|A CHANGING INDUSTRY|
November 6, 1998
Recent technological advances, including the Internet, are rapidly changing the face of the news industry. In the first installment of a two-part look at the new news, Terence Smith and guests discuss changes in print and Internet journalism.
TERENCE SMITH: The news business is in the midst of a revolution brought on by technological change like the rise of the Internet and the 24 hour all news television channels and by economic change, including increased competition and a new emphasis on the bottom line.
Two new publications attempt to analyze that revolution. What the People Knew, Freedom and the Press is the title of a new book by veteran journalist Richard Reeves. He's a syndicated columnist and professor of journalism at the Annenberg Center for Communication at the University of Southern California.
The second work is The Rise of the New News, A Case Study of Two Root Cause of the Modern Scandal Coverage, a paper by former broadcaster Marvin Kalb. He's director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University. Also joining us are Ann McDaniel, assistant managing editor, and Washington Bureau Chief of Newsweek Magazine, and David Talbot, editor and CEO of Salon, the daily Internet magazines. Marvin Kalb, let me ask you what you mean by the new news.
The "new news"
MARVIN KALB: Well, the new news is the news that so many Americans now simply don't trust that they feel is populated by journalists who hype stories, who sensationalize stories, who are no longer interested in public service stories, but bottom line kind of stories, and what I try to do in the case study is focus on two root causes, but there are really four. The first is simply a loss of trust and respect for large institutions of government and first off the presidency. Second, as you mentioned in the lead-in, there is this new technology which drives the industry in a way that's never been known before. There is a fundamentally new economic underpinning to the news, whereas, it was a public service today, each news program at a network has to be a profit center, or else it is simply dropped. And the fourth point is that the definition of news has changed. When the Cold War was around, it was a galvanizing, focusing means of defining what news was. But today anything goes. And so from sex to sensationalism you call it, and it's news. But it's very confusing.
TERENCE SMITH: Dick Reeves, is this new news? Or is this the same old same old?
RICHARD REEVES: I think that it's new news. I have a hunch thinking back in the Soviet Union before the fall that news is always the same; they would have somebody got a bouquet for making tractors in the Ukraine or something, and then next week come the western plains. They'd use any satellite pictures for things going wrong, flood, murder, whatever. Well, now the western plains is what passes for news in a good part of the country because things have been upset particularly by instantaneous transmission, I think, the satellites. And on a political level - if the engine of democracy is what people know and when they know it - we now find out at the same time as the president does - any president has lost control of the flow of information and he's reduced from chief executive to first explainer, but we're also reduced, since we're the ones reporting on that, and with our tax on politics over the years, we have diminished them enough so that people wonder, well, if they're such bums, why should we read about -
TERENCE SMITH: A certain cynicism that rebounds on the press, itself.
RICHARD REEVES: And recycles itself.
TERENCE SMITH: Right. David Talbot, let me ask you, the Internet is cited in both these works as having a major effect on journalism today and, in effect, robbing reporters and editors of the time they previously had to investigate thoroughly and check out facts before they're on the Internet. Fair criticism?
DAVE TALBOT: No. I don't think we should blame the technology in this case, Terence. I think what we have here in many ways is a step forward. You know, the old days of Walter Cronkite and that's the way it is, or when The New York Times or The Washington Post and a handful of other media organizations set the tone and the agenda for news coverage in America are gone. And I think some of the people who practice that style of journalism are now bemoaning its loss, and I still think, despite the Matt Drudges and despite some of the more unfortunate aspects of the new media world, what we're really seeing is a democratization of the media. And that's quite healthy. We need alternative sources of journalism. The fact that "Salon" was the only magazine in America that pursued an investigation of Ken Starr in his Whitewater probe and dug up the fact that David Hale's chief Whitewater witness had been paid off by anti-Clinton activists, that's an important news story that The Washington Post and The New York Times saw fit to overlook.
TERENCE SMITH: All right. Ann McDaniel, "Newsweek" certainly has been pushed by the Internet. In effect, Matt Drudge scooped "Newsweek" with its own story on the Internet. Is the system out of control here?
| The system
out of control?
ANN McDANIEL: I don't think so at all. I would disagree that Matt Drudge pushed us. He read something about the Monica Lewinsky story that weekend, the first weekend of it. He said that we had spiked the story. That wasn't true. What we had done is held the story because at the point of our deadline on Saturday night we did not feel - we knew 95 percent of the story, but the 5 percent we didn't have kept us - not knowing for sure whether Monica Lewinsky was telling the truth -
TERENCE SMITH: Right.
ANN McDANIEL: -- kept us from doing it. We didn't do it the following week because Matt Drudge did it. We did it because we were able to get the information between Saturday and Wednesday, when we published on the Internet, information that led us to believe that Monica Lewinsky was telling some version of the truth.
TERENCE SMITH: I understand that, but I would invite comment on this from either of you. Nonetheless, what was internal editorial discussion within Newsweek became public, and your hand was forced in that respect.
ANN McDANIEL: Well, I think it's always good for journalists to be covered because it reminds them what it's like for others out there that we're covering, but our hand wasn't forced. If we had responded to Drudge, we would have come out Sunday night before The Washington Post and before anybody else with the 95 percent we knew. But we didn't do that because we didn't -we didn't think on Saturday night we knew enough about the story. We didn't think it after the Matt Drudge story. We only printed when we had the information.
TERENCE SMITH: Is that realistic?
MARVIN KALB: Well, let us address what happened immediately after the story broke to give you a sense of what new news is all about. The questions that were asked at the White House briefing at a time when the United States was preparing for a war with Iraq and we were a couple of days away from the president delivering his big State of the Union speech, for five days in a row if there were 140 questions asked each day, 80 to 90 percent of those questions concerned only Monica Lewinsky. In other words, the obsession with Monica forced out very good information that the public ought to have had. A program like "Nightline," run by Koppel, it's just the finest kind of program you can have on the air, for 15 programs in a row Ted devoted it to Monica Lewinsky and the ramifications of Monica Lewinsky, and, again, driving out of a news that Koppel for one certainly would have put on the other. So what I'm getting at here is that the new news robs the American people of information that it ought to have and cheapens the product, itself. I'm talking about --
ANN McDANIEL: But that assumes that -
RICHARD REEVES: Or it overwhelms. I mean, my seeing as consumer at that point the Drudge "Newsweek" story seemed to me that our traditional role of looking at all the information and then saying to the public this is what's worth knowing about these things, I thought that the way "Newsweek" responded, putting stuff that they did not see fit to publish on the Net, sending all of you out, all the editors out to be on television, reversed that totally, just dumped all the information on the public and said, you figure it out.
TERENCE SMITH: Ann.
ANN McDANIEL: No, that's not at all true. We actually - we did exactly what we would have done and did do for many weeks thereafter in the magazine. It happens that news magazines only get one shot a week in their hard copy magazine. Our deadline came on Saturday night. We could not meet the standards we set for ourselves by Saturday night. We did reach them by Wednesday night, and we thought in this extraordinary - on an extraordinary story like this it was worth using the new technology that we and lots of other media organizations -
MARVIN KALB: It was Tuesday night -
TERENCE SMITH: David Talbot, does this sound like the old news to you, this discussion?
DAVE TALBOT: Well, that's what I was going to throw back at Mr. Reeves and Mr. Kalb, who I have a great deal of respect for. And I think their critique of the show-businessization of the news media is right on target. But what I would ask them is don't you think an even perhaps bigger threat is the kind of group think mentality of the beltway media, the group think mentality of the East Coast media? Here you had the finest journalists in the country all running as a pack to cover the story about Clinton that Ken Starr wanted them to cover. I think that's a bigger threat, and I see the competition that's now been developing in the world of new media as quite healthy and as a counterpoint to that kind of wolf pack news media group thing.
TERENCE SMITH: Pack journalism?
MARVIN KALB: Pack journalism has been around, Terry, for a long time. We've all participated in it in one way or another. The question about the Internet that comes up in my mind time and time again is reliability. When you go into that vast universe, how do you know that the kind of checking that Ann was talking about actually takes place with the stuff that you are reading?
ANN McDANIEL: Aren't people going to learn -
DAVE TALBOT: That has to happen with any news media. That kind of bond develops between the consumer and his newspaper or his radio station. You have to develop a sense of who's telling the truth, who's credible by reading that site, that Web site or the newspaper, day in and day out. And that's -
RICHARD REEVES: But Internet isn't the issue.
TERENCE SMITH: But, David, tell me, you ran - "Salon Magazine" ran the story of Henry Hyde's now famous youthful indiscretion with a married woman when none of the mainstream press would touch it. Was that a lowering of standards?
|The Henry Hyde story|
DAVE TALBOT: No. And, again, that's an example of why Salon and other Internet organizations that are profession, that operate by professional standards, we have fact checkers - we have editors - we have lawyers who go over our investigative pieces - but we do bring a different point of view here. Fifty-seven news organizations wouldn't touch that story. Fifty-seven news organizations felt that the sex case against the president Mr. Starr made in his Starr Report was perfectly valid to cover the news story but suddenly developed a case of sanctimony when it came to looking at the sex life of the chief inquisitor of President Clinton.
ANN McDANIEL: That's absolutely true. We did do it.
TERENCE SMITH: Was "Newsweek" one of the 57?
ANN McDANIEL: We were one of the 57. And we held to the same standard after Salon put the story out as we did before, and that is, Henry Hyde's sex life many, many years ago, we did not think was relevant. Bill Clinton's sex life many, many years ago might not have been relevant.
DAVE TALBOT: He was the same age, Ann.
RICHARD REEVES: We've made a lot of mistakes -
DAVE TALBOT: He was the same age as President Clinton.
RICHARD REEVES: -- in our time, but we did not make a mistake - or those 57 companies didn't make a mistake, because the story was not about the sexual life of politicians. The story was about an attempt to use a political attempt from one branch of government against another to try to replace the president, which is the American equivalent of coup de tat. It had nothing really to do with what Henry Hyde had -
ANN McDANIEL: And virtually all the media organizations that wrote about it wrote exactly about that, the political motivation behind them.
TERENCE SMITH: There was a reference earlier to the notion of "Newsweek" putting its reporters and editors out on television. In fact, in your paper you quote Michael Isikoff as saying that the magazine pays its reporters to go on television, is that so?
ANN McDANIEL: That is true.
MARVIN KALB: Evan Thomas was the one, I believe - I also quoted Evan Thomas as saying that, in fact, the decision was made, I guess, in New York, that "Newsweek" was to send its people out and sell its story, tell its story, because there was a feeling that what the heck, this was our story on the weekend, and then it ends up breaking - it did - it broke on ABC and then it broke in The Washington Post, and the LA Times.
TERENCE SMITH: What's the magazine trying to accomplish by putting its reporters and editors out television?
ANN McDANIEL: That we think it's good promotion for the magazine, but we don't put our reporters and editors out all the time to talk about stories we know nothing about. In that particular instance we had them doing the most detailed reporting for the longest period of time. We thought that we knew a lot. We didn't call around and say, can we come be on your TV show - our phones were ringing off the hook all day with every show, including this one, begging us, would we come on -
MARVIN KALB: Your old newspaper, The New York Times -
ANN McDANIEL: We did in the end.
MARVIN KALB: The New York Times now has somebody on staff to place New York Times reporters on television, on radio, in order to promote the story that appeared.
RICHARD REEVES: In our day, though, in our day at the Times we weren't allowed - I mean, the Internet, though, is clearly another medium. There are no real differences between us and say "Salon", but our business has a problem, and as we live through the greatest generation from journalism from Mississippi and civil rights to Vietnam, and Watergate, where we really do serve our country and business well - unfortunately, we got a little arrogant at the end of that period and kind of tried to take over the bully pulpit and tell a country how to run itself. And I think we all share that problem, whether we're out on the Internet or working for the Times.
TERENCE SMITH: All right. I'm afraid the one reality that doesn't change is time. And we've run out of it. Thank you all very much.