February 12, 1996

Some Journalists Believe Newsroom Cynicism Is Hurting Country


Has journalistic cynicism gone too far?

For years, reporters have worn their skepticism about the official version of events not only as a badge of their profession, but as a shield consciously deployed to keep the public from being snookered.

Over the years, after the Vietnam war, Watergate and numerous scandals, that skepticism perhaps congealed into a hardened cynicism, but its function remained the same. Being cynical amounted to being smart.

The public has often made it clear -- in polls and letters to the editor -- that reporters have crossed the line from honest skepticism to a level of cynicism that holds that everyone in public life is probably guilty of something until proven innocent.

The distaste for reporters and the bad news that they purvey goes back a long way, back past Spiro Agnew's nattering nabobs of negativism, back past the muckrackers' probing into the oil industry, back to the days before the country was a country.

But lately, some distinguished journalists have come to agree that newsroom cynicism has gone too far. Not only are too many reporters practicing a form of bad journalism, they say, but they are actually hurting their country. Journalistic cynicism and negativism, they say, is not a shield that protects the public from scoundrels, but a virus that has been transmitted from the newspaper page and television screen to the public, contributing to a decline in faith in democratic institutions.

Paul Sarabin made this point in an essay titled "Generation of Vipers" in the Columbia Journalism Review last spring, and many have followed.

"Cynicism can produce journalists who have a diminished view of their profession and of themselves," Sarabin wrote. "Worse, it can damage readers and viewers and thus, democracy."

James Fallows, in his recent book, "Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy," writes that the emphasis of reporters on the process of government instead of on policy, and on the horse-race elements of an election season instead of the candidates' positions, has produced a public that is losing faith in its institutions and views public life as little more than an exercise in private gain.

A poll taken last spring by the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press found that more than half the respondents agreed with House Speaker Newt Gingrich that the news media were too cynical and too negative in their coverage of public affairs.

And as Alan Murray, the Washington bureau chief of The Wall Street Journal, pointed out in an article two weeks ago, one reason why so many prominent members of Congress are not running for re-election this fall is their sense that their message is constantly obscured by the media's focus on the trivial or sordid.

Nobody would dispute the importance of a skeptical mind and tough questioning, and few want reporters to be cheerleaders. What the critics are arguing is that newsroom cynicism has crossed the boundary between being tough and being mean.

What happened?

One thing is that the public has fewer newspapers to choose from, said Michael Janeway, dean of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. When most cities had several daily papers hitting the streets each morning and afternoon, readers had more choices and therefore more ways to register their disapproval of a newsroom mentality that became too harsh.

Stephen Hess, a media critic and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, defended a certain level of cynicism among reporters, or at least cynicism's more genteel analogue, skepticism, as a still-valuable part of their armaments, however.

"I think journalists do tend to come at public figures more unforgivingly than they used to," he said. "A lot of reporters dislike policymaking, they dislike the process of it, and so they like to do the sport of it."

But too much worrying about the cynicism of reporters overlooks the role that even the most hide-bound skepticism has brought, Hess added.

"Even if the media seems to be contributing to this broad lack of confidence or trust, I don't know if there is any way to report the news without it," he said.

Larry Sabato wrote about this issue in his 1991 book on the news media, "Feeding Frenzy." A professor of politics at the University of Virginia, Sabato agreed that reporters too often ignored the fact that humans -- even politicians -- act for a variety of reasons, and not only for base or self-serving ones.

"Does Bill Clinton do every single thing because he wants to be re-elected as president?" Sabato asked. "Maybe, but there are other motives in there too, and reporters have to acknowledge that there is a mix of reasons."

At the same time, Sabato disputed the notion that reportorial cynicism necessarily results in civic cynicism.

"People are not empty vessels into which the media pour their values," he said. "People absorb information in lots of different ways, from their family and friends and from actual observation of events from Vietnam to Watergate to hundreds of scandals since, including the HUD scandal and the savings and loan fiasco, where the toughest reporters turned out to be right."

As reflected in the growing movement toward what is called public, or civic, journalism, in which papers try to interact more closely with their readers, the issue of cynicism versus what might be called constructivism is hardly going away. The solution, said Sig Gissler, a former editor of the Milwaukee Journal and now a journalism teacher at Columbia, is to strive for balance.

"We're great at raising people's anxieties but we don't leave them with much sense of hope or remedy," he said. "So I always thought it was a good idea to at least shade in some potential solutions to all the problems we see."

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