The Press and Politics at North Gate

All Resolve That Fairness, Trust and Accountability
Would Improve the Relationship

by D. Lyn Hunter

To many Americans, politics and the media are the two least-trusted institutions in the country-and politicians and journalists often blame each other for this predicament.

The antagonistic relationship between elected officials and the press was the subject of a Nov. 25 panel discussion that included Sen. Dianne Feinstein, former Clinton adviser Laura d'Andrea Tyson and two noted journalists.

The event, held in North Gate Hall's library, was sponsored by the Graduate School of Journalism and the Institute of Governmental Studies.

During the discussion, Feinstein and Tyson aired their frustrations with the media, complaining that poorly edited sound bites and bad reporting by inexperienced journalists often led to misrepresentation of their issues in the press.

"Reporters need to have a historical perspective and a knowledge of the institution and its players to present a fair story, and I don't really see that in today's journalists," said Feinstein, adding that she now tapes all her conversations with the media.

Both admitted there are some good reporters in the field-Feinstein mentioned local news anchor Dave McElhatton and Walter Cronkite as two that stand out-but lamented the increasing focus on negative stories and the skimpy coverage of the positive work going on in Washington.

"There are no heroes left, thanks to the destructive nature of the press," said Feinstein.

Anne Grimes, deputy national editor of The Washington Post, and Elizabeth Drew, author of several books on Washington politics, cautioned that generalizations should not be made about all journalists.

"There are all kinds of reporters just as there are all kinds of politicians," said Drew.

Grimes added that at the same time reporters are being blamed for unfair stories, politicians, through leaks and spin doctors, often use the press to further their own agendas, which are not always in the best interests of the country.

Both journalists said they feel the roots of this aggressive relationship can be traced to the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal, when several young journalists uncovered massive government cover-ups.

"These events helped create the predator/prey mentality with politics and the media," said Grimes. "The lies told (by politicians) back then are at the core of the problem we are talking about today."

However, the bigger problem facing both journalists and politicians, according to Grimes and Drew, is the increased use of market research by news organizations, resulting in stories on celebrity and personality instead of policy and substance.

"What sells is what gets in," said Drew.

Everyone on the panel agreed that the relationship between the press and politicians need not be a hostile one if both parties respect the concepts of fairness, trust and accountability.

Feinstein got the chance to demonstrate her balancing of press, politics and big business during the discussion, as a group of slogan-shouting activists outside the library protested the recent signing of a federal bill on the Headwaters forest in Northern California.

Although she did not talk to the protesters directly, Feinstein answered a question from the audience about the Headwaters deal, which she helped broker.

"The previous 10 actions to save Headwaters have all failed. I was able to bring the two sides together and save 7,500 acres at the cost of $250 million," she said. "I know it's not as much as (the protesters) want, but at least we were able to save some of the forest."



Copyright 1997, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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