Columbia's Osborn Elliott thinks press must meet the press
New York — ``The worst-covered subject in American journalism is American journalism,'' says Osborn Elliott, dean of Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism. ``Oz'' Elliott looks out of his spacious but modest office overlooking a corner of the Columbia campus and sees an American press that is not busy enough digging into the subjects in its own nest -- and an American public that just doesn't get enough insight into what's good and bad about the picture it gets from the media.
In the midst of a rising public outcry about media accountability and a string of libel suits aimed at media companies (including the finding last week by a Massachusetts jury that three paragraphs of a 55-paragraph Boston Globe article on former gubernatorial candidate John R. Lakian were false, defamatory, and reckless -- though not libelous, according to a Superior Court judge), Osborn Elliott worries in public that the press is not bringing enough light to the superheated issue of how the media wor k and why.
He feels the press should examine itself with the same blend of criticism and reportage that it brings to the world of arts and literature.
``What I have in mind is not merely covering journalism as news, but covering journalism as a subject of critical interest, like theater, or movies, or books, or what have you.
``I think that any exercise that applies to the press the same critical view that is applied to books, movies, plays, music, etc., would be healthy. Everybody says that nobody's more thin-skinned than an editor or a publisher or a reporter; and I think that's probably true. I think the more critical attention is paid to the performance of the press, the better it would be.''
By way of illustration he slides across the table a couple of newspaper clippings, one from the Washington Post and the other from the New York Times. Both stories are about high-level changes at U. S. News & World Report, including the naming of former White House communications director David Gergen as managing editor for news. But the similarity ends there.
While the New York Times ran three paragraphs of wire-service copy, stating the facts and giving a two-sentence biography of Mr. Gergen, the Washington Post published a much longer exploration of the changes, written by staff writer Elizabeth Kastor and played prominently on the front of its Style section. The Post dug into the controversy over delayed payments to employee stockholders since the sale of the magazine to real estate mogul Mortimer B. Zuckerman and the frictions those delays may have cause d, as well as exploring considerable upheaval in the editorial ranks of the magazine.
``Those changes at U. S. News strike me as a really rather interesting development,'' he observes, ``which indeed they struck the Washington Post as being, too. . . . The Washington Post got into a very interesting story, and the Times basically kissed it off with a wire-service [article].''
He acknowledges that, despite its more in-depth treatment, the Washington Post never got into questions concerning Gergen's potential conflict of interest in managing news about an administration for which, until recently, he played public advocate.
``That's another example of the kind of exploration that isn't generally being done,'' Mr. Elliott complains.
Elliott's point, and he makes it over and over again, is that the average American citizen has to work hard to find the tiniest smidgen of reasoned discourse and journalistic matter about the fourth estate. The reason we can't flip on the television or pick up the evening paper and find out what really makes giant media companies tick, he maintains, is very simple:
``I do believe that it has to do with a certain clubbishness that exists in the journalism business, as in any other business, and a fear that if you gore someone else's ox, then your ox will be gored. . . . It's really not very grown up for these people to take that view. If they dish it out, they should be able to take it.
``I think the more the press is discussed, the more it would be understood. The more it is discussed, perhaps the better it would become. The more it admits its own shortcomings and imperfections, the more credible it becomes.''
The kinds of stories Dean Elliott would like to see on the road to media credibility are: a critical comparison of the recent cover stories on Hiroshima by Time and Newsweek, ``what approach each took, why they did what they did, and who did it right, and who did it better''; a close look at TV commentary and ``Whatever Happened to Bill Moyers?''; what's going on within the big news organizations -- ``the succession stories at the New York Times and the Washington Post and Time Inc. -- all interes ting stories.''
Unfortunately, ``there are very few people who make it their business to cover journalism,'' and so there is very little of this kind of coverage, Elliott observes.
Does he believe that reporters and editors are going to develop a healthy appetite for critically examining the work of their friends and colleagues and potential bosses? Would Elliott himself want to criticize people with whom he has a longstanding professional relationship?
``I'm sure I'm part of the problem,'' he says, chewing the question over. ``It's tough. . . . But when you talk about criticism, you're not talking about merely negative criticism. . . . You are talking about critical evaluation that is often positive. It doesn't have to be just negative jeers from the sidelines.''
Still, he acknowledges that the single biggest obstacle to the kind of criticism he advocates is the bond of friendship and professional camaraderie among news people. He refers to a sign that Joseph Pulitzer had hanging in the city room of his newspaper, the New York World. The sign said, simply and bleakly, ``The World has no friends.''
``I think that Mr. Pulitzer was quite right. Newspapers should not expect to have any friends.''