(Centennial Fellow) You’ve got to have an “able, disinterested, public-spirited press” if popular government is to be something more than “a sham and mockery,” Joseph Pulitzer once said. Is there hope?
Well, yes, there’s hope, and there are plentiful exceptions to any condemnatory conclusions. But what’s missing in too many news outlets this campaign season – amid the constant analysis of who has fumbled, who might win and what strategies are being employed – is much of what’s worth knowing.
When assessing the presidential candidates, the vital questions boil down to character, competence and stands on issues.
The salacious shall be known, and more on the bad side of character than that if the press finds you less than cuddly. It seldom investigates demonstrated competence to the extent many might want.
But where the public really gets cheated is in being presented with little more than sound bites about stands on issues. Want to know why? Because some in the news craft believe that delivering detailed reports on speeches and otherwise exploring candidates’ policy positions without comment reduces them to plain-Jane stenographers.
They would rather be bold explorers of ulterior motives.
Charlotte Grimes, a journalism professor at Syracuse University I know and admire, has written a superb paper (available online) that notes how this near obsession of some was inspired by the work of an exceptional reporter, Theodore White.
He wrote groundbreaking books in the ‘60s and ‘70s about behind-the-scenes strategizing in presidential campaigns, and ever since then political writers have tried to do a Teddy White strut in their daily copy. Among the problems is too little time to pull it off and sometimes a whole lot less knowledge and talent than the hero.
That’s just for starters, though, because rather than dwell on material crucial for understanding what is at stake, many on TV, in newspapers and elsewhere would rather waste your time speculating on what you’re going to find out anyway: who is going to win.
Understand that today’s guess is often next to worthless and that the need, at any rate, is telling you not how you might vote in a primary or general election, but giving you facts enabling you to vote intelligently.
“Facts.” Interesting word, that, and yes, there is such a thing as verifiable information just as there is such a thing as fact checkers who don’t get it that their verdicts of “true” and “false” are many times arguable, extra-factual interpretations otherwise known as opinion.
The worst of the campaign coverage may be bias holding hands with melodrama, as when segments of the press went wild shouting to the nation that millionaire boss-man Mitt Romney had said he liked “being able to fire people.” The explicit, perfectly clear, unmistakable context was that people should be able to change their health insurance companies.
An example of purveying those particular Romney words with no hint of the actual meaning was a piece in The New York Review of Books, which seems worth mentioning because the magazine is considered one of the most prestigious broadly distributed intellectual journals in America.
The article – a review of two books about Romney – also said his Bain Capital operation existed “to enrich the investor class” without mentioning the massive profits going to union pension funds. It later contrasted the Republican candidate’s speaking fees with his father’s refusal to accept bonuses as an auto executive. Did the writer know Romney accepted only a $1 a year salary and no expense account as governor of Massachusetts and no salary for running the Winter Olympics in Utah in 2002, though donating $1 million to the cause?
Pulitzer, the dazzling journalistic innovator whose century-old words I found in the Grimes paper, was himself capable of sensational journalism almost – not quite! – that embarrassingly shoddy.
He was nevertheless a crusading proponent of decency who properly summed up the wages of journalistic sin in a democracy as the sort of terrible government some of us think we have right now in the executive branch in Washington.
Let’s pray for journalistic improvement, and meanwhile, may the blessed exceptions bloom.
Jay Ambrose (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a former editor of the Rocky Mountain News and other daily newspapers. He is now a Centennial Institute Fellow, co-director of the Project on News in the 21st Century, and a nationally syndicated columnist for the Scripps Howard, for whom this piece was written.