By Anna Merlan
By Albert Samaha
By Tessa Stuart
By Anna Merlan
By Roy Edroso
By Carolyn Hughes
By Chuck Strouse
By Albert Samaha
The list could go on. The overarching principle would be to demystify ourselves, our methods and our goals. I believe that self-examination, besides improving standards and quality, would bring us closer to our readers and make us more credible in their eyes. What the opinion surveys consistently show is that while readers don't revile us, they don't respect us much, either.
Journalists themselves seem to share some of these opinions. A recent Pew Research Center survey of journalists and news media executives found that 40 percent of journalists working for national news organizations and 55 percent working for local outlets said that news reports were increasingly marred by factual errors and sloppy reporting. About two-thirds said the boundary between reporting and commentary had blurred. More than half said the press's number one issue was its growing credibility problem.
While ethical lapses and scandals are only a part of our problem, those sins would have to be dealt with head-on by the press beat. With our present soft coverage, when scandals do break into the openas they did last year at The Boston Globe, The Cincinnati Enquirer and The New Republic, where journalists were sacked for making up stories or acquiring information by illegal meansthe mainstream press reports the stories as if these incidents are isolated offenses and not a wider virus. When two popular columnists, Mike Barnicle and Patricia Smith, lost their jobs at the Globe, my first reaction was that editors all over the country must be queasily relieved that their own skeletons hadn't been unearthed.
Reporters like myself, who have been in the business for a while, have come to know that in the newsrooms of large media organizations it is not uncommon from time to time for one or two people to have earned a reputation for exaggerating, embroidering their stories and just plain making things up. There was a fellow in one newsroom where I worked who once wrote in detail about a nighttime shelling attack on a Latin American capital. The noise was actually a series of demolition explosions at a major construction site on the edge of the city. The foreign press had been told in advance about the dynamite blasts so reporters wouldn't mistake the booms for fighting. The reporter wrote the story anyway. His addiction to fantasy finally became too much for his superiors, and he was allowed to make a quiet departure. The public was never told about his fiction writing.
In other newsrooms I've been familiar with, there have been reporters and columnists who made up quotes and even whole conversations. One of them, recently deceased, wrote in great detail not long ago about a closed-door grand jury appearance by a key witness, even describing the jury's gasps at his astonishing testimony. The problem was, the event had never happened. The witness appeared on a later date.
It does not please me to describe these negative conditions in a profession I've been proud to be part of for the past 40 years. But I think it is necessary. By failing to cover ourselves, we have made ourselves complacent, virtually assured that because we are not likely to be scrutinized by our peers, we are safe in our careless or abusive practices. The current trends in journalism do not bode well for self-criticism, and I have no illusions about this idea being easy to sell. Newspaper competition has been steadily declining as struggling papers close their doors and others are swallowed up by large, homogenized chains such as Gannett and Thomson. Of the nation's 1,500 daily papers, nearly 1,200about 80 percentare owned by the big chains, which concentrate on reaping large profits and are not much given to public self-examination on ethics and quality issues.
So, now the second question: Would the creation of press beats, with the same resources given to other major beats, make a difference, bring about change? I think we have seen enough self-demeaning excesses, lapdog reporting and pack journalism in the last dozen years to be able to answer with a clear "yes."
There is no single defining moment, but starting with the reckless invasion of privacy on the Gary Hart story in 1987, we have watched the press taint itself repeatedly. From the sex-police behavior in the Hart case, the pack moved in downward fashion to its cave-in on government censorship during the Persian Gulf War, through the O.J. Simpson trial and the mob-like hounding of Richard Jewell (who turned out to be innocent) in the 1996 Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta and then to the hysteria of the Monica Lewinsky/Bill Clinton soap opera and, in recent days, to no one's surprise anymore, to the bathetic coverage of the tragic death of John F. Kennedy Jr., his wife and sister-in-law.
I am convinced that vigorous coverage of the press, by raising the embarrassment level, would act as a deterrent to these kinds of excesses and capitulations. It would also surely discourage the potential writers of fantasy and fiction, who make the biggest headlines, as in the 1981 Janet Cooke case at The Post and the recent case of Stephen Glass at The New Republic. Is it not obvious that if major newspapers began covering the press seriously, the risks for chronic miscreants would increase significantly? Exposure would mean humiliation and possibly the end of some careers. Only fools or addicts would not rethink their ways.