For USA TODAY editor Ken Paulson, Elvis Presley and Slim Shady are part of an assignment that dates back to the Founding Fathers.
“There is a bias in America’s newsrooms. But it’s not a liberal or conservative bias. It is a bias against the people in charge, which is a job that was handed to us in 1791....”
Q. Is today’s news media doing a good job for the American people?
A. The truth is that America's news media don't do as poor a job as our most ardent critics suggest, but we also don't do as good a job as we should.
Much of the criticism directed toward a free press is driven by partisanship, but there's also no question that many news organizations fail to do all they can to serve readers and viewers.
As an industry, we rely too often on confidential sources, report obsessively about the scandal or flap of the day, and too often focus on heat rather than light. Although it's important not to over-generalize about what is a diverse array of news providers, it's important for each of us to look in the mirror and ask whether we're living up to our obligations to the country and communities we serve. The best way to rebuild trust with the American people is a steadfast commitment to balance, and by doing the best job we possibly can, day in and day out.
Q. You often speak of Clark Kent as an icon of American journalism. How so?
A. I grew up in at time when journalists largely wore white hats. If you look at popular culture of the late fifties and early sixties you'll see many examples of crusading journalists in movies, TV shows, magazines and comic books. Maybe the best example of that was Superman. When Superman was not leaping tall buildings in a single bound, he was Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper. I think a lot of us were drawn to this business because we believed that we could make a difference -- that we could keep an eye on people in power and ferret out corruption and injustice. That sounds both corny and idealistic, but I am certain it fueled many careers in our business.
And yet, today you see the public view my profession with cynicism and suspicion. There’s been a disconnect there; some of it we brought on ourselves. We have a terrible habit of referring to ourselves as “the media,” as though it were a monolith made up of newspapers, broadcasters, bloggers, talk show hosts and pornographers that meets every Wednesday at the National Press Club.
Q. Some unsavory companions, but otherwise, how is that a problem?
A. The problem is that unprofessional behavior by any of us tends to undercut the credibility of all of us.
There are a number of areas where I think we can do a better job of winning America’s trust, but the bottom line is that where once Americans looked at us to be on their side, that relationship has been damaged. We need to rebuild that. Nobody runs around with black hats and white hats these days, if they ever did. But our primary mission remains the same one we were given by the first generation of Americans in 1791 -- to act as a watchdog on government and to prevent abuse of our core liberties. That mission has not changed.
Q. Regarding your job as “watchdog on government,” how is it that political gamesmanship developed into such a lethal art in recent years?
A. Where politicians and government have gotten very savvy in attacking the press is that they essentially said, “Ignore the barking, the watchdog’s rabid.” That goes back to Spiro Agnew and his assault on what he described as "elitist" journalists and "nattering nabobs of negativism."
As soon as people in positions of power discovered that they could undercut our relationship with the American people, they went to town. And we did not do a very good job of defending ourselves. The tendency in our industry was to turn the other cheek, when in fact we should have been pouring out another barrel of ink.
Q. Meanwhile, there have been episodes – widely reported – where individual journalists have damaged the profession. How can the journalism industry heal itself instead of just “turning the other cheek”?
A. Well, while scandals in journalism are actually few and far between, our tendency toward transparency means that our shortcomings are widely reported. Imagine if your butcher did what newspapers do. What would happen to your appetite for meat, if, every day, your butcher posted on the door of his shop the number of mistakes they made yesterday in handling food? It would note that Hank came in with a terrible cold and that Bob didn’t wash his hands after using the restroom. How appealing would steak be?
Our industry is so good about fessing up when there is a significant scandal that people are left with the impression that scandals are far more frequent. There was a recent study that said that almost 70% of Americans believe that fabrication of stories is a widespread problem in the news media. I’ve been in the business 30 years and I have never in my work experience come in contact with a reporter who fabricated content. Yes, I know about Jack Kelly, yes I know about Jason Blair, but I’ve never seen it happen in any of my newsrooms in 30 years. And most editors will tell you that. Yes, we do occasionally have a plagiarism scandal, but the notion that this is somehow a corrupt and deeply flawed profession is simply nonsense.
Q. Currently there is debate as to whether standards of credibility are evolving. How do you handle the issue in your newsroom?
A. The truth is that ethical standards of American newsrooms are as high as virtually any profession in America. None of my reporters are allowed to put a bumper sticker on their cars indicating a political preference. None of my reporters are allowed to share their views on issues of the day. No one buys us lunch, no one gives us freebies. If we go to an event, we buy our own tickets. The list is really endless, and the American public would be astonished to see the steps news organizations take to remain independent. Now that doesn’t apply to all media. And it doesn’t necessarily apply to all news media. But that’s precisely the point: that you have to judge each news organization on its own merit. And recognize that each of us have our own standards.
Q. Apparently there’s a gap between newsroom editors’ opinions on credibility and that of readers – or at least online readers. RJI recently probed the question in a research study and 58% of newsroom editors thought it would be harmful for journalists to give their personal views, while 50% of the public said it would be beneficial. Your thoughts? (Read more about the findings.)
A. I have heard people say that objectivity is a myth, but I don’t buy it. I don’t need to know whether my physician voted for Kerry or Bush before he takes out my appendix. I don’t need to know if my lawyer is a liberal or conservative before she writes my will. All I need to know is that he or she is a professional and is sworn to uphold the ethical standards of his profession.
That’s what we do. And what is most important to me, as a journalist, is to report as accurately and as fairly as possible every single day. That is far more important to me personally than a particular candidate wins, or whether a referendum prevails. And I’m willing to set aside participation in the political process, and even the verbalization of my views, if it helps me do a better job of reporting what our readers need to know. There is a bias in America’s newsrooms. But it’s not a liberal or conservative bias. It is a bias against the people in charge, which is the job that was handed to us in 1791 along with the First Amendment. We do ask leading questions of mayors and members of Congress. We don’t take their words for things. We go in with a skeptical attitude. That's not political. That’s journalism.
Q. How about the effect bloggers have had on news, opinion, and journalism?
A. Anybody who loves the First Amendment has to love both the Internet and the extraordinary army of bloggers that it has spawned. It's great that there are so many more people writing and commenting about public issues. One of the reasons bloggers have been able to break some major stories is that the blogosphere is a virtual newsroom of hundreds of thousands.
It wouldn’t be realistic to expect a newspaper newsroom of 60 to have as much collective expertise as the population of the Internet. So, there have indeed been examples where people have pooled their insight and have broken stories. God bless them. That’s a good thing and helps all of us.
But to somehow extrapolate from that -- and suggest that blogging is superior to professional journalism -- is where you lose me. How in the world can an individual sitting in their home office match the reporting power of the New York Times? I’m not denigrating the individual blogger; it’s just the reality of resources.
Q. But what if readers fail to keep news companies in business? Those thousands of bloggers don’t expect to be paid.
A. I don’t have the sense that most of the American public believes that they can get their news and information needs met by bloggers. The real challenge for our industry is that if people are less inclined to pay for a newspaper, and want their information to be free, there won’t be anyone to pay for the journalism. Obviously you see this in other industries. If consumers demand free music, who will pay the composers? But it’s much too early to write the obituary of news on newsprint. USA Today, for one, is actually growing in print, and our online audience is growing fairly dramatically every year. There continues to be a great hunger for news and information, and the challenge is to figure out how to balance delivery methods with the economic realities.
Q. In terms of the print product, how do you account for USA Today’s success?
A. We've had some advantages that other newspapers haven’t had. We don't rely on classified ads, for one. We've also expanded our investigative reporting, our national reporting, and our international coverage at a time when many big city metros are scaling back. USA Today is subject to the same roller coaster the rest of the news media are, but we’ve managed to weather the storm better than most.
Q. Along with your responsibilities at USA Today, in your “spare time” you’re pushing to get The Liberty Tree Initiative onto the national agenda. What is it about the First Amendment that drives you, personally?
A. The First Amendment really embodies the most American of freedoms. The liberty to write and speak freely, the chance to petition and assemble, and the overriding right to practice one's own faith collectively set this nation apart from all others. The First Amendment is critically important in a free society. One of the most patriotic things any American can do is support First Amendment rights for all.
It's not a coincidence that the strongest, most dynamic, most powerful and most creative nation in the history of the planet is also the most free. We can't afford to take these freedoms for granted.
Q. Soon you plan to launch a public service campaign in support of the Liberty Tree Initiative, but meanwhile, tell us about the success of your campus initiatives.
A. We did our first pilot program at Miami of Ohio. It was a daylong event exploring First Amendment issues and featured a town meeting on the role of a free press and threats to the First Amendment. We had a great turnout of students and educators. And at the end, we planted a tree to commemorate the original Liberty Tree, the site in Boston where the earliest American patriots gathered to talk about the need for liberty and freedom.
Based on that model, we can do 20 to 30 campus events a year.
Q. You say the news media fails in its allegiance to the First Amendment with its tendency to focus on “heated” First Amendment controversies “and not provide the light.” Can you give an example?
A. When, for example, a student is suspended from school for publishing a provocative article in a student newspaper, a story should include comments from those who work to keep student news media free. The Bill of Rights is not handed to you along with your high school diploma.
Q. I wish that I had a pile of those news stories for you to critique.
A. Today I was frustrated by my newspaper because there was a story about the Boston Herald retracting its allegations about the Boston Patriots spying on opponents. We had a news story that said that the fans were angry at the Boston Patriots, the Boston Herald, and Senator Specter, who has threatened to conduct hearings. But what does our headline say? It didn’t say “Boston Patriots, Herald, and Senator Specter,” it said “Fans critical of Patriots, the media, and Senator Specter.” You know, it’s both inaccurate and damaging.
Anyway, I sent a memo to my staff saying we’re not using the word “media” anymore. It’s an over-generalization that has no real meaning. If you mean the news media say so. If you mean the entertainment media, say so. If you mean talk show hosts, say so. If you mean one newspaper, say so. But, we’ve allowed our critics to paint all of us as a single entity with a single bias and a single lack of responsibility and ethics. And we can’t allow that to continue. We’re digging our own grave when we refer to “the media” and don’t make these important distinctions.
Q. Word is you’ve developed a magic formula for the title of the speech when you speak on First Amendment issues?
A. Early in my tenure at the First Amendment Center I recognized that we were not going to get much attention or draw as large an audience if I simply tried to do a lecture on the importance of the five freedoms. We had to find a way to tell the story of the First Amendment in more entertaining ways. Too many people view the First Amendment as something they shelved right after they graduated from civics class.
So I discovered that you can pair virtually any slice of pop culture with the First Amendment and come up with a program that people will enjoy. That began with “Elvis and the First Amendment,” a gathering of rockers and journalists. That, in turn, led to our touring "Freedom Sings" show.
Q. Such a coincidence – isn’t Freedom Sings scheduled to perform at RJI’s Grand Opening in September?
A. Yes, and we're really looking forward to it. Freedom Sings began by simply inviting musicians from the Nashville area to a single evening at the Bluebird Café, and giving them a list of songs that have been censored some time in the last 200 years.
Each act had to set up their instruments, so to kill time between performances, I would get up and tell the story of the song that you were about to hear. And that became a tradition. In time, I wove those stage comments into a narrative telling the story of free speech and music from 1735 to the present. It includes everything from the Star Spangled Banner to "The Real Slim Shady." It’s now a touring company in its 7th year on the road. I narrated it for the first three years of its existence and when I left, my successor Gene Policinski took the script and continued -- I’m very proud of that.
Interview conducted by Carole Christie