Time for the Press to Do Some Soul-Searching

The proposition was, "Liars, Incompetents, Distorters: Who Believes Journalists Anymore?" The Pew Center for Civic Journalism gathered 125 concerned journalists, young and old, to chew things over earlier this month.

Many had met this in their work. Most agreed that the profession is indeed very low in public esteem, right down among the lawyers and politicians.

A recent Harris poll found three out of four people believe the press to be biased. Surveys show that younger people don't read newspapers. Television news is straining to hold its audience; one old hand at a top news broadcast says TV news has become a part of an entertainment menu.

The reason? The challenge is no longer to get the news first and get it right. The networks are owned by large corporations whose interests are more varied. They and their shareholders are, understandably, in business to make money. News as a loss leader to gain prestige is an idea whose day is long gone. Competition is now hustling for the biggest audience share, commanding the most advertising dollars. The common denominator is pushed lower - simplifying, sentimentalizing, vulgarizing news reports. Emphasis is on presentation and technique. It's a paradox that the effort to cater to what is perceived as the public taste should provoke disapproval.

Pressure takes many forms.

One major magazine, Esquire, recently is said to have dropped a scheduled story which displeased Chrysler, an important advertiser. Editors may think twice before following a lead into sensitive territory. Libel suits can be painfully expensive, even if they are won. Budgets are tighter.

The public's impression of media bias is strange. If anything, the larger the news organization, the less it seeks controversy. The goal is not to offend, not to trigger a boycott or a mass protest by some outraged interest group.

If the press and its practitioners have become objects of contempt, it's likely to be for reasons closer to home, such as attitudes inside the profession.

Paparazzi are the obscene caricature of a broader attitude in the profession - a disregard for the privacy that people treasure as their protection in an increasingly intrusive world. The microphone thrust at a grieving mother, with the asinine question of how she feels about the killing of her child, is an abomination.

Even public figures, who can expect to be fair game, may find themselves hounded beyond decent limits. Too often, investigative journalism seems to start from the premise that all in authority are corrupt and that the entire political process is manipulated. The Watergate episode, a classic of editorial enterprise and courage, spawned legions of snoopers indiscriminately turning over stones in search of fame and fortune.

The professional level of American journalism could stand improvement. James Fallows, editor of US News and World Report, has pointed to one glaring flaw, a strange form of condescension: the reporting of electoral contests or the clash of ideas over fundamental issues not in terms of substance but as a horse race.

If journalists bemoan that they are often lied to or otherwise deceived, that it is hard to find the truth in an age of universal hype, they are protesting an occupational hazard that is their business to overcome. More education might equip them with a standard of comparison to judge what is important and what is plausible. And a greater responsibility about their role in the scheme of things wouldn't hurt.

It is not to flatter journalists that the Constitution explicitly protects only one institution, the press, from governmental interference. There is no mystery in any of this, but it takes concerted effort in the newsroom and the boardroom to put it into practice.

Journalists should note a change over time in their relationship with the public. In World War II and in the decades of the cold war, people urgently felt the need to know what was palpably affecting their lives. Reporters were in the mainstream. Those like Edward R. Murrow and Ernie Pyle were celebrated, others' mainly modest talents deeply appreciated. The epic dimension of events provided genuine drama.

Today, there is no clearly overriding danger to focus the mind. Peace and prosperity have opened the door to private and parochial preoccupations. Single-issue constituencies lobby stridently. Rights seem to outweigh obligations as special groups demand what they call proper recognition. The product is political correctness.

The press, broadcast and print, finds itself in a slough of indifference that it cannot escape through clowning and melodrama. Its function is not to please, inspire, frighten or educate, but to inform. As time goes on, the press will regain respect to the degree it does just that.

* Richard C. Hottelet, a longtime foreign correspondent for CBS, writes on world affairs.

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