Character and Values Confuse the Mass Media

Article excerpt

Do the people who dominate the national media have trouble reporting on middle-class America's preoccupation with virtue and good character because they consider them bourgeoisie and bucolic?

Can the American media fairly report the values issues raised by candidates in this year's presidential primaries? Not with balance and fairness, answer a number of longtime observers of the press.

Press critics agree that part of the problem may be that the media -- and particularly television -- are geared toward bons mots and 30-second sound bites that are insufficient to deal with any complex issue, let alone the deeply personal and difficult questions of values and morals.

But the biggest roadblock to fairness on the issue isn't the way media do things, it is the men and women who are the media, the experts say. Shown by surveys of the media to be upper-middle class and urban in origin -- and extremely skeptical when it comes to traditional religion -- critics say many of these men and women simply don't share the values of most Americans. Conservatives complain that journalists tend to doubt the sincerity of anyone who raises issues of morality. The question is not moot. Consider:

* In his recent State of the Union address, President Clinton spoke of the importance of values and virtue in making this nation's great past and in creating a better future, mentioning "self-reliance and teamwork" as very important.

* Republican presidential front-runner Bob Dole on the campaign trail castigated Hollywood -- and its products -- for their lack of moral focus and their failure to condemn immoral behavior.

* In numerous public-opinion polls, American parents, concerned about a drug-addicted and violence-prone society, express the desire to have values taught in public schools. They speak of hard work, honesty and civility.

The press reports these facts, to be sure. But what is absent is serious discussion about them. Why? Robert Blanchard, professor of journalism at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, says the press is attracted to "what titillates, like gossip about the English monarchy." Reports concerning values fall low on the titillation chart. The sad thing for American democracy, says Blanchard, editor of the book Congress and the News Media, "is the very issues the media select mold the, political process."

And the media hardly are indifferent about what subjects they choose to take up. "The press is not unselfish in its ardor," says Tim Graham of the conservative Media Research Center, based in Alexandria, Va. It is unabashedly liberal, he claims. But that's not all: "Glory, fame and ratings" skew the way reporters think. "Not to mention getting $20,000 lecture fees and appearing on McLaughlin," he says.

Take, for example, how the press handled the "character issue" -- one that directly involved the candidate's honesty -- during Clinton's 1992 campaign for president.

It was a treatment characterized by a mixture of awkwardness about what to do and just how far to go, and by double standards, according to Richard E. Noyes, director of political studies at the nonpartisan and moderate Center for Media and Public Relations in Washington. It was okay to let up on Clinton, but not on George Bush. And the press ended by viciously criticizing the Bush campaign for doing the same thing the press had done earlier, Noyes says. That is, it criticized the Bush people for questioning Clinton's integrity.

The center follows how the press handles candidates in elections and the races. "What we found in the 1992 primaries," Noyes explains, was that there was "some discussion [in the press] of Bill Clinton's marital infidelities but there was a lot more discussion about the draft [dodging story], a more `respectable' issue in the press' view [than adultery]," and one the press felt more comfortable handling.

When Clinton became front-runner "there was a backing off" from the character issue, says Noyes, until it was revived as "an interpretive device" to explain the defeat when Clinton lost in Connecticut. …