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From AJR,   January/February 2000  issue

A Contract with the Media   

Journalists have an obligation to the people. What about the other way around?


By Thomas Kunkel
Thomas Kunkel (editor@ajr.umd.edu), president of AJR, is dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.     


FOR NEARLY TWO years, I have been editing the series in this magazine about the unsteady state of the American newspaper industry. A thread running through the series--it turns up again in William Prochnau's remarkable examination of Times Mirror, which begins on page 58--is the heavy obligation newspapers have to the citizenry in a democratic society, the life's blood of which, after all, is honest information. As we know, some members of the media take that obligation seriously, while others will never lose a moment's sleep over it.
Not long ago, as I was having an appallingly earnest conversation with a colleague on this subject, he suddenly piped up, "You know, maybe it's time someone writes about the people's obligation to the press." That stopped me short--man bites dog--and then I started to laugh. Then he started to laugh. When we calmed down I told him, "Well, I don't think that idea would get much sympathy out there."
And why should it? What does the public owe us? God knows it already has made multimillionaires out of countless media moguls, worthy and not, and provided hundreds of thousands of the rest of us with comfortable, satisfying lives. That's pretty good payback.
On the other hand, any relationship is, by definition, a two-way street, even if there are times, like now, when one party is scarcely on speaking terms with the other.
So in a democratic society, perhaps the people should feel a certain obligation where the news media are concerned--if not for us, exactly, then for themselves.
In that spirit, then, I advance a modest proposal, a kind of Contract with the Media:
For our part, we of the bruised and battered Fourth Estate promise to cover the news for you as fully, fairly, aggressively and entertainingly as we can.
In return, you, news consumers, oblige yourselves to:
1. Bring an appetite. Today's "media" constitute an astounding smorgasbord, so walk around a bit and sample the offerings. Salon, the provocative online magazine, is apt to have a very different take on the budget surplus or HMO reform than the National Review or the New York Times or Rush Limbaugh. Don't make the mistake of relying on one venue exclusively for your information. Seek out some thoughtful contrarianism.
2. Be skeptical. With all these choices, naturally there's a lot of junk out there. Understand and differentiate these outlets for what they are. Dazzling as they are, online media are our own Wild West. Most syndicated political radio is really entertainment. Cable TV's 24-hour news shows have to fill a great maw; they're more speculative (often irresponsibly so) because they have to keep talking. If the world is really lumping together Geraldo and Matt Drudge with David Broder and Tom Brokaw these days, the fault belongs at least as much to an inattentive public as to the media for confusing it.
3. Be discerning. When you find the good stuff, come back to it. Tell other people about it.
4. Put in some effort. Just because you're not in Miss Klempner's current events class anymore doesn't mean you can stop paying attention. If we bomb Kosovo, check it out on a map. Make some time to read about it. Get your kids to read. Show them where Kosovo is. Teach them the art of staying informed.
5. Be interactive. Interactivity has nothing to do with computers--it's an attitude. When newspapers and television stations don't hear from you, their default position is to read that as acceptance, when in fact it's just inertia. If you see mistakes, give them hell. Call the ombudsman, yell at the Webmaster, write the station manager. Clip out a flagrant and/or amusing mistake (The New Yorker, supervigilant as it is, once printed during World War II that the island of Guadalcanal is 80 miles wide and 20 miles long), and send it to the editor, marked up in red lipstick. That always gets attention.
6. Demand substance. If your local TV station leads every newscast with the crime du jour, or if your paper refuses to print stories about what's happening in Russia or Indonesia (or at your state capital or even down at city hall), holler some more. Like entertainment programmers, managers of news have gotten into the disturbing habit of aiming for the lowest common denominator.
7. Don't let us stampede you. In September the Pew Research Center found that people were so unengaged by the 2000 presidential campaign that fewer than half could name one of the two Democratic candidates. Good! At the time, the election was still 14 months away! Many pundits, some of whom actually attended and wrote about something called the Iowa straw poll, found this dismaying, but it's just an example of the people trying to pull the yapping class back to a saner place. Keep them there.
8. Speaking of which: Unless it's a Robert Altman movie, don't watch any show where more than one person at a time is talking.
9. Give us a break. Understand that we are just like you--fallible, prejudiced, worried, time-stressed to the max. Journalists make mistakes and plenty of them; lately we've done more apologizing than Bill Clinton. But most of us are good people trying to do the best we can. Usually when we make mistakes they are plain old goofs, not cynical, premeditated calculations done in league with the guys dispatching the black helicopters.
10. Keep the faith. We appreciate your patronage, but what we cherish is your respect.