Politics and Press in the Us Decade

by Barry Drogin

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The seventies are commonly known as "The Me Decade": individuals making personal career decisions for their own advancement, sexual freedom in one-on-one relationships, conglomerate corporations defeated by the concerns of environmentalists, and so forth. When one thinks of the press during the seventies, one remembers the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporters, the important news leaks from risk-taking sources, and the freedom of the press battles that enabled those risky stories to appear in print.

Political movements were largely non-existent during the Me Decade (which commenced with the end of the Vietnam War); everyone was too busy "doing their own thing." Chaos did not reign, however, perhaps because the press was handling the job of watchdog --- a scandal or crisis was promptly reported on and action would follow shortly. But with the press's increased responsibility came some power (I still believe Reagan won over Carter because Reagan makes better copy and gives political analysts and cartoonists something to write about).

Now that we are a quarter of the way through the eighties, it is obvious that the Me Decade has evolved into an era of socioeconomic groups and their single-issue political beliefs, an Us Decade with a clearly defined Them. The issues are still individual-oriented, but the people of the Me Decade have entered the arena of politics because the issues involve laws. The Right To Lifers are arguing with the Pro-Choice people over the existence of an amendment; likewise, those on both sides of the ERA issue. Every aspect of government budgets is disputed or defended by lobbying groups.

In these single-issue battles, the press is relatively secure. Occasionally, a big rally is covered, a spokesman is interviewed, an editorial is run, and a letter printed. It's easy to show both sides of the issue, so the newspaper never gets directly involved and has no power.

Some issues, however, are specifically created by an "Us" with no clear "Them" around, and it is here that the press and its power become part of the issue. Who, for example, are against the socialists, and to what extent must socialist rhetoric be published in the press? Is it the press's job to print the facts or "the truth"? Is a political newspaper a news paper or merely a tool of its readership, telling them what they want to hear?

These groups run the political spectrum, from racists and fascists to religious and cultural fanatics to communists and radical feminists. Some would like to see changes that can only be described as revolutionary and anti-establishment, while others are the establishment and want things to stay totally still. All share some traits, however. All are convinced that there is no other side to their issue, that they are heir to the single truth. And, in the eighties, all are working within the system to reach their goals. This includes using the newly-created "power of the press" to serve their ends.

To the people who run the press, it is obvious that there is another side to these "truths," but that there is no specific group lobbying on that other side. Therefore, fair coverage is a problem. To the political group, fairness seems to be the right to get in the last word and, when there is no result, to repeat the argument again.

In a national newspaper, it is easier to avoid pressure from these groups and uphold the integrity of the newspaper. In a community setting the separation must also be present, but is harder to maintain. Service to the community is only one job of a community newspaper. Reliably reporting the facts, even if they go against the truths held by the community, is, after all, the most basic function of a newspaper.

At the heart of all issues involving the press is its power. The press's ability to bring about change is limited by two important factors: who the members of its readership are, and the extent to which the readership believes what it reads. When the question is whether one particular newspaper has the power to help some political group achieve its goals, the answer is no because, by becoming the voice of that group, the newspaper loses its readership or, at the least, its readership's trust. When it is a matter of belief and not a matter of fact, people believe what they want to believe, and the press is powerless.

Throughout the eighties, many newspapers and news magazines may become political newsletters. They will claim much and accomplish little --- a false reality, at best. The most a newspaper can hope to accomplish during the Us Decade is to stay a newspaper.

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Last Updated: August 4, 2007