318. "Public Miscasts Mainstream Media as Villains," USA Today, (November 11, 1999), page 17A.


There is a new villain of choice in Tinsel Town. Last week, movie theaters unveiled The Insider, a movie in which a TV network is the bad guy.

The film is based on a true story. An insider -- the former head of research and development at Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., a major tobacco company -- was set to tell all to the audience of the top TV news magazine, 60 Minutes. But CBS corporate bosses demanded that the whistleblower interview be squelched. Mike Wallace and the show's executive producer, Don Hewitt, buckled and broadcast a heavily censored and much weakened report.

The movie, as reviewers have pointed out, makes it seem as if this is a typical failing of 60 Minutes and the media in general, rather than a rare exception.

This is not the only recent media-as-bad-guy movie. The Movie Channel in October ran Return to Paradise, about three friends vacationing in Malaysia. One is arrested with drugs, but it seems all will go well. The Malaysian prosecutor will reduce the charges. But then the judge reads a newspaper article mocking Malaysia as more keen to protect butterflies than justice. The judge heatedly defends his country and orders the young man executed.

The unmistakable message: The villain is not drug smuggling or Malaysian hangmen, but the media.

Another movie with a down-on-the-media theme is last year's Wag the Dog. A Hollywood producer creates an imaginary war, false war criminals and a funeral of a fake war hero. He succeeds in manipulating the public -- and the media -- into embracing an errant president.

And then there's Mad City, a 1997 film that tells the story of an unemployed man who takes hostages in a museum in an attempt to regain his job. A journalist in the museum scoops the incident, which becomes a national fixation. Soon, the reporter becomes the news, and all else fades into the background.

By substituting the media for pig-headed bureaucrats, corrupt politicians and heartless gangsters as the villains du jour, Hollywood both follows and reinforces public-opinion trends. Since the heyday of public reverence for the media after Watergate, the proportion of Americans who trust the media has fallen. Today, only about half have high confidence in the media and 38% believe it to be outright immoral.

When sociologist Alan Wolfe interviewed Americans about their world views, questions about the media were not part of his plans. But practically all of the people he talked to volunteered their dim view of the media -- a fact sociologists consider telling because it indicates how much the matter is on people's minds.

A case against the media is easily made: It's quick to focus on what is wrong with America and on the most gruesome news, even though the public claims it prefers "good" news. The media fan scandals, while the public (which turned the Kenneth Starr report into a best seller) says it is tired of reading about Monica Lewinsky and her ilk. Also on the long list of the media's alleged and actual faults are the publication of insufficiently verified stories, the spinning of the news and making mountains out of shadows of molehills.

These charges are old news -- indeed, as old as the press itself. What is new are the attempts to depict the media as public enemy No. 1.

It's time to reexamine the public service the fourth estate does render.

The first step in any serious examination of the media's role in our lives is to cease speaking about them as if they were cut whole out of one cloth. We need to stop considering The New York Times and The Drudge Report, CBS and pornographic cable channels, The Washington Post and the National Enquirer as part of one "media." The pertinent question should be: To what extent do the (usually) "responsible" media fulfill their public role?

Although the responsible media are far from flawless, they are where we learn about ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, horrors in East Timor and strafing in Chechnya. Without them, most of us would not have a clue about the pork politicians salted into the new budget, the wrongdoings in the backrooms of some police stations and on and on.

Moreover, much of the "news to use" that Americans value reaches us from pages like the one you are holding. Here we get more medical and health information than we receive from our hurried doctors, and more financial data than from our busy brokers. The media warn us about airlines to avoid, inform us about upcoming weather and remind us that the stock market may yet crash.

We learned in civics classes about the role of the fourth estate in keeping the other three honest -- or, at least, keeping them from getting even further out of hand. We know from firsthand experience the personal benefits we get from the media. But much less attention is paid to the role of the responsible media in providing a forum for conducting national town meetings.

Once every year or so, we draw on the media to put a topic or two on the national agenda. The public then uses op-eds, letters to editors, call-in shows and broadcast panel discussions to trigger and participate in a nationwide debate about that topic.

When we are in the middle of one of these national dialogues, they seem disjointed, emotionally charged -- and endless. But when I examined their results with the hindsight of a few years, I found we often do reach consensus.

In the 1950s, for example, we had no sense of a moral obligation to the environment. Then Rachel Carson's Silent Spring and some oil spills -- both of which we learned about largely from the media -- triggered a national debate about protecting nature. The result was a new, shared understanding that we must attend to Mother Earth. We still debate exactly what our commitment entails, but few would return to the 1950s world of wanton environmental harm that existed before these debates.

Similar changes have occurred after debates triggered and mediated by the media on such topics as civil rights and women's rights. Coverage of the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings launched a national conversation about sexual harassment. Last year, the topic was whether the personal transgressions and illegal acts of the president rose to a level that justified setting aside electoral choice.

Without the responsible media, we wouldn't have these dialogues or come to a general agreement on a change of national direction.

We should also note that, unlike other professions -- say, doctors and lawyers -- the media are much more given to open self-criticism. We learn about most of the media's flaws from reports in the media. How otherwise would we know that the CIA seems not to have sold drugs in the streets of Los Angeles, despite contrary press reports, or that Stephen Glass, an editor at The New Republic, made up more than 20 of his stories?

Even the tendency of the media to exaggerate is now turning on itself. After all, the recent Hollywood films that depict the media as evil incarnate are a part of the media -- although not part of the responsible press. Maybe next year we shall see movies that will not divide the world simplistically into wholly good and wholly bad characters.

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