Fear and loathing among newspaper editors

President Clinton came before the nation's newspaper editors in San Francisco last week to explain his Kosovo policy, and took a couple of hits about his "moral authority" to send American pilots into battle.

But the real story at the annual convention of the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) was the moral authority - or the current lack thereof - of the American press.

I haven't checked the latest polls, but I suspect that despite all his failings, Mr. Clinton's popularity with the public is still running somewhat higher than that of journalists.

San Francisco's colorful and controversial Mayor Willie Brown - whose candidacy was opposed by both daily newspapers in the city - greeted the visiting editors with a tongue-lashing about their profession's deficiencies.

Newspapers, he said, put the trivial ahead of the substantive. They care more about beating the competition than making sure stories are fair and correct.

He contrasted coverage of Watergate, when he believed reporters went to great lengths to confirm information before publishing, with Clinton-Lewinsky coverage, which he believes was sloppy and often unsourced.

Then with a chuckle, he said that today "the public doubts you as much as it doubts me. And that's not a good sign."

The editors were in no mood to fight back. They know it's been a bad year for press credibility. Not only were there missteps in the early coverage of the Lewinsky affair. Other journalistic gaffes humbled news organizations from CNN to The Boston Globe to the Cincinatti Enquirer and The New Republic.

So there was a great deal of professional breast-beating, and self-examination, and discussion about what journalists should be doing to correct the situation.

Debate over journalistic ethics is not new.

Back in the 1920s ASNE assigned William Allen White, the sage of Emporia, Kan., to head up a committee to draft ethical standards.

It pondered for a year, then reported that it had no report because "it has no idea of what the ethics of this business is."

But if ethical points are still debated, newspapers are generally better than they were at the beginning of the century.

Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of The Christian Science Monitor, launched her newspaper in 1908 largely hoping that it would help elevate journalistic standards.

The problem is that though many newspapers are much improved, they are beset by competition for the readers' attention from superficial television newscasts, the supermarket tabloids, a multiplicity of cable channels, "news-magazine" shows on TV, talk radio, and a clutch of TV opinion-offerers - the "Sabbath gas bags" as Calvin Trillin calls them - all masquerading as "journalism."

Mark Willes, publisher of the Los Angeles Times - itself a much-improved newspaper - believes the best newspaper cannot be successful unless it is vigorously marketed.

He has been a little suspect with the editors because he comes from a non-journalistic, business background. But editors are increasingly recognizing that if newspapers are a public trust, they have to remain economically solvent to serve that trust. When he spoke at the 1998 ASNE, convention, editors voted Mr. Willes the top speaker, and invited him back again this year for a reprise.

Interestingly, the Willes message that newspapers have to do a better job of marketing their contents, paralleled outgoing ASNE president Edward Seaton's injunction to editors to "explain yourselves" to the readers.

ASNE's own reader research shows that the most powerful criticism coming from the public is the failure of newspapers to explain themselves - "to explain what they do and why they do it, what they believe and why they believe it, why they like stories readers don't like."

Mr. Seaton thinks editors should better explain why they use unnamed sources; why they run stories that intrude into private lives; their rules on public appearances by staff members; their rules on separation of news and opinion; corrections; and other practices that trouble the public.

Recent words from a couple of other past presidents of ASNE are also particularly appropriate:

Creed Black: "Editors should start editing again."

Lee Hills: "Don't confuse entertainment with news, fact with fiction, reporting with advocacy, or media with journalism. Be sensitive. Don't go out of your way to hurt or embarrass people unnecessarily. Get it right, especially direct quotes. Get all sides."

*John Hughes is a former editor of the Monitor and currently editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret News, Salt Lake City.

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