Why has the media establishment become so unpopular? Perhaps the public has good reason to think that the media’s self-aggrandizement gets in the way of solving the country’s real problems
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.
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 dialogue.
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 politics.
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 plans.
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 that?
* “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.
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 collective problems.
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.