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PBS Ombudsman

The Ombudsman Column

On Not Knowing What You Are Missing

For those of you out there who care about journalism and have been following what is happening to the news media in recent years, the litany of woes has become very familiar.

Newspaper circulation and advertising revenues continue in a steady decline. Newsroom staffs and foreign bureaus are being cut. Experienced (and usually more expensive) old-timers are being let go in layoffs and buyouts. Pressures from Wall Street on news corporations to maximize profits on a short-term basis are unrelenting, helping to force further cuts in news-gathering, especially the expensive kind overseas and among investigative staffs. Competition from the Web and cable television has increased dramatically, draining revenue and readership from newspapers, in particular. Ownership is changing, consolidating and increasingly falling to those whose main business is not news. A growing legal assault upon, and increasing number of subpoenas issued to, journalists has taken place in the past two or three years.

Most of this has unfolded at the same time as a secretive, two-term administration has skillfully sought to diminish the impact, credibility and even patriotism of what is called the mainstream press (although occasionally using it to leak national security information it wants to be made public) while starting one of the longest, costliest and probably most enduring wars in American history under what have turned out to be false pretenses. Finally, the press, itself, has stumbled badly in recent years, from several relatively minor but credibility-eroding scandals of falsified reporting and plagiarism to the much greater failure to carry out its mission of challenging administration assertions, presented with great certainty, before the war. The press's record and role since the actual invasion of Iraq — an event that seemed to wake-up everybody — has been much, much better. So there is hope.

Now, that's just a brief summary for those of you who have been paying attention. For those who have not, which I think is probably a great majority of people, I'm not sure what to say other than to express the hope that the competing forces in our democracy somehow preserve the means for all of us, whether we choose to exercise it or not, to remain informed about what is going on so we can hold our government and institutions (including the press) accountable and make informed decisions. Otherwise, we will all have a still bigger problem than we have these days.

'Frontline' Gets It, Especially Part Three

The excellent and ambitious Frontline series "News War," which has now aired three of its four parts, brings all this, once again, to mind. It has addressed, untangled and connected much or all of what is mentioned in the summary at the start of this column, and it has done so in the professional, journalistically-sound way that viewers of Frontline have come to expect from this venerable effort by PBS and Boston's WGBH over the past 24 years.

This is a very complicated and controversial subject, so it is inevitable that it will attract some criticism. But by and large I felt this was an enviable and intelligent effort to pull this together.

Some of the specific, critical points raised publicly are reported further down in this column, along with responses from Frontline producers and, in some cases, my two cents.

The most recent episode, Part Three, aired nationally on Feb. 27. It is titled "What's Happening to the News?" and ran for 90 minutes. If I were King, which obviously I'm not, I would have made this Part One. New York Times reviewer David Friend made a similar point. Here's my reasoning:

Most importantly, this segment deals especially with newspapers, most specifically the case of what is happening to the Los Angeles Times, which, in my book, is one of the very few excellent, and comprehensive, newspapers we have in this country. And it quotes extensively from two of the best — also in my book — news editors in this country, John Carroll and Dean Baquet, who helped direct the Times to 13 Pulitzer Prizes under their leadership. Yet Carroll resigned as the top editor because of what he considered to be excessive staff and news space cutbacks and Baquet, who succeeded him, was fired for continuing to speak out on those same issues.

Although most people get their news from television, and the Web is growing steadily, and bloggers and citizens with cell phone cameras are all contributing in some way to pieces of news, it is newspapers that provide the overwhelming body of news that is made public in this country. It is the newspapers — with experienced, trained reporters and editors who steadily cover city councils and the White House, who uncover scandals and report things you would never know about otherwise — that drive the news agenda for television and much of the Web. So they always have been, and remain, at the heart of what we know about lots of things and how we know it.

There are still several good, and profitable, small and medium-sized newspapers around the country that perform tough, and often courageous, reporting about local matters. But it is the handful of big, serious and tough-minded newspapers that are central to so much of what is important to uncover in this country and the world. We need these papers because they are committed to no-punches-pulled journalism and because they are big, which means they have the resources to keep bureaus around the world, to support teams of investigative reporters here at home, to withstand pressures from big advertisers and to fight the legal challenges and political pressures from government, politicians and industry.

But Do We Get It?

It seems insane that in a country such as this, and in an economically globalized and dangerous world, there should be just a handful of reporters covering the war in Iraq on a steady basis, and even fewer in Afghanistan, or that there should be about 50 fewer American correspondents based abroad now than there were just a few years ago, or that papers with big audiences such as the Boston Globe, Baltimore Sun and Newsday, among many others, have closed their bureaus. The idea that such coverage can be left to just one or two papers or wire services is wrong and dangerous. Many important stories, different takes on breaking stories, and outstanding foreign correspondents, have come from these papers in the past.

So that is why the Los Angeles Times — and the New York Times, The Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal — are all especially important, and that is why to me it seemed that Part Three of "News War" should have been Part One. Since that wasn't the case, I hope people stayed with the series long enough to get to Part Three.

Now, newspapers are businesses, and they need to be run smartly and profitably or else they won't be able to afford to do all those expensive things. And they all undoubtedly had fat that could be trimmed, and some greater attention needed to be paid to shareholders. And they are all moving smartly to the Web. I'm still optimistic that newspapers will adjust and survive. I don't believe the major newspapers are going to disappear, even in their print versions. Three of the four papers mentioned above remain in the control of families with a tradition of obligation to the public. The L.A. Times used to be in that category but for the past six years has been owned by the Chicago-based Tribune Company, which also owns the Chicago Tribune, Baltimore Sun and Newsday, among several other properties.

But when you put all these tendencies together, there is a danger — not a certainty by any means but at least a danger, if present trends continue — that we, as a citizenry, will know less about what is going on in the future than we do now. It is unlikely that reliance on cost and staff-cutting alone is a successful long-term strategy.

The importance, and uniqueness, of the news business is that we won't know what we are missing. That might be because there are not enough trained reporters out there, or some now retired 55-year-old reporter might have seen some things that his or her younger replacement might not have thought about, or that a newspaper that used to be aggressive in challenging an administration or industry is now in the hands of someone, or investors, who would rather not rock the boat, or because something explodes overseas that we didn't see coming or even have a clue about because nobody had covered it for years. Or that some administration was doing something or planning something in secret that would ultimately prove to be shocking.

Here are some of the quotes from Part Three that struck me as important to what is fundamentally at stake here.

From John Carroll, former Editor of the Los Angeles Times:

"I'm very sentimental about newspapers. But I'm also very clearheaded about the fact that newspapers are doing the reporting in this country. Google and Yahoo aren't putting reporters on the street in any numbers at all. Blogs can't afford it. Network television is taking reporters off the street . . . commercial radio journalism is almost non-existent . . . and the newspapers are the last ones standing and newspapers are threatened. And reporting is absolutely an essential thing for democratic self-government. Who's going to do it? Who's going to pay for the news? If newspapers fall by the wayside, what will we know?

"I estimate that 85% of the original reporting that's done in the United States is done by newspapers. They're the people who are going out and knocking on doors and rummaging through records and covering events and so on. And most of the other media that provide news to people are really recycling news that's gathered by newspapers. I think the Web opens up vast possibilities for good journalism and already has created many new voices that are valuable. But I don't think we can turn this thing over entirely to bloggers and citizen journalists. They're valuable but there are things they can't do.

"You have to make more money every year than you made the last year in order to keep the shareholders happy. And so even if you made barrels full of money one year, you’ve got to make more than that the next year...I was pushing people out the door, reducing staff and reducing pages in the paper, which no editor likes to do. That was something that can't go on forever and it was really crucial to why I decided to leave the paper."

From Dean Baquet, former Editor of the Los Angeles Times:

"It's hard, in our capitalist society, to craft the perfect ownership of newspapers. The problem with the publicly traded, the public model, is that you have the whims of the market, and you have to be responsive to shareholders. The problem with the private model is, if you have the wrong private owner, that's just as bad. Most of the surviving newspapers in the country that still devote significant resources to in-depth reporting have one thing in common . . . family control.

"I think there's a tremendous anxiety right now about newspapers and the threat to newspapers. I don't want this to sound grandiose or high-falutin' but I think a newspaper is a public trust and I think my mission is a public service mission. There's tension between my view of my world and the people who own newspapers, there's no question about that because they are beholden to shareholders.

"There are only three American newspapers that are on the ground in Iraq all the time. The LA Times, the New York Times, and the Washington Post. USA Today goes in and out. They have one person. He's there on the ground sometimes and then he gets out. The wires are obviously there all the time. But nobody else has a fulltime staffer who's always there. That's appalling. The thought that we would reduce that to two, maybe even one, one day. That can't be. I mean that can't be good for the country.

"Newspapers are in such an odd position. I mean, we're almost like a, a public trust that has private ownership, and I don't think any ownership is quite perfect. Though I like the St. Pete Times' ownership model."

From Andy Barnes, former CEO of the St. Petersburg Times:

"The idea that all of the world should be measured in dollars to stockholders is actually a relatively new idea. Used to be that we thought businesses had their purpose, their purpose was to be making newspapers or fountain pens or whatever. And now we act as though the only purpose of a business is to enrich the people who traded on Wall Street. I don't agree with that. I think that is a wrong-headed view. Of course you have to have profit, of course you have to support your ownership, but that's not why we're doing it. We're doing it because publishing a newspaper is a crucial thing to be doing."

From Bill Keller, Executive Editor of the New York Times:

"I wake up every day grateful for the Sulzberger family. Because — and the same thing would be true at some of the other major newspapers that have similar arrangements: The Washington Post, which is under the control of the Graham family, the Wall Street Journal under the Bancroft family — once upon a time, the L.A. Times under the Chandler family — and, you know, all of these companies have run very sound, profitable businesses while sustaining that civic function of providing good journalism. And they've been able to do that because they didn't have to respond in a kind of panic to every quarterly return.

"The idea that, you know, the L.A. Times is going to say to readers, 'Buy the L.A. Times, we will tell you what's going on with the traffic and the schools and the cops and the local stuff, and if you wanna know what's going on in Iraq, go buy the New York Times,' I mean, that doesn't sound like a terribly sound business approach either. And I think if I were a Los Angelino, I would be a little insulted by that. I think the gravest danger facing our business is panic — panic that the stock price has gone down, panic that the ad revenues are moving away and that the only way to keep up is to cut and cut and cut. And they end up downsizing and hollowing out their reporting and editing staffs."

From Ted Koppel, Managing Editor, Discovery Channel

"To the extent that we're now judging journalism by the same standards that we apply to entertainment — in other words, give the public what it wants, not necessarily what it ought to hear, what it ought to see, what it needs, but what it wants — that may prove to be one of the greatest tragedies in the history of American journalism."

From the Critics: Too Few Women?

Here are some criticisms of aspects of the Frontline series that have recently been published.

Author Alicia Shepard argues that the series essentially presents a seemingly endless parade of talking white male faces throughout and is not in keeping with Frontline's own guidelines that, she points out, encourage producers to "consider diversity in race, ethnicity and gender as a positive value in choosing whom to present." Missed that one "big-time," Shepard concludes, pointing out that 38 percent of the staff in daily newsrooms are women and 40 percent of the television news workforce are women. She goes on to name some women who would have been worthy additions to the Frontline line-up. Some other viewers made similar points.

There were some women on camera, but there is little doubt that this is overwhelmingly a guy show and one has the feeling, watching it, and attending the pre-show publicity conference that was held, that the producers didn't think much about this aspect. On the other hand, it is true that the characters in the stories told on these programs so far have been overwhelmingly male, and that is, essentially, the response of the producers.

Here is what they say:

"FRONTLINE received six e-mails out of four hundred asking why there were so few women interviewed for the series. We asked Raney Aronson-Rath, the producer, director and writer of the first two programs in this four-part series, to address this question. Here is her response:

'When we embarked upon the challenge of producing these films, we made an editorial decision to interview, as much as possible, the players and architects of this history — those who could tell us first-person accounts of the stories we were presenting, rather than rely heavily on experts and other journalists. What this meant was that we had little choice about whom we talked to. The main players for the series' first hour on the Valerie Plame affair and the history of reporter's privilege were, for the most part, men. Other than Judith Miller, the lawyers who fought her case and the executive editor at The New York Times and the other players — from James Goodale to Brad Reynolds, who argued against the reporters before the Supreme Court — all happened to be men. The same was true when we covered the First Amendment confrontations between the administration and The New York Times and The Washington Post. The executive editors of both papers were men and the reporters who broke the national security stories were men, with the exception of Dana Priest. As a female producer I found it unsettling, to say the least, that so many of the interviews we did were with men and that so many of the positions of power in the media industry we covered were held by men. But it was the reality that we faced. I did try to include other voices, such as Lucy Dalglish, the executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, to help with the situation. But it couldn't make up for the fact most of the central figures in this media world we were in, were men.'

"The editors at FRONTLINE would also note that in the stories chosen for program three, especially with regard to the future of network news and the case study of the Los Angeles Times, few women were key players in the events of those stories. It is a fair comment to note that their absence in the power structure may reveal a lot about the culture of the news business. It is also worth noting that one of the most compelling sequences in the program follows the LA Times' correspondent in Baghdad — a woman."

Still Fighting the Good Fight

Tim Rutten, the press critic at the Los Angeles Times, wrote about Part Three of the series on March 3 and revealed something that is undoubtedly unsettling to the surviving staffers at the newspaper. While the program features comments of the two now-departed top editors and one of two publishers who also left, it also features the views of a major Chicago-based money manager, Charles Bobrinskoy, whose firm has a 6 percent stake in the newspaper and whose ideas about what kind of journalism the paper should pursue will be outlandish to a devoted news staff. But Rutten points out that the new editor of the paper, installed by the Tribune Company, has forcefully rejected those money-manager suggestions, was interviewed extensively for the program, but the interview was absent from the documentary, appearing only on the Web site. Rutten also points out that comments by the new current publisher, David D. Hiller, about continuing to do "great foreign and international reporting" were also left out of the broadcast.

Here's the explanation offered by Louis Wiley Jr., executive editor of Frontline:

"We understand why you and others at the Los Angeles Times, and many of your readers, are disturbed by the comments of Charles Bobrinskoy of Ariel Capital, an important investor in the Tribune Company. But in our reporting we found that Mr. Bobrinskoy is not alone in his view that newspapers must jettison international and national reporting in favor of focusing their efforts on local journalism. Lauren Rich Fine, of Merrill Lynch, for example, makes much the same case, as do many others on Wall Street. We believed it was important to reveal this line of thinking.

"In response to our broadcast, we saw that the new editor of the L.A. Times, James O'Shea, sent a memo to the staff, strenuously objecting to Mr. Bobrinskoy's comments. As you note, Mr. O'Shea made similar, though less vehement, remarks to us on that score, saying, 'I don't think the Los Angeles Times can be successful by relying on someone else to cover the world for it . . . '

"The reason you know that Mr. O'Shea made that statement to us is because we included a substantial portion of his interview with us on the FRONTLINE Web site, along with a cross-section of people we interviewed for our series. This is part of a longstanding FRONTLINE tradition of publishing what once would have been merely outtakes. For the sake of transparency and to give more attention to our interviewees, who were generous with their time and often make valuable remarks that we cannot fit into the documentary, we post these extended interviews online.

"Mr. O'Shea was kind enough to give us a frank and direct interview. Because he is relatively new at the Times, and because our interview with him only took place at the last minute for us, we told him at the time it was unlikely that we would be able to use his comments in the broadcast, but that we would post them on our Web site. In our view this is no small thing since FRONTLINE's robust Web site for 'News War' has proven very popular. In the short time since the programs have aired hundreds of thousands of visitors have viewed the programs online.

"As for publisher David Hiller, we were very grateful that he agreed to be interviewed, especially since the Tribune Company in Chicago repeatedly turned down our requests to speak on camera with a representative of the company. We included many quotes from Mr. Hiller in our report, thinking it was important to have his views on record. You fault us for not including in our film his statement, found in his extended interview on our Web site, that 'I continue to believe [in] doing great foreign and international reporting . . . ' [at the Times]. Yet, he does say something almost identical to this in the broadcast: 'My plan and expectation is that being a world-class provider of foreign and national news is going to continue to be one of the hallmarks of the Los Angeles Times.'

"We think it's also fair to note, as we did, the apparent contradiction in what Mr. Hiller says to us on camera: Yes, he'd like solid foreign and national coverage, but, as our correspondent, Lowell Bergman, points out, apparently with less people on staff in the newsroom.

"We noticed the latest news from the Los Angeles Times is that the stand-alone book review section is due to be scaled back and folded into another section, a move that some, including the former editor of the book review, view as a further diminishment of the paper. We hope that our reporting in 'What's Happening to the News' helps readers and others concerned about the future of newspapers understand the financial pressures and issues at stake behind these and other changes underway throughout the newspaper industry."

Here's my two cents: This is a good exchange but my sentiments here are with Tim Rutten and the Times. It seemed very important to give viewers an on-the-record sense that the new editor would fight for the old news values, even if just an on-camera sentence from him. My recollection is that Parts Three and Four of the series were not yet finished when the first two parts were presented to the press and released, so perhaps a way could have been found to get a line in.

Et Tu, Frontline?

Here's one from me.

In Part One, Frontline lays out what is now very well known, that the major American newspapers and television news operations got the weapons of mass destruction story wrong. Indeed they did. And if you watched that first program very closely — meaning didn't take your eyes or ears away from it for even a few seconds — you would have heard the narrator say, "Frontline aired its own report on the possible threats of Saddam's weapons programs." That one-liner was accompanied by a few seconds of footage from a Frontline program, "Gunning for Saddam," that aired Nov. 8, 2001.

To Frontline's credit, that 2001 program was prescient and one of the first detailed looks at what was coming, and it reflected a certain amount of caution, pointing out, for example, that "the litany of charges linking Iraq's leader to terrorism are largely unproven in their specifics." Nevertheless, this program presented the equivalent of the Full Monty in making the hardliners' case for war, including interviews with former Defense official Richard Perle, former CIA chief James Woolsey, journalist Laurie Mylroie and a pair of Iraqi military defectors with talk and maps of a reportedly secret Islamic terrorist training camp near a place called Salman Pak. Lowell Bergman, the reporter for the "News War" series, was also a key reporter on the 2001 "Gunning for Saddam" program, and it just seemed to me that as long as viewers were going to be reminded about how other news organizations fell short on what, admittedly, was a tough story to challenge authoritatively at the time, Frontline should have been a little more upfront — with a few more seconds and sentences — to examine its own past.

More (Dissenting) Viewer Letters

Years ago I lost interest in your offerings and since the Internet has become richer I seldom feel the need to see your shows. I looked at Lowell Bergman's biased, mindless and utterly one sided show simply because I am a resident of this city and have a background in the field. The overfed, righteous and unashamedly leftist presenter cannot edit his own diatribe. The L.A Times features a take by the astute and so much more talented Tim Rutten slamming this show, and I agree with him. You are utterly discredited and always predictable.

Van Dola, Los Angeles, CA

I held off sending this until I had seen the first three of the programs. I noted your earlier comment, after the first program, that you had received few viewer comments; but wanted to give you a chance to address my concern before complaining. Your discussion of a reporter-source confidentiality privilege glossed over, or ignored, two important points:

1. Even if a well-developed reporter-source privilege existed, it would not apply to most of the reporters involved in the Valerie Plame affair. The leaking of Plame's identity and CIA affiliation was the crime, and the reporters told this were in effect eyewitnesses (earwitnesses!?) to the crime. An attorney, doctor or clergyman who watched his client shoot someone would not be able to avoid testifying by claiming privilege. 2. Independent of the legal issues, however, is the journalistic standard for protecting sources. The standard should be the FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) standard. Put simply: whistleblowers are protected; smearmongers are outed. And the argument that reporters couldn't tell the difference is weak. At first this might be true, but very quickly the truth would be apparent. In the Plame case this should have been apparent immediately, but certainly once the CIA referred the case to the Justice Department.

Bill Rudman, Castro Valley, CA

Thank you for allowing this comment. I tried to catch the entire series regarding what has happened to the media. I don't think you mentioned the wonderful, long-lasting paragon of independent journalism, DemocracyNow with Amy Goodman. That is the kind of new journalism we need more of. We stopped watching commercial TV news years ago, feeling that is entirely Republican slanted and usually silly. PBS should have kept "Now" at an hour length, and you, too, are pretty conservative — the more we learn, by reading books and studying all sides, the better the left comes out.

Dorothy Knable, Sacramento, CA

I am catching up on the series entitled "News War" watching part 1 online, after viewing part 3 earlier this evening. In part 1, the assertion is that the Bush Administration "invented" the WMD scenario in Iraq and that the Administration "manipulated" intelligence information to justify a war in Iraq. Excuse me! Frontline conveniently left out the fact that everyone in the world, including the UN, thought Saddam had WMDs. This belief was born years before George Bush was elected. It also conveniently left out the fact that WMDs wasn't the only justification for the war. How convenient it was for Frontline to forget about Saddam's numerous violations of UN resolutions . . . and repeated attacks on our military planes as they flew over Iraqi air-space. Now, tell me, who is manipulating information here?

I think Frontline is correct in the assessment that there is a power struggle between the White House and the press as to who will control the flow of information. But this struggle isn't rooted in the "march to war" as the report asserts . . . it is rooted in a culture of news reporting that for more than a decade has been 1) Agenda-driven 2) Decidedly partisan 3) Reckless, 4) Irresponsible and 5) Unprofessional. There seems to be more of an effort on the part of news reporters to find a scandal and gain celebrity than find the truth.

Why do we not read or hear good news out of Iraq? I know there are good things happening because I hear them from military people when they come home. No news organization can expect the "thinking" American public to embrace an information source, when all the information is anti __________ (you fill in the blank).

Russ W., Glendale, AZ

Please inquire to Lowell Bergman, since when is a "journalist" a person with an entertainment agent? As far as I know a journalist is any citizen exercising their first amendment rights to discover the truth, whether that be for an internet site, a church newsletter or for a cable news network. Receiving a large paycheck from a large media conglomerate is an optional benefit, not a necessity to create journalism.

Carter Johnson, Denver, CO

I hope PBS does not believe that they have presented an unbiased report in your piece presented on KCET tonight. The press is and has acted in an unabashed treasonous manner in all of their National Security reporting. People like Risen and Priest should be sent to jail along with their sources.

Tarzana, CA

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