Sep 1 1995

A Skeptical Look at ‘Cynical’ Reporters

Talk about being hoist on your own petard! That indispensable tool of modern journalism, the opinion poll, has dealt us journalists a cruel blow. And our own journalistic establishment–the Tunes Mirror Center for the People and the Press, and how much more poohbah can you get?– paid for the poll.

The poll determined, scientifically as all get out, that the American public is nearly twice as “cynical” (they mean skeptical) as journalists. To be precise, 77 percent of the people but only 40 percent of the Washington press corps give low marks to politicians for honesty and ethics.

Shocking. And confusing. Since time immemorial, the poohbahs of the journalism trade have been dining out on the myth that we are the fierce watchdogs of democracy–so fierce, indeed, that it takes a strong leash and frequent whippings to keep us from the throats of our betters.

Such a whipping was administered in a cover article in the March/April ’95 issue of the Columbia Journalism Review, under the new editorship of the establishmentarian Roger Rosenblatt:

A crook named Spiro Agnew, who was then vice president of the United States, said much the same thing a quarter of a century ago when he called us “nattering nabobs of negativism.” What we have lost in alliteration we have gained in vituperation.

On both occasions, as usual, the assault on journalists was crafted by journalists–Agnew’s by William Safire, who was then a speechwriter for the Nixon White House, and the CJR piece by Paul Starobin of the National Journal, who committed this job on commission for New York University’s Project on Public Life and the Press, which is funded by the Kettering Foundation.

The first bite of the viper recorded by Starobin was a magazine’s admittedly “funny, grabby, irreverent deconstruction” of Dan Quayle on the campaign trail. But Starobin was not partisan. He was equally offended by irreverence shown toward Bill and Hillary Clinton, Newt Gingrich, Strom Thurmond and any and all authority figures, and he accused our national press corps of a “knee-jerk assumption that presidents and other politicians do not keep their promises.”

Starobin might have drawn comfort from the Bible (“O put not your faith in princes”) or perspective from Mark Twain, who called Congress our only native criminal class, or from H.L. Mencken, who called the typical lawmaker “a man wholly devoid of principle– a mere counter in a grotesque and knavish game.”

But he took his line from other sources. Karen Hosler of the Baltimore Sun complained to him that in the snakepit of Washington journalism, if she were to intimate that she took Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America in good faith, her colleagues would hiss: “You dope. You really think that Gingrich cares about people?”

In fact, all the establishment journalists Starobin talked to seemed to agree with him that Washington journalism was fatally infected with cynicism. This would seem to contradict itself, but I am persuaded that Starobin’s informal poll of Washington journalists is accurate in its way as the poll of the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press is accurate in its way.

Always, the establishment has been troubled by outbreaks of disrespect among the troops. This has been especially troubling in the wake of the rare triumphs of investigative journalism, when many individuals begin to see merit in misbehavior. (“Show me a reporter with a respect for authority and I’ll show you a lousy reporter”– Bob Anglin of the Boston Globe; “If a reporter is not a ‘disturber of the peace,’ then he should go into cost accounting.”–Harrison Salisbury.) Such subversion always calls for firm correction.

Now forgotten is the revulsion shown by the Washington press corps toward those obscure beat reporters Woodward and Bernstein during the months following that third-rate burglary at Watergate. Their resulting celebrity set off an alarming epidemic of puppy ambition in the kennels of journalism, which took some time to cure.

Thus, Wes Gallagher of the Associated Press had to assure the American Newspaper Publishers Association that “the First Amendment is not a hunting license” (New York Times, 5/4/76), while Michael J. O’Neill of the New York Daily News, president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, told its convention(5/5/82) that the press, having undermined authority, must now “set matters straight…make peace with the government…[and] be more tolerant of the frailty of human institutions.”

O’Neill quoted approvingly the plea of the New York Times‘ Roger Starr that journalism schools ban the writing of Lincoln Steffens, whose “muckraking,” O’Neill said, “did so much harm to the cities that he hated to think what havoc modern investigative journalism might cause.”

That, of course, is cynicism in its pure state–the implicit belief (which Starr has elsewhere expressed explicitly) that exposes of corruption do harm by removing a beneficial lubricant from civic life. Few reporters would agree with that thesis so baldly stated, but affection for crooked politicians and contempt for reformers is a tradition in our journalism that is far stronger, alas, than muckraking.

Our cities have obviously escaped the corruption-free fate feared by Starr. As for the nation, the Times Mirror poll suggests that the media, at any rate, are not to blame for the low regard that our Washington leaders are held in. Poohbahs at other press foundations, themselves retired members of the establishment, were disturbed not by the naivete of journalists exposed by the poll but by the “cynicism” of the public.

Edward M. Fouhy of the Pew Center for Civic Journalism thought the tabloid press was somehow at fault, and Bill Kovach of the Nieman Foundation said that members of the public are “missing a lot of what we’re telling them, and I think it’s because they don’t understand why we do what we do.”

It may be asked whether the press understands what it does or why it does it. Starobin himself, in a preceding issue of CJR(1-2/95), had told how reporters covering the Federal Reserve were, as I put it, spoon-Fed by Chairman Alan Greenspan. But in this issue, he complained that “yesterday’s reporters mostly confined their cynical comments to the barroom; today’s stick them into their copy.”

My own observation of newspaper watering holes over half a century corresponds to that of the Times Mirror poll. If someone bad-mouths politicians among the printers at the bar, it will arouse no more than a shrug of assent. The same remark at a table of political reporters will cause a wince of pain; somebody is bad-mouthing their friends.

It may be that Starobin has never attended one of those annual picnics, softball games, roasts and revues held by every association of reporters for(and on the tab of) their sources, but surely he has seen, or at least heard of, the dress-up bashes sponsored by the Gridiron Club, the White House Press Association and the National Press Club. These are not occasions marked by “a deep and abiding cynicism.” They are, in fact, more like love fests.

I have mentioned before (Extra!, 10/91) that the seduction of power is built into our trade. From the very first assignment, a reporter is required to get a handle on a new situation and appear to master it by deadline. A source–the sheriff, the DA, the politician, the flack–spells it out. The editor is content, the source compliments the reporter next morning, and a relationship is born.

Mencken described what happened to reporters in Washington: “They come in as newspaper men, trained to get the news and eager to get it; they end as tinhorn statesmen, full of dark secrets and unable to write the truth if they tried.”

They spend their careers cultivating sources, and are rewarded accordingly, and then, often, retire to foundations that keep high the standards of the craft, its precious credibility, its responsibility. They don’t succeed entirely, however. If 77 percent of the public, and even 40 percent of the Washington press corps, nonetheless give government officials low marks for honesty and ethics, then there is hope.

John Hess, a reporter at the New York

Times and other papers for 40 years, now does commentary on WBAI radio.