What the People Know
Freedom and the Press
by Richard Reeves
Harvard University Press, 1998,
Supreme Court Justice, Potter Stewart, 1970s
"The primary purpose of the constitutional
guarantee of a free press was ... to create a fourth institution
outside the government as an additional check on the three official
You either believe the Times or you don't. You either believe
CBS News or the National Enquirer or you don't. A citizen judges
news by the source. I have always been surprised by the relative
immunity readers grant to newspapers and television stations.
If you think we're making quotes up or distorting discussion and
action, organize against us. What is the point of moaning about
the anonymous "they" supposedly saying or doing these
things? It's us! The press. We are the source, and we should be
accountable for every single word. Bang on our windows. Picket
our doors. Cancel subscriptions. Boycott our advertisers. Organize!
If you don't believe us, make us tell you where we're getting
In the early 1930s Carl Ackerman, the dean of Columbia Journalism
School, traveled the country interviewing "distinguished
men and women," a group that included bankers, college presidents,
governors, generals, clergymen-even two Nobel laureates. "What
are the most important charges against the press by this interested
and educated minority?" he began in a speech to the American
Society of Newspaper Editors on April 29, 1933. In the reverse
order that David Letterman would later make famous, Ackerman's
answers read like this:
10. That the press cannot be an impartial
and true advocate of public service so long as its owners are
engaged or involved in other businesses.
9. That newspapers are interested primarily
in day by day news developments and do not follow through to give
the reader a continuous and complete account of what is happening.
8. That headlines frequently do not correctly
reveal the facts and the tenor of the articles.
7. That the newspapers make heroes of
criminals by their romantic accounts of gang activities.
6. That newspapers do not lead in public
affairs, but follow the leadership of organized minorities.
5. That most reporters are inaccurate
when reporting interviews.
4. That news values are often superficial
3. That financial news is promotional
rather than informative.
2. That the newspaper violates the individual
right of privacy.
1. That newspaper standards are determined
by circulation. That the press gives the public what it wants
rather than what it needs.'
The argument over who decides what is "news"-journalists
or customers-was joined across time by Susan Miller, a vice-president
of Scripps-Howard, and William Shawn, the editor of the New Yorker
magazine. She said: "Newspapers are to be of service to readers
and are not staffed by a Brahmin class that was chosen to lecture
the population. People who refuse to be service-oriented will
leave in disgust and say we're pandering and will call us bad
names-but they will leave." He had said almost twenty years
earlier: "There is a fallacy in that calculation ... The
fallacy is if you edit that way, to give back to readers only
what they think they want, you'll never give them something new
they didn't know about. You stagnate... The whole thing begins
to be circular. Creativity and originality and spontaneity goes
out of it ."
In March 1998, in preparation for a journalism conference at the
Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern
California, the Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Medill
News Service issued a report called Changing Definitions of News:
A Look at the Mainstream Press over Twenty Years. The group compared
print and broadcast reports, 3,760 in all, for the month of March
in 1977, 1987, and 1997. The news operations studied included
the front pages of the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times,
the three nightly network news programs, and the entire contents
of Time and Newsweek. Some of the conclusions were:
In 1977, more than half of all stories
(52 percent) were basically straight news accounts of what had
happened. By 1997 that figure had fallen to less than one in three
stories (32 percent).
The number of stories about government
dropped from one in three stories to one in five ... The number
of stories about foreign affairs dropped from nearly one in four
to about one in every six ... The number of stories about celebrity
tripled, from one in every fifty stories to one out of every fourteen.
Time and Newsweek had the same cover
as People magazine seven times as often in 1997 as in 1979 ...
In 1977, nearly one in five cover stories concerned policy or
ideas. By 1987, that had fallen to just one in twenty covers,
where it remains.
The greatest new shift in emphasis of
network news was a marked rise in the number of stories about
scandals, up from just one-half of one percent to 17 percent in
1987 and 15 percent in 1997.
Ted Koppel at a 1997 Committee to Protect Journalism dinner
"We are free to write and report
whatever we think is important. But if what is important does
not appeal to the reading or viewing appetites of our consumers,
we'll give them something that does. No one is holding a gun to
... We have the responsibility to do
more: to focus on foreign events and to explain to the American
public how and why those events have an impact on all of us. We
need to help our viewers find their way through the blankets of
fogs laid down by spin doctors, media advisers, and public affairs
... people are ruled by being told tall stories-so the rulers
must constantly test and see what they can get away with.
CBS's Dan Rather
" A lot of the [news] coverage is
CNN's Tom Hanlon
" We're going to use these surveys
[public polls] as the foundation for a lot of our reporting."
One of the most telling [Marshall] McLuhan predictions was that
sports would replace politics on television. And so it has, in
the most dramatic displacement of news by entertainment. The first
shared American experience in television's beginnings were the
week-long Republican and Democratic national conventions to choose
presidential candidates. Those spectacles have been superseded
now by Super Bowls, Final Fours, and such. On television, Michael
Jordan, Tiger Woods, and other heroes of the weekend are more
interesting than presidents or writers. That includes political
writers, who have been trying to make elections a sport-"the
horse race"-in a touching attempt to keep television's attention.
Joel Connable, a senior at the University
of Southern California who worked on preparations for the conference
mentioned in the previous chapter, offered a quick synopsis of
his dealings with local television news executives and correspondents
in Los Angeles: "After a while I realized that they use 'interesting'
and 'entertaining' as synonyms."
The business of television, to say the
least, has evolved. It has become our environment, more like weather
than a medium. In a mobile society, the people on television are
our real neighbors, the people we gossip about-so much so that
the death of Princess Diana or the murder of Bill Cosby's son
or Bill Clinton's indiscretions hit millions upon millions of
people with the force of a tragedy in the family. When political
conventions no longer served television's purposes, the greatest
democracy in the world changed its nominating system. The conventions
were effectively replaced by primary elections-with the Iowa caucuses
or New Hampshire primary becoming the first ballot. Perfect for
television, the primaries are simple and straightforward, lists
and numbers compiled in a single day-and the polls don't close
until after the big commercial hours of prime time. The same kind
of television-driven rule changes have occurred in sports, as
anyone who has actually gone to a National Football League game
can tell you. During longer and longer commercial breaks, players
aimlessly wander around the field waiting for the television people
to signal that they can resume play. And of course the "two-minute
warning" is not an alarm but a rigidly scheduled final commercial
break before half-time and the end of the game.
NBC'S coverage of the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta must have
been the end of innocence for many viewers. It's only sports,
but... It turned out that NBC Sports confidently led viewers out
of real time into a digitally edited world where what was happening
next had already happened. In that virtual reality, events began
when NBC wanted them to, stopped for commercials and profiles
of athletes that seemed uncannily prescient about who would win
and why. Like children, millions of us sat up late into the night
watching the dramatic bravery of American gymnasts defeating the
world-without being told all this had happened hours before NBC
allowed us to look into the virtual world they had created to
I should have known. Remember, this is
entertainment. Networks pay to cover the spectacle. Television
sports contracts allow the networks to exploit but not expose.
Every once in a while, you see the disconnection with real journalism.
Watching the Philadelphia Eagles of the National Football League
play one night late in 1997, on television, I saw a sideline scene
of the quarterback, Ty Detmer, and a running back, Ricky Watters,
pushing each other around. "What was that about?" asked
one of the announcers after the game ended. His man on the field
said he didn't know, because "we've been told that we shouldn't
talk to the players about that."
Back in Atlanta at the Olympics, it was
not athletes but nature and time that were being manipulated.
It was close to midnight as I sat at home in New York and the
television sky in Georgia was changing from dark to light and
back again- a small technical difficulty yet to be worked out.
But it will be one day-or night. "Lighting, on number six,
bring that sky down... That's it-darker, darker, good, good. Now
give us some rain, just a little."
This is why control rooms are called control
rooms. Don't "Get real!"-get virtual. Don't "Get
a life!"-NBC has one for you. And everything we see now will
be shown forever on nostalgia channels, so we can all escape forever,
stay forever young together in a retrievable past of old movies
and ball games. Digital imaging and things similarly named are
going to change all information-or, more precisely, all reality.
News is the "reality" I happen to care about, and, like
most people losing a grip on change, I would kind of prefer things
to stay the way they were. But that is not going to happen. Never
has. For fun or profit or political advantage, there will soon
enough be a scandal in which someone uses the techniques that
put actor Tom Hanks in conversation with John F Kennedy in an
electronically altered 1962 film clip for the movie Forrest Gump.
Technology is defeating time. All things
human can happen at the same time-as long as there be film or
tape or digits. Forget about "Seeing is believing."
But hang onto "Believe nothing you hear and only half of
what you see."
Yes, but which half?
James D. Squires, editor of the Chicago Tribune for eight years,
wrote this a few years after he'd resigned at the peak of his
powers in 1989:
For all its imperfections, the "press"
traditionally has been a people-oriented, privately owned, public-spirited,
politically involved enterprise concerned primarily with the preservation
of democracy. That in itself was a major reason it survived in
basically the same form for 200 years. But the press has lost
that distinctive character, which means that it now has no better
chance of survival than any other business, nor should it have.
Under the new order, the news medium is no longer an institution
dedicated to the public interest but rather a business run solely
in the interest of the highest possible level of profitability'
"Even a Very Young Reporter," I thought... What do people
need from us? Or, what do they need us for? We will probably continue
to have a monopoly on any news more complicated and serious than
the stories listed as the top five of 1994 by the Associated Press:
0. J. Simpson charged with murder; elections; baseball and hockey
labor troubles; Susan Smith drowns her children; and Nancy Kerrigan
and Tonya Harding on ice. Among the stories that did not make
the list were the election of Nelson Mandela as president of a
desegregated South Africa, or the genocidal war in Rwanda, or
what you are paying in local taxes and why. Suburban lifestyle
hints may be relaxing to read, if you have the time, but it's
hard to believe that people will buy a paper or turn on the news
for such discretionary fare.
What then is necessary? "Real news"?
I used the phrase once in one of my classes at the University
of Southern California, and a student asked, "What's that?"
My answer was: "The news you and
I need to keep our freedom"-accurate and timely information
on laws and wars, police and politicians, taxes and toxics.
Patrick Henry who helped found the United States, put it this
way more than two hundred years ago:
"The press must prevent officials
from covering with the veil of secrecy the common routine of business,
for the liberties of the people never were, or never will be,
secure when the transactions of their rulers may be concealed