Politics, the press and the people

by Michael Getler, PBS ombudsman

Michelle Walsh, a PBS viewer in Portland, Ore., e-mailed me last week with the following observation:

"While listening to 'Washington Week in Review,' I was returned again and again to the politics of a current event (in this case, scandal around Hastert et al) by the comments of John Harwood. I have noted this in numbers of 'talking heads' who are more interested in the chess game than the issues to the detriment not only of the integrity of the news but the elucidation of events for the public who depend on them. I would love to see a discussion on this phenomenon, which has been going on far too long. Thanks for letting me vent."

I thought this was indeed an important observation; one that I, too, feel is a big factor in understanding why many Americans are frustrated and angry with the politicians and the press. Yet it is a point that seems rarely discussed or focused upon.

First, a couple of brief notes. I know the letter writer. She is the spouse of a former colleague of mine at The Washington Post, Ed Walsh, who was a top-notch reporter and retired from the paper a few years ago. Also, I'll take the liberty of removing John Harwood of the Wall Street Journal, one of the most respected political reporters in the country, as the subject of this since it is, as the writer noted, a common approach by lots of journalists in every medium. And, of course, we are just a few weeks away from very important midterm elections, so the political context for almost everything that is, or is not, happening is both natural and relevant.

Nevertheless, I would agree that it is absolutely true that far too many stories in newspapers, on TV and on the Web focus more heavily on the politics of the issue rather than on the substance, and it is the substance that concerns citizens. We seem to read or hear more about how Republicans and Democrats seize opportunities or take advantage of this or that than about the issues themselves that need to be addressed and resolved. We are told more about how a scandal will hurt Republicans than about the breakdown of ethics and accountability in Congress. We seem to hear as much or more about how Democrats will gain, or Republicans will suffer, because of the chaos in Iraq than we hear about the war itself in all its dimensions. Phrases such as "stay the course" or "cut and run" don't begin to address the anxieties and understandings of millions of Americans about the predicament we are now in.

I have talked about this issue in a couple of speeches in the past year, drawing on my five years experience with readers as ombudsman at the Post as well as my initial experiences with viewers here at PBS. But I haven't written about this point. So here is an excerpt from a talk I gave to a college audience earlier this year about ombudsmanship.
Quotes From an Ombudsman

"These jobs present an interesting catbird seat to watch how readers and viewers respond to reporters and editors. People write or call the ombudsman mostly to complain, so one tends to hear from people who are very engaged in the issues of the day, or have strong ideological views, or who spot an error or important omission. There is someone out there who will catch any mistake, no matter how small or obscure. And there are many out there who can smell bias, real or perceived, or spin, or an agenda, a mile away.

"A lot of e-mail all ombudsmen receive is pretty strident and partisan. They say things like: 'you people are determined to bash the president,' or 'you people are Bush-lovers, too intimidated to print the truth.' And while it is illuminating to witness the extent and depth of the political divide in this country these days, it is important to keep in mind that the overwhelming majority of viewers and readers don't write or call and that it is probably fair to assume that a lot of them absorb what is reported and trust it enough to help make their decisions.

"The ombudsman's mailbag also attests to this in the form of many substantive and specific comments that, collectively, reaffirm the notion that I think we all hope is true — that there is a very large body of independent-minded people of all political orientations out there who are smart, who value facts and context more than ideology, and who want more news rather than less, especially news that is important to them.

"People write to say they want more local news, more news about Social Security, schools, health care, about budget and trade deficits and what they mean. They want some newer voices on op-ed pages, and investigations on subjects that are closer to the issues they care about and that are more timely. They worry that reporters are too much a part of the establishment, too close to power and too distant from average people, let alone poor people. They say reporters don't understand the plight of schools and education, for example, because the children of journalists often go to private schools.

"They often write in frustration that every issue is presented in political terms — the Republicans seized on this or Democrats saw an opening on that — a technique that journalists seem to dwell on but that for many people undermines and diminishes the substantive concerns and frustrations that are at the heart of these issues."
And From an Author

For the past 15 years or so, one of the books that I've kept on my desk is titled "Why Americans Hate Politics." The author is E.J. Dionne, Jr., a columnist for The Washington Post who is also a friend and former colleague. This book, published in 1991, is about politics and not much about the press. But it captures the underlying issue succinctly and eloquently.

"Most of the problems of our political life," Dionne wrote at the time, "can be traced to the failure of the dominant ideologies of American politics, liberalism and conservatism. The central argument of this book is that liberalism and conservatism are framing political issues as a series of false choices. Wracked by contradiction and responsive mainly to the needs of their various constituencies, liberalism and conservatism prevent the nation from settling the questions that most trouble it. On issue after issue, there is consensus on where the country should move or at least on what we should be arguing about; liberalism and conservatism make it impossible for that consensus to express itself . . . We are suffering from a false polarization in our politics, in which liberals and conservatives keep arguing about the same things when the country wants to move on."

If the press also frames too much of its coverage in political terms, it becomes even harder for citizens, the consumers of news, to move on.

article originally published at http://www.pbs.org/ombudsman/2006/10/politics_the_press_and_the_people.html.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey