Interview with Thomas Patterson
Former Professor, Syracuse University

Rush to Judgement: Opinion, and Interpretation in News Coverage

HS: What about the horse race mentality in terms of the press and the quick judgements we make?

PATTERSON: Well, I think in some ways we treat the presidency, Congress, government very much like the stock markets -- up and down. And that's not really the way we ought to be looking at our institutions. We ought to be asking not who's up and who's down, but what's the meaning. What's the importance for the American public behind these actions? What do they represent substantively? Not, you know, did Bill Clinton get ahead or lose something out of this particular action, but what does it mean for the American people? What are the costs and benefits in terms of society, rather than in terms of the personal ambitions, personal fortunes of particular political leaders?

The Washington Press Corps vs. the Politicians

SMITH: I want to ask you just basically, as you've studied the press over the last three or four decades, what are the salient trends that have had an impact on American democracy in the period?

PATTERSON: I think the most important of the trends is the trend towards negativity. Bad news now dominates good news by about three to one. In the 1960's when covering Congress or the presidency, candidates on a campaign trail --most of what was said about the institutions and the leaders was positive in tone. Today most of it's negative in tone and I think that's done a lot to turn the American public off on politics. But in the last decade or so, 80 percent of the coverage of Congress and more in some years has been negative in tone, so that what we're getting about Congress is the portrayal essentially of a dysfunctional institution, an institution that isn't performing the way that it should, when in fact, often it's performing exactly the way that the writers of the Constitution designed it to work, to act slowly on legislation, to be deliberative, to be a place where different interests and views could come together, if not sometimes conflictually in some ways and sometimes to find points of agreement and the like. I think the Congress pretty well works the way that it was designed to work, but it's not, from the press' perspective, a well functioning Congress. Did the media help, in that sense, to create Newt Gingrich and his power?

HS: Did the media in its style of coverage--attack journalism--help create Gingrich and his success?

PATTERSON: I think the media did help to create Newt Gingrich and his power. Certainly there are other sources of power behind Newt Gingrich's rise to the Speakership. But media had something to do with it. If you look at the early 1990's before he became Speaker of the House, there were a couple of years in there in which the most heavily covered Republican in the Congress of the United States was Newt Gingrich, even though he was not in the majority leader's position in the Senate. He was not the Speaker of the House. You know, I think the media contributed to the rise of Newt Gingrich. There were other factors -- I think the strength of the conservative wing of the Republican Party and his ability to articulate the values and interests of that wing of the party. But also his style of politics, I think fits with the type of news that we have today --

SMITH: Combative, confrontational --

PATTERSON: Combative, confrontational. There was a year before he became Speaker of the House that he was the most heavily covered Republican in the Congress of the United States -- House and Senate. And I think the only reason for that was that he was someone who was willing to put his nose into about every fight and to provide the strong attack sound byte that the media so much likes.

SMITH: Do we in the press de-value compromise?

PATTERSON: Well, I think it's a gray area, but I think good investigative journalism -- good watch dog journalism -- is fundamentally based on the facts, and makes some judgment about whether the complaint, the allegation is important in terms of sort of some broader conception of the public interest. And clearly those kinds of judgments were made in regard to Vietnam and Watergate. But the kind of needless negativism that we have today is that the smallest whiff of scandal -- an attack, regardless of how well founded or not -- is likely to make the news if it sort of fits into the current narrative. I think we need to go back to Watergate and Vietnam. I think that did a lot to poison the relationship between the journalists and the politicians. And it also, I think, led a whole generation of journalists to think that the real news story was the scandal and that in some ways for the journalists, success meant destroying, bringing down someone around the scandal. And I think that kind of a nose for the negative and nose for scandal is very different today than it was 20 years ago, and in some ways, too, is the boundary --

SMITH: Different in what sense? More pervasive, more nasty?

PATTERSON: I think it's more pervasive. I think also it takes less to create a scandal. Financial irregularity, some trouble in your domestic household -- I mean, it doesn't take a lot today to create a scandal --

PATTERSON: Well, I think the press likes decisive action and they like consistency. And that's really not the way this constitutional system is designed. This constitutional system is designed to work slowly, to bring diverse interests together, and that always means compromise. It's a system that's almost ideally suited to the individual, the kind of leadership where you're willing essentially to make trades, to negotiate, to compromise, to find common ground. That's the way the Constitutional system is designed. That's the way that I think that it works best, when it's working well. And yet that doesn't very well fit with the press' notion of what politics is all about. The press prizes consistency. You know, if you say one thing today and something different two weeks from now, they wonder what your motives are for the change. You know, are you trying to sort of advance in some manipulative kind of way your position? Does that indicate that you have weak leadership? I think for the press what they like are when things move quickly, decisively, that's the shape of news more than the shape of our governing system.

The Press and Public Disillusionment with Government

SMITH: Can you document the trend of negativism and has this negativism had an impact on public opinion?

PATTERSON: We did our own content analysis and others have done pieces of the last 30 years, and as you move from the '60's into the '70's it becomes more negative. One might have thought that would have been the bottom, given Watergate and Vietnam, but in fact, news coverage in the 1980's was more negative even in the 1970's. It was up again in terms of negativity in the 1990's, so it's been a constant trend. And then when you look at the relationship between the tone of news coverage and what's happening with public opinion -- the ups and downs of public opinion -- the public's mistrust of government, it's alienation -- all these things are positively and strongly related to the tone of news coverage. There's one other thing, I think, that makes the connection. Traditionally the people who were the most exposed to the news had the greatest level of trust in government and in their leadership. And in the last 10 years, the more exposure you have to news -- these are people who are attentive, interested citizens -- the more turned off they are about politics, Congress, the presidency. So there's a very tight connection, I believe, between the public's mistrust, lack of confidence in its leadership and the tone of news coverage. I think all of that's been blurred. I think what the press has lost sight of is the difference between a failed policy and a claim by someone else that a policy won't work or has failed. The standard of proof in the one case is some confirming evidence. There is no standard of proof in the other case. All you need is the sound byte. And I think the press has simply gone down the road of looking for the problems in politics, looking for the good attack sound byte in what politicians say without really thinking about sort of by what standards are we making these judgments and also what effect is this likely to have on the American public, because it is undermining the public's confidence in its leadership and in its institutions, and I think doing so needlessly.

SMITH: So what do you think the impact of this kind of journalism is on the public?

PATTERSON: Well, I think it's needlessly undermining the public's confidence and trust in its institutions and its leadership.

SMITH: So it's hurting American democracy in the most fundamental sense because it's severing the connection between the electorate and the elected.

PATTERSON: I think ironically it's a form of communication that breaks down communication. It's very difficult for those in power to work through this screen that the media has set up, to actually try to talk with the American public, to have their words taken at face value, to mobilize public support behind ideas. Because if your message is always sort of couched with this notion of, this is probably self-interested. There's some kind of manipulative intent behind this message, and the like, you can't get that message home. And therefore, I think it's very difficult now to build public support in the long run, the kind of public support that I think leads to successful policy and makes democracy work well.
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