March 11, 1999

March 11, 1999 | Commentary on Political Thought

Media as Mirror: Will the Picture Change?

Like the Congress that wants to get back to work on the issues Americans care about, the nation's news media are finding in the post-impeachment era that news doesn't have to be the modern-day equivalent of vaudeville.

An overloaded table of issues, from tax reform through Y2K to the international community's mounting desires (quagmires, anyone?) to use force anywhere and everywhere if American troops will only slog along, is suddenly drawing the attention of editors and producers. They in turn are dispatching reporters to cover subjects of national policy interest that were too often getting back-burner treatment even before the presidential sex scandal broke. With renewed commitment, or just gut instinct that they were chasing the wrong horse, news executives seem intent on restoring their products as facilitators of civic awareness and responsibility.

But will it last? For journalists, the real Y2K bug has nothing to do with computers shutting down on Jan. 1, and everything with the fact that 2000 is a presidential election year. They may struggle for a while to explain the percolations of public policy, especially on issues such as Social Security and Medicare (both deemed in need of a fix), yet when the fur really starts to fly, policy coverage is likely to get crushed in the herd stampede to cover politics. No wonder congressional observers often note the window for serious policy change is so narrow; few in politics or those who cover politics take policy seriously once electioneering begins.

A greater worry, however, is that editors and news executives will conclude that readers and viewers don't care about policy, based on focus group research, readership surveys and, most important, the bottom line. "Marketing" the product, an advertising industry term increasingly used in newsrooms as justification for why sports and entertainment news are crowding the front pages of major American dailies, is in essence a survival strategy. Television news suffers the same fate.

Polls, though, routinely show that Americans want their politicians to pay more attention to everyday, pocketbook issues - buzzwords for policy. Polls taken throughout the presidential scandal also showed the public perception to be that President Clinton was doing a good job - yet virtually no policy business was being conducted in that vacuum. Has something run amok here? Suffice to say, it probably has.

The liberal columnist Richard Cohen, writing in The Washington Post on the President's ability to escape ever-growing scandal, says, "It is one thing to define deviancy down. It's another thing to obliterate it entirely."

A day later in The Washington Times, the conservative columnist Paul Craig Roberts might have hit on the answer for why this is so. He cites a Committee for the Study of the American Electorate report on the 1998 midterm election (turnout, 36 percent), which concluded that "America's sense of civic responsibility is dying."

An electorate that turned off is not likely to get suddenly energized just because the media show a renewed interest in everyday, pocketbook issues. Or at least one would think. In their deepest introspections, however, serious journalists for years have been contending it is their duty to sound the trumpets; it is management that has muzzled them through reductions in staff, limitations on travel, cutbacks on "official" coverage of courts and legislatures, and a general emphasis on soft news.

However this journalistic debate works its way out, policy must still be developed, refined and put into effect. Tax cuts, which never seem too popular with the media, nevertheless have a pretty good record of being enacted in states where governors, legislatures or both were willing to fight off the special interests demanding an ever-rising share of the budget for social programs. School choice has made its way into the American agenda largely through a grassroots activism that bypassed traditional policy filters such as the press. So has utility deregulation.

Conversely foreign policy, which can still get a lot of ink, suffers a vacuum of critical analysis. Is there anyone other than about 200 wonks who could explain the West's on-the-fly Kosovo policy? As Simon Jenkins, writing in The Times of London, said of British Prime Minister Tony Blair: "Nothing seems to compel him so much as his ever-changing mirror of the press. 'How will it play?' he demands of a policy, long before 'What should it be?'" Change the names and you get the picture.

Media reflect society. Should it turn out that society is not much interested in participatory democracy, it will not be the media's problem; it will be all of ours. So the current, and welcome, focus on policy - should it hold - might just give us some clues about where society is heading. We shall see.

James Hill, the former editorial page editor of the Phoenix Gazette, was with the Center for Media and Public Policy at The Heritage Foundation ( www.heritage.org ), a Washington-based public policy research institute.

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