the legal sense,” Solzhenitsyn said, “but they are hemmed in by the idols of the prevailing fad.
“…a selection dictated by fashion and the need to accommodate mass standards frequently prevents the most independent-minded persons from contributing to public life and gives rise to a dangerous herd instinct that blocks successful development…[a] self-deluding interpretation of the state of affairs in the contemporary world…functions as a sort of petrified armor around people’s minds….
“It will be broken,” Solzhenitsyn concluded somberly, “only by the inexorable crowbar of events.”
These are heavy words to be loading onto a press that isn’t accustomed to looking inward. Self-delusion. Fashionability. Herd instinct. Distortion and disproportion. Hastiness and superficiality. Unmoral judgments. Arrogance. Self-righteousness. Cynicism. If all of this is right, we don’t sound like very nice people. But anyone who has worked in Washington will feel some unease under his flail.
Sooner or later the press, if it does its job, delivers an unpopular message to just about everybody and a portion of those offended will always adjudge us as sinful and unclean. But there’s another side to just about every one of the allegations, of course. The press serves the public interest doggedly and most often well under heavy blows and unkind pressures that go beyond the imagining of most citizens. And those justifications of our shortcomings have their place in the constructive debates that should shape our responses.
But consider William Greider’s suggestion in his new book: that maybe we’re going about our basic business in the wrong way, and that the press “has to reinvent its definition of news.”
“The governing impulse is to simplify and startle,” Greider said, as he reflected on the hullabaloo he set off in the press as well as the government by writing the candid story of Budget Director David Stockman’s thoughts and acts.
Greider concluded the Washington press “communicates much less coherently than it thinks it does.”
“The reason for this is that there are fundamental flaws in the ways the news media package reality and convey it to the general population. Americans consume more information about public affairs now than at any previous point in history, yet they do not seem to have gained a deeper understanding of events.… The values slighted are the ones probably most valuable to the consumer: context and comprehension.”
How would Greider repair that? “The business of news ought to take responsibility for what the consumers of news understand,” he wrote. “I think the audience will understand if reporters try to explain more and startle less.”…
“The business of news ought to take responsibility for what the consumers of news understand,” Bill Greider said.
That deceptively simple statement goes very deep. In our high-tech time, low-reach news is showered on readers or listeners like a light snow that evaporates on contact. That is not the point of the First Amendment. Unresisted, it is the death of free expression through atrophy.…
I personally feel the need for a new inventiveness more strongly now than I did in April 1978 when I told the ASNE, in my farewell talk as outgoing president, the following, which I feel like saying again:
“We are in a period of search and change toward a new dimension of journalism, I believe.
“We remember the generally obedient press born of depression and two world wars, which tended through the 1950’s to respect the authority of established power to define this nation’s purposes and interest.
“We well remember the convulsive switch to adversary journalism in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, when domestic discord and a mistaken war turned the society as well as the press from a general obedience to an adversary sense of fallibility of the powerful institutions we live under.
“This adversary posture made for a sturdier press and a stronger society. It should endure.
“But I sense a current self-examination in the press, addressing the question of whether throwing rocks at authority is enough, or whether better reporting of issues should be added to our investigative approach.
“It might be called explanatory journalism. In that new dimension we would commit to the goal of telling an issue whole—taking greater responsibility for bringing clarity to the pros and cons of it—with simplicity which can only spring from a writer’s comprehension.…
“The adversary press, which rebelled against the conformity of the obedient press, can in turn shield itself against a new conformity—that of a mindless anti-authority—by emphasizing a dimension of issue-oriented explanatory journalism that will make us as newly demanding of ourselves, to inform the public on the choices before it, as we have become demanding of authority figures to justify their exercise of power.”
Five years later, I feel even more strongly that we must exercise ourselves to explain complexity, as well as to monitor authority.
Eugene C. Patterson, Editor and President of the St. Petersburg (Florida) Times and the Congressional Quarterly, gave the 1983 Press-Enterprise Lecture at the University of California, Riverside.