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Why Americans Hate the Media
by James Fallows
In the late 1980s public-television stations aired a talking-heads series called Ethics in America. For each show more than a dozen prominent citizens sat around a horseshoe-shaped table and tried to answer troubling ethical questions posed by a moderator. The series might have seemed a good bet to be paralyzingly dull, but at least one show was riveting in its drama and tension.
The episode was taped in the fall of 1987. Its title was "Under Orders, Under Fire," and most of the panelists were former soldiers talking about the ethical dilemmas of their work. The moderator was Charles Ogletree, a professor at Harvard Law School, who moved from panelist to panelist asking increasingly difficult questions in the law school's famous Socratic style.
During the first half of the show Ogletree made the soldiers squirm about ethical tangles on the battlefield. The man getting the roughest treatment was Frederick Downs, a writer who as a young Army lieutenant in Vietnam had lost his left arm in a mine explosion.
Ogletree asked Downs to imagine that he was a young lieutenant again. He and his platoon were in the nation of "South Kosan," advising South Kosanese troops in their struggle against invaders from "North Kosan." (This scenario was apparently a hybrid of the U.S. roles in the Korean and Vietnam wars.) A North Kosanese unit had captured several of Downs's men alive—but Downs had also captured several of the North Kosanese. Downs did not know where his men were being held, but he thought his prisoners did.
And so Ogletree put the question: How far would Downs go to make a prisoner talk? Would he order him tortured? Would he torture the prisoner himself? Downs himself speculated on what he would do if he had a big knife in his hand. Would he start cutting the prisoner? When would he make himself stop, if the prisoner just wouldn't talk?
Downs did not shrink from the questions or the implications of his answers. He wouldn't enjoy doing it, he told Ogletree. He would have to live with the consequences for the rest of his life. But yes, he would torture the captive. He would use the knife. Implicit in his answers was the idea that he would do the cutting himself and would listen to the captive scream. He would do whatever was necessary to try to save his own men. While explaining his decisions Downs sometimes gestured with his left hand for emphasis. The hand was a metal hook.
Ogletree worked his way through the other military officials, asking all how they reacted to Frederick Downs's choice. William Westmoreland, who had commanded the whole U.S. force in Vietnam when Downs was serving there, deplored Downs's decision. After all, he said, even war has its rules. An Army chaplain wrestled with how he would react if a soldier in a morally troubling position similar to Downs's came to him privately and confessed what he had done. A Marine Corps officer juggled a related question: What would he do if he came across an American soldier who was about to torture or execute a bound and unarmed prisoner, who might be a civilian?
The soldiers disagreed among themselves. Yet in describing their decisions they used phrases like "I hope I would have the courage to . . ." and "In order to live with myself later I would . . ." The whole exercise may have been set up as a rhetorical game, but Ogletree's questions clearly tapped into discussions the soldiers had already had about the consequences of choices they made.
Then Ogletree turned to the two most famous members of the evening's panel, better known even than Westmoreland. These were two star TV journalists: Peter Jennings, of World News Tonight and ABC, and Mike Wallace, of 60 Minutes and CBS.
Ogletree brought them into the same hypothetical war. He asked Jennings to imagine that he worked for a network that had been in contact with the enemy North Kosanese government. After much pleading Jennings and his news crew got permission from the North Kosanese to enter their country and film behind the lines. Would Jennings be willing to go? Of course, he replied. Any reporter would—and in real wars reporters from his network often had.
But while Jennings and his crew were traveling with a North Kosanese unit, to visit the site of an alleged atrocity by U.S. and South Kosanese troops, they unexpectedly crossed the trail of a small group of American and South Kosanese soldiers. With Jennings in their midst the Northern soldiers set up an ambush that would let them gun down the Americans and Southerners.
What would Jennings do? Would he tell his cameramen to "Roll tape!" as the North Kosanese opened fire? What would go through his mind as he watched the North Kosanese prepare to fire?
Jennings sat silent for about fifteen seconds. "Well, I guess I wouldn't," he finally said. "I am going to tell you now what I am feeling, rather than the hypothesis I drew for myself. If I were with a North Kosanese unit that came upon Americans, I think that I personally would do what I could to warn the Americans."
Even if it meant losing the story? Ogletree asked.
Even though it would almost certainly mean losing my life, Jennings replied. "But I do not think that I could bring myself to participate in that act. That's purely personal, and other reporters might have a different reaction."
Ogletree turned for reaction to Mike Wallace, who immediately replied. "I think some other reporters would have a different reaction," he said, obviously referring to himself. "They would regard it simply as another story they were there to cover." A moment later Wallace said, "I am astonished, really." He turned toward Jennings and began to lecture him: "You're a reporter. Granted you're an American" (at least for purposes of the fictional example; Jennings has actually retained Canadian citizenship). "I'm a little bit at a loss to understand why, because you're an American, you would not have covered that story."
Ogletree pushed Wallace. Didn't Jennings have some higher duty to do something other than just roll film as soldiers from his own country were being shot?
"No," Wallace said flatly and immediately. "You don't have a higher duty. No. No. You're a reporter!"
Jennings backtracked fast. Wallace was right, he said: "I chickened out." Jennings said that he had "played the hypothetical very hard."He had lost sight of his journalistic duty to remain detached.
As Jennings said he agreed with Wallace, several soldiers in the room seemed to regard the two of them with horror. Retired Air Force General Brent Scowcroft, who would soon become George Bush's National Security Advisor, said it was simply wrong to stand and watch as your side was slaughtered. "What's it worth?" he asked Wallace bitterly. "It's worth thirty seconds on the evening news, as opposed to saving a platoon."
After a brief discussion between Wallace and Scowcroft, Ogletree reminded Wallace of Scowcroft's basic question. What was it worth for the reporter to stand by, looking? Shouldn't the reporter have said something ?
Wallace gave a disarming grin, shrugged his shoulders, and said, "I don't know." He later mentioned extreme circumstances in which he thought journalists should intervene. But at that moment he seemed to be mugging to the crowd with a "Don't ask me!"expression, and in fact he drew a big laugh—the first such moment in the discussion. Jennings, however, was all business, and was still concerned about the first answer he had given.
"I wish I had made another decision," Jennings said, as if asking permission to live the past five minutes over again. "I would like to have made his decision"—that is, Wallace's decision to keep on filming.
A few minutes later Ogletree turned to George M. Connell, a Marine colonel in full uniform. Jaw muscles flexing in anger, with stress on each word, Connell said, "I feel utter contempt."
Two days after this hypothetical episode, Connell said, Jennings or Wallace might be back with the American forces—and could be wounded by stray fire, as combat journalists often had been before. When that happens, he said, they are "just journalists." Yet they would expect American soldiers to run out under enemy fire and drag them back, rather than leaving them to bleed to death on the battlefield.
"I'll do it!" Connell said. "And that is what makes me so contemptuous of them. Marines will die going to get . . . a couple of journalists." The last words dripped disgust.
Not even Ogletree knew what to say. There was dead silence for several seconds. Then a square-jawed man with neat gray hair and aviator glasses spoke up. It was Newt Gingrich, looking a generation younger and trimmer than he would when he became speaker of the House, in 1995. One thing was clear from this exercise, Gingrich said. "The military has done a vastly better job of systematically thinking through the ethics of behavior in a violent environment than the journalists have."
That was about the mildest way to put it. Although Wallace and Jennings conceded that the criticism was fair—if journalists considered themselves "detached,"they could not logically expect American soldiers to rescue them—nevertheless their reactions spoke volumes about the values of their craft. Jennings was made to feel embarrassed about his natural, decent human impulse. Wallace seemed unembarrassed about feeling no connection to the soldiers in his country's army or considering their deaths before his eyes "simply a story." In other important occupations people sometimes face the need to do the horrible. Frederick Downs, after all, was willing to torture a man and hear him scream. But Downs had thought through all the consequences and alternatives, and he knew he would live with the horror for the rest of his days. When Mike Wallace said he would do something horrible, he barely bothered to give a rationale. He did not try to explain the reasons a reporter might feel obliged to remain silent as the attack began—for instance, that in combat reporters must be beyond country, or that they have a duty to bear impartial witness to deaths on either side, or that Jennings had implicitly made a promise not to betray the North Kosanese when he agreed to accompany them. The soldiers might or might not have found such arguments convincing; Wallace didn't even make them.
Not Issues But the Game of Politics
A generation ago political talk programs were sleepy Sunday-morning affairs. The Secretary of State or the Senate majority leader would show up to answer
questions from Lawrence Spivak or Bob Clark, and after thirty minutes
another stately episode of Meet the Press or Issues and Answers
would be history.
Everything in public life is "brighter" and more "interesting" now.
Constant competition from the weekday trash-talk shows has forced anything
involving political life to liven up. Under pressure from the Saturday
political-talk shows—The McLaughlin Group and its many
disorderly descendants—even the Sunday-morning shows have put on
rouge and push-up bras.
Meet the Press, moderated by Tim Russert, is probably the meatiest
of these programs. High-powered guests discuss serious topics with
Russert, who worked for years in politics, and with veteran reporters. Yet
the pressure to keep things lively means that squabbling replaces
The discussion shows that are supposed to enhance public understanding may
actually reduce it, by hammering home the message that issues don't matter
except as items for politicians to fight over. Some politicians in
Washington may indeed view all issues as mere tools to use against their
opponents. But far from offsetting this view of public life, the national
press often encourages it. As Washington-based talk shows have become more
popular in the past decade, they have had a trickle-down effect in cities
across the country. In Seattle, in Los Angeles, in Boston, in Atlanta,
journalists gain notice and influence by appearing regularly on talk
shows—and during those appearances they mainly talk about the game of
In the 1992 presidential campaign candidates spent more time answering
questions from "ordinary people"—citizens in town-hall forums,
callers on radio and TV talk shows—than they had in previous years.
The citizens asked overwhelmingly about the what of politics: What
are you going to do about the health-care system? What can you do to
reduce the cost of welfare? The reporters asked almost exclusively about
the how: How are you going to try to take away Perot's
constituency? How do you answer charges that you have flip-flopped?
After the 1992 campaign the contrast between questions from citizens and
those from reporters was widely discussed in journalism reviews and
postmortems on campaign coverage. Reporters acknowledged that they should
try harder to ask questions about things their readers and viewers seemed
to care about—that is, questions about the differences that political
choices would make in people's lives.
In January of last year there was a chance to see how well the lesson had
sunk in. In the days just before and after Bill Clinton delivered his
State of the Union address to the new Republican-controlled Congress, he
answered questions in a wide variety of forums in order to explain his
On January 31, a week after the speech, the President flew to Boston and
took questions from a group of teenagers. Their questions concerned the
effects of legislation or government programs on their communities or
schools. These were the questions (paraphrased in some cases):
* "We need stronger laws to punish those people who are caught
selling guns to our youth. Basically, what can you do about that?"
* "I notice that often it's the media that is responsible for the
negative portrayal of young people in our society." What can political
leaders do to persuade the media that there is good news about youth?
* Apprenticeship programs and other ways to provide job training have
been valuable for students not going to college. Can the Administration
promote more of these programs?
* Programs designed to keep teenagers away from drugs and gangs often
emphasize sports and seem geared mainly to boys. How can such programs be
made more attractive to teenage girls?
* What is it like at Oxford? (This was from a student who was
completing a new alternative-school curriculum in
the Boston public schools, and who had been accepted at Oxford.)
* "We need more police officers who are trained to deal with all the
other different cultures in our cities." What can the government do about
* "In Boston, Northeastern University has created a model of
scholarships and other supports to help inner-city kids get to and stay in
college. . . . As President, can you urge colleges across the country to
do what Northeastern has done?"
Earlier in the month the President's performance had been assessed by the
three network-news anchors: Peter Jennings, of ABC; Dan Rather, of CBS;
and Tom Brokaw, of NBC. There was no overlap whatsoever between the
questions the students asked and those raised by the anchors. None of the
questions from these news professionals concerned the impact of
legislation or politics on people's lives. Nearly all concerned the
struggle for individual advancement among candidates.
Peter Jennings, who met with Clinton as the Gingrich-Dole Congress was
getting under way, asked whether Clinton had been eclipsed as a political
leader by the Republicans. Dan Rather did interviews through January with
prominent politicians—Senators Edward Kennedy, Phil Gramm, and Bob
Dole—building up to a profile of Clinton two days after the State of
the Union address. Every question he asked was about popularity or
political tactics. He asked Phil Gramm to guess whether Newt Gingrich
would enter the race (no) and whether Bill Clinton would be renominated by
his party (yes). He asked Bob Dole what kind of mood the President seemed
to be in, and whether Dole and Gingrich were, in effect, the new bosses of
Washington. When Edward Kennedy began giving his views about the
balanced-budget amendment, Rather steered him back on course: "Senator,
you know I'd talk about these things the rest of the afternoon, but let's
move quickly to politics. Do you expect Bill Clinton to be the Democratic
nominee for re-election in 1996?"
The CBS Evening News profile of Clinton, which was narrated by
Rather and was presented as part of the series Eye on America,
contained no mention of Clinton's economic policy, his tax or budget
plans, his failed attempt to pass a health-care proposal, his successful
attempt to ratify NAFTA, his efforts to "reinvent government," or any
substantive aspect of his proposals or plans in office. Its subject was
exclusively Clinton's handling of his office—his "difficulty making
decisions," his "waffling" at crucial moments. If Rather or his colleagues
had any interest in the content of Clinton's speech as opposed to its
political effect, neither the questions they asked nor the reports they
aired revealed such a concern.
Tom Brokaw's questions were more substantive, but even he concentrated
mainly on politics of the moment. How did the President feel about a poll
showing that 61 percent of the public felt that he had no "strong
convictions" and could be "easily swayed"? What did Bill Clinton think
about Newt Gingrich? "Do you think he plays fair?" How did he like it that
people kept shooting at the White House?
When ordinary citizens have a chance to pose questions to political
leaders, they rarely ask about the game of politics. They want to know how
the reality of politics will affect them—through taxes, programs,
scholarship funds, wars. Journalists justify their intrusiveness and
excesses by claiming that they are the public's representatives, asking
the questions their fellow citizens would ask if they had the privilege of
meeting with Presidents and senators. In fact they ask questions that only
their fellow political professionals care about. And they often do
so—as at the typical White House news conference—with a
discourtesy and rancor that represent the public's views much less than
they reflect the modern journalist's belief that being independent boils
down to acting hostile.
Reductio Ad Electionem: The One Track Mind
The limited curiosity that elite reporters display in their
questions is also evident in the stories they write once they have
received answers. They are interested mainly in pure politics and can be
coerced into examining the substance of an issue only as a last resort.
The subtle but sure result is a stream of daily messages that the real
meaning of public life is the struggle of Bob Dole against Newt Gingrich
against Bill Clinton, rather than our collective efforts to solve
The natural instinct of newspapers and TV is to present every public issue
as if its "real" meaning were political in the meanest and narrowest sense
of that term—the attempt by parties and candidates to gain an
advantage over their rivals. Reporters do, of course, write stories about
political life in the broader sense and about the substance of
issues—the pluses and minuses of diplomatic recognition for Vietnam,
the difficulties of holding down the Medicare budget, whether immigrants
help or hurt the nation's economic base. But when there is a chance to use
these issues as props or raw material for a story about political tactics,
most reporters leap at it. It is more fun—and easier—to write
about Bill Clinton's "positioning" on the Vietnam issue, or how Newt
Gingrich is "handling" the need to cut Medicare, than it is to look into
the issues themselves.
Examples of this preference occur so often that they're difficult to
notice. But every morning's newspaper, along with every evening's
newscast, reveals this pattern of thought.
* Last February, when the Democratic President and the Republican
Congress were fighting over how much federal money would go to local
law-enforcement agencies, one network-news broadcast showed a clip of
Gingrich denouncing Clinton and another of Clinton standing in front of a
sea of uniformed police officers while making a tough-on-crime speech. The
correspondent's sign-off line was "The White House thinks 'cops on the
beat' has a simple but appealing ring to it." That is, the President was
pushing the plan because it would sound good in his campaign ads. Whether
or not that was Clinton's real motive, nothing in the broadcast gave the
slightest hint of where the extra policemen would go, how much they might
cost, whether there was reason to think they'd do any good. Everything in
the story suggested that the crime bill mattered only as a chapter in the
real saga, which was the struggle between Bill and Newt.
* Last April, after the explosion at the federal building in Oklahoma
City, discussion changed quickly from the event itself to politicians'
"handling" of the event. On the Sunday after the blast President Clinton
announced a series of new anti-terrorism measures. The next morning, on
National Public Radio's Morning Edition, Cokie Roberts was asked
about the prospects of the proposals' taking effect. "In some ways it's
not even the point," she replied. What mattered was that Clinton "looked
good" taking the tough side of the issue. No one expects Cokie Roberts or
other political correspondents to be experts on controlling terrorism,
negotiating with the Syrians, or the other specific measures on which
Presidents make stands. But all issues are shoehorned into the area of
expertise the most-prominent correspondents do have:the struggle for
one-upmanship among a handful of political leaders.
* When health-care reform was the focus of big political battles
between Republicans and Democrats, it was on the front page and the
evening newscast every day. When the Clinton Administration declared
defeat in 1994 and there were no more battles to be fought, health-care
news coverage virtually stopped too—even though the medical system
still represented one seventh of the economy, even though HMOs and
corporations and hospitals and pharmaceutical companies were rapidly
changing policies in the face of ever-rising costs. Health care was no
longer political news, and therefore it was no longer interesting news.
* After California's voters approved Proposition 187 in the 1994
elections, drastically limiting the benefits available to illegal
immigrants, the national press ran a trickle of stories on what this would
mean for California's economy, its school and legal systems, even its
relations with Mexico. A flood of stories examined the political impact of
the immigration issue—how the Republicans might exploit it, how the
Democrats might be divided by it, whether it might propel Pete Wilson to
the White House.
* On August 16 last year Bill Bradley announced thap after
representing New Jersey in the Senate for three terms he would not run for
a fourth term. In interviews and at the news conferences he conducted
afterward Bradley did his best to talk about the deep problems of public
life and economic adjustment that had left him frustrated with the
political process. Each of the parties had locked itself into rigid
positions that kept it from dealing with the realistic concerns of
ordinary people, he said. American corporations were doing what they had
to do for survival in international competition: they were downsizing and
making themselves radically more efficient and productive. But the result
was to leave "decent, hardworking Americans" more vulnerable to layoffs
and the loss of their careers, medical coverage, pension rights, and
social standing than they had been in decades. Somehow, Bradley said, we
had to move past the focus on short-term political maneuvering and
determine how to deal with the forces that were leaving Americans
frustrated and insecure.
That, at least, was what Bill Bradley said. What turned up in the press
was almost exclusively speculation about what the move meant for this
year's presidential race and the party lineup on Capitol Hill. Might
Bradley challenge Bill Clinton in the Democratic primaries? If not, was he
preparing for an independent run? Could the Democrats come up with any
other candidate capable of holding on to Bradley's seat? Wasn't this a
slap in the face for Bill Clinton and the party he purported to lead? In
the aftermath of Bradley's announcement prominent TV and newspaper
reporters competed to come up with the shrewdest analysis of the political
impact of the move. None of the country's major papers or networks used
Bradley's announcement as a news peg for an analysis of the real issues he
The day after his announcement Bradley was interviewed by Judy Woodruff on
the CNN program Inside Politics. Woodruff is a widely respected and
knowledgeable reporter, but her interaction with Bradley was like the
meeting of two beings from different universes. Every answer Bradley gave
was about the substance of national problems that concerned him. Every one
of Woodruff's responses or questions was about short-term political
tactics. Woodruff asked about the political implications of his move for
Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich. Bradley replied that it was more important
to concentrate on the difficulties both parties had in dealing with real
Midway through the interview Bradley gave a long answer to the effect that
everyone involved in politics had to get out of the rut of converting
every subject or comment into a political "issue," used for partisan
advantage. Let's stop talking, Bradley said, about who will win what race
and start responding to one another's ideas.
As soon as he finished, Woodruff asked her next question: "Do you want to
be President?" It was as if she had not heard a word he had been
saying—or couldn't hear it, because the media's language of
political analysis is utterly separate from the terms in which people
describe real problems in their lives.
The effect is as if the discussion of every new advance in medicine boiled
down to speculation about whether its creator would win the Nobel Prize
that year. Regardless of the tone of coverage, medical research will go
on. But a relentless emphasis on the cynical game of politics threatens
public life itself, by implying day after day that the political sphere is
nothing more than an arena in which ambitious politicians struggle for
dominance, rather than a structure in which citizens can deal with
worrisome collective problems.
Pointless Prediction: THe Political Experts
On Sunday, November 6, 1994, two days before the congressional
elections that swept the Republicans to power, The Washington Post
published the results of its "Crystal Ball" poll. Fourteen prominent
journalists, pollsters, and all-around analysts made their predictions
about how many seats each party would win in the House and Senate and how
many governorships each would take.
One week later many of these same experts would be saying on their talk
shows that the Republican landslide was "inevitable" and "a long time
coming" and "a sign of deep discontent in the heartland." But before the
returns were in, how many of the fourteen experts predicted that the
Republicans would win both houses of Congress and that Newt Gingrich would
be speaker? Exactly three.
What is interesting about this event is not just that so many experts
could be so wrong. Immediately after the election even Newt Gingrich
seemed dazed by the idea that the forty-year reign of the Democrats in the
House had actually come to an end. Rather, the episode said something
about the futility of political prediction itself—a task to which the
big-time press devotes enormous effort and time. Two days before
the election many of the country's most admired analysts had no idea what
was about to happen. Yet within a matter of weeks these same people,
unfazed, would be writing articles and giving speeches and being quoted
about who was "ahead" and "behind" in the emerging race for the White
House in 1996.
As with medieval doctors who applied leeches and trepanned skulls, the
practitioners cannot be blamed for the limits of their profession. But we
can ask why reporters spend so much time directing our attention toward
what is not much more than guesswork on their part. It builds the
impression that journalism is about what's entertaining—guessing what
might or might not happen next month—rather than what's useful, such
as extracting lessons of success and failure from events that have already
occurred. Competing predictions add almost nothing to our ability to solve
public problems or to make sensible choices among complex alternatives.
Yet such useless distractions have become a specialty of the political
press. They are easy to produce, they allow reporters to act as if they
possessed special inside knowledge, and there are no consequences for
Spoon Feeding: The White House Press Corps
In the early spring of last year, when Newt Gingrich was
dominating the news from Washington and the O. J. Simpson trial was
dominating the news as a whole, The Washington Post ran an article
about the pathos of the White House press room. Nobody wanted to hear what
the President was doing, so the people who cover the President could not
get on the air. Howard Kurtz, the Post's media writer, described
the human cost of this political change:
Brit Hume is in his closet-size White House cubicle, watching Kato Kaelin
testify on CNN. Bill Plante, in the adjoining cubicle, has his feet up and
is buried in the New York Times. Brian Williams is in the corridor,
idling away the time with Jim Miklaszewski.
An announcement is made for a bill-signing ceremony. Some of America's
highest-paid television correspondents begin ambling toward the pressroom
"Are you coming with us?" Williams asks.
"I guess so," says Hume, looking forlorn.
The White House spokesman, Mike McCurry, told Kurtz that there was some
benefit to the enforced silence: "Brit Hume has now got his crossword
puzzle capacity down to record time. And some of the reporters have been
out on the lecture circuit."
The deadpan restraint with which Kurtz told this story is admirable. But
the question many readers would want to scream at the idle correspondents
is Why don't you go out and do some work?
Why not go out and interview someone, even if you're not going to get any
airtime that night? Why not escape the monotonous tyranny of the White
House press room, which reporters are always complaining about? The
knowledge that O.J. will keep you off the air yet again should liberate
you to look into those stories you never "had time" to deal with before.
Why not read a book—about welfare reform, about Russia or
China, about race relations, about anything? Why not imagine, just for a
moment, that your journalistic duty might involve something more varied
and constructive than doing standups from the White House lawn and
sounding skeptical about whatever announcement the President's spokesman
put out that day?
What might these well-paid, well-trained correspondents have done while
waiting for the O.J. trial to become boring enough that they could get
back on the air? They might have tried to learn something that would be of
use to their viewers when the story of the moment went away. Without
leaving Washington, without going farther than ten minutes by taxi from
the White House (so that they could be on hand if a sudden press
conference was called), they could have prepared themselves to discuss the
substance of issues that affect the public.
For example, two years earlier Vice President Al Gore had announced an
ambitious plan to "reinvent" the federal government. Had it made any
difference, either in improving the performance of government or in
reducing its cost, or was it all for show? Republicans and Democrats were
sure to spend the next few months fighting about cuts in the capital-gains
tax. Capital-gains tax rates were higher in some countries and lower in
others. What did the experience of these countries show about whether
cutting the rates helped an economy to grow? The rate of immigration was
rising again, and in California and Florida it was becoming an important
political issue. What was the latest evidence on the economic and social
effects of immigration? Should Americans feel confident or threatened that
so many foreigners were trying to make their way in? Soon both political
parties would be advancing plans to reform the welfare system. Within a
two-mile radius of the White House lived plenty of families on welfare.
Why not go and see how the system had affected them, and what they would
do if it changed? The federal government had gone further than most
private industries in trying to open opportunities to racial minorities
and women. The Pentagon had gone furthest of all. What did people involved
in this process—men and women, blacks and whites—think about its
successes and failures? What light did their experience shed on the
impending affirmative-action debate?
The list could go on for pages. With a few minutes' effort—about as
long as it takes to do a crossword puzzle—the correspondents could
have drawn up lists of other subjects they had never before "had time" to
investigate. They had the time now. What they lacked was a sense that
their responsibility involved something more than standing up to rehash
the day's announcements when there was room for them on the news.
Glass Houses: Journalists and Financial Disclosure
Half a century ago reporters knew but didn't say that Franklin D.
Roosevelt was in a wheelchair. A generation ago many reporters knew but
didn't write about John F. Kennedy's insatiable appetite for women. For
several months in the early Clinton era reporters knew about but didn't
disclose Paula Jones's allegation that, as governor of Arkansas, Bill
Clinton had exposed himself to her. Eventually this claim found its way
into all the major newspapers, proving that there is no longer any such
thing as an accusation too embarrassing to be printed if it seems to bear
on a politician's "character."
It is not just the President who has given up his privacy in the name of
the public's right to know. Over the past two decades officials whose
power is tiny compared with the President's have had to reveal
embarrassing details about what most Americans consider very private
matters: their income and wealth. Each of the more than 3,000 people
appointed by the President to executive-branch jobs must reveal previous
sources of income and summarize his or her financial holdings. Congressmen
have changed their rules to forbid themselves to accept honoraria for
speaking to interest groups or lobbyists. The money that politicians do
raise from individuals and groups must be disclosed to the Federal
Election Commission. The information they disclose is available to the
public and appears often in publications, most prominently The
No one contends that every contribution makes every politician corrupt.
But financial disclosure has become commonplace on the "Better safe than
sorry" principle. If politicians and officials are not corrupt, the
reasoning goes, they have nothing to fear from letting their finances be
publicized. And if they are corrupt, public disclosure is a way to stop
them before they do too much harm. The process may be embarrassing, but
this is the cost of public life.
How different the "Better safe than sorry" calculation seems when
journalists are involved! Reporters and pundits hold no elected office,
but they are obviously public figures. The most prominent TV-talk-show
personalities are better known than all but a handful of congressmen. When
politicians and pundits sit alongside one another on Washington talk shows
and trade opinions, they underscore the essential similarity of their
political roles. The pundits have no vote in Congress, but the overall
political impact of a word from George Will, Ted Koppel, William Safire,
or any of their colleagues who run the major editorial pages dwarfs
anything a third-term congressman could do. If an interest group had the
choice of buying the favor of one prominent media figure or of two junior
congressmen, it wouldn't even have to think about the decision. The pundit
is obviously more valuable.
If a reporter is sued for libel by a prominent but unelected personality,
such as David Letterman or Donald Trump, he or she says that the offended
party is a "public figure"—about whom nearly anything can be written
in the press. Public figures, according to the rulings that shape today's
libel law, can win a libel suit only if they can prove that a reporter
knew that what he or she was writing was false, or had "reckless
disregard" for its truth, and went ahead and published it anyway. Public
figures, according to the law, pay a price for being well known. And who
are these people? The category is not limited to those who hold public
office but includes all who "thrust themselves into the public eye." Most
journalists would eloquently argue the logic of this broad definition of
public figures—until the same standard was applied to them.
In 1993 Sam Donaldson, of ABC, described himself in an interview as being
in touch with the concerns of the average American. "I'm trying to get a
little ranching business started in New Mexico," he said. "I've got five
people on the payroll. I'm making out those government forms." Thus he
understood the travails of the small businessman and the annoyances of
government regulation. Donaldson, whose base pay from ABC is reported to
be some $2 million a year, did not point out that his several ranches in
New Mexico together covered some 20,000 acres. When doing a segment
attacking farm subsidies on Prime Time Live in 1993 he did not
point out that "those government forms" allowed him to claim nearly
$97,000 in sheep and mohair subsidies over two years. William Neuman, a
reporter for the New York Post, said that when his photographer
tried to take pictures of Donaldson's ranch house, Donaldson had him
thrown off his property. ("In the West trespassing is a serious offense,"
Had Donaldson as a journalist been pursuing a politician or even a
corporate executive, he would have felt justified in using the most
aggressive reportorial techniques. When these techniques were turned on
him, he complained that the reporters were going too far. The analysts who
are so clear-eyed about the conflict of interest in Newt Gingrich's book
deal claim that they see no reason, none at all, why their own finances
might be of public interest.
Last May one of Donaldson's colleagues on This Week With David
Brinkley, George Will, wrote a column and delivered on-air comments
ridiculing the Clinton Administration's plan to impose tariffs on Japanese
luxury cars, notably the Lexus. On the Brinkley show Will said that the
tariffs would be "illegal" and would merely amount to "a subsidy for
Neither in his column nor on the show did Will disclose that his wife,
Mari Maseng Will, ran a firm that had been paid some $200,000 as a
registered foreign agent for the Japan Automobile Manufacturers
Association, and that one of the duties for which she was hired was to get
American commentators to criticize the tariff plan. When Will was asked
why he had never mentioned this, he replied that it was "just too silly"
to think that his views might have been affected by his wife's
Will had, in fact, espoused such views for years, since long before his
wife worked for the JAMA and even before he had married her. Few of his
readers would leap to the conclusion that Will was serving as a mouthpiece
for his wife's employers. But surely most would have preferred to learn
that information from Will himself.
A third member of the regular Brinkley panel, Cokie Roberts, is, along
with Will and Donaldson, a frequent and highly paid speaker before
corporate audiences. She has made a point of not disclosing which interest
groups she speaks to or how much money she is paid. She has criticized the
Clinton Administration for its secretive handling of the controversy
surrounding Hillary Clinton's lucrative cattle-future trades and of the
Whitewater affair, yet like the other pundits, she refuses to acknowledge
that secrecy about financial interests undermines journalism's credibility
Out of Touch With America
In the week leading up to a State of the Union address White
House aides always leak word to reporters that this year the speech will
be "different." No more laundry list of all the government's activities,
no more boring survey of every potential trouble spot in the world. This
time, for a change, the speech is going to be short, punchy, and thematic.
When the actual speech occurs, it is never short, punchy, or thematic. It
is long and detailed, like all its predecessors, because as the deadline
nears, every part of the government scrambles desperately to have a
mention of its activities crammed into the speech somewhere.
In the days before Bill Clinton's address a year ago aides said that no
matter what had happened to all those other Presidents, this time the
speech really would be short, punchy, and thematic. The President
understood the situation, he recognized his altered role, and he saw this
as an opportunity to set a new theme for his third and fourth years in
That evening the promises once again proved false. Bill Clinton gave a
speech that was enormously long even by the standards of previous State of
the Union addresses. The speech had three or four apparent endings, it had
ad-libbed inserts, and it covered both the details of policy and the
President's theories about what had gone wrong with America. An hour and
twenty-one minutes after he took the podium, the President stepped down.
Less than a minute later the mockery from commentators began. For instant
analysis NBC went to Peggy Noonan, who had been a speechwriter for
Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush. She grimaced and barely tried to
conceal her disdain for such an ungainly, sprawling speech. Other
commentators soon mentioned that congressmen had been slipping out of the
Capitol building before the end of the speech, that Clinton had once more
failed to stick to an agenda, that the speech probably would not give the
President the new start he sought. The comments were virtually all about
the tactics of the speech, and they were almost all thumbs down.
A day and a half later the first newspaper columns showed up. They were
even more critical. On January 26 The Washington Post's op-ed page
consisted mainly of stories about the speech, all of which were withering.
"All Mush and No Message" was the headline on a column by Richard Cohen.
"An Opportunity Missed" was the more statesmanlike judgment from David
Broder. Cohen wrote: "Pardon me if I thought of an awful metaphor: Clinton
at a buffet table, eating everything in sight."
What a big fat jerk that Clinton was! How little he understood the
obligations of leadership! Yet the news section of the same day's Post
had a long article based on discussions with a focus group of ordinary
citizens in Chicago who had watched the President's speech. "For these
voters, the State of the Union speech was an antidote to weeks of
unrelenting criticism of Clinton's presidency," the article said.
"Tonight reminded us of what has been accomplished," said Maureen Prince,
who works as the office manager in her husband's business and has raised
five children. "We are so busy hearing the negatives all the time, from
the time you wake up on your clock radio in the morning. . . ."
The group's immediate impressions mirrored the results of several polls
conducted immediately after the president's speech.
ABC News found that eight out of 10 approved of the president's speech.
CBS News said that 74 percent of those surveyed said they had a "clear
idea" of what Clinton stands for, compared with just 41 percent before the
speech. A Gallup Poll for USA Today and Cable News Network found
that eight in 10 said Clinton is leading the country in the right
Nielsen ratings reported in the same day's paper showed that the longer
the speech went on, the larger the number of people who tuned in to
The point is not that the pundits are necessarily wrong and the public
necessarily right. The point is the gulf between the two groups'
reactions. The very aspects of the speech that had seemed so ridiculous to
the professional commentators—its detail, its inclusiveness, the
hyperearnestness of Clinton's conclusion about the "common
good"—seemed attractive and worthwhile to most viewers.
"I'm wondering what so much of the public heard that our highly trained
expert analysts completely missed," Carol Cantor, a software consultant
from California, wrote in a discussion on the WELL, a popular online
forum, three days after the speech. What they heard was, in fact, the
speech, which allowed them to draw their own conclusions rather than being
forced to accept an expert "analysis" of how the President "handled" the
speech. In most cases the analysis goes unchallenged, because the public
has no chance to see whatever event the pundits are describing. In this
instance viewers had exactly the same evidence about Clinton's performance
that the "experts" did, and from it they drew radically different
In 1992 political professionals had laughed at Ross Perot's "boring" and
"complex" charts about the federal budget deficit—until it became
obvious that viewers loved them. And for a week or two after this State of
the Union speech there were little jokes on the weekend talk shows about
how out of step the pundit reaction had been with opinion "out there." But
after a polite chuckle the talk shifted to how the President and the
speaker and Senator Dole were handling their jobs.
As soon as the Democrats were routed in the 1994 elections, commentators
and TV analysts said it was obvious that the American people were tired of seeing the same old
faces in Washington. The argument went that those who lived inside the
Beltway had forgotten what it was like in the rest of the country. They
didn't get it. They were out of touch. The only way to jerk the
congressional system back to reality was to bring in new blood.
A few days after the new Congress was sworn in, CNN began running an
updated series of promotional ads for its program Crossfire.
(Previous ads had featured shots of locomotives colliding head-on and rams
locking horns, to symbolize the meeting of minds on the show.) Everything
has been shaken up in the capital, one of the ads began. New faces. New
names. New people in charge of all the committees.
"In fact," the announcer said, in a tone meant to indicate whimsy, "only
one committee hasn't changed. The welcoming committee."
The camera pulled back to reveal the three hosts of
John Sununu, and Michael
Kinsley—standing with arms crossed on the steps of the Capitol
building, blocking the path of the new arrivals trying to make their way
in. "Watch your step," one of the hosts said.
Talk about not getting it! The people who put together this ad must have
imagined that the popular irritation with inside-the-Beltway culture was
confined to members of Congress—and didn't extend to members of the
punditocracy, many of whom had held their positions much longer than the
typical congressman had. The difference between the "welcoming committee"
and the congressional committees headed by fallen Democratic titans like
Tom Foley and Jack Brooks was that the congressmen can be booted out.
"Polls show that both Republicans and Democrats felt better about
the Congress just after the 1994 elections," a Clinton Administration
official said last year. "They had 'made the monkey jump'—they were
able to discipline an institution they didn't like. They could register
the fact that they were unhappy. There doesn't seem to be any way to do
that with the press, except to stop watching and reading, which more and
more people have done."
There is an astonishing gulf between the way
journalists—especially the most prominent ones—think about their
impact and the way the public does. In movies of the 1930s reporters were
gritty characters who instinctively sided with the common man. In the
1970s Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, starring as Bob Woodward and Carl
Bernstein in All the President's Men, were better-paid but still
gritty reporters unafraid to challenge big power. Even the local-TV-news
crew featured on The Mary Tyler Moore Show had a certain
down-to-earth pluck. Ted Knight, as the pea-brained news anchor Ted
Baxter, was a ridiculously pompous figure but not an arrogant one.
Since the early 1980s the journalists who have shown up in movies have
often been portrayed as more loathsome than the lawyers, politicians, and
business moguls who are the traditional bad guys in films about the
white-collar world. In Absence of Malice, made in 1981, an
ambitious newspaper reporter (Sally Field) ruins the reputation of a
businessman (Paul Newman) by rashly publishing articles accusing him of
murder. In Broadcast News, released in 1987, the anchorman (William
Hurt) is still an airhead, like Ted Baxter, but unlike Ted, he works in a
business that is systematically hostile to anything except profit and
bland good looks. The only sympathetic characters in the movie, an
overeducated reporter (Albert Brooks) and a hyperactive and
hyperidealistic producer (Holly Hunter), would have triumphed as heroes in
a newspaper movie of the 1930s. In this one they are ground down by the
philistines at their network.
In the Die Hard series, which started in 1988, a TV journalist
(William Atherton) is an unctuous creep who will lie and push helpless
people around in order to get on the air. In The Bonfire of the
Vanities (1990) the tabloid writer Peter Fallow (Bruce Willis) is a
disheveled British sot who will do anything for a free drink. In Rising
Sun (1993) a newspaper reporter known as "Weasel" (Steve Buscemi) is
an out-and-out criminal, accepting bribes to influence his coverage. As
Antonia Zerbisias pointed out in the Toronto Star in 1993, movies
and TV shows offer almost no illustrations of journalists who are not full
of themselves, shallow, and indifferent to the harm they do. During
Operation Desert Storm, Saturday Night Live ridiculed American
reporters who asked military spokesmen questions like "Can you tell us
exactly when and where you are going to launch your attack?" "The
journalists were portrayed as ignorant, arrogant and pointlessly
adversarial," Jay Rosen, of New York University, wrote about the episode.
"By gently rebuffing their ludicrous questions, the Pentagon briefer [on
SNL] came off as a model of sanity."
Even real-life members of the Washington pundit corps have made their way
into movies—Eleanor Clift, Morton Kondracke, hosts from
Crossfire—in 1990s releases such as Dave and Rising
Sun. Significantly, their role in the narrative is as buffoons. The
joke in these movies is how rapidly the pundits leap to conclusions, how
predictable their reactions are, how automatically they polarize the
debate without any clear idea of what has really occurred. That real-life
journalists are willing to keep appearing in such movies, knowing how they
will be cast, says something about the source of self-respect in today's
media: celebrity, on whatever basis, matters more than being taken
Movies do not necessarily capture reality, but they suggest a public
mood—in this case, a contrast between the apparent self-satisfaction
of the media celebrities and the contempt in which they are held by the
public. "The news media has a generally positive view of itself in the
watchdog role," wrote the authors of an exhaustive survey of public
attitudes and the attitudes of journalists themselves toward the press.
(The survey was conducted by the Times Mirror Center for the People and
the Press, and was released last May.)But "the outside world strongly
faults the news media for its negativism. . . . The public goes so far as
to say that the press gets in the way of society solving its problems. . .
." According to the survey, "two out of three members of the public had
nothing or nothing good to say about the media."
The media establishment is beginning to get at least an inkling of this
message. Through the past decade discussions among newspaper editors and
publishers have been a litany of woes: fewer readers; lower "penetration"
rates, as a decreasing share of the public pays attention to news; a more
and more desperate search for ways to attract the public's interest. In
the short run these challenges to credibility are a problem for
journalists and journalism. In the longer run they are a problem for
Turning a Calling Into a Sideshow
Even if practiced perfectly, journalism will leave some
resentment and bruised feelings in its wake. The justification that
journalists can offer for the harm they inevitably inflict is to show,
through their actions, their understanding that what they do matters and
that it should be done with care.
This is why the most depressing aspect of the new talking-pundit industry
may be the argument made by many practitioners:the whole thing is just a
game, which no one should take too seriously. Michael Kinsley, a highly
respected and indisputably talented policy journalist, has written that
his paid speaking engagements are usually mock debates, in which he takes
the liberal side.
Since the audiences are generally composed of affluent businessmen, my
role is like that of the team that gets to lose to the Harlem
Globetrotters. But Ido it because it pays well, because it's fun to fly
around the country and stay in hotels, and because even a politically
unsympathetic audience can provide a cheap ego boost.
Last year Morton Kondracke, of The McLaughlin Group, told Mark
Jurkowitz, of The Boston Globe, "This is not writing, this is not
thought." He was describing the talk-show activity to which he has devoted
a major part of his time for fifteen years. "You should not take it a
hundred percent seriously. Anybody who does is a fool." Fred Barnes wrote
that he was happy to appear in a mock McLaughlin segment on
Murphy Brown, because "the line between news and fun barely exists
The McLaughlin Group often takes its act on the road, gimmicks and
all, for fees reported to be about $20,000 per appearance. Crossfire
goes for paid jaunts on the road. So do panelists from The Capital
Gang. Contracts for such appearances contain a routine clause
specifying that the performance may not be taped or broadcast. This
provision allows speakers to recycle their material, especially those who
stitch together anecdotes about "the mood in Washington today." It also
reassures the speakers that the sessions aren't really serious. They won't
be held to account for what they say, so the normal standards don't
Yet the fact that no one takes the shows seriously is precisely what's
wrong with them, because they jeopardize the credibility of everything
that journalists do. "I think one of the really destructive developments in
Washington in the last fifteen years has been the rise in these reporter
talk shows,"Tom Brokaw has said. "Reporters used to cover policy—not
spend all of their time yelling at each other and making philistine
judgments about what happened the week before. It's not enlightening. It
makes me cringe."
When talk shows go on the road for performances in which hostility and
disagreement are staged for entertainment value; when reporters pick up
thousands of dollars appearing before interest groups and sharing tidbits
of what they have heard; when all the participants then dash off for the
next plane, caring about none of it except the money—when these
things happen, they send a message. The message is: We don't respect what
we're doing. Why should anyone else?
Vol. 277, No. 2, pp. 45–64