Journalism on the Precipice

This is an excerpt of a speech given Wednesday at the International Center for Journalists' first annual Excellence in International Journalism Awards dinner in Washington.

My small message has to do with our line of work called journalism and why, according to the polls, we are now down there with the lawyers, the Congress, and the child pornographers in the public's respect and esteem. And there is a long list of reasons.

One reason is the new savagery that has become part and parcel of some of the so-called new journalism. It is marked by predatory stakeouts, brutally coarse invasions of privacy, talk-show shouting and violence, no-source reporting, and other techniques.

Another reason is something I call the new arrogance - words, sneers, and body language that say loud and clear: Only journalists of America are pure enough to judge all others.

Another reason could be our new problem with entertainment. Garrison Keillor a few years ago warned about the danger of trying to be fascinating rather than just informing: "When you slip into the field of entertainment, then you will be expected to be fascinating. This is going to shorten your careers. Nobody can be fascinating for long, but people can be accurate and responsible for an entire career."

Another reason may be confusing personnel moves. As Jim Squires, former editor of the Chicago Tribune, wrote recently: "News events spawn new celebrities.... Actors, comedians, politicians, lawyers, infamous criminals now regularly masquerade as reporters.... Watergate burglar G. Gordon Liddy and Clinton White House adviser George Stephanopoulos are both now widely considered to be journalists. Former Nixon speechwriter Patrick Buchanan and civil-rights activist Jesse Jackson go from being story subject one month to storyteller the next. Worse, many of the people signing the pay checks of these pretenders and making the programming decisions can't see any difference between real news and celebrity news.... It never crosses their minds that their position in charge of news organizations carries with it a responsibility to protect and preserve the values of real journalism."

The most serious reason is the new blurring of the lines among straight reporting, analysis, and opinion. When I began in this business more than 30 years ago, reporting was done by reporters; analyzing by carefully labeled and credentialed analysts; and the "we" or "I" thinking by editorial writers, columnists, and commentators. Reader, or listener, or viewer knew the differences because they were part of the contract between mainline news organizations and their audiences that has changed dramatically, and without much discussion or explanation.

My experience is that the public is very confused. It sees network reporters on the nightly news as straight reporters, then on weekend programs as commentators or pundits. It sees straight-news anchors on news programs, then hears them on various other television or radio programs giving opinions about the news they reported straight on their own programs. It sees network bureau chiefs - responsible for assigning reporters to stories - functioning as analysts and pundits.

On the print side, the public sees editors of weekly public affairs magazines, whose jobs are to direct even-handed coverage, writing stridently opinionated columns in newspapers and other publications about stories their own publications are covering. It sees straight news reporters for newspapers and other publications on television or radio acting as pundits. It even sees, from time to time, opinions, masquerading as angles in so-called straight news stories on TV, radio, and in print.

It would be difficult for anyone to keep track of who is what or what is who without a scorecard. The result has been a problem for some of us still trying to operate under the old rules.

At the beginning of the Lewinsky matter one of our regular straight-news contributors, Stuart Taylor, then of the American Lawyer and Legal Times, covered the Supreme Court for us. And did so brilliantly. But as the Lewinsky story broke, and then shook, rattled, and rolled, he developed into a commentator - not only on our program, but on other programs as well as in print. I felt there was confusion about his roles being created, and we dropped him from his regular reporting slot.

WE were attacked by many well-meaning people who saw our decision as being pro-Clinton, an effort to keep Taylor's strong views about the president off our program. I tried to explain on the air the differences of functions.

I was truly swimming upstream. And I still am. Only one person in the press came to my assistance. Howard Rosenberg, the Los Angeles Times TV critic helped me explain it in a column. Everyone else's silence said loud and clear: "You're a dinosaur, Lehrer, journalism has changed, and you haven't." I hereby plead guilty to that. And in doing so, I do not wrap myself in some cloak of goodness and mercy, and accuse everyone who disagrees of being some kind of lesser person or professional.

There are no evil or wrong people involved in this evolution into a new journalism. Those who practice it, and those who permit it, and those who encourage it have an obligation to explain what they are doing, and why. Because if they don't, it will continue to be one of those reasons our credibility and esteem will continue to sink.

And the problem with that is simply that there is no room left at the bottom.

* Jim Lehrer is executive editor and anchor of 'The News Hour with Jim Lehrer' on PBS.

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