September 25, 2000
Media correspondent Terence Smith talks with former Nieman Foundation curator Bill Kovach about the state of modern journalism.
Then, Bill Kovach responds to viewer questions on the modern media in an Online Forum.
The NewsHour Media Unit is funded by a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts.
TERENCE SMITH: In a 40-year newspaper career with stints at the "New York Times" and "Atlanta Journal-Constitution" among others, Bill Kovach has been a prize-winning reporter and editor. For the last ten years, he was curator of the Neiman Foundation Journalism Fellowships at Harvard University. He retired this summer and is now chairman of the Committee of Concerned Journalists. Bill, welcome. I suppose in the interests of full disclosure here, we should admit to the world at large that we worked together at the "New York Times."
BILL KOVACH: We had a great time.
TERENCE SMITH: Committee of Concerned Journalists: Tell me what it is and what its mission is. It suggests journalists have something to be concerned about.
|The Committee of Concerned Journalists|
BILL KOVACH: Well, we think they do. We think we do. It's a group of journalists, over 3,000 now, that was formed about three years ago when a group of some of the finest journalists in the country, people like Dave Halberstam, Gwen Ifill, John Carroll, the new editor of the "Los Angles Times," and a number of others got together to discuss their concern about what the new technology, the new communication technology and the economic organization of journalism that was being put together to serve this new technology, what it was doing to the values and the practices of journalism. And we decided to do a study, think about, talk about, and try to figure out how journalists maintain their balance in this period of change.
TERENCE SMITH: Did you, in your thinking and writing about this, or the committee, come up with what you think constitutes the greatest threat or problem for journalism today?
BILL KOVACH: Clearly the greatest problem is the speed with which information moves today, which overwhelms the ability of journalists to verify their information before they publish it. That's the most dangerous thing. We saw an example of this just the other day with this company in California, Emulex.
TERENCE SMITH: Mm-hmm.
BILL KOVACH: A phony press release was moved so fast that no one bothered or had the time to check it. The stock plummeted, what, 60% within a matter of hours? All because...
TERENCE SMITH: And it was a hoax.
BILL KOVACH: It was a hoax. It was untrue, but neither the first organization nor Bloomberg, nor any of the others that moved that story, had checked it before they posted it. So there was erroneous information, totally spurious information that moved through a system that hopes to be credible, hopes to be trustworthy, hopes to be believed.
TERENCE SMITH: You put that down to competition and pressures in competition?
BILL KOVACH: I put that down to competition, the competition, and the speed with which things are now expected to be done. And it's almost created a situation where it doesn't matter to be wrong so long as you're first. Being first to be wrong is just fine.
TERENCE SMITH: You and your colleague, Tom Rosenstiel, wrote a book about this called "Warp Speed," in which you talk about this frantic pace. But there's no way to roll this back, is there? I mean, you don't generally roll technology back.
BILL KOVACH: No way possible, and nor should you. I mean, it's a wonderful thing to have this kind of speed and this kind of information, but verification, verification, verification. The purpose of journalism is to provide information people can rely on. It's foolish to move so fast that you're putting out phony information. You'll destroy your own credibility eventually, destroy the seedbed of what makes journalism worthwhile.
|Covering the election|
TERENCE SMITH: We are now in the midst of a presidential election cycle. This is a time when the press is on overtime and maybe over- speed, and a very sensitive one from the political point of view. Observing it from your position, are voters getting what they need from the media in this election cycle?
BILL KOVACH: I think this has been an extraordinary year for election coverage. I really believe that the amount of information about the candidates, when you see the series that the "New York Times" has run on the two candidates, the "Washington Post" has run, a lot of the regional...
TERENCE SMITH: The biographical series?
BILL KOVACH: The biographical, historical series-- the public has no business not knowing what these two candidates are all about, because that information has been provided.
TERENCE SMITH: So you're giving good points to print. What about broadcast?
BILL KOVACH: Broadcast as well on that topic, but on the subject of the issues, on the subject of what this election is all about, I'm a little less generous. And just as a consumer of the information, I'm not getting what I need. I'd like to know a lot more about some of the issues, and not just where they stand, but where their organization, their party, their leadership is likely to take us. And I don't see a lot of that. I see too much about the details of the campaign as a mechanism, that journalists are inside the campaign, almost as though they're part of the campaign and they're speaking to me and to other members from the public in a jargon that is not very useful.
TERENCE SMITH: Almost as though they're inside the campaign? What do you mean?
BILL KOVACH: Well, it's all about how you position...
TERENCE SMITH: Process?
BILL KOVACH: ...How you position yourself, what the mechanics are in this state and in that state, which if I'm working in a political campaign, I'd like to know that. But if I'm a voter, I'm not sure I have any need for that information. I'd much rather know more about what these two people are going to do or what they propose to do or where the government is likely to go or where my society is likely to go.
TERENCE SMITH: Is there a danger in a setting like that of journalists in effect interviewing one another and talking in a tight circle with political consultants?
BILL KOVACH: We see it all the time. I mean, we just... My wife and I just came back from a trip to the west coast, and we read papers across the country. And each day, no matter which papers you picked up on the campaign, the stories were essentially the same. They were focused on exactly the same steps and touches, and it looked like the same reporters wrote them.
TERENCE SMITH: Turning to broadcast, there was controversy this past summer when the broadcast networks generally chose to downplay and reduce their coverage of the national nominating conventions. What did you think of that?
BILL KOVACH: Well, I think it's an abrogation of their responsibility and their duty, although I have to say, they gave Jim Lehrer a better audience, and I enjoyed it immensely.
TERENCE SMITH: We're not complaining about that, obviously.
BILL KOVACH: Not as a viewer, I'm not complaining about that. I just think it's... I just think it's irresponsible of the major news organizations to move in that direction when they do still have an obligation despite deregulation. They still do have an obligation to the public and an obligation to the process by which the American people try to become involved in their own governance.
|Blurring the line?|
TERENCE SMITH: Another great controversy these days is what is often described anyway as the blurring of news and entertainment into a sort of homogenized, difficult- to-discern product. Do you see it?
BILL KOVACH: Infotainment, all the time. It's the confusion of the two roles. They've-- they being the entertainment medium that drives this process-- learned a long time ago that the more near life, the truer a fictional thing appears, the greater the audience participation is. So they've always lusted for fiction that looks more like fact than fact itself, and that seems to be where they're headed -- the whole idea of this program "Survivor," which they've now turned into a news product.
TERENCE SMITH: Using news personnel.
BILL KOVACH: Using news personnel, and they use the participants in the show as subjects of the news programs morning shows to discuss what it was like to live through "Survivor." And the whole purpose seems to be to destroy any separation between truth and fiction, which has got to be fundamentally destructive of the news organizations that reside in their midst, because once the public takes the position, "I can't believe anything you have to offer me," we're in trouble.
TERENCE SMITH: Then the whole business is in trouble.
BILL KOVACH: We're in trouble as an institution.
TERENCE SMITH: Sounds like there's a lot to keep an eye on. Bill Kovach, thank you very much.
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