The Presidency, Press, and Public: Will They Survive?
Kenneth Anderson Professor and Vice Chancellor, University of Illinois
Leslie Talbot Graduate student, Division of Communication Studies Moderator
Scott C. Ratzan Division of Communication Studies
... I had a conversation earlier today with Mrs. Helen Rose. As we all know, Mrs. Rose funded the very first Ethics and Communications Scholarship here at Emerson College. Mrs. Rose asked that I convey a messages to everyone here. She also expressed particular thanks to Dr. Gregory Payne and the staff who worked so hard to put together all the activities in the program today. This is exactly the type of endeavor that Mrs. Rose envisioned when she first funded the scholarship and she is really grateful to Dr. Payne in particular for seeing her vision through. [applause]
It is the work of our featured speaker here tonight that inspired Mrs. Rose to fund the scholarship in the first place in her late husband's memory. Cecil Rose always believed that there's no better place to study ethics and communications than at the college level.
Thus it is particularly fitting that Dr. Kenneth Andersen should be here with us here this evening. Dr. Andersen is a respected member of the faculty at the University of Illinois, where he has taught courses in all areas of communication studies. Ethics in communication however, is a particular specialty of his and is also the topic of his current book project. A prolific writer, Dr. Andersen has authored and edited several other books and journals dealing with communication and persuasion as well as numerous articles, chapters, papers and briefs on a wide variety of topics including the role of communication and ethics in politics.
Dr. Andersen has given much of his valuable time to convey his philosophy to his peers. He's assumed an important position in a number of professional organizations, including the Speech Communication Association (SCA), The American Forensic Association, and The Rhetoric Society of America to name but a few. In 1994 the SCA honored Dr. Andersen with the prestigious Distinguished Service Award in recognition of the many roles that he's played in the organization from Chair of over a dozen committees to the association presidency. And Dr. Andersen has been generous enough to share his expertise with others in his field. He's lectured at universities and organizations from North Carolina to Nova Scotia to Northern California, and pretty much everywhere else in between. We are truly fortunate to have him here with us this evening. It's a pleasure and a privilege for me to introduce Dr. Kenneth Andersen. [applause]
Thank you for that very generous introduction. It's always nice to feel that one's old enough to have done something to acquire something to put on the vita. I remember those first years when I was worrying about what to put on that vita to try to lead to that first job.
I have a multitude of tasks I think this evening other than to feel separated from you by too much space. It may be appropriate that we talk about ethics and morality in a church setting, but I want to talk about ethics and morality in a very practical sense as applied in our communication activity, and I want to try to fulfill a sense of closure by picking up on some of the things that threaded throughout the day. Today was a very interesting day for me.
Next week on our campus we're holding a conference that's sponsored by The Institute For Government Public Affairs on "Is There A Failed Presidency?" We have people coming in from ABC News, and local people to talk about whether or not the Clinton presidency is a failed presidency already, and so "What are the implications?" [Then there is] the question of how do we go back to putting politics into a different arena in public discourse? In a way, I think this conference is very much germane to that.
I would also comment that the areas of ethics and communications certainly are gaining a great deal of contemporary attention. About two weeks ago I was in Washington to attend the fourth annual meeting of the Association of Professional Applied Ethics, and obviously several themes there had to do with communication. Two case studies were done. One of them was a Harvard case study dealing with responsibility for Beavis and Butthead. I had not been particularly afflicted with that program until they showed us some clips and we had to discuss it and to begin to discuss the responsibility of individual people for that program. The other was a study of the Times-Picayune in New Orleans when they made the decision to take on David Duke and to really make that an issue, bring it to the public, and state the facts about that case. And so it's a case of kind of advocacy journalism adopted by the paper, and the question that was posed was: "Was this realistic to do, and what were the implications about ethics?"
We followed up that conference with one which was sponsored by the Pointer Group, and which talked about the ethics of reporting in journalism per se. We had a lot of editors, reporters and people participating. It reminded me of a talk in February. I went to the American Council of Education meeting (which was held in San Francisco this year), and in that session the theme was "Restoring Stability in the Community." I thought it was particularly interesting because President Clinton chose to invite himself to the meeting to ask for our help in sustaining certain things. Since the theme was stability, I was struck by the fact that we were all college presidents, but had to line up and go through metal detectors. The entire ball room had to be screened of course with dogs, and for bombs. No one was allowed to stand anywhere in the room. People overflow had to be put elsewhere. The area was sealed off. The airport was closed for his landing. I thought there was something of a contrast that the American president should come to the city to talk about the stability of the community, and those kinds of protection were thought to be necessary for the president. If that's not a conflict and contrast I'm not sure what is.
So I chose tonight to talk about a theme that links what we've been saying today to a somewhat vertiginous context, and that is: the notion of the role or relationship, if you will, of politics of the press and the public -- and as the title says, "The Presidency, Press and the Public: Will They Survive?" I could make this a very short presentation. I could say yes or no or maybe, and to each one of those the responses might be relatively appropriate.
In my view, yes, we will survive. But for the moment at least, there's some sense in which each of those institutions of our society are on life-support systems and what we need to do is to figure out how to get them off life support systems and back into the kind of functioning healthy relationships that is needed. And in my view, that's the crux of much of what we need to talk about. How do we unite the presidency -- or we might say, the institution of governments and the choice-making in a democratic society -- with the activity of the press and the public generally? Because those three things have to come together and work in some kind of relational structure.
Today we were often blaming the media. I would use [media] as a more inclusive term in some sense, as in "the press," for a lot of things, and perhaps we were letting what I would call "the public" -- for the general audience -- off a little lightly. Though we didn't spend too much time on the notion of what we ought to be doing from a governmental, shared-contract point of view, that's something we may well want to talk about.
It's not too difficult to make the argument that we have failed or we are in dire straights in each of three areas. For example, with reference to the presidency: In a column this week in The New Republic, Fred Barnes, with reference to the presidency, says "Gingrich has snuffed out the historic mind in Washington that has endured since Franklin Roosevelt's era. Now the story in Washington is the agony and the ecstasy of Gingrich." The media reflects that shift. Until last November, almost all press coverage in Washington boiled down to one question: How is the president doing? Now the question is: How is Newt doing? President Clinton and the congressional Democrats have been reduced to reacting. I think that's an interesting theme that is struck in many quarters, and the fact that it's so openly discussed "Is the presidency failed?" barely two years into that presidency, is I think a remarkable phenomenon.
As we all know, institutions of government have much less public respect than they formerly had. We know that even at the local level people are tuning out. We've all read about the negative advertising, that we're all following the fact that voters were turned away in droves from participation in political processes. At the local level, state level, the national level the record is pretty uninspiring. Indeed, this fall I was trying to talk about political issues in my class on ethics in communication, and was absolutely dismayed to discover that that was essentially a confirmation of what the Chronicle of Higher Education said in its survey of student attitudes. It discovered that there was minimal interest in the political structure, and that interest in politics is the lowest it has been in a long, long time. So you might say that the government structures are in doubt, if you will; the presidency is in doubt with it. The press -- there is of course a great deal of concern about the activity of the press, and that could be seen for a lot of reasons. I grew up in an era in which [it was] thought the press was pretty much a responsible agent for the state and the press was accorded high credibility of trust generally. That is no longer the case.
You may have heard that Spiro Agnew speech about the "nattering nabobs of negativism." It was, I think, in the Nixon administration that there was a very real realization that they no longer needed to know about the access process to the media, that it's the media who is used to cultivate power brokers and the distortions of power, and that journalism had an interest in access. Nixon and his people realized: We don't need the press to get access, we could go directly to the public through television and through other means, so we no longer have to cater and kowtow to the press. We can go directly to the people.
Indeed, there's a tendency for many incumbents on many levels, when the press is "on your trail," to attack the press for what it does to them. All of a sudden the press becomes the enemy, yet the press becomes something that used to be dedicated. And to some degree as we think of the term "liberal" is so violently negative, so the notion of the press is as a bunch of liberal thugs has certainly had its impact as well. So it's not a good system. But most importantly in my view, is that we might well say the public is undone.
Now that's a pretty startling thing to say. Here you all are. The public is here. You look around you on the streets of Boston, there are masses of people. You go to New York state and you can barely survive being throttled as you go around. The people are everywhere. So I'm not saying the people aren't balanced, but I'm saying the notion of a public is essentially, I think, being lost.
What do I mean by a public? We can find the public in a variety of ways. We can think about a public as a set of reasonable persons. So often when we talk about ethical issues we invoke the notion of reasonable judge, reasonable actor, a person of great practical wisdom, or a congregation that's interested in others, who has some sense of what is happening. What we need to do is think about rebuilding a public which is one that has some connection to, and association with, those issues [its members] share in common. I'm not interested in those people who are building private police forces, private parks, private drives, private schools. I'm interested in those people who rather are part of the community which shares that common set of tasks that we in the community need to think about. It's all very well and good for some people to provide with protection so they don't get bashed over the head. But they do have in my view, some sense of responsibility to the rest of the community. And ultimately, I would argue as Aristotle, "No one can live well in an unhealthy, nonfunctional community."
In an interrelated society such as ours, surely it's not too much of a stretch of the imagination to accept the view that we are in some sense incredibly dependent one upon the other. We're dependent upon somebody not tampering with the Tylenol, we depend on somebody reading the prescription accurately when we go to the pharmacist. We're dependent on somebody not firing a gun randomly as we drive down the freeway. We're dependent on people doing an incredible array of things upon which our very survival depends. We are inevitably locked into a dependence on one another. It was true in Aristotle's age, when he invoked the concept of politics being the art of establishing a good polis -- a state -- and he was behind rhetoric and ethics in that task, and it is certainly truer today than it ever has been.
We need to bring together the forces of communication, and influence through communication ethical values and the value structure through unity, to providing a functioning, well-ordered system -- a system that protects the basic rights of all of us, for providing maximum autonomy and liberty and independence for the people in that system. The hook on that has to be, with that freedom, with that autonomy, there inevitably goes a concurrent responsibility. That's a tough word sometimes in this day and age, I find. People want, but they do not want to give. They want to have but not to share. It's an interesting kind of conundrum, in a variety of ways.
Thus, I would define "public" as that entity of people who are involved in relating around a common, shared perception, if you will, of their having a role in, and the responsibility for, determining the decisions made in the society, that affect members of that society (or of that public). The public needs to be reawakened, I believe, to the fact that they are a public -- and having said that, what I really say is: The mass of individual people, the masses of this little group and that little group, this interest and that interest, and each of us as individuals need to coalesce around some concept that enables them to say "I am bound to others like myself, to those other moral human beings with whom I must necessarily share the burden of managing the relationships among and between us, in a way that will maximally benefit me, and in that process reasonably maximally benefit the other people as well."
So we need to, ultimately, reconstitute the public. As I close my remarks I want to talk a little bit about how that might happen. When I think about the press in the equation I'm talking about, I'm really not thinking about all the media. It is certainly true that all the media has profound effects -- as we talked this afternoon about the docudrama and its role about reality and talking about what it conditions.
And you know, I lived through a part of World War II. I remember vaguely the Sunday we heard that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor, and I can remember going up to the porch and picking up a kind of stick with a board nailed across it, which was a sword, I guess. (You'd play cowboys and Indians in those days, but how a sword gets with cowboys and Indians I have no idea.) Anyway, I grabbed my sword and I went down toward the mailbox on the dirt road, and I made a few thrusts and parries and thought, "We're going to fight those Japs, you know. " [People here] don't remember that, for the large part. Obviously, the reality of those days is comes to you through a variety of mediated forms, somewhat different than any one of us could have possibly experienced it at the time. If you recall the flap about the Enola Gay and what was to be shown in the Smithsonian exhibit, you begin to see how far we've come into sensitivities and other kinds of issues that were different from the days before.
When I want to talk about the press, I talk about, essentially, that part of the press -- or that part of the media, I should say -- which presents itself to us as dealing in a one-to-one correspondence with reality. And I would distinguish -- as we did not so much this afternoon -- between that kind of press, and what happens in motion pictures, in a novel, on a stage play, in a musical comedy and other artistic works. I'm not saying there isn't artistry and art in the creation of public discourse, or reporting that -- there's a great deal of that, particularly if you want to catch the emotional tone, the values, and the sense.
To talk about what it's like to be poor and poverty stricken in Washington, D.C., it may take a reporter four years to produce a story. If you have a problem with that story, by the way, I would certainly recommend you dig into your files [for it]. The Washington Post essentially published a book-length series of articles over the course of a week talking about an individual reporter who was assigned four years to follow a woman who had been a prostitute, been very, very poor, and now has hopefully found God, and had led some of her children to prostitution, drug abuse. Two of her several children turned out all right. It's an incredible story -- and it's real. For a reporter to capture that, of course, took a tremendous amount of ability to create artistically in the sense of the feeling of the woman, her moods, where she was, how she could feel this, how she could parse that -- [it was] a very, very complicated thing and a wonderful case study in journalism ethics, I might add.
Back to the definition of the press. I'm concerned with that part of the media which is interested in one-to-one correspondence between reality and their report of the event. I'm not interested in those who are trying to get at a larger reality, or reality in what's essentially the poetic dimension, a move from one through another symbol to a reality. When I go to a play that talks about AIDS or talks about racial integration or a play that talks about Nora Desmond, I realize that it's a one-through-one, -to-one. That's not to say it's not the reality, [or that] it's not true. It is to say it is different, because it does not say to me this is a one-to-one correspondence that I'm claiming for you.
Where do we go from here? In my view, we need to return to the role of the press functioning as the fourth estate. I think it is the revitalization or reconceptualization or reinterpretation of the role of the press, and a public that responds to that, that is essential to achieving the public that I envision, and to return to the notion of the relationship of politics, the public and press to some kind of harmony. You could go through lists of things. I've tried to figure how to pull all that into some kind of framework to share with you and I don't think I've succeeded. But let us press on! Maybe you could do the interpretation and make the tie-in for me.
One of the things I think has to happen is that press [realize] it does not return to the notion of access purchased by the kind of relationship Walter Lippman had, where he simultaneously was a commentator and interpreter for a mass of people. He was also telling presidents how they ought to run their campaigns, and telling them how the world is out there, and serving as a kind of intermediary between these two structures. I don't think we're ever going to return to that agency. But I do think we need to return to a kind of agency in which the press pays greater attention to its function on behalf of the public it serves.
Who is that public? Ultimately, the only clients, I believe, that the press -- as I conceive it -- has, is the general public. I grant you that they are part of a profit-making structure, that we live in a terribly materialistic society, that the owners of the press are largely interested in money and profit, that the money and profit comes from being able to sell readership or to sell an audience to people, and those people are targeted because they may consume -- because they're materialists, because they may use Geritol, or may use Aderol, or they may use Dr. Scholl's foot pads or they may use Jockey shorts or they may use whatever Michael Jordan is going to advertise next -- is it Adidas? (I never can remember what Michael is going to endorse next.) Whatever it may be, it seems to me we need to [review] it.
The press is going to have to then remind you of a kind of moral sanctimoniousness. It seems to me that the press tends to tackle a lot of its reporting as if it's somehow morally superior to those whom it is reporting on, and that its probing becomes accusatory, and that it's [about] getting the goods on people. When you were talking today about the fact that the press is tearing down communities, I don't think the press sets out to do that, but I think it is often the result of the kind of journalism and the kind of strategist journalism that are being practiced today.
If the press were to reform itself into something functioning for the state, in my view, how would that work? To begin with, I think we'd have to accept the fact that the press is preeminently the agenda setter. Now that doesn't mean they don't draw on experts. We could talk about the relations between experts and the press -- that doesn't talk about the intelligentsia, it doesn't talk about a lot of ways in which agendas get set. But for the largest sense of the public as a whole, it is the press that sets the agenda. [The press] decides what we hear about, what we won't hear about. More importantly, through decisions on their coverage they determine what we will decide in the public arena, what will be allowed versus what will be allowed to be settled by the AMA and their regulations, or the bar association, or the American Council on Trial Lawyers, or X group or Y group.
I heard recently a very interesting discussion on the Clintons' reaction to permitting fetal research (or I guess it's embryonic research). They were talking about the issue of whether or not the Feds would fund the production of embryos for research purposes, with the embryos to be destroyed after 18 (or 14?) days. (That's apparently the magic time when they begin to become individuated.) I found out that if you take eight cells and you take one away, when the embryo is at eight cells, take one away and it will develop perfectly. If you have an eight cell embryo and take all eight cells, all those eight cells will develop into eight different embryos perfectly. But after a certain point in time, they begin to individuate. Once you individuate, what happens?
The Clinton administration preempted a discussion in a big scientific report by announcing they were not going to fund the creation of embryos for scientific research purposes of the federal funds. They didn't prohibit it being done privately, and -- in an interesting subtle point -- they did not prohibit the extra embryos that are generated from fertilization from being used for other purposes, rather than simply being destroyed. Very interesting technique. But what was interesting about it was, that kept the press from making this into the national issue that it might have become. What the Clinton administration did, in my view, was to finesse this problem in order to keep it within the scientific community and within bounds, rather than turning it into a public issue, which would have to be decided in public. We decide in this country that we've got to decide whether or not we have sex education in schools, whether or not we talk about condoms, whether or not you talk about sex, whether or not you can allow Hawaii to have gay marriages if they choose, because after all we have to get busy and pass laws to prohibit those if they should happen to come to this country to contaminate all of us.
So the press is the preeminent agenda setter, and it has to accept the responsibility of that role. I think the press -- if it's going to set the agenda -- has to provide the basis for informed decision-making. That doesn't mean just the bare facts. It means background. It means context. It does mean, as we said today, you can't let McCarthy stand up every afternoon five minutes before the deadline and say, "I've got a list of forty-two known Communists in my pocket!" when all the members of the press knew that was not valid. Now I'm not sure whether we should have known Franklin Roosevelt couldn't take his own pants off; I'm not sure we needed to know all the times that Jack Kennedy couldn't keep his on -- but it is to say the press has to provide background, context information that supports that which is on the public agenda. If what is on the public agenda is what you're going to make decisions about, then we have to have access to the material necessary to reach those decisions in some kind of consistent way.
Now that's not to say we're just going to read the press. Most people I know don't read The New York Times. But those who do read The New York Times do go home and talk to their husbands, they do talk to their neighbors -- and are seen as opinion leaders. So when we start about that discussion that happens way down in the trenches, or with the lunch buckets as we sit around the office munching our brought-in sandwiches as we casually talk about whatever it is we talk about, that discussion gets informal to the degree that there is something out there that's operating into that information structure. So I'm not saying that all the public is directly addressing this, but ultimately it must be [made] available widely enough in the system.
I think the press has to be respectful from the point of view of the variety of shareholders in a society. We probably, for far too long, were very concerned about that set of shareholders who were white, male, reasonably moneyed, et cetera. That wasn't enough consideration of all the shareholders.
We need to be thinking, as we did not, I think, in the last election. I don't think the press did a very good job of saying to us, "What are the implications of a Republican sweep in terms of the impact on the various shareholders in our society?" Now I'm not altogether convinced the Republicans were trying to balance the budget on the backs of the poor, the aged, and the female, and the minorities. But at least that accusation has some heft. It is something you need to consider as one possibility. Where was that discussion? Where was that new nation? Where was that looking forward to the interest of the stakeholders during the electoral campaign itself? Obviously, in my view, the press has gone far too much in the scene of the horse race "Who's on first, who's on second and who can predict the polls?" which is really a pretty unimportant fact about anything!
There are lots of other important facts it seems that the press never gets around to addressing in any way, shape or form. We need to think about that. The press needs to be better at weighing long-term as well as short-term consequences. Not just of the things about which they report but also about the reporters themselves. Reporters need to think about the implications for tomorrow of what they report. They need to think about consequences of nonaction as well as action. Delaying the breaking of the Bay of Pigs story had tremendous consequences for this country. Whether or not that was a right decision or a wrong decision is an interesting question, but it nevertheless -- probably, in one sense -- the nonaction may have been preferable to action when in doubt. It seems to me what the press needs to do is to try, in all the ways it can, to maximize the amount of truth it tells, and simultaneously minimize the harm done by that truth. Whether you want to take that to the now-classical practice of outing, or whether you want to take that to be about blowing up about a domestic excuse for reporting a local dentist who was picked up drunk after his 50th birthday party is an interesting question.
We must, however, ask the press to be more accountable on those respects than it is. In that context I would say the press needs to a better job of covering the press. They need to do a better job of reporting how reporting is happening, they need to do a better job of covering how the story was covered, if you will. That's typically done to academics, typically done to journals and magazines of opinion, and I suppose I would have to include journals and news magazines as part of the press, as I talk about it.
I want to say something about the truth. We talked this afternoon about, "Who knows what the truth is?" The truth is what you believe to be true -- right? If I think it's true, then it's true. If you don't think it's true, that's tough. Well, I'll tell you: If I don't believe that somebody will fall when I hold a four-year old kid out of an eleventh story window and let go, there's something wrong in that. And if people don't hold me responsible for that decision there seems to me to be something fundamentally wrong with the people who aren't holding me responsible.
So I would like to suggest that the press needs to follow a system of Sissela Bok's view and that is to permit themselves to what we call the principle of veracity. Sissela Bok's view is very simply is, "We can't know the absolute truth. And even if we did, we couldn't tell it all." I was interested this afternoon when people said we didn't tell all the truth. How the hell do you tell all the truth? We were told we were going to have this true story about the Medgar Evers killing, and I suspect we will have it in 120 minutes running time. It took a hell of a lot longer for that to happen than 120 minutes, folks. And there are an awful lot of people that were involved in that, and in the culture and the climate and what have you, that we're never going to cover in 120 minutes!
As I said to someone facetiously today, why doesn't someone point a camera at the Washington Monument and run it for two hours, and then shut it off? And at least from one point of view at one moment you've got the truth -- I guess -- in some sense, within some limits, if someone wants to look at the Washington Monument. Now what I would take as the Sissela Bok view is that we commit ourselves to a principle of veracity, which is that we do not intentionally deceive. She says a lie is a "stated, deceptive message" that is, I put something out to others with the intent to mislead them about my opinion, my belief, my truth. My truth can be absolute garbage, but so long as I'm telling what I believe honestly and fully, and am not trying to deceive people because of vagueness or other kinds of shenanigans -- I can follow the principle of veracity. That's what we [should] hold the press up to -- not that they can't be wrong, not that they can't make mistakes, not that they can't do a variety of things -- but that they commit themselves to the principle of telling the truth as they know it, that they do not set out to intentionally deceive, omit or do other things that will divorce us from the truth.
Last but not least, I would argue that yes, there is some merit to the notion that the press has to serve the local community in some particular ways. That can be jiggled at some... but it does seem to me that the Champaign [Illinois] News Gazette has some obligation to report things about the university, and the local community that doesn't follow the Chicago Tribune, that can be done with the local news media, that is, the Channel 3 and the Channel 9 or whatever. So really there are some services there which I'll accept. Let me talk briefly because I'm running longer than I meant to and I want to have a dialogue with Scott and you, so we'll try.
The public: What has to be done to reconstruct the public? Or if the ideal I envisioned never was -- and perhaps it wasn't -- how do we get to such a public? First of all, I think this came through very prominently today, there has to be an acceptance of responsibility. An acceptance of responsibility for individual action, for individual decision, for individual exposure or nonexposure to information. When I said this morning that we need to develop a system of dealing with this information swamp, what that means is that there an incredible amount of stuff out there. We've got to figure out how to monitor, how to decide what's relevant to us and to pull in those things. And I think there are strategies with which we can do that depending on other people to sound the alarm in particular instances, developing our expertise or competency in particular areas and then sharing that competency when asked.
As chairman of the budget committee on our campus, I now get asked for an incredible array of things that happen in Springfield, our state capitol. I accept that responsibility, and so I try to find out what's going on; I spend extra time doing that job, and so I try to feed that back to my colleagues who have come to depend on me for that decision. It may be wrong, it may be nothing, but this is an area in which I claim some degree of responsibility looking at the issues in Springfield from that point of view. Somebody else worries about tax policy, somebody else worries about parking, somebody worries about something else. I'll turn to them for their view; but I think we need to develop this notion that there are areas of expertise that any single individual can develop and that that individual has some responsibility to contribute to the dialogue in those areas of expertise.
Ultimately, we must decide when to act from a basis of sufficient information, but also necessarily incomplete information. We have to know when to buy, when to do, when to act. We have historically placed a great deal of emphasis on source, a great deal of emphasis on receivers. We need to place more emphasis on responsibility of the general public to build and maintain that kind of public that I'm talking about. In other words, we need to depend upon the masses of people to say, "We do need a public, we do need people who are actively involved in dialoguing about these issues, and we do need to focus on the kind of communication that we allow to occur in our community."
I'm absolutely astonished with the number of people who complain about the O.J. era and don't, apparently, ever conceive of turning him off. I have to tell you, candidly, I have never watched Beavis and Butthead in my entire life. I've read about them, about the accusations with starting fires... I've now read a script, I've seen about eight minutes of them, I'll never have to see them again ... You know, that's one more thing I don't have to worry about in my young life. [laughter]
We need, as I said before, to develop a strategy. We need to develop a strategy because it is possible for us, I think very soon, to become absolutely insulated from everything except our burning passions. If I want to watch and listen only to recurrent Wagner, I think the day will soon come when I can turn on a television channel and maybe twenty-four hours a day I can do the Ring Cycle forever. Of course, there will be some Pucciniites over there, and there'll be some other Verdians over here, and there'll be some esoteric people going into modern opera and all that claptrap. Not me. I mean, what's the danger in that? What's the danger when people can read only to this narrow thing, or expose themselves only to this approach to religion, to this Pentecostal structure or this very narrowness? How are we going to deal with the fractionation that occurs?
In our conference today, as we talked about Quiz Show, one panelist said you could shoot a cannon down the street [when a show was on] and you wouldn't hit anybody. For some of those shows, when commercials came on there would be a major drop in water pressure all over the city. Everybody was getting up and going to the bathroom and washing, and then running back in the room to be there before the program picked up again. That was power, but it also had a corporate identity. The public knew essentially some things in common. They shared. It was common era, with common traditions, a common sense in conversation that could go on about Lucy [the television show]. That's breaking down more and more as we fractionate and spend less and less [time with each other].
The other thing I think we're going to have to do about this -- and it's really two different categories -- we need to develop a way of controlling the cost of political campaigns. Time magazine this week had an article in which it said the goal for everyone aspiring to be a candidate for the presidency next year is to raise $100,000 a day, every single day, for the remainder of this year. One candidate had announced the public goal of twenty million dollars by year's end. (The real goal is actually thirty million.) I live in an electoral district with a state legislator that has, probably, 100,000 people. But over a million dollars was spent on the two candidates on that election alone last fall. To become a state legislator! At fifty-five thousand a year! Well, there are big things at stake, for control of the House... Two years from now, he is going to run again in national headquarters, and I'll bet you they'll pour more money into that election this time.
So when you begin to think about the implications it's absolutely tremendous. We have to accept, I think, that we live in a very pluralistic society. If we're going to live in a pluralistic society, one of the costs is that we're going to have lots of conflict, many different points of view, and many people participating in any marketplace of ideas, whatever they may be. That means, in my view, we're going to have to have a fairly liberal society, one in which we extend lots of rights and protections of rights and guarantees of access and voting privileges, et cetera, to those individuals within the society.
But inevitably, if we're going to have a very pluralistic society, we're going to have a high degree of tolerance for other people and other points of view. If we think about society right now, it strikes me we're running out of tolerance on too many issues. I'm not thinking just of bombings and the killings of the doctors in abortion clinics, there's an awful lot of areas in which we're running out of tolerance in every way.
What we're going to have to do is come to build some kind of a shared public sensitivity. A sense of commonality. We're going to need to locate that common ground, that broad public space in which all of us must -- to some degree -- operate. We're free to do many, many things outside that public space, but we need to come together at least within that space for certain kinds of things and our conversations. We need to work with respect of other people as moral agents, but respect means holding those moral agents accountable for those violations which we cannot tolerate as a society, which we cannot permit as intrusions, disruptions, destruction of the public space we share in common.
Every once in a while I see on the television in Chicago a black woman standing outside her door and saying "Those drug dealers aren't going to come around here. We own this place!" And I look at that ramshackle house and that terrible environment and say "That's a public space she's trying to protect in some very real way." We cannot detach our actions from our values. It's another way of saying we cannot adopt [what's called] "California's religion," which is, "You can believe anything you want to because it has no relationship at all to anything you actually do." Rather, we're going to have to couple our values with our actions.
I think that's a difficult thing in our society today. Everybody's opinion is equal to everybody else's and no worse statement than the other. Every individual, as an individual, is in my view the moral equal of others. But that doesn't mean all of them behave equally morally. It doesn't mean all can enjoy the same privileges as the rest of the people in society. So I guess I would conclude by saying you just can't tolerate the notion that everything goes. That's not a call for censorship by the government, that's a call for censorship by those within the public space. I would simply include the two kinds.
Compromise is often a very ethical act. So often we seem to deal as if we hold our principles firmly -- "We cannot yield! Here I stand!" Well, nothing so clarifies one's mind as the knowledge that one is to be hanged at dawn. Perhaps some compromise might be possible and then those moments arrive that you've got to find the means for compromise. We have to find that degree of common ground that can bring a sense of public participation.
And now I've come full circle because I think it is instrumentally important that the media be involved in this. I don't think we can create that sense of common ground without the press functioning in some of the ways in which I have described. On the other hand, the press won't function that way unless we in some sense require it to, and demand it to, and profit from its functioning in that way. Do I think the presidency, the press and the public are doomed? No.
But I do think we are in a difficult period with a terribly important sea change in a whole lot of things, that is being driven by a technology and a technological change we do not understand. For the first time in my life, I have colleagues who believe we're going to be teaching incredibly differently in the next decade than we did in this decade. For the first time we really are frightened. We may not have a job! Or the same job! Or do we get involved in the same way that we've done before?
I submit to you there's a sea change coming in technology that's going to revolutionize our lives in many, many ways we're not prepared to control. We're not prepared to understand it, we're not prepared to legislate about it, we're not prepared to see its consequences in all the arenas that we function.
If I want to be optimistic, I would remind you we've had lots of fights over past issues. You may recall there was a thing called the Boston Tea Party; there was the Whiskey Rebellion; we had the unrest in the 60s. I don't know that we're doing all that badly in coping. I don't know that we ought to be quite as dispirited as we are, but I do think there's enough out there to cause us to view with some alarm what's happening. I believe there is an urgent call to the acceptance of responsibility and for participation in becoming the public I envision. Thank you. [applause]
I really appreciated those remarks. They were a very fitting response to a very good conference today. I was very excited to hear this is a capstone of really where we have been in the past, where we are today and where we might be going in the future.
I'd like to just ask Ken a couple of questions, and then we might have an opportunity for some people in the audience to share it. He touched on some ideas on participation in teledemocracy and new technologies, and some ideas on opinions not being equal. How do you see the next presidential cycle -- or maybe cycles -- and how the new technologies might affect the sorts of things people know today?
I wish I had more confidence about that than I do. I don't know how that's going to function. We talked today about morphing -- the ability to transmute somebody into Clinton and back perhaps as a Democrat -- it would be my hope we could transport somebody into Newt and back and it would have the same effect in two years. That remains to be seen.
I think that we're going to see continued disenchantment with the political process. I think we're going to see far more people eliminated earlier in the process because of the lack of money. We may have "democratized" our primary systems so much that we're losing the best candidates for the presidency. I mean, the notion of democracy that "the majority rules" has to become a balance with the liberal tendency to protect all kinds of rights and all kinds of institutions, so that you don't [end up with] deteriorating democracies.
I worry about the fact that we're not, as a people, really participating in that process. How many times in the last election have you and I felt "I'm voting for the lesser of two evils"? On the other hand, I think that the tendency will be for: more special interest groups, more targeting, [more segmenting of] direct mail, [more use of] the Internet, [to] do very, very targeted kinds of things, [and increase] the degree to which you can play all these kinds of things.
I'm amazed when I get Time magazine and it says "Ken Andersen -- this is how your senators voted on this issue and this is how your representatives voted on that issue." And that must be cost effective for Time to do that for every congressional issue.
If we looked into the future and think that the press might say, as they did today, that "we're doing a fine job," and "we're doing everything well," and that "we're ethically covering the race," they would [also] say, "Well, we did those features when we gave you the background biographical. Didn't you read that material six months before the primary?" My feeling is that between now and the end of the year we'll see many long stories on people who are running for office. At the same time, people will be focusing on Lance Ito and O.J. and who knows what else. Do you think that the press might do a better job this next time, and we won't have to rely on political advertisements and debates, or are the new technologies going to do what Nixon's White House tried to do: go in to use TV? And that Clinton White House tried to do for about a month, until they realized the talk shows didn't work once the election was over.
I would make two or three observations: Historically, what happened was that all of this background on the campaign was relevant only to those opinion leaders, to those people. If you go back to the old studies of Erie County, and some of those early voting studies, what they said was the large majority of the populace didn't get interested in the election until almost the day of the election, that those were the last people to decide to vote, were the least informed, that they almost always were influenced by somebody else for how to vote or what they ought to support. So what the campaign did, initially, was to reach out to the opinion leaders and find them the information. So to some extent yes, those early stories get factual enough and detailed enough, do give the reader some sense of "yes, this is the candidate I'll support," or "no, this is not the candidate I will support."
But as it turns out, the smooching for money and those other things are far more important than -- what? An informed group. So when you used to have a notion that the party's followers would come together at a convention and would deliberate and discuss and there were forty- or sixty-some ballots, it seemed to me that political process fitted [that] time. The new political process is so very different that I think that this kind of defensive press won't work. You're going to have to tell the same story over and over again, particularly as you get closer to the election. You're going to have to find ways -- now as the people are beginning to be turned on -- getting much of this relevant information out there.
But then you've got the question of who's reading the papers? How much attention will be paid or what happens when those last minute commercials come on that you know, really do some scurrilous kinds of things, or not so scurrilous? Or how are we going to combat the amount of negatives? What I think is going to happen is we'll see a smaller turnout for the next election, other things being equal. Now we have a massive recession, we go to Washington. Zillions of things can affect that so you can't predict it. But what I really think we're going to see continued disenchantment of the public for political process until something changes from the way in which it is being done. That's not encouraging.
So, what would be the strategy that moves us to some sort of change? I think that's the last question I have and then I know there are some questions from the audience. You said "we" have a responsibility to introduce the strategy and force some change on the press, to force some change on the public. Who are the collective "we"?
I think it is that group that sees themselves as the important members already occupying what remains of the public space. I think it's the people who have enough concern, enough interest and enough understanding and insight to be that public in its nascent sense. And then to expand the ranks. I mean, all of you here: Come and join the recruiting army, as it were.
You know, we used to have revival meetings where everybody would be sent out to save some more sinners, and of course bring in coffers to finance the revival meeting. We really need to go out and to begin the work of reconstructing the public, and we're going to do that interaction as journalists, we're going to do that interaction as communicators but it's equally true that we can continue to distort the public. We've got to find something that is common. I don't believe in jingoism. I don't believe we have to wave the flag and salute the flag. I think it's fine to burn it, even, on occasion. But we have to find something that pulls us together, something that says we have this thing shared in common.
You know if you start to think about it: Canadians worry about American culture. Too many people in this country worry about the American culture too. They don't want it. What does it mean to be an American? I'm an American. What does that say? What's the commonality? What does that mean to be? What is the responsibility if I am? I don't care whether I speak English or not. If I'm not English-speaking but I'm an American, what does that say? We need to answer that question and to find some common ground to root ourselves. We're rootless, perhaps.
Well, hopefully we can move along and find that common ground. Perhaps our next generation, or their leaders, are in the room here tonight. Are there any particular questions for Dr. Andersen on the remarks?
Given the disillusionment with political leaders and the media, who do you feel will be the opinion leaders in the 90s? Who should we, if they're giving us a call to action, who should we be looking to approach?
As far as I can tell, trust in all the institutions is going down, including trust in education. We're really going to have to rebuild that credibility in a wide array of places. That is, all the institutions we're talking about are going to have to pull themselves up, some of them by their bootstraps.
I have the concept that what we need is a kind of ideal, or image, that is somewhat above the level at which we are now, but not so far above it's ridiculous. I'm not going to become a saint tomorrow, but I might be able to do a little better in a couple of areas with my relationships. So what we need is a set of standards and aspirations and a kind of moral imagination that moves us toward the achievement of those. Simultaneously, as we move toward the achievement of those, we raise the standard so that we can get a kind of helical process that takes us upward.
[We also] have to say that we probably were too naive about some things. There's always been chicanery, there have always been flaws, there have always been problems. To have glossed those over is not a particularly mature thing. What we want to have is the maturity to see the world as it is and then to have the capacity to try to see that world in a way that would make it better than it is.
A moral process has to occur across the society. We each have the potential to be a leader of that in our own individual arenas, whether it's my classroom, your classroom, your home, your club, your bridge group, your whatever. There is that potential, and ultimately the public I talk about functions in all of those settings.
Do you think that that we're advancing in some ways to the Aristotelian approach, which might equate happiness with pleasure and honor and wealth, but [meanwhile] relinquishing the idea of respect and honor as an important component?
I don't know. I happen to believe in an ethical virtue. That is, that we have to cultivate habits of responding in desirable ways. I think that I wouldn't necessarily settle for the same virtues that Aristotle settled for. ... When you talk about a kind of liberality, what we owe to others -- when you talk about the importance of justice, like distributed justice, compensatory justice, you can talk about the notion of proper pride. That is, we're not vainglorious about ourselves, but on the other hand we do not allow ourselves to be treated in ways that are beneath our dignity, or beneath how we need to be respected. I think those are very, very powerful kinds of virtues.
When you invoke the concept of Aristotelian happiness -- Aristotle said, "Happiness consists of good friends, a good life..." -- and as you suggest, practicing virtue. It was a sense of enduring well-being: "Yeah, there were vicissitudes -- so I got a traffic ticket today, or I got a blister, and yeah, I had the flu for two days last week..." But essentially, our life was satisfying. We had a sense of confidence about that life. We had a sense of kind of enduring well-being.
I think that's gone out of our society, far more than we wish. In that sense, I see there to be less a notion of Aristotelian ethics pervading our society than was historically true. It's interesting though. I feel, on the whole, relatively good about my personal situation. It's the same kind of phenomenon as, "I like my mayor and my senator and my garbage collector. I just don't like their mayors and senators and garbage collectors and the whole world is having a hellish time." We seem to be able to balance those incompatibilities.
It's difficult to know necessarily where we are going. Is there a question? How about the far back? Professor Littlefield.
You made reference to responsibility, and I think [that] is an important characteristic of [much] of the state that you're making reference to. But I'd like you to focus in on one area: I'm particularly concerned with the academic institutions. Let's take a look. Maybe have you make some kind of assessment of the schools of journalism in this country. What are their responsibilities, and have they upheld their responsibilities to nurture and to encourage the kind of journalism that you have made reference to?
It is obviously various, and this has been a very hot topic, as you know, in journalism as to what kind of curriculum [one should have]. Should we have a more professional curriculum, should we require a greater grounding in the liberal arts, what do you need to know? There are some practicing journalists who scorn the notion of journalism education and say nobody needs that. Get a degree in poli-sci, get a degree in philosophy/religion, get a degree in business accounting, get a degree and then you can go out and do it.
On the other hand, you have to learn some of the guild characteristics. You have to learn there are codes, there are responsibilities, there are some kinds of things. I guess if you push me, I would say that I believe we need to do a very good job of attracting some of the best minds to journalism, that we need to give them a broad liberal arts education and some depth in a couple of areas, and then perhaps enough courses to do what it is they are going to do in the world of journalism.
I'm not sure which way that ought to go. I can see some cases in which journalists should go back to school in their beat and in their areas of competency, and move back to continue their education, take a year off and then go back. But in other cases I can see that you could go back and do advanced training, or you could do quite different things than you've prepared yourself for -- and you might want to do that. So how much of the nuts and bolts do you need, versus how much of the other do you need -- [that's] a very difficult question and I think it varies with the individual. Some people are never going to get it, no matter what program you put them through.
Maybe I could just follow up on that. Should the responsibility of academic institutions be to focus more on educating the press, educating people as consumers of the press -- which you alluded to earlier today -- or [as] future politicians? Our Speaker of the House has alluded to the fact that it's more prestigious to graduate from a no-name school in the South than a name school here in the Northeast. Is there a de-intellectualization going on?
Maybe in some ways. I think it's interesting though that some of the people casting the stones have Ph.D.s in hand, so it's always easy to cast the stone outside. I think there is in this country a kind of nativism, a populism strain, and sometimes the worst of that comes out in us. I really am troubled about some of the efforts to insulate ourselves and protect ourselves, and when I hear about the "angry white men" [who] carried the last election, that bothers me a fair piece. We have often, I think, distrusted the intellectual. I don't know that we distrust the narrow expert.
I thought that the quiz show discussion today was interesting. It's fine if you know tremendous things about boxing, or it's great if you know all the averages of all the teams that played in such and such a year. That's wonderful stuff. But it's not so wonderful if you are a broad-gauge intellectual who tends to engage a wide range of questions. It's not altogether desirable if you aren't committed to a kind of narrow, structured sense of values, so I think there's this kind of ambivalence about it.
I don't think this country has ever really honored the intellectual in the way that some other cultures have done. We don't honor age particularly. In some cultures, age is revered for the wisdom it can provide. In our culture? I should be looking to the 19-year-olds when they hold tenure hearings on the fallout during the Vietnam uprising, for wisdom. Well -- think about it.
I think we have perhaps exceeded our time. I know Dr. Payne wanted to make a final announcement here. It's been very exciting to hear not only your wisdom this morning and also ending about the conference this evening. I appreciate it and would like to give Dr. Andersen a big hand for all his support [applause]
Recognition - The Helen and Cecil Rose 1994-1995 Ethics and Communication Award Recipients J. Gregory Payne Chairman, Division of Communication Studies
I would like to thank all the people who have attended this conference today, which of course began what seems like maybe two to three weeks ago. It's been a very long day, but as we think about the types of people, the types of discussion, and the themes that we've heard, we see it's been a very invigorating day. I have a feeling that many of our debate classes, argumentation classes, as well as other classes throughout the college, are going to be permeated with debate and discussion on ethics, docudrama ethics, ethics in journalism, ethics in advertising, ethics in public relations, and ethics in politics.
Helen and Cecil Rose are the primary force, because they believed very strongly that all of you here represent something unique. They believed that Emerson College is truly poised to play a major difference in dealing with a topic that none of the other schools that live in our shadow in Boston, such as Harvard or B.U., even try to get at. When I've talked to colleagues they said, "Well, what are you going to be talking about, ethics in all these different areas?"
I think what we've had today is a very engaging dialogue, and we've had people from all ends of the continuum. We've had people who I think represent -- and have demonstrated -- good arguments [which] trace back to classical Greece and beyond that, [arguments which] are going to withstand the test of time, and are based on what Aristotle and others would call "good reasons." One person who initiated this conference, or at least a very spirited quiz show panel, deserves to be recognized once again for being right, and for maintaining an important moral and ethical position today. That's Judy Kletter. Judy, could you please stand up? [applause]
[I'll add] one editorial comment: I think once everyone goes home and gets past the shock value of four-letter words, [past] the zaniness of very quick witted remarks, [they will see] there was good argument and bad argument that really bears on the responsibility that we all have in communications. What I would like to do is to also thank one other professor here tonight, without whose leadership in this particular area of political communication, we wouldn't have had in Emerson College. That's Walt Littlefield, in the back. Walt? [applause] We now have a program that is one of the largest and most prestigious at the master's level, and we have some very good scholars here who are going to change all those things that Ken has outlined.
Before I make one last announcement: I do want to thank Howard [Miller], who has been wonderful in pulling the conference together [applause], Diego [Salazar], who I hear has had various job offers to chauffeur, Anita [Cole] [applause] and Tijen , who are here somewhere... and then of course Philip who I think is capturing all of this live with the camera. So thanks for all the staff. [applause]
The final announcement is that Helen [Rose] indicated that she wants to make sure that the community here knew what fine scholars we had in Ethics and Communication. Of course, we had the first of what is going to be a continuing award in honoring scholarship in Ethics and Communication this year. This year we were very lucky in Communications Studies that it was within our division, which of course was the first division of the college. I would like to pay respect to those people who won this very important first year's prize, which was $2,000, and which initially was going to be divided among them. But Helen said, "Well, they're so good, let's just give them all $2,000." So, of course, thank you once again, Helen.
On the graduate level we're very excited that we had such a wonderful piece that really zeroed in and identified those important ethical points, and that's Lisa Dupre. Lisa could you please stand up? [applause] Another individual who, unfortunately and tragically, is not with us this evening, but was with us in body as well as in spirit in December, and I think continues to motivate us by the ethical stance that he took and the research, is Professor John Marlier [applause]. We have also Dr. Scott Ratzan who's directing the Health Comm program. Scott? [applause] And two people who worked together on a project -- they are grinning from ear to ear because it's done and it's ready and it's going to be sent out to publication -- Professor Valeria Fabj [applause] and someone who, if you know him, there's no way you could miss him but for some reason we did miss him in the program when it was printed, Dr. Matt Sobnosky. [applause]
In closing I would like to invite all of you to a reception outside. I think you probably all gained a lot of knowledge -- as well as about five pounds today. We look forward to seeing you next year at the Rose Ethics and Communications Conference. Thank you. [applause]