setting news agendas at many of the nation's newspapers sp.
WHY IS IT that Oprah Winfrey has become the assignment editor of some of our best newspapers?
That was the question journalist and author Eileen McNamara asked and then discussed during a recent Yankee Quill Award banquet in Framingham, Mass.
"Isn't it time for us to stop and ask why we are abandoning journalism's role in a democracy for infotainment" she asked. "Ratings and circulation, certainly. But that alone cannot explain the kind of pandering to the public's basest instincts that increasingly is characterizing our work."
She said she had her own theory: Pandering is easier.
"There is no question that journalism got too big for its britches after Watergate. We were the keepers of the truth. We knew better than the public what was in their best interest. It's why journalists are held in lower esteem than those much-reviled lawyers . . . . It's why we have done so abysmally covering the abortion issue. Abortion raises complicated moral and philosophical questions. The legal and political ones are a whole lot easier to cover in 10 inches, but they are not the whole picture."
McNamara, a former United Press International and Boston Globe reporter, said modern journalists and modern journalism settle for what is easy, packing stories with good guys and bad guys, winners and losers. Of course, she said, there are some exceptions.
"Done right, journalism is very hard work," she said. "And not for timid souls. Our souls, I fear, are becoming more timid by the day. We do not challenge conventional wisdom; we are unwilling to do the hard, independent reporting that debunks the stereotypes that demean us all.
"Because the relationship between politics and the media is a symbiotic one, we need always to guard against the politician's impulse to oversimplify complex social issues. Aren't we much to blame for the current demonization of welfare recipients? It is easier, and certainly more popular in this political climate, to explain the actions of a welfare mother accused of abusing her child as a simple case of 'evildoing.' "
McNamara asked where the stories were that explored the effects of crack on behavior or the devastation caused in the inner city by this cheap, easily obtained and highly addictive street drug. She said it was easier for both policy-makers and journalists to serve up a portrait of evil that feeds taxpayer anger and cultural stereotypes about welfare mothers than to examine a welfare system in need of reform for reasons much more complicated than they might want to hear.
"But isn't that our job?" she said. "To tell people what they might rather not hear?"
If you do that, she warned, people will strike back at you. "You raise your head, you have to be willing to accept that someone might try to shoot it off. But, too often, when we are challenged, we just shoot back.
"A psychiatric malpractice case breaks, and we don't acknowledge that it takes more than a day to read 3,000 pages of court documents. We read what we can and file our stories as if each breathless revelation were unearthed by some process of investigative journalism, rather than because we simply turned the page.
"A congressman challenges our commitment to fairness, and we are incensed. We don't take the opportunity to explain the news-gathering process to a confused public. Instead, we take to the airwaves to call our accuser a liar or a scum bag. We would challenge him to a duel, but we are in the wrong century for that.
"We are invited to appear on weekend talk shows and offer our opinions about a president we are paid to cover objectively on weekdays. We don't stay home, citing the obvious ethical conflict. Instead, we get our hair done and prepare for media stardom."
McNamara said when she covered politics in Boston and Washington, D.C., she pasted a statement from Walter Lippmann above her desk, and she wished she could tack it on every computer screen of every self-important pundit inside the Beltway. It says:
"What kills political writing is this absurd pretense that you are delivering a great utterance. You never do. You are just a puzzled man making notes about what you think. You are not building the Pantheon; then why act like a graven image? You are drawing sketches in the sand which the sea will wash away.
"The truth is, you're afraid to be wrong. And so you put on these airs and use these established phrases, knowing that they will sound familiar and will be respected. But fear of being wrong is a disease. You cover and qualify and elucidate, you speak vaguely, you mumble because you are afraid of the sound of your own voice. And, then, you apologize for your timidity by frowning learnedly at anyone who honestly regards thought as an adventure, who strikes ahead and takes his chances. Whatever truth you contribute to this world will be one lucky shot in a thousand misses. You cannot be right by holding your breath and taking precautions."
McNamara said the precaution of the moment is the journalist's refusal to exercise journalistic judgment.
"Sure, we have the right to print everything, but do we really want to?" she said. "If our role is to give our readers everything, to fail to make judgments, to refuse to discriminate, are we not making journalism superfluous?
"What possible public purpose is served by publishing the embarrassing details of the marital troubles of two well-respected judges? Judges who, by the way, are among the few on the bench who speak openly and candidly to the press . . . .
"Is there any limit on the number of stories we are going to have to endure about Marcia Clark's makeover? Is it pointless to suggest that what's needed is a little more musing on the tension between the Sixth and the First amendments and a little less on the sartorial splendor of Robert Shapiro?
"Entertainment, even gossip, has its place. Oprah didn't invent it. It has a long tradition in American journalism. But it takes guts to draw the line. To say, 'Enough.'
"Maybe CBS News ? which was so willing to broadcast gavel-to-gavel coverage of the preliminary hearing in the O.J. Simpson case ? forgets that Fred Friendly quit as president of the news division 30 years ago because the network refused to preempt 'I Love Lucy' for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings on Vietnam. I don't think Friendly would be impressed at how far we've come.
"To those who insist that the public wants an unremitting diet of Tonya Harding, Lorena Bobbit, Amy Fisher and Michael and Lisa Marie, I refer to the words of T.S. Eliot. They have replaced Lippmann above my desk these days. He wrote: 'Those who say they give the public what it wants, underestimate the public taste and end up debauching it.' "
McNamara is the author of Breakdown: Sex, Suicide and the Harvard Psychiatrist, the case of Dr. Margaret Bean-Bayog, a Harvard psychiatrist accused of driving a Chicano medical student to suicide by employing psychotherapy techniques that her defenders called innovative and her detractors called dangerous.
?(Caughey is associate editor at the Quincy (Mass.) Patriot Ledger.
By: Bernard Caughey Journalist and author wonders why TV talk show hosts are