December 11, 2006

The Media Is in Need of Some Mending

The Media Is in Need of Some Mending

December 11, 2006; Page A18

Thomas Jefferson, a better president than we've had in a very long time, penned a line back in 1787: "Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without government, I would not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter." By 1807, in his seventh year as president and after seven years of being subjected to severe press criticism, he wrote: "I deplore the putrid state into which our newspapers have passed, and the malignity, the vulgarity and the mendacious spirit of those who write them."

You'll be relieved to know that Jefferson did remain true to his primary principle: "The press," he concluded, "is an evil for which there is no remedy. Liberty depends upon freedom of the press and that cannot be limited without being lost." He was right then, and we are right now, to prefer a free press, however flawed, to any controlled alternative. Still, as we watched CNN flashing its pre-election logos each day -- "Broken Borders," "Broken Government," "Broken Politics," Broken Everything -- I can't help thinking the media, too, is in need of some mending.

At its best news informs and enlightens the citizens of a free society and thereby safeguards and strengthens our democracy. At its worst -- dishonest, unfair, irresponsible -- the media has potential to erode the public trust on which its own success depends and to corrode the democratic system of which it is so indispensably a part. So, let me touch on 10 current trends in the mass media that ought to disturb us.

The blurring of the lines between journalism and entertainment. Journalism that puts too high a priority on entertaining is almost destined to distort and mislead. Compounding this confusion is a diffusing definition of "journalist." When political operatives moonlight at moderating news shows, when people alternate between being political editors and political consultants, when celebrity newspeople pocket $20,000 fees speaking at corporate conventions while criticizing congressman for conflicts of interest -- we jumble public perceptions of newspeople as well as news.

The blurring of lines between news and opinion. Newspapers have a format that helps maintain the distinction. The Internet, TV and most magazines have neither that format nor that tradition. The result is a blending of news and views. The two are not ingredients to mix together for a tastier meal, they are different courses. Part of the problem here lies in fashionable new philosophies that argue there are no basic values of right and wrong, that news is merely a matter of views. It's a dangerous philosophy for our society and a dagger at the heart of genuine journalism.

The blending of news and advertising, sponsorships or other commercial relationships. The resulting porridges may be called "advertorials" or "infomercials"; they may be special sections masquerading as news, news pages driven by commercial interests, or Web pages where everything somehow is selling something. Without clear distinctions between news and advertising, readers or viewers lose confidence in the veracity of a news medium. And advertisers lose the business benefit of an environment of trust.

The problems and pitfalls inherent in pack journalism. Individually, most reporters are decent, dedicated, fair-minded people. But the press, en masse, tends to lose its common sense and its sense of fairness and independence and what we see all too often is the spectacle of a pack of hounds in pursuit of a quarry. We frequently see this phenomenon in political reporting, where the faintest whiff of scandal, or even of weakness, can send the pack in pursuit. At its worst, the pack, not finding a real problem, proclaims the "perception" of one and this perception becomes self-fulfilling.

The issue of conflict and context. On most issues most Americans are not on polar extremes. On abortion, for example, most seek a sensible center. Where is that center reflected in media coverage that mainly portrays rabid feminists or irate pro-life activists? Balance is not achieved by the talk show format of two extremists yelling at each other. And how many of us recognize our own communities from their depiction on local TV news shows -- a nonstop montage of mayhem, murder, rape, arson, child molestation and more?

The exaggerated tendency toward pessimism. Just look back a few years over much of the media coverage of "American competitiveness." All those news magazine covers on the coming "Japanese Century." And along with it, all the pessimism about the ability of U.S. industry to compete globally. It was nonsense. Similarly, it's one thing -- and an appropriate one -- for the press to probe particular instances of political corruption. It's quite another thing to jump to the cynical conclusion that our political process, and all politicians, are corrupted -- that "they all do it." They don't, and they aren't. Skepticism and criticism are essential to the media's role; reflexive pessimism is not.

The growing media fascination with the bizarre, the perverse and the pathological -- John Mark Karr journalism. Such so-called journalism helps instantly legitimize crackpot ideas, deviant behavior, or alleged victimization in our society. My point is not to argue for "good news" vs. "bad news," but to ask whether much of this amounts to news at all?

Social orthodoxy, or political correctness. These are reflected in a media whose job is not to parrot prevailing fashions, but to question, probe and thereby challenge them. Businessmen are not, by definition, greedy, and environmentalists, by definition, saintly. Third World poverty is not, by definition, a result of overpopulation as opposed to inane economic policies. And so on.

The media's short attention span. As the press hops from Baghdad to Beirut, Natalee Holloway to Valerie Plame, Super Bowls to Super Tuesdays, it justifiably can blame some combination of the nature of the news and the short attention span of the public. The public, meanwhile, bombarded and bewildered can blame a fickle and shallow press. There are too many instant celebrities. Too many two-day crises. Too many "defining moments" from people in search of instant history. In a world where everything is considered critical, nothing needs to be taken very seriously.

The matter of power. The press is at least partially responsible for greater public skepticism toward traditional institutions in America. But the truth, not lost on our public, is that the press is a large and powerful institution, too: "60 Minutes" is more powerful than almost all of the subjects it exposes. This newspaper, arguably, has more influence on national economic policy than do most corporations. Networks are owned by giant industrial corporations, magazines by entertainment conglomerates, and most newspapers by national chains. Given these realties, we cannot plausibly pretend to be a David out there smiting Goliaths and expect the public to believe it.

Mr. Kann, a Pulitzer-winning journalist, is chairman of Dow Jones.

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