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Atlantic Monthly Sidebar

January, 1981

The Rise of the Newsocracy:
All the News All the Time

The press is increasingly becoming the arbiter of American life--and the values of the media are not always the values of the society they serve.

by Louis Banks

Viewers who chanced to switch to Washington's channel 4 (WRC-TV) on the evening of March 28, 1979, found themselves looking down the barrel of an ordinary hand-held hair dryer. "This is not a gun, and it doesn't shoot bullets," said the voice-over. "But what comes out can be just as deadly." The program was the result of nine months' investigation by WRC's "Consumer Action" team, and for the extraordinary span of nearly twenty minutes ("without commercial interruption"), it developed a case that Americans were in considerable peril because many hand-held hair dryers were spewing fibers from asbestos insulation. Making the connection between the ingestion of asbestos fibers and the death rates from various forms of lung cancer, investigator Lea Thompson said gravely, "How many of those [deaths] can be attributed to hair dryers ...no one knows."

By consumerist standards, the program was a stunning success. Such companies as Hamilton Beach, General Electric, Norelco, Sears, Penney's, and Montgomery Ward, all named as culprits, were besieged by angry customers. Gillette and American Electric, which had long used mica instead of asbestos for insulation, were exonerated on the program, but besieged nonetheless. The Consumer Products Safety Commission, a federal agency, was stung into confusion and open hearings, subsequently forcing a voluntary recall of asbestos-insulated dryers. A Senate consumer subcommittee opened hearings and called Ms. Thompson as a star witness.

By media standards as well, the program scored high. Reversing the usual practice, print media "picked up" the expose from a local television station and gave it wide coverage. The UPI accounts were reprinted in hundreds of newspapers. Channel 4 being an NBC affiliate, the story made the NBC evening news. It was subsequently featured on both NBC's Today show and ABC's Good Morning America. (One manufacturer feared that his business would be destroyed just by David Hartman's silent scowl of disapproval as he looked at a hand-held dryer; it wasn't.) The WRC investigation team won the George Polk Award for Distinguished Journalism. And the "genuine coup" was eulogized in a two-page essay in People, which revealed what the TV camera had not: that Lea Thompson, the daughter of a journalist and a University of Wisconsin graduate in journalism and marketing, was eight and a half months pregnant at the time of the story.

The strong combination of action pictures, whirring motors, stern interviews, and authoritative explanations certainly alerted millions of Americans in record time to the asbestos fiber problem. But the consumerist consequences, as important as they were, can be seen as part of a much larger societal point. We are rapidly approaching a situation in which reporting is the arbiter of other institutions in American life; in this microcosmic case we see and hear it imposing its own values, standards, and priorities with irresistible impact on agencies of both government and business.

The point is made more broadly when we review the principal categories of news coverage over the past decade. The media--and particularly television--take credit for turning the public against the Vietnam War ("the living room war") and forcing its termination. "Watergate was the greatest journalistic triumph of the twentieth century," wrote one correspondent for Columbia University's "Survey of Broadcast Journalism," and unrelenting media attention certainly prompted the politics that forced President Nixon's resignation. Journalistic coverage was a prime mover in forcing government agencies and boards of directors to ventilate a series of corporate scandals in the mid-1970s, the most notable investigations of which led to the dismissal of top management at the 3M Corporation and the Gulf Oil Company, and eventually to anti-bribery legislation. The emergence of President Sadat of Egypt as a folk hero and the constant television posturing of the principals in the Iranian hostage crisis suggest that we have, through media coverage, carried foreign policy into a period of "mass diplomacy," as Flora Lewis of the New York Times describes it.

One can pursue the point through the agenda of quality-of-life issues: consumerism, dating back to the elevation of Ralph Nader to national prominence; ecology and environmentalism, ranging from the effect of supersonic transports on the ionosphere to the greenhouse effect to acid rain; energy concerns, from off-shore oil spills to the hazards of coal and nuclear power; safety in the workplace, with latter-day attention to potential carcinogens; toxicity, from Kepone to Love Canal.

Such is merely the stuff of news, one might argue. And to a degree this is true. But to another degree these areas represent coverage by selection, which suggests an imposition of media values and standards in contrast, perhaps, to the values and standards of other institutions. In writing The Brethren, their gossipy best seller on the disrobed U.S. Supreme Court, Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong noted proudly in a preface that they had breached "the authority, traditions and protocols" of the Court to subject it to journalistic inspection for the first time. Some critics doubted that this inspection did much for the set of values involved in the American system of justice.

It is becoming clear that the increasingly pervasive power of the media is central to the development of most other American institutions. We are, in fact, becoming what might be called a "newsocracy." The technology and substance of today's newscasting combine for an impact greater than that of any other informational force in the history of democratic societies--redirecting even the traditional processes of politics. This is a matter of social consequence, because some aspects of media value judgment might be perceived as being at odds with the general welfare. Accordingly, I would argue that affected "others" (e.g. government agencies, educational institutions, and publicly held corporations) have both a right and a duty to enter the informational competition. This contention should not be interpreted as a challenge to press freedom; rather it is an acceptance of today's news coverage for what it is, and an attempt to broaden its intellectual vision in the interests of the society that the First Amendment serves.

In my view, media dominance has been powerfully abetted by two major trends of the past decade. One is a widening perception of the interaction of one kind of endeavor upon another in the postindustrial society. To a certain extent this integrative process has always been manifested in political reform movements, but it gained a kind of personal relevance in the so-called youth movement of the late sixties and early seventies. It has, loosely, been called "holism." The second is a spreading of public awareness, the sense of direct participation in events, which has loosely been described as "populism." These two trends, combined with video technology, have stepped up the power of journalistic influence.

Recently MIT's Technology Review gathered a group of the nation's top science writers from print and television to talk about "Science, Technology and the Press." Science is their beat, but as they contrasted the simpler days of "happy talk" reporting with the multidimensional demands of today's assignments, they could be speaking for almost any group of earnest journalistic specialists. David Perlman of the San Francisco Chronicle saw science reporting broadening into "the politics of science or public affairs emerging from science." Mark Dowie of Mother Jones spoke of the reader's desire to know about "the interface between science and technology and even more, about the interface between technology and the corporate world because...that's where science ceases to be apolitical." Cristine Russell of the Washington Star confessed that "coverage of recombinant DNA, for example, was always 'biased' toward its possible impact on the public and not toward special interests--be they science or the government, or whatever." This group, gathered soon after Three Mile Island, was properly humble about the responsibilities involved in the widening media function, yet, by implication, quite confident that nobody else could perform it as well. (As a reflection of this attitude, the cover of Technology Review pictured a youthful reporter opening his shirt to show a Superman emblem across his chest.)

But if interrelatedness has inspired complex reportorial judgments, populism inspires a broad simplicity--or a low common denominator. Network news not only has usurped the role of the newspaper as the principal source of information, but has constantly increased the number of people who make news-watching part of their lives. For example, ABC-TV, proud of its recent high news ratings, believes that its audience is drawn mostly from people who never before watched TV news regularly. "I don't think there's any doubt that we've created a heightened consciousness of the news," says a vice president of research. Also, there is no doubt that of the three networks, ABC has the most kinetic and visually stimulating and the least mentally taxing news format.

Nobody is more aware than the network professionals of the lowest-common-denominator aspect of their work. Four years ago, Walter Cronkite expressed concern to the Radio and Television News Directors' Association: "We fall far short of presenting all, or even a goodly part, of the news each day that a citizen would need to intelligently exercise his franchise in this democracy. So as he depends more and more on us, presumably the depth of knowledge of the average man diminishes. This clearly can lead to a disaster in a democracy."

"Disaster" may be too strong a word, but TV news does seem to be changing some meanings of democracy by offering a simplistic kind of interrelatedness. For example, one consequence has been the translation of hitherto abstract or impersonal subjects into people, places, and crises. The administration of justice becomes the judge, the lawyer, or the criminal (and his family). The presidency is words, facial expressions, today's necktie, and Amy and Rosalynn in the background. The political convention is almost a plaything of television personalities. A plant closing is people wondering aloud what they will do next--and a congressman sympathizing. A gasoline shortage is angry customers and angry service station operators damning the oil companies--and a congressman sympathizing. A nuclear power accident is pregnant women in tears--and nervous officials trying to cope with a backwash of emotion as well as with unknowns of physics.

In their embrace of holism the media--already under pressure to produce specialists in such areas as science, finance, energy, and business--play an interdisciplinary role. To do so, the "supermen" who take this role seriously apply themselves to continuous learning. Yet we see some television journalism that could lead a long way toward Cronkite's "disaster."

Electronic journalism can claim antecedents in the rich history of radio reporting during and after World War II, and many of the leading figures of television news, including Cronkite, have struggled to keep alive that heritage. But TV news is also the bastard child of the entertainment industry. All commercial media contract in one way or another to deliver a certain audience to advertisers, but in the case of the three major networks, variations in audience size, as measured by the ratings, represent millions of dollars in advertising revenue. That fact is reflected in news selectivity, and leads to an image of the world projected daily, competitively, and with striking homogeneity on the evening news.

Since network news was, by definition, confined to national news (so as not to transgress the domain of a network's local TV affiliates), cameras focused on a minimal number of recognizable characters from Washington and New York; the more they could be translated into villains or heroes, the easier the journalistic assignment and the higher the audience attention. The visual nature of the medium put a premium on color, movement, excitement, sensation, novelty. There has always lurked in modern journalism the knowledge that bad news sells better than good. Witness the proliferation of the "question mark" headline, which suggests a threat to mankind on a speculative basis. Under competitive pressures, this stress on anxiety and negativism came to prominence in television.

Attitudinal researchers have wondered for some time about survey results that showed a discrepancy between the average citizen's dim view of government, business, education, etc., and his/her relative satisfaction with the company that he/she works for, the way local government functions, the schools the kids go to. Assessing the data for the 1970s, Everett Carll Ladd Jr. and Seymour Martin Lipset concluded: "To some considerable degree this contradiction may reflect the difference between the steady dose of disasters which people get from television, and their personal experiences."

It is not difficult to project such rogue trends into a gloomy prospect. "Disaster" would not be far if the nation came to see itself primarily through the lenses of critics with an addiction to novelty or blood and guts, and no responsibility for consequences. Not only would the democratic process suffer from a diminished "depth of knowledge," as Cronkite has it, but something vital could be lost if responsible leaders of other institutions were regularly consumed by the "bite 'em off, chew 'em up, spit 'em out" habits of television news.

Some critics think they see this approach already manifest in the techniques of 60 Minutes, designed to provide the controversy which keeps that weekly "newsmagazine" at the top of the Nielsen ratings. In 1979 the Illinois Power Company of Decatur allowed 60 Minutes access to the construction site of its nuclear power plant at Clinton to film a segment on escalating nuclear construction costs. Illinois Power's one condition was that it be allowed to put its own cameras alongside those of 60 Minutes to film everything seen and said in the interviews. The broadcast 60 Minutes segment, in fact, found Illinois Power guilty of mismanagement of the power project. But by playing its version of what was said and explained, spliced with excerpts from the 60 Minutes telecast, Illinois Power made a persuasive case for having been the victim of dramatic and serious distortion.

This and similar examples raise the question of whether, in TV's stress on "populism," corporations exist primarily to provide a ready source of "heavies" in the manufactured dramas that hold those customers and those Nielsen ratings.

Media judgments, of course, do not occur in a vacuum. As Illinois Power found out, the media's stories powerfully affect the "others" who are the objects of their attention, and their composite story defines the society for millions of people. The principal problem in a newsocracy is that there is, at the moment, no force to offset the net range and impact of today's informational technology. Since the constructive and the exploitative forces of journalism are constantly in tension, with no certainty about the outcome, it behooves other affected institutions to recognize the problem and accept the fact that they, too, have a stake in the battle.

The beginning of such counterstrategy is the realization that the "others" have allies within the media. Professional journalists can recognize the short-term, audience-grabbing excesses and know that the long-term test is credibility. One catches the essence of embattled professionalism in a credo voiced by David Perlman during that Technology Review forum on science-related reporting.

"There are some things," he said, "that we can properly do....We can look for self-serving statements. We can expose biases that exist. We can expose lies; scientists lie occasionally, like everybody else, and they're going to lie publicly at times. So that's our job. It's not to say whether nuclear power is bad or good. Present the debate and be very careful about ascribing expertise to those who are experts."

Professionalism is at work in the development of such thoughtful interpreters of science as Perlman and his colleagues, and in the training of specialists in business and economic affairs as well. As generations change, more and more business and economic news is being handled by editors and reporters who are educated in business practice, rather than by "general assignment" people. This new sophistication is evident in many regional newspapers, whose healthy intellectual diversity is thinning out the New York- and Washington-centered judgments of the national media. Even the TV networks are learning to give more discretion to their economics editors, who, while constrained to simplisms by time limitations on camera, can sometimes moderate the more sensationalist anti-business onslaughts of their general-assignment colleagues.

The first step for "others," then, is to support and encourage media professionals by providing them with information that makes them better able to report factually and to perform the demanding integrative function. But there is more to it than that. All affected institutions must realize that a newsocracy is a different kind of environment, and that they must engage with that environment in a different way. Perhaps the media's concern with interrelatedness provides a clue. If a firm can come to think of itself not only in economic terms but as a unit in a network of social and political values, then it need have no unreasonable fears about explaining itself to media that seek to understand just those relationships. This requires, first, that a company learn to see and feel itself in the consciousness of its particular publics and infuse that sense of public-relatedness into every level of its operations.

For example, the Mobil Corporation's controversial "op-ed" advocacy campaign, which has been a fixture on the editorial pages of influential newspapers, was developed as a result of Mobil's analysis of the political and social prospects for the company and the oil industry. "We decided more than ten years ago that our problem was literally one of survival in a hostile external climate; it was more political than economic," says Herbert Schmertz, Mobil's vice president for corporate affairs and the principal architect of the campaign. "We decided to enter the argument through the media and thus put our case before people whose opinions count." Not everybody likes Mobil's abrasive style--which on occasion has drawn the wrath of the President of the United States--but critics would be hard put to deny that Mobil's editorial insistence has brought new facts to the public debate on energy, and in the process has influenced editorial thought and political action.

Exxon and Shell, affronted by charges of duplicity in an NBC-TV series in late 1979, eschewed flamboyant counterpunches and took their respective cases to the National News Council. In both situations the council examined the facts and came down hard against NBC, agreeing in the Exxon case that the telecast contained "factual error, the selective use of information, lack of perspective, and the building of effect through innuendo."

The reaction of the Gillette Company in the hand-held hair dryer expose reflects a more positive, and perhaps more internal, kind of operational public-relatedness. Out of its tradition of precise quality control of razor blades, Gillette long ago gave consumer concern high priority and set up a medical test laboratory for all its products. In 1964, the company named Robert Giovacchini, a Ph.D. in medical science, head of the lab; ten years later, he was made vice president for product integrity and given final review of the medical safety of new products and of marketing and advertising claims relating to medical safety. In addition, his group performs a quality review of new and existing products. In 1973 he directed a redesign for the hand-held hair dryers that substituted mica for asbestos as an insulator, even though asbestos particle emissions from Gillette dryers averaged only 5 percent of the maximum allowable under OSHA standards.

Of all the major hair dryer companies, only Gillette offered to help the producers of the WRC-TV program. David Fausch, vice president of corporate public relations and a former Business Week editor, argued internally that the story would be told more accurately if Gillette supplied accurate data. It helped, of course, that Gillette was "clean." It helped, too, that in return the program's producers warned in advance of the screening so that Gillette could alert its sales force and its merchandisers to possible trouble. In the fallout, Gillette did not escape damage--and did not really expect to. The relevant point is that the company's operations had long since been sensitive to public concerns, and it could move smoothly into a media spotlight with a clear understanding of its own objectives, and without fear that the world would end if it did not win all the points in the telecast.

Such an approach, in my view, is far more sophisticated than conventional public relations. It is corporate acceptance of the same long-term values that concern the responsible media, and it reflects the First Amendment premise that everybody benefits when the terms of the debate are broadened. The media, after all, live on information, and "others" can influence the outcome by providing accurate material. It is a corollary, of course, that "others" have a right to keep at arm's length media agents who have a record of distorting facts to fit preconceived notions of high drama. Journalists and their organizations have unforgiving memories for those who put out misleading or dishonest information, and corporate public relations departments practice a similar form of "redlining." One of the favorite topics when people from those departments gather for a friendly drink is "what to do when Mike Wallace calls."

Should corporations and the "others" resort to end runs around the media to get their stories out? Mobil and Illinois Power suggest varieties of end runs: one through advocacy advertising, and the other through countervideo. In 1978 the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, validated the right of the First National Bank of Boston to advertise in opposition to an income tax referendum in Massachusetts (First National Bank v. Belotti). In some quarters this and other related court decisions were perceived as unleashing the mighty economic power of big corporations to influence public opinion unfairly. In fact, in writing for the minority, Justice Byron White saw the majority opinion as opening the door to corporate domination of "not only the economy, but also the very heart of our democracy, the electoral process." But Justice Lewis Powell, Jr., for the majority, said, "The inherent worth of the speech in terms of its capacity for informing the public does not depend upon the identity of its source, whether corporation, association, union or individual." And Chief Justice Warren Burger, in a separate opinion, added that "media conglomerates" pose "a much more realistic threat to valid [political] interests" than other corporations.

In the context of my argument, the issue is one not of unleashing corporate power but rather of prodding media power to think in broader social terms. In a newsocracy, the media's implicit role is to translate the values of our conventional morality--what we really want for ourselves and our world--to the institutions that make it operate. Those institutions, in turn, must be heard and understood before judgment is passed. Conceivably, such media power could lead toward "disaster" if it adheres to a Nielsen-rating value system. Conceivably, though--and I prefer this view--it could prompt a higher order of intellectual performance from all components of the society, and especially from the professionals who tell us every day in every way what our world means. Ultimately it might even help a confused society to define its values more clearly.

Copyright © 1981 by Louis Banks. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; January, 1981; "The Rise of the Newsocracy"; Volume 247, No. 1; pages 54-59.

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