THE SINS OF THE JOURNALIST
Some of us journalists have sinned, oh Lord Public, master of our universe. We beg of you to forgive us our press passes.
How did we sin? Let me count the ways:
1) By telling you things that we knew were not so;
2) By telling you things we believed to be so, but had not substantiated;
3) By telling you things that were so, but had been acquired by questionable means.
Why does there, suddenly, seem to be so much journalistic sinning? Because the public seems to be turned off on the media. Because some journalists who have grown up in the television era with a dulled sense of reality seek shortcuts to fame and fortune. Because of the pressure of corporate media bosses for ammunition in the war for ratings and circulation.
The first sin--the outright hoax--is easiest to condemn, because few of us have the talent for it. Stephen Glass, master of the telling anecdote, concocted all or part of some 25 articles in the New Republic in less than a year. Patricia Smith created interesting but imaginary characters in her Boston Globe column.
They follow in the tradition of Janet Cooke, whose Pulitzer Prize was taken away after the discovery that her wrenching Washington Post series about a child drug addict came entirely from her imagination. I have a lingering sense of regret about real talent that went wrong.
Our second sin is far more complicated because of the sensation that something is possibly true, but is lacking in substantiation. An investigative unit of the Cable News Network alleged that the U.S. Army had used sarin nerve gas against U.S. deserters in Laos. First Amendment attorney Floyd Abrams, brought in by CNN to investigate the investigation, concluded that the allegation was “insupportable.” “Unsupported” may more accurately reflect the sense of his report.
(In the interest of full disclosure: I worked for CNN for six years in its early days. I know and admire Peter Arnett, the correspondent who appeared on the newsmagazine show. I am a long-time friend and onetime client of Abrams.)
The CNN episode goes to the heart of how professionalism can go astray in television. We start with the fact that CNN, worried about its ratings, had made a considerable investment in its new “Newsstand” program and was looking for an opening-night blockbuster. That need encouraged producers to work for months on reports and rumors about the use of nerve gas.
Authentication by interviews proved hard to come by. Then the television technique of making things look more definite than they are took over. Some may remember how NBC staged a car explosion. ABC simulated a rendezvous of a suspected American spy with his KGB handler. CBS got into trouble with Congress in 1970 for selective editing of an interview with a Pentagon official for a documentary, “The Selling of the Pentagon.” CBS President Frank Stanton narrowly escaped a citation for contempt of Congress for refusing to turn over the “outtakes” of the interview.
In the CNN case, Abrams had access to all the interviews. Having read his report, I agree that strenuous excerpting was done that neglected or minimized contrasting views. I have some sympathy for the process, having myself, as television correspondent, often striven to get an interviewee to say what I needed him to say. But CNN went beyond the bounds. For example, the aging Adm. Thomas Moorer, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was clearly pushed for hours to talk about an operation he didn’t remember or never knew about.
The television imperative also led inexorably to the unmaking of Arnett. There is a line in television between anchors, who add luster by reading from TelePrompTer scripts written by others, and reporters, who voice stories they have covered. For this opening night, Arnett was asked to contribute his association with Vietnam and his distinguished career as a reporter and front for a story he had little to do with.
I know several reporters, including myself, who have declined to read scripts they did not write. Arnett accommodated his bosses and, for having done so, was reprimanded.
Our third sin is the investigative story that is accurate and may perform a real public service, but raises questions about how the information was obtained.
In 1992, ABC’s “Prime Time Live,” with Diane Sawyer, carried a devastating report on the sale of tainted meat and other unsanitary practices in a Food Lion supermarket. No question was raised about the accuracy of the report, but Food Lion sued for trespass with hidden cameras and because two ABC staffers had obtained jobs in Food Lion by lying on their applications. Without ever seeing the report, a jury awarded Food Lion $5.5 million (later reduced by the judge).
That a TV network should be punished for the kind of expose that won plaudits for Upton Sinclair sent a chill through the whole profession. It seemed to reflect the way the American public has been turned off to what it perceives as the self-serving arrogance of the “the media.”
Television took it on the chin again last week, when a jury in Bangor, Me., awarded a trucker and a trucking company $525,000 for defamation by the “Dateline NBC” program. Not at issue was the accuracy of NBC’s report that the trucker had falsified his log to drive more hours than legally allowed. But the plaintiff said he had been promised “a positive story.” Noteworthy was the argument of the plaintiff’s attorney: “The press has no special protection under the laws of the United States.”
Now, a similar issue of right substance, wrong method has been raised in an issue involving a newspaper. In the Cincinnati Enquirer, Michael Gallagher laid bare evidence that Cincinnati-based Chiquita International had tried to bribe Colombian officials and had sprayed dangerous pesticides in Central America.
That prompted a Chiquita suit against Gallagher and an investigation of allegations that the reporter got his information by breaking into the company’s voice-mail system. The Enquirer promptly fired Gallagher and apologized to Chiquita three days running on its front page. The paper also agreed, without any suit having been filed against it, to pay Chiquita $10 million.
Newspapers and networks like attention-getting investigative stories, but can no longer be counted on to back up the reporters who dig for them. The analogy of the motorist running red lights to get an injured person to the hospital--the idea of greater good justifying unsanctioned ways of getting information--does not seem to impress proprietors or the public.
Smarting under public criticism and unsure of support from the top executives of their own organization, the media, particularly the segment of the press we call “investigative,” is in danger of losing its bearings.
We are witnessing today a paroxysm of communal strife in the press: reporters questioning the methods of other reporters, news organizations piling on when other news organizations have made mistakes. CNN’s retraction of its poison-gas story was front-page news everywhere, as was the San Jose Mercury’s retraction of its CIA-cocaine series.
The press ate up the exposure of Glass’s and Smith’s hoaxes. As Hendrik Hertzberg wrote in the New Yorker, the news media “are increasingly the targets of their own investigations.”
The effect of all this is to intensify the public’s alienation from the news media. Some have told me they are bewildered by the press’ obsession with itself and people tend to respond with “a plague on all your houses.”
There was a time when our bosses believed in us, and the public believed in them. If you will permit a personal aside: In 1976, when I was threatened with jail for contempt of Congress for making public a suppressed congressional report on the CIA, CBS, although disapproving of me, backed me to the hilt with payment of heavy legal expenses. More recently, CBS delayed for several weeks a “60 Minutes” expose of a tobacco company, saying it feared a lawsuit. It also happened that then-CBS chairman Laurence Tisch controlled a cigarette company.
There is something unhealthy in a situation in which reporters must worry about whether their investigation may affect other interests of their bosses. They must worry about whether their efforts will bring praise or reprimand. Now, not sure of where to turn, journalists have turned on each other.