When citizens and media clash, council acts as go-between; Panels improve bad press image, say some; others see threat to freedoms
Mary Peek was angry. The education consultant and political activist had agreed to talk with a St. Paul, Minn., Dispatch-Pioneer Press reporter on the condition that she was to be just one of many sources for a story. And the reporter had later promised to let her see his article before publication.
The newspaper and Mrs. Peek agreed that neither of these promises was kept, she says. "I realized that I had been exploited," Mrs. Peek recalls. "I wasn't interested in suing the paper, just in having it clean up its act."
So she turned to the Minnesota Press Council, which aims to monitor media performance and educate the public about press rights and responsibilities.
The council, whose establishment in 1971 helped lead to the formation two years later of the National News Council, fields allegations that a news organization has been inaccurate or unfair or has failed to print all sides of a story.
The Minnesota council and its national counterpart draw their members from the media and from leaders in religion, politics, business, education, and the law. Anyone who is unable to resolve a dispute with a news organization and is willing to waive his right to sue or to complain to the Federal Communications Commission, which governs broadcasters, may bring a case before them. The groups, funded partially by any media organizations that care to contribute, solicit information from both the complainant and the news organization, hold a hearing on the matter, and then issue conclusions about whether the newspaper or station acted fairly and responsibly.
The councils' findings are just that: findings. Councils have, and seek, no power to make the press publicize, much less adhere to, its rulings. But Minnesota Press Council director Cameron Blodgett, along with many supporters of the council concept, defend it as a place where the public can both ventilate its complaints and learn more about media pressures and problems.
"Nobody likes being criticized," says Mr. Blodgett, but he calls a council a measure of the press's "commitment to being responsible."
There is little doubt that much of the public sees the press as sloppy, irresponsible, and indifferent to complaints. In 1958, 70 percent of Americans surveyed in a nationwide Gallup poll said newspapers were accurate; in 1979, 47 percent of the 1,523 polled said they knew of a case where a newspaper misstated the facts. A study conducted for the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) has found a "siege mentality" against complaints in some newsrooms, and concluded that journalists are both "isolated from community life and feedback" and tend to "reject public criticism."
The media's "trust and credibility are being eroded," says Lucy Wilson Benson , chairwoman of the National News Council, urging journalists to support her group. "The council provides an objective forum for the public. A pitcher can't call his own balls and strikes," she says.
Council opponents, however, argue that consumers alone are the best umpires.
Boston Globe editor and former ASNE president Thomas Winship calls self-criticism "wonderful" but says the council structure is an "unnecessary vehicle" because the public constitutes a "daily jury" for every news organization. The councils' most prominent foe, New York Times publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, says Times subscribers are its "council."
Mr. Sulzberger and others fear that attempts to define general standards for the press may eventually lead to more official regulation and control.
"Anything involving the press saying to the press, 'You're guilty,' is going down the wrong road," says Phil Scheffler, senior producer of CBS's "60 Minutes." While he agrees that journalists are "particularly bad about looking at themselves" and that public feedback can spur improvement, he nevertheless objects to anything "institutionalizing press criticism."
Milwaukee Sentinel editor Robert H. Willis, who as a member of ASNE's ethics committee has been monitoring the National News Council for the past three years , calls it a "self-appointed, self-anointed group" that is trying to assume responsibilities best left in individual newsrooms.
On the state level, Mr. Willis sees Wisconsin's press as "just as ethical and principled" with no council to judge it as the media in neighboring Minnesota. The directors of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association have voted against the council concept, and the group is now circulating guidelines to improve communication between the press and its consumers.
Similarly apprehensive about a state council has been the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association. Association president Philip D. Neiswanger, editor-publisher of the Roseburg News-Review, says his colleagues are concerned that a council might be used mainly by anti-press politicians and others "with an ax to grind" and that its establishment might be an "overreaction." So the Oregon press is tabling the council idea for the present and developing its own programs "to handle criticism and to be more responsible and accountable to the public," says Mr. Neiswanger.
"It's an interim step to see whether we can solve our problems individually."
In an effort to gain more media support, the council will soon be restructured into two boards. One, made up predominantly of journalists, will hear complaints, study policy issues, and consider free-press questions. The other, composed primarily of people not connected with the media, will perform oversight, governance, and fund-raising functions.
One state press association president who has changed his negative opinion of a council is Kentucky's John W. Munford, publisher of the Union County Advocate in Morgantown.
Eight years ago, he dissented from a report recommending such a group. Now, he says he has reconsidered because he says he has seen people try in vain to get factual errors corrected and has concluded that "publishers throughout the country don't want to say 'We made a mistake.'" Mr. Munford, whose group will hold hearings in January on the press council idea, says that media "doesn't communicate well to the public that we also make the errors we charge others with."
And Norman E. Isaacs, a former National News Council chairman and ASNE president, defends the organization as "a costless service for everyone. If it doesn't last, it will be a black eye for journalism."
Did the Minnesota News Council help clear up Mrs. Peek's case?
After a two-hour hearing, it concluded that the newspaper was morally obligated to keep its promises to her, and that its failure to do so "departed from acceptable standards of professional journalism."
Such efforts to define good and bad journalistic practices, says Mrs. Peek, make the council a friend, not an enemy, of the press.
"There's a growing resentment of the media," she says. "Many people aren't interested in a free press. The First Amendment [guaranteeing press freedom] must be protected, but there's a lot of room between the First Amendment and libel.That is where press judgment and discretion come in."