NEWS MEDIA & ETHICS
JANUARY 16, 1996
In the wake of Food Lion's suit against ABC for their undercover story on unsanitary conditions in the supermarket chain and other controversial stories, the media's methods have come under intense scrutiny. Jim Lehrer discusses the state of the media with NewsHour historians and two media watchers.
JIM LEHRER: Now some thoughts about the way the press goes about its business these days. There have been several recent events that have called that into question: the Richard Jewell Atlanta bombing case, printing the Gingrich tape, covering the Paula Jones story, the Food Lion vs. ABC case, among many others.
A RealAudio version of this NewsHour segment is available.
January 15, 1997:
The journalistic practices of ABC are on trial in a case dealing with unsanitary food practices at Food Lion supermarkets.
November 6, 1996:
A panel of foreign reporters examine the state of the American media and the elections.
August 6, 1996:
Steve Geimann, incoming president of the Society of Professional Journalists, took questions on the media establishment.
January 29, 1996:
Journalist and author James Fallows participates in an Online Forum on the decline of American journalism.
January 25, 1996:
Fallows discusses his new book Breaking the News: How the Media Undermined American Democracy with David Gergen.
We talk about it now with NewsHour regulars Presidential Historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss, Journalist and Author Haynes Johnson, joined tonight by Ed Fouhy, former network news producer, now director of the Pew Center for Civic Journalism, and Paul McMasters, formerly with USA Today and other newspapers, now the First Amendment ombudsman for the Freedom Forum. Doris, is the press of America experiencing a standards and practices crisis now?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN, Presidential Historian: Well, what I think is happening, it reminds me to some extent of what happened at the turn of the century, which was at the turn of the century you had a progressive movement where people were concerned about conditions in the factories as we moved from a farm situation into a city situation. And a whole new breed of magazines developed as a result, sensational magazines which had investigative reporters on their staffs. And you had people using essentially undercover techniques at that time. You had Lincoln Stephens exposing the shame of the city; you had Ida Tarbell exposing what Rockefeller was doing and blowing up other people's oil lines. And you had a meat packing industry exposed by Upton Sinclair, who posed actually as an employee of a slaughterhouse to show what terrible conditions were undergoing in those meat packing industries, which led them to federal regulation to help do something about it. But in those days there was a concern about these new sensational magazines, the old magazines that were sedate said what are we doing, getting into this superficial public relations stuff, but on the other hand, there was an end that was being worthwhile to be exposed for, and that end was that conditions were being exposed and were being changed.
What I think we're seeing today is those same investigative techniques much different because of technology, micro cameras, videotapes are allowing us to expose things we might not have been able to do before, but sometimes you have the feeling that the end is not really in sight, that it's simply because it's a commodity being driven, people will watch these exposures. And you don't feel the same sense of the end justifying the means. But it's the same undercover techniques, and investigative reporting we've had for a long time which can be worthwhile, so we shouldn't throw it all out just because we're mad at some of the techniques that are being used.
JIM LEHRER: Ed Fouhy, do you agree it's the ends that change, rather than the techniques?
EDWARD M. FOUHY, Pew Center for Civic Journalism: I think, yes, perhaps that's a good way to put it, Jim. I think there's an awful lot of pressure now on people in the news business to be hyper competitive. I think we have so many more outlets now than we've had before. I think there's a bottom line pressure that's much worse, but I think this perspective that Doris has just brought to it is very important. Is there a big crisis right now? I don't think there is. I think there's a very serious problem, but I think the press has a self-correcting mechanism, these kinds of discussions being a good example of that mechanism, that will bring people back to the very important values that we all think are absolutely basic to journalism.
JIM LEHRER: Haynes, as somebody who has been in this business a long time, do you detect a change in the practices and standards and values?
HAYNES JOHNSON, Journalist/Author: Absolutely. Sure. And what Doris said is very interesting. Those were the muckrakers they were so called, the Stephens, Tarbell, and all those people at the time. And they would look rather conservative now. If you go back to the 20s when the tabloid culture came in and then you had real scandal and sex stuff, and that was the great mass circulations. And now that has translated itself into the mainstream press through television, through papers that are printing stuff. When the Atlanta Constitution Journal ran that story on Richard Jewell, it jumped into double banner headlines before he was charged or anything. That's different. That's taking the tabloid culture into the mainstream press. And I think the real problem, Jim, isn't so much the standards of whatever--we can argue about that. It's all you've got is your good name. And if you've lost your good name and people don't believe you, then the whole thing, the whole institution has lost its own credibility. I think that's what's in danger.
JIM LEHRER: Your job as ombudsman for the Freedom Forum, you deal with complaints that the public has about the press. Are we losing our good name?
PAUL McMASTERS, The Freedom Forum: I think our good name has been damaged considerably not because we have changed so much in the media as I think that the public is much more sophisticated and demanding today than it was 50 years ago and what they see in the media. Also, the media has broadened to include something more than the local newspaper. Now, it ranges from a home page on the Internet to all-day talk radio, to talk shows, to mainstream newspapers, and to television. And that creates this massive media mall to fill each day, and it's no longer a 24-hour news cycle. It's a one-hour news cycle. So you see some practices and some standards that Haynes mentioned deteriorating somewhat in that race to the deadline which some people see as a rush to judgment.
JIM LEHRER: Michael, put the public perspective of the press in some kind of historical perspective for us. I mean, have we always been loved and now we're not loved anymore, and it's upset us, or what's going--
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: No. There's been a lot of anti-press hatred in American society throughout the last 200 years. But this is something that really does touch on debates that took place during our founding period. One of them was: How do you assure the public interest? And the Founders had two views on this. One was that every citizen should think very carefully about the country and do things responsibly, with great self-restraint. The other view was if that's not the way that human nature so that the best way to assure the public interest is to have a wild, free market, a lot of competition, and, therefore, out of that kind of competition truth would somehow emerge, and in a way you're seeing that now because we no longer have a situation where you have very dominant media outlets, particularly in television. From the 50s to the 70s you had essentially three television networks that were near monopolies. Now you have all sorts of cable channels that in news terms are following different practices. I think the other thing that gets back to the founding period is, you know, how do you deal with the result of--the results of some of these sort of harem scarem methods we've been talking about? And that gets back to this old debate over how do you deal with factionalism? You know, do you try to outlaw it, or do you deal with the effects? We're not going to be able to outlaw these practices. We wouldn't want to. It violates the First Amendment, so the best thing you can do is make sure the American public is as educated, sophisticated, and skeptical as possible, so that they're not taken in by a lot of what they read and here.
HAYNES JOHNSON: One of the things you had in those early days you had a party press. Remember, they were organs of the political parties. Then we evolved over a long period of time into supposedly mainstream. You were a journalist; you were a newspaper man. You were a newspaper man, and we all were--not you, Michael--but we all came up with this idea that we were now sort of, we had certain standards. We're not licensed; we shouldn't be licensed. But that's not very murky, as you look at how the practices have changed enormously. And I think one of the things that's happening now in the press, itself, the so-called mainstream press, it's become politicized also. You have people who are not journalists, who are spokesmen for their ideology, and there's nothing wrong with this, except it's changed. The public looks at it and says, where are they coming from.
JIM LEHRER: Well, Ed, just be specific here. We've had the recent--the last week or so, the New York Times, one of America's leading newspapers, publishes on its front page a transcript of a recording of--a telephone recording involving the Speaker of the House of Representatives. Now, and there's been some question that eventually it will probably get resolved, whether or not even the publication of that was a violation of some kind of legal standard; however, if I am an official of the United States Government and I give you a classified document and you go publish it in your newspaper or, or print it--or broadcast it, that's a different kind of thing. And the public I believe does not really understand the differences and what's involved in that, right?
EDWARD M. FOUHY: That's right, Jim, but we all remember the Pentagon Papers case.
JIM LEHRER: Exactly.
EDWARD M. FOUHY: Michael is the historian here, but we all remember that it was a nine to nothing vote. The national interest was in favor of publication. We have as a democratic society a prejudice in favor of disclosure even when as in that case the government was arguing national security, national security was not at stake here, so I think Adam Climer, who's a very good congressional correspondent for the "New York Times," probably ran it by the--certainly ran it by the editors, but probably ran it by the lawyers as well. But I think the lawyers probably gave them the proper advice, let's go with this. The crime is not in publication. The crime, if, indeed, there was one, is further back in the possession chain.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah. But what about the public perception thing on this story?
EDWARD M. FOUHY: Oh, very important, Jim, and very--just what Haynes said--I just saw a poll last week. The public is very angry at some of the press practices. Well, as we all know, sometimes you have to do things that are going to make the public angry, but the price we pay is that support for First Amendment becomes very thin then. The public has to support the First Amendment. It's not ours. It's theirs.
HAYNES JOHNSON: That's the real danger because the blaring of the scandal journalism into sort of the mainstream does affect the public's view. They say we're all tainted, we're all scandal mongers; you can't trust them. Why should they have a license to lie?
JIM LEHRER: Yeah.
HAYNES JOHNSON: And with that understanding that, in fact, it's one of the elements of the society to have a free, unfettered press--we all agree with that--Michael is right--and yet, you're in danger of maybe losing that or being inhibited by it, by the very practice, like the autopsy pictures, when those kinds of things of the young girl who was murdered turn up, are sold, and they're published in a scandal magazine, that--all of us are tarnished by that, even though it may be unfair.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: But, you know--
JIM LEHRER: Yes, Doris.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: --to a certain extent, I think the anger at the press may be misplaced in a certain sense, which is that in this last month think of the stories that have come out of Washington. No. 1, we had the Gingrich violation of ethics. And then we have now the cellular phone taping and whether or not it was fair to tell what he said. On the other hand, you have the fund-raising violations on the Democratic side. Nothing positive is coming out of the government, so I mean, I think the public upset is not simply that the press is reporting these things, but I think back to the days when I was in my 20's in 1965, a summer intern in Washington. What were we talking about? We were talking about civil rights. We were talking about Medicare. We were talking about aid to education. The great public issues of our time were our private conversation. Now it's these process issues. It's corruption issues, and the press has to report what's going on. But nothing else is coming out of the government right now. So I think we should be mad, and I think the public is at the government, as well as at the press. But it's getting put on the press.
JIM LEHRER: You're nodding, Paul.
PAUL McMASTERS: I agree totally with what Doris was saying, but what troubles me about that, Jim, is this survey that, and poll that was conducted by Harris showed that three out of every four people would support the court's fining the media for irresponsibility and that sort of thing. That really troubles me because I don't think people go to the next step and start thinking of what that means in an open society. Do we have, for instance, in the Ramsey case, a situation where we want public officials--
JIM LEHRER: The Ramsey case. That's the Colorado case.
PAUL McMASTERS: The Colorado case.
JIM LEHRER: The little girl.
PAUL McMASTERS: The young girl was killed.
JIM LEHRER: Right.
PAUL McMASTERS: Do we want in an open society a situation where public officials tie the case all up in a neat package and settle it up with a pretty ribbon and then say, here it is to the public? Of course, we don't. The price we have to pay for that is the kind of egregious activities that some of the tabloids and others get involved in.
JIM LEHRER: Michael.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: It's another problem also with the free market approach because if you've got media organizations that are owned by corporations where there's heavy profit pressure, the instinct is going to be oftentimes to settle a case and not stand up for a principle. And the more that happens, the more difficult the climate is for doing things that are courageous and necessary.
JIM LEHRER: But, Ed, you know, one of the ironies of this is a lot of people within the press will tell you the press is cleaner now than it's ever been, I mean, in terms of taking freebies and all those things that used to be "ethics issues" in the newsroom. And yet, that's not the perception outside.
EDWARD M. FOUHY: No, it's not, Jim.
JIM LEHRER: Because of these other things.
EDWARD M. FOUHY: And you're dead right about that. The values that we've just touched on are what I think--the bar has been lowered. For some reason--and I don't know where it started, and I don't know why it started--maybe, as Michael suggested, it's the bottom line pressure. Maybe there are people in the corporate sweeps now who are the bosses and the word gets passed down to the editors, to the news directors, to the executive producers. The journalistic issues aren't quite as important as they used to be, the bottom line issues are much more important, thus, the rush to judgment.
HAYNES JOHNSON: We're conditioned to disbeliefs. I mean, what Doris said is you go back to Vietnam, you go back to Watergate; you go back to the scandal stories. And they're real. I mean, remember, we were all horrified. I mean, when the Pentagon spokesman said we have a right to lie, oh, my God, we said in this country, members of the press they have a--well, now everybody says they all lie, everybody else lies, and the public thinks we're lying too. That's the problem, how you separate it; it's very delicate.
JIM LEHRER: Yes, Doris.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: I think what's bothered the public is while I think there's a great support for the tradition of investigative journalism that arose out of Vietnam and Watergate, thank God the press was there. To some extent in recent years the focus of that investigative journalism has been on private lives of our public figures without really understanding as to whether it's relevant to an understanding of whether they are good leaders or not, so people when they get upset about the things that they shouldn't be upset about, like the Food Lion investigation, I think had a real worthwhile end if they discovered tainted food as a result of it. They're mixing all these issues together. Now, to be sure, there should be better standards. Maybe when the journalists decide whether to print a suspect they should wait until the police actually name them as a suspect before they put the name in the paper unless they've actually been caught in the middle of the crime. And maybe they should decide when they're using deceptive practices is this end really worth the means, is there any other way we can find out about this corruption than to use hidden cameras, but those things are worthy of discussion. It doesn't mean we should just blame the press wholly and say that they're the ones that are at fault.
JIM LEHRER: And we're going to continue this discussion some other time. Doris, gentlemen, thank you.