by Jeffrey Dvorkin, CCJ Executive Director
The following is a transcript of a speech Dvorkin delivered to the 42nd Institute of Ethics in Journalism held by the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at Washington & Lee University in Lexington, VA. The speech was delivered on November 10, 2006. Click here for Washington& Lee's press release about the speech.
I recently came across an interesting complaint by a foreign correspondent about how tough it is to be a reporter. As you may know, it is and has always been what many perceive to be a God-given right for journalists to complain…about their bosses, their colleagues, their readers, viewers and listeners, and of course, the declining standards that indicate that in spite of best efforts, everything is going to hell in a hand basket.
These days, their complaints seem to be tinged with a higher note of anxiety and complaint than usual. But before we get into that, let me read you something from very prominent war reporter and foreign correspondent who also had his own complaints and anxieties and which I believe was sent to his editor and to his readers:
With regard to my…reporting…I have made it a principle not to write down the first story that comes my way…I won’t even be guided by my own general impressions. Either I was present myself at the events…I have described, or else I heard about them from eye witnesses whose reports I checked with as much thoroughness as possible. Not that even the truth was easy to uncover: different eye witnesses always give different accounts of the same events, (some) speak out of bias for one side or the other, or else from imperfect memory.
Any guesses as to who that reporter might be? This reporter was not Richard Engel of NBC or Annie Garrels of NPR or Anthony Shadid of the Washington Post, although I think it could have been written by any of them.
It was in fact written by a Middle East war correspondent from a slightly earlier period – it came from the Greek historian and war correspondent Thucydides, who was reporting on the Peloponnesian War, which was fought between Athens and Sparta in the fifth century B.C. The war ended the dominance of democratic Athens and saw the rise of the dictatorship of Sparta.
The so-called Golden Age of Greece came to an end and just to the east, the Persian Empire was beginning to emerge and eventually would come into contact and conflict first with Alexander the Great. Later it would clash with another yet to emerge power called Rome. Thucydides was the Samuel P. Huntingdon of his times. It was a preview of an earlier but not yet settled, “clash of civilizations.”
So 2,500 years ago, reporters were reporting and readers were complaining about the accuracy and veracity of journalism. But this is not to say that as the French say, “plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose”.
But “the more things change, the more they stay the same” may not apply in this case. More recently journalism as we know it in the United States is also feeling nervous and anxious about whether our journalism is still credible. The complaints written by Thucydides seem as remarkably fresh in 2006 as they were when he wrote them in 496 B.C.
I think it is because the nervousness of the ancient world historians, still with us today speaks to the existential and epistemological questions that haunt modern day journalists:
- How do we know what we hear, read and see in the media is true?
- How good are our sources? What is rumor and what is not? And if it is rumor, could it possibly be true and worth reporting?
- How do we protect ourselves as journalists and as citizens to ensure that we are not being manipulated and spun?
- How can we as journalists convince our editors that we need more time to do the story?
- To whom do we owe our allegiances? To the public or to the news organizations that writes our checks?
Those are some of complaints I hear from the shop floor.
But the complaints from management are just as urgent and as heartfelt:
- How can we stop the flood of complaints we get from the public and from the blogs about bias?
- How do we get our journalists to understand that technology is changing how people receive the news?
- How do we get a higher loyalty from our staff and the public?
- What kind of legitimate business model should we have that can balance credibility with profits?
- How can we report stories in a way that remains true, but also appeals to an audience that gets its information from new technological forms that may be filtering the context out of the news?
None of these are simple questions but the fact that we are hearing them being asked means that there is an urgent need to try to find some answers before journalism as we have known it becomes in danger of disappearing into irrelevancy.
As a lapsed and recovering historian, let me suggest that the answers – or some of them anyway – may be found in the more recent past.
First, let’s remember that the need to know the news is as ancient as Thucydides himself. People have always wanted to know what is happening beyond their ability to witness events themselves. The need to know is hardwired into us all, and has been because I believe it is part of our own deepest need to survive. We need to know if there is anything massing on the other side of the mountain, whether it’s a rainstorm or a gathering storm.
My grandfather who lived in Vienna (that’s Austria, not Virginia) between World Wars I and II, read 12 newspapers a day. In a city of about 3 million people, there were 26 daily newspapers and my grandfather read them in his coffee house.
He read them, he told me, for the same reasons that he watched the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite when he lived in New York City after the war. When Cronkite came on, my grandfather paid rapt attention and woe to any grandchild who made noise during that time.
His total adoration and fixation with Cronkite was because to know the news meant to survive. Not that post-war New York was fraught with the same kinds of political conflicts and threats as inter-war Vienna. But my grandfather’s habit was too deeply engrained to dismiss. For him, having access to reliable and authoritative news meant life itself.
My grandfather died in 1963 and it would hard to imagine what he would think of the media landscape today: hundreds of television channels, radio now on am, fm, high definition, satellite and streaming audio. Fewer newspapers but the millions of daily, hourly, even minute-ly offerings on the internet. “Fablehaft!” is what Grandpa would say. “Fabulous.”
So much has changed since then, especially the sense of public distrust in American journalism. And after 9/11, that level of distrust continues to rise.
Why the change? Are all those changes necessarily bad for America and bad for our journalism? And what can be done to restore that sense of trust?
I won’t repeat to you the differences that have come to our media over the past 40 years. We all know what they are. But one fact is worth pondering and it involves CBS News.
CBS was known as the “Tiffany Network” because it had more jewels and valuables than any other broadcaster. One fascinating statistic involves how deep and broad was the CBS commitment to foreign news.
In the late 1980’s, CBS had 38 foreign correspondents in 28 bureaus. Today, CBS has five correspondents in four bureaus.
Another statistic: over the past ten years, the number of people working in radio in the United States has declined by 44%. The number of radio stations has declined from 10,000 to around 6,800.
Yet Americans have access to an astonishing wealth of new media offerings. The question we need to ask is whether Americans are being served as well today as they were in 1963.
If we look more closely as today’s media and informational cornucopia we would see something else.
We are living in a time with more information than knowledge. We have at our disposal a vast array of facts but fewer journalists working in news organizations to make sense of them. We have a media landscape that continues to make larger and larger profits, but with fewer listeners, readers and viewers.
At the same time, the public tell us that they believe the media less than ever. More significantly, an increasing number of Americans say that the First Amendment may be an outdated concept. Chillingly, in a recent poll of Americans aged 18 to 35, a slight majority of 52% say that in a time of war and terrorism, government should be allowed to censor the press.
Recently, CCN aired a video obtained in Baghdad from an insurgent group. The video is chilling. It was taken from a car in which Iraqi snipers were sitting, chatting and waiting for the moment to pick off American soldiers.
When they do fire a shot, the video “fades to black.” But the audio remains and one can hear the snipers congratulating each other saying “Allahu akhbar (God is great).”
The video was shown on local Iraqi broadcasts and according to CCN, was obtained through a local intermediary who was able to get a copy of the video.
Shortly after airing the footage, CCN was criticized strongly by Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Cal). Congressman Hunter represents California’s 52nd District, which consists of eastern and northern San Diego County. In Washington, D.C., he sits as chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.
Congressman Hunter was quoted by the Associated Press as calling for CNN to have its press credentials in Iraq lifted. He said in a letter to the Pentagon that CNN has now served as “the publicist for an enemy propaganda film featuring the killing of an American soldier.”
The letter was also signed by San Diego-area Republican congressmen Darrell Issa and Brian Bilbray.
“This is nothing short of a terrorist snuff film,” Bilbray said at a press conference held in San Diego.
The AP quoted CNN producer David Doss writing in a Web log that the network televised the footage in an effort to present the “unvarnished truth” about the Iraq war.
CNN officials defended their decision to air the footage.
"Our responsibility is to report the news," said Laurie Goldberg, a CNN spokeswoman. “As an organization we stand by our decision and respect the rights of others to disagree with it.”
I agree with CNN. Americans, it seems to me, have a right to know what U.S. troops are enduring these days in Iraq. The footage was neither pro nor anti-war, but a horrifying depiction of daily life for the troops.
But more disturbing is the statement by three members of the House of Representatives who have taken an oath of office and have sworn to defend the Constitution. But only, it seems, those parts of the Constitution that might be useful in getting re-elected. My fear is that in the event of another terrorist attack in the United States the opinions of the three wise men from California might become more acceptable in an atmosphere or crisis and fear.
But at the same time, I think there are an increasing number of good reasons to be optimistic about the state of American journalism and American democracy even though the government and many citizens may wish to see limits on independent and reliable information.
In my opinion, after the shock of 9/11, many in American journalism took a long – some would say too long – period of time to find a way in which the actions of the administration could once again be held up to a measure a scrutiny and accountability.
But I believe that American journalism is once again being practiced in a way that questions the presumptions and practices of the government because, as CCJ’s founder, Bill Kovach has stated, “At a time when the basic institutions of our society are under threat…(that is when) a self-governing people most need accurate, independent information.”
After 9/11, journalism rallied to the cause of an America that was under attack. The administration and its many partisan allies within the community of commentators and pundits accused American journalism of having dual loyalties. Frequently journalists were asked if they were Americans first or journalists first.
After 9/11, many journalists, especially on talk radio and on cable TV shout fests, proclaimed their national allegiance. Others were, I believe, intimidated and shouted down when they tried to argue that the role of an American journalist is to be a “skeptical patriot.” But for many in the administration, that was not enough.
Journalism through the Bush administration has been put on the defensive. Accusations of media bias were regularly thrown at journalists who tried to practice the even-handedness and fairness that used to be the hallmark of our craft. Reporting the facts and the view from both sides was denounced by these new McCarthyites as “moral equivalence.”
The worst of it came through the reporting of the Intifada – the Palestinian uprising against the Israeli occupation.
But I sense that the days of journalistic defensiveness are if not over, at least journalism appears less defensive than it used to be.
Part of that is because of one event which allowed journalists in the U.S. to start reporting with a skeptical and critical eye. That event was Hurricane Katrina. It was a disaster so revealing and which seemed to indicate that the administration had taken patronage to new heights by systematically rewarding friends with plum jobs inside the federal bureaucracy. In short, it spoke to how the administration valued cronyism over competence.
It’s my opinion that journalists began to ask the tough questions about Katrina and continued to ask them about the war in Iraq.
But asking tough questions is not enough. Journalism needs to continue to deepen its sense of obligation and responsibility first, to the listeners, readers and viewers that it serves.
One important way of doing this became evident to me over the last six years in my previous role as Ombudsman for NPR.
When I was asked to do that job, it was one, frankly that I was unsure about. Ombudsmen and women were and still are in a minority in news organization in the U.S. But I did it because I thought that there must be a deeper role for the public inside our newsroom.
But it should not be done either as lip service or to pander. In short, it must be done in a way that balances the integrity of the news organization with the deepest concerns of the public who are hungry to let journalists know what they think. As VP of News at NPR, I heard from listeners who expressed their concerns about what they perceived as NPR’s insecure unwillingness to hear from listeners. Letters to the program were usually mild rebukes or fawning appreciations for their work. As VP of News I knew that the listeners had better observations than those that were being read on the air.
After some months of talking about this gap between listeners’ anxieties and NPR’s corporate sense of self, I was finally asked by Kevin Klose, NPR’s president, to put up or shut up. So I moved from running News to being the public’s representative. From defense to offense, as it were.
My friend and colleague in ombudsmanship is Ian Mayes, who for the last ten years has been the Readers’ Editor for The Guardian. He was The Guardian’s obits editor before becoming the ombudsman and as a colleague of his described it, he went from tending to the dead to treating the wounded.
Some at NPR were suspicious of my new role – moving from management to ombudsman. Journalists thought I might be management in sheep’s clothing. The listeners worried that this was only a p.r. gesture. And some in management told me that I should look on the bright side more often.
I estimate that over the period of time when I was ombudsman, I must have heard from at least three quarters of a million listeners. Some were furious, some thought NPR was biased. But it may be a tribute to the public radio audience in general that I found the vast majority to be thoughtful, concerned and eager to raise the standards of journalism that they heard on NPR.
I will always be enormously grateful to NPR and to Kevin for allowing me the privilege of being the advocate for these thousands of listeners. To me they represent what is great about American journalism and about this country in general. Ombudsmanship, if done well, is about creating that bridge between journalists and the citizens who we serve. I am only sorry that while ombudsmen are being appointed almost daily in newspapers and broadcast organization around the world, in American journalism the numbers have declined as newspapers seek new ways to trim costs.
Those citizens who contact their news organizations, either by phone or email in letters to the programs or to the editor, I believe, help our democracy every day. We need to remind ourselves and our audiences that journalism is not stenography. We need to tell our audiences that our goal is to serve them as citizens first and as consumers of information second. We need to find a way to make sure that we are part of a successful business model, but not at the cost of our credibility. We need to tell our audiences how we know what we know, who are our sources and how we came to report on a given story.
Only by being completely honest with the public will we again regain their trust. Only when the public understands the value and importance of a free and independent media will we truly serve this democracy with the journalism that it deserves.