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Human nature and the newsroom.

One recent morning, I curled up with a New York Times column--Get Thee to a Mental Gym--by Max Frankel, recently morphed from editorial management to (uh oh!) pundit. Frankel began the column by urging that "mental laborers" need to "take time off to think new thoughts." To do this, they need to declare a reading day, when they crack open those journals, books, and magazines that have served primarily as dust-mote condos in the corners of their offices.

What did Frankel turn to? First he reported on an exhibit at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington. It was on the history of the news. Here Frankel learned that "the nature of `news' is shaped more by human nature than editorial discretion." (Is that a whiff of self-justification, waiting off the mental stairmaster?) For centuries, it turns out, people have always been drawn to murder and mayhem stories. So the "if-it-bleeds-it-leads" style of journalism appears, alas, to be inevitable, Frankel concluded.

Next, Frankel read James Fallows's Breaking the News. Now he got a bit more exercised. Fallows's book argues that recent trends in journalism--the overemphasis on which politician, or party, is "on top"; the ridiculous and futile obsession with predicting future election results; the appalling undercoverage of substantive issues; and the rise of an elite corps of millionaire celebrity journalists completely out of touch with regular people--have undermined the nation's ability to discuss sensible solutions to our social problems and have made two-thirds of the American public deeply hostile to the news media. Fallows doesn't even get into corporate censorship of the news, but his argument was too much for Frankel who, in his rebuttal, proves Fallows's point that all too many elite journalists are in denial about the excesses and failures of their field. Hyperventilating by now (and giving off a somewhat defensive odor), Frankel accused

Fallows of trying to turn journalists into social activists who no longer just report the news, but become actors in it as well. "Fallows leaves no room for the customary journalistic ambition to inform and instruct."

Maybe Frankel needs a better trainer, for the bulk of Fallows's book bemoans just that--the news media's failure to inform its audience about the substance of different welfare-"reform" proposals, the impact of NAFTA and GATT, the successes and failures of various health-care plans, and so forth. Frankel does, however, commend Fallows's footnoting format.

Cooling down at the end of his workout, he tackles a truly big topic--"the blizzard of postcards that descends from every magazine ... cluttering the floor and straining the back." His solution? Mail them all back to the magazine without subscribing--that'll teach 'em. (I pressed the, mute button on the McLaughlin Group for this?)

Following Frankel's exhortation, I kept reading around, and dove into Censored: The News That Didn't Make the News--and Why. This would give Frankel real rectus femoris tendinitis, but that's not the only reason to make this part of your library. Project Censored is based at Sonoma State University, and each year lists the top twenty-five censored stories of the year.

Here you will see less the hand of "human nature" and more the hand of powerful corporations and entrenched government bureaucracies playing a key role in determining what you do and do not get to see and read about in the news.

You will learn, for example, that at the same time those lazy, fatcat welfare moms were being bashed on a weekly basis by the pundits for bankrupting America, seven of the largest oil companies in the United States owed the federal government more than $1.5 billion in uncollected royalties, interest, and penalties. CBS and NBC wouldn't touch the story; ABC did a brief piece on it.

You will also learn that ABC's 20120 was planning to do an investigative report on the dangers of fiberglass--currently in 90 percent of American homes--as a possible cause of lung cancer when the network bowed to the $2 billion-a-year fiberglass industry and yanked the story.

Another neglected story: Violations of child-labor laws are worse today than they were in the 1930s, and in 1992 alone, more than 64,100 children went to the emergency room for work-related injuries.

Or how about the finding that more people are killed or seriously injured in U.S. hospitals each year than from airline and automobile accidents combined? But hey, it's human nature that Americans wouldn't want to know about such things.

I wrapped up my reading day with Caryl Rivers's Slick Spins and Fractured Facts: How Cultural Myths Distort the News. In chapters like "The Color of Evil Is Black," Rivers documents how the news media overrepresent black men as criminals (fact: fewer than 1 percent of African Americans are criminals) and underrepresent them as law enforcers, "good samari tans," and regular people.

Her chapters on the media's demonization of single mothers and the scapegoating of women on welfare are also must reading.

I'm glad I took Frankel's advice and read around, for it further documented that "human nature" is not some ineluctable, transhistorical force that inevitably produces superficial, sensationalist journalism.

Yes, people are interested in murders, hurricanes, and fires. But they are also deeply interested in less flashy issues that affect their everyday lives. And they suspect they are getting screwed over, often with the complicity of the elite press. They haven't had to go to a mental gym to figure that one out.
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Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Pundit Watch; decline of investigative journalism
Author:Douglas, Susan
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Column
Date:Jul 1, 1996
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