The Press, Politics, and Psychology, Part II

THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Kathleen Hall Jamieson
Title: “The Press, Politics and Psychology”, Part II
VTR: 6/15/95

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. And this is the second in our series of programs with the seemingly ubiquitous and deservedly quite widely quoted media maven, Dr. Kathleen Hall Jamieson, who these days so often and so wisely comments on the press, print and electronic alike, from her position as Dean of the distinguished Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania.

Now, last time we ranged generally from cabbage to kings, as long as they related to media matters. Let’s do more of the same today.

So, Dean Jamieson, there are so many…

JAMIESON: Kathleen. Kathleen.

HEFFNER: Okay, Kathleen. There are so many things there that I wanted to talk with you about. You know, one of the things is, as a media analyst, your fix on cameras in the courts. Is that fair? Unfair?

JAMIESON: I’m really torn about cameras in the courts, because I think there is a value in the public having access to the court system. It demystifies the court system. I think, however, were it not for cameras in the courts, the O.J. Simpson trial would have happened much more quickly, and we would have seen much less grandstanding. It reminds me a little of what happened when cameras appeared in Congress. Suddenly we began having extended speeches at the end of the day that we had not otherwise had. And we had a lot of rhetorical flourishes that hadn’t occurred before, addressed to an empty House and an empty Senate. There are people, however, who are much more expert than I about how this is or is not interfering with the process. And I think it is to them that you should turn for a better answer. (Laughter)

HEFFNER: Okay. That’s fair enough. But I gather you’re not simply saying, “Oh, we must have cameras in the courtroom”.

JAMIESON: I don’t see why we would have to have them in the courtroom. I think part of the difficulty in having them in the courtroom is that you are going to have areas that they can’t be in because, by putting them in that area, you create problems for the process. For example, in the O.J. Simpson trial, the jurors are being held off-camera. Forms of evidence are being held off-camera. You’re seeing a very limited frame on what is, in fact, in the court, because otherwise, in the perception of the judge, it would interfere with the court process, and also there are some privacy issues that are involved. So we don’t actually have unrestricted access to the courts right now, although, you know, people talk as if we do. When they talk about it as a right, they don’t seem to recognize that the right would not overcome the right to having a free and fair trial.

HEFFNER: Okay. I’ll not press you further on that. But I’ve been so enthralled with the positions you have taken generally about the media, I had to touch on that.

Now, when we talked last time, you talked about the Fairness Doctrine, indicated that you were a supporter of the Fairness Doctrine. What about the notion of the chilling effect of the Fairness Doctrine? So many broadcasters have used that. Our friend, Fred Friendly, has certainly written about and spoken about the chilling effect of the Fairness Doctrine. Are you willing to be chilled in that way?

JAMIESON: I think that that is a convenient argument for those who oppose the Fairness Doctrine. I don’t know how you could say that the Fairness Doctrine chills if what the Fairness Doctrine is saying is that, as you make decisions about what you’re going to have and access across the spectrum of a station, you want to make sure that you’re fair and that alternative points of view are represented. I mean, it seems to me, rather than chilling, what that provides is a useful conscience that ought to be there in any event. If those people in charge of the broadcast media are being responsible, you shouldn’t need a Fairness Doctrine, because that’s what they ought to be doing in order to serve their audiences as well as the public at large. Rather than chilling, I think, what it is is liberating, because it invites people to think about the range of discourse, and in the process, to increase the likelihood that you hear points of view that might enrich the dialogue.

HEFFNER: Well, then, how explaining the opposition to it? The opposition on the part of some broadcasters I can and you can understand, and perhaps dismiss it immediately. But when people like Fred Friendly, good newspeople, are concerned about the Fairness Doctrine, how do we explain that?

JAMIESON: There are always going to be people of good will and integrity on both sides of every issue. I think that if narrowly constructed to mean that you want technical balance, so that you’re thinking about having, you know, comparable kinds of weighting on issues, etcetera, you could talk about restricting the creativity in the medium and chance having a chilling effect. But I just don’t see the argument beyond that. And the Fairness Doctrine in general wasn’t applied that way. It was applied in a way to ensure that alternative forces that had a legitimate stake in the debate and had audiences in the community were, in fact, getting access.

HEFFNER: Do you think that generally the notion that there was a governmental presence in the form of the Fairness Doctrine, even though, as you say, it was not enforced in a way that you would feel its heavy weight or its chilling effect particularly fearsome, what do you feel about that general presence, that climate of regulatory participation? Are you one of those people who indulge now in the mantra of deregulation?

JAMIESON: I think deregulation should be a last, not a first, resort. And that, but one ought to keep open the possibility that it is going to be exercised, if for no other than the reason that the possibility of regulation can encourage, self-regulation. I prefer self-regulation to regulation in virtually all instances, on the assumption that those who are inside an industry are better able to avoid what I call the “Law of Unintended Consequences” or regulation. And when industries act responsibly, they can, in fact, forestall regulation. Once you say, however, “There will not be regulation”, you create a disincentive for self-regulation, and you increase the likelihood that industries which have a high incentive toward making profits will be driven more by profit than by a sense of the public good. So I think it is always valuable, whether, in fact, one wants to see regulation enforced, to maintain the position that it is a prospect, because that has good social consequences.

HEFFNER: Yes, but when the Reagan administration brought about through its FCC, the chairman appointed by President Reagan brought about an end to the Fairness Doctrine, which was just a doctrine of the commission, rather than the product of a law…

JAMIESON: Right.

HEFFNER: You’d have to start all over again now. Now, are you in favor of a law that re-establishes – I shouldn’t even say “re-establishes” – that establishes a Fairness Doctrine? It’s going to be far different fro the Fairness Doctrine in the past, which was a simple, agency regulation. Would you want to see a law now, as one was passed by the Democratic Congress and vetoed by the Republican presidents over the last decade?

JAMIESON: I think what we need is a dialog about the appropriate remedy for an environment in which alternative voices are not as often heard as one would like. And I am not a lawyer, and, as a result, don’t want to get into the question of whether something should take regulatory form or some form beyond regulatory form. I think it’s more appropriate for the people who have expertise about how to institutionalize to talk about the procedural mechanisms for institutionalization. And that’s basically what that discussion is about. The point that I come into the debate is the point at which one says, “Is it desirable to have alternative voices legitimized by giving them access so that audiences can determine their relative merits in the playing field?” And I think that one ought to, in every way that is possible encourage rather than discourage the multiple expression of voices across the political spectrum, because I think it makes the political process stronger. It increased the likelihood that the ideas that are at play ultimately have some influence in shaping compromise. And legislation is ultimately a compromising process. And it increases the likelihood that audiences won’t feel disenfranchised because they feel shut out of the national dialog, which effectively, I think, we do when whole segments of the political spectrum, small but discernible, feel that they haven’t had a voice. Falani’s participants, Falani’s supporters are among them. The Libertarians are among them. I think Larry Agrant’s supporters had a legitimate argument that they got very little news coverage in the 1992 campaign, and as a result did not have a chance to hear a defensible, alternative point of view about what we ought to do with our cities. Cities essentially were not on the national agenda because there wasn’t someone focusing on them in the national debate. He was trying to, but his voice wasn’t getting through.

HEFFNER: Are you satisfied that what we now call “talk radio” is providing a voice for other dissidents in our society?

JAMIESON: I think, in fact, talk radio is a reaction to the constricted dialog, and to structures that functionally don’t work very well for the electorate in mainstream news. I think talk radio is also a response to an environment in which audiences feel that they have not been able to participate in the dialog. Talk radio is not homogeneous. Often pundits and academics talk as if talk radio is one big monolith. Part of what is exciting about talk radio, to me, is that very small groups have been able to find a voice. There’s now a talk radio call-in show for the disabled, for example. There are many talk radio shows for Hispanics. A talk radio show just came on-line last week by and for Native Americans. Those are voices that ordinarily are not heard in mainstream media. And this gives those voices and those points of view a chance to talk with each other. Unfortunately, since people tend to be attracted to those things that are like their points of view, the audiences for those shows are very, very small, and so it’s groups essentially talking to themselves rather than talking to each other. And part of the problem with talk radio is that, in general, the hosts of talk radio put one point of view forward and don’t put alternative points of view forward in the same media environment. And as a result, people may be reinforced in their convictions without having had the chance to hear what the alternative side is. It’s not very likely that they’d be persuaded if they heard the other side, but is more likely that they would be tolerant of the alternative points of view.

The other concern that I have about talk radio is that there are points on the talk-radio spectrum that are engaging in kinds of discourse that, unventilated in a large, public dialog, reinforce sentiments that are fundamentally antisocial. Bob Grant’s show, for example, on talk radio, has included extended exchanges that I think are very problematic about African-Americans. The advantage of a system in which, however, the media perform a watchdog function is that those segments of discourse were brought to national attention in a political campaign when Lautenberg in New Jersey raised them with an opponent and said, “Do you repudiate this or not?” Also by an African-American threatened boycott of the advertisers of Grant’s station. That process, to me, which did mute his discourse, is a process that is functionally the way democracy is supposed to work. Small groups were listening, potentially being reinforced in views that I think ought to be ventilated. People ought to be exposed to the alternative side. Why these things are problematic ought to be discussed. And then, using the democratic means available, audiences that were potentially affected said, “I object to this”, and said it through the commercial channel, influencing the sponsors. So there are things on the talk radio bent, and I’m making an argument for the free speech of Bob Grant, ultimately led to a productive dialog about how we should talk about race, with people who respect is saying, “That’s not an appropriate way to be talking about race. Do you really want, audience, to listen to this sort of discourse?”

HEFFNER: Do you think that, in other instances that kind of talk led to something that was anti-social, though?

JAMIESON: I think the legitimate controversy occurs over the kinds of discussions that occur with a shortwave-based program by a person named Quarenke, who is at the militia fringe in the way in which I define the world in relationship to the Oklahoma bombing. I think Gordon Liddy’s statements about shooting to the head of ATF agents are highly problematic statements. Do I thin that people listen to those things on talk radio and as a result engage in social action they wouldn’t have engaged in? No. What I think happens is this: people are drawn to like-minded discourse, and that discourse, if it is not multi-sided, if you don’t get it placed in a larger context, can reinforce those tendencies. And that can, in fact, increase the likelihood that people are going to act. I don’t think it directly produces the action.

HEFFNER: Okay, but you use the word “directly”, in a sense, as a way out. Let’s say “indirectly”. What are the consequences?

JAMIESON: Well, the interesting thing for people who are now discussing violence and then discussing talk radio is that they have to confront a fundamental question. If you believe that violence on television affects people, if discourse can affect people, and if the effects are harmful, then you probably also should believe that those kinds of statements in talk radio, particularly in highly dramatized form, you know, talking in descriptive detail, and I believe, inaccurately about what ATF agents have done, stomping kittens, for example. You know, one of the narratives from one of the right-wing talk-radio hosts suggests that the ATF agents broke into a person’s house who had cancer, stole his money, scattered his medicine, and stomped his cat. The reporters who have looked into it suggest that that is not a plausible interpretation of what has happened. Whether it has or not is, in fact, something that one ought to be scrutinizing in a domain in which there’s multi-sided discourse. But it is problematic to say, “I think violence causes antisocial behavior”, and then say, “I think talk radio doesn’t”. I think there has to be some consistency across the two.

HEFFNER: Then let me ask you: Do you say the former? Do you believe that there is a causal connection between violence in the media and violence in our society?

JAMIESON: I think the same thing that I think about incendiary talk on talk radio. I think that an individual comes into an environment with dispositions that have been reinforced in other kinds of ways, and also exists in a culture in which access to guns is much too free. And in that environment, high levels of exposure to violence has a capacity to reinforce in ways that are counterproductive. I think words matter, discourse mattes. The question is: Once you’ve said that, what do you then recommend that you do? After the Oklahoma bombing, a number of station managers, on their own, took off the air G. Gordon Liddy. In one instance, one of the right-wing conservative talk-show hosts was taken off by a station manager, and then there were bomb threats and death threats to the station, which does suggest that people in that audience are disposed to engage in illegal behavior, to say nothing of antisocial behavior. But I think the interesting question is: How do you want to intervene, given the assumption that words have consequences, acts have consequences?

HEFFNER: How do you want to intervene?

JAMIESON: I want to intervene by beginning with the assumption that regulation is a last resort but an always present resort, and that self-regulation is more desirable. You participated for much of your adult life in a process of self-regulation in that you gave parents access to information that is helpful in determining whether or not movie content is appropriate for children and children of what ages. I think it’s more beneficial to do that than it is to begin with the assumption of regulation. When self-regulation doesn’t occur, or self-regulation fails, and you believe there’s harm, I think you then move to a discussion of regulation.

HEFFNER: Yes, but self-regulation worked in a certain context at a certain time. It worked when you were referring to movies that were shown at the Bijou or the lyric, that were shown in a theater where there was somebody – it wasn’t always effective, but effective enough for parents to embrace the system more rather than less – there was somebody at the box office, there was an intermediary between the communication and the child. And so presumably the child didn’t make connection with that harsh communication. Today we live in a period when everything comes into the home, when there are no more intermediaries. Can you talk about ratings then, and voluntarism then, in this context? It’s a whole new world.

JAMIESON: You can talk about whether those people who own video stores should be ensuring that some kinds of content cannot be checked out by children under a certain age. You can talk about a V-chip in your television set, so that parents are able to exercise control. You can talk bout creating a home environment in which parents have primary responsibility, as they do, for the context in which their children are raised.

HEFFNER: Yes, but you know, your predecessor, George Gerbner, said something that, s much as I disagree with George about many things…

JAMIESON: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: (Laughter) …he said that the whole concept was an upper-middle-class deceit.

JAMIESON: Yes. It is.

HEFFNER: It has to do with parents who are well-enough educated and wealthy enough to have the time to be concerned to act at the home. Doesn’t have to do with increasing majorities of parents in our country. So…

JAMIESON: It’s true.

HEFFNER: …where do we go from there, when we have a nation more and more composed of latchkey children?

JAMIESON: My first impulse is always to try to ensure that the industries that are responsible for the content on their own act responsibly. They do it, for example, by determining that some kinds of content will not be shown until late hours in the evening. Most of your latchkey children are, in fact, coming home at, you know, at 4:00 to 4:30 in the afternoon, and there are some kinds of content that ought not, by voluntary decision, be on the air at that point. In fact, many of the cable stations are functioning that way right now. There is certain sexually explicit content on movie channels that is not available until later in the evening when it is more likely that you’re going to have parental responsibility. We also said something to the media during the Gulf War. During the Gulf War, the networks were putting news interruptions in to children programming time, time after school hours, of highly problematic content if the children were not in an environment supervised by adults. And our concern was that there was not parental warning in that environment, and that they ought to be sensitive to the fact that highly problematic live content, content not about a fictional world, but about an actual world, could be put into an environment in which children were expecting to get Sesame Street. The networks began running advisories before they put news content on in response to concerns by many people, and we were among them, about that as a phenomenon. I don’t start from the assumption of industry irresponsibility; I start from the assumption of industry responsibility. And I think it’s useful to take that posture, because if you don’t take that posture, you license your responsibility.

HEFFNER: That’s a puzzling statement, if I may say. I mean, if you look around you, and you talk about responsibility, what is the responsibility? We no longer talk very much about the public interest, necessity and convenience. We no longer talk about what should be done here or what really ought to be done there; we talk about “So’s your old man. You did this; we’re going to do that. You don’t do gun control, so we won’t do program control”. Everyone says he or she is responsible to his or her own particular interest. The broadcaster says, “We’re responsible to our stockholders”. Who is talking about the kids? Who’s responsible for the kids and for the future of American life?

JAMIESON: In part, parents are; in part, the industry is; in part, the educational system is. We have an unprecedented opportunity in the educational system to create appreciation for kinds of content that are uplifting and enriching. We haven’t done that as well as we ought to. And when we have a public debate about taking financing away from public broadcasting, which has been one of the few areas in which, instead of saying, “How do we take out the bad?”, we’ve said, “How do you put in the good?” I think, in fact, we’re engaging in a discussion which is fundamentally making it more difficult to create access to avenues of programming that let people develop an appreciation for those forms of content that are fundamentally enriching. I think that one ought to be able to find in programming that is creative and is intellectually enriching a satisfaction that one can’t find in mindless violence. And if we have a highly educated population – and in historical terms we have an unprecedented highly educated population – and that population gravitates in box-office terms toward mindless violence, I think one question we ought to ask is, “At what point did we in the educational enterprise fail to inculcate an appreciation for the higher and more enriching forms of art?”

HEFFNER: But, Kathleen, the fact is, I’m an old man, and I look back…

JAMIESON: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: …I attended a conference some months back which was, as friends of mine know, a kind of an epiphany for me, because on this matter of regulation versus the hope that regulation isn’t necessary, that it’s always, as you suggest, lurking in the background, but we don’t employ it immediately, hearing the same arguments about what we ought to do and that educators should exercise their responsibility and our schools should do this and our parents should do that, “Don’t blame us in the media”. After 40 years of listening to that and seeing what is happening in our country, better educated than ever before, I have to think that we’ve got to turn to other modalities of cleaning the mess up.

JAMIESON: And if you take that position, then you have a very serious burden. Because what you have to say is, “I am able to write the code that will indicate what the content is, I’ll be able to set up a board whose integrity is such that it will recognize what that content is, I have to put in place the enforcement mechanisms that will ensure that, in fact, that content doesn’t get through whatever channels I’m going to regulate, and I have to assume that in a culture that is an open culture that content won’t just reappear some place else where people will be ale to find access to it.

HEFFNER: But, you see, I think there is a greater responsibility, and that is to find that the Dean of the School of Communications, the Annenberg School of Communications, will participate in that sort of thing. I don’t pretend for a moment that after these 40 years I’m capable of doing that. But I think we have to start thinking on those terms. Instead, we think in terms of deregulation, deregulation, etcetera.

Let me ask you a question. We just have a couple minutes left. How do you feel about the idea of a national news council? We used to have one, and then, thanks to the opposition, The New York Times and others, we no longer have it. That was self-regulation.

JAMIESON: One of the problems with self-regulation is that, unless the major players buy in, it’s not going to work. We do, however, have surrogates that function, to some extent, in the same kinds of ways. The Columbia Journalism Review is a surrogate. Its darts and its, you know, positive statements about things in news constitute a way of socially shaming people who have overstepped the line. We have a number of journalism reviews now, and we didn’t when we were originally talking about the need for that kind of monitoring. We have ombudsmen in more newspapers now than we did then. That is, in fact, a form of self-regulation. And to some extent it’s more effective than a national news council, because now you’ve got someone who’s inside the newspaper and has regular access to the editorial page who’s making those statements. And as you know, the ombudsmen at newspapers always feel a little uncomfortable because they are always making someone at their newspaper very unhappy. We now have enough ombudsmen that hey actually had an ombudsmen conference, you know, an ombudsmen convention.

HEFFNER: What did it look like? My God. (Laughter)

JAMIESON: (Laughter) I read a news account of it, and so I don’t know physically what it looked like. But at the point at which you have enough that they can now start gathering to talk about what it is they’re saying and doing, you, in fact, have a different kind of self-regulatory movement that has emerged.

I think that they way in which the process ought to work is one tries something – national news council was something – and if it doesn’t work, one looks for alternative ways to accomplish the same objective. I believe in highly flexible, very pragmatic movement in large, institutional structures. I think an internal ombudsman who is a person who has high respect inside a newspaper, because he is there or she is there, has, I call it “prophylactic effect”. They make it less likely that you’re going to engage in the kinds of abuses that in many cases characterize the history of the newspaper industry before the presence of that movement. Secondly, you’ve got a large cadre of academic analysts who now take as a responsibility doing ongoing critiques of the press. Now, we’re not a national news council, but we are, in fact, to some extent, an institutional spokesperson, and we’re content-analyzing and we’re critiquing.

HEFFNER: And that’s the point I have to thank you for joining me today, Kathleen Jamieson. Thanks so much.

And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about our program today, about our distinguished guest, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $4.00 in check or money order.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

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