Solution to journalism reform lies in morality

William Urban

As one who has observed Dan Rather’s entire national career and faithfully watched 60 Minutes from its inception, I cannot say that I was surprised that he hurriedly grasped at a story that might have helped sink the Bush presidency. Rather was never known for patience or manners, his political views were clear, and his ambition… well, competing reporters would have Rather’s footprints across their backs if they got in the way of a story. They might even find a knife there.

The comparison of Rather’s mistake with President Bush going into Iraq is a bad one. President Bush followed the experts’ advice. He had been told by every intelligence agency in the world that Saddam Hussein had WMDs, and even Senator Kerry said so in 1998 and 2002. Dan Rather acted in spite of warnings that the materials looked like fakes.

Then Rather insisted that even though the sources might not be true, the story was. That is simply shoddy journalism.

But merely condemning Rather for sloppiness misses the point. The problems of today’s journalism are deeper. They involve the growing number of media, the increasing need for speed, and ‘advocacy journalism’ having become mainstream.

Back when my uncle was a senior editor at US News and World Report (1952-c1980), I had numerous opportunities to talk with him about journalism. He was firmly of the opinion that the best journalists came out of sports reporting: the game came first; there could be no fudging the score or the number of hits and errors; the readers would tolerate no efforts at spin; and the readers were knowledgeable. Reporters so trained carried over their good habits into political reporting: they would quote candidates accurately and ask pertinent questions; they kept the personal lives of candidates private; and they respected the intelligence of their readers.

Then came the ‘gotya’ era. Reporters like Dan Rather made their reputation by breaking big stories that determined national policy. They could bring down important men, could further societal change, and become famous in the process. They were the inspiration for the next generation of reporters. But this came at a price. They had to keep breaking the big stories, and with the increasing competition, this became harder and harder to do.

Newspapers adjusted to this better than we might have imagined. Many went out of business, and those which survived learned that offering diverse editorial points of view kept readers subscribing. Fewer used the front page stories as editorials, the New York Times being among the last to continue this long-established tradition.

Television and radio were different. Certainly, few readers would recognize a newspaper editor on the street. Everyone knew Cronkite and Rather. We didn’t know Cronkite’s politics, except that he disliked Nixon and Vietnam, though now, in his retirement, we have learned that he is left of center. So are most reporters, even though that wouldn’t necessary stop them from going after a good stories (unless it was the CBS scandal, which would have remained long buried if bloggers had not pointed out the hoax and the cover-up).

Some laugh at Fox’s claim of ‘fair and balanced’, but one part of the public that takes the greatest interest in news has become tired of reporters spinning a story to suit their own personal views. It’s easy to put competing points of view into a newspaper; radio and television news can only present contrasting viewpoints sequentially (or people end up shouting at one another), and the quotes have to be kept short (sound-bites).

As important, however, Fox followed up the successful radio format of political opinion shows, then improved on them by inviting speakers from opposing points of view to appear. Too often, this results in shouting matches, an unfortunate trend that is slowly creeping into the more gentile practices of PBS. If we are lucky, Fox will start giving guests who interrupt yellow cards. Two and you are out, and banned from the next interview as well.

The answer to reforming journalism is a heightened sense of morality. Let’s hope the day comes when employers demonstrate that they will not tolerate dishonesty, when editors begin to blue-pencil (do they still use these?) questionable texts, and when other reporters say, “I thought better of Dan than this.” When that happens we’ll get better journalism.

Galesburg Register-Mail (Oct 2, 2004), A-5.