This article first appeared in The Washington Post on August 29, 1999. It offers a look beyond The New York Times at the broader problems that beset the nation’s journalism community today.
It’s no secret that journalism in America has become more slipshod and reckless, at times promiscuous—and as a result less credible. The public seems quite aware of the slippage and has shown occasional indignation. Every journalist surely also knows that the old-time standards—that news reporting and opinion must be kept separate and distinct, for example, and that a public official’s private life is just that unless it affects his or her public performance—have been weakened if not discarded.
Most of us in the business, however, stand by as mere observers while our editors, our corporate owners and some of our most prominent colleagues offer up the rationalization that the furious speed of the cyberworld and the round-the-clock nature of cable news are the competitive devils that make them do it. The new mantra of editors and media proprietors seems to be: “We have no choice but to cut corners if we are to survive.”
If this were happening in any other profession or power center in American life, the media would be all over the story, holding the offending institution up to a probing light. When law firms breach ethical canons, Wall Street brokerages cheat clients or managed-care companies deny crucial care to patients, we journalists consider it news and frequently put it on the front page.
But when our own profession is the offender, we go soft. We report the occasional firing of a journalist who abuses ethical standards, especially if it happens in a major-market city. But we usually do so without exploring whether these practices are a larger problem in the industry.
Why is it that the press doesn’t cover the press—or, to be more precise, doesn’t cover itself with the same energy, resources, detail and spirit of reform that it applies to every other influential constituency in our society? Though we can hardly deny we’re a center of power, we barely cover ourselves as news at all, nor do we readily reveal our processes to our readers. Two elemental questions emerge from this double standard: 1) How do we justify not reporting energetically on ourselves? and 2) Would it have a positive effect on journalistic ethics and standards if we did?
The answer to the first question is: We don’t even bother to try. There are roughly 1,500 daily newspapers in this country. Only a handful—at most a dozen, including The Post—actually have a reporter who covers the press full-time as a beat. What critical reporting exists, though at times refreshingly good, is for the most part timid and superficial. About 15 papers have an ombudsman on staff to respond to readers’ complaints. When it comes to looking at itself, society’s watchdog is a lamb.
I know this from personal experience. For the last three years, I have spent much of my time trying to persuade the mainstream media to embrace the idea of covering the press in the same way they cover everyone else.
I went to major newspapers and magazines, and also to the major networks. Their responses will make a great chapter in my memoirs. Most of the editors and news executives said it was a fine idea—and then they all came up with some pesky reason why they couldn’t take it on. My favorite was: “We don’t have the right person to do it.”
I was disappointed, but not exactly surprised. On the subject of whistle-blowing, we’re not much different from the institutions we cover. No newspaper is eager to acknowledge its own deficiencies—or expose those of its peers (who might return the favor). Everyone has dirty linen.
And there’s no doubt that the press beat I propose would be a difficult assignment—reporting on one’s own. Who would volunteer to ride the tiger? But daunting and unpopular as this beat might be, I believe it may be our best chance to shore up journalism’s now-tattered standards.
What kind of stories would we see from this press beat that we don’t see now? Well, the majority of the articles would probably not be about bogus practices, which do not dominate the world of the newsroom. They would instead be in-depth pieces about how we gather news, about our processes, which are not always very attractive. One story might focus on how page one is put together each day, which stories are chosen for the front, which are rejected—and the reasons why. This would give our readers, who are part of every paper’s extended family, a way to understand and relate to us, and even make assessments about our cultural and political makeup.
Another piece (or series of pieces) might take up the subject of how many stories originate from people seeking media attention—public figures and their press agents—rather than being developed by reporters or editors. The article would closely examine this promotion industry (not just in the entertainment and sports world, but in government and every other precinct where headline-seekers reside) and dig into its relationships with the press. There would be stories about lazy reporting, careless reporting and great reporting, each describing and dissecting, step by step, how the article in question made its way into the paper. Is the reporting in sports, arts or the business section different from the reporting in the main news section—and if so, why?
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 open—as 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 means—the 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 1,200—about 80 percent—are 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.
We should keep in mind that although newspapers are no longer the dominant conveyor belt of information in our culture, they are still major shapers of our culture and of government policy agendas. The best papers still care about quality and ethics in their own shops, even though, with a few exceptions, they have always opposed the periodically raised notion of having the press monitored by an independent outside body. I agree that an outside monitor is not the ideal course. But if we’re going to reject that option, doesn’t the obligation then fall on us to do it ourselves, from the inside—that is, oversee ourselves through strong, regular coverage?
The gut decision that journalists have to make is whether they want to be regarded as professionals with honor or merely as pickup teams of scribblers and windbags. Put another way, we must ask ourselves if we are comfortable doing some of the things reporters are being asked to do in the present climate—such as investigating the sex lives of public figures, even when those sex lives have no demonstrable effect on the execution of their duties or on public policy. By the way, why don’t we call those new assignments by their right name—the sex beat? And while we’re at it, if it’s okay to have a sex beat, why are we so resistant to a press beat?
Return to Sydney H. Schanberg’s Fear and Favor at ‘The New York Times’: Reviving the Good Gray Lady”