Storylines: Get Me Rewrite

A very long time ago, when I was the manager of a listener-supported radio station, we were planning our annual on-air fundraising drive. "The only thing we have to sell," one staffer said earnestly, "is our integrity." A wise guy replied, "What do you think we can get for it?" Thanks to the poisonous blend of talk shows, lecture fees, and an absence of conflict-of-interest standards, too many of today's celebrity journalists seem to have taken this ironic advice literally.

Last Christmas week I made my debut on CNN's Crossfire, debating the budget. My conservative opposite number was Grover Norquist of the Americans for Tax Reform. I am generally dubious about food-fight TV, but I thought this a worthwhile debate. I also, I am ashamed to admit, thought it good publicity for The American Prospect (1-800-872-0162, only 25 dollars a year). The producer was eager to fly me to Washington to be live in the studio. I decided that was more trouble than it was worth, so I bargained hard: If they wanted me, they'd have to take me remote from Boston. The producer reluctantly agreed. As it happened, Norquist was also in Boston for Christmas, about to drive his car back to Washington, where he lives. But the format did not allow two of us in a Boston studio. So the eager Norquist agreed to fly to Washington for the show, then fly back to Boston, and then drive his car home to Washington.

Evidently, some people are more desperate to be on television than others. But for weeks afterward, friends, colleagues, family, even total strangers kept mentioning that they'd seen me on TV. For most, the significant thing was simply the fact that I'd been on TV. A couple said they thought I'd won the debate (which was predictably shallow and mainly about scoring points). No one mentioned much of the substance of the issue.

I have long thought that television is ruining journalism. There is a real paradox here, for at its best TV documentary can be superb. And radio at its best, such as National Public Radio's All Things Considered, can be more compelling and informative than print. The problem is ordinary television--day-to-day news, Sunday talk shows, info-tainment, and above all the conflict format epitomized by shows like Crossfire. The real culprit, I suspect, is less television itself than the logic of commercial television coupled with the role of the individual television journalist as entrepreneur.

I once was briefly a regular on a now-defunct weekly panel show titled Money Politics. The host was Jim Glassman, then the publisher of Roll Call, now a Washington Post columnist. The show couldn't quite decide whether it was reasonably serious, or whether it was all just a giggle. To close the show, each of us was supposed to offer a prediction on some current issue: Would the Fed raise interest rates? Would the stock market go up? Would NAFTA pass? The trick was to see who could be the most outrageous. The show had some of the country's most thoughtful financial and economics journalists, but the premise was plainly idiotic. It was, or should have been, embarrassing.

On the air, we argued fiercely, playing our appointed roles as designated liberal or designated conservative. Afterward, they brought out beer and sandwiches, and panelists joshed each other as if it were all good fun. The producers seemed to have utter contempt for both the subject and for the audience. The ethic was not to take any of it too seriously. After all, it was only showbiz. After four or five shows, I quit. It struck me that the off-air chumminess and the on-air viciousness had it exactly backwards. Better to seriously engage issues on the air, but with civility, and to avoid too much fraternization with the other side in private.

Both Crossfire and Money Politics were produced from Washington, as are the Sunday talk shows, Washington Week in Review, the Capital Gang, McLaughlin, and so on. If you are not Washington based, or willing to grab the next plane, you don't exist. The talk shows draw on the same narrow circle, who are often part of the same social set. A great many people who are true experts on a wide range of issues happen not to live in Washington. They are often more likely to shed genuine light on a complex subject, precisely because they are not consumed by the day-to-day buzz. But despite the piling-on by Washington-based pundits about the isolation of the self-important world inside the Beltway, they themselves are a central part of the Washington echo chamber. So Washington-based journalism over-covers Washington, and undervalues the rest of the country, both as a subject worthy of attention and as a source of expertise. And the rest of the country, though it keeps watching, catches the general cynicism about both journalism and politics.

Over the years, I have kept a private mental catalogue of how television's entertainment values are ruining journalism. The most influential journalists are those who are certified celebrities because they appear frequently on television. The more they appear on television, they more they reap handsome lecture fees because of their celebrity value. The more they live for the celebrity, the less they practice or value their craft. The more time they spend on the talk show and lecture circuit, the less time they have to be reporters and the less they know about what they are supposedly reporting. The less they know about how ordinary people live, the more they identify with the financial elite they have become part of. And the more that TV celebrity becomes identified with success in journalism, the more such people become unfortunate role models for the next generation.

James Fallows has parsed out the dynamics and implications of these trends in his recent book, Breaking the News. The book is so good, and so disheartening, that one wants to quote every line. Fallows observes that "The best-known and best-paid people in journalism now set an example that erodes the quality of the news we receive and threatens journalism's claim on public respect." It isn't mainly television that is the object of Fallows's critique. But it is fair to say that television seems the prime culprit because TV's entertainment and marketplace values have radiated outward and infected print journalism. People magazine and USA Today very self-consciously emulated the short attention span and peppy, superficial format characteristic of television. That was damaging enough. Worse, TV increasingly makes celebrities of print reporters, and in the process undermines their integrity as reporters. Thus, the process is a perfect self-negation. The more one is certified as a distinguished reporter by television, the more one is likely to be a disgrace to the profession.

Reporters, of course, have always been damned as a cynical lot. But once you had the sense that they were reluctant cynics who were at heart idealists. They kept shining a light on the grubby corners of politics and commerce, looking for the proverbial honest man; and honest men were disappointingly too few. Today, journalism displays a deeper cynicism. Journalists project the sense that public affairs matters mainly for its spectacle value, and that their own craft is useful principally for its sideshows and sidelines. (Disclosure: I do a small number of paid lectures, mostly to academic and civic audiences.)

Fallows correctly sheds new light on the common complaint that the media are "too liberal." Elite liberals, he reports, are indeed more "culturally" liberal than the average American--they are less likely to go to church, more likely to support gun control, oppose the death penalty, be tolerant of ethnic and sexual minorities, civil liberties, and abortion rights. But, Fallows writes, "On economic issues--taxes, welfare, deficit control, trade policy, attitudes toward labor unions--elite reporters' views have become far more conservative over the last generation as their incomes have gone up."

One of the consequences of the degeneration of journalism into celebrity is that the most renowned journalists are those who literally know the least about the subject. To cover themselves--and to be entertaining--celebrity journalists (and their emulators) find it far easier to cover the politics of an issue, which can be done via breezy one-liners, rather than the substance, which may require some knowledge. "Instead of talking about Bosnia," Fallows observes, "you can talk about whether Bob Dole will criticize Bill Clinton over Bosnia. Instead of talking about the real situation of Medicare, you can talk about whether the Republicans have gone too far in scaring old people about Medicare."

Howard Kurtz, in Hot Air: All Talk, All the Time, notes how serious journalists like Newsweek's Eleanor Clift, a regular on the McLaughlin Group, degenerate into cartoon figures by going along with the roles prescribed for them by McLaughlin's buffoonery. Fallows, covering the same ground, quotes regulars Morton Kondracke and Fred Barnes defending the show on the ground that nobody takes it seriously. But that, as Fallows observes, is precisely what's wrong with the genre: "The message is: We don't respect what we're doing. Why should anyone else?"

Fallows comes closest to identifying the real culprit when he fingers the marketplace and its norms crowding out journalistic norms. It is one thing for publishers to need to sell newspapers, and for broadcasters and publishers alike to need to sell advertising. This uneasy coexistence of journalism and commerce has been a problem ever since daily papers began publishing. However in the recent past the reporter was somewhat insulated from the profit-making parts of the media, and reporters cherished and fiercely defended that insulation. Today's conversion of the individual journalist into a one-man or one-woman profit center is far more insidious than the occasional advertiser pressure or publisher-driven sensationalism of days gone by. "Journalists who operate in this environment," Fallows writes, "start to think of themselves as small businessmen, doing everything possible to exploit new markets and maximize their returns."

As Fallows observes, the press may think itself clever to keep trumpeting the message that public life is hopelessly corrupt, but ultimately the fate of political democracy and the press itself are closely linked. "The truth that today's media establishment has tried to avoid seeing is that it will rise or fall with the political system. The ultimate reason people buy the New York Times rather than People, or watch World News Tonight rather than Entertainment Tonight, is a belief that it is worth paying attention to public affairs. . . . If people have no interest in politics or public life, they have no reason to follow the news."

Fallows is guardedly hopeful that the public journalism movement may rescue both the self-respect of the media and the public's trust in journalism and in the project of public improvement. But it is hard to share that optimism. The lure of celebrity is often no match for hard investigative work, let alone the much less sexy business of covering the civic life of a community. Fallows himself is an important counter role model. He doesn't do the paid lecture circuit or the weekend pundit shows, and he writes serious books. His broadcast outlet is National Public Radio.

Ultimately, if journalism as a calling is to be saved from journalism as buckraking, it will require journalists deciding, one at a time, that their craft has value beyond the speaking fees that their celebrity value can fetch. It would be salutary for reporters to be subject to the same disclosure and conflict-of-interest strictures that they demand of the politicians they ridicule. But it has been a long slide down, and it will be a long road back.

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