Any reporter who travels the country, even in the best of times, quickly learns to expect expressions of criticism about his profession. The press has been, remains, and probably always will be controversial.
In more difficult periods, such as racial strife and Vietnam or the Nixon-Watergate-impeachment days, what you heard continually was criticism about the pesss' bias. The eastern liberal establishment press conspiracy business.
Stories that attracted the attention of the "national media" meant conflict or tragedy had occurred in some community. No one there, understandably, welcomed the horde of outside journalists highlighting troubles in their town.
People knew that the picture of their town nearly always was overdrawn, out of focus or in other ways imperfect. And so, in the nature of daily deadline journalism, invariably it was. Defensively, they blamed the press for distorting, fomenting or even fabricating the problems.The classic example in my opinion was when some citizens of Birmingham convinced themselves that those pictures of Bull Connor's cops turning police dogs loose on the blacks were doctored; the entire episode never took place, they passionately told me later.
Now, after only one week on the road again, I find that the press continues to be a subject of acute concern, but this time with a difference. Without exception, everyone you talk to brings up the press voluntarily.But only once (a man approaching his 70s who breathed the old-time suspicions about the national media, calling The Washington Post "the poison fruit of the vine") were the problems with the press seen in terms of ideology.
What's troubling people are moe sophisticated -- and serious -- questions about the American press today.
"My friends in the press corps say, 'We don't make the news. We just report it,'" someone in real estate remarked. "No, I tell them, but you set it up."
It's that "setting up" of the news that bothers many people. The problem with the press, they will say, is its power to shape events by what it chooses to report, and how. To them the press either is "one of the most powerful influences in America today," as a lawyer believes, or "the most powerful" institution in the country," as a businessman thinks.
A county official was talking about Iran the other day. It seemed hopeless, he said. There wasn't anything you could do about it. You just had to push it in the back of your mind, remove it from your thoughts. Then he said:
"For a while it was so hot -- and a lot of it had to do with the news media.
It was weird. After the raid, it was just like turning off the news faucet. That was all we had heard for months, and then there was nothing. It was wierd the way it happened."
He was obviously disturbed by the implications of what he was saying. It's so hard to be informed, and so important, he went on, but he had the sense he didn't know what to believe or wasn't getting a full picture. Or even perhaps that he was being manipulated by the news media.
His thoughts are being echoed by others, especially during this presidential campaign. It may well be the country is apathetic about politics this year. But in the truest sense of that word -- apathy as meaning the absence of caring -- Americans you meet are anything but apathetic. They are deeply troubled about national and international conditions, and have a hunger to be better informed about them. And they are trying to be informed.
In Orangeburg, an hours drive away from this South Carolina capital, people are watching cable TV news from Atlanta and Chicago every day, as well as their normal state news outlets and special news programs over public broadcasting. They're watching the regular evening and morning network news programs, too. Still, with all their expanded news opportunities, they are far from satisfied.
What they see of the national political campaign comes over a disjointed, fractious shouting match. Everything seems broken down into the briefest and most provocative of news headlines. Exchanges between candidates and press appear bellicose, and it's hard to get a fix on issues in any meaningful depth. aCollectively the press looks combative, arrogant and self-satisfied, just as it did in the president's televised press conference Thursday afternoon.
But for most people away from such large cities as New York and Washington TV is virtually their only outlet for major news. They can turn less and less to their local papers for broad information about the nation and the world.
In the last three weeks, the Times and Democrat, an Orangeburg paper approaching its 100th birthday, has begun an experiment. It's substantially cutting back on the amount of national and international news it prints, and focusing more on the local angle.
"We're trying to average 50 percent of local news on page one and 80 percent local on our section fronts," said Dean Livingston, the editor and publisher. "Before we were editing on value -- by what were the most important stories of the day regardless of where they came from, foreign national, or local. I like the concept of editing by value, but we're going to see if the new system pays off for us or not. All last week we averaged 75 percent local news on page one."
The editor says they've got some complaints from readers, but the experiment continues.
The world's getting smaller and more complex every day and we seem to be getting less of the kind of information that will help us understand, Earl Middleton, the first black to represent Orangeburg County in the state legislature, was saying. "Oh, my God, the press, what are we going to do about the press?" he asked, rhetorically.
His complaint is not new, but the urgency with which it is being expressed takes on a new dimension this fall. People genuinely are concerned that the press has the power to make or break presidential candidates and influence the election of national events -- and that it often is exercising that power capriciously, thoughtlessly or destructively.
The irony is that citizens now view the presss with far more appreciation for its vital role in society than in the recent past. But, they say, at a time when they're looking toward the press for more serious information, the press is letting them down. And they are right. They expect better, they deserve it -- and they're not getting it.