Media's Own Mea Culpas Lead to More Self-Scrutiny

As President Clinton was grilled under oath by a grand jury on Monday, reporters covering the closed-door proceeding found themselves subject to a grilling.

Peter Jennings, the ABC News anchor, described, "a very difficult, very challenging atmosphere in the Map Room of the White House." That evening, in a report on PBS "NewsHour With Jim Lehrer," correspondent Terence Smith took a gentle jab at Mr. Jennings.

"Peter, you must have got that through ESP, because obviously it was a sealed room. There were no reporters there," said an incredulous Mr. Smith.

Smith, the veteran CBS News correspondent, recently began his new job last week as correspondent and senior producer in charge of the "NewsHour's" new media unit. His first story focused on how journalists covered the president's grand jury appearance.

Smith joins a growing industry of media watchers from the recent launch of the Online Journalism Review to the explosive debut last June of Brill's Content magazine, which drew Page 1 headlines when it charged that independent counsel Kenneth Starr improperly leaked information to reporters.

"There's a long overdue, obvious need for the news industry to do more reporting on itself," says Smith, whose efforts are underwritten by a $3 million grant from the Philadelphia-based Pew Charitable Trusts. "The news business needs a dose of its own medicine."

Media organizations like CNN, National Public Radio, and the Fox News Channel broadcast weekly programs devoted to media criticism. This year Pew has conducted intensive polling on press performance as part of its "Project for Excellence in Journalism" while The Freedom Forum has budgeted $1 million on a study called, "Free Press/Fair Press." Even George magazine recently weighed in with a special "media issue."

What's fueling today's press scrutiny is a collective concern by media and philanthropic organizations that journalistic standards are bottoming out, as news organizations try to hold dwindling audiences and stem declining profits.

Daily newspaper readership has plummeted over the past decade, while the nightly network newscasts have collectively lost more than 20 percent of their audience over the past five years. The number of those using the Internet to follow news has tripled, from 6 to 20 percent since 1996, according to a new study by the Pew Research Center.

"Every news organization is trying new ways to draw attention to itself," says Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. "That means pushing the envelope of objectivity, putting more attitude and interpretation into coverage on the theory that simply offering the facts isn't good enough."

But Mr. Rosenstiel believes that approach is backfiring. "Polls show that the public trusts us less, respects us less and believes us less," he says. Surveys conducted by Pew reveal that the press isn't living up to the high expectations the public has for journalists, and that's drawing attention to how journalists practice their craft, says Rosenstiel.

"Journalists used high-minded rhetoric when it came to justifying coverage of Vietnam and Watergate," says Rosenstiel. "Now people are irritated over the idea that journalists are in journalism just to make a buck."

A string of embarrassing media incidents this summer gave readers and viewers even more cause for concern and offered media watchers a renewed raison d'tre. Following an internal investigation by First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams, CNN retracted its story alleging US forces dropped nerve gas in Vietnam.

Writers at The Boston Globe and New Republic were fired for fabrications. Last month the Cincinnati Inquirer agreed to pay $10 million to Chiquita Brands International Inc. for the theft of corporate voice-mail messages by a reporter.

Yet these same media mea culpas make some observers wonder whether the new press scrutiny is having any effect. "Scrutiny means something when it leads to changes in policies or procedures," says Everette Dennis, professor of communication and media management at Fordham University in New York. "So far these controversies haven't led to any systematic efforts which might have stopped them from happening in the first place."

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