Journalists' Loosening Grip On the Public's Trust

Indulge me in some curmudgeonly ruminations about the journalistic craft I have long loved, not always wisely, but well.

We are in trouble. It is the natural order of things that we be in trouble with the powerful, whom we try to monitor. But today we are in trouble with the powerless, who identify us more with the powerful than with them. And people are no longer willing to forgive us our press passes.

Press-bashing has become a growth industry, joined in by some of our colleagues. James Fallows, editor of US News and World Report, has a book accusing us of undermining American democracy for fun and profit. In a recent Roper-Freedom-Forum-Parade poll, fewer than 20 percent rated the ethics of journalists as high. More alarming, 65 percent of respondents said there are times when publication or broadcast should be prevented.

Prevented? That is prior restraint we are talking about, advance censorship, the heart of the First Amendment. Did we win that fight over the Pentagon Papers case in the Supreme Court only now to lose it in the court of public opinion? That is a serious matter. The practice of journalism rests on something called "privilege." Privilege is a special protection that society grants to some group because it serves society's purpose.

We all have privilege against self-incrimination. Doctors, lawyers, the clergy have special privilege to preserve confidentiality. And First Amendment press privilege is the only privilege written into our Constitution to protect a single industry.

But the privilege accorded to the press depends on public support, and will wither without public support. The public today senses an abuse of privilege for profit and self-aggrandizement when a Richard Jewell is falsely named as a prime suspect in the Atlanta bombing case, or when a Dallas newspaper reports a purported confession in the Oklahoma City bombing, which may have been a hoax.

IN all these cases the news organizations said they relied on confidential sources - and then invoked First Amendment protection against having to reveal those sources. But when a news organization relies on sources it cannot name, then it makes itself responsible for the accuracy of the story. So you had better think twice about how good your sources are. I say this as one who has occasionally been burned myself.

The Washington Post's style book says, "We should always assume that information provided by confidential sources is weaker than information attributable to real people." Not necessarily. Real people can lie and dissemble. Some informants, whistle-blowers with important stories to tell, must remain anonymous. Check out the information. But remember that when your confidential source has manipulated you, you don't get to justify yourself by saying you were had by someone you can't name.

My concern is what we do to ordinary people and to the workings of justice. I am much more worried about the Richard Jewells than about government secrets.

When it comes to government and its millions of pages of mindlessly classified materials, I have no doubt that this nation has suffered more from undue secrecy than from undue disclosure. The government takes good care of itself. But protecting the ordinary citizen from defamation and invasion of privacy becomes our responsibility. And the public will judge us by how we carry out that responsibility.

I join in the general dismay of the journalistic community about the judgment against ABC for the methods used in its investigation of tainted food being sold by a Food Lion store. ABC was using modern video techniques to do what Upton Sinclair was applauded for doing in penetrating a meat packing plant in Chicago at the turn of the century. His expos led to the creation of the Food and Drug Administration.

So why was Sinclair applauded while ABC was slapped with a penalty of $5.5 million? Given the concentration on video techniques and entertainment values in the remorseless quest of ratings, people can be forgiven if they no longer accept us as dedicated solely to the public weal, even when we perform a public service.

More and more, we're under challenge to show whether we consider the public merely a market, or as part of a community in which we are joined.

I would like to go back 60 years, when I could say to someone who asked that I am a journalist, and not be glared at. For even if the media of today are not admired as the press of yesterday, it is still a great and wonderful thing to work at finding out what the Establishment doesn't want you to know, and tell the people who need to know.

* Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst for National Public Radio.

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