Journalism Lite

How the Old Rules Were Thrown Out and the Press Lost Public Trust

by Sydney H. Schanberg

Originally published in “The Business of Journalism: Ten Leading Reporters and Editors on the Perils and Pitfalls of the Press” by William Serin, 2000

Whenever I am asked about what reporters do for a living, and why anyone would pay them for such work, I usually respond by telling the following story, which was related to me in the New York Times newsroom when I was a copyboy many years ago.

It seems that on a quiet afternoon back in the days of music-hall strippers, two Times reporters decided to play hooky from the office and strolled over to one of the Minsky burlesque houses, not far from Times Square. These two reporters, we’ll call them Manny and Mike, walked up to the ticket-seller’s booth and told the woman inside: “We’d like complimentary tickets, we’re newspapermen.” “You’re what?”she said, taken aback. “We’re newspapermen,” Manny repeated, pride in his voice. She asked them to wait a minute and dialed a number on her phone. The reporters fidgeted. Suddenly, out of a private elevator emerged the dapper and famous Mr. Minsky himself. Now it was the reporters’ turn to be startled. Why had the king of burlesque come all the way down from his penthouse over their routine request for free tickets?

“We didn’t mean to trouble you, Mr. Minsky,” Mike mumbled.

“No trouble at all,” said Minsky, a big smile on his face. “You see, in the burlesque business ‘newspapermen’are the guys who slip down into the front rows of the theater to get a close-up view and sit with a newspaper over their laps with their hands underneath it. So I wanted to come down personally to meet the first two guys in all my years who were bold enough to openly announce they were newspapermen.”

I felt that this bawdy tale was appropriate to the topic because of all the exotic changes in journalism over the last ten or fifteen years. Sex is a much bigger deal in the reporting world than it used to be. Not so long ago, at least into the mid-1980s, the journalism code under which I was trained was still in effect at mainstream newspapers and radio and television networks. One guiding rule in that code was specifically about covering the private lives of public figures. If you couldn’t demonstrate compellingly in your story that the personal conduct in question had a measurable effect on public policy or on the lives of the citizenry, then you didn’t write about it. It didn’t get published. At least not by those parts of the press that regarded themselves as mainstream.

We thought it was a good rule. At the poker table in the capitol pressroom in Albany, we might joke about the governor’s sexual wanderings, but the idea of putting the details on someone’s breakfast table seemed nasty. We were reporters; we hadn’t signed on to stake out love nests, peer into bedroom windows.

How quaint those days seem. So quaint, in fact, that not only are mainstream media organizations prepared to chronicle extramarital trysts these days, but some have even established actual sex beats. They don’t call them sex beats, of course — not yet, anyway — but that’s what the reporters are assigned to. Some of the sex reporters have already become famous, and rich. In essence, we have a new species of reporter, and they’re in the mainstream. Why not? We have science reporters, political reporters, business reporters, health reporters, consumer affairs reporters, sports reporters. Why not add sex reporters to the mix? Don’t be stodgy. Don’t squirm and feel tainted. Get jiggy with the sex beat.

Yes, my group is really quaint. So quaint that we are now being scolded by some of the current rulers of journalism. They say we betrayed our sworn duty to hold public officials to the highest moral standards. I find their criticism curious, if not disingenuous. Are they attacking the old standards to divert attention from their absence of standards? For it is not just the rules about privacy that have been thrown out, but virtually all the checks against shoddy reporting. Detailed sourcing is now more often the exception than the norm; analysis and predictions are increasingly being substituted for actual reporting; and it is now deemed acceptable to put stories and gossip from other media outlets on your pages without giving any warning to the readers or viewers that this information may be harmful to their grip on the truth.

All this has happened with almost no pause for real debate within the journalistic community. There was plenty of after-the-fact hand-wringing and breast-beating, but mostly just a whimpering, silent surrender by reporters and editors alike to an invisible devil who made them do it. Major editors all over the country, emulating Stepford wives, now seem to intone the same defeated mantra. It goes like this: “We can’t help ourselves. There’s no time to check the credibility of all these stories pouring out of cable news and the Internet on a round-the-clock basis. But we have to keep up for the sake of our readers, so we include the stories in our reports. We have no choice.” When editors announce that they can no longer be the gatekeepers who separate the wheat from the chaff before it’s dumped on the public — this is it not fair to ask whether they might not want to seek another career track?

Are there practical steps that journalists and media proprietors can take to stem this negative slide, steps that might keep us from sinking any lower on the scale of public respect? Of course there are, so, having listed some of the problems, let’s move to offering concrete ways to turn things around. The biggest step the media could take would be to stop ducking the central issue, the fact that we the press hold accountable every profession, pressure group, institution, and constituency except one: ourselves. We present ourselves as society’s watchdog, but we refuse to watch over our own lapses and abuses.

There are roughly fifteen hundred newspapers in this country. Only about fifteen have an ombudsman on the staff to respond to readers’ complaints. Even fewer actually have reporters who cover the press, and most of that coverage is business news that appears in the financial pages. Aside from some public broadcast programs, I know of no television or radio news operation that has a reporter whose permanent assignment is to examine the press. When it comes to looking at itself, the watchdog is a lamb, timid and tame. Put simply, the press is afraid to devote the same resources and energy and purpose to covering its own doings that it devotes to everyone else’s. What coverage exists is generally soft and superficial and almost never probing.

It’s not hard to explain why. The press simply doesn’t want to stir up trouble in its own backyard. The paper that uncovers abuses on some other publication knows it will have to quickly gird for an assault on its own dirty linen. Everyone has closets. Everyone has skeletons.

What would vigorous coverage of the press by the press accomplish? In my view, a lot. I believe it would raise the embarrassment level to a point that could not be tolerated, meaning that media organizations would have to clean up their acts or face public ridicule and maybe the ultimate punishment, loss of audience and advertising.

Beyond the crucial need to report on ourselves the way we report on others, there are many other concrete things we can do to win back public trust. We can start by displaying corrections more prominently. If a page one story was flawed enough to bring the reader to a false conclusion, then write a corrective story and put that on page one, too. Yes, any reporters or editors involved with the story would suffer the pain of embarrassment, but if the policy were applied fairly and equally to all the staff, then my bet is that almost immediately standards on that paper would rise because everyone would be taking greater care to make their stories more completely and error-proof.

The kind of corrections most papers print now deal mostly with minutiae and often sound downright silly. I made this one up, but it’s a typical example: “In yesterday’s obituary on Freebus Manifold, inventor of wax paper, his wife’s name was incorrectly given as Lucy. It is Lucia. Also, their marriage date was given as 1973, instead of 1972.”

The most serious mistakes in the press are not about spelling or dates or anything minute. They have to do with such lapses as anonymous sourcing or the failure to seek comment from a central figure in a story or the insertion of opinion into a news story or the omission of information that thereby alters the basic thrust of a story. Only rarely, however, does one see a correction on significant missteps of this kind.

Finally, what about all those thin and poorly sourced items that spew out of the Internet these days and are then inserted, without any fact-checking, into the stories and mainstream papers and network news? Common sense and professional standards both say that unconfirmed stories should be kept off the air and out of print. But we know that in what passes for real life, editors are going to succumb to perceived competitive pressures and shove the stuff into their news reports. So as a stopgap measure, couldnít they at least put a special label on this god-awful rubbish, so the reader can see that we are making distinctions between the news we stand by and information that may be raw sewage? My suggestion is that we stick such stuff in the nether regions of the paper under a headline reading: “Stories from Other Outlets That We Were Unable to Confirm.”

As the saying goes, don’t hold your breath until any of these ideas gets adopted by your favorite newspaper or television network.

By this time you may very well be asking: Who the hell am I to throw down these challenges, to lecture anyone else about press ethics and standards? Am I free of all journalistic sin, perhaps a candidate for media sainthood? Quite the contrary. I am just a reporter who’s been in the profession for forty years and made my share, or maybe more than my share, of mistakes. Some of them have been real beauts. I learned my journalistic code essentially from two sources — first, from my mentors in the newsroom of the New York Times who carried the scars and wisdom of having covered the Great Depression and World War II, and second, from the lessons of the above-mentioned mistakes. You rarely learn much from your success; you’re too busy celebrating.

Let me digress for a moment and tell you about one of those mistakes. It had to do with the titillating coverage of Nelson Rockefeller’s death. It was the late 1970s and I was the city editor of the Times. We got the news of his fatal heart attack after the first edition has closed, but put together a passable story for the late editions. As we kept updating the story, we learned that the former governor and vice president hadn’t died where his press spokesman said he had died, alone in his office at Rockefeller Center, but instead in a townhouse several blocks away, with his mistress. By the next morning the newsroom was in a state of high excitement. The senior editors were buzzing with adrenaline, telling me we had to surround the story, put as many reporters on it as necessary, get every possible detail of the circumstances of his death. Soon I had caught the fever, too.

For the next week or maybe ten days we ran long stories every day, many of them on page one — naming the woman, describing what she was wearing (a sequined evening dress), reporting that he looked as if he had been dressed hurriedly by someone else after the heart attack. One sock was missing, an emergency-services medic told one of the reporters I had sent out to be relentless. Medics, doormen, neighbors — all were surrounded by my horde. Not surprisingly, the other papers in town were doing the same things, but this story is about my mistake, not theirs.

How did my editors and I justify the frenzy? Nelson Rockefeller, we told ourselves, was a public figure — no longer governor or vice president but still a public man who exerted an influence on public policy. Since the evidence we dredged up showed that he and the woman had failed to call 911 right away, probably out of a panicked wish to not be discovered in a compromising situation, it was probable that if he hadn’t been with his mistress, he would have reacted differently and could have been saved. Then we would still have this public man in our midst, making a public contribution. That’s why, we rationalized, we had to report all the lurid details about the mistress, including the apartments he had bought for her down the street from the townhouse where he was found dead with one sock on.

It was, of course, all nonsense. We were pumping up the story because it was about the illicit sex of a famous man. We could never demonstrate, in any of our heavy-breathing articles, that Nelson Rockefeller’s death had any public impact outside of the prurient interest we helped generate. Our rationale was nothing more than grand rationalization.

What should we have done? First, we should have stayed cool and professional and not allowed ourselves to be tempted by the prurient possibilities. Then we should have covered the story as we would the death of any prominent person. The answer was to give it appropriate coverage, not scandal coverage, not a multi-day, front-page extravaganza.

I had grown queasy even before the story finally petered out from its own lack of meaning. This uneasiness kept some of the juicy tidbits we uncovered out of the paper, thank goodness. When the whole thing was over, I knew in my gut it had been a mistake. I also knew that the New York Times was not going to publish a page one story saying it had been a mistake, nor would any of the other papers that joined in the mud bath. But that’s exactly what we owed our readers, an honest story about how we got caught up in a swirl of excitement, discarded good judgment, and then rationalized ourselves into thinking we had no choice but to run with the illicit sex story because it was a public service. Sound familiar? Yes, that old reliable justification for everything tawdry — the public’s right to know.

I came out of that experience chastened, knowing that the old rule was still a good rule. If private acts have no effect on the public, then they are probably not a story, certainly not a big story, prominently played. It’s an honorable rule, and when we have followed it, it has kept us out of the muck and mire we’re caught in today.

You may disagree with my point of view, and that’s fine, but if you do, if you think there is a new journalism out there that has made obsolete the curious artifact now being described as the old journalism, then I believe an obligation falls on you to explain to the public what this new journalism consists of, what its rules are, or, indeed, if it has any rules. You must make a compelling case for its validity. You must demonstrate persuasively how, under this new journalism, its practitioners deserve to be called professionals with honor and not just averagely educated casual labor on floating pickup teams of windbags and scribblers. You cannot simply announce that the old rules are dead without replacing them with something you can at least explain — that is, with a new journalistic contract that the community will respect. Otherwise you will merely be saying that henceforth there are no guidelines, no strictures, no limits. In other words, the credo of this new journalism is: Anything goes. You will simply put all possible information out there for the public — gossip, rumors, advocacy journalism, sex stories, wild reporting, solid reporting — put it all in the same stewpot, and let the public decide what it wants to believe.

For myself, there is no old or new journalism. There is only good journalism and flawed journalism. A well-reported story will always be a well-reported story. Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War, written around 400 B.C., was well reported; it is still well reported. Go read it. Go read Homer Bigart’s dispatches from World War II. Go read A.J. Liebling’s collected works entitled The Wayward Press. If that’s the old journalism, let it revel in being called old.

In truth, the only new things in journalism are the computer-driven tools for gathering information and transmitting news. Simply put, we can get news faster and in greater quantities now because of the technology revolution. But a good story is still a good story. It must be carefully and rigorously reported before it can be delivered to the public as news. Only then can you plug in the new toys and send the story across the world in a nanosecond.

Am I saying that there is very little good journalism being done today in America? Absolutely not. I began in newspapering believing that journalism was a useful calling, sometimes even a noble one. Discouraged as I may be by the current landscape, my belief in the merit of journalism has not changed. I know that a lot of fine journalism shows up on a regular basis all over the country. Every time I get involved as a judge in one of the journalism contests, I see firsthand the great stuff. It energizes me. There’s as much purpose and passion among young journalists today as there has ever been. The problem is, more and more often, the good work gets bypassed or overshadowed or drowned out by a product emanating from our so-called media capitals that is best described as noise posing as journalism. Sometimes, pornography posing as journalism. This isn’t just about the Clinton-Lewinsky story. This has been building for many years.

Let’s go back to one of the benchmark events in our ever-accelerating downward journey. I refer to the historic weekend in 1987 when the Miami Herald staked out Gary Hart’s townhouse in Washington to play Peeping Tom and catch him with Donna Rice, a young woman not his wife. Within a week, Hart had been destroyed as a candidate for the Democratic nomination for president and walked off into political oblivion.

The Herald justified its stakeout by saying that Hart, responding to rumors of womanizing, had dared the press to follow him around. Hart had said: “Follow me around. I don’t care. I’m serious. If anybody wants to put a tail on me, go ahead. They’d be very bored.” But that challenge was made to a New York Times reporter who was interviewing Hart for a magazine profile and it did not appear in print until the Sunday of the fateful weekend. Which means that the Herald knew nothing about it when the reporters set up their ambush. I criticized the surveillance in my opinion column at the time and I remember including an astonishing comment by Michael Gartner, then head of NBC News and the immediate past president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. Normally a coherent man, Gartner praised the Herald’s work as “one of democracy’s finest hours” and “just a wonderful thing for America.” He was right about one thing. It was indeed historic — sadly historic.

We’ve come a long way from that finest hour. We have marched forward with bigger and better stings and ambushes by brave journalists who see it as their divinely ordained mission to confront public officials with such questions as: “Are you now or have you ever been an adulterer?” I can’t believe that most journalists are comfortable with being the sex police. And if they’re not comfortable with it, if they feel demeaned by it, then why are they participating in it? Why aren’t reporters saying no to such assignments? Why aren’t they shouting at editors and proprietors that they won’t allow the profession to sink any lower into the ooze?

I’ve asked these questions of groups of journalists and I usually get either silence or some very practical responses. “How can I do that without getting fired? I have to support my family,” the journalists say.

I can’t tell anybody that they should forfeit their job. But at the same time, I know that when bad things are happening and the people closest to them don’t speak up, then the bad things will get worse. That’s what we have seen vividly happening in the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. Page one stories, based on pure speculation, saying that the president went out in public wearing a necktie that Monica Lewinsky had given him so he could send her a signal, sort of a message of solidarity to influence her testimony before Kenneth Starr’s grand jury. Trouble is, while he and the tie were in the Rose Garden being televised, Lewinsky — as the whole world had been told — was testifying before that very grand jury, behind closed doors, no outsiders allowed in to bring messages and no way for her to see the tie on television in time to have it affect her testimony. Any neophyte police reporter could have spotted the holes in that story and saved the editors the embarrassment of running it. Or maybe they weren’t embarrassed.
That’s what a raging fever will do to you.

Are we the press comfortable with this? I don’t think so. But we’re not doing much about it either, except forming a few committees and cutting down a lot of trees to issue long reports about how many times the major papers printed stories using fewer than two sources to back them up. We don’t need any more reports. We need to do something about the problem. Because it has tainted us — all of us, not just those writing about thong underwear and the shape of the president’s penis.

I’ve heard all the arguments that seek to justify this squalid coverage. None impress me. There have always been at least two tiers of journalism in this country, the gossip press and the mainstream press. I see nothing wrong with that. The human species has always relished a dose of nasty gossip about someone else. It makes us feel better about our own mottled lives. In the past, these citizens would go to the gossip press for rumors and sex scandals. For responsible news, they went to the mainstream press.

Now, it would seem, the two are merging. Mainstream publications are adopting, more and more, the role of the penny press, the supermarket tabloids, the movie-gossip magazines. There are some mainstream holdouts, but their numbers are dwindling. It would take a real fight to get us back to the two-tier system. And the fight will have to come from within. From reporters and editors and the media proprietors. No one else can clean our stable. It was we who made the mess. We who threw out the rules. We who made up the rationalizations. We will therefore have to wield the mops and buckets.

My friend and colleague Russell Baker has put it as well as anyone ever will. In a column not long ago, he said: “Who will ever again want to become a journalist? Imagine, mother, do you want that lovely little child of yours to grow up and spend a long, malodorous life writing stories that make you shudder with disgust?”

“The Watergate journalists Woodward and Bernstein inspired a whole generation of young people to think of journalism as an honorable way to spend a life. That is the generation that’s now trying to look solemn instead of leering and winking as it issues the daily bulletins on ladies’ dirty linen. These wretched media people know it’s filthy work, but somebody, they say, has to do it, just as somebody has to clean septic tanks. What pious baloney.”

He’s absolutely right. Members of the Washington press corps keep saying the story revolts them and yet every day they dive right back into the muck. Mainstream papers, for example, are still planning to send out the same questionnaires to presidential candidates for the election in 2000 that they sent out the last time, questionnaires that include questions about their sex lives. If media leaders are feeling embarrassment, it’s not showing up in their actions.

How do we tell our children about all this, about what profession we’re in, and about how it lost adult supervision and went out of control, along with the president, the special investigator, and the Congress? What if your teenage child listens carefully as your describe the work of the press and then says: “Could your sex life stand public scrutiny in transcript form?” How will the obituaries of the reporters on the sex beat read in the days to come? Will such an obit begin: “Michael Isikoff, press-winning illicit-sex reporter, died today etcetera etcetera.” Or, “Chris Matthews, successful television talk-show host who specialized in adultery and other sexual topics, passed over today and so on.” You laugh, but maybe I’m not that far off.

Finally, I’d like to bring us back to the ideas mentioned earlier — in particular to the notion that every large newspaper and every radio and television network should provide regular coverage of the press, the same kind of detailed, specialized coverage we apply to government, politics, business, medicine, and the law. I don’t think the average consumer of news realizes how revolutionary an idea this is. Maybe it’s because he or she has been conditioned to see the press examine everything but the press and has unconsciously come to accept that as the norm. It’s a norm so hypocritical that it should leap out at all of us. For the press to hold everyone accountable but itself defies all logic. It also defies the tenets of honesty and candor that the press says it is committed to, not to mention its promise to cover all subjects “without fear or favor,” no matter how unpleasant the task.

If we really want to restore our credibility, we will have to look at ourselves and do it in public. I’m not talking about covering the press as a business story in the financial section. Iím talking about covering the press as a powerful institution, about demystifying ourselves to the reader and viewer, about describing the process of how we gather information, how we screen it and check it before putting it in the public domain — or how we don’t check it properly sometimes, meaning we would actually tell the reader about our stumbles and embarrassments. We would not wrap ourselves in a cloak of purity, but instead create a commonality with our public by saying that we, too, like you, are fallible. I think people respect you when you stop posing as a God-king and reveal yourself as mortal flesh. I truly believe this is the best chance we have to shore up journalism’s traditional standards. And, no, I don’t think it will be easy.

I know this from personal experience. For the last three years, after I resigned from Newsday when the parent company, Times Mirror, shut it down for stock-price reasons, I have spent much of my time trying to persuade mainstream press institutions to embrace the idea of covering the press in the same way they cover everything else. I went to every name news organization I could think of, leaving out only the few who already had an ombudsman or at least some respectable form of press coverage. I went to newspapers, magazines, all the networks. Their responses will make a great chapter in my memoirs. Everyone said it was a great idea, but everyone also came up with some pesky reason why it couldn’t be done.

Naturally I was disappointed. But not exactly surprised. Nor discouraged. In the end, the fight will have to be waged over time, from within, by reporters and editors willing to risk disfavor or worse by insisting on quality journalism. No outsider is going to do this for us. We can’t be passive.

We in the press talk constantly about how the lifeblood of democracy is the free and honest flow of information. Please note that the key word is information, not sludge. As a colleague of mine said recently: “The phrase ‘drive-by’ is supposed to describe the crime, not the coverage.” The First Amendment doesn’t exempt journalists from the need to be responsible. It’s our house. No one else can clean it but us.

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