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BOOK REVIEW / NONFICTION : Reporters Required to Lie, Author Argues : NEWS AND THE CULTURE OF LYING by Paul H. Weaver ; Free Press $22.95, 243 pages

July 05, 1994|ALEX RAKSIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

On the day in 1883 before Joseph Pulitzer took over the New York World, the paper's gray, forbiddingly dense front page contained a note dryly stating that 10 city groups would soon commemorate the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge. When the bridge opened two weeks later, a picture of its expansive deck and rolling beams soared dramatically across the World's redesigned Page 1, inviting readers into a three-column story about how the bridge's engineers triumphed over tragedy.

These two pages have long been compared to illustrate the way Pulitzer breathed life into a stodgy, spiritless institution, thereby setting the model that most journalists follow to this day.

But in this acrimoniously titled book, journalist and scholar Paul Weaver argues that the Pulitzerian framework--by insisting that news be defined as a daily drama wherein leaders, caricatured as good or evil, struggle to deal with unprecedented social and political crises--has done nothing less than require reporters to lie.

Drawing examples from the '80s, Weaver shows how journalists--by recording politicians' self-conscious, symbolic responses to fleeting crises rather than investigating the institutional and structural roots of the American malaise--managed to miss most of that decade's major news stories.

We heard tough congressional rhetoric about "tackling the deficit," for example, but few reports examined how the deficit was in fact "exploding to meltdown proportions." We read about American executives' devout faith in private enterprise, free markets and limited government, but not about how those executives broke that faith by lobbying for government interventions in the market, tax breaks and other special advantages.

To his credit, Weaver shares in the blame, describing how he himself began writing around "the real issues" as a 31-year-old staff writer at Fortune magazine. While covering his first story there--national efforts to issue new limits on exposure to vinyl chloride--he found that no one involved in the debate actually knew how big a dose of vinyl chloride it would take to cause cancer, but that everyone was "advocating specific levels as safe while attacking as dangerous the different levels urged by others." He wanted to write a story about how each side, rather than working collectively to arrive at a public health standard "intelligently reflecting the many considerations involved . . . was lying in order to benefit themselves at others' expense." But because he feared that such a story would prompt hostile letters from his sources and expressions of bemusement from his bosses, Weaver instead wrote a piece that defined the machinations as a "healthy" exercise in "vigorous political competition."

Weaver--who eventually was promoted to an assistant managing editor at Fortune--was clearly rankled by his experiences, for he delights in bashing the news media as "stupid and dysfunctional" and denouncing the nation's capital as "a mecca of hypocrisy, a Vatican of hypocrisy. . . ."

Still, he seems to genuinely respect most journalists, crediting them with a "nagging, fugitive, contrary awareness of a reality that is sharply at odds with the myth." And he quotes opinion polls that suggest that most Americans are aware that public discourse has become "a pasticcio of cheesy fabrications."

So then, one may ask, why do journalists continue to leave the capital's lies unchallenged? While he is now a fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution, Weaver offers an explanation usually proffered by leftist media critics:

When newspapers came to draw the majority of their revenue from ad sales during World War I, advertisers, wanting to reach the largest possible audience, pressured them to abandon their subjective, often adversarial styles. "Thus was born," Weaver writes, "the concept of the news as a story about crisis and of journalism as a purely factual discourse without point of view."

A better explanation for why papers haven't changed, however, is that critics such as Weaver have failed to offer any viable alternative. Weaver tries to hold up pre-Pulitzerian papers as a model of how to "invite readers to step into . . . constitutional and political processes," but scholars such as Leonard Levy and Edmund Morgan have shown that such papers usually did nothing of the sort.

Weaver's post-Pulitzerian guidelines, moreover, are rife with contradictions: He suggests, for instance, that papers expand coverage of "normal, formal political, social and economic events"--the kind that send most readers into slumber--but also that the media's "business strategy (be reoriented) toward readers." Contradictions like that speak volumes about the kind of confusion over the proper role of the news media that continues to keep the Pulitzerian model in place.

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