Recent slip-ups grist for new attacks on media accuracy
Washington — Never in recent history has the reputation of the news media suffered so many blows at once. The now famous Pulitzer Prize debacle, in which journalism's highest award went for a story that was a hoax, has turned out to be only the beginning.
Within weeks a columnist for The New York Daily News had resigned under fire after a British newspaper charged that he had fabricated an interview with a British soldier serving in Northern Ireland. And television crews from a variety of countries were accused of staging scenes of violence in Belfast.
On a single day this week the United Press International records:
* A retired CIA officer is suing a Washington magazine for $70 million for allegedly implicating him in the assassination of President Kennedy.
* A judge scored the National Enquirer for "reprehensible conduct" and "pandering" in a libel suit brought by comedian Carol Burnett.
* A new storm is brewing over the ill-fated 1981 Pulitzer Prize which first went to Janet Cooke of the Washington Post and was returned after her story about an eight-year-old heroin addict was found to be fictitious. The prize now has gone to Teresa Carpenter of the Village Voice, but the Pulitzer jurors complained that the prize board made the award incorrectly. The jurors wanted one specific Carpenter story mentioned, not all of her submitted work, which included a controversial piece about the murder of former US Rep. Allard K. Lowenstein.
Norman Isaacs, chairman of the National News Council, a New York-based media watchdog group, voices little surprise at the latest events. "I was predicting that we were in deep trouble, and one of these days we're going to wake up and find ourselves in a 'Chicken Little' situation."
"If the stories pop one after another," they will raise serious questions about the news coverage, says Mr. Isaacs, a longtime newsman who recently taught journalism at Columbia University.
He sees the celebrated "new journalism" of the 1960s as the villain in creating a general "looseness" in the craft. "You have reporters who've adopted the thesis of [author] Tom Wolfe that a news story can't be explained unless a reporter gives vent to emotion . . . and instinct," he says.
He adds that the attitude is that "attribution [to a named source] doesn't matter. It's 'Don't bother me about the facts. I know this is true. I have a feeling it's true.'"
Pointing to recent polls, he says that Americans hold the news media in low esteem, with television most trusted. "This is because people at least can see people talking" on TV, says Isaacs.
The organization Isaacs heads, the National News Council, has ruled on almost 200 complaints in its seven years of existence and its staff has looked at many others. It has won only partial support from the media it oversees, however. The council rulings carry no punitive action, except the professional embarrassment they may create.
A new effort that might put more punch into press criticism is public television's new program "Inside Story," a weekly review of the news media that premiered May 7, with Hodding Carter in the anchor's chair.
Inside Story executive producer Ned Schnurman has been working on the $1.4 million pilot project for a year and could hardly have picked a better time to make it public. The first show raked most of the electronic media over the coals for reporting incorrectly that presidential press aide James Brady had died after the assassination attempt on Mr. Reagan. Show No. 2 considered the issue of confidential sources, such as those cited in the Janet Cooke story.
Part of the aim of the program is to bring the general public into the process of watchdogging the media. Mr. Schnurman, former associate director of the National News Council, maintains that despite the critics, journalism today is "much better" than in the past. He offers the public airing of its problems as evidence.
"If there has been a failure, it's that there has been a glamorizing of investigative reporting and new journalism, of 'point-of-view' journalism," says Schnurman. Both he and Isaacs put much of the blame on editors for failing to be good gatekeepers in these cases.
Schnurman points out that today's problems pale in comparison with the scandals of turn-of-the-century newspapering, but he notes a resurgence of "peephole" journalism. Not only are gossip tabloids flourishing, but the legitimate press is expanding space for personality and celebrity stories.
"That resurgence has to be pinned to television," according to Schnurman, who says that TV focuses attention on personalities of news reporters. Newspapers have followed suit.
"When I was a young reporter, bylines were given very rarely," he says. "Now there are promotions with pictures of the reporters. This personality thing isn't altogether healthy."
Some improvements have been made, however, Schnurman recalls in his early reporting days that at Christmas time the newsroom was filled with gifts from outsiders. Now this has mostly stopped. And reporters once took outside jobs, including working for politicians, that conflicted with their reporting. There now are standards forbidding such conflicts.