Recently I have served as a juror poring over hundreds of entries submitted by editors for this year's press awards. I was conscripted into service for two different prize-giving groups and so believe I have read enough column-inches by now to circle the globe at the equator three times. Some of the entries seemed to me very good, others perfectly terrible. But the good and the bad and the in-between all shared one salient characteristic. It may be morning in America, Ronald Reaganwise, but in journalism it is still yesterday afternoon.
To read this material is at first to be struck by the pervasiveness of a '60s sensibility. These are '60s causes -- the maltreatment of the powerless, the corruption of the establishment, the feebleness and decay of institutions. "Out there" -- wherever that is -- people may be smiling and humming and revving up to buy their third Cuisinart, but the world according to journalism is, on the contrary, a surpassingly bleak place. A Martian reading about it might in fact suppose America to be composed entirely of abused minorities living in squalid and sadistically run state mental hospitals, except for a small elite of venal businessmen and county commissioners who are profiting from the unfortunates' misery.
One's initial reaction to the vast discrepancy between the sunny surface preoccupations of American middle-class life and this depiction of a society beset by crime and pain -- especially if one is Sen. Jesse Helms -- is to suspect a crude political motivation. But I don't think that's it. I don't think political liberalism (Helms's prime suspect in the case) is the engine for all this. To some extent there is no engine beyond -- I am sorry to say -- a terrific journalistic weakness for the conventional and the trite. It is no offense to the down-and-out in our society, to the homeless and the deranged, to observe that much of the journalistic anguishing in their behalf reads like a parody of itself, which it is ("You probably never heard of Mary Jones. . . ").
Yet I am convinced that much more is operating here than a tendency toward either political interpretation or journalistic clich,e. The reason I qualified my impression of a raging '60s sensibility with the phrase "at first" is that upon reflection I decided that the '60s had relatively little to do with it. For you could as easily say that what was animating much of this material was an early 19th-century sensibility or a later muckraker one. This kind of journalistic outlook dates back to the earliest times of our country. And left though many of them were, the muckrakers of the first decade of this century -- the Lincoln Steffens of "Shame of the Cities," the Ida Tarbell of "History of the Standard Oil Company" -- exert their influence not because of their now forgotten politics, but rather because of the nature of their domestic journalistic enterprise (Steffens was a fool about the Soviet Union). Theirs is the strain of inquiry journalists follow. Notice how often (and shamelessly) "Shame of. . ." adorns the headline of newspaper expos,es; editors are trying to capitalize on its resonance.
I think it is important to understand this particular influence on modern-day reporting, because it, rather than some hidden political agenda, is mainly what accounts for the kinds of stories that prompt angry people to protest that journalists are always looking for the bad side, trying to tear down the country and so forth. Journalists are not anti-American, as some charge, but they are endemically anti-authority. Notice that even the most complacent and comfortable among us occasionally try to tear the veil off the hypocrises and petty corruptions that afflict public life. The situation is very simple. We are regularly asked to tell other people's lies: that all is well in the state mental hospital, that everything has been done that could be to guarantee the safety of the new household appliance, that there is no connection between the letting of the contract and emoluments for officials of the department of public works and so forth. Perhaps we overreact, but I say better than to go on repeating the various little fictions and subterfuges that are offered in the first instance.
The pitfalls of this are obvious. If you don't believe me, ask CBS or Time or any of the other media that have sustained prolonged and costly libel trials lately. Still, moving behind the officially constructed facade remains the essence of decent reporting. It is interesting and a little mindless that this should always be portrayed as "left." The failure of various public programs and institutions that have been set up to help minorities or the poor, for example, is a perennial favorite for newspaper series. Why should this be considered a liberal preoccupation, when you get right down to it, or a liberal view? Surely the political right has been harping on the same phenomenon for years now. Surely it is the right more often than the left that questions the efficacy of these programs.
It is of course true that we become blinded by our own expectations frequently. It can be very hard for a journalist who has been knocking around for a couple of decades, or even a couple of weeks on some assignments, to take anything at face value anymore. So the error often comes in raining down sardonic doubt on some assertion that it just does not seem possible is true. We are morally certain that if we just yank open one more closet door the corpse will fall out. And maybe we don't give enough attention to things that are going well. I would also toss in an acknowledgment that the press ocasionally loses its ardor in pursuing stories that cast its victim- heroes as villains, although fiscal funny-business in the urban outposts of the poverty program has certainly been well written about.
I return to that mountain of press clippings that I and my fellow jurors struggled with earlier this year: "The Shame" of this, "The Truth About" that. No, all of America is not just one vast, barbaric, overstuffed health hazard of a prison; and, no, your typical American is not some brutal hospital orderly or some contractor- crook who doesn't mind if the high proportion of sand in the cement ends up collapsing the bridge and killing your kid. But, by God, they're there and so are the disgraceful prisons and the failing public programs and the rest. And with all our considerable faults, I think we are right to be dwelling on them.