Press Gets Blame for Public Cynicism
Trust in public figures falls; some say journalists are too negative
BOSTON — TRUE or false?: The American press has become so cynical that it is damaging the country's political system.
True, says Thomas Patterson, a political science professor at Syracuse University in New York. ''I think [press cynicism] has contributed significantly to an erosion of public trust in government,'' he says.
False, says Larry Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. ''It's a great exaggeration and oversimplification,'' he says. ''Americans think what they do because of their own experience, not because of the media.''
The argument about whether the news media, print and broadcast, is undermining American institutions is not new. But a new round of the debate has broken out among journalists and those who closely monitor their work.
In December, reporter Adam Gopnik complained in The New Yorker magazine that ''A media that in its upper, more self-conscious reaches ... once dealt in quiet signals now sounds loud and acts mean.''
Paul Starobin, a National Journal reporter, also pointed to cynicism in the March issue of the Columbia Journalism Review: ''Press cynicism is clearly a real problem -- certainly a problem in Washington.''
And these views were boosted last week with the release of a survey by the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press. In the poll, journalists agreed that the press is too cynical. But the big surprise was that members of the public surveyed were even more cynical about public figures than the press was.
Since the development of modern American journalism in the mid-19th century, journalists have always prided themselves on having a ''healthy skepticism'' of the statements and actions of the people they were covering.
But the degree of this skepticism varied widely. In the first six decades of this century, the national press had a fairly close relationship with government officials, right up to the president.
That relationship was badly tattered by official deception and misinformation during the Vietnam War, but it was destroyed by the Watergate affair. Since then, some say, the press has migrated from skepticism to outright and destructive cynicism. Mr. Gopnik calls it ''a willingness to ascribe base motives to anyone who happens to be the object of attention.''
''Previously, journalists were too willing to take the word of people in power. They didn't do enough investigative work,'' says Ellen Hume, a media analyst for the Annenberg Washington Program and former Wall Street Journal reporter. ''But that said, the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction....''
Mr. Patterson, the author of the 1993 book ''Out of Order,'' which details his research on the press and public attitudes, says the constant drumbeat of negative coverage of government erodes public faith in democratic institutions.
It's also downright inaccurate, he charges. Congress passed 88 percent of the legislation President Clinton proposed in his first two years, according to Congressional Quarterly. It is the highest since Lyndon Johnson's in 1965, Patterson says. Yet 75 percent of the stories on Mr. Clinton were negative, according to the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington.
''I'd be hard pressed to find a congressional leader who has pushed as much legislation through Congress [as Speaker Newt Gingrich], yet he gets negative coverage,'' Patterson says, noting that 70 percent of stories on the Speaker have been negative. ''Something's out of whack. Media reality and reality reality don't match up.''
Patterson also found that if a negative story about a politician or an institution popped up in one major national outlet, like the New York Times, Washington Post, or the three big network-news shows, it was soon found in the others. ''But if something positive was found, it wasn't in any of the others. Good news just doesn't get picked up like negative news.''
The effect of all this, Patterson says, is that negative coverage soon turns into public disapproval in the polls. Patterson says he has ''looked at the long-term trend of news coverage and documented that it got more negative from the 1960s on.... The press is not only negative, but increasingly negative, and that tracks with what the public is thinking.''
Hume agrees. ''Reporters' assumption is that they are being lied to and that the motives of the person in question are evil motives. Democracy can't function if literally every move is assumed to be against the public interest and only serving private interest.''
But others say there has always been negative reporting. ''I defy anyone who studies history to read coverage of Franklin Roosevelt, Wilson, Lincoln, or Jefferson, and find a time when there wasn't an enormous amount of negative coverage of political figures,'' says Bill Kovach, curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalists at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., and former editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Mr. Kovach says he doesn't think the press as a whole is intentionally being cynical.
''Part of what's happening is that the press has been awkward and kind of careless in how it produces its work. Material is presented is an way that suggests everything [the reporters] have found is wrong or a matter of serious concern.''
Kovach also notes that while negative stories have always been a part of press coverage, the difference today is that more areas -- such as politicians' sexual morality -- are reported on ''and there are hundreds of channels where the public can get this material.''
MARVIN KALB, director of the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard and a former CBS and NBC News correspondent, agrees that cynicism is a problem: ''The press doesn't take the people seriously and the people don't take the press seriously.'' But he rejects the notion that the public is losing faith in its institutions because of negative reporting.
''That assumes that if the press reported only good things it would be doing its job, which it would not, and that people would immediately become optimistic,'' he says. ''It doesn't follow.''
Public cynicism about politicians has been around for a long time, says Herbert Gans, a sociologist at Columbia University in New York. He says that according to polling data, the current decline in public trust of politicians and institutions dates to 1964, before Watergate and Vietnam became issues. ''Why they started to go down is not real clear.... Some economic indices show that's when real wages stopped climbing.''
Dr. Sabato, whose 1991 book ''Feeding Frenzy'' recounted press treatment of several recent scandals, says that reporting's impact on Americans is overrated, since the public often isn't paying much attention to it. ''Press cynicism reflects public cynicism,'' he says. ''The press may be deepening public cynicism, but the public is not an empty vessel into which the press is pouring all this cynicism.''
Observers suggest several solutions to press negativity. ''I think what it takes is a little bit of reflection and perspective,'' Patterson says. To tell the story of a bag of mail hidden under a Chicago bridge is one thing, he says, but to suggest that this is an example of the general ineptness of a bascially efficient United States Postal Service is something else.''
Mr. Kalb says the press has become ''much too intrusive in the private lives of public officials.'' He says it ''ought to be distinctive about itself, be clear about what it means to be in the news business as opposed to what it means to be entertainers.''
Journalists need to spend more time explaining to the public ''in union, school, and civic meetings,'' what they do and why, Kovach says. 'He also says the media must provide more context so that the public better understands the significance of a story.
''Journalists are starting to get it,'' Ms. Hume says. She says the press must involve the public in discussion of the issues before government, and ''not just cover it as a sporting event'' with journalists ''just keeping the score.'' Hume cites the Charlotte (N.C.) Observer, where reporters solicit questions from the public and then put them to officials and candidates. ''Some very creative work is being done attempting to cover politics and government and what matters,'' she says.