Media Reflections

Public dissatisfaction with press and television reporting is widely acknowledged. Polls consistently give the media a low credibility rating compared to other professionals or institutions. One has the impression that the common distrust of the media has nothing to do with the fabricated, often fanciful, human interest story; “composite reporting,” it is now called. If such stories are read, they are read for their entertainment value. Embellishment, almost as easily as the tall-tale, is recognized for what it is.

Dissatisfaction ensues rather because the media seems to have a political agenda of its own, an agenda often at variance with the perceptions and ideals of the people taken as a whole. Straight-forward reporting has become a rarity, replaced by the moral assessment and the reforming spirit. The evangelical tone which characterizes much reporting is evidence of a value-laden stance. The chronicled incident, providing an example in much the same way as an anecdote employed in preaching, is usually offered as evidence of a wrong-headed policy, of a program gone awry, or of standards inapplicable. Reporting more often than not tends to be critical. A constant object of denigration is the so-called “establishment,” be it civil, military or ecclesiastical. In the judgment of many, the media seems to have allied itself to the representatives of those institutions and causes which war against the nation’s best interests. The reading and viewing public is confronted with the statements of Soviet leaders reported at face value, while those of the American president and of administration officials are presented as if those officers were not to be trusted.

Perhaps even more disconcerting is the media’s penchant not simply to criticize established institutions, but to criticize the people themselves, that is, their most fundamental outlooks and commitments. A study conducted under the auspices of the Research Institute on International Change at Columbia University both confirms and offers reasons for the diversity. Stanley Rothman and S. Robert Lichter who directed the study were responsible for lengthy interviews with 240 journalists and broadcasters at the most influential media outlets. As reported in Public Opinion (October-November 1981) those queried were among the media elite, not aspirants to influence, but “the voice of a new leadership group that has arrived as a major force in American society.” Their outlooks or preferences as a group are interesting and clearly show the intellectual chasm between the media elite and middle America. Fifty-four percent of those polled describe themselves as left-of-center, compared with 19 percent who describe themselves as right-of-center. As a group they showed a strong preference for welfare capitalism, favored assistance for the poor in the form of income redistribution and favored government intervention to insure full employment. This is reflected in their voting habits. Over a sixteen year period less than one-fifth have supported a Republican candidate in a presidential election.

A significant characteristic of the media is its predominantly secular outlook. Only half affirm a religious affiliation. Although 23 percent were raised in a Jewish household only 14 percent claim to be of the Jewish faith. One in five identifies himself as a Protestant, one in eight as a Catholic. Only 8 percent attend a church or a synagogue weekly; 86 percent never or rarely attend services. On moral and social issues 90 percent believe that a woman has a right to an abortion. Three quarters disagree that homosexuality is wrong; 85 percent uphold the right of homosexuals to teach in public schools. More than 50 percent do not believe that adultery is wrong. Only 15 percent strongly agree that extramarital affairs are immoral. Most believe that the business community has too much influence in the nation; most believe that the media itself should have more influence than it has, though it perceives itself as already having a great deal of influence. One would be bold to declare that the media has not had its effect on the manners and mores of the nation. That the pen is mightier than the sword has been known from antiquity.

Yet in spite of the media’s endorsement of the permissive society and its challenge to authority and to the roots of common loyalties, the outlook of the media elites has not prevailed. That a skeptical attitude remains among the people is remarkable in itself. Perhaps, the people are closer to social reality, to life in all of its concrete complexities, than the media elite tends to be. Historians tell us that there was a time in the Roman Empire when management of estates became a more studied art form than the arts and crafts themselves. As a result the educated class got out-of-touch with the very technology which made its life possible. Some argue that the collapse of Rome was due to a bureaucracy cut off from an understanding of the instruments of production. Be that as it may, the people as a whole seem to have a better sense about dependence, the relative importance of things; what is truly good, and what will work and what will not, than those who report events for them. Like Roman aristocrats, the media elite seems cut off from the work-a-day world of the productive sector.

If, in fact, the media is so out-of-tune with the perceptions of the ordinary people, why is this so? Why does it seem immune to serious criticism? Why the ready answer to every change? Why the hasty invocation of first amendment rights? Why does it seem to be irresponsibly naive and idealistic? No response can be simple. Certainly the impoverished education of many who enter the field is a factor. In that respect the media apprentice is not uniquely disadvantaged. Learning is forever the province of an elite, requiring early training in language and literature, in the sciences, in history and in the often neglected disciplines of the prestigious universities or schools of communication, have such an education. Furthermore, those inducted into the field of journalism and into the broadcast industries tend to be hired at an early age, with little opportunity for study and reflection prior to the job, and perhaps even less on the job. Consequently much thinking in the media occurs on a bumper-sticker level. Cliche tends to replace thought. But one cannot conclude that all lack of judgment stems from inadequate formal education. Some lack of judgment may be due to the sheltered way of life characteristic of the academic milieu. One can move from prep school, to college, to university without ever having had to perform a day’s manual labor or associate with people who do. Students are typically isolated from the work force, from people in the trades and crafts and in menial labor and consequently never know their views or struggles or concerns. This can create in the educated young a social idealism that runs roughshod over the perceptions and needs of ordinary working people.

Then, too, in the academy, one of the first lessons that one learns is that “the received” is to be tested. Whereas education was once thought to consist largely in the perpetuation of the best of the past, John Dewey taught that the proper function of education is to challenge the inherited, particularly the received religious tradition of the West. Only that is to be retained which has withstood the challenge of critical intelligence. Religious values which historians and social theorists have regarded as the foundation of Western civilization were, like everything else, to be subject to scrutiny. Those values that withstood the test of secular scrutiny were to be preserved, but given their proper secular rationale. This Enlightenment posture, once confined to the study or to the drawing room, entered mainstream education theory through the efforts of Dewey and his school and became the working view of many.

There are undoubtedly other cultural factors at work too. There is a certain Eastern seaboard type who never loses the rough edge no matter what life’s course. Rudeness, cynicism, shabby attire, are made into virtues; sandlot values are allowed to prevail. The anarchical breed is too often found in the academy and in media circles, dissatisfied wherever it appears, secure only when everything is in turmoil.

If there is a remedy, perhaps it is to be found in the same educational process which has proven itself so destructive in recent decades. Attention to the positive aspects of the educational model replaced by the progressivists may bear fruit. The discarded classical education has much to be said for it. Where it prevails it militates against a number of contemporary vices, not the least of which is the psychological exploration which is often allowed to replace the ontological, even when the ontological is as plain as the nose on one’s face. The Greek search for intelligibility points to an objective order against which conclusions are measured. Understanding doesn’t entail action. Not every wrong can or need be rectified.

Avoidance of the subjective is contingent upon the conviction that there are objective ways of dealing with issues that affect human life and human goals. Classical learning fosters the habit of distinctions. Since human nature has not changed since antiquity and since fundamental human problems remain the same, ancient analyses remain timely. For that reason we find valuable the reading of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Seneca, Pliny, Livy, Plutarch, Augustine, Boethius, and the list goes on. To be deprived of this type of learning is debilitating. But many are. Aided and abetted by narrow professional training the otherwise acute mind is often deprived of the cognitive skills to make the necessary distinctions which serve as a prelude to action.


Jude Dougherty is Dean Emeritus of the School of Philosophy in the Catholic University of America and the editor of The Review of Metaphysics, and General Editor, Series Studies in Philosophy and the History of Philosophy, Washington, D.C., The Catholic University of America Press.

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