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In Medias Res

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Hot Air: All Talk, All the Time, by Howard Kurtz, New York: Times Books, 407 pages, $25.00

Good Intentions Make Bad News: Why Americans Hate Campaign Journalism, by S. Robert Lichter and Richard E. Noyes, Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield, 320 pages, $58.50/$22.95 paper

Over the past quarter century or so, bashing the news media may well have supplanted baseball as the national pastime (certainly the news is filled with more strikes, balls, hits, and errors). From Spiro Agnew's alliterative attack on reporters as "nattering nabobs of negativism," to the bumper-sticker slogan "Annoy the Media, Re-Elect George Bush," to President Clinton's own spirited excoriations of the press's "insatiable desire…to build up and tear down," elected officials waste little time in attacking the self-styled adversarial media.

This may be one of the few areas in which people and politicians are completely in sync: Polls consistently show that about two-thirds of Americans think the press is "biased" (in various ways) and out of touch with average Americans. Last fall, a poll conducted by The Roper Center in conjunction with The Freedom Forum, a nonpartisan foundation that analyzes free speech and press issues, found that only 10 percent of Americans had a "great deal" of confidence in the news media. (Washington politicians didn't fare so well, either: A mere 6 percent had a great deal of confidence in Congress, while Clinton garnered a relatively robust 16 percent rating in the category.)

To be sure, outspoken and widespread skepticism toward the press (or the government) is nothing new. Back in 1807, for instance, then-President Thomas Jefferson wrote, "Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle….Perhaps an editor might begin a reformation in some such way as this. Divide his paper into four chapters, heading the 1st, Truths. 2d, Probabilities. 3d, Possibilities. 4th, Lies. The first chapter would be very short."

Nor, contrary to the media's own self-interested fretting, is such incredulity anything to be overly worried about, at least for the country at large. Far from indicating some horrible and nihilistic trend in American cultural life, current attitudes toward the media are actually a return to an earlier, pre-World War II understanding of the press as inherently biased and subjective. Skepticism toward institutions of power is a healthy and necessary response in a free society. Intelligent people should cast wary eyes toward the media (along with politicians, pundits, and "experts" of all stripes). Journalists especially should understand this posture: It is, after all, simply a variation on the hoary journalistic directive that when your mother tells you she loves you, you should check it out.

Not surprisingly, though, journalists are not very comfortable with the realization that their audience sees them in less than ideal terms. Two recent books, Hot Air: All Talk, All the Time, by Howard Kurtz, and Good Intentions Make Bad News: Why Americans Hate Campaign Journalism, explore the often tortured–and tortuous–relationship between the political press, its subjects, and its audience.

Kurtz, a reporter at The Washington Post, is a representative of what he terms the "Old Media–the big newspapers, magazines, and network newscasts." He decries the rise of a "talk show nation, a boob-tube civilization, a run-at-the-mouth culture in which anyone can say anything at any time as long as they pull some ratings." Hot Air is a compellingly infuriating read: Even as Kurtz sets out to criti-que "the triumph of talk," he epitomizes the smug, dismissive, domineering, and pseudo-objective perspective that people hate about Big Journalism. Good Intentions, which focuses specifically on presidential campaign journalism, stands as something of a counterpoint to Hot Air and offers a compelling explanation of "why Americans hate campaign journalism." As the '96 election season shifts into high gear, Lichter and Noyes's analysis could hardly be more timely.

"America is awash in talk," writes Kurtz at the opening of Hot Air. "Loud talk. Angry talk. Conspiratorial talk. Raunchy talk, smug talk, self-serving talk, funny talk, rumor-mongering talk. A cacophony of chat fills the airwaves from coast to coast, from dawn to dusk and beyond, all talk all the time." Where the "Old Media…still cling to some vestige of objectivity," says Kurtz, the talk shows–which run the gamut from The McLaughlin Group to Donahue to Oprah to Howard Stern's and Rush Limbaugh's radio programs–"revel in their one-sided pugnacity, spreading wild theories, delicious gossip, and angry denunciations with gleeful abandon."

To Kurtz, the proliferation of public voices has "coarsened" the "national conversation" and "reduced [it] to name-calling and finger-pointing and bumper-sticker sloganeering." Reduced from what is not exactly clear; Kurtz simply relies on vague incantations of a previous golden age of civil discourse undermined by "talk." The talk shows have other negative effects, too: They pervert politicians, who play to the pundits. They are incapable of dealing with complicated matters. They force the Old Media to adopt glitz to maintain an audience.

Curiously, Kurtz acknowledges there is good talk (C-SPAN, Nightline) and bad talk, effectively undercutting his argument. After all, an ample supply of beef that makes for easy access to filet mignon may well mean a McDonald's on every corner. While pretending to a certain objectivity–"the essence of journalism," he claims at one point, "is professional detachment"–it is hard to figure out what other than personal predilection informs his opinions. For instance, he claims that the debate over Clinton's health care plan was, "in the end, simply overwhelmed by talk." He admits that the plan was "fatally flawed" (!) but goes on to carp that "any attempt at reform was destroyed by a blizzard of half-truths and misinformation on radio and TV talk shows, in thirty-second attack ads, in rhetorical broadsides by every conceivable interest group." What some of us might see as democracy in action–a prolonged, robust, and hard-fought (if rancorous) debate–Kurtz instead dismisses as "a deafening roar." (He ignores serious and influential critiques of the plan such as Elizabeth McCaughey's in The New Republic.) Perhaps he is less troubled by talk per se than by voices with which he disagrees.

Similarly, he suggests that "talk" inherently favors conservatives because they are unthinking and oppositional. Here Kurtz may have a point–doctrinaire conservatives don't do much brainwork–but he goes on to quote Tom Braden, the original "left" co-host of Crossfire: "It's easier to be a conservative….As a liberal, you're not absolutely sure of where you stand or what in the world you ought to do about each particular problem." Since when have liberals lacked metaphysical certitude? This is simply partisanship masquerading as objectivity–the temptation to dismiss those who disagree with you as idiots is scattered across the political spectrum.

Kurtz also seems out of touch with the talk media, claiming there is "no real left wing" present. "When was the last time anyone stood up on a talk show and said the country should spend more money on the inner cities?" asks Kurtz, himself a regular on CNN's Reliable Sources. "Or that corporate executives are overpaid? Or that businesses are too quick to lay off innocent workers to compensate for management blunders and ill-advised mergers?" These points pretty much describe the stump speech of Labor Secretary Robert Reich, a frequent presence on TV and radio. And once you get past Rush Limbaugh, many of these quasi-populist complaints are voiced on talk shows with amazing regularity.

What really puts Kurtz out is what he sees as the phony objectivity of the talk-show culture. In discussing the granddaddy of the rough-and-tumble pundit show, The McLaughlin Group, Kurtz argues that the problem isn't merely that the panelists are usually wrong or obnoxious: "The trouble is the omniscient tone that requires professional journalists to pretend they are dispensing biblical wisdom from a televised Mount Olympus." Kurtz is right that McLaughlin's minions are famously awful in predicting the time of day, much less political events–and they are often annoying to watch.

But who exactly confuses the blustery pronouncements of The McLaughlin Group with "wisdom," biblical or other? (I might add that the main transmitting tower for biblical truth has traditionally been Mount Sinai, not Mount Olympus.) McLaughlin himself weighs in on the matter: "Give me a break! The image of a journalist as the self-important herald, the high priest of news, the mystique–it's been demythologized. And you know what? People love it! They see how unrealistic and how bogus is the identity of the journalist as the purist, the high priest. You could argue journalists have been cut down to size. They have become human."

Indeed, helping to unmask the blowhard–that is, human–nature of most journalists is perhaps McLaughlin's great contribution to contemporary society. It is impossible to watch the show and consume news in the same way. You realize that writers and broadcasters, no matter how colorless their prose or blank their expression in their "hard news" reportage, are individuals with particular opinions, perspectives, and angles on a given topic, that even the "facts" are open to widely discrepant interpretations. McLaughlin makes viewers realize "authorities" are often far less than authoritative. Understanding this doesn't undermine journalistic credibility, but it does qualify it–as it should.

It is precisely this dynamic which seems finally to stick in Kurtz's craw. For him, the media are literally a mediating presence between newsmakers (or, more precisely, lawmakers–he pretty much equates the two) and the rest of us. It bothers him when that mediating function is complicated or even made apparent. Part of his discomfort appears wedded to a lack of faith in people. Commenting on talk radio, Kurtz observes somewhat anxiously, "Many programs have settled on an anything-goes approach, leaving it to listeners to separate the rhetorical wheat from the chaff." The implication is that listeners are not sharp enough to tell the one from the other. They need someone to digest it all for them. Indeed, early on in Hot Air, Kurtz discusses the typical consumer of media as a cud-chewing passive recipient: "All the yammering out there undoubtedly reflects a populace fixated on the new and the novel, remote controls firmly in hand, grazing across the land of talk." Whether we are sheep or cows in Kurtz's paternalistic vision, we clearly need to be herded.

It is precisely this sort of attitude toward the public that S. Robert Lichter and Richard E. Noyes, political scientists at the Washington, D.C. based Center for Media and Public Affairs, dissect in Good Intentions Make Bad News. What Americans hate about campaign journalism is that journalists, under the righteous guise of "objective" reportage, feel a need to interject themselves into the electoral process by "explaining" and policing the claims of candidates. Ironically, this tendency obscures rather than clarifies and puts a greater distance between voters and politicians.

During the Reagan years, the authors argue, the press suffered a "crisis of confidence" because the president stayed hugely popular in the face of a highly antagonistic press. Lichter and Noyes convincingly document that Reagan got worse overall coverage than Nixon, Ford, or Carter.

Still, the press felt duped by a president who, note Lichter and Noyes, engaged in direct communication with voters (through weekly radio broadcasts, TV speeches, and political ads), kept his rhetoric and message consistent, and avoided confrontations with the press "when there was no benefit attached." By 1988, they write, "it had become conventional wisdom that President Reagan's political fortunes had been a function of blue smoke and mirrors."

The feeling of manipulation continued through the 1988 presidential victory of George Bush, which was widely attributed to, as Newsweek's Howard Fineman put it, "the Republicans' well-honed marketing skills, hardball tactics and skillful manipulation of 'hot-button' issues." Lichter and Noyes note, however, that such analyses are little more than the self-fulfilling prophecies of reporters who cared more about process than substance. Having focused mostly on Bush's and Dukakis's campaign tactics, journalists assumed that those tactics decided the race. "What this emphasis on the 'inside story' neglects," say Lichter and Noyes, "is the degree to which voters' perceptions (and ultimate choices) are structured by conditions external to (and even prior to) the campaign," such as inflation rates, gross domestic product, and so on.

In any case, after the 1988 election, they note, "traditional journalism was widely criticized for triviality and cowardice in its political reporting." Critics, including many journalists, held that Dukakis and especially Bush ran superficial and harshly negative campaigns–a contention which Lichter and Noyes greatly complicate (they also provide a fascinating analysis of the minimal effects of the various "Willie Horton" ads). Before the '92 elections, academics and journalists developed a series of "reforms," write Lichter and Noyes. "They would enforce fair campaign practices by supervising the candidates' speeches and advertisements and calling voters' attention to misleading claims or outright falsehoods."

Such "good intentions," however, came to naught. After performing a content analysis of how the national media covered the 1988 and 1992 presidential elections, Lichter and Noyes conclude that news coverage remained focused mostly on "horse-racism," "tabloid titillation," and "negativism" rather than issue-oriented stories; additionally, coverage became less balanced and "even more intrusive." For instance, in an attempt to increase "substance," the CBS Evening News instituted a policy in July 1992 decreeing a 30-second minimum for sound bites. Rather than boosting direct communication between candidates and voters, however, correspondents more often dropped the candidates' words altogether, summarizing and analyzing their comments instead. "Journalists," note Lichter and Noyes, "were either unwilling or unable to give up their role as campaign interpreters."

Other innovations had similar effects. Consider print and broadcast "ad watches," designed to tell voters when candidates were playing fast and loose with the truth. Unfortunately, there were virtually no instances of outright lying. Rather, the candidates, both in primaries and the general election, tended to raise normative questions in their ads, rather than empirical ones. The result was that reporters, under the guise of being objective, merely weighed in with opinions every bit as soft as the typical campaign ad. What's more, the press definitely took more shots at George Bush than Bill Clinton or Ross Perot, subjecting a disproportionate number of Bush ads to "analysis."

"Mixing news and commentary was hardly an unknown practice in the past," write Lichter and Noyes, "but it was treated as something to be avoided or explained away. The Campaign '92 reforms taught political reporters to regard it as a public service." But even as journalists tried to "wrest the campaign agenda from the politicians," voters responded to less-mediated forums with the candidates. Hence the popularity of alternative media forums, such as Larry King Live, Today, and other talk shows where candidates could at least engage in direct communication–and confrontation–with voters and rivals. Lichter and Noyes's content analysis shows that such exchanges, usually dismissed as puffery, often discussed substantial issues in greater depth and detail than similar items on news shows. Callers and hosts tended to focus on hard-core policy questions and put the candidates through their paces.

Lichter and Noyes note that journalists have learned little or nothing from the 1992 experience. Indeed, they cite a 1995 poll of national media journalists which asked why the public was angry with the press. Twenty-seven percent replied that tabloids had given the mainstream media a bad name, 22 percent said the public was just blaming the messenger, and 13 percent said the public was simply angry with all institutions. When asked whether the public's outrage was legitimate, only 22 percent offered an unqualified yes (29 percent gave an unqualified no).

The authors suggest the situation is unlikely to change. Current trends in media demand "a more intrusive and aggressive role for journalists–more mediation, at a time when the public desired more direct communication with their elected leaders." Still, Lichter and Noyes offer a series of somewhat obvious reforms: a greater focus on "hard news" and less on "soft-core commentary"; adoption of the "voters' agenda" (i.e., presentation of "basic" policy proposals); and "greater coverage of the campaign" (paying more attention to conventions, stump speeches, and other settings in which candidates actually deliver their platforms).

As pessimistic as they are, Lichter and Noyes put too much faith in the idea of a transparent media. They seem to recognize this themselves, asserting at one point that "the media's actions, and sometimes mere presence, cause significant changes in the electoral process….This kind of 'power' is not like money, but rather like gravity–its existence exerts a powerful tug on everything within its range."

Similarly, for the most part, they do not acknowledge the benefits of a shift away from "objective" reporting. Depending on the quality of analysis, such reporting can be a helpful corrective to the worst kind of blather politicians tend to utter in speeches, ads, and debates. And Lichter and Noyes don't really make room for different types of "news." Voters cer-tainly benefit from having access to a variety of information sources, ranging from largely unmediated forums such as C-SPAN, semi-objective outlets such as major newspapers, and highly analytical sources such as REASON.

Indeed, on some level, the authors sense that what really empowers voters is the ability to consider issues from a number of perspectives. "Change is coming," they write. "The dominant media of the next century will give voters more control over the information they receive, and thus more autonomy over the decisions they make."

Those days may already be upon us. Increasingly, people recognize that even as non-intrusive an outlet as C-SPAN mediates by directing our attention to one topic and not another. What both Good Intentions Make Bad News and Hot Air document, intentionally and not, is a powerful shift in American consciousness. That journalism–especially the "reputable" press–is more and more seen as inherently subjective and blinkered is all to the good. In a society where we are constantly offered competing visions of the good society and where our choices actually matter, the rising sense of caveat emptor–and caveat lector–can only be beneficial.