Media Failed US Voters in '94 By Missing the Real Stories

THIS seems a pretty apt moment to reflect on what's going on in America, and to examine the part the press is playing in it. After all, the voters, to whom journalists communicate our sense of events, decided in the midterm elections to drive the Democrats out of control of Congress and hand command of both houses to the Republicans for the first time in 40 years.

Columnist Howard Troxler asked himself rhetorically in the St. Petersburg Times what the election losers are doing now.

``Answer: Losers blame the liberal media.''

``Q: How is the liberal media to blame?''

``A: The liberal media brainwashes the voters.''

``Q: You mean the liberal media brainwashed Americans into electing the first Republican Congress in four decades?''

``A: Hey, I didn't say they were good at it.''

Whether the press is good or bad at what it does, it was laboring to keep up with many challenges well before the nation surprised it with this political U-turn.

One of the reasons that citizens are aimless and disappointed, economist Herbert Stein recently wrote in The New York Times, is that ``media pundits, who should be our sages and philosophers, are nit-pickers.''

They're the ones you see seeking reputations for toughness at televised news conferences by insulting the official at bay. Their toughest questions can be asked civilly, and ought to be.

In pursuit of villains, nit-pickers often miss the hero stories. In preoccupation with the press's vital watchdog role, they neglect its companion, the explanatory journalism that today's complex issues require. In their zeal to send the sheriff to jail (where some sheriffs do richly deserve to be doing their public service) the nit-pickers fail to illuminate such larger stories as the building up to the savings and loan debacle in the 1980s and such underreported present stories as the waste in agricultural subsides, the advance of the African-American middle class, the full sweep of market-driven reforms in health care that aren't waiting for government action, and the fall - yes, fall - in the crime rate.

Which brings us back finally to the election campaign. The press reported the electorate very angry.

Angry over what? The candidates insistence on pressing the hot buttons of scapegoating, which happened to encode an unspoken racial tinge, distracted the news media from fully exploring the deeper causes of the general anger. Americans, white collar and blue, saw an economic recovery rewarding mainly the top quarter of the society where they didn't rank. They felt international competition pressing down on their wages. They saw technology eating away at their jobs. Against this insecure start to each day, Americans struggled to pay taxes to the government, wrestled with the bureaucrats and paperwork of government, and resented government's open-handedness with people they saw as freeloaders on their struggles.

These angry voters searched the media for explanations of what had hold of them. In place of finding clarity and insight, they too often blinked at a bedlam of talk show babble, witnessed shouting matches between journalists-turned-television hams, puzzled over shallow printed squibs and, finally, fell victim to those sleazy campaign commercials. ``Have I got a scapegoat for you,'' many candidates assured their angry constituents. Blame that fellow behind the tree!

And that's the real danger here, isn't it. The election itself may have had a wise result. In its deeper wisdom the electorate may have sensed it was time to shake out the leadership of a Congress the Democrats themselves had helped to gridlock, and to try a change in political philosophies, whether for better or for worse. In the fine tradition of free men and women, voters unhappy with their masters threw the rascal out. The danger lay not in the election's destination; it lay in the route the bandwagon took. By meanness and mendacity, many anticrime, anti-immigrant candidates channeled the electorate's anger toward scapegoats. And when the voters looked to their sources of information for guidance, the media were too often content to dignify the candidates' definition of issues.

Now on the eve of the 21st century, Americans have seen a collapse abroad of the opposing ideology whose threat had concentrated our energies and unified our aims for a generation. Suddenly the capitalist system stands safe from external challenge. We are free to identify other dangers to stand against, and invited to look within. It is not likely the 1994 election campaign accurately spotted the priority menace when it pointed to the poor, the huddled masses, the illegitimate, and the unimprisoned. Surely larger visions than that beckon to us. And larger dangers threaten our freedoms if we yield to our darker tempers.

``There is the danger,'' Harvard professor of government Michael Sandel told the New York Times on the day after these elections, ``that the politics of protest may find its next expression in the `man on horseback,' an authoritarian figure who offers a way beyond impasses, above politics, and beyond the messy and often frustrating restraints of constitutional government.''

That is some danger. With a late bow to George Orwell, the people of 1994, and their press, need to think on it.

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