Renowned Journalist Reflects on Obligations of Journalists
By Bill Kovach, Curator, Nieman Foundation at Harvard
Let me begin with full disclosure. The truth is, if my career deserves this award, I can't accept it as mine alone. I am surrounded here by ghosts who have directed and shaped my career--often against my own stubborn resistance. Just so you'll know who shares in this let me introduce a few of them:
There is Lila Rose Denton, the teacher who ignited in me a love of wordsand convinced me that even I might be able to learn to use them effectively.
There is George Kelly the editorial writer who made me understand: What the people don't know will hurt them.
There is Tim Pridgen the old weekly newspaper editor who taught me the first line of his reporter's creed: Tell the people what you know and don't try to bullshit them about what you don't know.
There is Nat Caldwell the first Nieman Fellow/ Pulitzer Prize winning journalist I ever met who drilled into me a journalist's obligation to those betrayed by people in power and pointed me to some of them who were trapped in the played-out coal fields of Appalachia and the black ghetto of Shanklin Alley, in the shadow of the capitol building in Nashville, Tennessee.
There is Ralph McGill whose work spoke to me of the values that govern a journalism in the public interest.
Finally, there is one person here in the flesh who shaped my career every step of the way and who I hope will stand up so you can see what a great sounding-board/editor/ and friend looks like, my wife, Lynne.
What all these and others helped me understand is the obligation each journalist assumes when choosing a life as public witness, which is what one does when one chooses to become a journalist. All of our lives are shaped and directed by a world we can neither touch nor see--a world which we only know as virtual reality. The degree to which we can adequately and accurately see and feel this larger world--the degree to which we can measure and judge it-- depends on others. Like Blanche in "The Streetcar Named Desire" we are all, in the end, dependent on strangers. Journalists are the strangers on whom we all depend. And ,like Blanche, we are all at the mercy of their integrity and reliability.
Journalism does more than inform us--journalism in the public interest engages us and it allows us to moderate those forces which shape our lives. In the past few decades this responsibility of the journalist ina free society became both more vital and more difficult. The journalist today is engaged in a struggle to clarify and maintain the principles that assure the integrity and reliability the public deserves. It is this struggle I'd like to talk about tonight.
In 1979, when I became chief of the Washington Bureau of The New York Times, we had no personal computers, no fax machines, no cellular phones and the Internet was an instrument of the Cold War called ARPANET, used exclusively by the military-industrial-scientific community.
All of that and more is now part of a revolution which, as an agent of change, has had few equals in its impact on social, political and economic organization of the world.
Consider the impact on politics: The spread of ideals such as human rights and freedom of expression -- and the efficiency and benefits of other forms of government -- was the solvent which dissolved an empire which it took the communist government of Russia 70 years to build. Ata conference in Prague shortly after the Berlin Wall came down a journalist from Poland said it was the images pouring into the country through satellite video and fax newspapers more than anything else which created the public opinion behind which the broad popular support for the Solidarity movement that ended Communist rule there.
"It was," he said, "when we could finally see for ourselves that countries like Japan and Korea and even Singapore had moved so far ahead of us that we knew our system was a failure."
Consider the impact on economics: With the movement of information at the speed of light has come a new economic order in which currency traders and commodity markets exert more influence on a nation's economic policy than the national government. The nation-state is eroding as advanced nations struggle to build regional and multi-national alliances to moderate the disruption of these new buccaneers of the marketplace.
The impact on journalism has been at least as disorienting. The most obvious impact has resulted from two fundamental changes:
First, the mixing of media by digital technology which merges all forms of communications--voice, pictures and print on the World Wide Web which creates new platforms to attract readers and advertisers.
Second, the fragmentation of the means of production and the choices available means anyone anywhere is a potential competitor to traditional news organizations. Anyone anywhere is a potential customer.
As a result journalism appears in an atmosphere that erases the boundaries between advertising and editorial in which it is difficult to distinguish journalism from commerce or to recognize the value of journalism among all the other information pumping through the system.
Recent polls in the United States which show a public increasingly frustrated and alienated by "the news media" have made this point with depressing force. The "media" they say are part of the problem. The "press" they say more often hinders than helps find solutions to social problems. The reason for this loss of confidence in the press as an institution is that the public can no longer distinguish between a journalist attempting to produce a disinterested, balanced presentation from a self-serving political line or tabloid sleaze.
We saw this emerge clearly during the first days of coverage of the Clinton-Lewinsky affair when the elite Washington press corps' competitive drive for a mass audience made it subservient to its sources. Being first was more important than being right. The resulting reports (were) shrill with hyperbole, speculation, prediction, gossip and argument. During the first nine days of that coverage, content analysis done by the Committee of Concerned Journalists found that 41per cent of the assertions broadcast or published were not factual statements at all. They were, instead, speculation and prediction based on little more than suspicion or gossip. Further the study found that40 percent of all statements of fact were from a single anonymous source. This at a time when there were only two source of information--Kenneth Starr's office or the White House--both with a special interest in how the story would be presented to the American people.
This confusion is aided and abetted by the economic organization of the news industry in response to the development of the new communications technology.
The logic of the new marketplace is drawing journalism into a horizontal organization of communications conglomerates that exploit talent across media, making no distinction between the values which inform journalism and entertainment and commerce; and into a vertical reorganization which brings together corporations with vastly different cultures, goals and values---entrepreneurs from industries like General Electric, Disney or AOL--to ingest entire news organizations which become divisions with a diminished role in the decisions of a company.
These emerging mega-corporations which include journalism divisions threaten to make the whole notion of conflict of interest by journalists an antiquated idea. The theory of the free press which emerged out of the enlightenment was that there would be an independent voice that could monitor and comment on the influence of those with power in society. We must all question today whether we can rely on a handful of behemoth corporations to monitor themselves -- or the other centers of power with which they do business.
Consider, for example, Michael Eisner, CEO of one such corporation when he describes ABC-TV by saying he thinks it inappropriate for Disney to be covered by Disney. In the mind of the CEO ABC's identity has been altered--it is Disney, not ABC News, covering Disney. In the mind of Michael Eisner, ABC News by becoming a part of Disney's commerce, has lost its independence. Will ABC News eventually lose its purpose as well?
As Robert W. McChesney, a media historian, has said, "[O]n balance the system has minimal interest in journalism or public affairs except for that which serves the business and upper-middle classes, and it privileges...sports, light entertainment and action movies--over other fare. Even at its best the entire system is saturated by a hyper-commercialism, a veritable commercial carpet bombing of every aspect of human life."
Witness the breath taking speed with which the major television news networks dismantled the bureaus they had established worldwide in the previous 30 years and have virtually gone out of the business of reporting on world news and events.
And this at a time of greatest need for an independent world press. Here's how James D. Wolfensohn, president of the World Bank, sees the need after he studied a survey that involved interviews with 20,000people in underdeveloped countries around the world:
"What differentiates poor people from rich people, is lack of voice. The inability to be represented. The inability to convey to the people in authority what it is they think. The inability to have a searchlight put on the conditions of inequality...a free press is absolutely vital to that objective.
"Freedom of the press is not a luxury. It is not an extra. It is absolutely at the core of equitable development...if there is no spotlight on corruption and inequitable practices, you cannot build the public consensus to bring about change."
Inexorably, it seems, the power of profit offered by the new opportunities for commerce threatens the ability of journalists to maintain the independence necessary for their survival as reliable monitors of those who exercise political and economic power.
In the most recent example -- the acquisition of Time-Warner-CNN by AOL-- Steve Case didn't even mention the journalism represented by Time, Inc., and CNN, when he described the importance to the public of the newly merged corporations. What he mentioned was on-line shopping, entertainment, and person-to-person communications. That and the promise that in the first year the newly merged companies would produce an extra one billion dollars in pretax profits beyond the ten billion dollars expected by the separate companies.
How can he make this promise? As AOL's marketing director suggested to The New York Times it could come from integrating editorial and advertising content.
AOL, the Times reported, "has long argued that the complete separation of editorial content and advertising is not applicable online. New media, they argue, call for integration of commerce and content."
In other words the editorial content is not to be determined by its importance to the audience as members of a self-governing society so much as it is for the commercial interest of the organization itself.
But slowly -- as the emerging economic organization of news companies marinates journalism in this mixture of entertainment, commerce and promotion of self-interest journalists are beginning to react. Nearly three years ago, now, a group of 24 journalists met here at Harvard at the invitation of the Nieman Foundation, to organize the Committee of Concerned Journalists. The organization has engaged some 3,000 people in public forums to examine, articulate and promote standards of journalism and independence from self-interest communication and from commercial exploitation--an independence which would regain public trust and justify the continued protection provided in the first amendment.
In a statement of shared purpose the Committee has circulated, here is what these journalists say defines their work:
"The central purpose of journalism is to provide citizens with accurate and reliable information they need to function in a free society."
Over time journalists have developed the following nine core principles to fulfill that purpose:
- Obligation to the truth;
- Serve public interest first;
- Monitor the powerful and offer voice to the voiceless;
- Provide a forum for comment, criticism and compromise;
- Employ an ethical method of verification;
- Maintain independence from faction;
- Make news engaging and relevant;
- Keep news comprehensive and proportional
- Remain true to personal conscience.
To the extent journalists themselves can articulate, practice and defend these principles; that and to the extent the public supports these principles and considers them important -- to that extent only can the concept of independent journalism in the public interest -- a concept which has been evolving for nearly 300 years -- safely migrate onto the new web of instantaneous, interactive, multimedia communications spinning out around the world.
And we all have a stake in the outcome of this process. Whatever your feelings are about the press it is, as Walter Lippmann once said, at the core of the way a society comes to know and understand the world. It is, as John Dewey said, our only means of continuing education for everyone. It is a system which attempts to systematically make transparent--to all of society-- the workings of the forces and the institutions and the people which wield power over our lives; to do so with reliability; and to note the activities of citizens and organizations which catalyze public affairs.
This is to say nothing of its role monitoring the state of public life in all its myriad forms; its hopes, its dreams, its accomplishments.
Such a press institution is a pervasive and central factor in every phase of our lives as individuals, in the shape and nature of our communities, in the character of our governments and of ourselves as a people.
The contribution of such a press in the interest of self-government needs and deserves more thoughtful care and attention--from all of us. But it must begin with journalists themselves.
That care and attention will not come from journalists whose highest aspiration is to be first with the most shocking or titillating scandal;
It will not come from the marketplace which values only quarterly earnings;
It will not come from those who see the press only as a tool to manipulate public opinion for political or commercial purposes.
That care and attention will come only from journalists who are deeply and passionately committed to an independent press in league with an enlightened public which values such a press.
If and only if such journalists become active, aggressive and vocal participants in the current struggle over the future independence of the press can they hope to regain and retain the support of the public. Then and only then can we hope to realize the potential the Internet offers journalism:
The potential for the beginning of a truly golden age of a free press in the public interest. Thank you.