AGAINST THE COMMERCIAL IMPULSE

By Jeffrey Scheuer (Nieman Reports, Summer 2000)
 

American democracy is in a state of political depression because the electorate is neither active nor well-informed. In addition, according to a recent Pew Center poll, 38% of Americans think the media hurt our democracy, while only 45% believe they help it. (There’s a lot of mindless media bashing as well, but that’s another matter). We are not inundated by trenchant reporting, insightful commentary, or truthful, informative political ads; and most eligible Americans don’t bother to vote. These are interconnected problems that journalists, among others, should worry about.

In assessing the media, though, we pay too much attention to the dazzling array of new gadgets and technologies and the wonders of the Internet. Forget all that, for a moment — the actual impact of those wonders is vastly overstated anyway. Let’s focus instead on the real business of journalism, which is education — civic and otherwise. Through that lens, I’d like to briefly explore the connections of the news media to money, politics, and democratic culture.

First of all, the media cannot be understood or judged as an isolated sector of society. In all kinds of ways, the media are connected to each other and to other sectors: politics, government, business, popular culture, education.

Second, there’s enough good journalism around, if you know where to look for it — and want to find it. All of the problems of our media-industrial-political complex are not the media’s fault. We need to consider demand as well as supply.

But there are problems enough: increasing economic concentration and the varieties of corruption and self-censorship that it engenders; the allure of infotainment and tabloidism; and all the other ways in which core journalistic values — integrity, fairness, accuracy, full disclosure, sound news judgement — are corrupted and compromised.

Most of these flaws can be traced to one grand contradiction underlying American (and most other) news media. On one hand, virtually all journalism is commercially-based or ultimately market-dependent, even in the nonprofit sector. As such, it cannot help being driven by conservative imperatives.

Yet the media also have a crucial public function: to promote and inform democratic debate. Thus, however ensconced in the private sector, the journalistic enterprise — not unlike public libraries and public education — also has an intrinsically egalitarian and even liberal mission: to empower ordinary citizens by questioning the powers that be (state, corporate, or otherwise), digging more deeply and diffusing information more widely than those powers would like.

In fact, the quality and credibility of journalism are practically inverse to its commercial influence. That is why we need a “firewall” between business and editorial sides. As the Los Angeles Times discovered recently, it is a load-bearing wall. Removing it collapses journalistic integrity.

MEDIA AND MONEY

In the long run, we need to resolve this contradiction by finding ways to insulate journalism from commercial pressures. A trust for public broadcasting, free of the heavy hand of Congress and its lobbies, would be a good place to start. Another would be a more diverse and competitive environment of media pluralism. Ben Bagdikian and Robert W. McChesney, Jr., among others, have written eloquently on this subject. We need anti-trust action to scale down and diversify our sources of information before we’re reduced to the single voice of Big Mouse.

Any change in the media system affects all of the parts. Thus, the role and performance of the press cannot be divorced from the issue of money in politics, or from the most important Constitutional question now before the American people: what is speech.

The Supreme Court has seen fit, in Buckley v. Valeo (1976), to equate money with speech; hence, our political system is — to put it delicately — an influence auction, awash in hard and soft money. The Court may now be backing away from that view; Justice John Paul Stevens, arguing for the majority last January in Nixon v. Shrink Missouri Government PAC, expressed the quaint view that, “Money is property; it is not speech.”

Many Americans might agree with that formulation. Perhaps writing, speaking, even the boorish fever-swamp of talk radio, are closer than campaign expenditures to what the Framers envisioned as the jewel in the crown of American liberties. We need to debate this now, in the current election cycle, which could well determine the direction of the Court for the next generation.

MEDIA AND POLITICS

There is room in a diverse media system for outlets of all ideological stripes, and also for ostensible neutrality. But to navigate the mainstream, to be credible in leadership journalism, news organizations must follow the polestar of being fierce advocates: not for the left or the right, but for frequent, lively, open debate. They should address audiences not as commercial or political targets but as citizens, consumers, parents, students, and members of our communities. The objective of journalism, writes E.J. Dionne, Jr., should be “to salvage [Walter] Lippmann’s devotion to accuracy and fairness by putting these virtues to the service of the democratic debate that [John] Dewey so valued. This means, in turn, that journalism needs to be concerned with far more than its professional rules and imperatives.”

In this regard, the civic journalism movement has got it at least half right. Of course we need to promote active and informed citizenship. What we don’t need is news driven by surveys, opinion polls, or focus groups, which is market research masquerading as democracy. Journalists don’t need to be civic boosters; their proper function is a critical and contrarian one (despite commercial pressures to do otherwise). And it is their business to decide what’s news.

Serving democracy, however, does not mean denigrating or sublimating ideology. On the contrary, we need to understand and respect all shades of reasonable opinion, and the dignity of ideological argument. Ideology is like the weather: we may not like it, but it isn’t disreputable and it won’t go away.

Television may be institutionally cynical: oriented toward means and gamesmanship rather than ends, issues, or values; quick to expose scandals and character flaws, slow to consider deeper motives, intentions, or ideas. But it is naive to suppose that bipartisan “practical” solutions can be found to important problems. Partisanship is about real differences of power and interest. It isn’t just a fog obscuring the real political terrain, but the terrain itself.

We must begin with agreement about indisputable facts; that is one of journalism’s essential functions. But interesting and important debates are never about facts per se; they are about how we interpret them, and which facts are more relevant to some larger value, cause, or principle.

MEDIA AND EDUCATION

If facts are only where we start from, then journalism schools ought to provide more than vocational training for the harvesting of facts. Good journalists are not just brokers of information but educators, who should themselves be students of human nature and society. To understand this is to realize both the vital role of the journalism profession and the deep anti-intellectualism in American culture.

Instead of just teaching people how to produce journalism, we should teach them to be better critics and consumers of journalism. In effect, we need to relocate journalism education to the elementary and secondary levels; while the two are not exclusive, we need less journalism education, and more media education and media literacy.

Young journalists should learn not just to meet a deadline, but to be experts, civic leaders, and educators. More importantly, we need to teach kids how to think critically about information — not just hardwire them to the Internet. Real education, as Yeats said, is “not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” Critical thinking applies to journalism too; a lot of it has to do with observing important distinctions that we too often obscure. We might start by distinguishing between the public and private lives of public figures. Suggestion: lose the smarmy rationalizations for tabloid coverage of private matters, and just say no.

Journalism that serves democracy also requires some mundane but important things: issue-oriented coverage; head-to-head debates between opposing points of view, on the same page or in the same time slot; muckraking and investigative reporting; ombudsmanship and media criticism; facilitation of public activism. For example, important public meetings in any community should be listed in advance on a public service page or station. (There’s a radical idea.) So should the names and web sites of relevant organizations on all sides of key issues.

Finally, what promotes democratic culture is quality, not just quantity or profits. Among other things, we have lost sight of the public purpose of competition; journalists should worry less about getting it first and more about getting it best. Some elements of the media inevitably will– and should–focus on the impregnation of celebrities by alien visitors. But if bread and circuses cannot be dismissed, neither can the need for quality in public information and debate and, conjointly, for public education that produces the demand for it.

Seeing journalism as a form of education is not elitist; on the contrary, the diffusion of information is an equalizing function. It involves a division of labor and skills, just as teaching does. But the only elite we should worry about is the one we desperately lack, and that all journalism should strive for: an information elite of astute, informed media critics and political activists, with a membership comprising every American citizen.