This article is an adaptation of a speech delivered by Monitor columnist John Hughes at the recent Principia College 51st Annual Public Affairs Conference. Mr. Hughes, now editor of the Deseret News in Salt Lake City, is a former editor of the Monitor and US State Department spokesman.
It's important to ask: How good is the press? Which branches of it can I trust? Where will I find balance and substance instead of trash and sensationalism? How believable are the anonymous sources on the Internet? How can we trust the press amid the rapid pace of technological change and the apparent erosion of journalistic ethics?
How, in other words, do I find truth?
No industry has felt the impact of technological change more significantly than the communications industry.
When I began my career in journalism, we used to write our stories on a typewriter. A long, unwieldy editing and production process followed before the final product appeared - a printed newspaper.
Today reporters type their stories on laptop computers and transmit them electronically and instantly to their home offices. There, stories move from computer to computer, undergoing the editing process, getting headlines written, and flowing into page make-up ready for printing with the touch of a computer button.
In TV news, too, technology has made for instant coverage of major events around the world, and even in space. CNN has transformed our lives in a remarkably short time.
Some years ago I temporarily detoured from journalism and was serving as State Department spokesman. One of my duties was to decide which news organizations got the limited number of seats aboard the secretary of State's plane when we traveled abroad. At that time I dismissed CNN as a fledgling news organization with a limited audience that would probably never amount to much. But look what influence CNN has achieved today.
Because news is now transmitted instantly, the consequences of getting it wrong are more serious. The responsibility for getting it right is much greater. Of the war in Vietnam, it used to be said that it was the first conflict that brought the horrors of war into American living rooms. That was true, but several days elapsed during which there was time for reflection and editing before the footage actually appeared on TV screens.
By the advent of the Gulf War, technology had changed all this. Correspondents, using relatively portable transmitting equipment, were able to broadcast from the middle of the desert live, and appear instantly on American television screens. Thus we saw a network correspondent reporting that Scud missiles, reportedly carrying chemical agents in their warheads, were incoming. The initial report was false. There were Scud missiles, but not with chemical warheads. By the time the erroneous information was corrected, millions of viewers may have missed it.
The roles of reporter and editor are even more critical today in the rush to publish or broadcast without forfeiting integrity.
While the press can be a significant force for good, there are also lapses from professional journalistic standards that are disturbing. Some years ago I sat on the Pulitzer Prize board that awarded a prize to a Washington Post reporter, Janet Cooke. It was a moving story about a child crack dealer. It read beautifully. It seemed well documented. There was just one thing wrong with the story - the child crack dealer she wrote about didn't exist.
You'd think such a scandal would put a serious crimp in journalistic invention and plagiarism, but alas such transgressions are still with us.
Manipulation of the news is a problem, and an embarrassment to journalists of integrity. For instance, take NBC's account of unsafe fuel tanks in GMC trucks. To illustrate the story, NBC reenacted some of the crashes for TV - using little exploding rockets attached to the tanks to create dramatic visual effect.
In another perversion of the truth, network cameras displayed footage of dead fish in Idaho, reputedly killed by some environmental disaster. Only trouble was, the fish weren't really dead. They'd been stunned to provide the shot the cameras needed.
Too often we have tasteless intrusiveness: the cameramen up a tree, shooting through windows the families of hostages who have pleaded for privacy; the TV reporter who holds a microphone in the face of an 11-year-old AIDS victim and asks how he feels knowing he's going to die.
It's against this background that we come to the reporting on one of the most tragic and disturbing national scandals of recent times, the President Clinton-Monica Lewinsky affair. The private lives of public figures are not off-limits to reasonable scrutiny by the press. That's the price that must be paid by those who seek our votes, demand our trust, and make significant decisions. However, this scrutiny by the press must be reasonable and purposeful, not merely prurient.
Especially in the early days of the coverage, some very prestigious news organizations made mistakes and were obliged to make retractions.
There was questionable use of unattributed quotes. There was overuse of anonymous sources.
In due course there came a wave of journalistic self-examination. Journalists realized the enormity of their responsibility in working a story that could cause the downfall of a president of the United States. Steadier hands took over on the editing desks, especially in TV news.
The Internet contributed to the problems. Anybody can get on it, pretend to be a journalist, and publish a scurrilous rumor.
I like The New Yorker magazine cartoon that shows a dog tapping away at a computer keyboard and saying to the dog on the floor beside him: "Once you're on the Internet, they don't know you're a dog." It's a funny story, but it makes a serious point. The Internet is often an anonymous medium. We need to test the credibility of those who tell us things on it.
Across the country, thousands of journalists work honorably at their profession, striving to be fair and responsible, often under deadline stress. But the errors of others are used to impugn them all.
If we look for the cause of press transgressions, we see that they were caused by inventing, manipulating, overstating, or misinterpreting the facts.
Why? In large part because of the intense new competition between media organizations. Hundreds of new cable channels are competing among themselves and challenging the traditional networks. A crop of TV news magazines is in fierce combat for audience supremacy. Print newspapers are competing for readers against supermarket tabloids, weeklies, and throwaway freebies. The Internet proliferates. Talk radio jousts with everybody.
But the outlook is not all bleak. For one thing, alarms are ringing in newspapers and TV stations around the country. There's considerable concern about journalistic lapses and the effect they have on credibility. In seminars at journalism schools, and through back-and-forth in professional journals, standards are being criticized and reassessed.
Some executives in the TV networks are groping for mechanisms that would permit viewers to air their complaints, or to rebut perceived misstatements and inaccurate reporting.
Some news organizations are practicing greater restraint before they publish. Officials at Newsweek held back a major exclusive on the Lewinsky affair because they felt they didn't have it right. We've had a few instances where TV anchors have declined to read bulletins thrust in front of them on-air because they just weren't confident of the accuracy of first reports.
The role of the Internet as a reliable news source is being questioned.
If this adds up to a wake-up call for the media, and leads to better self-policing. That's good. Journalism today could do with a little more attention to principle, a little more concern about ethics.
As State Department spokesman, I worked for Secretary of State George Shultz, a man of quiet but impressive integrity. Often he would discuss with three or four of his aides some decision to be made in foreign policy. We would lay out the options, the risks, the gains. There would be talk of political fallout, the press reaction, the international consequences. Then the secretary would quietly say: "But what's the right thing to do?" That's an approach based on integrity that is fitting for any line of endeavor.
You may be asking, "So what can I do about all this?" You are going to be on the receiving end of a torrent of information that will guide many of the decisions you make in life. You must make intelligent judgments about what you read, listen to, and watch. You have a responsibility to determine the truth about what is going on around you in your local community, and the nation, and the world.
When some elements of the press offer up material you think is inaccurate, distorted, or distasteful, there is an opportunity to be heard. Editors listen. They get a daily flood of letters from readers on all kinds of subjects - we are heartened by this citizen involvement.
On most newspapers, editors are mindful of these comments. They don't always agree, but they heed reader reaction to what the newspaper published. And when mistakes are made, they generally correct them. So call or write your newspaper or TV station when you think they've got it wrong.
The saving grace of the press in this remarkable society is its incredible diversity - from the sleazy supermarket tabloids to The New York Times, from TV news magazine to the Lehrer Newshour on PBS. The press in America can often be very good, indeed. It sheds a spotlight on dark corners of our society. It topples public officials found unworthy of our trust. It is the voice and protector of those who would otherwise have no voice.
But when it is not so good, it needs individuals like you to help it be better, to hold it to higher standards.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society