Don't blame the people

By John McManus
Posted May 19, 2004

David Remnick

New Yorker Editor David Remnick had the stage all to himself Monday evening. But Tuesday during the John S. Knight Journalism Symposium, he faced off against three prominent journalists, a history professor -- and the wisdom of Thomas Jefferson.

Mr. Remnick's critique of the American press for turning from expensive foreign news to "non-fiction show business" featuring celebrity trials elicited agreement. But when he blamed the public for failing to pay adequate attention to serious journalism, Stanford Professor David M. Kennedy demurred with a little help from the author of the Declaration of Independence.

David Kennedy

Prof. Kennedy, who like Mr. Remnick has won a Pulitzer Prize, likened the editor's indictment of the public the night before to Jimmy Carter's infamous "malaise" address. He paraphrased the former president: "I'm a good leader, but you're not cooperating by being good, attentive citizens."

"It's absolutely fatal to democratic theory to believe the public is incompetent," said Mr. Kennedy. "To whom else can we turn?"

Mr. Kennedy, the Donald J. McLachlan professor of history, quoted an 1820 letter of Thomas Jefferson: "I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves, and if we think them not enlightened enough, the remedy is not to take it from them but to inform their discretion by education." News media, Mr. Kennedy said, must be more "clever" at making what's important compelling.

Editor Remnick responded: "I don't think at all people are incompetent. They are faced with a more difficult world than Thomas Jefferson faced." In Jefferson's time, he said, there was no "entertainment blizzard ... the narcotic effect of television at the end of a day.

"I feel sorry in a way for the news consumer," Mr. Remnick continued. "They are faced with a blizzard of choices and they are their own navigators."

It's not wrong, however, to point out that the public sometimes makes poor choices, he added.

Joann Byrd

Panelist Joann Byrd, former Washington Post ombudswoman and Seattle Post-Intelligencer editorial page editor, offered an explanation for public apathy. Polls show that the public increasingly sees the press as just another business out for itself, she said, often at the expense of the common good. The public trust journalism requires is eroding.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, foreign news coverage has risen in American papers, Ms. Byrd said, but it's concentrated on the Middle East. "What part of the world are we ignoring now?" she asked.

David Talbot

Panelist David Talbot, founder and editor-in-chief of Salon.com, said Mr. Remnick had gone too easy on elite newspapers such as the New York Times and Washington Post. "I believe the press behaved terribly in the run-up to the war," he said. Only now, he added, with reports such as Seymour Hersh's investigation of conditions at Abu Ghraib prison, has the press returned to its proper "watchdog" role.

Agreeing with Ms. Byrd, Mr. Talbot said the press has under-covered the loss of civil liberties in the United States. "As the press is covering the export of democracy in the Middle East, it isn't doing enough to cover the withering of our own democracy here at home."

Raul Ramirez

Moderator Raul Ramirez, news and public affairs director at KQED public radio, called Mr. Remnick's portrayal of contemporary American journalism "thoughtful and sobering.

"When the press fails to prepare the public to ask wise questions of its leaders," Mr. Ramirez concluded, "it fails democracy."