Overglorified Journalism


A Crisis for the American Press, by John Hohenberg, New York: Columbia University Press, 1978, 316 pp., $14.95.

Deciding What's News: A Study of CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, Newsweek, and Time, by Herbert J. Gans, New York: Pantheon Books, 1979, 393 pp., $12.95.

If you believe everything you read about the news media, journalists have never had it worse. They are pursued by judges and government agents who want to look at their notes, expose their sources, and prevent them from publishing important stories. But that's only the beginning. Journalists are also pursued by inner demons—"unconscious opinions"—that undercut the idea of objectivity. Apparently the poor journalists have got everyone buffaloed—from old hands like John Hohenberg to hip sociologists like Herbert Gans.

Hohenberg, who is now a journalism professor at the University of Tennessee and has written many of the textbooks that budding reporters memorized to train themselves, is the most ironic case. Many of the problems he mentions—such as the insensitivity of journalists to outside criticism—stem from his own work. For example, it was Hohenberg's The Professional Journalist—A Guide to Modern Reporting Practice that taught students that news is undefinable. In that book, Hohenberg gave students a laundry list of nonsensical "definitions" ("News is what editors say it is") and then told them: "There is no guarantee that all newspapers print news," and "There is news in everything if you know where to look for it." Stuff like this has spawned a generation of arrogant reporters who think they are blessed with instincts ("nose for news") that tell them what is worth covering and who resist any attempts to tell them otherwise.

As if that weren't enough, Hohenberg then decided to convince journalists that the subject of news isn't worth thinking about at all. In his book, The Pulitzer-Prize Story, which purports to show what it takes to win journalism's highest award, Hohenberg says, in effect, that if philosophizing about news is getting you down, forget about it. Describing an overblown 1926 prize-winning story about attempts to rescue Floyd Collins, a miner trapped in a Kentucky cave, Hohenberg dismisses objections to the sob story, saying "there is precious little that any newspaper editor can do about it." The average editor, he says approvingly, will "print the story first and philosophize about it afterward."

True to form, in his latest book Hohenberg contends that judges and government bureaucrats are trampling journalism under the club of "national security," that journalists are vulnerable because they have few public supporters, that soon this country will have a version of Great Britain's Official Secrets Act, and finally that government and the press are on a "collision course" that threatens to smash the First Amendment once and for all. "We have reached a stage in this country at which the concept of an independent press in a democratic society will have to be fought out in the public arena once again," Hohenberg writes. "The difference is that the press now has fewer defenders in high places than it has had for many years and the broadcast media are in even worse shape. All in all, the news media are in for, at the very least, a bumpy ride."

Now journalists aren't completely innocent, Hohenberg concedes. The press is a natural adversary of government, of course, but sometimes it practices "adversary journalism"—a concept borrowed from lawyers who massage evidence so as to make their clients look good. Lately, the "swing toward an adversary position by a number of leading newspapers is quite different from anything the press has done previously in American history," he writes.

In Hohenberg's world, the courts are reacting partly to all this. They are forcing previously confidential news sources out of hiding and shackling the press in other ways. It never occurs to Hohenberg to look at what is happening outside the journalism world. Centralized governments are losing control; Republican presidents are finding it difficult to control Democratic bureaucracies, much less Congress. National governments are no longer monoliths, but warring factions, which always lead to news "leaks," which frequently lead to Pulitzer Prizes for overglorified journalists. That explains why adversary journalism has taken hold.

But Hohenberg is even wrong in his analysis of the US Supreme Court, which has been completely consistent in holding that the First Amendment stops anyone from attempting to impose prior restraint on the press. What galls Hohenberg and other journalists is that the court also has held that journalists have no special rights to gather information. This means reporters can't enter prisons where the general public is not allowed and must give up certain kinds of evidence regardless of how that affects news sources. It also means that television reporters must answer questions during pretrial discovery proceedings about their state-of-mind in preparing stories, just like everybody else. This obviously rankles Hohenberg, who would like everyone to believe the fiction that the press is "a separate institution, responsible only to itself."

But if Hohenberg is muddled, at least he is analyzing journalism from the point of view of a journalist. Sociologists like Herbert Gans generally have a terrible time thinking about journalism. First of all, they are unreadable, as most writers who use "methodology" for "method" usually are. But they also have very little to say, and spend a lot of time at it. The last one to pull it off, Robert Park, concluded that newspapers are about as good as they can be. As far as I can tell, 30 years later Gans has come to a similar conclusion with one difference: he thinks the government can improve the situation.

Gans's thesis seems to be that news is too one-dimensional, that values in the news are middle-class values, that the media need to be more "multiperspectival," which I think means getting more special interests involved. So, journalists should pay more attention to groups, and not just government; it should dig into lower-class concerns; it should represent the views of "ordinary Americans." Instead, journalists either reflect the concerns of middle-class (ordinary?) Americans by emphasizing values like "altruistic democracy" and "responsible capitalism," or they overplay intragovernment conflicts, or they are well-paid and write like it. It all leads to a single perspective, get it? "When journalists must decide what is new, they must also make assumptions about what is old," Gans says in a typical statement.

His solution is a government "Endowment for News" that would fund new media not able to gain capital in the marketplace, fund sources not able to sustain themselves in the marketplace, fund new "Audience feedback mechanisms" not able…etc. Gans honestly believes that the dangers of government control over news selection and content are so minimal that he dismisses them in five paragraphs, among the most naive I have ever read. Such government control would be impossible, Gans says, because "the regulated have too much power."

To those interested in dissections of journalism, and I have been collecting them for about 10 years, apparently we are in for another turn. From ad hoc complaints about war coverage, to general complaints about subjectivity-masking-as-objectivity, to glorifications of "new" and "gonzo" journalism, to diatribes against media barons, we are to add the latest notions: pity the journalist, for he is under attack; and encourage the government to help journalists, for they know not what they do.

Instead, keep this idea in mind: Journalism does have problems, but not the ones Hohenberg and Gans point out. Journalists determined not to examine the philosophy of their trade continue to write stories without evidence, without background, without foreground, and all with an arrogance they have had for years. As a result, they are heading for a reaction from the rest of society in a way that may be unpleasant for us all. They are like the white folks in Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird, taking advantage, with impunity, of black ignorance in the old South. "Don't fool yourselves," says Atticus. "It's all adding up and one of these days we're going to pay the bill for it." Neither Hohenberg nor Gans have anything particularly interesting to say about that prospect.

Dennis Chase is Chicago bureau chief of McGraw-Hill World News.