Making Politics Work


This article originally appeared in Issue# 58

Journalists and the Public Share Responsibility

Roger Ailes, media advisor to presidents Reagan and Bush, once told a reporter: "You get up every morning and try to figure out how to humiliate my client. I get up every morning and try to figure out how to make him look good. I sleep better."

The point Ailes wanted to make--that he deserves to sleep better than most reporters--may be questionable. As a public relations expert, however, he does enjoy an advantage over most reporters in his understanding of his task and how it relates to public opinion. Ailes can go to sleep at night knowing what success looks like. For him, it means his client's victory, to which he wants every citizen to contribute.

Journalists, by contrast, are less clear about what success means for them. Especially since the era of the Vietnam War and Watergate, they define themselves against others: They see themselves as government watchdogs, tough questioners of evasive officials, dedicated opponents of professionals like Ailes, who try to manipulate the news. This is a useful self-image, but it is also a negative one. The adversarial stance encourages the press to be relentlessly skeptical but it does not offer an uplifting public goal, a positive cause citizens can share with journalists. So when the press "wins" it's usually because the negative functions of journalism, criticism and exposure, have won out.

Scandals as Triumph?

In his memoir of the 1988 campaign, See How They Run, reporter Paul Taylor of the Washington Post describes his reaction after Gary Hart withdrew from the race (in part because of information the Post had about the candidate's alleged extramarital affairs). Taylor recalls that he felt "relieved, then triumphant" at Hart's withdrawal. Both feelings--relief and triumph--would be understandable to his fellow journalism professionals. But did the rest of us see the Hart scandal as a "triumph"? Was Gary Hart's humiliation--or the adultery charges that swirled around Bill Clinton at the beginning of the 1992 primary season--a great achievement for American democracy? For civility in public life? For anyone else but people in the media?

There is some truth, then, in the commonly voiced complaint that the news media is "too negative." But what's excessively negative is not the content of the news, as critics usually charge; it is the journalist's self-conception, in which the highest achievement is often to bring others down. Of course, we cannot ask the press to climb aboard the cause of one candidate or other; to ignore controversy about community issues, or to assist the efforts of interest groups. Such commitments will always be seen as inappropriate for a press that is supposed to serve the broad public interest.

If not candidates or causes, what is it that the press can legitimately support? If being "against" isn't good enough, what should journalists be "for" when they report on politics and public life? The answer depends on our definition of politics. This is intellectual territory journalists rarely enter. They are not inclined to ask themselves what they mean--and what they should mean--when they speak of the political sphere. Often, I think, the working definition goes something like this: matters become "political" (in the journalist's mind) when they begin to involve the business of winning votes, trading favors, fighting for support and defeating rivals. Politics, in other words, is a competitive struggle, akin to the battles that go on in a large corporation, where talented and ambitious people try to fight their way to the top. When we use the phrase "office politics" to refer to these intramural wars, we employ the precise meaning of "politics" that appeals to most journalists.

But is this the right way to understand the term? Definitions are more than words: They are deeds of mind, and like all deeds they have consequences. Historian and social critic Christopher Lasch has criticized the tendency to regard politics as "another name for warfare." Among the consequences of this line of thinking may be the prevailing idea that "politics" has nothing to do with the search for truth or enduring values. Instead it becomes "the rule of the strongest" (or the one with the most votes), a "shouting match that drowns out the voice of reason," as Lasch puts it.

Here is a vision of politics guaranteed to repel most citizens. And yet it is a vision we routinely see in the news media--in TV coverage of rival abortion demonstrations, in the mudslinging on panel shows like The McLaughlin Group or Crossfire, in the mechanically "balanced" news story that quotes environmentalists saying one thing and industry representatives saying exactly the opposite. When politics is portrayed as a shouting match between embittered rivals who agree on nothing, citizens are encouraged to withdraw from the scene entirely, to retreat into apathy, cynicism and the comfort of blanket statements like "politics doesn't affect me" or "they're all liars and crooks." Without quite realizing it, journalists play a part in shaping these corrosive attitudes. They contribute by viewing politics as "another name for warfare," a form of ritualized combat in which their assignment is to review the tactics and expose the self-interested claims of the various players. In the process they tend to become cynical observers of a game they assume has only one purpose: to separate winners from losers.

What, then, might be a better definition of politics? Suppose we decide that "politics" is not about winning elections, or struggling for power, or administering the offices of the state. We might define it instead as a kind of knowledge--a public way of knowing. Politics is the means by which a democracy comes to know its problems, its aims, its place in time, its inner divisions, its fundamental beliefs--itself.

If "We, the people" are to be our own governors, then "we" must continually discover who "we" have become, what "we" want, where "we" as a society are going. Politics is the means by which we can make these discoveries, and events like the presidential campaign should serve that end. As the philosopher Michael Sandel describes it, "when politics goes well, we can know a good in common that we cannot know alone."

If this is the true purpose of democratic politics--to discover through common endeavor what none of us could ever know alone--then the journalist's function can be described positively rather than neutrally or negatively. Journalists, in this view, are not scorekeepers, watchdogs or clerks of fact. Their job is not to remain "objective" or to be everyone's adversary. Instead, their task is to help make politics "go well," as Sandel puts it. Using whatever influence they have, they must try to create the conditions that permit us to gain the common knowledge we need.

Public Discourse

But what are these conditions? Many of them have to do with the kind of discourse that prevails in politics. The sort of talk a democracy needs has certain characteristics: First, it is open and understandable to all; it deals with major problems affecting society; it is conducted in a civil fashion, (meaning that differences can be registered, conflict can occur, without destroying the basis for further discussion); it protects private and intimate matters from the glare of the public realm. At its best, such talk illuminates our troubles and connects them to broader issues. We can call this sort of dialogue "public" discourse, to be distinguished from other forms of conversation that merely occur in public--commercial hype, official stonewalling, celebrity gossip, insider chit-chat, technical mumbo-jumbo, etc.

Journalists, then, have a responsibility to practice truly "public" discourse; indeed, they should be role models for the rest of us in the way they speak about politics. They should uphold the standards of public discourse when they interview public officials, when they discuss the political sphere among themselves, when they think about what's worth covering. They should respect those who are willing to enter into public dialogue, and reward them with media coverage. Indeed, I would go further. The press should demonstrate an open "bias" toward a certain kind of talk--the sort of engaged and open discussion that permits us to "know in common what we cannot know alone." They should believe in the importance of such talk, and seek out opportunities to sponsor it. They should make it their primary value.

But are we willing to let them? It is common for those of us outside the media to complain about media "bias." Professors do it in their classes and publications. Politicians do it when they want to win and the media coverage they're getting doesn't seem to be helping. Corporations do it when a story develops in a way that works against their interests. Various ethnic groups do it in complaining about their image in the news media. Both the right and the left have their own media-monitoring groups, which hunt down examples of bias from both sides of the political spectrum.

These complaints are often justified. There is plenty of bias in the media, which, after all, is a powerful institution staffed by fallible human beings. And yet it is interesting how rarely we turn the question of bias on ourselves. We ask journalists to be objective, to be fair, to remain detached, but when it's our turn to speak publicly, we often feel justified in putting the best possible face on things. We don't think about such values as detachment and objectivity when it comes time to defend our own interests, or win our own political battles. Our public discourse is full of bias, and many would say that this is entirely proper. But if politics is to be more than "another name for warfare," then political talk must be more than the pursuit of personal, group or corporate interests.

The truth is that when it comes to public discourse, everyone has responsibilities. We each have a responsibility to pay attention to important issues, even if they grow difficult or complex. We have an obligation to uphold certain standards of civility and mutual respect in public speech. We are all responsible for acknowledging inconvenient facts, even though they may weaken our case. We must learn to give up a profitable line of argument when it remains profitable but ceases to be true. We have a responsibility to say what has become politically unsayable, if the unsayable, in fact, deserves to be said. We must recognize that the attention of the community is a limited resource, and should not be squandered once obtained. And we have a responsibility to use words carefully, lest we lose their meaning.

Finally, we have a responsibility to regard the truth, not as our exclusive possession, but as something to be found in other's arguments, as well--indeed, as something to be produced through dialogue and discussion. When journalists enforce these responsibilities on public speakers, they are doing us a valuable service. When we adhere to such responsibilities ourselves we are doing our part to make democratic politics go well.

Mis-shapen Images

There's a term for the general abandonment of our duty to engage in public discourse. The term is public relations. Public relations is not so much a profession as it is an attitude. It sees publicity as a God-given right, and upholds a positive image for ourselves as the legitimate goal of public speech. Those who practice public relations assume that the truth can take care of itself, that no special commitment on their part is needed.

American corporations have long made this assumption. They feel free to practice public relations with a vengeance. But now they are concerned about a particular truth. They want all of us to realize that, if schools continue to decay, the American economy will continue to decline. They're right about that. But they also want to retain their right to bombard our young people with seductive commercials, making the job of schools that much tougher. Can they have it both ways? They think so. But if they were to engage in truly public discourse they would give up this notion, and acknowledge their own role in exacerbating the education problem.

Corporations aren't unique, of course, in their desire to have it both ways. Elected officials, community groups, trade associations, political parties, spokesmen for the left and the right--all want to get their messages out. All seek favorable publicity. All desire to manipulate the media. All want the media to be fair (but sometimes "being fair" means being fair to them).

These attitudes are not unreasonable. Everyone's right to try to influence a free press is part of the meaning of having one. But if the cynicism of the journalist has become a corrosive element in our political culture--and I would assert that it has--then we should be willing to consider the causes of that cynicism.

Certainly one of the causes is the separate standards journalists are asked to live by. While they observe the rest of us committed to public relations, they know they should--and generally they do--seek a disinterested truth.

There is often an arrogance in this feeling of separateness, since journalists are surely not the only ones committed to truth in politics. But there is also some justification. The public relations mentality is an American addiction, a way of loading the media with responsibilities that other interest groups refuse to accept themselves. We cannot continue to live by the code of public relations and expect journalists to abandon their code of cynicism, detachment and mistrust. Nor can we continue to batter the media with charges of bias and expect them to acknowledge their responsibility to make politics go well.

Like public school teachers, journalists are designated by the rest of us to carry out an educational function. And like school teachers, they need to be left alone to do their jobs. We should recognize journalists' right to exercise their own judgment independent of our particular demands. But just as school teachers should, while enjoying their autonomy, be in favor of good schools and work hard to bring them about, journalists should, while enjoying their independence, be in favor of a political system that works. They should try to bring such a system about, especially by improving the quality of public discussion and the process of public debate. But if we want them to accept this obligation--and we should--then we must accept it equally ourselves. Ultimately, then, improving the media means improving the conduct of our entire public life.

Author Bio: 

Jay Rosen is an assistant professor of journalism at New York University and a media critic whose work has appeared in Harper's, The Nation, The New York Times, Tikkun, and other journals.