Why My Mind Has Changed
about the Value of
a National News Council

by Mike Wallace
Newsworthy 1995

I was thinking back to the days at CBS News when each night on the Cronkite news there were stories from names like Charles Collingwood in London, Winston Burdett in Jerusalem, Roger Mudd at the Capitol, Richard C. Hottelet at the U.N., Dan Rather in Dallas, Morley Safer in Saigon, Harry Reasoner at the White House, Peter Kalischer in Paris, Dan Schorr in Bonn, Eric Sevareid in Washington and Marvin Kalb in Moscow. What satisfaction to be part of a team like that!

Regrettably though, in today's climate I'm afraid there's a good deal less admiration than there was back then in the public perception of us and our profession. Today there is ever harsher judgment of us and what we turn out.

Not that criticism of the press is anything new. As we all know, it's as old as the Republic. But what is new is the intensity and the volume of criticism that's coming from within the press itself.

Last December, on "Meet the Press," David Broder lamented the lack of some mechanism to make us more responsible. David Brinkley wondered about the same thing on his Sunday morning broadcast last January.

It seems that in virtually every newspaper and magazine I pick up I see some kind of self-flagellation. A few recent examples - "Unnecessary and deliberate cruelty" (Abe Rosenthal); "Mean-spiritedness; lowest-common-denominator journalism" (Marvin Kalb); "Sanctimony and a love of sensation; snideness and aggression; a weird, free-form nastiness; spleen without purpose" (Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker). And this doesn't even count the time-honored complaints about accuracy, fairness, conflict of interest, checkbook journalism.

In our once-romantic profession, the hairshirt is replacing the trenchcoat.

Make no mistake about it. This is more than just rhetoric and the ramifications are significant - well beyond the now-familiar lamentations about sacrificing serious journalism on the altar of profits, circulation [and] ratings. Are we, in fact, trashing our right to the public trust?

In January, U.S. News & World Report said, "The public these days does not merely dislike the press - it hates it." Moreover, the number of people with an unfavorable view of television news has doubled in the past year. These are people who consider us "unnecessarily adversarial," "negative," "insensitive," "irresponsible" and "arrogant."

And this erosion of public trust is forging a consensus among more than a few serious journalists that the time has finally come - yet again - to do something about it.

John Hughes has asked, in The Christian Science Monitor, "Could a Press Council Improve Journalism?"

Back in 1973, when public confidence in the media had sagged under the weight of assaults on the media by the Nixon Administration, a National News Council was formed "to serve the public interest in preserving freedom of communication and advancing accurate and fair reporting of news." It was a place to turn to when people felt that a news story was inaccurate or unfair. It was an independent forum, with objective experts.

The National News Council did not have the power to sanction or to punish except through the glare of publicity. But unfortunately, there was too little enthusiasm for it among working journalists, so it didn't garner much publicity, and it lasted for only ten limping years. Why? Mainly because some leading journalists - Abe Rosenthal of The New York Times, Walter Cronkite and others - claimed it was superfluous at best, and worse, that it would somehow shackle a free press.

Some major news organizations, including CBS under Dick Salant, supported the Council. But as I said, it didn't get much help from a whole lot of news organizations and so it slowly withered and died.

All of us journalists are perfectly willing to call attention to profligate politicians, priests and potentates, but we show little enthusiasm when similar attention is focused on us.

Should the Council be resurrected? I think a good case can be made for it.

(The National News Council, which died in 1983) was set up not to send anybody to jail, not to fine anybody, not to collect dues or hand out certificates of qualification, not to do any of that but rather to act as a kind of jury of our peers - composed of broadcasters, print people, academics - to receive complaints, to look into them, and, if warranted, to publicize what amounts to journalistic malpractice.

Walter Cronkite, who was originally dead set against the National News Council, said [this] in eulogizing his former boss, Dick Salant, at his memorial service two years ago: "In the '70s, I thought it was the worst idea I'd ever heard in my life, that we should put judgment as to the kind of job we did in the hands of another group somewhere outside our immediate profession, outside our immediate workplace. But I think now, as I look back on it, that Dick Salant was probably right."

Now, I know that the vast majority of journalists still will be - at first blush - dead set against a revived National News Council. Abe Rosenthal took a certain pride in killing it the first time around. In order to have a National News Council, he insists, you have to have regulations, and he says, "I am against regulation of the press, including self regulation except within each individual newspaper or broadcast station.

He sets up a straw man. We're not talking about regulation. I'm not talking about prescribed do's and don'ts beyond the obvious: accuracy and fairness. And I'm not raising the specter of the government looking over our shoulders. Los Angeles Times media critic David Shaw - a self-described First Amendment absolutist - told me he thinks a National News Council may be the best way to keep the government from looking over our shoulders.

What I'm suggesting is what Dick Salant had in mind: reasonable, qualified people sitting down and considering whether or not they perceive a given piece of reporting warrants holding it up to public scrutiny as flawed, as dishonest. And if it is, then let the public know about it.

What kind of malpractice am I talking about? Well... let's begin with me and "60 Minutes." You may have read that it was with my knowledge and consent that we placed a tiny hidden camera in the drapes of my office to catch on videotape the answers to my questions by a female reporter who had agreed to talk to us on the record and had agreed to have us quote her. What she hadn't agreed to was to go on camera. She didn't like lights, cameras and the tension that goes with it.

But, unfairly and unethically, we decided we knew better, and so we taped her. We were certain that once she saw herself on tape she'd agree to let us use it. But before we could do that, a mole inside our shop passed the information on to Howard Kurtz, who writes about media for The Washington Post. The result? A front-page story.

Worth a front page? Surely not. But it made certain the story would be picked up nationally. I did a mea culpa and called her to apologize. She apologized back, was distressed that we were under fire and asked how she might help. I said, "Just show up tomorrow and go on camera to tell me what you said last time you were here." She did. We taped it. And we broadcast the piece the following Sunday. No harm done to her, or to the story. The only harm done was self-inflicted.

Malpractice? Absolutely. We had lied to an interviewee.

Another potential nominee: shouldn't the public know about journalists who use their positions for personal profit? Shouldn't the readers of Smart Money magazine, for instance, know that columnist James J. Cramer saw the value of three stocks he owned and wrote about in the February issue shoot up by more than $2 million? They know he is a professional money manager and that he owns stocks that he writes about, but not the size of his holdings, and of course readers had no way of knowing that he continued to buy large amounts of that stock before his piece was published, thus sending the volume surging and the stock prices soaring... with a huge paper profit to him. Shouldn't readers know this?

I believe a revived News Council is worth a second shot.

Excerpted from remarks at Harvard where Wallace received a Goldsmith Award.