After Years of Being Bashed, Media Start to Bash Themselves


WHEN then-Vice President Spiro T. Agnew blasted the media elite as "nattering nabobs of negativism," it was dismissed by much of the press as a cheap political shot. At the time, it may have been.

But in the intervening two decades, the American news media have undergone a transformation. The press is slicker and more sensational, cynical, and celebrity-driven than before. Scholars who track it say it also has grown much more opinionated.

Now, with public respect at low level, newspaper readership and network news audiences steadily declining, the media have begun looking in the mirror. And some are horrified by what they see: a reflection of Mr. Agnew's nattering nabobs staring back at them.

"It does seem that others in the professions are waking up to the fact that we've become our own worst enemy," says Howard Kurtz, the media reporter for The Washington Post. "To the extent that people are tuning out from the mainstream media, we bear most of the responsibility."

Mr. Kurtz's new book, "Hot Air: All Talk All the Time" (Times Books) hit the newsstands last week. Just days before, his colleague James Fallows rattled the media with his latest book, "Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy" (Pantheon Books).

Both say the press has given in to sensationalism, to catchy, vacuous sound-bites, and to a seeming obsession with political gamesmanship that doesn't mean much to most Americans.

"What I think is most destructive to the prospects for reasonable government is the instinctive concept that news is squabbling among politicians," says Mr. Fallows, the Washington correspondent of The Atlantic Monthly magazine and a National Public Radio commentator. "It's destructive because the message it gives out is that these guys are all just pro wrestlers trying to get different grappling holds on one another, so what's the point of even being involved in public affairs?"

For many media critics, these are not new laments. But coming as the 1996 campaign is heating up and from within the media, they are viewed as refreshing.

"It's the mandarins turning against the house," says Syracuse (N.Y.) University professor Tom Patterson, whose book "Out of Order" (Vintage, 1994) outlined the media's fall into a kind of cynical, self-absorbed punditry. For decades, academics like Professor Patterson have raised alarms about the media's transformation into an elite club of political commentators that give the play-by-play of the Washington game while eschewing efforts to regularly explain the more complex issues.

"American public life is in trouble," says Ellen Hume, a reporter-turned-academic at the Annenberg Washington Program, a Washington-based think tank. "And journalists who could help are often doing more harm than good."

That contention and other criticism upsets many journalists. "I've spent my life trying to educate and inform people, trying to make Washington make sense to them," says one prominent reporter who declined to respond on the record.

There are plenty of examples of high-quality journalism. In fact, almost every major media outlet can point to a list of in-depth, informative, and well-balanced stories that grapple with difficult issues.

But there is also a solid body of evidence that indicates overall trends in the media are short-changing public debate.

A 1992 study found that the length of time television news allowed a politician to speak in his or her own words dropped from an average of 43 seconds in 1968 to just nine seconds in 1988.

A new study found that network-news coverage of presidential elections has shrunk by more than one-quarter from 1968 to 1992. Not only was there less news about who wanted to run the country, but the amount of time that politicians were allowed to speak also dropped by almost half. At the same time, reporters were on the air three times as often.

"In 1968, journalists often began and ended their reports with factual information," says Catherine Steele, a professor at Syracuse University and co-author of the new study. "By 1992, they started off with opinion as often as fact, and they ended with a personal judgment of some kind 90 percent of the time."

That trend has helped create the celebrity journalists on weekend talk-shows. There, journalists debate the news of the week in a jocular fashion that is designed more to entertain than to inform.

"What's rewarded are extreme views and flamboyant personalities that shed very little light on the issues facing the country," says media reporter Kurtz.

Mr. Fallows says that such shows further undermine the press's credibility by making journalists hot items on the lucrative, special-interest lecture circuit. While he acknowledges money doesn't necessarily influence any reporter's work, he says it creates the same appearance of a conflict of interest that tars Washington politicians.

"But what I find most egregious in a personal way is the pomposity with which people I know spout off for profit on things they don't know about," Fallows says. "The whole rent-a-pundit industry is really corrosive to such authority as the business still has."

Academics have also tracked the blurring of the line between the establishment prestige press and the sensational tabloids.

"First the National Enquirer shows up on the CBS Evening News in the famous Gary Hart photo; now it shows up quoted in The New York Times," says Robert Lichter, co-author of "Good Intentions Make Bad News" (Cowman & Littlefield, 1995).

Ms. Hume attributes the trend, in part, to the new, highly competitive environment. "One response has been to 'go tabloid' in a panic and try to reach for an audience that is leaving by grabbing them," she says. "It's basically 'news as voyeur entertainment' rather than 'news as something that you as a citizen are affected by.'"

Almost all the pundits agree the media have to take a hard look at themselves and make some substantive changes. Fallows compares it to the challenge faced by the United States military 15 years ago when it went through a painful soul-searching in order to regain its sense of values and credibility after the Vietnam War.

Such a process is already under way in local news, where a controversial movement called "civic" or "public" journalism is growing. There, reporters work to encourage civic action. When done well, advocates say, it increases voter turnout and community involvement. Critics are concerned that it prompts journalists to cross the line of objectivity, which could further damage the press's credibility..

"There are of course dangers in doing the news differently," Fallows says. "But my bottom line is that the dangers of keeping on the way we're going are much worse than trying something new."

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