Herbert J. Gans, a sociologist at Columbia University, has studied what he regards as the national press and, from his vantage point in academe, recommends a government subsidy to foster the spread of "multiperspectival news."
Journalism students will recognize the preceding paragraph as a "news lead"-but one tinged slightly with editorializing. After all, the subsidy proposal is a "news peg" guaranteed, no matter what the author intended, to produce a story out of any reporter who picks it up.
To be exact, what Gans has studied in "Deciding What's News" are the operations of CBS and NBC television news and of Newsweek and Time magazines, institutions which he defines as "national" in terms of their audience. What Gans proposes is the establishment of an endowment for news patterned along the lines of similar federal organizations for the arts and humanities.
It is difficult for an experienced journalist to comprehend Gans' "multiperspectival news" as a practical guide to action. Basically he desires a "more national" news with a "bottom up view" instead of "the current top down" approach. There should also be more "output news" (which seems to mean value judgments on how well public and private programs for people are working), "more representative news" (meaning more stories about ordinary people), and more "service news" (meaning more practical guidelines for everyday living). Generally, one draws the impression that Gans believes too much attention is paid to the government and that too many people do not have a voice.
Gans' specifications for endowment grants are equally vague. Money would be dedicated to starting up "new, second tier national media" which would rest on "now available sources and perspectives." Other funds would aid already existing media in achieving the same ends, help neglected groups establish public relations operations that will gain them access to the press and support organizations that would critize and monitor the news as well as put "pressure on the news media." The endowment would also promote "audience feedback mechanisms" and aid people "too poor either to obtain national newspapers and magazines or to afford television sets and radios."
Gans regards most of his proposals as supplements, rather than replacements, for the present national media. He specifies that the endowment would have no voice in the selection of the news, but that the new "second tier" media would be subject to "peer review" by journalists and non-journalists. Of course, he concedes that there are dangers inherent in government subsidy of the press but he does not regard them as sufficient to invalidate his proposal.
"It is undeniable that funding means review, but peer review is not quite the same as government review. That some parts of government might want to regulate the news media is also undeniable; but judging by most existing regulatory agencies, such regulation has often been ineffective, for the regulated have too much power."
He dismisses the idea that the government might use the endowment to "intimidate" journalists "as groundless. If the endowment for news were run out of the White House, journalists would be justified in worrying about pressure and chilling effects. However, while the White House would appoint the endowment head, it could not easily dictate agency policy, especially since, with journalists involved, such attempts would surely become news."
It will likely come as no suprise that whatever attention is paid to "Deciding What's News" will rest upon Gans' proposal rather than his studies. This is somewhat unfortunate since his descriptions of the news gathering and processing precedures are far superior to most academic works on the subject. Still, anyone who has had to cope with the fantastic complexities of the entire American media will wish that he had not gone on to overgeneralize, drawing conclusions from a study of a relatively small part of the press which, however important, is probably not the major source of news of most American wire services and their influence on the nation's media.
Nevertheless, Gans' study wastes no time in such things as the mindless counting of pejorative words to determine press bias. Nor does it establish academic journals as the standard against which the press should be measured. Gans' style is also relatively free of jargon. The real problem is whether "Deciding What's News" builds an adequate base for the proposals it makes and for the controversy which will ensure.