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PERSPECTIVE ON THE MEDIA : The Press Neglects Its Civic Role : News reports shape our world, and maybe Americans are tired of seeing politics as a game they're not in.

October 30, 1994|JAY ROSEN | Jay Rosen teaches journalism at New York University and is the director of the Project on Public Life and the Press

A few years ago, I was startled to hear Dan Rather close his broadcast by saying, "And that's part of our world tonight."

What was startling was the offhand admission that the news is merely an aspect of reality, not its essence. Compared to Walter Cronkite's imperious send-off, "And that's the way it is," Rather's closer was modest, even conciliatory. It claimed no privileged point of observation, available to journalists or anyone else, whereby "the world" in its entirety comes into view.

Rather had unwittingly joined the post-modern universe, where the news, like everything else, is a construction, something made rather than found. We have no ethics of the press that incorporates this insight. But one might emerge if we learn to see journalism as the art of constructing the public world for our use as citizens.

Even the simplest news story--say, the announcement of changes in the White House staff--offers a double message. On the one hand, it informs us of what's happening in Washington. On the other hand, it forms in us an image of the sort of happenings that matter. All political reports have this dual identity: They are both informational and models for understanding what politics is about. And so the simple story of White House shake-ups sends, along with its facts, a picture of politics as a game played by presidents and their (shaky) staffs. Ultimately, the picture may matter more than the details--the facts--which is another way of saying that we live in a world of images.

Accurate at the level of information, political news may be way off, unworkable, as an image or map of where to find politics today. Perhaps we shouldn't be looking inside the White House for our picture of the Clinton presidency, but outside in the evolving landscape of American society. Perhaps the power-game metaphor is failing us and ought to be retired in favor of a new controlling image: the flow of the country's political conversation, as centers talk to margins and margins holler back. Perhaps the whole picture of politics as revolving around the figure of the President isn't working and needs to be replaced by another picture, differently centered. But what should the new image be?

These are debates about how to construct the public world. But they can't be joined until journalists agree that making maps and models is what they do and must now do well. The rest of us need to reconsider what we want from a press that cannot deliver "the world," but only a partial version of it. My suggestion: Let's drop our exhausted discourse of media "bias" and declare instead that building a usable present, partial but properly framed, is the political journalist's job. Then we can argue about how the present ought to be made, what we want the picture to highlight or frame for us.

Journalists have lately become the target of much public frustration. Poll results show a dearth of confidence in the news media, now seen as part of a faltering political class. A recent study by the Freedom Forum finds 71% of Americans agreeing that the country is governed not by popular will but by "a handful of politicians, journalists and businesses"; 72% feel underestimated by a press corps more interested in scandal than policy issues or the country's problems.

To see this as another case of blaming the messenger overlooks the messages sent by journalism as a kind of pictorial art: Politics is the cynical game of managing impressions. Politics is what elected officials "play" when they want to avoid the issue. Above all, politics is what the President does to maintain his approval rating and what his opponents do to destroy it.

But politics is also what journalists say it is, and increasingly, they are being held responsible for the highly visible manner in which they construct the public world--by asking, for example, "who won the week" in televised round tables.

If this is politics, Americans seem to be saying, then we want no part of it because we have no part in it--and neither do our deepest concerns.

By asking "what's wrong with this picture?" journalists can begin to address their collapsed credibility. They need not present us with a rosier view, one that flatters America's self-image. But they should recognize that a key feature of any usable present is hope, that help in making choices is what people demand from the press, and that politics is above all a public possession, something citizens own even if they do not actually run it.

If democracy is to have a post-modern expression, the press must come to see itself as a construction site, where worlds are made and need to be made well.

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