Mediapolitik

by Lee Edwards
Wednesday, January 30, 2002

The leader of every nation, north and south, rich and poor, free and not free, acknowledges the power of the media to shape the politics of his or her nation.

When Lech Walesa was asked what effect Radio Free Europe had had on Solidarity’s activities in communist Poland, he responded, "Would there be the earth without the sun?" Alexander Solzhenitsyn declared that "the press has become the greatest power within the Western countries, more powerful than the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary."

The mass media have become an essential component of national power, as important to a nation’s viability as natural resources, population, economic strength, military might, and political will. As a fundamental part of national power, the mass media have often changed the course of world politics for good and for evil, from the blood-stained Bolshevik revolution and genocidal Nazi Germany to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the spread of democracy around the world. Like every other technology developed by man, the mass media can either enrich or enslave the human spirit.

In a liberal democratic model, as in the United States, the media contribute to a free and just society. In an authoritarian model (apartheid South Africa) or a totalitarian model (Saddam Hussein’s Iraq or Castro’s Cuba), the media perpetuate the regime in power and deny the fruits of freedom and democracy to the people. On balance, the history of the twentieth century demonstrates that the mass media are a liberating force when and if they are joined with democratic principles and institutions. But the mass media are a means to, not a guarantee of, freedom.

Illustration by Taylor Jones for the Hoover Digest.

Mediapolitik

Given the mass media’s undoubted power, there is a need for a theory to describe world politics and the mass media as they are today and are likely to be for the foreseeable future. Such a theory recognizes that our world has entered the cyber age, in which mass communication depends as much on the personal computer and fiber optics as on television and the newspaper. I call this new interrelationship between the mass media and world politics mediapolitik.

"The mass media have become an essential component of national power, as important to a nation’s viability as natural resources, population, economic strength, military might, and political will."

Political leaders everywhere make daily use of media power. We may mock Osama bin Laden’s stilted attempts at propaganda, but would World War II have ended in total victory for the Allies if Adolph Hitler had had daily access to a global television network like CNN?

Images do matter. Senator John McCain, a prisoner of war during the Vietnam conflict, argues that "World War I wouldn’t have lasted three months if people had known what was going on in that conflict." That is, pictures of the senseless carnage of trench warfare would have produced a public demand for an end to the fighting that could not have been resisted.

In this age of instant information, then, all politics is global. And in our interdependent world, the American mass media are of supreme importance. American television networks and publications influence the flow of news and information on every continent.

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Illustration by Taylor Jones for the Hoover Digest.

Given this enormous influence, we have a right to ask, How responsibly are American journalists wielding their power?

Many in the American media seem to have made a Faustian bargain, trading long-term trust and integrity for immediate ratings and circulation. The television critic Walter Goodman charges that television coverage of politics has been reduced to "stirring up emotions and shutting down minds." "Cynicism," said the New York Times’s William Glaberson, "has replaced a necessary skepticism as the core of American journalism."

Media cynicism in turn has profoundly affected American politics. The Pew Research Center reported in 1999 that just 28 percent of the American public said they trusted the federal government to do what was right "most of the time."

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, head of the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania, asserts that "journalists are now creating the coverage that is going to lead to their own destruction. If you cover the world cynically . . . you invite your readers and viewers to reject journalism as a mode of communication because it must be cynical too."

How do journalists make the decisions that affect all of us? According to the political scientist Doris Graber, most journalists in free countries follow either a libertarian or a social responsibility philosophy.

Libertarians argue that they must be free to report whatever they can discover. Radical libertarians insist that the public has a right to know everything. Their motto is "Let the chips fall where they may," even if the falling "chips" turn out to be reputations or lives. Mike Wallace of CBS admitted at a Harvard conference on the media and the military that he would consider it appropriate to accompany enemy troops into battle, even if they ambushed and killed American soldiers.

What is the source of such media amorality?

Media antagonism toward the U.S. government was spawned by the government’s lies during the Vietnam War on everything from the chances of victory to the numbers of killed and wounded. Media distrust of government was reinforced by the Watergate scandal. Media cynicism about government calcified because of President Bill Clinton’s repeated public lies about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky.

Other journalists adhere to a social responsibility philosophy. They insist that they better society by encouraging their audiences to think and behave in more socially responsible ways. But they often wind up reflecting the public impulse of the moment—for example, promoting Mikhail Gorbachev rather than Ronald Reagan as "Man of the Decade" for the 1980s. Social responsibility often degenerates into political correctness.

Yet, for all the cynicism, an increasing number of American journalists feel that something must be done about the media half of mediapolitik. The Pew Research Center’s 1999 survey of journalists’ attitudes about their profession revealed an increasing willingness to admit shortcomings—most conceded they were "out of touch with the public."

Sydney H. Schanberg, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the fall of Cambodia, has described American journalism as "slipshod" and "reckless." Every journalist, he wrote, knows that "the old-time standards . . . have been weakened if not discarded."

"‘Cynicism,’ admits a writer for the New York Times, ‘has replaced a necessary skepticism as the core of American journalism.’"

An example is the equal coverage given by CNN and other news organizations to two vastly different Middle East incidents: two 14-year-old Israeli boys found dead in a cave, battered and mutilated; and a four-month-old Palestinian girl killed by Israeli tank fire. As the columnist Charles Krauthammer pointed out, the two incidents were not morally equivalent. The death of the Palestinian infant was unintentional, the murder of the Israeli teenagers deliberate. The baby’s death was a tragedy; the boys’ murders, an act of infamy.

Ten Commandments

So what can be done to inculcate a greater sense of ethics in journalism in America and around the world? The British historian (and former journalist) Paul Johnson has proposed 10 commandments—rules of moral conduct—for all who exercise media power and influence.

1. Have the desire to discover and tell the truth, making it clear that the truth is not always simple.

2. "Think through the consequences of what you tell," asking what will legitimately inform and what will corrupt.

3. Realize that truth telling is not enough and can be dangerous without informed judgment. Journalists should always be deepening and broadening their knowledge of the world and its peoples so that they can make informed judgments about what to report and what not to report.

4. Do not be content to tell the public what it wants to know but what it ought to know.

5. Distinguish between the reasoned "public opinion" that ensures liberal democracy and the transitory, volatile phenomenon that is "popular opinion." In a republic, as James Madison wrote in Federalist 50, it ought to be the reason, not the passions, of the public that sits in judgment.

6. Be prepared to make a moral stand and stick to it in the face of pressures and criticism.

7. Display courage, which is required of all in journalism—from the lowest reporter, who must morally evaluate his orders, to the richest tycoon, who should risk his fortune to make his media outlets better and more responsible.

8. Be willing to admit error, publicly. The unforced admission of error demonstrates that a news organization has a sense of honor and a conscience.

9. Strive to be habitually fair. Fairness is one of the deepest human yearnings, and lack of it is the most common complaint the public flings at the media.

10.Respect and treasure the intrinsic power of words, which can enlighten and uplift—or kill.

In search of media responsibility, I sent a three-page questionnaire to selected editors and reporters in the United States asking them to comment on the current state of American journalism. Their responses can be summarized as follows: We acknowledge that public confidence in us has declined sharply. We admit our cynicism, our arrogance, our penchant for the sensational. We resolve to do a better job of matching media responsibility with media power.

The most revealing and encouraging response was to the question, "Is there a place for moral (as distinguished from social) responsibility in journalism?" Almost 90 percent of those responding said there is a place for moral responsibility.

What do we mean by moral responsibility? That individuals should practice traditional virtues such as wisdom, courage, and prudence.

Many journalists are not comfortable with the concept of moral responsibility, arguing that it is the province of political philosophers, not working reporters and editors. Some journalists even prefer to take an amoral stance, arguing, for example, that they are reporters first and U.S. citizens second.

Can journalists make moral decisions? Of course they can. I do not think that ethical journalism is an oxymoron.

"How principled, how moral, how free, the mediapolitik of this century will be depends on what individual politicians, journalists, and ordinary citizens do."

When James Reston, the Washington bureau chief of the New York Times, was asked by President John F. Kennedy to delay publication of an article about the Bay of Pigs invasion, Reston did so in the interest of national security and to protect the lives of those involved in the operation.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt was crippled by polio and confined to a wheelchair. Yet not one photograph of him in a wheelchair was published during his presidency in any American newspaper or magazine, regardless of political affiliation. The media understood that publication of such a photograph during the Great Depression and World War II would have undermined public confidence in the president during a time of crisis. That was an impressive collective act of moral responsibility.

How to Reform the Media

Today, the task of the media grows harder and harder in our increasingly cynical and polarized world. In my survey, I asked journalists whether they approved or disapproved of the following often-suggested reforms.

• A nongovernmental national media council to evaluate public complaints about media performance: Yes, 54.5 percent, no, 45.5 percent.

• Ombudsmen at all television networks and the broadcast of regularly scheduled "letters to the editor" in prime time: Yes, 80 percent, no, 20 percent. (MSNBC has begun an ombudsman program, but neither NBC, ABC, nor CBS has as yet followed MSNBC’s lead.)

• Free television network time for major political candidates running for national office: Yes, 57 percent, no, 43 percent.

• More exacting standards for political advertising, especially negative ads: Yes, 50.6 percent, no, 49.4 percent.

• Restrictions on outside income (such as speaking honoraria) for journalists: Yes, 44 percent, no, 56 percent.

I believe that such reforms, and others, would encourage reason rather than emotion in our mediapolitik. They would lead to less reliance on instant analysis and sound-bite journalism—despite the relentless demands of the corporate bottom line—and would help produce responsibility and honor accountability.

The way the world works has changed because the mass media have changed not our nature but the practice of our politics. People are much the same as they were in 500 b.c., 1776, or 1989, but the tools of communication are radically different. One person on television can make a difference, for good or evil, around the world.

The world has become not a global village in which the media foster a "common consciousness," as Marshall McLuhan once famously declared, but rather a mediapolis, a gigantic sprawling global city with many different neighborhoods—rich and poor, safe and dangerous, handsome and ugly—in which the mass media provide competing and often contradictory images of society.

We cannot be absolutely certain whether the mass media will help produce a world politics modeled after George Orwell’s 1984 or Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. It depends on the ends to which the media’s unprecedented power is used.

The twentieth century was the century of scourges—the great wars, the Great Depression, the great purges, Auschwitz, the Gulag, the Laogai, the Cultural Revolution, the killing fields of Cambodia, racism, and AIDS. But in the twenty-first century, most of humankind, although not all, has abandoned totalitarianism and turned to liberal democratic institutions and ideas. How principled, how moral, how free, the mediapolitik of this century will be depends on what individual politicians, journalists, and ordinary citizens do.

The model need not be Saint Paul, who tried to convert all the pagans of the ancient world, but someone like Dino Corbin, the manager of a Chico, California, television station. Mr. Corbin canceled several high-rated trash talk programs. "You don’t have to hit me with a two-by-four," he explained. "The talk shows have been trying to outdo each other in sinking deeper and deeper into the gutter and I did not contract for that."

What is thus required, in the words of one observer, are "small but steady changes for the better which, over a period of time, bring immense and welcome transformations."