Leave the Press to the Court of Public Opinion

Alexander Cockburn writes for the Nation and other publications

As my journalist father used to remind his sons, all three of us journalists, our profession is not well-loved. Poll the human contents of your average shopping mall and most of them would probably think it a sound idea to restore the stocks and have a couple of reporters pinioned in them for the people to jeer and throw cabbages at. Right now the survey would probably show an overwhelming majority agreeing heartily with the recent court decision lost by ABC in which its undercover reporters were found guilty of trespass and misrepresentation.

At times of upswings in this unpopularity, the press tries to think of ways to raise itself in public esteem, and that’s when you start to hear talk about “self-policing” and even some form of national news or press council to maintain standards.

This mangy creature shambles onto the stage every decade or so, and in normal times is hooted off with shouts of ridicule. Now “60 Minutes” and Mike Wallace are pushing the idea. In the Dec. 18 Wall Street Journal, Wallace wrote about the Minnesota News Council, on which “60 Minutes” recently had done a piece. This outfit has been in existence for 26 years and has 24 members, half of them journalists and half of them “responsible members of the community” in the form of business people, lawyers, teachers, and so forth. Someone complains of mistreatment, and the responsible folk--presided over by a judge--hear from both sides and then issue their judgment, which is widely reported. The notion is to make people feel they can get back at some offending paper or program without embarking on costly, unpromising libel suits.


It’s a terrible idea. As noted above, most members of the public, particularly the “responsible” sector, detest the press and would, if given half a chance, annul the First Amendment and shoot us all.

“60 Minutes” cited the case of Northwest Airlines, which protested to the Minnesota News Council about maltreatment by a Michigan-based TV station. Northwest has a big hub at Detroit Metro. The program pointed out problems in Northwest’s maintenance record. It also made clear that Northwest’s safety performance was as good as comparable airlines, but there was room for improvement.

Northwest said the TV probe had damaged its reputation. Of course, if the report had been substantively fallacious, the airline would have sued for libel. But Northwest, it seems, knew it had no case likely to stand up in the courts, so it turned to the “responsible” Minnesota News Council, stuffed with just the sort of corporate executives and civic boosters who purse their lips at anything approaching robust coverage of business conduct. After portentous hearings, the news council voted 19-2 that the program was “unbalanced” and “irresponsible,” even “untrue,” though no untruthfulness was cited.

The TV station was censured and the verdict widely publicized by its rivals. The senior anchorman who reported the series said he was retiring from broadcasting and that the whole process was unfair and unconstitutional--which indeed it was. Net result: You probably won’t be seeing much adverse TV coverage about Northwest Airlines in that part of the country.

Now Wallace wants to take this gang of Minnesota prodnoses to the national level. The idea is to enhance the media’s standing. But we don’t want our standing enhanced. Things are getting way too respectable as it is. Journalists should pride themselves on their lowly status as scoundrels and junkyard dogs, only a yard or two ahead of the gendarmes and with prison or the stocks the reward for doing a job properly. Nor should we aspire to the moral standing of bishops. What rubbish! What pretension! If journalists want to be bishops they should take holy orders.

I’m glad to say that on the same page of the Wall Street Journal, “60 Minutes” executive producer Don Hewitt vigorously disputed Wallace’s plea, saying what cods-wallop it all was, and that the very first person to be censured by a national news council would be Wallace.

Some of the best words on this topic of the press and responsibility were published back in 1980 in the London Times by the columnist Bernard Levin. “It cannot be emphasized too strongly,” Levin wrote, “nor indeed put too extravagantly, that the press has no duty to be responsible at all (his italics). .J.J. [The press] is not part of the constitutional structure of the country; it is not, and must never be, governed by any externally imposed rules other than the law of the land. .J.J. We are, and must remain, vagabonds and outlaws, for only by so remaining shall we be able to keep the faith by which we live, which is the pursuit of knowledge that others would like unpursued, and the making of comment that others would prefer unmade.”