By: George Garneau
Carl Bernstein raps the media for trashing the truth;
urges journalists to reverse the tide of sensationalism sp.
IF TRUTH IS the currency of journalism, its value is plunging like the ruble, and the news media need look no further than the nearest mirror to assess blame, Carl Bernstein says.
Trashy journalism ? infused with gossip, celebrity worship and sensationalism ? is spreading like a plague, eroding credibility and turning public discourse into “a sinkhole,” Bernstein said, while the press ducks responsibility, disingenuously waving the flag of public interest.
Two decades after he and Bob Woodward earned the Washington Post a Pulitzer Prize for uncovering the Watergate scandal, Bernstein, 50, showing the passion of a true believer, unleashed a lacerating indictment of journalism. The charges: failing the public, ignoring truth and descending into a sewer of sensationalism.
Speaking at the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association convention in White Sulphur Springs, W. Va., the icon of investigative journalism declared journalism, “is in unusual trouble and in danger of losing its way.”
“We are moving in the direction of being porn publishers or the equivalent of it,” Bernstein said, arguing that by providing ever heavier doses of sleaze on the grounds that readers demand it, the press ? with the help of politicians and ordinary people ? is polluting public discourse.
In the United States and Great Britain, journalism is drifting off course and even the most esteemed news organizations are adopting the values of the most sensational.
“Over the last 20 years we have been abdicating our primary function ? the best obtainable version of the truth ? and allowed our agenda and priorities to become bastardized and dominated by . . . the triumph of Idiot Culture.”
Bernstein, an author, free-lance journalist and lecturer, decried “the dominance of a global journalistic culture that has little to do with the truth or reality or context. Increasingly, the picture of our societies as rendered in our media . . . is illusionary and delusionary, disfigured, unreal, out of touch with truth, disconnected from the true context of our life. It is disfigured by celebrity, by celebrity worship, by gossip, by sensationalism, by denial of our society’s real condition and by a political and social discourse that we ? the press, the media, the politicians and the people ? are turning into a sinkhole.”
The result of “the misuse and abuse” of the free expression in Western democracies, he said, “actually disempowers people” by making them more cynical about public life, he said.
A lot of good journalism is still being practiced, Bernstein acknowledged, “but it is increasingly valued less in our own profession.”
The offenders are neither the minority nor limited to tabloids, he said, and the declining standards are increasingly seen in the bastions of the mainstream press.
Nor can the media blame government, where they regularly focus their scorn.
The “appalling condition of so much of our journalism,” Bernstein admonished, “has more to do with our own abdication of responsibility” than with government secrecy or regulation.
The news media limit themselves, he said, “because we’re not willing to do the hard work of good reporting, of searching out the truth. It’s not our priority often enough. Increasingly, we journalists don’t have the courage to give our readers and viewers what we know is real news. Instead we pander to them, even occasionally in the best of our newspapers and broadcasts.”
Among a host of faults, Bernstein singled out the news media’s “pervasive cynicism” as one reason the public views the press with the same distrust and contempt as politicians. The career journalist took sides with the 71% of Americans who told Times Mirror pollsters recently that they think the press obstructs solutions to societal problems.
It’s not an image the media cultivate but one they increasingly deserve, according to Bernstein, who blames news organizations for refusing to admit error, avoiding scrutiny of their own operations and clinging to an inflated image of their own performance.
Who’s to blame? Bernstein points the finger at the most influential figure in journalism in the last quarter-century. But in his estimation, it isn’t Ben Bradlee, Katharine Graham, Ted Turner or Al Neuharth. It’s Rupert Murdoch, owner of the New York Post, Fox TV network the U.K.’s tabloid Sun.
“Murdoch and the sleazy, cynical standards of the low end of his empire, which increasingly are affecting the standards even of the high end of our business, are an even greater threat to the truth than an Official Secrets Act or the lying and secrecy of a succession of American presidents and their governments,” Bernstein declared.
“The gravest threat to the truth today may well be from within our own professions because the consequences of a society misinformed and disinformed by the grotesque values of Murdoch culture are truly perilous,” he said, using the Australian-born press baron metaphorically.
Murdoch did not respond to a phone call and a fax to his New York office seeking response.
By way of example, Bernstein mentioned Newsday’s blaring page-one headline on the failing marriage of New York businessman Donald Trump ? even as Nelson Mandela returned to Soweto and the West agreed to the reunification of Germany, stories that ran inside the paper. Then there was Diane Sawyer’s now infamous question to Marla Maples, who is now Trump’s wife, about the best sex she ever had, a story the New York Post “broke.”
“The shame,” according to Bernstein, “is that those of us who are responsible journalists and writers haven’t resisted, haven’t told our own publishers, ‘Enough already. You are endangering the credibility of all our work.’ “
Instead of isolating practitioners of trash journalism, “we have joined them and welcomed their standards . . . pretending that we are safely cocooned in some different corner of ‘respectable journalism,’ ” he said.
Bernstein said journalism is in danger of disgrace because the distinctions are disappearing between real reporting and “a ravenous celebrity-and-sensationalism-and-scandal machine that is consuming decent journalists and respect for content, while relegating real reporting to an anachronistic adjunct of new porn journalism, an adjunct used by many of our giant media corporations to clothe themselves in respectability as increasingly they make their real bucks on trash.”
In Bernstein’s view, trash journalism promotes untruth, cynicism, distortion and titillation. It makes the trivial important and values what’s lurid over what’s meaningful. It doesn’t serve readers and viewers as much as it condescends to them. It caters to the lowest common denominator: what sells best.
While consumers often buy it, Bernstein concedes sadly, “Still it is the role of journalists to challenge people, not merely to amuse them.”
Bernstein argued that the public responds to journalism that probes and engages and illuminates the complex circumstances underlying the human condition.
Bernstein posited that as the press elevates the Idiot Culture from a subculture to the dominant mass culture, it degrades the level of communication and undermines societal institutions.
Race baiting and intolerance are voiced shamelessly on talk radio and TV shows, Howard Stern makes the New York Times Best Seller List and journalism’s pundits scream mindlessly at each other on the McLaughlin Group.
“For the first time in our history, the weird and the stupid and the coarse are becoming our cultural norm, even our cultural ideal,” he said.
Meanwhile one of the most profound stories in America revolves around race. But because news organizations “are terrified” of the issue, don’t know how to deal with the questions it poses, and withdraw from the sensitivities it arouses, they ignore it, Bernstein said, even though it touches everybody, and conditions society accepts for blacks would be intolerable for whites.
But journalism’s greatest single fault may be the failure to provide context, Bernstein said.
The gossip press and shock jocks often misinform “because their aim is to shock, to titillate, to distort, to give grotesque emphasis,” and in the accelerating race for news, “speed and accuracy and quantity substitute for thoroughness and quality, for accuracy ad context,” he said.
Worse, in the current atmosphere, it has become acceptable to say “virtually anything about almost anybody because truth is no longer the fundament that drives our work. In fact, it is becoming a mere obstacle to work around . . . an annoyance which gets in the way of the sensational,” he said.
Because politicians are virtually libel proof, people with unproven conspiracy theories and axes to grind can link the president to a long-ago murder and with the help of Rush Limbaugh, Howard Stern, the Star or American Spectator, the tale overnight becomes political lore.
“And your newspapers are running it, and you know it’s not true,” Bernstein said.
He said sensationalism and gossip have always had a role in newspapers, but never before have trash TV shows been so coveted or have gossip columnists been more highly valued than Pulitzer Prize winners.
And who syndicates the freak shows of talk television? Who broadcasts them, along with the crime and fluff of local news? Often the same corporations that own the nation’s great newspapers.
Bernstein, the upstart Watergate reporter who cuts a more dignified profile on the lecture circuit in grey hair and tailored suits, recalled bygone days when the nation’s institutions, including the press, provided leadership through wars and depressions.
He implored media executives to provide “radical conservative leadership”: to speak out on behalf of bedrock journalistic values, to commit to “getting out of the trash business” in all media, and to steer journalism away from “Murdochism” and set a renewed agenda for the news on page one or over the airwaves.
“We must maintain that all the institutions in our stable have as their bottom line a basic commitment to the truth,” he declared, adding that there is room for diversity, sex, fiction, fantasy and popular culture.
Asked if the news media took their cue from Hollywood, Bernstein said the opposite: “They get their material from us.”
But how does serious journalism compete in a market that rewards sensation? Bernstein wasn’t sure. But he offered to participate in a summit meeting to address journalism’s “crisis in truth.”
By failing to speak out, leaders of “respectable” media enclaves “do our country a grave disservice” because the rise of the Idiot Culture occurs as the very political firmament is breaking down. News organizations, he said, must find a way to give voice to the people who work for solutions but who are too dull to appear on talk shows about obese cross dressers who have foot fetishes.
Bernstein also asked the media to look closer at themselves.
“The reality is that the media are probably the most powerful of all our institutions today, and they are squandering their power and ignoring their obligations . . . . [W]e have abdicated our responsibility and the consequence . . . is the ugly spectacle, and the triumph, of Idiot Culture,” Bernstein said. “We are all on deadline. It is past time to start asking some of the same fundamental questions about the press that we do of the other powerful institutions in our society, questions about who is served, about standards, about self interest and the eclipse of the public interest and the interest of the truth.”
?( Over the last 20 years we have been abdicating our primary function-the best obtainable version of the truth-and allowed our agenda and priorities to become bastardized and dominated by…the triumph of Idiot Culture.”) [Caption]
?(Carl Bernstein) [Photo]
?( Among those taken to task by Bernstein were New York Post publisher and broadcast mogul Rupert Murdoch (left) radio shock jock Howard Stern.) [Photo]