Public skepticism toward broadcast journalism is rampant today because the motivations of some journalists and their corporate owners have less to do with serving the public interest and more to do with enhancing network profit margins. In other fields, journalists might label this the corrupting influence of bottom-line thinking, yet they seem loath to acknowledge that it is a major problem in their own profession.
One way to read the verdict in the Food Lion v. ABC case is to recognize that there is little public support today for journalistic practices such as hidden cameras and "gotcha" interviews - not because exposing the selling of rotten meat is an unimportant public issue in need of truth-telling, but because of questions about the underlying motivations of the hidden-camera approach.
Was it to protect the grocery-buying public, as ABC contends, or was it to provide the video embellishment to spice up a report aimed at bringing in ever larger numbers of viewers? More viewers, of course, will in turn bolster advertising revenues and fatten ABC and ultimately Disney coffers. The public is right to wonder. Even truthful reporting is suspect if public-service journalism is only the phony front man for corporate greed.
Reader surveys and focus groups won't give back the credibility that journalism has lost until the underlying motivation is made clear. Who really believes the public interest is the central motivation when hype and sensationalism surround many TV newsmagazine reports? If serving the public interest with information of the highest accuracy and integrity were the primary motivation, whatever the return on investment, sensationalism would be less of a factor than it is in much of modern broadcasting.
Certainly, broadcast journalism is not the only profession perceived as being corrupted by increasing corporatization and bottom-line thinking. Another arena for public questioning with billions of dollars at stake is the health care industry. The public is increasingly skeptical of their own doctors, whose motivation has become less the welfare of the patient than the cost-consciousness of the corporate health maintenance organization. Again, the public is right to be skeptical.
Once upon a time, in the 1960s and 1970s, networks did not expect their news divisions to be mega profit centers. Money generated by the entertainment divisions was used to subsidize news. The corporate thinking then was that public-service programming, including documentaries and investigative reporting, was something the network owed the public, in part because they received free use of the public airwaves.
Networks have to make money to stay in business. That fact is not at issue. But what the Food Lion case suggests, and what should be a red flag for journalists, is that their basic credibility will continue to erode as long as they are perceived as pursuing their stories with more of an eye on corporate financial considerations than on the general public good. The merging of news and entertainment, and the subsequent lowering of journalistic standards that this entails, has clearly not gone unnoticed by the viewing public.
The pursuit of ever higher ratings using news as entertainment for profit will be at the price of journalism's credibility. Credibility is the intangible value for which corporate thinking must begin to account; otherwise the costs of public skepticism will continue to mount, with losses before juries as well as with viewers. The public instinctively knows when their needs for information are being served and when they are being used as pawns in marketing schemes to enhance network and corporate profits.
* William E. Buzenberg is stepping down after seven years as vice president in charge of news for National Public Radio in Washington. With his wife, Susan Brooks Buzenberg, he is editing the memoirs of the late Richard Salant, former president of CBS News. The working title is: "Salant, CBS, and the Battle for the Soul of Broadcast Journalism."