Skip to main content

The Wayward Press: An Updater

ISSUE:  Winter 1987
The Untapped Power of the Press: Explaining Government to the People. By Lewis W. Wolfson. Praeger. $28.95 cloth, $9.95 paper.

Small is beautiful. In this age of mergers and takeovers, as the nation stumbles mindlessly into a general gigantism, it is remarkable to note that quality and substance survive almost exclusively in small things. Bigness promises quality, but smallness delivers it, which is irony’s way with promises. Lewis Wolfson, professor of communication at The American University in Washington, has written a small, short book, less than 200 pages, but because he says things that need saying and says them in plain English prose, it is a valuable book. To gain the influence it deserves, however, it will have to struggle against the contemporary practice of measuring quality by size and substance by turgidity. Nor will its difficulties end there; it is also a subversive book. It suggests that the American news media forswear their allegiance to “sterile objectivity” and abandon their passionate attachment to “hard news” and to “personalities and confrontation.” This is treason.

Wolfson’s central thesis is that the news media present a shallow and incomplete picture of government. The media, he argues, focus on the dramatic and sensational and neglect the substantive. They are superficial. Specifically, they pay only fitful attention to the government policies and programs that affect the lives and fortunes of citizens, and even less often do they undertake to describe the processes by which policies are formulated. In other words, they do not explain government to the people. The ability to explain things, Wolfson says, is “the untapped power of the press.”

“Policy,” of course, is a boring word, a sore trial to brief attention spans. At Time magazine some years ago, the editors had an acronym for long, serious stories about government policies and other weighty subjects. They called them “mego” stories, which meant: mine eyes glaze over. And so it is with those multitudes of Americans who were born not yesterday but this morning, and with too many journalists as well. Wolfson is talking about the type of story that seeks to tell how a government policy was actually devised—what were the White House’s priorities and policy alternatives, why were some options discarded and others adopted, how the bureaucracy was or was not brought into line, and (true heresy) whether the president and his advisers were qualified to make the decision in the first place. The public eye thereupon unfocuses and wanders into the middle distance. Or it may be one of the rare stories that tries to deal with what Alfred North Whitehead called “connexity” in human affairs. It may attempt to show how an event or issue was intertwined with other events or issues, and how a problem of the present was caused by problems in the past and is likely to cause other problems in the future. This is real explanation, inasmuch as it may lead to comprehension. The public leg thereupon hastens to the kitchen for a beer.

For many years, American journalism has invoked a presumed national indifference as the justification for a cop-out. It has operated under Dorothy Parker’s definition of horticulture: you can lead a whore to culture, but you can’t make her think. And it is still doing this, as witness the success of USA Today, which is impelling editors across the land to produce newspapers that look like what a newspaper would look like if it were a television set. If they won’t read serious news in the paper or watch it on TV, why should we go broke giving it to them? What do you want—an anemic bottom line, dissatisfied heirs, and a leveraged buyout?

But is the stereotype accurate? Wolfson does not believe it is, which proves the durability of idealism. He argues that the American people, or at least a substantial number of them, want to know what their government is actually doing. They want more than Ronald Reagan’s meretricious “media events” or the “horserace” reporting of political campaigns (when the media cover politics, it is Lear speaking to Cordelia: “. . .and hear poor rogues talk of . . . . Who loses and who wins, who’s in, who’s out”) or the startling disclosure that a Congressman is sleeping with this or that gender. They want a sense that they are being given real information about the governmental actions that affect them, so they can feel they have at least a small measure of control over their own destinies in a disintegrating world. Wolfson believes there is a hunger out there.

To disagree with this is to acknowledge that the democratic experiment is entropic, so agreement must be stipulated. But even if there isn’t a hunger out there, the news media are not absolved of their responsibility to offer more “soft news.” Given their formidable resources of money and personnel, they could do a much better job in this area, and given their immense influence, they should. (“Soft news,” ironically, is the term many editors apply to stories that try to explain an event or issue. “Hard news” is the event itself, without explanation—the “who, what, when and where” without the “why.” But the “why” is one of journalism’s glories; the first four “W’s” are just a bulletin board.)

As Wolfson points out, more emphasis on explanation would require editors and TV producers to change their ingrained “hard-news” habits. More than that, it would require them to resolve a paradox that they themselves have created. Put an editor in front of an audience, especially an audience of fellow journalists, and a steely resolve will be heard regarding more analysis, more explanation, more investigative reporting, more stories that probe beneath the surface, more stories that comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable—Mr. Dooley’s definition of journalism. And then the whine. There must be a way to do all this and still be popular (“regain our credibility”). Controversy without controversy, the omelet with unbroken eggs, the cake that is eaten.

Wolfson resolves the paradox as journalism’s self-respect and sense of public responsibility ought to resolve it: more controversy. “Academic analysts argue that the news media have become so powerful and critical that they undermine a president’s authority to govern,” he writes. “The fact is, the press has not been tough, purposeful or analytical enough. . . .” And again: “The trouble with reporting on presidents is not that the press is too critical, but that it is not aggressive enough.”

Wolfson has packed a lot into a short book. Among other things, he offers an incisive diagnosis of a terminally-ill patient, the presidential press conference; a good summary chapter on government secrecy, although he should have done more with the ignis fatuus known as national security, and a brief demolition—too brief—of the myth that the news media are a liberal conspiracy. Superficiality, not bias, is their cardinal sin. Lastly, the book is clearly written. This is unfashionable, so it must remain a secret between you and me.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading