To tell the truth, journalists have their own problems


APPROXIMATELY half of the questions asked by the White House press corps at President Clinton's April 30 news conference were about the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Does the president feel responsible for all the friends and staffers who have been saddled with huge legal bills? Does he support the Secret Service's claims of a right to refuse to testify about goings-on at the White House? But, in one way or another, all of the queries were variations on a single theme: Mr. President, why can't you just tell us the truth? And, to all of them, the president's answer was, essentially, the same: Go fly a kite. The president even declared himself "absolutely" willing to live with the questions about Bimbroglio through the end of his second term.

Quite a performance. But I doubt that the public at large was terribly interested. Surveys since the beginning of the Lewinsky scandal have consistently shown that a huge majority -- 70 percent or more -- of the American people believe that the media are paying too much attention to the story. If we gain nothing else from the whole affair, we should at least come away with a renewed appreciation for the perceptual gap separating the American people from the Washington press corps.

My point is not that the public is more in tune ideologically with Mr. Clinton than the media are. If anything, the opposite is the case; I know a lot of Washington journalists, and my guess is that more than 90 percent of them voted for Mr. Clinton in both 1992 and 1996. An adversarial relationship between press and government is both inevitable and healthy in a democracy. What I have in mind is the cultural difference between professional Washington journalists and the viewers and readers they ostensibly serve. The public apparently does not share some of the norms that journalists cherish most fervently and that are, in fact, most necessary for the press to play its proper role in a democracy.

For the press, truth is, or should be, an absolute value. Journalists spend most of their time trying to get straight facts from people who generally would prefer not to give them. They hate being lied to. They hate it because it is wrong. They hate it because it thwarts the purposes of a free press. And they hate it because it makes them look bad to publish something that later turns out to be incorrect. The credo of journalism is disclosure: the more factual information at the public's disposal, the better. This is the hierarchy of values that makes journalists feel like public servants, even as they pursue the advancement of their own careers.

An absolutist's view

When Washington reporters evince outrage about Bimbroglio, what they are voicing, in part, is professional journalism's ingrained absolutism about the truth. Not only is the president not leveling about what allegedly happened, but also what allegedly happened itself is that the president lied. To a reporter, this is unpardonable. When one of the most fastidious and astute press critics of Mr. Clinton's lying, Stuart Taylor Jr. of the National Journal, recently entertained a job offer from independent prosecutor Kenneth Starr, he was merely taking the absolutist values of his profession to a logical (if ironic) extreme. Mr. Taylor's journalist's conscience was so shocked by the president's dishonesty that he felt obligated to abandon journalism itself to do something about it.

For non-journalists, though, truth is a relative value. It is prized, of course, but other values can take precedence: social stability, say, or national security. "White lies" are allowed in business and family life all the time. It might even be fair to say that the capacity to assimilate a certain amount of decorous untruth is part of what it takes to negotiate the passages of adult life.

Lying politicians

Meanwhile, to some degree, the public accepts the routine lies of politicians as the equivalent of overhead in the business of democracy. The public will embrace the press' values and accept a relentless search for the truth, if and only if the lies are perceived as part of a threat to democracy or effective government so substantial that it outweighs other considerations.

But when the people, for whatever reason, feel that the stakes don't warrant a hunt for full disclosure, they respond to the media with indifference or scorn. Bimbroglio is hardly the first example of this perceptual disjunction. Iran-contra never really managed to outrage the public the way it outraged the Washington press corps. During the Persian Gulf war, reporters were ridiculed for cross-examining security-conscious military spokesmen.

There's nothing inherently wrong with this gap between the public and the press. In fact, the press must be prepared to depart from, or even offend, public sensibilities if it is to perform its democratic mission of holding government accountable. Still, it should be sobering for reporters to realize that the media's priorities and the public's priorities diverge even more than they did a few years ago. For example, a survey commissioned by the Pew Research Center shows that 32 percent of Americans believe that criticism from the media keeps political leaders from doing their jobs well.

That is double the figure recorded in 1985.

This is immensely frustrating for reporters, but there's little they can do about it. Journalists persuade themselves that the public can be roused from its apathy if only the press can succeed in serving up just a bit more of the truth. The press corps' relentlessness is, in this sense, a function of its democratic idealism, not its cynicism. But more disclosure can't cure disclosure fatigue.

The dramatic high point of the April 30 press conference came when James Bennet of the New York Times asked Mr. Clinton to comment on polls showing that most Americans approve of his performance as president but no longer respect him as a person. Mr. Clinton responded with some passive-aggressive muttering about his well-organized enemies. But he could easily have turned the tables on Mr. Bennet. Americans strongly support freedom of the press. But, according to the Pew survey, large majorities also say the press is "often inaccurate," that its coverage of politics and public policy is biased, and that it devotes "excessive" attention to the personal and ethical behavior of public officials. What does that prove?

Charles Lane is a senior editor of The New Republic, in which this article first appeared.

Pub Date: 5/08/98

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad