The tie-up deal between Network Ten’s Big Brother show and News Limited is just the latest in the descent of our major media groups into advertorial without disclosure. News Limited sponsors the show and runs Ten articles verbatim, despite Press Council guidelines banning advertorials being presented as news. The agreement mandated that News would show “ongoing editorial interest” in Big Brother. Simple really – news is just a commodity to be bought and sold.
Anne Davies investigated and wrote the story (Herald, May 2) and that was it.
I’ve been writing for some time that we in the media have to establish tough, consistent self-regulation or suffer government regulation. But it seems media moguls are so powerful that the rights and interests of readers don’t matter. Our society is recklessly creating a monster – media power without responsibility.
According to standard theory, there are four pillars of a vibrant democracy. They are the executive government (Prime Ministers, Premiers and ministers), Parliament (comprised of the supposedly freely elected representatives of the people) the judiciary and the media.
Of each pillar save for the media it is required that conflicts of interest be disclosed. The Prime Minister enforces these in the Cabinet room, and if a member of the executive does not disclose a conflict of interest and the media finds out, there is sheer, utter hell to pay. The politicians in Parliament can be tossed out every three years if they play fast and loose. Judges must stand aside from hearing a case if they have a conflict of interest, and if they fail to disclose a conflict their decisions can be overturned on appeal.
We in the media investigate, judge and crucify politicians and judges for conflicts of interest and other unethical behaviour. Yet when we are guilty, nothing happens and we mostly move on without angst or penalty.
In my view, like the other pillars of democracy the media grounds itself in an implied compact with the people. The compact would go something like – we will make news judgements on stories based on the available space each day. We might have a biased news judgement, one way or the other, but we will make it without the influence of commercial or political considerations. There will be a clear delineation between the news we deliver and the advertisements we publish.
Now that’s idealistic nonsense, right? Right, although the media companies do mouth platitudes like the public interest when it suits them. Media moguls have always influenced their papers on matters of editorial policy and on suppression of stories which concern them. This is why a group like Fairfax – which has been without “a proprietor” since young Warwick Fairfax destroyed his inheritance and for many years before then had a proprietor with a hands-off policy – is always under the political gun.
For the same reason the ABC is despised by both Labor and Liberal governments. Governments like media companies to have an owner because they are by nature control freaks. They like the idea of doing a deal.
What I could never understand is why they never realised that the proprietor always wins in the end, because he can switch sides when it suits his commercial interests. A longer term view would see government policy strongly in favour of media ownership diversity, because a diversely owned media will ensure that the media, as an entity, scrutinises the media proprietors, thus helping to keep the system honest.
This is a big reason why Packer and Murdoch want to sew up the ownership of our media – it is in both their interests to shut down criticism of them both. And are they even notionally independent of each other, now that they’re going into joint ventures like Onetel and Foxtel?
A factor dramatically increasing the need for diverse media ownership is that the Packer dynasty has spread its tentacles beyond the media to casinos and telecommunications. The Murdochs control a worldwide media company with interests in satellite TV, movies, ecommerce, television and newspapers. Who will scrutinise them? Your ABC? Fairfax? How long will these groups last?
With concentrated media ownership and the increasing ability for proprietors to use their media assets to cross promote their business interests, it is obvious that the media must now be regulated. As a society, we just cannot leave it to those much maligned people, the journalists. We, a subset of the people, are fighting against impossible odds to stay free and independent. And for thanks, you guys dump on us.
Journalists are, in general, not well paid. Their most basic impulse is to find stories that haven’t been told yet, for the thrill of the scoop, the desire to expose corruption or matters of public interest, and because of the competitive pressure to beat the opposition. One of the ugliest bits of rhetoric used by Howard to justify his attempt to hand Fairfax to Packer in his first term was that we needed a national champion to take on the world. The result would have been little or no competition within Australia, and that’s fatal to a healthy 4th estate.
In Western Australia, there has been only one daily newspaper for a long time, which damages the competitive impulse, and makes it just about impossible for a journalist to take a stand on principle. Brisbane and Adelaide joined WA when, in a despicable decision, the then treasurer Paul Keating allowed Rupert Murdoch, a foreigner, to take over the Herald and Weekly Times newspaper group. The then Trade Practices Commission let the bid through on the basis that Murdoch managers would buy HWT papers in those cities to compete with the Murdoch papers. Surprise, surprise, those papers were quickly closed down.
Sure, we’ve got our code of ethics, recently beefed up by the Media Alliance. But that is our professional association’s code, to which the media companies are not bound. Which young reporter would say no to an unethical request? Which young reporter would complain at a big-brother type scam? How on earth can we expect them to? Do you think journalists like being forced to be lackeys churning out advertorial rather than real journalists? If you do, you’re wrong.
To me, there is almost no alternative. A brave State government or a suicidal federal government should enact a law similar to the model for lawyers. There should be statutory backing for a media ethics body to hear and adjudicate complaints, with the power to apply penalties.
The Herald has spent years coming up with an internal ethics code, to which everyone in editorial would be bound but an enforcement mechanism is yet to be agreed upon. To me, the code is there to protect us in working for our readers. The reader must therefore have the right to complain on a breach of ethics. I would like the Herald to appoint an ombudsman, preferably a senior retired journalist, to handle complaints, make regular findings and write a regular column.
It is a very big decision to regulate the media, because State regulation raises the spectre of State control. But since the industry itself has become so arrogant, to the detriment of its readers and its journalists, that we should seriously consider a hybrid model. The media must keep control. What I’d suggest is that each big newspaper appoint an ethics monitor. If any question of ethics arises in the production of, or publishing of stories, the monitor would be consulted and express a view, possibly after consultation with ethics monitors in other media. If an ethical complaint arises, the matter would go to the full ethics committee, comprised of ethics monitors in the industry. This is just an idea. Any others?
Today is media day, and doing a sort of Q & A with contributions I’ve been saving up from Andy Latta, Andrew Elder, Alex Pollard and Don Arthur. Jack Robertson’s Meeja watch, on the news value of the leaked Stone memo, will kick it all off and a wonderful piece from the US online site The Nation, sent in by Con Vaitsas, will complete the trip.
The dairyupdate has three new entries. Walter Graham (entry 30) tells us why regulation happened in the first place – we weren’t producing enough milk for our own needs. He also believes competition policy was irrelevant to dismantling deregulation, and that the federal government was the patsy here, not the bogeyman. It’s a fascinating read. Tim Dunlop (entry 29) goes to town on David Eastwood’s insistence that democracy means majority rule. Tim believes, as I do, that the essence of democracy is the quality of its treatment of minorities. Its an old debate being passionately contested in the context of our dairy debate. Rick Pass (entry 31) tosses in yet another factor into the debate, arguing that Victorian farmers – who’ve pushed deregulation – benefit from grossly subsidised irrigation water as compared to their NSW and Queensland colleagues. The government, after spending a whopping $1.7 billion of our money to compensate the farmers, has just announced a $140 million top-up. Dairy deregulation must be hurting the Coalition very badly.
To those of you still stirred up by pollies super, public submissions on Peter Andren’s private members bill to start cleaning it up close on June 1st. The address is The Senate Committee on Superannuation, Parliament House Canberra, ACT 2600. You can get the detail from Webdiary entry Winning by sacrifice, or at www.peterandren.com
When politics is empty, leaks are irrelevant
By Jack Robertson
What is a political leak? Hard news? A scoop? Is it information our politicians didn’t want us to see, but thanks to a Free and Effective Press, we did?
Political leaks are none of these things. As far as I can see, the leak is now indistinguishable from any other political Press Release or spun Party message. Such is the blurring of the lines between political pack, quack, flak and hack, that I doubt a political leak can even truly be called a leak anymore.
A political leak, the Stone leak say, is information delivered by a political insider to us via the Press, and is thus no more valuable, as hard news, than any other party-delivered information. That such leaks are invariably intended to hurt certain politicians and help others is mostly irrelevant – unless you are a political insider yourself.
Political leaking rarely involves matters that affect us, but is invariably part of the power gaming that is increasingly turning us all off politics itself. And as Howard’s improved rating in the wake of the Stone leak suggests, the only people really interested in these power games work in Canberra.
Journalists urgently need to re-assess the leak (and other inside mechanisms) as reportage tools. Politics is the business of selling competing messages, and when the substance of the messages are the same, it becomes the business of presenting the message more seductively than the other guy.
In the early days of policy convergence, politicians still did this in reasonably straightforward ways. A Bob Hawke or a Paul Keating, while embracing what is now the centrist orthodoxy, could woo the electorate with old-fashioned political weapons like charisma, personality, heartfelt oratory, public gestures, the vision thing. Even in the 80s, if you faked all that well enough it could still get you elected.
The difficulty now is that we don’t cop surface stuff anymore. We are far too Meeja-savvy to take anything at face value. Thus the clout of the truly professional spinner – the sub-textual, post-modernist, second, third and fourth-guessing spinner (the Alistair Campbell, the James Carville).
We are now so primed to disbelieve everything our politicians say upfront that making the message sufficiently seductive requires great sophistication from spin doctors. In a post-Lewinsky, post-X-Files, post-reality TV world, the Public Arena operates on a weird inverse principle – the only time we are even vaguely likely to believe something involving politicians is when it comes in some sort of conspiracy package – a leak, an inside story, an off-the-record wink-and-nod, even a scandal.
The spinners know this better than anyone – it’s their job to invent new ways of selling information. Got a message you want delivered? Well don’t merely deliver it in public – if anything, deny it in public. Want to send a signal? Then signal exactly its opposite in public. Want to soften the blow of a forthcoming tough policy announcement? Then leak an even tougher one first, so the Minister can magnanimously knock the sharp edges off it when releasing the real policy.
A fundamental requirement for these subtler forms of message delivery is a Press willing to play along, happy to foster close off-the-record relationships with politicians. Yet such has been the Meeja’s acquiescence that the prospect of truly independent investigation has been overwhelmed by the ensuing symbiotic cosiness. (MARGO: There are honourable exceptions. The Herald’s political correspondent Laura Tingle has done great investigative work on nursing homes, the tendering process for the job network and the behaviour of charities since they’ve become quasi-government agencies. I agree it’s getting harder, especially as journalist numbers are being squeezed in Canberra and bosses are often unwilling to give a political reporter time to collect the evidence or enough space to report the story. Another factor is a trend towards blandness in newspapers, with packaging perceived as more important than content.)
Every journo ferociously nurtures their inside sources, striking a series of mildly Faustian Pacts in which both politician and reporter regard the other as the Devil, yet both are damned to Eternal Irrelevance in the eyes of an increasingly bemused public.
Journalists will argue that such mechanisms as leaks and off-the-record chats have always been central to political reportage. However, such is now the degree of sophistication with which our political operators try to tweak the Meeja, that these staples have surely become hopelessly compromised.
These days a leak is more likely to be an integral part of a Party’s sanctioned campaign strategy than an attempt at subversion, much less altruistic truth-telling. Even Margo mused – albeit dismissively – on the possibility that Howard himself authorised the Stone leak. The truth is, Canberra is now so thoroughly Byzantine that news and spin are impossible for even a Laurie Oakes to untangle, much less explain to us out here.
And this is what Canberra journos need to confront. These long-nurtured insider mechanisms are now so ubiquitous as to be effectively worthless. The public is just as sophisticated about information as reporters are, after all. Weve all watched enough Survivor and Big Brother to know one thing, at least, when it comes to Machiavellian Meeja gamesmanship – believe nothing.
This is a dangerous corner for the Canberra Pack to have painted itself into. The phrase is not Free Press, its Free and Effective Press, and the increasing passive reliance on the likes of the Stone memo, in place of pro-active investigation, suggests that our capitals journalists will soon represent little more than just another information outlet, undistinguishable, in the publics eyes at least, from a PM Press Officer or a Beazley electioneerist. The likelihood is that we will then simply choose to ignore them completely, too.
I found the Meeja coverage of Stonegate slightly sad, even a tad desperate, as if journalists were trying to convince themselves that the story was the Real McCoy, that theirs is still the Number One Political Patch in town. Yet I suspect that even the most cloistered of Canberra correspondents is beginning to sense an awkward truth: when the political rhetoric from all sides is already utterly empty, you can leak to your hearts content, but it won’t stop people looking elsewhere for something real to drink.
I’m interested in a small point your comment on April 10 (Webdiary, Natasha, Cheryl and Pauline), that you were “still surprised at how much of a tedious, arid, turn-off the political debate is from outside the Canberra hothouse, including its media presentation”.
I can see why it would be an enthralling environment to report in if you were swimming around in it, and would be interested if you could elaborate on the differences you now find (as you are now like the greater majority of us in being physically disconnected from the Canberra environment).
I’ve visited Canberra many times and often feel like a fish out of water – unlike the feeling I get when I visit any other capital city. There seems to be an unidentifiable “x” factor in Canberra. Speaking to Canberra ex-pats, the best explanation they can come up with is that Canberra is very “cliquey”
Maybe this is one of the reasons why you are now noticing the difference? This “rarefied” type of environment and it’s attendant reporting is the only thing that most of us get to see. so what are the differences, and how do they relate to the spin that politicians use?
MARGO: Canberrans constantly rail against reporters saying “Canberra did x, y, z”. They insists that it’s not the city making the decisions, it’s the bloody politicians from the rest of Australia. I take no notice of these complaints, because Canberra was built to house our federal government, and government is what Canberra does. It is a place of policy and politics. The journalists of the press gallery, and there are more than 100 of them, are here for one reason – to report policy and politics. The senior public servants live here, and talk policy and politics. With all the outsourcing, privatisation and decentralisation going on, you might think Canberra would be a shrunken little thing by now, but it has boomed since the election of Howard in 1996. Big law firms have moved in, to grab the outsourced legal work. Lobbying has become more lucrative.
The world of government is jam packed with political staffers, journalists, public servants, lobbyists and companies doing, thinking and talking policy and politics.
I’ve written about why the media-politician mix in Canberra has become dysfunctional and what can be done about it in the Webdiary entry ‘Hansonism: Then and now’. The danger is that politics can become an intellectual game of finding, deconstructing and interpreting spin. Both sides are guilty in this corruption of process, because the media’s news judgement is about finding conflict, inconsistency and evidence of disunity. Cynicism from politicians feeds journalists which feeds readers which worries politicians who blame journalists who blame their bosses who blame them. Readers tune out.
As a result, interesting political questions such as those raised by Kernot about the role of young people in political parties are crushed by disunity stories. Simon Crean’s sin in raising the need for more superannuation savings is pounced on by Howard as proof that employers will be slugged.
Political journos are trapped by cliched, formulaic writing styles. Experimentation is needed. They also find themselves looking out from the centre of political power, not outside looking in, where they should be if they are to serve their readers.
ANDREW ELDER in Petersham NSW
Now that some time has passed since the death of Mr Peter Nugent MP (see Webdiary entry A loss to Liberals) we can see how the media has missed some of the big issues in this matter and will keep doing so unless something radical happens.
Peter Nugent was a decent man pursuing noble causes in a sick-and-tired government, a government of, by and for the self-absorbed and the unimaginative. You rightly said something similar, but elsewhere he was given short shrift. Most of the Herald article announcing his death concentrated on the impeding byelection: to read that article it was almost as though Mr Nugent had died just to spite the government.
In this initial period we should, as they say in funeral orations, reflect on the man’s life and be grateful that he was here at all. He was the political equivalent of the Wollemi Pine, and only those with a bit of perspective (yourself, Michelle Grattan) picked this up.
There’s plenty of time to go into all that in-depth street-by-street analysis. The byelection won’t be for two months yet. By that time the good voters of Aston will be interviewed, direct-mailed, phone-polled and focus-grouped within an inch of their lives.
By that time – when the swinging voters in Aston and the generally interested outside it begin to take a real interest – the straight commentary will become stale for the media. By that time the major parties will have chosen worthy but dull candidates to contest the seat, and if you can dismiss Peter Nugent in a par or two what hope will the Lib and Labor people have?
Just before the byelection the media will be reduced to reporting on wacky independents, colourful locals, the dress sense of various personalities involved – anything but the real meat-and-potatoes analysis that will be in high, unspoken demand, but in abysmally low supply.
Major media will try any marketing strategy in this period except:
a) proper respect for the departed, and
b) straightforward explanation of the options before Aston voters, both of which would be so newsworthy and so unusual of itself that we could only hope for a news organisation to practice strategy of such a high order.
Instead of news strategy we have a meandering, blundering herd of media, avoiding some issues, trampling others. This is the real casualty of concentrated media ownership – as the number of players become fewer the consequences of breaking from the pack become too high for mere mortals. You may say this is too long a bow to draw on the reporting of this one issue – but after the voters of Aston choose a new Representative, revisit this email and see how it stands up.
MARGO: Part of the problem is a lack of corporate memory in the gallery, with more young people being posted here for only a short time. They don’t get a feel for the history, and where the players stand. Cheap and superficial cynicism can flourish in such an environment. However, in my view the reason why Nugent was pronounced dead as a forward to racy coverage of the latest problem for Howard is that news editors didn’t want an obituary. I believe their news judgement is wrong on this score. I’ve had several emails expressing the same distaste as you. Political reporting is nothing without context and flavour.
After he sent his email, Andrew sent me the following from the Private Eye website in Britain. We must move on from this forumla!!!!
THE EYE’S TOP TEAM — BRINGING YOU THE MOST COMPREHENSIVE ELECTION COVERAGE EVER
FROM TODAY Private Eye will be running an extra 94 pages every issue to guarantee up-to-the-minute round-the-clock first-past-the-post in-depth behind-the-scenes in-your-face cut-out-and-throw-away reportage of tomorrow’s events today.
This is the A-team who will deliver the nation’s most indispensable election news before it even happens.
Man with glasses. With over 40 years’ experience at the cutting edge, the man with glasses will provide analysis and comment.
Woman you haven’t heard of. Reporting from the key marginals, the woman you haven’t heard of will write thousands of words about the ups and downs of the campaign trail.
Young bloke. With no experience at all, young bloke will be giving a unique Generation X viewpoint on the issues that concern first-time voters.
Man with bowtie. One of Britain’s top psephologists, man with bowtie will be conducting a daily poll of polls to keep you abreast of all the latest percentages.
Someone amusing. With his unique brand of wry humour, someone amusing will be taking a wry sideways look at the lighter moments of the election battle.
Another woman. To make the team look bigger and more balanced in gender terms, another woman will be getting a picture byline as well.
Alastair Campbell. Top government spokesman Alastair Campbell (Tony Blair’s press secretary) will be coming up with our stories, writing our headlines and telling us what to put in the editorials (some mistake surely).
More Top Team tomorrow
Margo, you mentioned on Late Night Live that the press had been chucked out of an ALP function. You referred to the press as “the public’s representatives”. Where did you get that idea from? Who elects opinionators and journos? No-one, they’re appointed by editors, who are employed by big media companies.
MARGO: This question is so hard. You have to get back to the basis on which the media has a privileged position in our society. Why are the journalists our bosses choose able to go to a press conference and ask hard questions? Why are we accommodated in the system? The only answer can be that in some sense we do represent the people. The phrase I use is that we’re here to scrutinise the powerful on behalf of the people and to bring the concerns of the people to the powerful. We can’t do the latter if we’re in the power club, and we can’t do the former if we’re under pressure from bosses to look after THEIR interests, if we’re not sufficiently informed to ask the tough questions, and if when we do ferret out answers bosses don’t want to run them or want them spun or beaten up.
So Alex, that’s where I get the idea from. I know its untenable, but I still believe it. It must be faith.
DON ARTHUR, former public servant, now a PhD student and our politics of ideas writer.
I’ve spent years watching public servants following a kind of code – a sense of what’s on and not on in the job. Most bureaucrats I know are outraged if they even suspect they are being asked to compromise their professional integrity (eg cook a selection process for a grant for political reasons).
Surely journalists are the same? I know we’re all supposed to be hyper-cynical these days but I’m guessing there are things most journalists can’t do without feeling like they’ve sold their soul – not just what’s in the formal codes, but something in the culture of the job. As a consumer of news I need to have faith in something like this – I can’t check every single story myself.
I’d love to see you write something on this. Can we trust journos? What kind of things chew away at their professional integrity? What questions should we be asking?
Or maybe the ad that offers “news you can trust” is just the info-product equivalent of “New Blixo-superwash – now with grime-busting enzymes” – one more scrap of unverifiable marketing hype. Maybe all it means is the serious looking TV anchor polls well on the “someone you can trust” question in a market research survey. Journalism inside out?
MARGO: We do feel just as outraged. Because Fairfax journalists cling to a culture that’s not quite dead – we have more ability to stay no. I have no criticism of News journos here – they just haven’t got the capacity in general, although you’ll note that when push comes to shove, they will leak the material to Fairfax or the ABC, or even the Australian’s media section (an interesting case study in a publication once scrupulous in giving News Limited organs the same scrutiny as the rest, but now descended into promoting News and critiquing the rest – what a shame that Amanda Meade got taken off the media gossip column after she correctly described Rupert Murdoch as a foreigner.)
It’s a brutal, harsh game, journalism. Most of us fight hard every day to get what we think is important into the paper, without being beaten up or otherwise spun. There is no doubt in my mind that credibility will be a media organ’s most valuable asset in this decade. Many of us are fighting for that credibility. We’re losing.
CON VAITSAS brings us this from The Nation, http://ssl.thenation.com
May 7, 2001
Journalism & Democracy
By Bill Moyers
This article is adapted from Moyers’s speech to the National Press Club on March 22, hosted by PBS (The United States’ public broadcasting system) to observe his thirtieth year as a broadcast journalist. The chemical industry’s trade association did attempt to discredit the March 26 documentary, “Trade Secrets” (see “The Times v. Moyers,” April 16), accusing Moyers and Jones of “journalistic malpractice” for inviting industry participation only during the last half-hour of the broadcast. Moyers replied that investigative journalism is not a collaboration between the journalist and the subject.
Hi. My name is Bill, and I’m a recovering Unimpeachable Source. I understand “Unimpeachable Source” is now an oxymoron in Washington, as in “McCain Republican” or “Democratic Party.” But once upon a time in a far away place – Washington in the 1960s – I was one.
Deep Backgrounders and Unattributable Tips were my drugs of choice. Just go to Austin and listen to me on those tapes LBJ secretly recorded. That’s the sound of a young man getting high…without inhaling. I swore off thirty-four years ago last month, and I’m here to tell you, it hasn’t been easy to stay clean.
I can’t even watch The West Wing without breaking into a sweat. A C-SPAN briefing by Ari Fleischer pushes me right to the edge. But I know one shot – just one – and I could wind up like my friend David Gergen, in and out of revolving doors and needing to go on The NewsHour for a fix between Presidents.
But I’m not here to talk about my time in the White House. I haven’t talked much about it at all, though I do plan to write about it someday soon. During the past three and a half decades, I have learned that the job of trying to tell the truth about people whose job it is to hide the truth is almost as complicated and difficult as trying to hide it in the first place.
Unless you’re willing to fight and refight the same battles until you go blue in the face, to drive the people you work with nuts going over every last detail to make certain you’ve got it right, and then to take hit after unfair hit accusing you of having a “bias,” or these days even a point of view, there’s no use even in trying. You have to love it, and I do. (All lines in bold are my emphasis)
I always have. Journalism is what I wanted to do since I was a kid. Fifty years ago, on my 16th birthday, I went to work at the Marshall News Messenger. The daily newspaper in a small Texas town seemed like the best place in the world to be a cub reporter. It was small enough to navigate but big enough to keep me busy, happy and learning something new every day.
I was lucky. Some of the old-timers were out sick or on vacation and I got assigned to cover the Housewives’ Rebellion. Fifteen women in Marshall refused to pay the new Social Security withholding tax for their domestic workers.
The rebels argued that Social Security was unconstitutional, that imposing it was taxation without representation, and that – here’s my favorite part – “requiring us to collect [the tax] is no different from requiring us to collect the garbage”. They hired themselves a lawyer – Martin Dies, the ex-Congressman best known (or worst known) for his work as head of the House Committee on Un-American Activities in the 1930s and 1940s.
Eventually the women wound up paying the tax–while holding their noses. The stories I wrote for the News Messenger were picked up and moved on the Associated Press wire. And I was hooked.
Two years later, as a sophomore in college, I decided I wanted to become a political journalist and figured experience in Washington would show me the ropes. I wrote a man I had never met, a United States senator named Lyndon Johnson, and asked him for a summer job. Lucky again, I got it. And at summer’s end LBJ and Lady Bird offered me a job on their television station in Austin for $100 a week.
Looking back on all that followed – seminary, the Peace Corps, the White House, Newsday, PBS, CBS and PBS again – I often think of what Joseph Lelyveld, the executive editor of the New York Times, told some aspiring young journalists. “You can never know how a life in journalism will turn out,” he said.
It took me awhile after the White House to learn that what’s important in journalism is not how close you are to power but how close you are to reality. Journalism took me there: to famine in Africa, war in Central America, into the complex world of inner-city families in Newark and to working-class families in Milwaukee struggling to survive the good times. My life in journalism has been a continuing course in adult education.
From colleagues – from producers like Sherry Jones – I keep learning about journalism as storytelling. Sherry and I have been collaborating off and on for a quarter of a century, from the time we did the very first documentary ever about political action committees. I can still see the final scene in that film–yard after yard of computer printout listing campaign contributions unfurled like toilet paper stretching all the way across the Capitol grounds.
That one infuriated just about everyone, including friends of public television. PBS took the heat and didn’t melt. When Sherry and I reported the truth behind the news of the Iran/contra scandal for a Frontline documentary called “High Crimes and Misdemeanors,” the right-wing Taliban in town went running to their ayatollahs in Congress, who decried the fact that public television was committing – horrors – journalism. The Clinton White House didn’t like it a bit, either, when Sherry and I reported on Washington’s Other Scandal, about the Democrats’ unbridled and illegal fundraising of 1996.
If PBS didn’t flinch, neither did my corporate underwriter for ten years now, Mutual of America Life Insurance Company. (MARGO: PBS is part public, part private funded.) Before Mutual of America I had lost at least three corporate underwriters, who were happy as long as we didn’t make anyone else unhappy. Losing your underwriting will keep the yellow light of caution flickering in a journalist’s unconscious. I found myself – and I could kick myself for this – not even proposing controversial subjects to potential underwriters because I had told myself, convinced myself: “Nah, not a chance!” Then Mutual of America came along and the yellow light flickers no more. This confluence of good fortune and good colleagues has made it possible for us to do programs that the networks dare not contemplate.
Commercial television has changed since the days when I was hired as chief correspondent for CBS Reports, the documentary unit. A big part of the problem is ratings. It’s not easy, as John Dewey said, to interest the public in the public interest. In fact, I’d say that apart from all the technology, the biggest change in my thirty years in broadcasting has been the shift of content from news about government to consumer-driven information and celebrity features. The Project for Excellence in Journalism conducted a study of the front pages of the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, the nightly news programs of ABC, CBS and NBC, and Time and Newsweek. They found that from 1977 to 1997 the number of stories about government dropped from one in three to one in five, while the number of stories about celebrities rose from one in every fifty stories to one in every fourteen.
Does it matter? Well, as we learned in the 1960s but seem to have forgotten, government is about who wins and who loses in the vast bazaar of democracy. Government can send us to war, pick our pockets, slap us in jail, run a highway through our garden, look the other way as polluters do their dirty work, take care of the people who are already well cared for at the expense of those who can’t afford lawyers, lobbyists or time to be vigilant.
It matters who’s pulling the strings. It also matters who defines the news and decides what to cover. It matters whether we’re over at the Puffy Combs trial, checking out what Jennifer Lopez was wearing the night she ditched him, or whether we’re on the Hill, seeing who’s writing the new bankruptcy law, or overturning workplace safety rules, or buying back standards for allowable levels of arsenic in our drinking water.
I need to declare a bias here. It’s true that I worked for two Democratic Presidents, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. But I did so more for reasons of opportunity than ideology. My worldview was really shaped by Theodore Roosevelt, who got it right about power in America.
Roosevelt thought the central fact of his era was that economic power had become so centralized and dominant it could chew up democracy and spit it out. The power of corporations, he said, had to be balanced in the interest of the general public. Otherwise, America would undergo a class war, the rich would win it, and we wouldn’t recognize our country anymore. Big money and big business, corporations and commerce, are again the undisputed overlords of politics and government. The White House, the Congress and, increasingly, the judiciary reflect their interests. We appear to have a government run by remote control from the US Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and the American Petroleum Institute. To hell with everyone else.
What’s the role of journalism in all this? The founders of our nation were pretty explicit on this point. The First Amendment is the first for a reason. It’s needed to keep our leaders honest and to arm the powerless with the information they need to protect themselves against the tyranny of the powerful, whether that tyranny is political or commercial. At least that’s my bias. A college student once asked the journalist Richard Reeves to define “real news.” He answered: “The news you and I need to keep our freedoms.”
Senator John McCain echoed this in an interview I did with him a couple of years ago for a documentary called “Free Speech for Sale.” It was about the Telecommunications Act of 1996, when some of America’s most powerful corporations were picking the taxpayers’ pocket of $70 billion. That’s the estimated value of the digital spectrum that Congress was giving away to the big media giants. (MARGO: Surprise, surprise, that’s what Howard did for the TV networks here, too.)
Senator McCain said on the Senate floor during the debate, referring to the major media, “You will not see this story on any television or hear it on any radio broadcast because it directly affects them.” And, in our interview, he added, “The average American does not know what digital spectrum is. They just don’t know. But here in Washington their assets that they own were being given away, and the coverage was minuscule.”
Sure enough, the Telecommunications Act was introduced around May of 1995 and was finally passed in early February of 1996. During those nine months, the three major network news shows aired a sum total of only nineteen minutes on the legislation, and none of the nineteen minutes included a single mention of debate over whether the broadcasters should pay for use of the digital spectrum.
The Founders didn’t count on the rise of mega-media. They didn’t count on huge private corporations that would own not only the means of journalism but also vast swaths of the territory that journalism should be covering. According to a recent study done by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press for the Columbia Journalism Review, more than a quarter of journalists polled said they had avoided pursuing some newsworthy stories that might conflict with the financial interests of their news organizations or advertisers. And many thought that complexity or lack of audience appeal causes newsworthy stories not to be pursued in the first place.
I don’t mean to suggest there was a Golden Age of journalism. I told you earlier about covering the Housewives’ Rebellion in Marshall, Texas, fifty years ago. What I didn’t tell you is that it was the white housewives who made news with their boycotts of Social Security, not the domestic workers themselves. They were black; I wasn’t sent to interview them, and it didn’t occur to me that I should have.
Marshall was 50 percent black, 50 percent white, and the official view of reality was that only white people made news. I could kick myself for the half-blindness that has afflicted me through the years – from the times at the White House when I admonished journalists for going beyond the official view of reality in Vietnam to the times I have let the flickering yellow light turn red in my own mind on worthy journalistic projects.
I’m sure that growing up a Southerner and serving in the White House turned me into a fanatic – at least into a public nuisance – about what journalism should be doing in our democracy. In the South the truth about slavery was driven from our pulpits, our newsrooms and our classrooms, and it took the Civil War to bring the truth home. Then the truth about Jim Crow was censored, too, and it took another hundred years to produce the justice that should have followed Appomattox.
In the White House we circled the wagons, grew intolerant of news that didn’t comfort us and, if we could have, we would have declared illegal the sting of the bee. So I sympathize with my friends in commercial broadcasting who don’t cover the ocean they’re swimming in. But I don’t envy them. Having all those resources – without the freedom to use them to do the kinds of stories that are begging to be done – seems to me more a curse than a blessing. It reminds me of Bruce Springsteen’s great line, “It’s like eating caviar and dirt.”
But I am not here to hold myself up as some sort of beacon. I’ve made my own compromises and benefited from the special circumstances of my own good luck. But the fact that I have been so lucky shows that it can be done. All that is required is for journalists to act like journalists, and their sponsors – public or private – to back them up when the going gets a little rough. Because when you are dealing with powerful interests, be they in government or private industry, and bringing to light what has been hidden, the going does – inevitably – get a little rough.
Let me give you a couple of examples of what I mean – why the battle is never-ending. Some years ago my colleague Marty Koughan was looking into the subject of pesticides and food when he learned about a National Academy of Sciences study in progress on the effects of pesticide residuals on children. With David Fanning of Frontline as an ally, we set about a documentary.
Four to six weeks before we were finished the industry somehow purloined a copy of our rough script – we still aren’t certain how – and mounted a sophisticated and expensive campaign to discredit the documentary before it aired. They flooded television reviewers and the editorial pages of newspapers with propaganda.
A Washington Post columnist took a dig at the broadcast on the morning of the day it aired – without even having seen it – and later admitted to me that the dig had been supplied to him by a top lobbyist in town. Some station managers were so unnerved that they protested the documentary with letters that had been prepared by industry. Several station managers later apologized to me for having been suckered.
Here’s what most perplexed us: Eight days before the broadcast, the American Cancer Society – a fine organization that in no way figured in our story – sent to its 3,000 local chapters a “critique” of the unfinished documentary claiming, wrongly, that it exaggerated the dangers of pesticides in food. We were puzzled: Why was the American Cancer Society taking the unusual step of criticizing a documentary that it hadn’t seen, that hadn’t aired and that didn’t claim what the society alleged?
An enterprising reporter in town named Sheila Kaplan later looked into this question for Legal Times, which headlined her story: “Porter/Novelli Plays All Sides.” It turns out that the Porter/Novelli public relations firm, which has worked for several chemical companies, also did pro bono work for the American Cancer Society. Kaplan found that the firm was able to cash in some of the goodwill from that pro bono work to persuade the compliant communications staff at the society to distribute some harsh talking points about the documentary that had been supplied by, but not attributed to, Porter/Novelli.
Others used the society’s good name to discredit the documentary, including the right-wing polemicist Reed Irvine. His screed against what he called “Junk Science on PBS” called on Congress to pull the plug on public broadcasting. PBS stood firm. The report aired, the journalism held up (in contrast to the disinformation about it) and the National Academy of Sciences was liberated to release the study that the industry had tried to cripple.
But there’s always the next round. PBS broadcast our documentary on “Trade Secrets.” It’s a two-hour investigative special based on the chemical industry’s own archives, on documents that make clear, in the industry’s own words, what the industry didn’t tell us about toxic chemicals, why they didn’t tell us and why we still don’t know what we have the right to know. These internal industry documents are a fact. They exist. They are not a matter of opinion or point of view. They state what the industry knew, when they knew it and what they decided to do.
The public policy implications of our broadcast are profound. We live today under a regulatory system designed by the industry itself. The truth is, if the public, media, independent scientists and government regulators had known what the industry knew about the health risks of its products–when the industry knew it–America’s laws and regulations governing chemical manufacturing would be far more protective of human health than they are today. But the industry didn’t want us to know. That’s the message of the documents. That’s the story.
The spokesman for the American Chemistry Council assured me that contrary to rumors, the chemical industry was not pressuring stations to reject the broadcast. I believed him; the controversy would only have increased the audience. But I wasn’t sure for a while.
The first person to contact us from the industry was a public relations firm here in Washington noted for hiring private detectives and former CIA, FBI and drug enforcement officers to do investigations for corporations. One of the founders of the company is on record as saying that sometimes corporations need to resort to unconventional resources, and some of those resources “include using deceit.” No wonder Sherry and I kept looking over our shoulders.
To complicate things, the single biggest recipient of campaign contributions from the chemical industry over the past twenty years in the House has been the very member of Congress whose committee has responsibility for public broadcasting’s appropriations. Now you know why we don’t take public funds for reports like this!
For all the pressures, America, nonetheless, is a utopia for journalists. In many parts of the world assassins have learned that they can kill reporters with impunity; journalists are hunted down and murdered because of their reporting. Thirty-four in Colombia alone over the past decade. And here? Well, Don Hewitt of 60 Minutes said to me recently that “the 1990s were a terrible time for journalism in this country but a wonderful time for journalists; we’re living like [GE CEO] Jack Welch.” Perhaps that’s why we aren’t asking tough questions of Jack Welch.
I don’t want to claim too much for our craft, but I don’t want to claim too little, either. The late Martha Gellhorn spent half a century observing war and politicians and journalists, too. By the end she had lost her faith that journalism could, by itself, change the world. But she had found a different sort of comfort. For journalists, she said, “victory and defeat are both passing moments. There is no end; there are only means. Journalism is a means, and I now think that the act of keeping the record straight is valuable in itself. Serious, careful, honest journalism is essential, not because it is a guiding light but because it is a form of honorable behavior, involving the reporter and the reader.”
And, one hopes, the viewer, too.