Donald S. Kellerman
The Press and the People
VTR Date: July 29, 1990
Guest: Kellerman, Donald S.
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THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Donald S. Kellermann
Title: “The Press and the People”
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. A generation ago, the byword in America was, “Don’t trust anyone over 30”. Well, today it might well be, “Don’t ask anyone under 30”, not at least if you are looking for some real knowledge of, maybe even concern about or interest in, what’s going on in the world around us. That seems to be the conclusion to be drawn from the recent study by the Center for the People and the Press established by the Times Mirror Company, and information giant itself, that owns the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, and various other media enterprises. Over the past number of years, parallel studies have been conducted by the Center for the People and the Press, and since the impact and the level of responsibility of the press, print and electronic alike, remain for me among the most significant issues of our times, I’ve invited the Center’s director to join me today on THE OPEN MIND.
Donald S. Kellermann started in journalism as a police reporter in print. Eventually he went to CBS News as a writer, producer, and director, then to Washington to work with leading Republican legislators. I want first today to ask him what information about the people and the press derived from his center’s researches he considers to be the most crucial to the well-being of the American democracy here at the twilight of the twentieth century.
Mr. Kellermann, what looms the largest in term so our future in the information your researchers have uncovered?
KELLERMANN: I think there were two things. One is positive; and that’s the fact that the American people, by and large, trust the press to do a job that they consider to be essential. The press is watchdog as far as the American public is concerned. That’s its most important function. And that’s the good news if you’re in the media business.
The bad news is that young Americans (people under 30), adult Americans between 18 and 30, seem to be less interested in the news in the world around them really, and public affairs in particular, than any equivalent generation before them over the last 50 years.
HEFFNER: Do you think that’s a function of the nature of the press, print and electronic alike, or a function of something else in our society?
KELLERMANN: Well, I think it’s the function of many things in our society. Although these judgments, in part, are subjective, it seems to me fair to assume that part of the reason young people are less interested than young people used to be in the world around them is because they suffer from what’s come to be a big cliché in our business: information overload. But I believe there’s a strong element of truth in that. The irony of the failure of young people to be engaged with public life in 1990 is that they have more opportunity than people have ever had before to become engaged. There is more information available today by far than ever before. And that information comes both via print and electronics. And it’s the electronic environment that I think is the shaping environment; the numbers will indicate that. In addition to being the shaping environment as far as what you pick up in terms of news or other information, it also shapes your responses. This is the first generation of people to grow up, literally to be born into the age of television. Life, in one sense, may be one jump cut after the other for young people. It’s not just news an public affairs; it’s information. Education is now geared to the use of computers. It’s also entertainment. There is, in a small town in America…you can go to 130, 140 in some cases 150 channels for entertainment and news. I think that has a tremendous effect – not all positive by any means – on a generation that’s grown up expecting to hit the button, hit the button, expecting to be entertained. Basically, people in a passive posture.
HEFFNER: Of course, you put the entertainment function last. You talked about all the information that is available. But isn’t it because of the entertainment syndrome, the constant assumption that our lives, in our lives we are to be entertained morning, noon, and night, that would necessarily take the focus of our lives away from the information that you say in previous generations younger people were much more wrapped up in?
KELLERMANN: Yeah. I, look, there is no question about that. I might have mentioned it last, but I think of it as being first. First in the sense that people are conditioned socially today to expect entertainment, as you suggest, to think of it as a birthright. I was thinking the other day that when I was a small boy the Saturday movie house was the basic cultural experience of my life, and of the lives of millions of other kids. You went to the movies on Saturday afternoon, you paid a dime, and that was your entertainment for the week, if you were lucky. And you had the time to cogitate over that entertainment. I don’t care whether it was Flash Gordon or Dick Tracy or Romeo and Juliet with Norma Shearer and Basil Rathbone. It didn’t matter. It was an experience. It was an unusual event. It was something outside the norm. And you had the idea to flavor it, to think about it, to absorb it. I said a moment ago that life is one succession of jump cuts after the other. I really mean that. If from the time you are one, two, or three years old you were exposed to an environment in which music and visual images, larger than life visual images, are a central part of your environment, you have to respond differently to that environment than we did years before television became the center of our lives.
HEFFNER: Well, when you talk about Saturday afternoon, I think first of taking the bus down to the Lyric Theater in Tucson, Arizona and then getting first the root beer float for a nickel, and then the dime for those three features. And you’re right; there wasn’t anything else unless it was the Jack Armstrong and the other radio programs.
KELLERMANN: Radio. And again, radio, although of course it is electronic, in those days offered an imaginative experience. It was an imaginative experience because if you were listening to Jack Armstrong or Skippy or any of the afternoon soap operas for that matter, you had to create your own visual environment. You had to imagine Jack Armstrong as he was running down the field to catch the pass or as he stood there and avoided tacklers. You knew who these people were; but every individual had a different conception of who they were. Today that’s not the case, of course. Today we are, in a sense, the captives of images created, manipulated by a small group of people for reasons that may or may not be good for you sitting in your living room when you’re ten years old or…
HEFFNER: Wait a moment. What are the reasons? Is there any other reason than profit?
KELLERMANN: Well, when you get into the area of news and information, I certainly hope there is a reason beside profit. And I know there is because I’m in the business, as you are.
HEFFNER: But you were directing yourself to the massive dose of entertainment that we receive. You weren’t really talking about news.
KELLERMANN: That’s true. And obviously profit is the bottom line. The fact though is that people who make movies, who produce television programs, are more than businessmen. They are creative people. And they have at their disposal not only this enormous technology, but their own imaginations. I believe that many of them feel that they are creating art; and they are in many cases. But that’s a relatively small factor, a minor factor, it seems to me in the impulses that guide the how and the why and the when that you are given a certain package of entertainment. The basic impulse has to do with the marketplace. It’s almost inevitable.
HEFFNER: Then what do we see as we look into the future if this diversion…Well, I’m thinking, last week I videotaped a program with the great historian John Hope Franklin, who described wonderfully in an essay the occupation of his life, of his father’s life, of his mother’s life. In the evening you read and you wrote. You were involved in a process that is the antithesis of what you’re describing here: the taking in of entertainment in our own time. What kind of people do we come to? In your own area of concern for the press and the people, what will be the impact upon our relationship to the press of this declining interest in the world around us?
KELLERMANN: Well, I’m hopeful by nature, if not by the numbers. And I think I have a right to be hopeful in terms of past American history. The fact is that although young Americans today are not nearly as interested as you and I and many others would think that they should be, the fact is that there’s a reason beside the technology and their own indifference. Times are pretty good for most Americans. Even if times are not pretty good, most Americans think they are. And that’s been true for a long time. The 18-to-30-year-old group grew up under the Reagan Administration. That’s ten years, almost ten years. Our findings indicate that young Americans were more favorably inclined toward President Reagan than older Americans were. And interestingly, they continue to be. Most of them were born, came to political consciousness perhaps to a limited degree during the latter part of the Carter presidency. Anyone who remembers back then remembers the days of malaise and inflation, etcetera. And these people moved into ten crucial years of their life during the Reagan presidency when malaise was forgotten as far as they were concerned. And they became enamored of morning in America. And I believe that that has a good deal to do with their lack of interest in public life. They don’t feel the need to be interested in public life. Prior generations had wars and depressions to contend with. Public life and private life were inextricably intertwined. You could not be 18 years old in 1941 and not be interested in the news, because the news had something to do with your life. Your life, in all probability, would be on the line in a very few months. And if we go back and look at the surveys done by public opinion organizations in the 40s, we’d find that young people knew where the Solomon Islands were. They certainly knew where Tokyo was. They knew who Henry Wallace was and who Harry Truman was and who Norman Thomas was. They knew who the head of the War Production Board was. I don’t want to overemphasize this. These are comparative judgments. More of them knew about those things than know today. During the Depression, young Americans again had every reason to be involved with public affairs. One out of every ten adults was out of work. Disinflation raged across the country. The public life had to do with whether or not you would be selling apples or getting a decent job.
In the 60s, we all remember vividly what happened in the 60s. You had two presidential, one presidential assassination – excuse me – and two other major public figures were murdered; murdered on the television screen, I might say. Or at least the images were projected immediately by television. That generation of 18-to-30-year-olds was riveted to the daily news because the daily news had to do with the loss of their leaders, and even more important, with the Vietnam War and the civil rights revolution. The Vietnam War has been called by others “the first television war”, and it was. And the civil rights movement was the first mass, popular movement to be recorded by television cameras and brought into your living room as well. In that sense, television did an extraordinary job. And young Americans were swept up by public events.
But then came Watergate, our inability to get out of Vietnam, and then ultimately Americans leaving Vietnam from the roof of the embassy in Saigon. Those were sour images. Watergate was a very sour image. And I believe that people who were 18 to 30 at that time, who had attempted to stop the war, who had been engaged in all kinds of activity, clicked off. And the numbers reveal that. The Roper Institute reveals that from 1975 on, 18-to-30-year-ods who are now middle-aged, gave up on public life. They shrugged it off and decided they were no longer interested. That group today is still better informed than those who’ve come after them. But they’re not very much more interested. The only people interested in news and public affairs to a large degree in contemporary society appear to be people 50 and over. I think that’s because their attitudes, social, political, private, were shaped a long time ago. The two succeeding generations have, certainly the middle generation, has gone through the mill in terms of public trauma and tragedy. They switched it off. Their younger brothers and sisters, and some cases their children, just never switched it on.
HEFFNER: But having switched off, or having never turned on in that sense, how can you be optimistic about what will happen unless you’re projecting war and famine and depression which made our generation very much aware, as you suggest, of what was going on?
KELLERMANN: What I’m projecting is the normal cycles of time. Things may look good today, but there is no guarantee that they’ll be good tomorrow or look good tomorrow. In fact, there’s a guarantee that it’s impossible for things to look good, to feel good forever. When that happens, I believe that Americans will look at what’s going on around them and try to get the kind of information that they need to act on those issues that will confront them. You know there’s an issue even today that young people are every bit as aware of as older people, in fact more so, and that’s abortion. Now, there’s a reason for that. It’s an obvious reason of course: abortion is an issue that rages across the entire spectrum of American life. But who does it affect most? It affects young people. It affects people from 18 to 30 as much or more than any other segment of the population. And our statistics indicate that they are knowledgeable about that issue, and more than being knowledgeable, they’re interested in it. They follow it to a greater extent than the older groups do.
HEFFNER: Is there any evidence, times of turmoil now, aside from the abortion question, that there is a demand for information on the part of the younger people in our society and that that demand is understood by the media and then perhaps even in part met by what they do in print or electronically?
KELLERMANN: Well, I think the media have attempted, and in some degree they’ve been successful, in meeting the change in young people’s appetites.
HEFFNER: But that’s in a downward fashion, isn’t it?
KELLERMANN: Well, down, up, it’s a reflection of our current reality. If you take a look at the newsmagazines today, Time, Newsweek, US News & World Report, certainly the first two, you will find that they have changed dramatically from the newsmagazines of only a few years ago. They are soft around the edges. And the fact is they have succeeded in bringing younger people into the fold to a greater extent than other media have.
HEFFNER: But Don, let’s go back to what you were saying about the impact of the entertainment aspect of television itself.
HEFFNER: If you have fed people a certain diet, if you’ve gotten their alimentary canal accustomed to the digestion of certain materials, what in the world leads you to think that they can suddenly turn around? People to turn off…People, having learned that I have no involvement…Look at the numbers who do not vote.
KELLERMANN: Well, that’s closely related to what we’re talking about.
HEFFNER: I know.
KELLERMANN: The fact is that in the last presidential election fewer people between 18 and 30 voted than in any other group. And in 1972, young people were still involved in the process to a large degree. They voted at rates of 50 percent. In this last election, I think they voted in the high twenties. So there is no question that what we, our level of interest in the world around us affects the way we respond in public terms. And democracy, to that extent, is endangered. But I said I was an optimist. And I am, because I truly believe that we can’t judge a generation until it’s challenged. There has been no challenge to match those that were met by earlier generations. Let’s remember that in 1940 – or 1936, I think it was – the Oxford Union had a debate, resolved that this house shall not fight for king and country. And it won overwhelmingly. This body shall not fight for king and country. Four years later, those kids were up there fighting the Battle of Britain.
HEFFNER: The problem with that, it seems to me, Don, is that historians have noted that that indifference, which had been growing since World War I played a large role in bringing England to the brink without preparation. And yes, the challenge was met, and it was met magnificently. The question I raise is whether we can’t anticipate it that – you said, “Going up or going down doesn’t make any difference. Meeting the challenge one way or the other doesn’t make any difference”. – But I raise the question as to whether we might not become so accustomed to turning our back on real challenges that we won’t know how. The generation you’re talking about, the crucial generation, won’t know how to respond in terms of informational gathering, informational processing. That’s my major concern.
KELLERMANN: It’s very much a concern, a worry. We’d have to be blind and deaf to reality if we didn’t think of it in those terms. But you can respond to that worry by simply shrugging your own shoulders in terms of, “So be it”, or you can say, “Well, we have to keep bringing them the news. We have to keep analyzing the news. And we do”.
HEFFNER: But that is not what’s being done, by your own testimony. Increasingly we’re becoming soft in our presentation of the world.
KELLERMANN: The great many people, there are many institutions that are doing that, but they’re not doing it solely in an effort to make money. They’re doing it in an effort to stay in the arena where they can help to inform people. They may not inform people in the way that you and I have brown accustomed to seeing that information offered and processed, but they still are dealing with events. I personally don’t care how young people get information about change in Eastern Europe. If it’s packaged as “the good gray Times”, as they used to call it, would have packaged it, or as The New York Times packages it today, that’s fine. That’s more to my taste. If they package it on a rock musician’s show or on a DJ’s, an “MTV” program, that’s all right with me, too. So long as the information is out.
Let me illustrate that. There is one public figure that young people were very much aware of before he was released from prison, and that was Nelson Mandela. Before he came to the United States, during a period when he was in prison for 27 years, the 18-to-30-year-olds, some 50 percent of them, which is a very high number (I think it was actually 58 percent), knew who Nelson Mandela was. Now, when I say they knew, I don’t mean we asked them, “Do you know who he was?” and they said, “Yes”. I mean we asked them to identify him. And they identified him as an anti-apartheid leader who was imprisoned in South Africa. That’s an astonishingly high number. They’re not reading The New York Times. They are not engaged in public discourse with David Brinkley. Where do they get that information? They get it from “MTV” and equivalent sources. And the reason is that a great many musicians, a great piece of the pop culture is involved with the anti-apartheid struggle. And that information is funneled to young people through their own entertainment sources.
HEFFNER: The question, of course, you must admit, does remain whether those means can actually achieve the ends to which you as a newsperson devoted yourself a long, long time ago. And the question too much come up whether there aren’t the challenges in our own times, whether it has to do with drugs or it has to do with homelessness or it has to do with deficits or whatever, that one would have hoped that it stimulated an interest on the part of the young people already.
KELLERMANN: I agree with you. And the numbers substantiate your view. Twelve percent of young people know who William Bennett, the drug czar is. What kind of a drug war can we mount when 18-to-30-year-olds, when nearly 90 percent of them don’t know who the commanding general is supposed to be? You can match those figures with levels of knowledgeability about many other issues: homelessness, savings and loan scandal, etcetera. I would submit through that the reason for that lack of involvement with very serious issues, and issues that are coming around the bend, is that they have not yet struck home at the people we’re talking about. These are issues that are on the horizon, with the exception of the drug culture. But even there are increasing number of young people – according to surveys now our own – are moving away from the drug culture to a considerable degree. Certainly that’s true in middle-class homes. And those are the people who used to be interested and are no longer interested in the kinds of issues that we’ve been talking about.
HEFFNER: Don Kellermann, I do appreciate your joining me today. I don’t know, after you say what you say, whether I’m an optimist or a pessimist. But I suspect pessimist, as usual. Thank you so much for joining me.
KELLERMANN: Thanks for having me.
HEFFNER: 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 today’s program, today’s subject, today’s guest, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order.
Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.