by The Honorable James Symington, former Member of Congress, University of Missouri School of Journalism, Columbia, MO
What do insiders want from the news business? Plagued by the ambiguities inherent in this assigned title, plus the heavy responsibility of untangling them, I gave up a precious evening of vegetation to attend a September 8 forum at American University in Washington, D.C. entitled, "Extra! Extra! Read All About It: Lies, Deception, & Reckless Spin in the News." The distinguished panelists (always one word), were Bill Plante of CBS, Brent Bozell, Chairman of the Media Research Center, Sam Fullwood, L.A. Times Correspondent, Karen DeYoung, Assistant Managing Editor of the Washington Post, and David Carr, Editor of the Washington City Paper. I was wondering if anything they would have to say could diminish my otherwise unshakable confidence in all I read and hear from America's trusty triad of truth tellers in print, radio, and TV. I must confess they managed to come up with a few shockers. More on that later.
First, back to definitions. My assigned title begs at least two: "insiders" and "news business." Insiders first.
An unflattering definition of an "insider" might be one who is strategically positioned in the nation's capital to anticipate if not manipulate both fact and perception to personal advantage. A more congenial definition, and the one intended, I'm sure, is that cadre of individuals, old hands in the main, who have learned the ways of government as observers and, betimes, practitioners, and whose current occupations have placed them at the intersections of politics and policy; witness to the long procession of public men and women from limelight to obscurity. Paradoxically, outstanding members of the fourth estate constitute a fair portion of such "insiders." What they want from the "news business" can only be conjectured by those outside that charmed circle. I suppose it is the third of Ben Franklin's list of faithful friends: an old wife, an old dog, and ready money. But a full purse alone is hardly a sufficient inducement to been a proud blow-dried anchorman from pursuing an honest profession. Power has its attractions, too. This was apparent to that astute observer of his times, Anthony Trollope, whose beguiling portrait of Tom Towers, the editor of The Jupiter, is one of the highlights of his novel, The Warden.
"He loved to watch the great men of whom he daily wrote, and flatter himself that he was greater than any of them. Each of them was responsible to his country, each of them must answer if inquired into, each of them must endure abuse with good humor, and insolence without anger. But to whom was he, Tom Towers, responsible? No one could insult him; no one could inquire into him. He could speak out withering words, and no one could answer him. Ministers courted him, bishops feared him; judges doubted their own verdicts unless he confirmed them; and generals in their councils of war, did not consider more deeply what the enemy would do, than what the Jupiter would say...It is probable that Tom Towers considered himself one of the most powerful men in Europe. And so he walked on from day to day, studiously striving to look a man, but knowing within his breast he was a god."
A little hyperbole to whet the mind. In any case, what then is wanted from the news business by those insiders who derive neither their livelihood or their self esteem from it? A cynic might suggest that they want reportage and editorial comment that faithfully corroborate their view of the world, and advance their several interests without the appearance of lost objectivity while at the same time suppressing, altering, or ignoring any shortcomings of a personal nature they may happen upon unless they be those of a competing insider. But if we can be persuaded to join together in a willing suspension of disbelief, can we not accord all "insiders," even the worst of them, the same mix of hope, fear, an conviction that animates the rest of the country - bleeding when pricked, laughing when tickled, etc., reacting as circumstances dictate?
When that ultimate insider, JFK, tired of editorials in the New York Herald Tribune, he did what any of us could do with less consequence, to be sure -- he canceled his subscription. And they went out of business -- which brings us to the second definition, or rather, affirmation.
The "news business of America," as Cal Coolidge might have said, "is business." We say "business" because the purveyance of information and analysis is not a charitable endeavor. It is a business where profits are he result of success in competition. True of the law and medicine. Yet graduates of each take along a common compass for their journey: a canon of ethics for the lawyer, a Hippocratic oath for the doctor. What of the journalist? The question I put the AU panel was whether journalists operate under any such overarching code. And if not, whether the demands of journalism were inimical to the formulation of one. The panel unanimously rejected the notion that such a code could or should be fashioned. It gave one reason and two excuses. The reason surprised me. It was that journalism was not a profession, but a trade or craft, and thus not held to any particular standard, at least of a lofty nature. This was certainly "news" to me. I still wistfully cling to the notion that journalism is a profession. One of them compared it to plumbing and thus not answerable to cosmic authority. Parenthetically, I wondered to myself how Walter Lippman and Edward R. Murrow, to say nothing of today's journalistic giants, might react to the comparison. It also occurred to me that if there is any person whose work product needs to be exact it is the plumber. His mistakes have real consequences. But on to the excuses.
Their first excuse, or, better to say, rationale, was also a bit of a surprise. It was that there is really no such thing as "truth." I think I'll leave that one to Socrates and his pals and move right along to excuse number two, that codes, canons, and oaths, being so often observed in the breach, provide no assurance of appropriate behavior; equally true, it could be said, of such other fragile attempts to influence conduct as the Constitution, the Ten Commandments, and the Sermon on the Mount. The Golden Rule I reserve for later consideration. Each is a tether to high purpose, comparable to the ideals of Missouri's own Carl Schurz, which were scorned by a doubting friend as "as distant as the stars." "The stars," replied Schurz, "are what we must sail by." Insiders aside, the public may be under the impression that journalism, if not rudderless, lacks a sextant.
If the print and electronic media have suffered any diminution of public respect it may be in part because that crowd senses the absence of a governing principle, any set of granite guidelines to chart the course of news gathering, dissemination, and commentary other than the bottom line demands of what it properly perceives as a "business." A competitive business, which like any other, can only flourish where Big Stories crowd out little ones, where the look of a story is its selling point, and the objective is to win and keep customers. Which brings a portion of the responsibility for informative newscasting and balanced editorializing full circle and inevitably to the consumers of those products. The cinematic world has long justified its almost surreal concentration on blood, guts, and raw sex, as merely responsive to public taste, Tantamount, if you will, to a public service. The First Amendment may well vie with patriotism as the last refuge of scoundrels. But it is one thing to entertain the public according to its own inclinations. Quite another to undertake to inform it with a shameless solicitude for its lowest level of appreciation and consciousness, to say nothing of its fascination for the prurient and the ghastly. A profession might feel obligated to raise sights, not simply accommodate them. A "trade," on the other hand, might perceive no such obligation. A downward spiraling symbiosis is the result. "You Romans," said Brutus, "consider what you are doing. Remember that you are assisting Caesar to forge the very chains which one day he will make you wear." In this case the shackles of uninformed opinion.
Are we Americans so caught in a trap of our own making? Assumption of responsibility for our own fate. That was the subject of Abe Lincoln's 1837 address to the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois. Speaking of national security, he said that foreign armies, " in the trial of a thousand years could not by force take a drink from the Ohio or make a track on the Blue Ridge. If destruction be our lot," he said, "we must ourselves be the author and finisher." In our more modest context what stands in danger is not the Republic exactly -- although it could come next -- it is an adequately informed public opinion. Woodrow Wilson in an address to the Associated Press in 1915 threw out this challenge: "You deal in the raw material of opinion, and opinion ultimately governs the world." Harvard's great president Charles Wilson Eliot had earlier observed, "In the modern world the intelligence of public opinion is the one indispensable condition of social progress." If that is so, what is the role of the reporter, the editor, the publisher, the producer, and all engaged in the news business? Is it merely to inform the intelligence of public opinion or to contribute to that intelligence, to enhance it? If history, as someone has said, is a race between education and disaster, do journalists have a pro-active role in the education process itself? Or can they, with a clear conscience, assume a level of education, or, if you will, sophistication, across the board sufficient to discern enough truth between the lines, sound bites, smirks, and arched eyebrows to meet a general standard which, like Justice Stewart on obscenity, "can't be defined, but we know it when we see it?" Yet if journalists would agree with Jefferson that a nation [which] "expects to be ignorant and free, expects what never was and never will be," then they might be inclined to accept a pro-active responsibility for reducing ignorance.
To quote an eminent practitioner of your profession, that "most trusted man in America," Walter Cronkite, "The way to beat cynicism is through education, which will develop an interested populace that will read more material, understand the questions that should be asked and go to the sources that will give them the answers rather than accept one-paragraph bullet-type material on very complicated subjects. "That can only incite," he said, "distaste, dislike, and hate. If the polls are correct," he continued, "that a majority of people get most of their news from television, most people are not well enough informed to intelligently exercise their franchise in this democracy." When asked if that wasn't a lot to expect from an education system where teachers are so poorly paid, he replied, "The chasm between the income of teachers and that of athletes, entertainers, and anchor people is -- a public disgrace."
Mr. Cronkite predicates his comments on journalistic responsibility on an educational system that prepares citizens to discern wheat from chaff and discard the latter. But unless and until such a system is in place, would it be unreasonable to suggest that journalism bears the additional burden of remedial education in all its dimensions? Such oases on the TV desert as the programming of PBS testify to a societal awareness of this responsibility and acceptance of the consequent burden by devoting to its relief both tax and private dollars.
Trust but Verify. To be sure TV producers and newspaper editors address events after they've been reported. On stage and screen reporters are depicted as real heroes of society, doggedly devoted to facts, contemptuous of the false and misleading, with an objectivity that shrinks from bias and exaggeration, much less concealment. They are Jimmy Stewart and Spencer Tracy, in shirtsleeves with hats pushed back and pencils in their ears. They are Humphrey Bogart at the typewriter with a cigarette bobbing on his lower lip, preparing the bombshell that will decimate gangland.
Since our colonial days when John Peter Zenger's passion for facts brought him to trial for defaming the governor of the Royal Province of New York, the country has come to respect that level of dedication from everyone engaged in the news business, especially those who unearth the raw materials. More than merely respectable, reporters have been seen as courageous, glamorous, enviable engaged in a noble enterprise, the round-the-clock provision of facts that fuel the great engine of democracy.
So it was sad to learn not to long ago of a young reporter for the Washington Post whose minute depiction of a drug-ridden family in the inner city proved to be a complete fabrication. Blurring the lines between art and life, Janet Cooke maintained that her story was close enough to the latter to arouse the public from its torpor. Such a Dickensian approach belongs to the world of novelists. It is they who are expected to hold the mirror up to life. Reporters must stick to life itself. Where could a young reporter get an idea like that? Could it be from such role models, old hands, as Mike Barnicle, Stephen Glass, and Peter Arnett, titans of the trade, whose perceived need to maintain the momentum of their visibility was worth their hard-earned reputations for honesty and integrity? One of the AU panelists, David Carr, when asked, "What should be done about such mischief?" replied, "Absolutely nothing. The world of journalism is a self-cleaning oven." One hopes he is right. Indeed, the firing of two of the three fallen archangels and severe chastisement of the third reflect journalism's concern for its credibility. That concern is the best, the most formidable, and in fact the only guarantee of responsible news coverage.
In 1971, in my Congressional life, we were called upon to decide if CBS should be cited for contempt of Congress by refusing to produce the so-called outtakes, the unused portions of an interview transcript, which served as the basis for the provocative program, "The Selling of the Pentagon." The program charged the Defense Department with the expenditure of public funds to influence public opinion favorably toward its conduct of the Viet Nam war. Critics of the program contended that a word for word transcript would have led viewers to a different conclusion. Congressman Harley Staggers, Chairman of the Commerce Committee, strongly advocated censuring CBS president Stanton for his adamant refusal to produce the outtakes. Stanton compared them to a reporter's notes, which certainly could not be subpoenaed to verify his report. Staggers' motion to censure was passed overwhelmingly by his obliging Committee. I was in the minority that voted against it. When it went to the floor, Speaker Carl Albert argued against it, and it was defeated, much to the relief of the few of us on the Committee who had opposed it. That night, as luck would have it, my old friend, Jack Valenti, head of the Motion Picture Association, held his annual reception for Mr. Staggers. When I approached the chairman to present my wife to him, he turned his back on us. The next day he saluted me in the corridor as if nothing had happened. Tempers, in those days, flared and subsided rather quickly. No room for grudges. But I thought I might close by reading something from my written dissent:
"Indeed, in a larger sense, any congressional initiative which springs from the premise that Government has the power to guarantee the "responsible" use of journalistic judgment springs from a false premise. Government is powerless either to render journalism "responsible" or to restore public confidence in it. Only the journalists have that power. Government can certainly erode public confidence in the press and other media, and one way to do so, paradoxically, is to announce that it has taken measures to keep them honest. Few would be reassured by such an assertion. The threat of public disbelief should hang far heavier over the media and its sponsors than any congressional subpoenas. No doubt public respect today for the media is at a low ebb. But if and when its practices should invite governmental challenge, such challenge might be issued with better grace on behalf of some other aggrieved party than the Government itself. The First Amendment problem is most acutely raised when the material to be censored is injurious to the censor.
"In 1861 President Lincoln wrote Thurlow Weed, ÔDo you gentlemen who control so largely public opinion, do you ever think how you might lighten the burdens of men in power -- those poor unfortunates weighed down by care, anxieties, and responsibilities?'
"It is a wistful question, with sympathetic echoes in our own time. But Lincoln did not confuse or equate his own discomfiture with public injury. Nor should we. A dedicated and vigilant citizenry is the best and perhaps only defense against the broadcast of falsehood, whether it emanates from a private source or a public one." Looked at another way, what Congress did was to protect the privacy of the press. A return of the favor might be in order.
To recapitulate: What do insiders want from the news business? Perhaps guided by Edward R. Murrow, who resigned when he saw advertising displace news as the raison d'etre of his employer, insiders join outsiders in wanting reporters who seek, assemble, and present facts without bias, who, when the "fact" is a damaging charge, check other sources, and try their best to provide in the same article either independent verification or proof to the contrary, rather than simply serving as a conduit for naked assertions. Restriction of byline identity to reporters with a proven record of accuracy and integrity. Editors who hold reporters to such a standard, who review the more sensitive stories for authenticity, who refrain from slanting rewrites, and who give corrections the same visibility as the mistakes they address, talk show hosts who speak in a normal tone and require their colleagues to do so, so the viewer beholds an intelligent, thoughtful discussion, not a happy hour at your local pub. TV newscasters who put a limit on the number of times viewers must follow the white Bronco, or smiling Monica in the embrace of the First Man, or the same limousine discharging the same lawyers at the same courthouse. Last but not least, a decent respect for the zone of privacy every citizen, in or out of public life, should expect, unless and until that curtain must be lifted to determine if the target individual's private conduct materially affects his or her public duties. Publishers and producers who demand the forgoing of their respective operations. From the law our citizens expect justice; from the medical profession, health. From the news business, the journalistic equivalent of justice and health, the daily presentation of news and commentary which leads them to a better understanding of themselves and the world they live in.
Any individuals engaged at any level of the news business hierarchy, whose options are thereby protected front and back by the First Amendment, and who may be given to wonder what their obligations might be in a given instance could look, for want of a better guide, to that most dependable source of guidance, the Golden Rule.