How Killer Journalism Destroys Reasoned Argument

PARIS — Paris -- A recent article (January 14 in the New York Times) by Deborah Tannen of Georgetown University makes an important comment on the loss of civility in much American debate today. She says that journalists, politicians and academics increasingly have substituted destructive confrontations for the kind of constructive argument that can clarify the way people think.

She does not go into why this has occurred, but there seem to me not only ideological and political reasons but commercial ones. Commercial, in that confrontation is dramatic and emotionally engaging in a way that constructive argument is not. Both television and press are driven by intense commercial considerations today, and by the competition for audiences, and this influences debate even in what are supposed to be the non-commercial media.


I experienced this on national public television a few years ago. I had published a book on international politics which was made the subject of a PBS discussion. I was asked to suggest panelists and proposed several people whom I did not expect to agree with what I had written but who would, I thought, have interesting things to say on the subjects of my book.

Arriving for the program, I found myself facing an unreconstructed radical from the 1960s, convinced that if only politicians and governments would get out of the way of the people (or rather, The People), the latter would spontaneously make peace and democracy work all around the world, and a former Trotskyist turned neo-conservative who believed quite the opposite. The two of them enthusiastically went at one another in a debate that had virtually nothing to do with my book, and which could have taken place at any time in the preceding 20 years.


Why had they been invited? As far as I could see it was because this kind of simple-minded left-right ideological confrontation was thought the only form of political discussion people would watch, even on public television. Possibly this is true. But if it is true, it is not only evidence of Ms. Tannen's case, that attack and counterattack are taking the place of constructive argument, but is a sign of national intellectual impoverishment.

Certainly her observation is true for much journalism today. This problem goes back to the 1960s when the old sense of collaborative national purpose disappeared from the relations of press and president. Dating at least from World War II, and strengthened by the sense of continuing world crisis and totalitarian challenge of the 1950s, journalists took for granted a relationship of mutual confidence between officials and press.

The crises of Vietnam and Watergate, when the government deceived or manipulated the press, while an important part of the press set itself against the government's policies, ended that relationship. What followed was a justified glorification of investigative journalism, but also the emergence of a new "killer" spirit in journalism, by which unmasking not only official lies but the lies in politicians' private lives became a route to journalistic reputation and advancement.

This ordinarily has not been ideological. The Washington press is reputedly liberal, but Mr. Clinton has had a far rougher ride in his first year than either Ronald Reagan or George Bush. The hostility has been opportunistic, and there is also a social factor at work.

Journalism until the 1960s was not a particularly glamorous trade, and reporters certainly did not consider themselves power players in Washington. They do now -- and they are, and are treated as such. This has not been particularly healthy for journalism or for government. It is partly responsible for the fact that policy now is made chiefly in terms of its reception by television and the press.

Ideological confrontation and killer journalism both are essentially sterile, caricaturing reality. The only useful debates are those that start out with a clear agreement on what the argument is about, and in which the opponent's arguments and person are paid respect. The agreement on what the argument is about can be called second-order agreement. (First-order agreement is agreement itself -- a lack of argument.)

To obtain second-order agreement, I -- for example -- have to be able to explain to a third party what my opponent's position is on the subject of our disagreement. He has to agree that I have more or less accurately set out where he stands and must then explain to that third party where I stand, in terms I find acceptable.

Once we have done that, we can have a serious and constructive argument. Without this second-order agreement we are merely arguing over the terms of our disagreement -- or, worse, we are substituting for debate an attempt to destroy the standing or reputation of the person who disagrees with us. That way lies the destruction of civil society, and we already have taken several steps down the road.


William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.