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Syndicated Columnist,<i> The Washington Post </i>
The editor of a paper that carries my column heard I was going to be in his town and invited me by for a visit. A number of reporters and editors gathered in the boardroom, all ready for an hour's give and take on the Los Angeles riots or whatever the hot topic was that week.
But then I threw them a curve ball. I'll talk about whatever you want to talk about, I told them, but first I need you to do me a favor. You know a columnist is always looking for material, and I thought it would be nice if I could get a dateline from here-particularly if it is about something that's going unusually well. What is going on in this community that especially pleases you? What activity or program or individual do you find exemplary, worth letting readers across the country know about?
The response: 45 seconds of deadly silence, interrupted only by the resumption of my own voice.
"I don't know if they were more, or less, embarrassed when I told them their initial response - stunned silence - had been precisely what I would have predicted."
It can be about ANYTHING, I urged them: schools, youth programs, a local manufacturing product-whatever. More embarrassed silence, and then a tentative suggestion that a certain youth worker might be worth a look. Someone else knew of a program that used tennis to get inner-city youngsters to think beyond the confines of the ghetto. Didn't we have a piece about a teacher who's doing an outstanding job? A few followed me out to my car to tell me they had thought of something else. Several later wrote me with their good news.
I don't know if they were more, or less, embarrassed when I told them their initial response - stunned silence - had been precisely what I would have predicted, not because I'm smart, but because I had done it enough times to know what the outcome would be.
The first couple of times I did it, I really was looking for solid leads. The lecture circuit takes me to a number of places I wouldn't ordinarily visit, and I thought it might be nice if I could find columns in those places. But not the what's-gone-wrong columns. My notion was that I might combine my lecturing with a search for a series of occasional what-works columns.
But what quickly struck me is that my fellow-professionals are not that interested in what works. Well, maybe that's not quite fair. What does seem to be true is that our training, the news values we inculcate, the feedback we get from our editors all encourage us to look for trouble: for failure, for scandal and above all for conflict.
This predisposition can blind us even to the good things we know about. We are at our most comfortable best with bad news. Whatever our attitudes as men and women - as citizens - as reporters we love conflict. It's what we understand best, and it is what we cover best. A while back, my colleague David Broder (an earlier recipient of the Lovejoy Award) wrote of an important piece of legislation whose passage by an overwhelming 95-to-2 vote scarcely made the news. No, it wasn't a matter of insignificance. It was, as I say, an important bill. The reason it got hardly any coverage - not a line in the New York Times, for instance - is that it passed so overwhelmingly. If there was no drama in the vote, no credible "other side," how could it possibly be significant?
Said Broder: "It is conflict - not compromise - that makes news... The media bias for verbal slugging over legislative virtuosity is one of the main reasons, I believe, Congress is held in such low esteem."
If the low estimation of Congress were the only issue, I wouldn't be making this speech. But I am convinced that the phenomenon cited by my colleague lies behind and exacerbates much of the racial and political polarization, incivility and generalized bad blood that concerns so many of us, on campus and elsewhere.
Broder's point was that the "easy" passage of that important legislation seemed un-newsworthy because the process went so smoothly. But it went smoothly, he knew, because some members of Congress and their staffs had spent long hours - even years - negotiating the compromise legislation that passed so overwhelmingly. His concern was that the legislative skill and patience involved, qualities journalists used to admire, should go virtually unnoticed in the 1990s.
My concern is that we pay so much attention to conflict and so little to substance. Journalists have always loved fights, of course, but of late it's beginning to seem that that's all we enjoy. We cover debates over welfare reform and affirmative action and the federal budget more in terms of who is landing the most punches on whose nose and less in terms of the potential impact on the lives of people, Indeed, we behave as though the debates are primarily political theater, rather than substantive arguments about America's direction and priorities. And I believe that is one reason why politicians find it so easy to abandon substance in favor of political theater.
"Journalists have always loved fights, of course, but of late it's beginning to seem that that's all we enjoy."
Nor is this true only of the grand national issues. We cover fights between school boards and superintendents in excruciating detail-but without revealing to our readers the educational substance behind the fight. You are far more likely to learn from your local paper who is ahead in the local battle over vouchers than some idea of how vouchers might affect local education.
Our emphasis on fighting may be entertaining, but it's hardly enlightening. That's why I so dislike those face-offs that television seems to love, where political opponents go nose-to-nose in some phonied-up fight in which each overstates one side of an argument, being careful to avoid the slightest hint that the other guy may just have a point.
The idea, I suppose, is for the combatants to war like opposing counsel in a murder trial with the audience in the role of a jury in search of truth.
My view is that it has about as much to do with a search for truth as watching a prizefight. I can handle it in the boxing arena. Fighters don't have to fight about anything. Where I have trouble is in the political arena - in the debates over abortion and school choice, in the wrangling over saving Social Security and most certainly in our presidential campaigns--where substance routinely takes a back seat to the fight.
I'm thinking of three particular types of conflict stories. The first, probably the most routine, is the story whose coverage is virtually compulsory but which we seem unable to cover except in terms of conflict: elections, race relations, and policy fights over everything from affirmative action to vouchers.
The second is the story that exists only if there is conflict. I have known instances where reporters were sent out to cover some supposedly conflict-ridden program, only to discover that the program was in fact running pretty smoothly. The conclusion: No story. That, really, is the essence of the non-story Broder was talking about. No conflict, no story.
And then there is the story that tempts us to conflict and sensationalism when it might be interesting enough reported straight. A good example of the type is NBC-TV reporter Jim Gray's interview with Pete Rose after the latter had been named to the All-Century baseball team.
Now Gray's hectoring of Rose sounded like hard-nosed journalism. I mean, there he stood, face to face with one of sports' all-time greats, asking the hard questions. And the fans--even those who never questioned Rose's ouster from baseball for gambling--went nuts. Listen to Kevin Baker's impassioned reaction, in the Wall Street Journal, to the fans' outrage:
"Mr. Gray's terrible transgression was to ask Mr. Rose repeatedly after the All-Century ceremony if he was finally ready to admit his guilt and express contrition. For this Mr. Gray has been pilloried from coast to coast."
Baker was especially wroth that New York Yankee outfielder Chad Curtis refused to talk to Gray after the third game of the World Series. "As a team we kind of decided, because of what happened with Pete, we're not going to talk out here on the field," Curtis was reported as saying.
Said Baker: "Apparently we [journalists] no longer understand our job description to include asking tough questions of scoundrels."
A few days later, a WSJ reader named Mike Tancredi, wrote a very smart letter to the editor of the Journal. If I weren't being given such a signal honor here today, I might have recommended Tancredi as your speaker. He has written my speech, but in words more muscular and direct than my own. Let me read a couple of lines:
"The reason Pete Rose received such a lengthy ovation - and why Mr. Gray has been deservedly scorned for his antagonism - is because the fans appreciated a rare chance to see and to celebrate baseball's all-time hit leader, not one more opportunity to ask him the same questions he had been asked for 10 years...
"But what many of us are more bothered by is Mr. Baker's twofold assertion: explicitly, that interviewees are required to answer any questions asked of them, no matter how inappropriate, tired or devoid of interest they may be, and, implicitly, that what Jim Cray, NBC or any media outlet decides in of public interest is necessarily of public interest.
"Hell, we've got our own Amendment - or at least part of an amendment."
That one little exchange says so much about what I think is wrong with the way some of us do our noble work these days. It raises the provocative question that is the title of Jay Rosen's new book on public journalism: What Are Journalists For?
It's not very mysterious what Thomas Jefferson thought we were for. It might be a good idea not to take him completely literally, but here's what he said in that famous letter to Col. Edward Carrington:
The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right, and -were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.
Similarly with the drafters of the Constitution. Hell, we've got our own Amendment - or at least part of an amendment. Doctors are granted no explicit right to practice their craft untrammeled. Lawyers aren't, nor engineers or teachers. But journalists are, and it seems to me that that extraordinary grant of privilege must mean something beyond the right to hector Pete Rose.
Nothing in the Constitution requires that we be good journalists, of course. But it does seem to me that the whole idea of press freedom is predicated on the notion that enough of us will do decent journalism enough of the time to warrant that freedom. I think Mr. Tancredi--and journalism's audience across the country--is trying to summon us back to the higher nature of our calling. I wish our response could be something more than smug platitudes hurled contemptuously at the great unwashed who would dare to question our standards, our fairness, our very necessity.
I'm not saying we shouldn't entertain and divert and gossip. But the reason for our special privilege is our necessity to the purpose of self-government. Our democracy, as Jefferson and the framers understood, cannot last long if the people are not informed.
That's what journalists are for. It is the basis both of our specialness and of our special obligation--more special yet because it cannot be enforced.
Our fixation on conflict, I believe, threatens to trivialize our specialness.
Let me offer a second criticism of the way we do business. The first, of course, is that we favor conflict. The second is that we are lazy. At least we have lazy habits. I think that lies behind what our audience sees as our favoring "bad news." Bad news - what goes wrong - comes to us as a matter of routine. The police reporter will see it on the blotter, the court reporter will see it on the docket, and a dozen frightened parents will call us to make sure we don't miss the story of the fire, the fight, the shooting. But mostly nobody calls with good news. Why? Maybe they called once or twice and nothing got into the paper.
Or maybe they thought it was someone else's job to call. Or maybe they think reporters are supposed to find out things on their own. Whatever, a lot of fairly interesting success stories never reach our notice.
What's true of local stories is true as well of national stories. The cabinet secretary's press person may call to elicit our interest in some special program or some special success in the hope of making the secretary look good. But the routine calls - whether from sources or from rank-and-file workers - will be about something gone wrong. Indeed it's possible to make a good living on the theory that in every office with a staff or three or more, at least one person hates the boss and is willing to snitch.
Scandal has a thousand stringers; good news doesn't know the editor's phone number.
One more thing about us: We hate namby-pamby stories-stories of Sunday school picnics and perfect-attendance records.
And we hate stories that don't permit us to make a larger point. The local superintendent may be thrilled that 7,234 youngsters in her school district made the honor roll while only 93 went to jail, but don't call me with that tidbit. It isn't interesting, and therefore it isn't news.
Just about all of us in the business have said something very much like that to a few dozen irate readers. We're right, but that's not the end of it.
"Scandal has a thousand stringers; good news doesn't know the editor's phone number."
The fact is, we miss an awful lot of good news stories that are also interesting. Stories of unlikely victories (which is how I like to think of good news) are inherently interesting--more unlikely the more interesting. And yet we'll walk past a dozen successful families in search of the disaster that illuminates the pathology of the ghetto.
I don't want to get into the debate over "new" journalism or "civic" journalism, mainly because I'm never sure what the terms mean. But I do want to describe two different ways of dealing with complicated social stories that illustrate the point I'm trying to make.
Leon Dash, my friend and erstwhile colleague at The Post, recently co-authored a pair of excruciatingly detailed stories on the underside of black life in Washington. Along with Susan Sheehan, he documented the transformation of brothers Tyrone and Russell Wallace from playful, fairly ordinary children into convicted teenage murderers. It is chilling stuff, full of the detail that comes of two years of the tenacious sort of reporting for which Dash is famous: the early days of small-time drug dealing, the acquisition of their first handguns, their casual reaction to their own violence-and the helplessness of the families in a part of town so violent it has been dubbed "Little Vietnam."
I read all 265 column-inches of the detail. And when I was done, I asked myself What was the point and purpose of this reportorial investment? What do we know now that can help us better address the problem?
Leon was surprised to hear the questions from me, an old-school reporter-even this question that seemed to me so basic: What does the mother of a son growing up in Little Vietnam learn from your reportage that might help her raise the boy more successfully?
"Your questions suggest that I ought to be prescribing instead of describing," he told me. "That's somebody else's job, I'm a reporter, not a policy wonk."
Then there is Hedrick Smith, late of the New York Times and now trying his hand at public television. Rick spent more than a year chasing down a story of communitybuilding in Southeast Washington-the most economically depressed and problem-ridden section of the nation's capital.
We've been reporting on those problems for as long as I've been in Washington.
But Rick found a whole bunch of people who were NOT drug dealers or drive-by shooters or teen mothers or school failures. He found people who spend their time - usually uncompensated time - doing what they can to bring neighbors together in common cause, to rebuild their community. And there were some truly remarkable successes, engagingly told.
I found myself wondering why we can't do more of this sort of thing. And I found myself thinking: This is what our readers have in mind when they criticize us for our emphasis on "bad news."
We like to imagine that our work is guided by some neutral "objectivity" based on accepted news judgments (including, of course, truth). Our readers tend to think that we ought to pay more attention to such notions as journalistic and civic responsibility; that those in the business ought to be concerned not merely with the truth of what we publish but also with its predictable consequences.
We counter that our job is to tell readers what is happening, leaving the consequences--never easy to predict in any case--to take care of themselves. And readers will argue that consideration of consequences ought to be an integral part of our news judgments; that we ought to care about outcomes.
My judgment? The readers are right.
The trouble is, they often discuss these matters in terms that don't make sense to journalists: for instance that old chestnut that we devote too much space to "bad news."
And we've become expert at making that charge seem ridiculous. You wouldn't read our paper (we tell them) if we told you only good news: the people who didn't get raped or the countries that don't have border disputes, or the overwhelming majority of us who arrived safely at our destinations, did not drive drunk or overdose on dope or betray our public trusts.
If our pages were devoted to stories on Sunday school picnics and smoothly functioning agencies and B students, we argue with such sweet reason, nobody would buy our papers.
It's all true, but it misses the point. What galls newspaper readers, I believe, is their sense that we and they are somehow not on the same side; we follow our heartless "objectivity" with no concern for its impact on real people.
Interestingly enough, there is one part of the paper that nearly always does the sort of reporting I'd like to see us adopt as a routine: the sports section. Most big city newspapers don't give the coverage of the local teams over to the homers. They expect--and the readers expect--that the people, who cover their professional, amateur and school sports will do so fairly and objectively. They expect (and so do you) that the bad plays and the off-the-field misbehavior, the lackadaisical effort and idiotic recruiting decisions will all be reported. But they would be horrified if the stories suggested that the reporters were indifferent to the teams' success.
But if my colleagues on the sports pages of The Washington Post make clear that they'd like to see the Redskins and the Wizards succeed, those on the news side often seem not to care whether our city or our nation succeeds. Obviously, there are exceptions to all these things I complain of. But the general indictment stands. The way we do our work frequently exacerbates problems we could have a hand in solving. Why, I keep wondering, can't we routinize our search for what works? This is the stuff that can hearten America, move us out of our despair and make us believe that we really can do better.
Our insistence on defining news (mostly) as fights and other disasters not only discourages those who might be tempted to try to make a difference. It also poisons the relationships among us, perverts our institutions and makes our future more difficult.
So why do we do it? There are several reasons I could name, but the most important may be journalism's need for drama. We cover everything from legislation to social policy to peace initiatives as fights because we understand that our stories need a certain amount of dramatic tension to make them interesting. It's an important discovery, but so is this: Pitting people against one another is not the only way to achieve the necessary dramatic tension.
This is the lesson taught by Rick Smith's documentary on Anacostia. We have long covered that part of Washington, but principally as a series of dismaying problems: crime, violence, teen pregnancy, school failure, economic abandonment and political exploitation. We've covered the squabbles between community leaders and police, and between competing politicians, always being careful to get the quotes right and the facts straight.
"If journalists had been around 2000 years ago, he said, we would have covered the Crucifixion--and missed Christianity."
Smith's piece addressed all of those problems, but from the viewpoint of those who would solve them. He achieved his dramatic tension not by pitting people against people but by counterpoising problems and problem-solvers. The difference is almost startling. It is, I believe, what people have in mind when they beg us for more good news. They want some assurance that maybe, just maybe, things can work.
What Hedrick Smith found is that a focus on our mutual problems, rather than on our political enemies, can disclose common interests and lead to some innovative solutions.
Why don't we in the media help with that focus?
I like the answer offered by Carl Sessions Stepp, senior editor of the American Journalism Review. Stepp was explaining why our religion coverage is so bad, but his explanation has more general application.
Contemporary journalism, he said, is event-oriented. We look at "the here and now," rather than such abstract and complex expressions of people's lives as their spirituality.
That, he said, explains why we gravitate toward conflict and controversy, stories in which there are two clearly opposed points of view.
"Controversy is an event," he said, "and journalists are very good at covering events. We are not very good at covering things that evolve."
If journalists had been around 2000 years ago, he said, we would have covered the Crucifixion--and missed Christianity.
We can do better than that. Not only can we learn to spot important trends and developments, we can also provide leadership in the search for solutions, for commonality, for community.
But first we and our editors will have to rethink our mindless focus on "conflict" as the overriding news value. Of course conflict is a story. Of course our readers need to know what has gone wrong. But we also need to get our newsrooms interested in what works, and how it might be made to work better.
The result, I predict, will be a less-conflicted community and a less-complaining readership. And, just maybe, happier reporters as well.