Television News That's Fit to Quit Over
NEW YORK — As president of CBS News in 1966, the late Fred Friendly argued that the network ought to cover a Senate hearing on the escalating war in Vietnam. Network executives refused, the story goes, believing the hearing would be a ratings bust. Instead, CBS aired an old rerun of "I Love Lucy."
Angered and embarrassed, Mr. Friendly resigned.
Three decades later, in a news culture more tolerant of tabloid values and driven by the bottom line, journalists and press critics are wondering whether such an act could be repeated today.
At the very least, they believe, it is difficult for journalists to uphold the very standards they are taught to respect. The core of those standards is the concept of news as a public trust. As trustees, journalists contribute to the health of a democracy by delivering information with fairness and accuracy. But journalism as a public trust is a "rapidly disappearing perspective," says Lawrence Grossman, the former president of NBC News and PBS. "News is just a dot on the balance sheets of Disney, Time Warner, Viacom, and Fox."
"International coverage is almost nonexistent on the network newscasts," Mr. Grossman adds. "Education and the environment have been crowded out by the focus on crime, gossip, celebrity stories, and happy talk."
That makes pursuing a story the public may not find sexy - but should be informed of nonetheless - increasingly difficult, Grossman says.
"Who stands for principle anymore?" asks Bernard Goldberg, a correspondent for "48 Hours," the CBS newsmagazine. "You can't imagine anybody quitting over almost anything these days."
And if acts of journalistic courage are on the wane, who's to blame? Danny Schechter, an Emmy Award winner and former producer at ABC's "20/20," believes the buck stops, among other places, at the desks of TV news reporters and producers. A recent Roper Center poll found that 83 percent of Americans rely on local TV news for information.
In spite of this responsibility, "There's been a merger between the news business and show business," he says. "It's the Monica-ization of news. The entertainment culture is overwhelming the information culture."
"Courage," Schechter says, "is no longer just breaking investigative stories. It's also the willingness to speak out against practices inside the news business that are shortchanging the American people."
One reporter who resisted being overwhelmed is "48 Hours" correspondent Roberta Baskin. In a stinging e-mail last February to CBS executives Ms. Baskin complained that network correspondents covering the winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, compromised their independence by wearing clothing emblazoned with the Nike "swoosh." Nike's sponsorship of the winter Games drew millions of dollars in advertising revenue for CBS.
"It was the first time a network news organization had allowed its correspondents to double as billboards," Baskin wrote.
A booklet outlining CBS news standards, distributed to all network news employees, makes the point even sharper. The booklet advises, "No identification of the advertiser or its products is permitted to be seen or heard during broadcast outside of the time devoted to ... commercial messages. As an example, a request to include an advertising logo on the desk of a broadcaster so that it may be seen as he broadcasts, has been, and must continue to be rejected."
News division president Andrew Heyward rebuked Baskin in a memo, then ordered all network correspondents to tape-over the "swoosh" symbol while on the air. Baskin is no longer a contributor to "48 Hours," but remains with the network in a reporting role.
Baskin's memo was bold, but rare. Carolyn Matalene, editor of the book "Telling Stories, Taking Risks," a collection of risk-taking essays by reporters, says that journalists in the 1990s are more likely to take risks in reportorial style than journalistic substance.
Today's intense competition among new media outlets for advertising and audiences makes it far more difficult for journalists to report stories that "run counter to the economic interests of their news organization," Matalene says.
Yet a conscious decision not to engage a story can also be a mark of journalistic courage. At an even greater risk is the journalist who resists editorial meddling from the boss. As an executive at Time Warner, Steve Brill, the founder of "Court TV," wrote a memo about a phone call he got from Time Warner's chief financial officer, who claimed to speak for CEO Gerald Levin.
Mr. Brill wrote that the executive urged him to spike an upcoming corporate newsletter profile of an official at the Federal Trade Commission, the agency then reviewing Time Warner's merger with Turner Broadcasting. Brill refused. In a memo to Mr. Levin, Brill complained that the call, "violates everything you have always told me and others about your principles."
Sometimes, courage means quitting. Former Chicago anchorwoman Carol Marin resigned last year in protest over the hiring of talk-show host Jerry Springer as a contributor to her newscast.
Those who advocate the need to shore up news standards complain it's a thankless job with little professional payoff. But not always. Ms. Marin, for example, managed to find a better job at CBS News and was honored with a Peabody Award this year for her "ethics and integrity in local broadcast journalism."