Press, Preoccupied, Skims the Surface

By Sydney H. Schanberg

New York Newsday, April 11, 1986

Some of the whitewashers who would clearly like the city’s corruption scandal to transfer itself to Kuala Lumpur have taken to blaming the local press for the parlous state of municipal affairs. This is not an unusual phenomenon, since those made nervous during these cyclical outbreaks of graft-revealed often come to believe that if they can only halt the march of front-page stories, the whole ugly mess will go away.

Others have accused the press of whipping up a climate of hysteria, creating an impression that all city officeholders are seamy types whose hands are forever slipping into someone else’s pockets. One version of this complaint has it that we notebook-carrying wretches are unfairly giving New York City a bad name and thereby giving Congress, and maybe even tourists, an excuse to shun us.

The mayor, for one, is particularly irascible these days at the spectacle of a press corps doing reasonably well, what it is by nature supposed, but too often fails, to do — i.e., examine with vigor how the city’s political and bureaucratic machinery actually works. It’s no wonder he’s in a temper, having enjoyed for far too many seasons the unrealistic pleasures of a species of coverage that can at best be called tame. Mr. Koch deserves no small credit for the development of this species, as a mayor who successfully fogged the media’s critical faculties through his mastery of the art of self-publicity.

When he is asked at public forums why he didn’t know about the bribery epidemic that was coursing through parts of his administration, he snaps back — as he did to an audience at Vassar College the other night: “If they didn’t know about it, how the hell did you expect me to know about it?” He names the delinquent “they” as the city’s district attorneys and federal prosecutors and “dozens of investigative reporters.”

It’s a skillful diversionary gauntlet to fling down, but in the end not terribly convincing. A mayor is paid to keep track of what’s going on in his government, not to write books or ride camels in the desert.

I choose not to speculate about what took the prosecutors so long to get around to the corruption, but a good portion of the journalistic fraternity allowed itself to be preoccupied with the mayor’s bloated schedule of parades, ceremonies and ribbon-cuttings.

So it’s a bit disingenuous of him to ask where the reporters were when the scandals were breeding, because the mayor had them in his line of sight all the time.

Oddly, the press is continually accused by ideological and other critics of being too rough on politicians, too rough on government agencies and too rough on the big-business community. We are said to be arrogant, righteous, self-important — hostile, demanding practitioners who don’t properly acknowledge our mistakes as we demand of others and who administer examinations to our subjects that we ourselves could not pass.

On occasion, these criticisms are true. We are not an anointed class created without sin. On the contrary, we come equipped with the full spectrum of flaws and failings that everyone else had.

But the perpetually curious thing for me is that for all the criticism about the press being too hard on the insiders and the establishment, our profoundest weaknesses are so rarely discuses and so rarely criticized. The weaknesses I’m talking about have nothing to do with self-importance and judgmental attitudes. They have more to do with laziness and lethargy.

For guidance, here is a short list:

More often than we like to admit, we skim the surface of big stories and then move on to the next surface of the next big story — too rarely digging in for the long haul to get at the insides of a situation and staying with it.

We frequently lag far behind actuality during major social changes — such as shifting trends in employment, developments among blacks and other minorities, the political rise of fundamentalist religious leaders, the women’s movement.

More crucially, we spend too much of our time talking to those one might call “The Knowns.” These are the so-called important people and important institutions, who swamp us with their events and press releases. “The Unknowns” — the average people with unexotic jobs — get scant attention, let alone our front pages.

In this vein, consider where the bulk of our information comes from. Most of what we write about government comes from the spokesman and press offices of the government bodies themselves.

The same is true of our information about politicians, religious groups, financial institutions and business corporations. We are, routinely, their captive audience. They get more than their share of free rides.

This state of affairs can be explained, in part, by a condition known as Afghanistanism — or perhaps, to be more topical, Philippinism. What it means is that the press covers the pants off places distant from us, like the Philippines — every abuse, every injustice, every lick of corruption down to Imelda’s shoes — but, for no good reason, we grow more timid and nervous when examining our own backyard.

It would appear we worry excessively about the clout and complaints of the neighbors, even when the neighbors are crooked.

The lesson is that if we covered New York as energetically and honestly as we have recently covered Manila, we’d have a better-informed, better-run community.

As our present situation demonstrates, the press has risen to this occasion — still human and fallible, but not worrying uncommonly about what crooked neighbors might say.

This larceny scandal presents the press with a great opportunity — a chance to wrest itself away from the mesmerizing hold of the ruling public-relations machinery and practice its traditional function.

And we did need this opportunity. Because when the politicians accuse us of inspiring hysteria and overblowing the civic abuses, it’s a sure sign that we were sleeping and had grown comfortable and flabby under the covers.

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