What's wrong with US news media, and why reform is urgent

Untended Gates: The Mismanaged Press, by Norman E. Isaacs. New York: Columbia University Press. 258 pp. $20. The Founding Fathers, like their descendants today, were ambivalent in their feelings about the brash American press. But Jefferson, Hamilton, Franklin, and the rest made sure that four little words -- ``and of the press'' -- were strategically placed in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

As scruffy and irresponsible as many who owned printing presses were then, the framers of the Constitution knew that without a free press their great experiment in democracy would soon go awry.

Recent public opinion polls indicate that, despite a widely held view to the contrary, the American public still appreciates the essential role of what we now call the ``news media.'' Not only do Americans give their hometown newspapers strong marks for reliability, but most indicate confidence in the information they get from the national media as well -- especially television.

This isn't good enough for Norman Isaacs, nor should it be good enough for the rest of us in the news business. Mr. Isaacs began in the trade as a teen-age sports writer and rose to become a top editor on some of the nation's most prestigious newspapers. He topped his distinguished career as a leader of national efforts to uphold and improve news media standards.

That background recommends this powerful little book to news professionals and journalism students.

Isaacs is not telling us much that we haven't already seen or heard about press performance (although his ``inside'' stories are both fascinating and informative). He is telling us in no uncertain terms why we had better stop being complacent about flaws in news media performance. He exposes, with indisputable clarity, conditions and tendencies which, if not corrected, will contribute to the impairment of press freedom and to the deterioration of the US political system.

It's all here: the assumption by some in the news media that anyone who questions their performance must be ``a crazy''; the lack of sufficient education and training for many reporters, editors, and managers; the trampling of ethics in the rush for ``scoops''; the just plain unethical behavior; the dangers inherent in one-newspaper or one-ownership communities; managers and owners who respect only the financial bottom line; the dismal records of most journalism schools and departments; and the seeming inability or unwillingness of the news media to collectively adhere to professional standards.

Isaacs is particularly sensitive to the problem of self-correction; from 1976 to 1982 he was chairman of the now-defunct National News Council. But he is too much the practical newsman to hope for sweeping reform.

A major strength of this book is its concreteness. The author draws on a wealth of experience to provide examples of both good and bad news-media practices. Ironically, two of the author's favorite publications -- the New York Times and the Washington Post -- provide vivid examples of media arrogance and lack of discipline at the news management (or ``gatekeeper'') level.

The failure of the Times to support the National News Council (which lasted from 1973-84) is generally believed to have contributed to the media watchdog's demise.

The Post's ``gatekeepers'' let Janet Cooke's fictional account of an eight-year-old heroin addict slip past them in 1980, leading to major embarrassment for the newspaper and the Pulitzer Prize board, which chose the story for its top feature-writing award.

As the book title indicates, Isaacs' most urgent concern has to do with those who decide what is ``news'' on any given day and are charged with seeing that it is accurate and well written. He concludes: ``What all the agencies of communications need urgently are increased numbers of individuals with a working knowledge of the nation and the world, of governments and major issues confronting them, of literature and the arts, of science, philosophy, and ethics and, strikingly, of history, particularly American history.''

Not surprisingly, Isaacs would like to see more news councils at the state and regional levels, leading eventually -- he seems to hope -- to a new national ethics watchdog with deep and solid professional support.

The author's experience and insight, not his style, carries the reader through his book. He is talking mostly to professionals, but seems to have tried to write so that noninsiders might understand the issues and problems he is discussing. The ``pros'' who need Isaacs' advice and admonitions should not be put off by this.

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