DEMOCRACY AND THE NEWS

By Herbert J. Gans

Oxford. 168 pp. $26 Journalists who think at all about larger questions raised by the business in which they labor tend to divide into two groups: cynics and idealists. The former believe that the ultimate end of newspapers and magazines is to line bird cages or wrap fish, and that the instant a news broadcast ends, its words and images vanish into the ether. These men and women may take their work seriously, but they have few illusions about its ultimate importance and accept without question its evanescence.

The idealists, by contrast, believe that theirs is a noble calling, granted unique protection by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, protection that entails responsibility as well as freedom. They embrace what Herbert J. Gans calls a "theory of democracy" as their "central political ideal," which can be distilled to four parts: "(1) The journalist's role is to inform citizens; (2) citizens are assumed to be informed if they regularly attend to the local, national, and international news journalists supply them; (3) the more informed citizens are, the more likely they are to participate politically, especially in the democratic debate that journalists consider central to participation and democracy; (4) the more that informed citizens participate, the more democratic America is likely to be."

What is interesting (and not a little confusing) about Gans's exploration of these assumptions is that although he finds them based substantially in misperception or self-deception, in the end he comes down on the side of the idealists. A sociologist (whose prose style, reader beware, is strict sociologese) rather than a journalist, he has a deep interest in the press and/or the media and over the years has studied it with care. He tries hard to come to these studies with objectivity, but he swings from the left side of the plate and is not always successful in disguising his sentiments. He is fully entitled to them, but this is another matter of which the reader must be aware, if not necessarily beware.

Gans argues, unexceptionably, that Americans generally hold an idealistic view of the "citizens' democracy" in which they live, a view that is "much too simplistic" but that is valuable for "its goal: to establish a viable democratic role for the citizenry . . . in a country as vast as the United States." In this country "dominated by organizations big enough to discourage citizens from challenging them," where "elected representatives have had to rent or sell pieces of themselves to such organizations in order to be elected," what influence can ordinary citizens realistically hope to exert and how can journalists help them exert it?

Part realist and part idealist, Gans acknowledges that what we like to think of as a representative democracy is in fact largely controlled by vast organizations. He says that "American citizens are experiencing both economic and political disempowerment," and though his language is clumsy, his analysis is correct. Government is in thrall to lobbies, and the great role played by money in politics tends to muffle the voices of those who haven't enough money to make themselves heard.

To his credit, Gans acknowledges that most people probably don't care as much about this as academic idealists and self-appointed spokesmen for the little guy wish they would -- "their really meaningful lives take place elsewhere, in a very different world from local and national government and politics" -- but it is not a sanguine comment on the present state of this representative democracy that so many of its citizens are so alienated from it and that so many have opted out, joining the staggeringly large numbers of non-voters and non-participants.

All of which is true, albeit not exactly good news, and all of which has been written and spoken about ad nauseam; Gans's analysis is intelligent but doesn't tell us anything we don't already know. The novelty in "Democracy and the News" is its insistence that the press has an obligation, to itself and to the citizenry, to counteract this alienation, to engage citizens more actively in the affairs of the country they ostensibly rule through their representatives and to help them gain a louder, more influential voice.

This argument, mind you, is made by one who has deep reservations, many of them entirely valid, about the press. Gans says that journalists "are confronting their own disempowerment" as news media controlled by conglomerates concentrate on profits to the detriment of news dissemination, as newspaper circulation and news-broadcast ratings slowly decline, as the rather desperate search for larger (and younger) audiences encourages the press to deemphasize hard news and investigative reporting and as criticism of and suspicion about the press intensifies.

Further, Gans argues that journalists too often serve as mouthpieces for "the elite and the world of money and power in which they travel," that they "are too far removed from the citizenry to report, or even investigate what issues are of highest priority to them," and that they are prone to middle-class biases and assumptions that blind them to the reality that "the largest number of Americans are working- and lower-middle-class people." He doubts that the press has anywhere near as much effect as is generally thought: "News media effects are generally superficial and short term, so much so that people have difficulty remembering what news stories they saw or read only hours earlier."

This rather dim (and in my opinion essentially accurate) view of the media's influence is not without exception. Gans believes that the very regularity with which the news appears is a "demonstration of social continuity," though he is harder pressed to find much evidence that the mass audience for the news is strongly affected by news reports except in times of calamity or emergency. "The news media may actually affect institutions and organizations more frequently and strongly than they do news audiences," he argues, since "journalists may have their greatest effect when they act as watchdogs, reporting illegal, dishonest, immoral and other behavior violating mainstream norms."

All of which leads Gans to an observation that many in the media would just as soon not acknowledge: "Journalists can turn the activities of powerful business people and firms into news and even into expose{acute}s, but neither news nor expose{acute}s alone can reduce their economic or political power. The same goes for the power of other organizations. News supplies information, but citizens and politicians have to bring about greater democracy. Journalists should not kid themselves into thinking they can turn news into power." What they have is influence, not power, and even how much influence they have is open to serious question. To be reminded of this essential truth is useful, and Gans is to be thanked for the reminder.

Yet self-evidently he is at heart an idealist and a reformer, so after devoting most of his book to these common-sensical points, he turns right around and offers "illustrative not comprehensive" suggestions "that might enable journalists to be politically and otherwise more useful to their audience, with the ultimate aim of enhancing the citizens' role in the country's politics." The suggestions that follow range from the plausible (expanding the role and range of explanatory journalism) to the ludicrous: drawing new readers and viewers by mixing journalism with humor delivered by "mass-media satirists" and to write or broadcast "news fiction," i.e., "fictional or partly fictional storytelling that sheds light on the institutions and activities that are covered as news."

Inasmuch as too many Americans believe that much of what they read and hear in the media is fiction, one somehow doubts that more of it would increase the credibility of institutions that already enjoy too little. To say this is not to belittle the argument that the news media need to reconsider how they shape and deliver the news -- quite to the contrary -- but to make the point that any changes should lead to more credibility, not less. Further, the proper role of the press is to report and comment on the workings of this "citizens' democracy," not to act as agent for political and/or ideological elements within it. This is what Gans wants it to do, an inadvertent reminder that the line between idealism and naivete can be so thin as to be invisible.