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!
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.
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.
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
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.
our once-romantic profession, the hairshirt is replacing the trenchcoat.
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
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."
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.
Hughes has asked, in The Christian Science Monitor, "Could
a Press Council Improve Journalism?"
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.
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
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.
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.
the Council be resurrected? I think a good case can be made for
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.
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."
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Absolutely. We had lied to an interviewee.
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?
believe a revived News Council is worth a second shot.
from remarks at Harvard where Wallace received a Goldsmith Award.