Despite the inherent difficulties, a dialogue is beginning to take place between people in government and people in the press about the deterioration in the tone and quality of public discourse in this country. It is worth pursuing, despite the different agendas politicians and journalists bring to it.
The White House and members of Congress have policies to push, elections to win. The press has both a moneymaking motive and a public service obligation.
Where the interests of the two overlap is in combating cynicism, and cynicism is epidemic right now. It saps people's confidence in politics and public officials, and it erodes both the standing and the standards of journalism. If the assumption is that nothing is on the level, nothing is what it seems, then citizenship becomes a game for fools and there is no point in trying to stay informed.
President Clinton's denunciation of talk shows and tabloid television was easily dismissed as self-pitying or self-serving. But the degradation of journalism by entertainers who are more interested in making a sensation than in making sense is all too real.
Tom Rosensteil, a Los Angeles Times writer on the media, says in a newly published Twentieth Century Fund essay, "The Beat Goes On," that "rumor and innuendo now find their way into the press and public dialogue more easily than they once did."
He cites this example: A right-wing newsletter arrives by fax at many news organizations, carrying the unsubstantiated report that White House Deputy Counsel Vincent Foster had actually died in a White House "safe house" and his body had been moved to the park where authorities had said his suicide took place. Rush Limbaugh picks up the report and puts it on the air. A Florida talk show host embellishes it into a tale of murder. Stock market speculators feed the rumor, hoping to make money by spooking the market. And the next day The Post business section runs a story about the rumor that moved the market.
At a forum where Rosensteil's essay was discussed, Paul Begala, a political consultant and Clinton adviser, noted the trivialization of news that he said had produced four times as many stories about Tonya Harding as the Clinton health care plan. Others made the point that more and more "news" in print and on TV is not narrative or exposition but analysis and interpretation. And much of the interpretation feeds cynicism by suggesting that there is a selfish, partisan or political motive behind everything the president or Sen. Bob Dole or whoever has done.
The result is that Clinton, Congress and politicians of both parties -- and the media that report on them -- are viewed through an increasingly negative filter, and often not seen clearly at all. In the last week, two stories I worked on, using Washington Post-ABC News polls, really have brought that home.
One showed that the "Clinton health plan" has continued to lose its appeal, while two of its central features -- a guarantee of health insurance for everyone and a requirement that employers buy their workers health insurance -- command overwhelming support. The disconnect between the plan and its major elements represents a huge failure of communication by the nation's media and the nation's political leadership.
Even more striking is the evidence from another Post-ABC News poll of widespread ignorance of what Congress has or has not done. As many Americans think this Congress has passed a major bill limiting immigration (which it has not) as believe it has cut billions from the deficit, which is the case.
Rosensteil and White House adviser George Stephanopoulos have said, separately but in near-chorus, that one reason the substance of policy is not communicated is that reporters carry over to their coverage of government the campaign mind-set of horse-race journalism. Process stories predominate, and the emphasis is on who is gaining or losing, not on what is being done.
That may be true, but the White House suffers from the same problem. Bob Woodward's book "The Agenda" shows that campaign types like Begala and his partner, James Carville, have been given equal standing in White House economic policy meetings with the Treasury secretary, the budget director and the president's economic adviser. The consultants' purpose is to impose the campaign agenda on government. Not surprisingly, the rhetoric -- the very language -- of the White House sounds like an unending campaign, with "war rooms" and the rest.
The point is that no one is well served by what is happening. The public does not get the basic information it needs for citizenship. The government does not get the support it deserves when it does what it has been elected to do. And the press finds itself drawn into a downward spiral of cheapened values and lost respect.
A sensible dialogue between press and government is only a start on improving public understanding and reducing cynicism. But a start it is.