Attack-dog Style Of Public Discussion p. 9

By: M.L. Stein

Panel of editorial writers says newspaper editorial
pages must bear some of the responsibility for it sp.

NEWSPAPER EDITORIAL PAGES must bear some of the responsibility for the current “attack dog” style of public discourse, according to a panel of editorial writers.
The shrill frothings and exchanges on talk radio and television can be countered by lively, reasonable and informed comment on the opinion pages, they stressed.
“There is a mounting perception today that our democratic society is suffering from a poverty of public discussion,” observed Robert Kittle of the San Diego Union-Tribune. “We in the news media must shoulder considerable responsibility for the attack-dog environment in which the public debate is now conducted.”
Speaking at the National Conference of Editorial Writers convention in Phoenix, Kittle contended that newspapers, in many ways, are the arbiters of public discourse, ranging from President Clinton’s Haiti decision to the O.J. Simpson murder trial.
As such, he continued, newspapers are in a position to elevate the “degredation of intellectual dialogue,” which has contributed to widespread cynicism about government and other institutions.
Kittle said a recent Time magazine poll showing that the percentage of Americans who trust their government has dropped to 19% from 76% in 1964, indicates people have become cynical to the point of dropping out, shirking their responsibilities as citizens and “thereby corroding the whole process of government.”
“We in the news media should be asking ourselves whether the problem is well-served by our approach,” the panelist suggested. “We have both a money-making incentive and a civic obligation to ensure that the voters are getting the information they need to make intelligent choices to make democracy succeed.”
The alternative, Kittle warned, is to confirm the view of many Americans that the press is merely another self-serving institution, “one that is not much better than that lowest of the low: Congress.”
Kittle and other panelists expressed deep concern that broadcast talk shows and commentators such as Rush Limbaugh, rather than the opinion pages of newspapers, are setting the tone for public discourse.
Such programs, argued Joe Stroud of the Detroit Free Press, cater to the people’s short attention span and feed their impatience with reasoned discourse.
However, Stroud, at the same time, blamed editorial pages for driving readers to their tv and radio sets.
“Most editorial pages look as if they’re written by people who get up in the morning and say, ‘What can I write about today?’ he commented. “We need more passion ? an editorial page that looks as if it’s written by people who get up in the morning and say, ‘Those SOBs can’t do that to us.’ “
Stroud urged editorial writers to stand on principle, understand the opposition’s argument without being paralyzed by it,” and “grant the opposition its humanity.”
Don’t assume the opponent is evil as well as wrong, he added.
Opinion writers also should avoid viewing life as a “morality play rather than a complex clash of values and people,” he said.
Dull editorials were further rapped by Tony Snow of the Detroit News, a former speech writer for George Bush. Snow, whose column also runs in USA Today, complained that some staffers turn out editorials from a “sheer sense of obligation,” causing readers to “yawn and say ‘forget it.’ “
“One reason for such vapid writing, he maintained, is the fear of giving offense. Snow similarly deplored the popularity of newspaper surveys to determine readers’ attitudes toward them.
“We ask readers so often how we’re doing that we forget what we’re supposed to be doing in the first place,” he remarked. “And we spend so much time balancing arguments that we don’t make one.”
Snow disagreed with other panelists that Americans have become disillusioned with government to the point of apathy.
“I believe we have a more informed electorate than ever,” he said. “There is a political vigor not seen in our lifetime.”
From the floor, Robert McCord, retired editorial page editor of the Arkansas Gazette, questioned the ethics of Snow’s returning to journalism after his partisan stint in government.
“I make no apologies for having worked in the White House,” Snow retorted. He maintained the experience made him a better editorial and column writer because of his inside knowledge of the workings of government.
Another panelist, Morgan McGinley of the Day of New London, Conn., conceded that Americans are concerned over the absence of values in public life but said they fail to embrace those values themselves.
In his own state, he pointed out, people pour money into gambling casinos but balk at paying an extra $25 a year in taxes for better schools.
Moreover, he went on, a large segment of the population does not understand the destruction of the family taking place in the nation through out-of-wedlock births.
“Very bad things are happening in this country and we need leadership in editorial writing to bring truthfulness and consistency back into the community,” he stated. “People don’t know how to cope with these problems and editorial writers must try to supply some of the answers.”
In examining Limbaugh’s appeal, Kittle asked: “Does his influence stem from the fact that he speaks the plain, unvarnished truth, that he transcends the constraints of political correctness that many journalists impose on themselves? Or is Rush a force because he appeals to the narrow-mindedness and personal biases that lurk in varying degrees in all of us?”
Whatever the reason, Kittle said, the newspapers’ editorial pages should not lose sight of their traditional mission to persuade and educate and rise above the “national game of attack and counter attack that the electronic media breed to attract viewers.”
Following the discussion, Paul Schatt, editor of the Arizona Republic’s editorial pages, commented in a column: “Editors have no business bemoaning the lack of editing on talk radio any more than they have standing to demand editors control discussions in barber shops. If talk shows are stirring up things and creating a need for someone to step in with informed opinion, the editors could do something about it. Like produce editorial pages that address the issues that the public wants to talk about.”
But despite the panelists’ generally critical view of their own profession, another NCEW panel produced figures showing that editorial pages have a big readership, second only to general news in interest.
Susan Albright of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, quoted from a 1994 Newspaper Association of America report in which 79% of adult daily newspaper readers said they generally read or look at the editorial page.
The figure, which was based on a survey involving interviews with more than 22,400 adults, included virtually every educational and income level.
Albright noted, however, that the thorn in the study is that it’s “geriatric:” editorial pages fared worse with the 18-24-year-old group and best with the over-65’s.
?( Panelists expressed deep concern that broadcast talk shows and commentators such as Rush Limbaugh (pictured above with former President George Bush), rather than the opinion pages of newspapers, are setting the tone for public discourse.) [Photo & Caption]

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