'Sentinel Under Siege': government's 4th branch

September 28, 1997|By Steve Weinberg | Steve Weinberg,special to the sun

"Sentinel Under Siege," by Stanley E. Flink. Westview. 336 pages. $28.

Stanley E. Flink has a love-hate relationship with journalism. His love revolves around the potential for improving democratic government based on the special First Amendment status of journalism organizations. His hate revolves around the way too many journalism organizations have sacrificed that same potential by emphasizing self-serving ideology and the profit motive.

Flink's divided passion, which could have produced an intellectually stimulating, persuasive book, has unfortunately produced a largely confusing, unpersuasive book.

A former print and television journalist, a former public information officer at Yale University, Flink now teaches part-time at New York University. What he has seen has convinced him that news is a prerequisite of democracy. To bolster his point, Flink quotes founding father James Madison: "A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both."

Madison was correct, and Flink is wise to recall Madison's words. But the reference embodies so much of what is wrong with Flink's book: First, Flink has few original ideas, relying instead on the words of others. Second, Flink tries to persuade by telling, rather than showing.

Flink makes a weak book weaker by failing to explain the rationale for ordering his 24 chapters the way he has ordered them. Flink violates chronology from chapter to chapter, and sometimes within chapters. Large themes do not seem to be the ordering principle either.

What is to be salvaged from Flink's book? For journalists, a renewed awareness that their reporting ought to be undergirded by pride in their constitutional role as a fourth branch of government. Such pride might lead them to work harder at achieving accuracy - factual accuracy as well as the far-too-often absent contextual accuracy. Legal scholars - who seem to be a primary intended audience of Flink's - might derive a renewed awareness that there is much to be mined in the words of dead jurists. One of many examples is U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's commentary (in the 1971 Pentagon Papers case) about government secrecy based on so-called national security: "For when everything is classified, then nothing is classified, and the system becomes one to be disregarded by the cynical or the careless, and to be manipulated by those intent on self-protection or self-promotion."

Generalist readers can take away a lesson from Flink's book, too `that if they want a responsible media, they can vote by cancelling subscriptions and changing channels. Then those citizens must let the offending media know why. The managers of news organizations are more likely to respond to that kind of feedback than they are to Flink's media criticism.

Steve Weinberg teaches journalism at the University of Missour and has written seven books and is finishing two more: a social history of investigative journalism, and a biography of muckraker Ida Tarbell.

Pub Date: 9/28/97

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