The editors of America's newspapers met in Washington last week for their national convention and the principal topic of conversation was - surprise, surprise - the declining confidence of the public in newspapers.
Bob Giles, the editor and publisher of the Detroit News and outgoing president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE), struck a theme in his farewell address that was ominously familiar to his audience: "To many American citizens, the mass media has become the massive media - intrusive, sensational, uncaring, and flawed by bias and inaccuracy. To many Americans we lack introspection, discipline, restraint, and a capacity for self-scrutiny."
Mr. Giles cited a bundle of evidence:
* A Wall Street Journal/NBC poll in which only 21 percent of the respondents rated the news media "very" or "mostly" honest.
* A Gallup poll that revealed that only 29 percent of Americans express a "great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in newspapers.
* A new Freedom Forum poll that indicates that 65 percent of those surveyed believe there are times when the press should be barred from publishing or broadcasting certain things.
Giles is not alone in singing his siren song of warning. Many prominent journalists have been pondering in public how journalists can become more responsible. Says Giles: "When the press pack hounds Richard Jewell in his home for days and when ABC journalists lie to gain access to the Food Lion meat lockers, the debate over journalistic behavior becomes noisier."
One consequence of diminishing public trust in the media, he points out, is an increase in the cost of libel verdicts. In 1996, juries awarded an average of $2.8 million in each libel verdict against the media. This is an increase of $1.6 million over the average award in each of the two previous years, according to the Libel Defense Resource Center. Then there was the stunning verdict of $223 million against The Wall Street Journal last month by a federal jury in Houston.
There is not much doubt about the scope or seriousness of the problem. The question is: What's the solution? I believe the time has come to revive an experiment that was tried and failed 20 years ago - a national news council. Giles stressed to his colleagues the need for "rigorous self-scrutiny," but tip-toed around the news council concept. He knows that it is controversial among editors but I believe the opposition that exists is short-sighted.
Canada, Britain, and other countries have long experimented with the concept of press councils - forums where consumers of news could present grievances. Journalists in some American states have established local press councils and found them useful.
The argument of the critics is that a news council is a dangerous first step on a slippery slope that could lead to regulation of the press. A principal opponent of the idea has been The New York Times, a newspaper that I read daily and for which I have great respect. Years ago, I debated the then executive editor, Abe Rosenthal, who was implacably opposed to the news council idea. Today the present executive editor, Joe Lelyveld, is just as strongly opposed.
We shall have to disagree. The national news council that existed from 1973 to 1984 had no teeth, no punitive powers. It considered complaints about press behavior, dismissed some, found some had validity, and simply issued statements containing its findings. There was no obligation on the part of any news organization to publicize them. But many in the news business listened to what the news council said and sometimes found its views persuasive.
Clearly there should be no government involvement in such a news council. It should be financed privately, by foundations, which should be kept at arm's length. Its membership should include journalists of knowledge and integrity.
Bob Giles concedes that journalists, who burrow into the misdeeds of others, don't like anyone looking over their shoulders. But, he says, rigorous self-scrutiny and self-discipline are the price of protecting journalistic freedoms. The credibility problem is serious. A national news council would provide a useful safety valve for public discontent.
* John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is currently editor of the Deseret News in Salt Lake City.