- Historic Sites
The American newspaper: beleaguered by television, hated both for its timidity and for its arrogance, biased, provincial, overweening—and still indispensable. A Hearst veteran tells how it got to where it is today, and where it may be headed.
October 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 6
To me it seems obvious that such major newspapers as the Post and the Los Angeles Times consistently come down on the left side of the ledger, but Ben Bagdikian says the bulk of American newspapers swing from the right. You will never get to see all your particular political prejudices fully reflected in one newspaper. My advice to you is to read around what you don’t like and hope they are fair.
Where journalists have a perceptible, and largely selfadmitted, bias is in social questions. Any reasonable reading on abortion issues shows the press coming down on the side of the “pro choice” constituency.
The press can legitimately be criticized for its institutional inability to deal meaningfully with religious questions. It is not that the press is irreligious; it is simply secular. Except for stories on wackos storing arms for Armageddon, most newspaper stories about religion are done by somber men with spots on their ties writing up Sunday sermon notes in the back of a newsroom. I recently heard a reporter say he was going to make it a point to meet more people who go to church. He sounded as if he were about to travel to some distant place on the globe for National Geographic .
They are paid to be. My father, Bert Andrews, who was the Washington bureau chief for the old Herald Tribune , used to say it was all right to know politicians socially, but he didn’t want them in the home, where the children might see them. A healthy cynicism is the first line of defense against public figures who do not always tell the truth. George Bush said race was not a consideration in nominating Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, and Judge Thomas told the Senate Judiciary Committee he had never thought about abortion. It is all but impossible to get through the nomination procedure without lying.
Papers are scurrying to become “user-friendly.” Unofficially this is known as “dumbing down.”
Press cynicism reflects current public disenchantment with public officials as much as it fosters it. When a Russian fighter plane shot down a civilian Korean airliner in 1983, a public opinion poll found 60 percent of the American people felt they were not being told the whole truth by the Reagan administration. About the same percentage of Russians felt they weren’t getting the truth either.
While holding public office is not yet direct evidence of miscreancy, it seems inconceivable to many reporters that a congressional representative could support a piece of legislation for reasons other than political or personal advantage. If St. Francis of Assisi appeared on the floor of Congress to advocate the installation of municipal birdbaths, the press would immediately begin to investigate possible Bernardone family connections with marble-quarrying interests in Carrara.
There has always been a deep strain of moral preachment in the press. In colonial times ministers frequently drew their sermons from current events, and newspapers continued the theme by making sermons into editorials until Thomas Carlyle noted that journalists had replaced clergymen as the modern nation’s moral guardians. This is a mandate the press sometimes takes on with too much relish. An unpleasant, hectoring tone has crept into contemporary journalism at even the lowest level. Last winter The New York Times ran a story on the bitter cold weather in which its reporter chided people for being abroad without hats or gloves; then “were unable to provide satisfactory explanations.”
The Los Angeles Times reporter Robert Shogan has a keen sense of his own moral worthiness. As a guest at Vice President George Bush’s residence, Shogan went through the receiving line and saw Bush was wearing a suede jacket. “That’s a handsome coat,” Shogan said. “What poor animal was sacrificed to make it?” After the Vice President passed him off with a joke, Shogan wrote, “beneath that well-bred veneer lurked a broad streak of arrogance.”
In several ways. Newspapers are in a dreadful bind for new readers in a country where literacy levels are discouragingly low. A federal study by the Department of Education indicates nearly half our adult population has difficulty writing a simple business letter. Nor is the level of political awareness particularly high. At Ivy League colleges 50 percent of the students do not know the names of their U.S. senators. On the Monday night of the Democratic party convention in 1992, television network convention coverage in New York City was outdrawn by the Fox station showing a movie, The Revenge of the Nerds, Part III . Political coverage on MTV was considered a major factor in the election of Bill Clinton.