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Could a Press Council Improve Journalism?

By John Hughes / February 17, 1994



PUBLIC criticism of the profession of journalism is about as intense as I have ever known it, and I wonder whether the time has come to do something drastic about it.

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I am talking about establishment of a national news council - which was tried and failed 20 years ago - to field complaints about how newspapers, radio, and television cover the news.

Countries such as Canada and Britain have long experimented with the concept of press councils - forums where consumers of news could present grievances. Some American states, like Hawaii and Minnesota, have press councils operating locally. But by and large, communication by professional communicators with their readers, listeners, and viewers about what they do and why they do it is woefully inadequate.

Several developments make a case for reviving the debate:

1. Bobby Inman's charge that the press did in his candidacy for secretary of defense. Mr. Inman charged that a few newspaper columnists criticized him so harshly that he withdrew his nomination.

Inman's argument was a little flaky. His nomination was well received by the press. The criticism from a few columnists was the exception. If we had had a national news council and Inman had taken his case to it, I believe the council would have dismissed it.

But many members of the public believe that, in cases other than Inman's, some reporters have been destructive of those in public office. Ellen Goodman, one of the columnists accused by Inman, decried the ``hit-and-run, drive-by shooting quality'' exhibited by the press ``that has made a lot of people very reticent to go into public life.'' Specific instances of this might be worth examining by a national news council.

2. Questions about the objectivity of journalists who take big fees for giving speeches to organizations at industries they cover. ABC newsman Sam Donaldson got a $30,000 fee for speaking to an insurance industry group, then co-anchored a program criticizing the insurance industry for offering largess to congressional aides. Mr. Donaldson said he saw no conflict.

Last week ABC's Ted Koppel told the New York Times that he had stopped making such talks five years ago because of concerns about the public perception. This issue is one on which a national news council might have useful comment.

3. The recent indictment by Jim Lehrer - not an immoderate man -

that ``journalism is being consumed by a form of arrogance'' that must be ``arrested and stopped soon.''

In a commencement address at Williams College, Mr. Lehrer, the co-anchor of the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour said: ``Go with me to most places where journalism is practiced and consumed these days. Have you ever seen, heard, read, or inhaled such snide arrogance in your life? It permeates the tone of the questions and the commentary.... There is a stench of contempt in the approach of the words, in the sneer, in the body language, and the message is there for all to see.''

Lehrer urges consumers of news: ``Do not tolerate lousy, arrogant, snide journalism ... complain, and don't watch those news programs, don't read those newspapers, don't listen to that program.''

I don't know how Lehrer would come down on the issue of a national news council, but maybe it is time to try it again. This would be an independent institution, unlike the politically-oriented ``watchdog'' groups that criticize the press. It would be of high repute, free of any taint of self-interest, without financing from government or press. It would have no powers of regulation or enforcement.

It would consider complaints and issue reports, which news organizations would be free to carry or not as they pleased. News organizations would not be bound by the opinions and decisions of the press council. But the council would have moral stature.

Some journalists opposed the earlier national news council, arguing that it was the thin end of the wedge for press control. Others supported it, maintaining that this toothless, nongovernmental body could be a useful force for building journalistic credibility. In light of journalism's low standing, it may be time to revive the debate.