The Press and Self-Criticism

SUDDENLY, the press is awash in self-criticism on the way it handles the news. ``The New Press Criticism: News As the Enemy of Hope,'' is the way the New York Times headlined its coverage last Sunday. As the Times's William Glaberson summed up the charge, ``journalists ... are so wedded to cynicism that they often deliver a self-canceling message: everything ... is a game about nothing more than winning or losing.''

According to this self-critique, journalists are significantly implicated in the general public's pronounced souring on politics and politicians. Treated to a rarely interrupted stream of stories stressing policy failures and personal inadequacies, Americans are quite naturally asking, ``What's gone wrong with the system?''

I'm glad to see this healthy dose of what the old Soviet Union used to call samokritika. The press is far too inclined - and not just in its coverage of national politics - to report things that go wrong, at the expense of the many that go right, and too inclined to a cynical pose toward much of human motivation.

At the same time, it is worthy of note that this burst of insight into press performance on political affairs comes at a time when a Democrat is in the White House and falling ``victim'' to negative coverage. In fact, of course, the problem didn't begin in the Clinton years. It can be traced back to the latter 1960s, when a vast sea-turn in press tone became evident. But journalists were less sensitive to its implications when a Republican administration was taking it on the chin.

Surveys have shown that the press at all levels - editors, print and TV reporters, network news producers, et al. - is overwhelmingly on the liberal and Democratic side in personal preferences. Would a profession itself thus positioned be more likely to cover a liberal Democrat more negatively than it would a conservative Republican? Of course not.

Journalists are correct, studies show, in their present concern that a general note of disparagement suffuses their coverage of political developments across party lines. But it's nonsense to claim, as many of the recent accounts do, that the Clinton administration is somehow notably afflicted.

I hope that more journalists will add an additional dimension to their new self-criticism: a recognition that a profession inclined to disdain politicians generally is likely to be especially disparaging of those with whom it differs philosophically.

This said, conservatives and Republicans, liberals and Democrats alike have reason to join together in combating the negativism that envelops so much contemporary coverage.

We would be wrong in pretending that this is the first time national politics has seen negative reporting. Abraham Lincoln was widely ridiculed as a mindless baboon, and worse. Still, the raw cynicism of much contemporary reporting is new.

The news and entertainment fields now join in mocking public officials. We see this in ``The Hotline,'' a political insiders' newsletter - electronic and hard copy - that circulates widely among journalists and political operatives. It's filled with useful information but dominated by an unremittingly disparaging tone.

The last page of every issue is devoted to Jay Leno's and David Letterman's political put-downs. Political humor with some bite is fun, but this is just crude and mean spirited. What's more, a constant stream of such disparagement demeans democratic politics itself.

The barrel of current commentary is filled with shrillness and negativism. On television talk shows such as CNN's ``Crossfire,'' competition turns on who can shout the loudest. Candidates' TV ads are all too often at the same level. Happily there are exceptions, but the public is besieged by low-road commentary that would rather put someone down than advance ideas.

It's not that there's too much criticism of politicians. Democratic politics needs vigorous criticism - clear explications, for example, of political stands taken in one political context and then backed away from through obfuscation in another. Real criticism doesn't alienate citizens from their polity; it energizes them, by pointing out areas where, from one principled point of view, things can be made better.

The press seems willing to criticize itself for its portrayal of politics as a crudely manipulative game, but unreceptive to efforts that try to raise the level.

One may approve or disapprove of this fall's Republican efforts to offer a ``Contract with America'' - a statement of policies a GOP-led Congress would seek to enact.

But this doesn't explain or excuse the predominant press coverage, which has dismissed the ``contract'' as mere posturing. It isn't that. It's an attempt to focus the election on contending party philosophies rather than local personalities. A press that really wants to turn from ``politics-as-game'' should be receptive to all such efforts.

Americans are down on government and politics - for two entirely different reasons. A great many people see actual governmental performance as deficient and insist on improvement.

But many are down on politics as well because of the nastiness, negativism, and cynicism that suffuse all too much commentary. It's ``time for a change'' in news reporting.


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