By Edward M. Fouhy
Pew Center for Civic Journalism
Aspen, May 22, 2001 -
Thinking about the standards and practices of American journalism today
means for me, navigating the waters between a newsstand in Atlanta and
It would be presumptuous of me, particularly in this company to presume
to speak to the standards and practices of all of American journalism
which is a large and growing enterprise, so I will confine myself to that
part of the enterprise which I know best, network news.
I had the opportunity to work in commercial network news during its brief
but wonderful life. What it was and what it has become speaks to our topic
this morning -- the changing standards of journalism. And that brings
us back to Atlanta, which was when I first noticed how far the old standards
It was in September 1988, the morning after the first presidential debate
of the campaign. I was the executive producer of the debates that year
and I was depressed because the night before, one network -- CBS -- where
I had spent most of my career as reporter, producer, bureau chief and
finally director of news, my old network, CBS, had carried not the presidential
debate, but a baseball game. Now I don't want to mislead you, I love baseball
too, in fact the Red Sox killed my father and now they're coming after
me, as the saying goes.
I was depressed because I had, through bitter experience, learned that
when a news event is up against an entertainment or sports event on television,
the news event loses. And that can be a huge loss when the event is a
presidential debate, because that is one of those rare times when the
candidates are seen and heard in person, unfiltered. The TV debates provide
an opportunity for a citizen to make the most important decision he or
she makes in a democracy -- who will lead it?
If you believe in the power of television to inform as I do, then the
baseball viewers had missed a chance to see both George Bush and Michael
Dukakis at their best -- handling tough questions. The fact that one network
opted out greatly diminished the importance of the occasion because it
lowered its status as an event so important that every broadcaster in
the country was carrying it.
Atlanta was where the next debate would be held, and as I walked through
the airport I was stopped by the front page of the Journal-Constitution.
Now bear in mind the Braves were in the play-offs and Atlanta was madly
in love with the Braves. The headline said, "Debate Beats Baseball."
The ratings were in, the audience had spoken and the conventional wisdom
had been turned on its head. Voting with their channel clickers, citizens
had said we need to know where these candidates stand more than we need
to see a baseball game. I admonished myself for having so little faith.
And, I thought, CBS had suffered a grievous self-inflicted wound by implying
with their choice that this important debate, this dialogue that a democracy
must engage in with itself in order to stay healthy, was not as important
to them as a baseball game.
New corporate owners at all three networks presided over a lowering of
standards at network news divisions in the Eighties. Those standards eroded
slowly and mostly without much public notice. David Burke, briefly the
president of CBS News, resigned quietly after losing a fight with management,
and Peter Boyer wrote a good book called "Who Killed CBS" that
didn't sell many copies.
There were questions by some when NBC seemed to stay away from defense
stories where its parent General Electric was a big player, but few noticed
other than Bill Greider, who devoted a chapter of his landmark book, "Who
Will Tell the People" to General Electric. And besides, a 24 hour cable
channel had sprung into being and seemed to be governed by good journalists,
network veterans with the old network standards, even if they did work
for a quirky and unpredictable boss -- Ted Turner.
But the deterioration of standards accelerated even as the
mediagolopolies with their sprawling interests, took them over. They
squeezed the life out of network news in the name of greater profits; news
is less profitable, you see, than entertainment and must be brought into
line. People were laid off, foreign news bureaus closed, TV news magazines
that celebrate emotional morality plays or sheer fluff were created and
Only the bottom line counted.
Yet Disney, owner
of ABC and its once proud news division, paid Michael Ovitz 114 million
dollars just to go away, while the boss, Michael Eisner, collected 190
million dollars last year, according to the Wall Street Journal.
These salaries were paid at a time when ABC, presumably in the name of
economy, no longer has a news bureau in Hong Kong.
When I was the
director of news at CBS in the Eighties each foreign bureau cost about a
million dollars a year to staff and operate. Allowing for inflation, those
salaries, even if cut by only say $100 million or so, could have fueled a
lot of foreign news bureaus for ABC.
As bureaus close and standards
are lowered, for example, in the Food Lion case, Diane Sawyer interviews
Michael Jackson for an hour, Barbara Walters does an hour on why women are
so fascinated with their breasts and CNN in a week when its globe girdling
news gathering tools could have taken us to the unfolding events in Albania
or Capitol Hill for the landmark debate on entitlements that will affect us
all, instead brings us live coverage of the auction of Princess Di's
Last fall Dan Rather told PBS reporter Hedrick Smith, "We're
right at the brink of being totally overwhelmed and consumed by
entertainment values as opposed to news values." On the brink, indeed.
The public is not stupid and notices these things, notices that the
news is light and fluffy, more entertainment than substance. As recently as
1993, 60% of the those surveyed said they were regular network news
viewers. That figure was down to 48% by 1995 and to 42% last year. Is there
a reason? Only about half think newspapers and television get the facts
straight and two thirds of those surveyed say news organizations tend to
favor one side when dealing with political and social issues and 54% say
the news media get in the way of society solving its problems, according to
studies done by media researcher Andrew Kohut.
Can you stand more
numbers -- these from a speech by Bob Giles to the American Society of
Newspaper Editors last spring: only 21% of respondents to an NBC/Wall
Street Journal rated the news media very or mostly honest; a Gallup
Public Confidence Poll last year showed only 29% express a great deal or
quite a lot of confidence in newspapers, and a poll conducted when the news
museum opened in Virginia reported the startling fact that 65% of those
surveyed said there are times when the press and TV should not be allowed
to publish or broadcast certain things -- suspend the First Amendment they
seemed to say.
Does it matter that network standards have declined and
the public has turned away? Yes, I think it does for several reasons. The
first is that in a large and diverse country, network news is one of our
few unifying forces. In the lifetime of most people in this room there have
been three national crises that network news helped citizens to understand
and to confront. They were the civil rights revolution in the south, the
war in Vietnam and the Watergate crisis.
We're in a period of
tranquillity. Is it going to last forever? Experience says it will not.
Historian David McCullough says these are the times when great states
have built cathedrals. We ought to be building a news system that will deal
with the next national crisis because I fear the networks are no longer
capable of doing that.
Journalists ask what should we do? For some the
answer is nothing, hope for the best, for others it is to race to the
Internet and embrace it before being devoured by it. For me and others, the
answer has been to try to enlarge the definition of news, to attempt to see
beyond the straitjacket view journalists have traditionally taken in their
emphasis on news as celebrityhood, news as novelty, news as conflict, news
as distributions of power rather than as increases in power.
purpose is, in the words of John Dewey, "to produce coverage that will make
people feel connected to the public life of their community." Max Jennings,
editor of the Dayton Daily News, says "we in the media participate
in the lives of our communities and we have a stake in the outcome of what
we write about. We can and should be more than simple community
historians." He is trying to expand his newspaper's reach to !--#include virtual what
Buzz Merritt of the Wichita Eagle calls the engaged public rather
than the persuaded public, which he defines as those who take
responsibility for what goes on in their communities, not simply as people
who are waiting to be sold an agenda by political leaders, or business
leaders or the newspaper's editorial page."
Will this work? We don't
know. It's too early to tell. Tom Patterson of the Shorenstein Center at
Harvard points out that it took two decades to move from sensational news
to our present model of objective news and he predicts it will take that
long for the news to move to its next stage, whether that is civic
journalism or some other kind of journalism. But the journey has begun and
there are a hundred or so news organizations that have signed on for the
I'm not gloomy about the future. I'm with former NY Daily
News editor Michael O'Neil who recently wrote, "Thanks to colossal
failure of imagination and entrepreneurial courage most newspaper owners
stood by while other industries -- entertainment, communications, computers
-- took over the playing fields of the New Information Age.
Now...conglomerates with no commitment to good journalism are racing to
build ever larger and more profitable multimedia megalopolies."
O'Neil sees this trend, with newspapers fighting for their survival, as
leading to better, more serious, more thoughtful journalism because that
kind of journalism is no longer done by television and though he concedes
the audience for quality may be smaller, it is attentive and affluent and
therefore more attractive to advertisers. He may be right, I hope he is.
David Shenk, in his new book, Data Smog, says the skills of
journalists -- to report, analyze, validate, package and present the news
with accuracy, independence and objectivity (values I believe are the holy
trinity of journalism) -- Shenk says these skills are needed more than ever
in an information-soaked world where the Web rules, everyone is a publisher
and the din is deafening, the babble overwhelming. He may be right, I hope
Let me end with Susan Molinari: When she was introduced to the
press a few weeks ago and a reporter asked why she, an elected official who
had pointedly not renounced another run for public office, whyshe had been
hired to be a network news anchor, her new boss, Andrew Heyward, president
of CBS News said, "Because she typifies the demographic group we are trying
hardest to reach." Nine years after CBS's decision to broadcast not a
presidential debate but a baseball game, the deterioration of network news
standards has accelerated to the point where a news division president now
speaks the language of the marketing trade, not the language of journalism,
and certainly not the language of democracy.
Network news is sick. Mr.
Heyward thinks he's hired the doctor, instead he's hired the disease.