What the People Know

Freedom and the Press

by Richard Reeves

Harvard University Press, 1998, paper


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 ranches ...

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 this stuff...

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 and trivial.

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 our heads.

... 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 officers."

... 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 poll-driven."

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 entertain us.

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?" Good question.

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 from them.",

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