The Magazine


Sep 29, 1997, Vol. 3, No. 03 • By STEPHEN BATES
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Flink hardly comes across as a right-winger -- he condemns Rush Limbaugh for inciting "anger, discontent, hate, and faceless populism" -- yet he also makes a second Borkian move by looking to the Framers for guidance on the proper role of the press. "Eloquently and without exception," he asserts, the Framers lauded "the free press as the sentinel who guards democracy." Here he builds on the late Justice Potter Stewart, who, in a 1974 Yale Law School speech, contended that the First Amendment was written to promote "organized, expert scrutiny of government" -- i.e., investigative reporting. In this view, irresponsible journalism is a slap at James Madison.

Contemplating the press of their era, though, Madison and Jefferson didn't see Woodward and Bernstein. Instead they saw harried printers who, alongside more remunerative activities like running off business forms and religious tracts, sometimes published newspapers. The "news" in such papers was minimal: items about local deaths, elections, fires, and the like, based on information provided by readers, and items about events elsewhere, which were lifted, often unchanged and without credit, from other papers. A larger portion of the late-18th-century newspaper consisted of what we would consider op-ed pieces or editorials. From the Stamp Act on, most newspapers allied themselves with one side and published essays intended to advance its interests. Accuracy was less important than believability. Opposing views were omitted or caricatured. Printers unabashedly served The Cause, not any notion of fairness, objectivity, or truth.

A modern newspaper that mimicked the Framers' press would no doubt appall Flink. So, for that matter, would most American newspapers of the past two centuries. His book's air of crisis is thus a bit hard to fathom. If media are "the mucilage of a free society," as he contends, then his book is more reassuring than alarming. Flink shows that the American press has been far worse when the stakes were considerably higher, as in the Revolutionary era and the Civil War, and yet American democracy somehow survived. Even appallingly irresponsible media seem to provide a mucilage that's sufficiently gooey.

A second problem for Flink is the marketplace. The author serenely asserts that more responsible journalism would prove more profitable, but surely those corporate bosses, whose bottom-line obsessions he laments, would have seized upon such a road to riches. Americans favor People over the Economist, Barbara Walters over Jim Lehrer. Indeed, the author discloses that he has nourished those unworthy tastes himself. As a Life correspondent in 1951, he published a detailed description of the room in which William Randolph Hearst had died, plus an exclusive interview of Hearst's grieving lady friend, Marion Davies. If this deathbed mise en scene attracted newsstand browsers who might otherwise have snatched up the latest Foreign Policy, the author offers no apology.

And why should he? Flink believes that the vital issue is "not so much the public's right to know but the public's need to know." But what of the public's right not to give a damn? What of the right of Americans to be lousy citizens, to immerse themselves in schlock about Marion Davies or the People's Princess? Those are questions that the author never asks. Just as he thinks libel awards are too important to be left to "unconstrained" juries, perhaps he thinks information choices are too important to be left to unconstrained citizens.

The American news media, of course, warrant plenty of scrutiny. And, on the whole, they're getting it. Media critics like Howard Kurtz, David Shaw, William Powers, and the late Edwin Diamond have done first-rate work. Steve Brill, whose American Lawyer has aired the dirty secrets of attorneys, is launching a magazine about journalism. More and more research institutions, both university-affiliated and freestanding, are investigating how the press might improve itself, sometimes by supervising real-world experiments in " civic journalism." All in all, it's better to have this plethora of critics and organizations poking away at the press, like the various groups that issue scorecards for members of Congress, rather than Flink's vision of a single organization enforcing its monolithic view of journalistic propriety.