Is Nothing Sacred? p.12

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By: Tony Case

Study shows the line separating the public and
private affairs of politicians no longer exists sp.

ANYTHING GOES THESE days when it comes to media coverage of elected officials, as the line separating their public and private affairs no longer exists, a new study determines.
“With few exceptions, those interviewed said that any aspect of a politician’s life could legitimately be a news story,” reports “Nothing Sacred: Journalism, Politics And Public Trust In A Tell-All Age,” issued at the Associated Press Managing Editors convention in Philadelphia.
Respondents said they couldn’t trust much of what’s reported because it’s speculation, allegation or spin, and they accused the press of blowing stories out of proportion. At the same time, they revealed they want more information, not less, about politicians.
“It isn’t what the news media cover so much as how they cover it,” said the study, the culmination of nine months of research, polling and town meeting-style discussions directed by Freedom Forum Pacific Coast Center editor in residence Beverly Kees and Vanderbilt University administrator Bill Phillips while they were visiting scholars at the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt.
“The public feels that the news media overestimate its appetite for scandal and sleaze and underestimate its interest in issues of national importance. Still, the public strongly agrees that it depends on the media for information that will help it decide how to vote or what issues to support,” Kees and Phillips wrote.
Prominent political figures and journalists concurred there’s little the public doesn’t have a right to know about their government officials.
Georgia attorney Bert Lance, himself the subject of regular media attention while he was budget director in the Carter administration, was quoted in the report as saying, “I can solve the privacy argument for you very quickly: There is no privacy. There’s not going to be any privacy.”
He adds, “Anybody who moves into the public arena or stays in the public arena will see in the future that that is a moot point ? that you give up the right to privacy that you may think you had in the process. I happen to think that’s fine.”
Sig Rogich, a political consultant and ambassador to Iceland under President Bush, agreed “everything is fair game.”
Rogich isn’t surprised people want to learn as much as they can about the famous and powerful, commenting, “The biggest-selling papers in this country reflect that . . . in terms of circulation, in terms of what sells ? from People magazine to the tabloid effect that we have today, to the L.A. Times and USA Today. People are looking for quick reads and a little bit of sensationalism.”
New York Times managing editor Eugene Roberts conceded the public-private line is blurred, but he urged his colleagues to exercise caution in reporting the sordid scandals of the day.
“The mainstream papers are getting considerably more gossipy than they used to be. That’s a reflection of a new news definition on the part of a lot of papers. It makes it easier to justify getting into the bedroom,” he observed.
But he adds, “I’m still not comfortable as a journalist going into bedrooms ? unless they do it out on the street. And I think we’re making a lot of problems for ourselves by not respecting that.”
The general public believes its interests mean little in a world run by a handful of politicians, journalists and businesspeople, according to the Freedom Forum report.
But newspeople take heart. While the populace has a low opinion of your kind, it’s even more cynical about those on the public payroll.
Of those surveyed, 71% of citizens ? those who aren’t journalists or political figures ? said politicians are more interested in personal gain than the good of the nation, and 65% of journalists and 48% of politicians agreed. But only 53% of the public thought newspeople put their own power before the people, with 36% of politicians and 8% of journalists subscribing to that belief.
And the masses aren’t above reproach: 74% of the public, 73% of the journalists and 76% of the politicos polled said individuals tend to put themselves first.
Report authors Kees and Phillips joined First Amendment Center chairman John Seigenthaler and executive director Paul McMasters in discussing the findings at APME.
Seigenthaler lamented the “widening gap of mistrust, growing sense of alienation and palpable cynicism that now often characterizes the relationship between political and press establishments.”
Phillips decried the popularity of tabloid television and the legitimate press’ increasing fascination with the sensational.
Some citizens contacted for the Freedom Forum study didn’t draw a distinction between Hard Copy and the network news programs, Phillips related. One woman said the show ? which chronicles nightly the travails of O.J. Simpson, Burt Reynolds, Oprah Winfrey and other celebrities under siege ? was her main source for “news.”
Deborah Mathis, Washington correspondent with Gannett News Service and a syndicated columnist, takes a cue from former New York Times publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger, who said that along with responsible newspapers, there must be responsible readers.
“This is not a populist thing to say, for sure, but I believe a lot of the blame falls on the consumer,” she told the APME conferees.
“We can get into a chicken-and-the-egg thing about which came first, but we certainly are giving them what they want ? although I think there’s a lot of angst in our industry over whether what they want is necessarily serving any good purpose.”
Mathis says she’s old-fashioned in that she considers the main function of journalists telling people what they need to know, adding, “I reserve the right to make that judgment.”
Mike Jacobs, executive editor of the Grand Forks (N.D) Herald, doesn’t believe, as other media observers do, that the practice of yellow journalism so in vogue and the proliferation of the electronic media spell death for daily newspapers.
In fact, he believes these trends will enable respectable papers to establish themselves as the more reliable sources for information ? if they’ll grab the chance.
“It’s an opportunity for newspapers and one that we ought to seize,” he said, “not only in the interest of the truth and in the interest of the society, but in the interest of the bottom line.”
“There is evidence of a widening gap of mistrust, growing sense of alienation and palpable cynicism that now often characterizes the relationship between political and press establishments.”
? John Seigenthaler, chairman,
First Amendment Center
? (” There is evidence of a widening gap of mistrust, growing sense of alienation and palpable cynism that now often characterizes the relationship between political and press establishments.”
-John Seigenthaler, chairman, First Amendment Center.) [Photo & Caption]

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