Shoot The Messenger

NEWS VALUES:
Ideas for an Information Age
By Jack Fuller
University of Chicago Press, 266 pp.

CENSORED:
The News That Didn’t Make the News – and Why
By Carl Jensen and Project Censored
Seven Stories Press, 352 pp.

Let’s be under no illusions. Journalists believe that what they do is important – and they’re right. Journalism itself, however, is widely viewed with contempt – and with good reason.

It has always been thus. “Where there is a free press,” said Thomas Babington Macaulay, “the governors must live in constant awe of the opinions of the governed.” Take that, Sheila Copps. By the same token, as Garrison Keillor has written, journalists are “a class already so richly despised that if a planeload of them crashed in flames, most people would smile from pure reflex.”

Why this animosity toward the fourth estate, whose work is so clearly crucial to the project of liberal democracy?

The complaint, in a nutshell, is that the media have ceased to be bulwarks of democracy and are now active agents in its frustration. With their prying hostility, they scare most sane people away from seeking public office. In their hyperventilated pursuit of the tawdry and the trivial, they divert attention from the real issues to which any mature collectivity should attend. They have cheapened public debate and reneged on their social obligations. At best, “journalism” has become a pejorative shorthand term for simplistic and superficial accounts of complex events. At worst, the fourth estate is now part of a vast, oppressive commercial apparatus geared toward keeping us all dumb and compliant.

Animated by these familiar and persistent charges about the news media, these two books amount to prescriptions for reform. Together, they boast some heavy-duty credentials. News Values is the work of Jack Fuller, president and publisher of the Chicago Tribune, a graduate of Yale law school who began his journalism career on the police beat in Chicago, worked for the U.S. Attorney-General, went on to win a Pulitzer prize for editorial writing, and at latest count is the author of five novels.

Censored is a collaborative effort that carries the imprimatur of a blue-ribbon panel of media critics, including Ben Bagdikian of the University of California, Berkeley, George Gerbner of the University of Pennsylvania, Herbert Schiller of the University of California, San Diego, and Susan Faludi, author of The Beauty Myth and Backlash. Walter Cronkite lends his support by writing the introduction.

Let me explain why they’re all wrong. Or, at least, only half right.

Both books focus on the priorities news outlets bring to bear in their coverage, since the picture of the world that unfolds in the morning newspaper or on the nightly newscast is a product of this system of news values. Fuller’s is the more fully realized effort, if only because it’s the product of sustained reflection on the part of a thoughtful and educated mind. Censored is less a book than a compendium – one idea hammered home via myriad examples.

Given his background, Fuller concentrates on newspapers rather than on the news media as a whole. He is right to do so, and not simply because he knows newspapers best. Despite the flash of television and the futuristic sheen of cyberspace, the daily paper remains the spine of news coverage. In any North American city, the size of the newspaper’s editorial staff vastly outstrips the numbers of broadcast journalists. The public may turn first to TV for its news, but the morning paper is still the TV newsroom’s daily briefing book. If there is something awry in the central nervous system of news coverage, Fuller suggests, then fix it at the spine. He sees the problem in terms of an increasing public disenchantment with the traditional source of news and opinion.

The solution, he argues, is to reassert the credibility of newspapers, and therefore rekindle a sense of trust in them – not simply on the part of readers, but also on the part of the people whom newspapers cover.

How is this to be accomplished? By insisting that journalists adhere to what Fuller calls “the truth discipline” – by which he means something pretty close to the traditional ideals of sweating the details, recognizing and bracketing one’s own prejudices, and on no account presuming to come to conclusions on behalf of the reader.

That’s all well and good. Few city editors would advocate the opposite. (“Well, you misspelled the mayor’s name, kid, and you called him a horse’s ass, but what the hey.”) But what Fuller advocates is a rigid journalistic epistemology that seems terribly naive. I don’t mean by this that he fails to take into account relativist attacks on positivist dicta – the book is dotted with references to people like philosopher Karl Popper and literary theorist Stanley Fish – but simply that journalism is too messy a business to be contained by a one-size-fits-all code of conduct.

As well, Fuller’s prescriptions would make for a dutiful, but drab newspaper. He objects to the journalism of Tom Wolfe, for example, on the grounds that Wolfe writes from the point of view of his subjects, going so far as to recreate interior monologues.

The “truth discipline” would forbid that sort of thing. It would also expunge the sort of argumentative writing practiced by some columnists in this paper in which the point of the article is to make a case. I may disagree with them, but I’m happy to defend their technique. Mentally composing counter-arguments to a skillfully rendered position is a pleasure in reading a newspaper, not a burden.

In the end, there’s not much new in News Values. It culminates in a call for journalism schools to require their students to have a solid grounding in a traditional discipline, to drill them in the classical elements of good writing, and to “link the issues in journalism with the main currents of general moral thought” – which only makes one wonder what Fuller thinks university education in journalism has been doing for the past 25 years.

Censored takes a more forthright approach, attempting to confront the news media with hard evidence of their dereliction of duty.

This is the 20th-anniversary edition of an annual audit conducted by a group in the U.S. named Project Censored (a Canadian equivalent, Project Censored Canada, began in 1994 and is now run by researchers at Simon Fraser University and the University of Windsor). The idea is to assemble a list of patently newsworthy stories that were somehow overlooked or underplayed by the major media, thus revealing their blindspots and blinkers.

I was skeptical and critical of Project Censored Canada when it made its debut, and expressed my views on the op-ed page of this newspaper. In essence, I argued that the Project’s list of so-called “censored” stories was really just an expression of a certain political point of view. These were stories that the left would have played to the hilt; the right could no doubt construct its own list to show the “leftist bias” of the media. And in any case, it wasn’t that these stories were suppressed. The complaint seemed to be that they weren’t rammed down the public’s throat.

Given what passes for journalism in the U.S. – 20/20, Day One, Barbara Walters specials – I’m more inclined to believe that truly consequential news stories could well have been overlooked by the flagships of the American media. And yet, even here the indictment lacks sting.

The supposed top “censored news stories” of 1995 (nominated by readers, culled by students at Sonoma State University, and selected by the distinguished panel of media critics) include: the corporate takeover of cyberspace; how the attempts to balance the U.S. budget punish the poor; how Russia is altogether cavalier about its disposal of nuclear waste; massive medical fraud in the U.S.; Newt Gingrich’s dislike of federal regulatory agencies; and how NAFTA isn’t working the way big business promised.

This is news? In order for Project Censored to have the impact it’s clearly striving for, the reader would have to come away from the list thinking “Wow. Why wasn’t I told this?” But none of these stories comes as a surprise.

What’s wrong with Project Censored – and, indeed, with most of the generic complaints about how the media are evil, stupid dupes of a corporate agenda – is that they treat the media as though they are a monolithic entity, when clearly they’re not. The media extend from the Economist to the supermarket tabloids, from Scientific American to Hustler, from PBS’s Frontline to Rush Limbaugh.

There’s more than enough information coursing through the mediascape for every taste, every interest, every prejudice. You don’t think you’re sufficiently informed? The truth is out there. Stop blaming the media. Get up off your duff and go find it.eg

Globe and Mail May 25, 1996