Who put the giant "kick me" sign around the media's neck? Pick up just about any newspaper or magazine today and you're likely to see someone complaining about the media. That's not new - but the prominence the press now gives self-criticism is something we haven't seen before.
"It's no secret that journalism in America has become more slipshod and reckless, at times promiscuous - and as a result less credible," thundered Sydney H. Schanberg on the front page of The Washington Post Sunday commentary section recently.
"Puff is for pastries: Media should ask tough questions," declared John Kass, a Chicago Tribune columnist.
Across the ocean, journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski wrote in London's The Guardian newspaper, "Once journalism was a mission, not a career. Today there are countless people practicing journalism who feel no identification with the profession. Many of today's journalists could work in an advertising agency tomorrow, or become stockbrokers the day after."
And what's wrong with that, I can hear some reporters asking. After all, George Stephanopolous is now trying out the anchor chair on various ABC news programs. Do you really have to establish your bona fides to practice journalism? I'd say yes, and most of the media secretly agree. That's why they're so acquiescent to attacks by columnists, politicians, and pundits.
As one Washington reporter I know explains, "Look at where we rank on all-time public opinion lists - just below congressmen and used car salesmen. By lashing ourselves, we show that we feel the public's pain."
Is it just guilt behind the press's self-criticism? Sure, the media feel terrible that the drive for larger audiences, more advertisers, and a bigger "buzz" often leaves standards, ethics, and intelligence in the dust. But along with this agony comes deep, unsettling confusion. The media just can't figure out how to improve themselves, the poor dears. So instead, they've opened their gates to carping and criticism, in the hope something worthwhile will emerge from the ensuing din.
Now we have a cottage industry in media masochism, from magazines like Content and Talk to cable TV shows that analyze every spin and gyration of the news machinery. No one's closer to solving the media's problems, but we're supposed to feel better for having gotten our feelings out in the open. But after all this therapy, I don't feel better. Nor does anyone else I know. So instead of just whining on some more about how terrible the media are, let me propose a solution. Two words: more regulation.
Doctors, lawyers, plumbers, and most other professionals who play important roles in our daily lives have to submit to professional review and ethical regulation - why not reporters? London cabdrivers spend years preparing for a rigorous geography and traffic test called "The Knowledge." How many reporters could have found Kosovo on a map before war broke out there?
I realize the government would be reluctant to step in and establish "health and safety" rules for reporters, the way they do for other air bags, so I'm proposing something more modern, more edgy. The most popular program on TV this summer was the quiz show "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" Why not spin off a show for reporters, "Who Wants Credibility and Respect?"
A foreign correspondent, for example, could take a test that would be no more difficult than the foreign-service exam taken by diplomats. A political reporter would answer questions posed by a panel from the JFK School of Government at Harvard. Sports reporters would get a pass, because every last one of them does know and care a great deal about their subject.
This show will give reporters a chance to dispel slurs on their intelligence and commitment, and provide a forum for all the self-doubt and introspection now cluttering up the Sunday papers. It's almost like having a World Wrestling Federation for the media - a ring where reporters can settle the score.
Say, now that's an idea ...
*William S. Klein is a political consultant who is biting the hand that feeds him. He lives in Silver Spring, Md.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society