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Remarks From Edwin DiamondBy Edwin Diamond
April 28, 1997
My response to the Pew "findings" about the public's views of "media fairness" is simple: P.U.
The press is NOT in "crisis"--except for its own whiny tendency to dumb down complex, nuanced stories into "problems," "issues," and "controversies." The alleged, current Sally Field-ish "crisis"--you don't really like us--is a blip on the radar compared to what political reporting used to be...and compared to political/press conditions in 95 percent of the rest of the universe.
I've explored the background and current state of American political reporting in my new MIT Press book White House To Your House: Media And Politics In Virtual America. My comments draw on that reporting.
Surveys like Pew's purporting to define the press-political relationship are meaningless for a couple of reasons. First, the word "media" is a fiction. There is no single, Cyclops-eyed monster dwelling in a cave, emerging regularly to devour the natives' offerings of vestal virgins named "Truth." The media are 1,600 dailies, 500 weeklies, 10,000 magazines, 4,000 radio stations, two dozen TV and cable networks--and still counting--and the whole blooming, buzzing world of the Internet.
When I hear that the public doesn't trust the media, I ask: what media? Rush Limbaugh and Howard Stern? My small-town weekly with its Little League line scores and police blotter? The National Inquirer? Hard Copy? The Washington Post? The fast mouths of "Capital Gang" and "Crossfire"? The San Jose Mercury News online, Fortune's list of 500? Vogue's Fashion issue?
Second, how can the "public"--actually 750 or 1,200 distracted citizens reached during the hectic dinner hour by some telephone pollster--judge this media? The answer: it can't; it can only regurgitate the now conventional wisdom that every institution--from the press to the military--is suspect. Respondents respond with what passes for being cool and informed these days--don't be caught saying you trust anyone OVER or UNDER 30.
Of course, if you're really cool you know that Beat The Press is not about the great, wonderful, messy mass of American journalism. Americans by and large like their media; spending hours consuming news on television, in print and online (daily newspaper consumption may be flat but special interest magazines fly off newsstands).
But the big media "crisis" is not about what most journalists do most of the time around the country. Speaker Newt Gingrich gave part of the game away a few days ago, when he complained about how the network evening news shows might report the discovery of electricity by Thomas Edison. As Gingrich explained it, Tom, Peter, Dan and Bernie and Judy would report that the candle industry was threatened; they'd quote Ralph Nader and candlemakers' union officials about the dangers of the new energy source.
I understand, even enjoy, Newt's politicized attempts to neuter a few high profile national news outlets. That's the American hardball way. But when journalists join in such self flagellation and bemoan the present state of political reporting, I'd like to walk them back through the old days--the days I lived though as a young newspaper reporter in Chicago, and later, as a wire service correspondent in Washington.
The good old days, when the newsrooms I worked in were all white, all male, (largely) all Christian, when everyone knew which reporters were on the take (from City Hall, the phone company, the sports teams, whatever).
As we used to type at the bottom of our copy: "More..." in my next post.