Michael Schudson

Why Democracies Need An Unlovable Press, Part I

VTR Date: October 20, 2008

Michael Schudson discusses journalism and democracy.


GUEST: Michael Schudson
VTR: 10/20/2008

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.

And because I’ve read him so often and for so long now – regularly in the Columbia Journalism Review and in The American Prospect, as well as on the OpEd pages of the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times … and, of course, because of his recently published collection of provocative essays on journalism and democracy titled “Why Democracies Need An Unlovable Press” – I’ve invited an eminent sociologist to be our Open Mind guest here today.

A Harvard Ph.D., a Guggenheim fellow and a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award winner, Michael Schudson is Distinguished Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of California in San Diego and Professor of Communication at the Graduate School of Journalism, Columbia University.

And I want to begin today by asking my guest to explain just what the title of his new book means … “Why Democracies Need An Unlovable Press”. It’s a strange title, Michael. What do you mean by it?

SCHUDSON: It is. It’s intended to provoke. And it really comes from Alexis de Tocqueville, who is widely quoted as saying that, that the press in America is a building block essential to democracy. And that gets repeated at journalism banquets all over the country.

But he adds another line and he says that journalism is so important to America, newspapers in particular … that’s what he’s talking about in the 1830s … so important to America, not for the good it does … because he finds it sort of irascible, unpleasant, violent. But for the bad that it prevents. So that … he thinks it’s absolutely necessary, but unlovable.

HEFFNER: A necessary evil?

SCHUDSON: It’s a … it’s a necessary … evil smelling good. It … it isn’t … it isn’t what we’d like … we don’t necessarily want to invite it into our living rooms, but we can’t do without it. And we can’t do without it because it keeps government on its toes. Because it’s watching. Because it’s criticizing. Because … more later than at that time … it’s investigating. And I think that’s still true about it. And, and some of its least celebrated features are its most essential aspects for preserving democracy.

For instance, the one that I emphasis most in, in the book is the importance of covering events. Something that happened in the last 24 hours. Most people who theorize about journalism say well, that’s … that’s so minor and it …and to focus on it keeps journalism from doing what it really should be doing which is to tell us about the deeper trends, to put things in perspective, to analyze, to give a little history, some background and so on. All that’s fine with me.

But it’s the emphasis on events that spring up that no one, including those in power can control that makes the press so important.

HEFFNER: Well, I remember James Reston’s book Footprints on the Sands of Time, in which he … a collection of his pieces from the Times … New York Times. But he, he … there was one essay there from which the collection got its title as with your book. In which he … he wrote about Richard Nixon, who was saying it’s what’s up front that counts. It’s what happened … you say the candidate, for instance, or the President of the United States … saying something the press should report … that Richard Nixon yesterday said so-and-so … period. Rather than going behind the returns.

Now do you think that that is the great benefit of the, of the press? Reporting the news?

SCHUDSON: Not in that way … no. I mean the sorts of events that I focus on in saying … in emphasizing their importance is the event that isn’t pre-planned, that isn’t handed down from a President …


SCHUDSON: … but that surprises a President. The … when your … the press should not be simply the transmission belt for the views of the White House. Should the President’s statement yesterday be reported up front? Absolutely.

And, and that’s standard practice in the mainstream media.

HEFFNER: Should it be reported up front? Let me interrupt for a moment … should it be reported up front without benefit of instant analysis?

SCHUDSON: No. I … you know … I’m … I think the press does … has sort of multiple functions in a democracy. One provide the information and, and the press routinely defers to high government officials. That’s … those are their main sources. And, and if the President makes a statement, gives a speech, something about that speech, including the President’s words are likely to be in the first paragraph or several paragraphs of a news story.

But increasingly, basically since the 1960s the press doesn’t stop there. The press felt that in, in the sixties, again under Ronald Reagan and, and the first George Bush, there was a sense that, that the press was, was too deferential and that speeches that were purely public relations or were designed for some specific narrowly political self-aggrandizing purpose … were just being run straight, without comment.

So what happens more often now … and in, in a paper like The New York Times almost every story, it seems, about the President is …”here’s what the President said” and then further down in the story, you have to read further … it’ll say, “and the President said this because he’s having trouble consolidating his base with the … for the next election, or he needs to modify such and such.”

The first reflex of the press is report what the President said. The second press is … what’s the politics behind it?

HEFFNER: Well, if, if you say … ahem … starting back then … the sixties with Kennedy and then on to Nixon and then eventually to LBJ and Reagan and Bush One. What was it that was happening that led the press not just to report what was said in the White House today, but what its background was and what it meant? The deceptions?

SCHUDSON: Right. I, I, I think Vietnam and Watergate were … in this case … events … were very powerful in traumatizing the news media. Really changing how journalists thought of what it was that they do or what they should be doing.

Just reporting what the President says no longer … that seemed … what had seemed to journalists objective … no one can deny that that … that we’re all following the lead of our elected officials. And that’s what the press should be doing. That was a version of, of what journalists called “objectivity” or, or fairness.

But, in fact, it seemed that journalists … that by doing that they had held back a part of the story from, from the public. They, they knew that there were backroom disagreements. Sometimes they knew them quite precisely, but that wasn’t by convention, what go reported.

Increasingly that was what got reported. And the press would see that as, as providing a fuller story, providing the context that helped a reader, the general public, make sense.

HEFFNER: Well, as they … as the press came to reject Nixon’s notion of “it’s what up front that counts, just report what’s up front.” What the President had said, what the press release had indicated. Did we lose or did we gain? Or did we do both when the press decided to do otherwise.

SCHUDSON: On balance I think we gained. I think we gained quite a lot. Was there something lost? Yes. That, that, too.

I mean what … by sort of undercutting the President or high executive office officials statement repeatedly, there’s … I think the press has helped exacerbate what was already present in American life, which was a certain cynicism about politics and politicians.

I’m, I’m not entirely unsympathetic to there being some cynicism about politics and politicians. I think that’s, that’s a kind of legacy of being a democracy. That is important to us.

But that … can it go too far? Yeah, it can go too far.

HEFFNER: Has it gone too far?

SCHUDSON: Yeah, sometimes I think it has. What I called a moment ago the sort of second reflex of, of journalists who report … not just what the President says, but the politics beyond it … sometimes becomes such a major reflex that it’s as if that’s the only … the only aim or motive that a President could have. Maybe the President actually believed what he was saying … maybe the President actually favored this policy. Yeah it helped him politically, but maybe he believed in it.

That, that possibility sometimes escapes the notice of journalists, it seems to me. So, that I don’t like. But, but the fact that a number of studies have shown press coverage of both Republican and Democratic Presidential candidates has grown increasingly negative since the 1960s.

On the whole, I think that’s good. I think the public should be armed with, with the bad as well as the good.

HEFFNER: Tell me why.

SCHUDSON: Why because, because I think the, the White House, in particular is … less so for the Congress … but the White House has an enormous trumpet. The, the … as do during an election campaign the candidates for the two major parties. I can remember in, in the year 2000 Ralph Nader, a third party candidate who wound up with … what … 4% of the vote … something like that … was appalled at how little coverage he go in the mainstream media.

He said … this is sort of funny to think about in, in retrospect … but he said, “but there’s no difference between George W. Bush and Al Gore. I really offer an alternative position.”

Well, the press did what it did and, and thought … that the press took itself to have a subordinate position in the democratic process. That is, that, that the two parties that dominate American politics had each selected their candidate … one of those two candidates was going to become President.

Ralph Nader, no matter what he did or how much coverage he got was not going to become President. So, they … that’s a judgment call, it’s not objectivity in some abstract sense … it’s a judgment call. But, but everyone except possibility Ralph Nader, would have agreed with that. Probably Ralph Nader would have agreed with that, too.

So, so those candidates in the two parties and that person in the White House just have an enormous command of resources … of, of the scarce attention of the general public.

No one can compete with them for that. And, and the press has taken on … since the sixties a somewhat adversary role toward whoever is holding power. Nobody else can do it.

HEFFNER: Yes, but Michael, you say “No one else can do it.” Suppose you grant that.


HEFFNER: Isn’t it important that some entity in our society be able to do it and doesn’t the querrelousness of the press, to put it nicely …


HEFFNER: … doesn’t it make it impossible for there to be any institution in our society that can stand tall … not be uncriticized … but stand tall. I, I think of two speeches that I ask my students to read always … one is Lyndon Johnson’s NAB Speech … speech day or day after or day after that … after he withdrew from the Presidential race in 1968 … saying “I will not seek, nor would I accept the nomination of my President.”

Four years after he had won overwhelmingly … he had been so popular … he knew then that he was likely not to win. And he went to Chicago to the NAB to speak to these people … he said, “Think of the responsibility you have. Think if you had been present in that first year when we went to war in 1941, 42 … could you with your tearing down … have possibly destroyed our ability to survive. We were in such bad shape … if you had been reporting the war as you did in the living room war of Vietnam, could we have won the great war?”

A year later Agnew says, look we’ve just elected Richard Nixon, the people of the United States elected Richard Nixon … he makes a speech … no sooner is it over one split second before the, the pundits … the “old saw” people … Avril Harriman, Eric Severid and the others are there with their instant analysis tearing him down.

Can a democracy survive, can the strength … the institutions that indicate the strength of a democracy … including the President, maybe primarily the President … really survive if the press is there constantly, constantly, constantly eating away at that institution? That person?

SCHUDSON: Okay. The other question to ask is, is … you know, can the democracy survive or the Presidency survive without that? You know, if, if, if things are concealed, if the press is not aggressive … Presidents make mistakes. Presidents may be even … in the case of Richard Nixon … corrupt.

Not in his case for financial gain, but for political gain. That, that there should be a degree of respect for those who are elected by the, by the general public. I think that’s true, and, you know, if anything the press may still … still … be a little too deferential that way. This is one of the criticisms of the press during the Iraq war. In, in the initial stages of the Iraq war … the press rolled over and, and the press and the general public typically does when, when the President takes a military initiative on foreign policy. That there’s …for a time at any rate … a rallying around the flag.

That was, that was the basis for the movie whose name … I’m now losing … about trumping up an international …


SCHUDSON: … an international incident so that you can show your … this was during the Clinton Administration …

HEFFNER: … waging the …

SCHUDSON: Wag, wag … Wag the Dog. Right. That still happens. There’s, there’s … and it happened after 9/11 in a, in a big way. A, a kind of “Okay, we have to hold fire for a while on, on the President.” This is a … this is a … in a situation of national calamity … the press does give ground toward, toward some kind of sense of the whole … some kind of sense of communal necessity.

But that doesn’t last. Nor do I think it should. So … I think it should be there … initially … it’s very hard for me to conceive of the, you know, the human being that would not say, in the wake of 9/11, “this is a moment of, of … when some kind of national solidarity and, and great deference to our leadership is necessary.”

HEFFNER: Well I’ve got to … I’ve got to ask you … here we are talking together. A Presidential race is almost over, we can’t talk about the President-Elect because we don’t know. But how would you, from this vantage point, evaluate the role of the press in these past couple of years. Because the Presidential race has been going on for a couple of years. What’s your sense of it as a scholar of the press. And as one who said, writes a book titled Why Democracies Need an Unlovable Press. What’s your sense?

SCHUDSON: I think the press has been pretty unlovable (laugh) in, in, this campaign. I, I think … in, in … let me give a little historical sweep to this.

Our current way of electing a President rests enormously on Presidential primaries. That’s not the way it used to be done, as you know.

The Presidential primary democratizes what had been … up until … up until post World War II … a largely closed party … controlled … party elite controlled world. The parties themselves were less democratic … they, they made little effort to involve in their conventions an array of people by class and gender and race. They changed the rules, particularly the Democratic Party changed its, its rules in … and after the sixties … and more and more states adopted Presidential preference primaries rather than having candidates chosen … or delegates to the conventions chosen by Party convention.

So, quite apart from the press, the whole system was more open and more ready for …for discussion and deliberation by a broad public. I mean the … television played an important role. I mean we, we’ve just seen four debates in, in this election … three Presidential, one Vice Presidential and … and everyone has criticism for them.

I have criticism for them. But before 1960 there was no such thing. There were no radio Presidential candidate debates. There were no face-to-face 19th century candidate debates. Everyone thinks, unless they’re historians, about well Lincoln-Douglas …

HEFFNER: (Laughter)

SCHUDSON: … but they weren’t running for President. They were running for the US Senate and in fact, also usually forgotten, is that no one who heard them in those Illinois … seven, I think, debates … none of those people who heard them voted for either of them because the Senators were elected by State Legislatures, not by popular vote.

That, that’s all background to say that the, the situation of the last … of this election …2008 … in which the press is constantly making headlines itself. I mean it’s reporting what people are … what the candidates are doing, it’s reporting what they’re saying. But then it’s also doing investigation.

So, Governor Palin, Vice Presidential candidate for the Republicans picks up a story about Bill Ayers, a 1960s Weatherman who served on some boards with candidate Barack Obama. Where did she get that? From the front page of The New York Times.

The people criticized The New York Times for running that on the front page. People … Liberals tended to criticize The New York Times. Then there was a story a few days later that was somewhat unflattering to Mrs. McCain. Also on the front page. Conservatives criticized The New York Times for that.

It … do they sometimes make misjudgments … I, I thought The New York Times made a misjudgment in, in a story very critical of McCain a month or two earlier. But other people can have different views about that. But that they were pushing to put in the public view things that the candidate themselves might not have wanted to put in public.

Today as we’re recording this, there is a story about how incomplete were the medical records delivered to the public by the candidates. So, is this useful for democracy? Yeah, I think it is. I think we should know when, when candidates for office are not, you know, disclosing what, what they really should for democracies sake … be disclosing.

HEFFNER: Well, there are many more things I want to ask you along these lines. And you promised you’d sit still and let us do a second program. Well, we have a half a minute left, I want to ask you … whether you think what has happened has generally been for the good in terms of the changing press?

SCHUDSON: Yeah, I think it has. We, we won’t have time to talk about this, but I also think it’s important especially in the Internet era that the press is no longer … the mainstream press is no longer in the position of speaking its piece and, and no one comments back. The press is being very closely monitored. And that also has become a story from time to time in this last election campaign. That I think is also positive.

HEFFNER: Michael Schudson, thank you for joining me today. Stay where you are, we’ll do a second program for next week.

SCHUDSON: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

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

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.